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Peter Holland, Home in the Howling Wilderness: Settlers and the Environment in Southern New Zealand, Auckland, Auckland University Press. 2013 254 pages. NZ$ 49.99, paper, ISBN: 978-1-86940-739-1.


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See Ron Johnston’s most recent Society & Space contributions: Census Counts and Apportionment: The Politics of Representation in the United States

Bob Sack (2001: 117) identified the ‘enduring geographic problematic’ as ‘we humans are incapable of accepting reality as it is, and so we create places to change it according to ideas about what we think reality ought to be, and do so again and again, thus continuously creating and transforming landscape’. Tackling that problematic has been the central focus of much geographical scholarship throughout the discipline’s history, not least in New Zealand where the landscape first experienced by pakeha (mainly British) settlers was changed as rapidly as any other—and more rapidly than many—during the nineteenth century.

So rapid was the pace of landscape change in much of New Zealand then, when there were few outside observers to record, let alone evaluate, what was being done, that the archive of materials with which such a record could be constructed is both thin and scattered. Locating those materials—mainly manuscripts (such as settlers’ diaries and correspondence) and ephemera (such as local newspapers)—is a time-consuming task, followed by an equally demanding one of collating the material so that it contributes to the larger picture.

This is what Peter Holland—a (now emeritus though clearly not ‘retired’) biogeographer—has been doing for several decades, in a labour of love uncovering how settlers in the southern half of New Zealand’s South Island responded to and changed his home landscapes. He has located and studied in detail a number of important sources and incorporated them with material from other sources—newspapers and trade journals, for example—to create a fascinating, detailed appreciation of how settlers in a new land of which they had little if any prior knowledge learned by trial and error, operating often on the basis of environmental understandings based on misapprehensions that New Zealand’s climate and environments were similar to those of their Mediterranean antipodes (having failed to seek much from those—the Maori—who preceded and lived alongside them there).

New Zealand’s settlers’ initial perceptions of their new country’s weather and climate were very different from what they then experienced. There were, of course, no data that allowed an appreciation of average conditions, let alone the frequency of extremes. They had to accumulate such information from their own experience plus what they could glean from their neighbours and any other relevant sources. Holland devotes two chapters to this theme: in the first he describes how they learned about the country’s weather systems and the importance of this accumulating knowledge to their farming practices. Settlers soon became aware that New Zealand weather is changeable and far from the ideal it was (is still?) often presented as. Part of that awareness related to what Holland discusses in the second chapter, the ‘exceptional challenges’ of flood, drought, ice and snow. If settlers had difficulties learning about the ‘reliable signals’ for the country’s normal range of conditions, appreciating the extremes—how frequent they were, and what heralded their arrival and severity—was even more difficult, along with the strategies they should deploy in their landscape modifications in attempts to mitigate the impact of those events (building shelter belts, for example).

The next two chapters deal with fauna and flora, successively treating ‘Away with the old: what place for native plants and animals?’ and ‘In with the new: introduced plants and grazing animals’. To a greater extent than the material on weather and climate, these transformations are relatively well understood, though much continues to be done—not least in the detailed work led by Brooking and Pawson (Pawson and Brooking, 2002; Brooking and Pawson, 2011). Such work has helped appreciate the experimentation undertaken not only through farmer trial and error experiments but also through the local development of agricultural sciences. Nevertheless, Holland’s primary source material allows him to explore these rapid transformations further, providing illuminating individual detail.

The consequences of those transformations—erosion, declining soil fertility, pest and weed infestations—are also well-known, but in his next chapter Holland again adds detail from individual cases that increase our appreciation of the speed and extent with which these problems emerged, plus the costs of tackling them. Farmers had to learn to manage not only the remnants of the complex, often localised, ecosystems they were destroying (often wantonly), but also the new ones they were creating, which in many cases were not compatible with the local environmental conditions (weather, climate, soil type etc.). This learning was shared: despite the isolation of many of the original farmsteads and high country stations, their occupants travelled to meetings, sales, competitions and exhibitions where they took the opportunity to discuss and learn, and these experiences are also recorded in some of the diaries and other materials Holland has so carefully exploited. Increasingly, too, society as a whole recognised the need for collective responses to ensure sustainability of the new ecosystems; government regulations were introduced, many based on the results of state investment in agricultural science and the dissemination of its findings through professional advisers and publications.

This is a fascinating book, full of illuminating local detail about the experiences of the first generations of settlers who so transformed the southern part of New Zealand’s South Island. Holland is to be commended for his immensely detailed, painstaking and time-consuming research and congratulated on the clarity of its presentation. Those settler experiences (and especially the hardships) come alive through his discussions, though unfortunately many of his diagrams fail to provide the additional illumination intended; largely because the font sizes are too small so much of the detail is illegible.

Home in the Howling Wilderness is very much an empirical tour de force, however, the result of a scholar exploring in great depth the experiences of those who created the landscapes in which he was reared, and which during his career he has sought to understand and conserve. There is little reference to the works of others who have explored those great themes (Clark, Cumberland and McCaskill; Brooking and Pawson) and the new material is not set in a wider framework, let alone any larger theoretical structure—whether Powell’s (1977) eiconics or Crosby’s (1994) ecological imperialism, let alone Smith’s (1984) Marxist arguments on uneven development and Whatmore’s (2002) on hybrid geographies. There is no conclusion, for example. The book stands as a detailed empirical contribution to our ecological understanding of the making of contemporary New Zealand’s rural landscapes during those pioneer nineteenth-century decades, and a wide range of readers will be much indebted for the insights Peter Holland’s painstaking research has uncovered. Others will integrate his material into grander narratives, but for him the individual stories are sufficient to uncover what happened ‘on the ground’.



Brooking T and E Pawson (eds) (2011) Seeds of Empire: the Environmental Transformation of New Zealand. London: I.B. Tauris.

Crosby AW (1994) Ecological Imperialism: The Biological Expansion of Europe: 900-1900. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Pawson E and T Brooking (eds) (2002) Environmental Histories of New Zealand. Melbourne: Oxford University Press.

Powell JM (1977) Mirrors of the New World: Images and Image-Makers in the Settlement Process. Folkestone, Dawson.

Sack RD (2001) The geographic problematic: moral issues. Norsk Geografisk Tidsskrift 55: 117-125.

Smith N (1984) Uneven Development: Nature, Capital and the Production Of Space. Oxford: Blackwell.

Whatmore S (2002) Hybrid Geographies: Natures, Cultures, Spaces. London: SAGE.

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Ron Johnston is a Professor in the School of Geographical Sciences at the University of Bristol. His books include Putting Voters in Their Place: Geography and Elections in Great Britain (Oxford University Press, 2011), coauthored with Charles Pattie, and A Century of British Geography (British Academy, 2003), coedited with Michael Williams.