Using the land
Nineteenth-century Pākehā society was a world of immigrants. To attract people halfway around the globe, propaganda promoted New Zealand as a fertile land with a benign climate, ‘reserved by Providence for the use of men,’ 1 which could provide rural labourers with land and reasonable wealth.
Once the immigrants arrived, they were mostly concerned with how the land could be used. Samuel Butler observed in Canterbury, ‘A mountain here is only beautiful if it has good grass on it … if it is good for sheep, it is beautiful, magnificent, and all the rest; if not, it is not worth looking at.’ 2
The land was to be exploited. Rivers were to be panned for gold, trees logged, and the plains cleared for sheep farming. There was an old Taranaki saying: ‘One blade of grass is worth two trees.’
A desolate landscape
To settlers, the untamed landscape seemed unwelcoming, and native bush seldom looked beautiful. The early settlers of Nelson expected paradise, but found ‘[i]nstead of the bread fruit tree there is the flax tree in a swampy piece of Ground.’ 3 The new arrivals were far from home, and their expectations of fertile, pleasant land for farming had often not been met – instead they found rocky mountains, wild rivers and impenetrable bush.
Laurence J. Kennaway, just off the boat in Canterbury, wrote: ‘That man must have a strong, cold heart, who in stepping from a ship’s boat into a really new country, does not feel bewildered, and something desolate.’ 4 ‘The most dreary and desolate looking country eye ever beheld,’ wrote settler and diarist Sarah Mathew in 1840 on seeing the land around Auckland. 5 Others described the landscape as barren, gloomy or bleak.
Many settlers, homesick for British woods, thought the New Zealand bush was monotonous and dull.
Some Christians judged ‘untamed’ country as an immoral wilderness. For the missionary Richard Taylor, the North Island’s Volcanic Plateau was ‘a world blasted by sin.’ 6
The silent land
Emigrating from a densely populated country, many settlers found New Zealand lonely and quiet. Women especially missed the buzz of society, family and friends. Sarah Mathew talked of ‘the utter solitude, the deep silence that prevailed’ 7 , and writer Lady Barker about her intense aloneness. Sarah Courage admitted feeling terribly alone. The missionary and explorer William Colenso, looking at the Whirinaki forest, saw ‘Solitude all!!’ 8
A songless land
In his poem ‘Te Whetu plains’, written around 1874, Edward Tregear lamented the quiet of New Zealand, comparing it with his memories of England:
All still, all silent, ‘tis a songless land,
That hears no music of the nightingale,
No sound of waters falling lone and grand
Through sighing forests to the lower vale
No whisper in the grass, so wan, and grey, and pale. 9
Nevertheless, this land that Europeans saw as empty was regularly used by Māori. But they were often not seen by settlers – or their suspected presence led to more alienation and fear.
When legislation with mild conservationist elements was introduced into Parliament in 1874, there was furious opposition. Few saw the native landscape as something to be preserved.
Making the English garden
Settlers believed that the bush could be made beautiful, if it became an English garden. Progress meant turning a wilderness into a civilised land, replacing bush with farmland and English trees. With grass and oaks around them, expatriates would feel at home. When Felton Mathew visited Paihia in 1840 he noted that ‘the gardens redolent of the perfume of sweet briar and clover, revived old English feelings’. 10
Settlers approved of anything which gave a ‘dash of Home’ to the picture – even ‘the luxuriant growth of well-known English weeds’. 11 In his guidebook for immigrants, Charles Hursthouse suggested planting stands of English trees to increase the scenic beauty.