In 1952 I moved to the farm – really just a block of bare land – my father had drawn east of Waipawa. Being almost entirely treeless it was pretty barren, especially in summer. After life on Napier’s leafy hill it was a culture shock.

That has now changed, with a vista that is predominently green, especially due to poplars planted with assistance from the Catchment Board, succeeded in 1989 by our generous, enlightened and visionary Regional Council. (Honestly, I just can’t believe our luck.)

So successful has been the establishment of these poplars that those I planted forty years ago are starting to impede pasture production, although this is now someone else’s problem. (Did I say that the Regional Council was visionary? They are still promoting poplar establishment without the need for silvicultural discipline, thereby discounting their possible timber value and their profitable extraction. Oversized poplars, planted with financial and moral encouragement, are becoming a liability over much North Island hill country.)

It was this emerging issue that caused me to take a Winston Churchill Memorial Fellowship to North America and Europe (mostly the UK) in 1994 to study forestry issues in general, but most especially rural landscapes and the utilization of poplar timber, which is commonly cultivated world-wide.

So trees and their role in landscapes has been a subject of enduring interest to me. What causes a rural landscape to take the form that it does? What drives its dynamics? What is its role in the emotional life of the nation? Indeed, what is its role in a nation’s economic life?

A good example is the beautiful British landscape. It is entirely man-made and has taken many thousands of years to develop from what was once a natural forest. Like all developed landscapes, the British landscape is predominantly, but by no means entirely, the consequence of commerce – the need to utilise the land for food and fibre. Of course other factors affect the landscape, like communications, power generation and transmission, and defense. It has been influenced though by the huge disparity of wealth in British rural society, where lords of the manor were able to indulge their ambitions and rivalries in their great designed estates.

During and after WW2, the need for food security led to much modification of the landscape to accommodate mechanised farming, so hedgerows and walls were removed to make for larger areas of cultivatable land. This is now being reversed and many of these features restored at considerable taxpayer expense. Why? Because the British see that the visual landscape, through tourism, is a very potent economic force. Accordingly the British farmer is being increasingly seen as a park keeper.

New Zealand too has a beautiful landscape, albeit with some inevitable warts, and one that uniquely characterises this country. It is far more diverse than the British by virtue of our greater geological extremes, which apart from the visual landforms also indirectly affects the landscape through climatic variation.

It also differs in other ways. It is juvenile … the result 150 years of ‘western’ development. Further, about 30% of it is still in its essentially natural state, as much of our land is unsuited for farming. Further, farmers here are unsubsidised and so any attractiveness and manicure of the landscape is free to the public. But because it is almost entirely the child of commercial production, it is very much dynamic, as commercial imperatives cause landuse to change.

Increasingly our landscape is contributing to our economy through tourism. This is a potent force indeed. One just needs to see what a contribution the urban landscape of Napier (especially) and Hastings make to the economy of Hawke’s Bay. There are some lessons here.

Firstly, here was a commercial asset that no one appreciated – until, that is, the developers moved in and started destroying it, thus prompting some committed visionaries to advocate its protection, and later promotion. Subsequently the cause took on a life of its own, and now seems like a good idea to everyone. (The five stages in the acceptance of an idea: derision, scepticism, qualified support, enthusiastic endorsement, claim of orgination.)

Secondly, the preservation of our art deco and spanish mission landscape is essentially voluntary. But no fear – the protection of this architectual heritage is now imbedded in the community’s culture. This is unlike the legal context imposed on the British rural landowner —  where there is a trade-off, the protection receives generous public funding. The Kiwi cockie will never accept the forced adornment of his land, at least not without a fight.

This is not to say that he is indifferent to the visual character of his land – far from it. Increasingly he, and perhaps more especially his wife or partner, will go to extra expense and trouble to visually enhance their farm. A compelling measure of that is the rise and success of the Queen Elizabeth II National Trust (formed in 1977), which has resulted in significant areas of unproductive native bush being placed in permanent physical and legal protection.

So do we need a rural equivalent of the Art Deco Trust – a Rural Landscape Trust? I believe so! We need to consider what we are doing to the landscape that is both good and bad (like enthusiastically planting poplars and then leaving them to do their own thing). Of course beauty is in the eye of the beholder and there is no grand design for the great New Zealand landscape. But forethought by both private landowners and public institutions has too often been absent when placing a feature on the landscape.

New Zealand has one of the most attractive, interesting and diverse landscapes in the world. We should treat her as the beautiful dame that she is. We need a structure where we can debate and challenge the process of landscape change (or not change), and celebrate that which compels approval and condemn the ugly. Maybe Hawke’s Bay is a good place to start one. (Interested? ewan-mac@xtra.co.nz)

Finally, one may ask if an attractive landscape is compatible with good environmental management. Generally, most things that look right are right. In my observation this is the case with rural landscapes.

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1 Comment

  1. We are fortunate to have active visionaries like Ewan in our community. Our Hawke's Bay landscape is fabulous but do we realise it's potential in it's natural state? Our developers don't seem to. Our ridgelines are stunning vistas and need to be protected from development. Hilltops provide the rich man with views but the from the bottom they are the poor man's view.

    We have wonderful coastal wilderness areas with the potential to be restored and protected as natural habits. They provide important recreation opportunitie for a large sector of our population as they are.Some of our community seem besotted with turning them all into residential development. Fine for the rich but depriving the poor again. We have beautiful rivers and valleys, native forest areas which need to be protected, and areas which should be re-established, incredible geological features, thermal springs, picturesque mountains and on it goes.

    Much of our farmlands stretch out treeless and barren because of poor land management yet we have farmers in our community proving there are better ways of managing the land. Animals spend summer and winter without shade or shelter. They don't chose to do this in a natural environment. We have a bandwagon mentality, rushing in to replicate the success of the early starters and end up with overproduction instead of being innovative and looking for new ideas. We have some of the best soils in the world but we want to force production with excessive fertiliser and pesticides. Long term this destroys the production capacity of the soil.

    It is our natural unspoiled landscapes that overseas visitors really want to see along with the cultural and heritage aspects of our country. They have an over abundance of the touristy scene and artifical attractions in their own lands. They want to walk, breath in nature and get away from the pollution and rat race that is their normal life.

    It is always so good to come home to Hawke's Bay after several months of travel. Let's appreciate what we have and look after this wonderful place before we lose it.

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