2021 Zealandia Te Māra a Tāne Essay Prize: 3rd place winner.
I was never a fan of outside. My skin reacts to pretty much everything, I harbour a pathological hatred of exercise and I only have to think about the sun to get burnt. But my parents aspired to be gypsies. They loved nothing more than piling up the trailer and driving to the back of beyond, to discover yet another isolated gorge where we could set up camp for a week or two.
Not for them prissy camping grounds, with all of their flashy amenities—you might as well stay at home. Real camping was divorced from civilisation, in spots so isolated that the farmers who owned the land would send out occasional envoys, to check we hadn’t come unstuck.
Real camping meant tinned food, aging fruit and enormous bags of milk powder. It involved long drops, wonky stretchers, tarpaulin floors and using the river as a fridge.
Beer crates, packed with well-sealed perishables, would be weighed down in the inkiest spot beneath the far bank, out of the reach of children and the sun. Eels were less easy to exclude, but there was no ducking off to the shops to replace ruined groceries. Once installed, we were in it for the long haul. No one left until the trailer was repacked.
Our camping spots had one vital thing in common—a decent swimming hole. Otherwise, what was the point? Bred on the plains, we were used to braided rivers that wandered far and wide, and sometimes disappeared altogether. Rivers that could go from trickle to torrent, on the same day. We instinctively knew the value of a place where the water paused to pool above waist level.
In those days, all rivers were considered swimmable. Most were even drinkable. Our only considerations were access, water volume and speed. If we could get to the river and it was deep enough to cover us, but slow enough not to whisk us away, we were happy.
The best swimming holes could be found enfolded into gorges, corralled by hills that kept them in more or less the same place. The hills thrummed with sheep, which outnumbered people in Aotearoa, nearly 20 to 1,[i] and mostly seemed crammed into Canterbury. As we wound through the gorge, in search of new camping spots, Dad would toot the horn, scattering sheep like a sneeze.
The first time I saw Rita Angus’ Cass,[ii] I recognised the hills immediately. They might be set a little north of ours, but they were clearly from the same family. I had assumed that paintings, like books, were set on the other side of the world—probably, somewhere in Europe. Seeing my own province celebrated in fine art was visceral.
These were not the subtle, bucolic hills of England. Stark and vigorous, coiled beneath a coat of golden grass and striped with strategically placed wind-breaks, they were A. R. D. Fairburn’s crouching tigers.[iii] Vivid, muscular and full of barely restrained energy, they promised drama, excitement and adventure.
Cass set off a powerful emotional response that I couldn’t explain. No matter that I was an inside kind of girl. Rita’s obvious connection with the natural world was mirrored in me. The landscape she painted was part of me. This was my place. My sky. My hills.
Like Rita, my sisters and I were brought up with a strong sense of our New Zealandness. Our ancestors might have been European, but we, emphatically, were not. We were sixth generation Kiwi and, more importantly, staunch Mainlanders. We were proud of our provincial identity. The hills and rivers around our plains were part of our story.
Unsuited though I was to leaving the house, my childhood was spent out amongst them. Helicopter parents had yet to be invented and it was widely assumed that children should have a degree of independence. We roamed far and wide around our tiny hometown, with just two rules: stay together and come back when Dad whistles. Dad grew up whistling for dogs on a vast backcountry farm, so we could go as far as the railway line in one direction and over the swamp, to the main river channel, in the other.
We built bush huts, teetered on swamp-drowned logs, swung from dodgy vines and collected tadpoles to take home. We tore past the psycho-horse in someone else’s back paddock, even after it bit me on the shoulder, and picked blackberries and crab apples to bake into pies. We ran along the tops of hedges and played a terrifying game in the tallest trees, where we would climb to the top and let go—the winner being the one who caught the lowest branch. My sister became the undisputed champion, when she caught a branch so low that her feet smacked the ground as she bounced; she was always fearless.
Even reading was done outside. I dragged cushions, rugs and books up the kōwhai tree on our front lawn and stayed until I ran out of story. I was never truly comfortable in nature. (Let’s face it, I was awkward, wherever I was.) But, the landscape was part of me in a way that Rita clearly understood.
Most weekends in summer, whether I liked it or not, we went camping. The trailer, and later the caravan, was left permanently packed, so we could leave on a whim.
In true nomadic style, we roamed across Canterbury and Otago, camping in areas reminiscent of Rita’s Riverbed, Waiau [iv] and Mount Maud.[v] As a child, the beauty of this landscape didn’t register with me. As an adult, immersed in these paintings, it is all I see.
The camping spot I hated least was at Black Hole on the Waihao River. A mysterious, adventurous sort of place, it brought out the Blyton in me. Named for the hao (shortfin eels) that could be found in the river, we obscured all meaning by pronouncing it Why-oh.
Black Hole was so deep that, despite its clear alpine-fed water, it was always thundercloud dark. Legend pronounced it bottomless, although that didn’t stop people launching themselves from the hill-sized boulder, to check.
It barely qualified as real camping. Black Hole was only ten kilometres or so out of Waimate. Close enough that the dads (and it was always the dads) could go back and forth to Timaru or Temuka, for work. Half the district would descend in the weekend, for a picnic and a swim, and there was always the threat of Friday or Saturday night yobbos.
We camped in the designated picnic spot, overlooking the river. (It didn’t pay to be too close, in case it got stroppy in the middle of the night.) It was flat, with bright springy grass, kept in check by a few industrious sheep. We’d camp there once a year or so with a selection of aunties, uncles and cousins. Mum is one of fourteen and most of her siblings have four or five kids, so there were plenty of rellies to go around.
Whānau members would come and go, most staying for only a day or two, but we were there for the duration. We were the first to set up and the last to leave.
As far as our cousins were concerned, this was intrepid camping. A sort of return to the wild. They were used to pitching up near real toilets and showers, and wouldn’t dream of eating dinner without setting the table properly first, even when outdoors. We laughed and called them poncy. They weren’t comfortable in nature, like we were.
Just as the hills had been tamed to suit sheep, we tamed our campsite. We may not have set up outdoor dining rooms, but we cleared away anything that displeased us—shrubs, insects, hives, stones. We built campfires, makeshift food safes and washing lines. Occasionally, Dad would dig a trench or relocate a boulder to deflect the river, if it looked like it might come our way. And we weren’t above piling up stones to make dams, so we could enjoy shallow pools of solar-heated luxury.
Once camp was set up, we were free to roam, within the usual dual restrictions. We’d head downstream as a pack, past the cave—its entrance plugged with spider webs—to the place where the river spread out enough to be forded. Once across, we’d scramble uphill to the limestone outcrops. Sheer-cliffed at the front, with easy grassed slopes at the back, we’d race to the top and roar down at the grown-ups. Adults never left camp and they couldn’t see the slopes from where they were, so we were officially the best rock-climbers, ever.
We’d force our way down through the scrub, to emerge upstream from camp, grazed and triumphant. The Waihao was edged with willows, planted by early farmers to secure the banks and keep the river in check. We’d swing on the branches and snap off sharp sticks, to use in battle or for stabbing at eels. We’d build huts and hidey-holes, decimating foliage and strong-arming bushes and trees into submission. We were heroic adventurers, surviving in the wilderness. We never once considered the effect on the trees.
We weren’t critter or bug friendly, either. Apart from the fearless one, we were terrified of anything that jumped or skittered. At the first sign of movement, we’d shriek and hurl stones. If it moved, it was best obliterated.
One year, we uncovered a spider, far bigger than it should be in New Zealand. Spiky, brutal and black, it had a slash of colour across its back and a massive egg sac under its belly. The fearless one wanted to smash it, to see if there were babies inside, but we wouldn’t let her. Not because we cared about the spider (we were all for smashing that), but because we were petrified that an army of spider-babies would come after us.
We weren’t so much at one with nature, as trying to tame it and bend it to our will. Such was our experience of privilege, that it never occurred to us that we shouldn’t be in control. The landscape was our playground and we felt entitled to enjoy whatever it had to offer. We were, after all, the latest in a long line of colonisers. We instinctively sought to take charge, without any thought of the harm we might do.
Years later, when I brought my daughter back to the South Island, to show her where I grew up, we stopped at Black Hole. My stomach turned over at the carnage. Far from the magical place I remembered, the scene was borderline dystopian.
Willows had staggered into the water, creating backlogs of silt and debris. The river was murky and slow and small fish decayed quietly at its edges. Our picnic area had become a moonscape and the occasional sheep poo we’d noted as children had been replaced by something much bigger and smellier. The landscape was dotted with tree skeletons and sludge glooped ashore from the shallows.
My horror was matched only by my daughter’s bewilderment. Where were the heroic cliffs, vibrant trees and sparkling mountain water I’d raved about? Where was my wonderful childhood adventureland?
It had, of course, fallen victim to the same colonising attitude that we ourselves had displayed when camping there. For generations, the land had been valued because of a sense of ownership and entitlement, and for what it could provide. Early farmers cleared the native bush and then planted willows to prevent river banks from collapsing and farmland from flooding. Over time, the willows self-propagated, multiplying exponentially, until the river began to choke. Increasingly intensive agricultural practices stripped the water quality and stock run-off introduced the dreaded E. coli.[vi]
All this, so we could have more, produce more, control more.
Rita Angus’ colonising instincts, as displayed in her painting, Rutu,[vii] were like our own—purely unconscious. This painting, begun just as World War Two ended, symbolised for Rita a kind of nirvana, where all New Zealanders could live in an idealised state of collaborative serenity.[viii]
‘Rita felt strongly that the future of New Zealand lay in the integration of Polynesian and European culture.’[ix] ‘With her blonde hair, blue eyes and dusky complexion, Rutu represented an ideal blending of races in the Pacific: a model of peace and harmony for the rest of the world.’[x]
It didn’t seem to occur to Rita that people might prefer to retain their own cultural identities. She may have been aiming at inclusion, but the ideas behind Rutu smack of entitlement and condescension: Here is my vision for your future, where I will share privilege with you, whilst relinquishing none of my own.
Her subconscious superiority was highlighted when she wrote to Douglas Lilburn, during the painting of Rutu. ‘She will be more beautiful, despite her mixed blood,’[xi] she assured him. Colonialism, intentional or not, was as alive and well in Rita, as it was in us.
Such obliviousness to other ways of thinking infused my childhood. (Cantabrians aren’t called one-eyedfor nothing.) It wasn’t so much that we discounted other ways of looking at the world. It just never occurred to us that they existed. Our experience of living in our homogenous country town led us to assume that everyone thought exactly like us.
We didn’t know we were colonising, any more than Rita did. We believed it a crime of our ancestors and that modern Aotearoa had moved beyond its reach. But colonisation is ultimately a practice of control—a control that was evident in our every interaction with nature. We thought that by refilling trenches and taking litter with us, we were valuing the environment. We never questioned our right to use it as we saw fit.
We inhabited the landscape on our own terms, feeling entitled to swim, play and camp at whim. We made decisions based on what the land could provide in the moment, never imagining that it wouldn’t always be there for us. Our attitudes, like Rita’s, were clearly steeped in colonialism. I prefer to believe this is not why her paintings resonate for me.
Tony Mackle asserts that ‘Angus’s “nature studies” are like nature itself: there are no absolute divisions, and early works hold the seeds of later ones.’[xii] We can follow Rita’s lead and ensure that new understandings bloom from the seeds of our inherited colonial ones.
Since 2018, Black Hole has been the focus of a community-led biodiversity river enhancement project, funded by landowners, community groups and Environment Canterbury.[xiii] Seventy percent of the willows, blocking waterflow and native plantings, have been removed. This, coupled with changes in farming practices, is gradually improving water quality. Natives have been planted extensively, not only to stablise and enhance river banks, but to act as a natural filter system for run-off, attract seed-spreading birds and ‘...connect or create habitat corridors for birds, lizards and invertebrates.’[xiv]
This is a long-term project, still in its infancy, but it is already making a difference. In its first two years, water quality testing and farm audits gave all farms a B grade, or better, with A grades moving from 15 to 55 percent. Black Hole is beginning to recover and water quality in the Waihao Downs catchment is improving. It is a significant achievement in a short space of time.[xv]
The colonial mindset may have permeated our camping experience, allowing us to run roughshod over our environment, but, like the farmers around Black Hole, we can learn to move beyond it. We can use our awareness of the damage created by colonising practices to inform our future behaviour. Just as ‘nature was fundamental to Rita’s comprehension of life,’[xvi] it must become fundamental to ours.
We must stop imagining that our species is the only important life-form on the planet; that we are its raison d’être. We must decolonise our minds and acknowledge nature as a self-organising, living system. We must begin to live as part of the interconnected whole.
There is a reason that the Māori word for land is the same as that for placenta. The whenua embraces and sustains us, providing a nourishing environment in which life can thrive. It was here before us and, despite our worst efforts, may yet outlast us.
We have never needed to colonise or control the environment. We need, instead, to accept the obvious. The whenua doesn’t belong to us. We belong to the whenua.
Ko au te whenua, ko te whenua, ko au.
I am the land and the land is me.
[i] Stringleman, H. and Peden, R. (2008, November 24). Sheep Farming – Importance of the Sheep Industry. Retrieved from Te Ara –the Encyclopedia of New Zealand: https://teara.govt.nz/en/interactive/16621/sheep-numbers-in-new-zealand-1851-2014
[vi] MacLean, H. (2018, October 20). Willows dealt with, new planting underway. Retrieved September 2021, from Otago Daily Times: www.odt.co.nz/regions/north-otago/willows-dealt-new-planting-underway
[xii] Mackle, T. (2016, August). 'Everything I paint has the sense of being alive': From nature to abstraction in the work of Rita Angus, p5. Retrieved September 2021, from Te Papa: https://collections.tepapa.govt.nz/document/10096
[xiii] Williams, A. (2018, February 16). Grave concerns for well-known swimming hole. Retrieved September 2021, from Stuff – Timaru Herald: www.stuff.co.nz/timaru-herald/news/101401364/grave-concerns-for-wellknown-swimming-hole
[xv] Williams, A. (2018, December 15). Community effort undertaken to clean up the Waihao River – one kilometre at a time. Retrieved September 2021, from Stuff – Timaru Herald: www.stuff.co.nz/timaru-herald/109216435/community-effort-undertaken-to-clean-up-the-waihao-river--one-kilometre-at-a-time