WILDERNESS

The shape of wilderness

BY MICK ABBOTT & RICHARD REEVE
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Wilderness is an ongoing fascination in this country. Images of pristine forests, mountain ranges, untameable rivers and empty expanses of coastline are the key attraction in how we promote Aotearoa New Zealand internationally: ‘100% Pure’ no less. The wild land broods in our histories – from the original forests of Tane to the oppressive bush of The Piano. It is showcased in contemporary fantasy films, and drives the success of a multitude of outdoor-related product brands, from Swandri to Icebreaker.

The most compelling evidence for how highly we value wilderness in this country lies in the sheer scale of the lands and waters constituting our public conservation estate. Currently over one third of the landmass is set aside, with more than 40 per cent of the South Island managed by the Department of Conservation (DOC). Moreover, this estate is still growing, with high-country runs like Birchwood Station and Saint James Station being added in their entirety, while other pastoral lands are being taken out of leasehold as part of the high country tenure review process.

There is a strong affection for wilderness in this country, which politicians ignore at their peril. As a nation, we are hard at work attempting to make sections of our public conservation lands predator-free and pest-free, with extensive island-based eradication programmes. Local communities have built predator-proof fences for nearby sanctuaries such as Maungatautari, Karori and Orokonui. Plans to mine in national parks were met with 50,000-strong marches down Auckland’s Queen Street. In 1972, the proposal to raise Lake Manapouri ousted a government.

This book is about what makes wilderness such an important part of our psyche, and what possibilities it offers for us individually and collectively. Our aim is to look more deeply into what drives our various understandings of wilderness.

locating wilderness

In this country, the term ‘wilderness’ has a number of meanings: as a place, a legal definition and a perception. DOC uses the term to define specific tracts of land for which values of solitude, remoteness and naturalness are to be protected by appropriate management strategies. The drive for this approach arose from a pivotal Federated Mountain Clubs (FMC) conference in 1981, and matched similar initiatives in the United States. Specific criteria deemed that: wilderness areas should be large enough to take at least two days’ foot-travel to traverse; they should have clearly defined topographical boundaries and be adequately buffered so as to remain unaffected, except in minor ways, by human influences; and they should not have developments such as huts, tracks, bridges and signs, nor mechanised access.[1]

To date, eleven wilderness areas have been formally classified, which together make up over 6 per cent of conservation lands.[2] These are the Raukumara, Ruakituri, Te Tatau Pounamu, and Hauhungatahi Wilderness Areas in the North Island, and the Tasman, Paparoa, Adams, Hooker-Landsborough, Olivine, Pembroke and Glaisnock Wilderness Areas in the South Island. Two more, the southwest Cameron/ Poteriteri and Pegasus Wilderness Areas, have recently been proposed, while support for the Garvie/Old Man Range winter wilderness area has surfaced intermittently since the 1981 conference.[3]

Wilderness areas are maintained as locations for people to get away from it all – to seek and find ‘remoteness and discovery, challenge, solitude, freedom and romance’.[4]Despite this formal demarcation, there is no guarantee that an experience of wilderness will be gained there. Other factors, such as the proximity of other groups in the area, aircraft noise, and modes of access can all impact on an individual’s sense of wilderness. Indeed, it has been argued that designating specific territories as wilderness can make them less wild. As Raymond Dasmann pondered, ‘In defining the boundaries, writing the rules and publicising the results, did we not remove the last magic and make us realise that the remote and unknown was available to all?’[5] More than simply a certain quality of topography, wilderness is bound up in people’s values and perceptions, and therefore different for each person. This is why a wilderness ethos of trampers, who seek to ‘take only photographs and leave only footprints’, can run counter to that of hunters, who in the same location find a different sense of wilderness through getting food from the land.

We can each find a sense of wilderness in a great range of places. The variation among individual definitions of wilderness – and the varying evaluation of sites for their capacity to elicit the assumed qualities of wilderness – has been the topic of much ongoing academic and applied research.[6]Judging from how the term is used in articles, magazines, guide books and entries in hut books and blogs, it can be safely assumed that for many a sense of wilderness can be gained almost anywhere in our public conservation lands, and beyond that as well.

In a study of New Zealanders’ attitudes to wilderness, geographer John Shultis found wide support for huts, tracks, bridges, direct road access and commercial recreation – all of which are outside current DOC criteria. For what, after all, is a ‘wilderness area’? Arguably the most notable result of his study was that only a few respondents could not complete an in-depth survey on perceptions and definitions of wilderness (5 per cent), despite the high rate of people who had never visited a designated wilderness area (78 per cent).[7]Such research reveals that many New Zealanders have a strong appreciation of wilderness even if they don’t have a first- hand experience of it. Many agree with the statement: ‘it’s good to know wilderness still exists, even if I decide never to use it.’[8]

Shultis’s research supports a wider, more culturally constructed characterisation of ‘wilderness’. Respondents in his study were required to list images that came to mind when thinking about the term,[9] their perceptions revealing certain trends in how wilderness is typified by New Zealanders. Wilderness features were deemed to include: ‘bush/native forest, no evidence of impact, trees/forest/vegetation, peace/ solitude/freedom, remote/isolated, primaeval/original condition, nature/scenery/ beauty, mountains/alpine, animals/birds/wildlife, rivers/waterfalls’.[10]Such responses indicate a distinction between what people expect to see and what they hope to feel: visions of bush, trees, mountains, birds and waterfalls elicit sensations of peace, isolation, and awe at primaeval beauty.

the changing wilderness

For all the diversity of opinion about wilderness in Aotearoa New Zealand, there is wide agreement – indeed a sense of certainty and resolution – as to its value and significance. Nevertheless, the future would seem to promise more volatility. Alongside issues of global mineral scarcity, timber, and renewable energy generation, there are also the unpredictable changes wrought by climate change. Additional pressures will come from growing populations, shifting demographics and changing recreational behaviours, and of course the demands of a growth-focused tourism industry. In some respects, such a future is merely the continuation of historical volatility shaping what we have come to mean by wilderness and also the places we associate with it.

At the time of European settlement, there was neither the perceived need nor the foresight for anything resembling today’s conservation lands. According to Paul Shepard in his English Reaction to the New Zealand Landscape before 1850, arrival brought disappointment and a ‘cultivated contempt’ for what was waiting. The forest, and the rough terrain to which it clung, was pervasive, ‘desolate and repulsive in the extreme’, ‘not only uninviting, rugged, and repulsive … but unproductive and accursed’.[11]As Shepard notes, the land engaged by the settler seemed immoral, barren, heathen – like the godless wilderness of Christ’s temptation.[12]

In the nineteenth century it was ‘the bush’ rather than wilderness that pervaded the settlers’ language. One could ‘go bush’, ‘bush it’, ‘bush-bash’, ‘be bushed’ and become ‘bush happy’. There were ‘bush trams’, ‘bush tracks’, ‘bush cattle’, ‘bush bread’, ‘bush bunks’ and ‘bush shirts’. And people could be ‘bush baptists’, ‘bush doctors’, ‘bush-hands’, ‘bush-bosses’, ‘bush philosophers’ and ‘bushmen’.[13] The ‘bush’ had a transient quality that was experienced and valued as the shifting frontier along which forests were converted into planks and pasture. In the 1880s alone, the ‘fever’[14] for farmland overran the capacity to both mill and use timber, resulting in 14 per cent of New Zealand’s entire land area being clear-felled.[15]

Accounts like these in the British press, combined with a growing awareness of the uniqueness and increasing scarcity of New Zealand’s native birds, catalysed politicians into taking action to preserve the nation’s scenery.[16] In 1888, the first native birds were fully protected by legislation. By 1907, the list had extended to twenty-eight birds including bell-bird, fantail, huia, kiwi and tūī.[17] Only those native species that impacted on agriculture remained unprotected, of which the most notable was the kea.[18]It was during this time that settlers began to describe New Zealand as ‘the land of the tūī and themselves as Kiwis.[19] Yet significantly for environmental historian Geoff Park, the move to preserve fauna institutionalised an erasure of Māori practices within New Zealand’s forests. Many forested valleys that could ‘sustainably yield thousands of snared kereru each season’ were lost to agriculture, and the growth of scenery preservation coincided with laws that by protecting remnant fauna ‘expunge[d] native custom from the landscape’.[20]

At the same time there was an aesthetic shift at work. For William Cronon in North America, the meaning of wilderness was being transformed from a place of God’s abandonment to one in which the mountain had become the cathedral. Wilderness was ‘a landscape where the supernatural lay just beneath the surface … God was on the mountaintop, in the chasm, in the waterfall, in the thundercloud, in the rainbow, in the sunset.’[21] Cronon’s analysis similarly applies to New Zealand. As Park has noted, a culture of framing New Zealand landscape as the site of the sublime has shaped a conservation estate dominated by aesthetic sensibility.[22]Low- lying forests, swamps and grasslands were originally deemed to lack the requisite grandeur and so remained absent from preservation efforts. As a result, our national parks are heavily weighted toward the grand, the picturesque and the vertical.

In 1903, the Scenery Preservation Act was passed. Areas of bush were to be protected that ‘New Zealanders now appreciated as scarce and beautiful and which they increasingly associated with their identity.’[23]These lands, frequently made up of residual uncleared back country that did not fit into the pastoral vision of ‘Britain’s southern farm’, became the foundation for today’s conservation estate.[24] Over time, these remnants became sanctuaries for the colony’s dwindling indigenous flora and fauna, whose human-resource value lay in providing places for recreation and tourism.

Two years prior to the Act, New Zealand had established the world’s first national tourism organisation, the Department of Tourist and Health Resorts. As well as fostering a scenic appreciation of the country, the Department set out to establish hunting and fishing as key attractions to the visiting sportsman of the 1900s.[25] Native forests were stocked with exotic species of deer, wapiti, pig, trout, duck, quail, swan and pheasant, and controlled with licenses, seasons and quotas. Other attractions were gradually added to the ‘product mix’. Tourism New Zealand’s 2001 Centenary Publication, 100 Years of Pure Progress, charted the development of national parks for the tourist, including the advent of purpose-built walking tracks, guided walks and mountain climbs, skifields, ski planes, scenic flights, hotels, cave visits, jetboat rides, rafting, kayak tours and, most recently, eco-tourism ventures.[26]

The impact of recreational users on conservation lands became more significant following the outdoor recreation boom in the 1970s (a result of urban population growth combined with increased wages and leisure time), and the expansion of international tourism in the 1980s.[27] Since then, international tourist numbers have continued to grow, with per annum numbers projected to increase from 2.4 million in 2006 to a predicted 3.4 million in 2015.[28] Otago researcher Geoff Kearsley has asked if this pressure to accommodate more people will lead to a second ‘rush to destruction’, analogous to New Zealand’s rapid deforestation in the nineteenth century.[29] Rather than forests, it would be intrinsic qualities of wilderness that would disappear. Against this perspective, it has been asserted in the Canadian context that such arguments merely polarise positions, inevitably either squeezing out or assimilating other perspectives.[30] For Geoff Park in the New Zealand context, Māori perspectives of whenua have been similarly reduced due to a dominant aesthetic that only understands nature as scenery and this land and its natural wonders as some sort of ‘Theatre Country.[31]

Both internationally and locally, then, wilderness remains contentious. William Cronon considers that the picturesque appreciation of wilderness offers, at best, a nostalgia for ‘the tabula rasa that supposedly existed before we began to leave our marks on the world’.[32] While continuing a utopian hope that such a state might return to us or us to it, this picturesque appreciation offers no credible pathway for this to happen. As such he argues in his influential essay ‘The Trouble with Wilderness or, Getting Back to the Wrong Nature’ that wilderness is a significant impediment to developing an ‘ethical, sustainable, honourable, human place in nature’[33] and that consequently it is wilderness that ‘poses a serious threat to responsible environmentalism at the end of the twentieth century’.[34]

Cronon’s argument has been widely discussed. He calls for a ‘rethinking’ of the meaning of wilderness so that we may again ‘learn to honour the wild’ through ‘practis[ing] remembrance and gratitude’.[35]Yet, to our mind, there is something in his response that deadens wilderness. In his demand that people must ‘decide what kind of marks we wish to leave’, he constrains the relationship that people have with wilderness to one that is fundamentally concerned with what we will leave for future generations.[36] Of course this is an essentially important consideration – in the New Zealand context, Les Molloy and Craig Potton’s New Zealand’s Wilderness Heritage is a peerless account of the wilderness legacy that lies at the core of New Zealand’s sense of place.[37] However, focusing only on the marks left behind by humankind suggests that the role of people in wilderness is solely that of caretakers and custodians.

The importance of New Zealand wilderness, we suggest, is not only as a bequest to be passed on in perpetuity; wilderness also has imaginative and instrumental qualities. Key challenges exist in examining the marks and figurative passage we may choose to make.[38] The philosopher-geographer Yi Fu Tuan points out that, in the nineteenth century, it was the ‘generativity’ of wilderness, rather than its inertness, that captured North America’s imagination.[39]Out of the wilderness, a nation was physically, socially and metaphorically created. The questions this book grapple with are: Can wilderness for us today hold the same promise? Can it be equally generative in the sense of shaping who we are and how we relate materially to this land? And, most importantly, is it possible for this to occur in ways that no longer require wilderness to be consumed in the process?

Exploring the ‘possibility’ of wilderness lies at the core of the book Wild Heart. We need to ask, what is the place of wilderness in the twenty-first century? Are there other values that could usurp our present cultural understanding of wilderness as the dominant metaphor by which people engage with this country’s public conservation lands? What could wilderness in Aotearoa New Zealand become, and what then might we its people also become? Such questions do not have easy or common answers.

While the essays in Wild Heart  have been loosely arranged around three main themes – Our Place, The Transformed Wild, and Wilderness Tomorrow – these are of course largely inextricable from each other. It is impossible, for instance, to discuss the future of wilderness without first developing an understanding of its past. This is notwithstanding the timeless qualities many recreational users actively seek in their wilderness experience, nor the variance of opinion on what different concepts of wilderness may say about our wider worldviews. For all that they overlap, the themes do have a purpose, which is to illustrate the multidimensional, changeable character of wilderness as a geographical description of place, a cultural construct and a deeply personal response to natural frontiers.  


[1] See Wilderness Advisory Group, Wilderness Policy, Wellington: Department of Lands and Survey, New Zealand Forest Service, 1985. Wilderness areas are now recognised by Section 20 of the Conservation Act 1987.

[2] Collectively, wilderness areas equate to approximately 520,000 ha. of the 8.15m ha. of the New Zealand conservation estate.

[3] See L. Molloy and C. Potton, New Zealand’s Wilderness Heritage, Nelson: Craig Potton Publishing, 2007, pp. 28–35.

[4] L. Molloy, Wilderness Recreation in New Zealand: Proceedings of the FMC 50th Jubilee Conference on Wilderness, Rotoiti Lodge, Nelson Lakes National Park, 22–24 August, 1981, Wellington: Federated Mountain Clubs of New Zealand, 1983, p. 136.

[5] Cited in Ibid., p. 16. For further research in this vein, see also J. Loomis, ‘Do Additional Designations of Wilderness Result in Increases in Recreation Use?’ Society and Natural Resources, vol. 12, no. 5 (July 1999): 481–91.

[6] In the New Zealand context see, for example, publications by Kay Booth, James Higham, Geoff Kearsley, Andew Kliskey and John Shultis, all of which contain references to international research, including the extensive
papers published by the United States Department of Agriculture Forest Service Rocky Mountain Research Station.

[7] J. Shultis, ‘The Duality of Wilderness: Comparing Popular and Political Conceptions of Wilderness in New Zealand’, in The State of Wilderness in New Zealand, ed. G.R. Cessford, Wellington: DOC, 2001, p. 67. http://www.doc. govt.nz/upload/documents/science-and- technical/WildernessD.pdf (accessed 21 June 2010).

[8] Ibid., p. 68.

[9] Ibid., p. 69.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid., p. 3.

[12] Ibid., p. 14.

[13] See H. Orsman, ed., Dictionary of New Zealand English: A Dictionary of New Zealandisms on Historical Principles, Auckland: Oxford University Press, 1997.

[14] See G. Park, Theatre Country: Essays on Landscape and Whenua, Wellington: Victoria University Press, 2006, p. 96.

[15] Park, Theatre Country, p. 222.

[16] P. Star and L. Lochhead, ‘Children of the Burnt Bush: New Zealanders and the Indigenous Remnant, 1880–1930’, in Environmental Histories of New Zealand, eds. E. Pawson and T. Brooking, Melbourne: Oxford University Press, 2004, pp. 119–35.

[17] See R. Galbreath, ‘Displacement, Con- servation and Customary Use of Native Plants and Animals in New Zealand’, New Zealand Journal of History, vol. 36, no. 1 (2002): 43.

[18] Kea are an endemic New Zealand mountain parrot. See Tiro Tiro, The Sheep Killer: The True Story of the Kea, New Zealand’s Infamous Parrot, Convicted and Sentenced for Sheep-Killing; … its Haunts; its Insatiable Curiosity; its Pranks; and Particularly its Fall from Grace, Auckland: Wanderlust Magazine, 1930, pp. 53–64.

[19] See R. Galbreath, ‘Displacement, Conservation and Customary Use of Native Plants and Animals in New Zealand’, New Zealand Journal of History, vol. 36, no. 1 (2002): 39.

[20] Park, Theatre Country, pp. 104, 141. Kereru are also known as wood pigeon.

[21] W. Cronon, ‘The Trouble with Wilderness; or, Getting Back to the Wrong Nature’, in Uncommon Ground ed. W. Cronon, New York: W.W. Norton, 1995, p. 74.

[22] Park, Theatre Country, pp. 113–28.

[23] P. Star, ‘Native Forest and the Rise of Preservation in New Zealand (1903–1913)’, Environment and History, vol. 8 (2002): 288.

[24] E. Pawson, ‘The Meanings of Mountains’, in Environmental Histories of New Zealand, eds. E. Pawson and T. Brooking, Melbourne: Oxford University Press, 2004, p. 148.

[25] Tourism New Zealand, 100 Years Pure Progress: 1901–2001, Wellington: Tourism New Zealand, 2001, p. 20, http://www. tourismnewzealand.com/media/127126/ tourism%20centenary.pdf (accessed 21 June 2010).

[26] Ibid., p. 37.

[27] See P. Devlin, R. Corbett and C. Peebles (eds.), Outdoor Recreation in New Zealand: Volume 1: A Review and Synthesis of the Research Literature, Wellington/ Lincoln: DOC/Lincoln University, 1995.

[28] These figures are based on continued 4 per cent annual growth which closely matches the global industry forecast of 4.1 per cent. See Tourism Strategy Group, ‘New Zealand Tourism Strategy 2015’, Wellington: Ministry of Tourism/Tourism Industry Association/Tourism New Zealand, 2007, pp. 8–9.

[29] See G. Kearsley, ‘Wilderness Tourism: A New Rush to Destruction?’, Inaugural Professorial Lecture, University of Otago, 1997.

[30] See D. Clayton, Islands of Truth: The Imperial Fashioning of Vancouver Island, Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 2000; also B. Braun, The Intemperate Rainforest: Nature, Culture, and Power on Canada’s West Coast, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2000.

[31] Book title. See n. 14.

[32] Cronon, ‘The Trouble with Wilderness’, p. 80.

[33] Ibid., p. 81.

[34] Ibid.

[35] Ibid., pp. 89, 90.

[36] Ibid., p. 88.

[37] See Molloy and Potton, New Zealand’s Wilderness Heritage, Nelson: Craig Potton Publishing, 2007, pp. 28–35.

[38] See M. Abbott, ‘Designing Wilderness as a Phenomenological Landscape: Design-directed Research within the Context of New Zealand’s Conservation Estate’, Ph.D. dissertation, Lincoln University, Lincoln, http://hdl.handle. net/10182/1026, pp. 147–150.

[39] See Y. Tuan, foreword to Landscape, Nature, and the Body Politic: from Britain’s Renaissance to America’s New World, ed. K. Olwig, Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2002, pp. xi–xx.