The Waikato: A history of New Zealand’s greatest river by Paul Moon (Atuanui Press, 2018), 456 pp., $69.99; New Zealand’s Rivers: An environmental history by Catherine Knight (Canterbury University Press, 2016), 324 pp., $49.99
‘Rivers compel attention and invite stories.’ These words open an intriguing doctoral dissertation completed in 1999 in the Department of English in the University of British Columbia by New Zealander Charles Dawson.1 They introduce a twisting, tumbling, rippling, glinting, eddying and surging torrent of ideas and observations that washes over an impressively varied array of personal essays, novels and poetry, brushes the banks of theory, and entrains contemporary anxieties along the way. Most of the authors Dawson considers engage, as he does, in ‘river reflection’ – a ‘process of articulation, born of contemplation and engagement with mental and physical streams’. Their physical streams are almost entirely North American, but their articulations emphasise interconnections through memory and myth, ecology and community, damage and loss, to produce particular ways of seeing and understanding.
Dawson’s river reflections began in New Zealand in 1990 when he paddled the length of the Whanganui River in the company of Atihaunui Māori on the annual Tira Hoe Waka. On this journey, story, politics, spirituality and ecology came together in an assertion of bonds with the river; place and memory were woven as one.2 By impelling him to better understand where he came from, by forcing him to excavate and interrogate his own concerns and memories, Dawson’s Tira Hoe Waka experience prompted the ‘wary investigation … [of] other textual worlds’ in his dissertation. Those encounters reinforced the conviction implanted along the Whanganui that ‘there are several ways of knowing water, place and history’.
Recent books by Catherine Knight and Paul Moon offer valuable confirmation of this aphorism. Both deal with New Zealand rivers and time, but they do so in markedly different ways. Moon focuses on a single river (the longest in the country, hence at least one justification for his characterisation of the Waikato as New Zealand’s greatest river). Knight explores the relations between New Zealanders and their inland waterways. Moon’s interest is in people and events at particular places along the length of the Waikato; he compares his work to a scrapbook, ‘a compilation of vignettes offering a rendition of the whole’. Knight’s rather shorter book has a much more expansive agenda; each of her main chapters examines ‘a different facet of … [the] evolving and increasingly complex’ interactions between people and rivers since people first hauled their battered waka onto … [New Zealand’s] forest-fringed shores’. Both books are unusually well illustrated, in colour as well as black and white, and both warrant attention as contributions to understanding New Zealand, both for what they tell about ways of writing history, and for their reminder (more explicit in Knight than Moon) that we share a collective responsibility for the future of our rivers (and planet).
Fifty-year-old Paul Moon is an astonishingly prolific historian. The front matter of The Waikato attributes twenty earlier books to his authorship; the website of AUT, where he is professor of history, puts the number at 25 (currently), and points out that he has ‘appeared on numerous documentaries, current affairs and news programmes, both in New Zealand and internationally’. Moon is also an energetic researcher. In a May 2018 interview on Radio New Zealand (RNZ), he claimed to have travelled about 9000 kilometres up, down and beside the Waikato River in three years, talking to hundreds of people along its 425-kilometre length and getting to know its various reaches. Toward the end of his research (and the river) in July 2016, he was (infamously) ‘nearly killed by a freak wave’ that swept him from the rock shelves he was exploring south of Port Waikato.3
Explaining the importance of this fieldwork on RNZ, Moon reflected on the changing terms under which histories are now written. Twenty or thirty years ago, he said, a history of a river would have been filled with facts and figures. But the internet has made such information easy to find. Writers today have to do things differently. They need to think more pointedly about the structure of their narrative, convey a sense of the varying character of the river, capture the dynamics of change, and tell stories about the lives of the people who lived along it. To do these things, Moon feels, it is imperative to visit the location, to see what you are writing about; hence, too, the notion that this history of the Waikato is a biography of the river. It begins at the rather indeterminate source (birth) of the river in the sodden volcanic ground at the foot of Mt Ruapehu, and ends at the coast where the Waikato enters its afterlife in the Tasman Sea. The seven substantial sections of the book that chart this course see the river growing bigger and stronger as it gathers in the waters of 5000 tributary streams, overcoming obstacles and impediments, thundering powerfully through Huka Falls and, ultimately, moving lethargically to its end in the sea.
Fascinating though this life-course account of the Waikato may be – its presentation is filled with vivid and surprising detail – I am not entirely convinced by these arguments. First, despite claims that Leopold von Ranke’s wie es eigentlich gewesen (‘as it actually happened’) doctrine compelled historians to document facts, not interpret them, it has been a long time since historians were content to assemble names and dates. Indeed, they have long characterised such compilations as mere chronicle, to set them apart from their own efforts. Most scholars accept that each generation writes its own history, as contemporary concerns shape both the identification and interpretation of pertinent facts. Good historians have long recognised their role in creating understanding of the past and the inescapable moral dimensions of their work.
Second, on the face of it at least, biographers are less troubled than other historical scholars by questions about where to begin (and end) and why. Birth and death dates frame life stories. But within these parameters, some biographies are more compelling than others, and the reasons often have as much to do with the biographer’s choices as they do with the life lived. One can recount the comings and goings, sayings and doings of a life, and if it has been ‘well lived’ it may well hold considerable intrinsic interest. But what of the chances that such a study might be enriched – offer more persuasive reasons ‘why?’ – through engagement with psychoanalytic, socio-structural and/or biological approaches?
Should a river biography be an eco-biography?4 Nature or nurture?
Nature certainly figures in Moon’s Waikato. The river ‘runs over beds of pumice, rock, peat, sand, silt, mud and clay’. It is a ‘shape-shifter’, its course affected by earthquakes and volcanoes, its flow by the seasons and climatic change. Ecology and geology are covered ‘at the relevant junctures’. But the focus here is avowedly on ‘the history of people and events in and around the Waikato’.5 It is moreover, and substantially, a colonial history. Although the introduction notes that the river became a rich source of myth for Māori, myths that allowed and encouraged people to ‘manoeuvre through traditions, to watch out for warnings, and to learn from the success and misadventure of these mythological characters’, there is little of this world in the remainder of the book.
Although I take the point made by Moon in an interview – ‘you can say … [the Waikato is] a single river, but in a sense, it’s lots of different rivers that happen to follow the same river bed. Everyone has a special part of it’ – I regret that his treatment emphasises this fragmentation at the expense of more sweeping conclusions.6 Section by section the book typically notes the occupation of particular reaches of the river by specific Māori iwi, and offers a paragraph or two of commentary on their movement or activity drawn from tribal oral histories. Then it moves on to detail the arrival of Pākehā traders, explorers or missionaries and the subsequent occupation of the area by newcomers on their way to building settlements, bridges, and no fewer than nine hydroelectric power stations. Pressed to identify unifying themes, Moon suggests the river’s function as a means of transport, its role in irrigating neighbouring farms, ‘the sanctity with which it is regarded by some Māori’ and its ever-changing (‘volatile’) history. These seem small beans from 450 pages. I wonder how much they mirror Moon’s decision to attend to the local over the generic and present the history of the Waikato River as an accumulation of ‘layers of localised history’. The choice was his to make, but its consequence is a book that speaks most eloquently (and in substantial degree, only) to very local audiences.
Catherine Knight, by contrast, takes the nation and the larger planetary community of people concerned about the fate of the earth as her readership. New Zealand’s Rivers is avowedly an environmental history, and its larger aim is not to accumulate detail but to explain how once unsullied waterways became too polluted for swimming, and how fresh water, once treasured and revered, has turned into a hotly contested resource. Knight has point and purpose. As she notes at the beginning of her book, ‘learning about the history of our environment is rewarding in itself, but its greatest value is the way it brings texture and meaning to our interactions with the environment today’.
Environmental history is a relatively new field of scholarship that has flourished most markedly in North America. It takes the interactions between humans and the rest of nature as its central concern, and affords the physical world a meaningful role (some would say ‘agency’) in constructing stories about the past.7 At its best it has remade the ways in which we see the world. New Zealanders have made important contributions to this field, but with the recent retirements of Eric Pawson and Tom Brooking, Catherine Knight is set fair to take her place among the country’s leading environmental historians. She too has been impressively productive. Raised in the Manawatu, she took her first degree in Japan before completing MA and PhD degrees in Japanese studies at the University of Canterbury in 2007 – which is to say that she came relatively late to the study of New Zealand history. Working as a policy analyst for the Ministry of Environment in Wellington through most of the last decade, she was the lead writer of New Zealand’s first-ever statutory all-of-environment report – Environment Aotearoa 2015 – and advised the minister on proposed changes to the Resource Management Act. Since 2014 she has published four substantial, well-recognised environmental histories (including New Zealand Rivers) and maintained a valuable blog at www.envirohistorynz.com.
New Zealand Rivers is impressive for its scope, clarity, poignancy and power. Historical synthesis is never easy. It requires difficult decisions (about what and how much to include) and skilful organisation. Success depends upon a lucid sense of purpose (or interpretive stance) and unflinching assessments of the significance (or otherwise) that particular pieces of information hold for the story at hand. Even to contemplate an account on the scale of New Zealand Rivers is to risk a peculiarly academic variant of the so-called ‘New Zealand death’: drowning in a flood of detail. Fortunately, Knight proves herself a deft writer and judicious arbiter of evidence. She has crafted a compelling account that transcends countless instances of environmental degradation and layers of localised history to find hope for the future: ‘New Zealanders are better equipped now than ever before to engage in informed debate about our role as stewards of our waterways’. At least some of the credit for this is due New Zealand’s Rivers.8
After a preliminary call to arms, ten crisp chapters carry the story of New Zealand’s rivers forward, thematically and chronologically through 266 pages. Twenty pages given to ‘Māori and awa’ establish the intertwining of tangible and metaphysical elements in Māori conceptions of rivers and wetlands, and point to the significant consequences that the arrival of Europeans and the loss of mana (prestige and authority) over rivers had for Māori peoples. Then the narrative proceeds, rich in detail but at a brisk clip. It deals in turn with colonial appraisals of rivers; the use of rivers as drains; the work of acclimatisation societies in stocking rivers with introduced species of fish; the harnessing of rivers for power generation; rivers as recreational spaces; efforts at flood control; river protection; the impact of farming on rivers; and, finally, recent steps to restore Māori authority and control over ancestral rivers. Knight seeks, throughout, to identify the drivers of change that have made New Zealand’s rivers what they are today and brought so many to the point of crisis. Her object is not to apportion blame but to guide readers to a fuller, sharper understanding of contexts.9 So we see why and how decisions made and actions taken transformed rivers in the past; and by coming to appreciate what has been lost, we surely improve our capacity for rational discussion of the choices (and sacrifices) necessary to ward off impending troubles and find a route to wiser, more sustainable stewardship of this most precious of resources.
Reflecting on all of this, I recall a passage in Mark Twain’s account of Life on the Mississippi.10 On his way to becoming a river pilot, Twain learned to read the 1200 miles of the river as a book in which every eddy and catspaw of wind, every mark on its bank, offered a clue about the course he should choose. This knowledge was an invaluable acquisition, arduously attained. But, Twain reflected, it had been gained at great price: ‘All the grace, the beauty, the poetry had gone out of the majestic river.’ Sunsets that once bewitched and induced speechless rapture now simply signalled the prospect of wind on the morrow. Where was the balance between gain and loss in learning the pilot’s trade? In the end, these New Zealand river stories pose similar questions. Can we retain our sense of wonder in the world as our historical and scientific knowledge of its transformation increases? How do we reconcile romance and utility, intrinsic and extrinsic worth, rapture and efficacy, myth, meaning and money in picking our ways towards a viable future, through the shape-shifting reefs and shoals produced by human endeavor and natural forces?
Knight, at least, would suggest that rivers can help us retain a sense of reverence for nature, and carry us toward the reconciliation we need, as long as we develop a full and clear understanding of the forces that shaped their current states, refuse to treat them as machines, and pay due attention to ancient and important Māori ideas about the mana (power and prestige), wairua (spirit) and mauri (life force) of river systems. As Charles Dawson’s dissertation revealed two decades ago, river writing works in various ways. Generally, it alerts us ‘to what little remains’ and sharpens our sense of ‘what might remain’. It encourages us to ‘act with care and passion’ for the benefit of generations to come. And it points to the importance of forging ‘alliances across communities, cultures and watersheds’. Ultimately, however, neither rivers nor those who write about them ‘hand out solutions: they bestow responsibilities’. Our task – well joined by these authors – is not to ‘learn’ rivers (as Twain did), but to unleash the many meanings they carry and to (re)assert the importance of myth, meaning and time in debates about the management and use of precious waters.
- Charles R E Dawson, ‘Writing the memory of rivers: Story, ecology and politics in some contemporary river writing’, PhD dissertation, University of British Columbia, 1999.
- Charles Dawson, ‘Learning with the River: On intercultural gifts from the Whanganui,’ pp. 35–53 of Nick Holm and Sy Taffel (eds), Ecological Entanglements in the Anthropocene (Lanham: Lexington Books, 2017). This essay is also a moving and valuable reflection on the important work of Martin Dawson (Charles’ father) on the Whanganui River and other Māori freshwater claims (that led to Charles’ invitation to participate in the Tira Hoe Waka).
- ‘Paul Moon: The history of the Waikato River’, Radio New Zealand, Sunday Morning, 20 May 2018; ‘Historian Paul Moon nearly killed by freak wave while researching Waikato River book’, New Zealand Herald, 14 May 2018.
- I think particularly of Marc Cioc, The Rhine: An eco-biography, 1815–2000 (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2002).
- Parts of The Waikato echo an observation in Geoff Park, Ngā Uruora: The groves of life. History and Ecology in a New Zealand Landscape (Wellington: Victoria University Press, 1995),16: ‘Reading the landscape is like collage, interweaving the patterns of ecology and the fragments of history with footprints of the personal journey. The journey, in time as well as in space, plays no small part.’ Still, the differences between Moon’s and Park’s works are revealing of the ways in which authorial choices shape narratives about, and interpretations of, the past.
- Te Ahua Maitland, review of The Waikato: A history of New Zealand’s greatest river: www.stuff.co.nz/national/103425883/the-waikato-a-history-of-new-zealands-greatest-river
- For assessments of the developing field see Richard H. White, ‘American environmental history: The development of a new historical field’, Pacific Historical Review, 54 (August 1985), 297–335, and John R. McNeill, ‘Observations on the nature and culture of environmental history’, History and Theory, 42 (December 2003), 5–43.
- For a probing recent treatment of the rapidly expanding corpus of works on the environmental history of rivers, alongside which Knight’s work takes its place, see Matthew Evenden, ‘Beyond the organic machine? New approaches in river historiography’, Environmental History, 23, 4 (October 2018), 698–720.
- Two works on New Zealand rivers by David Young also warrant consideration here: David Young, Woven by Water: Histories of the Whanganui River (Wellington: Huia, 1998) and David Young, Rivers: New Zealand’s shared legacy (Auckland: Random House, 2014)
- Knight expands on some aspects of her work in radio interviews: with Kathryn Ryan, RNZ, Nine to Noon, 1 February 2017: www.radionz.co.nz/national/programmes/ninetonoon/audio/201831610/the-history-of-nz’s-rivers; with JamesD, RDU (Christchurch) on 6 December 2016: www.rdu.org.nz/archives/podcast/new-zealands-rivers-catherine-knight
- Mark Twain, Life on the Mississippi (Boston: J.R. Osgood, 1883), chapter 9.
An historical geographer and environmental historian, GRAEME WYNN taught at the University of Canterbury in the mid-1970s before relocating to the University of British Columbia, where he was variously associate dean of arts, head of geography, and holder of the Brenda and David McLean Chair Professorship in Canadian Studies. Elected to the Royal Society of Canada and now professor emeritus, he is the current president of the American Society for Environmental History.