Going Bush: New Zealanders and Nature in the Twentieth Century by Kirstie Ross
Auckland University Press, $40. Reviewed by RICHARD THOMSON
In 1989 I learned to ski. In communist Czechoslovakia. The irony inherent in that experience was hugely enjoyable – up until that time, my opinion of skiers had been clouded by the eighties excesses practised on Mt Ruapehu’s Turoa skifield and below, in Ohakune’s bars.
The experience itself – hurtling through acid rain-damaged fir forest in a borrowed japara jacket on borrowed skinny skis – was still more entertaining. But it would be wrong to suggest that I was beyond the reach of the police states of the Eastern bloc. Passports had to be carried at all times, something I never managed to remember to do. One crisp morning we skied up through the forest and along the ridge and the rusty barbed wire fence that was the border with Poland. Eventually we were stopped by armed and uniformed men. I was subjected to an extremely agitated and incomprehensible upbraiding.
“But I’m from New Zealand. I’m on holiday…”
Despite such moments of humour, I quickly came to understand that the Czech, German and other Eastern bloc skiers revelled in the relative freedom from government oversight that they enjoyed out in the hills of the Krkonoše.
I like to imagine that somewhere, deep in a faceless building in Kraków, say, there is a file record of four skiers transgressing on the Czech–Polish border in January 1989. There is, however, no record of the mocking of those soldiers as we skied back into the valley.
I thought of that incident while reading Kirstie Ross’s entertaining and provocative Going Bush. Subtitled “New Zealanders and Nature in the Twentieth Century”, her book sets up a similar dichotomy between the state and its recalcitrant citizens, as part of a broader theoretical structure that seeks to show how nature was co-opted into the role of a “moral agent that cushioned New Zealanders from the negative impact of modern life, reserved social and economic order and contributed to a national sense of country”.
Against the socially and culturally conservative conservationists, those with “a proper sense of nature”, she sets “mischiefmakers” and “delinquents”. “Like a scenic reserve after Labour Weekend,” she writes, “the pages of Going Bush are littered with examples of their disorder, carelessness and casual attitudes towards nature”.
Adjacent pages are littered with “concerned citizens, usually members of the well-meaning middle class” who used particular activities associated with nature “as physical and cultural media to promulgate conservative, Pakeha norms”.
What Ross is actually examining here are the activities of the state: in nature education, national history and national park management. Even her discussion of outdoor recreation takes a long look at government attempts to set up “a scheme of state-supervised commercial tramping” in the 1930s.
In large part, I think, this is a matter of sources. The archives must be stuffed with the efforts of the well-meaning promulgators.
A great deal of Going Bush, then, is about what people who rarely, if ever, went to the bush thought that those who did go should find there, and how they should interpret that experience.
Ross claims that: “Interest in nature could not be universally cultivated and many members of the public were happy to disregard rules and regulations.” In this sentence, interest in nature is equated with interest in the state’s view of nature. They are not the same.
Ross does acknowledge this elsewhere in her book: nature is open to multiple meanings, she says. But the thing about nature is that it’s fundamentally not amenable to having any kind of meaning placed upon it. That has never stopped us, but “nature” was there long before humanity began to try to make sense of it.
Actually, there is a long cultural history of peoples’ attempts to confront nature on its own terms. In New Zealand, this includes the conservationist and photographer Craig Potton, who wrote: “I welcome and cultivate empty head space that allows for the total surprise of beauty and preserves it from being automatically classified within specific cultural contexts.”
Another cultural manifestation of the realisation that nature is not culture comes in the deeply twentieth century western ideal of “getting away from it all”.
Getting away from it all was primarily what those Czech skiers were doing, and I’d suggest it’s usually what those who go to the bush in this country think they are doing.
Mind you, there are always the questions of what they think they are getting away from, and how much of it they nevertheless need to take with them to stay comfortable.
Ross ends her book abruptly with the controversy over the Manapouri hydro development in Fiordland National Park. This was a pivotal moment in the history of nature in New Zealand, although once again I think that Ross’s explanation tends to focus too narrowly on a particular interpretation of the relationship between the state and its citizens. “After 1945,” she writes, “New Zealanders were encouraged and expected to enjoy their natural heritage in national parks, at their leisure, until a deal struck between the government and industry upset faith in this assumption. This betrayed New Zealanders’ belief that they possessed the right to go bush, and eroded the authority of conservatively defined nature.”
A short final chapter discusses events since then. Ideas litter the pages, much like the dense covering of leaves and twigs on the floor of a southern beech forest. They deserve a book of their own and if Ross ever writes it, it should be – like Going Bush – worth reading.
Richard Thomson is a Wellington writer and reviewer.