It should come as no surprise to historians that Geoff Park, whose first love was ecology, could find a soul-mate in history. The wonder of it is that this kind of ‘dualism’ does not occur more often. After all, both are sprawling disciplines preoccupied with understanding the context of relationships and communities (for history, sometimes read ‘nations’), including their establishment, the nature of power, dominance, hegemony, survival and succession – albeit usually on different time scales.
In his 1995 treatise, Nga Ururoa: The Groves of Life Geoff busted out of the rigours of his soil science and ecology (his Ph.D. from The Australian National University was on forest nutrient cycling) into what James Belich once described as “an act of the imagination”. Geoff imagined himself into an elegiac ecological and historical account about Aotearoa/New Zealand’s surviving lowland forest communities in a wasteland of depauperate nativism. It is a measure of the work that before its emergence, awareness of the extent of lowland forests up until the devastation of the nineteenth century took place was at best poorly understood by most of us. Geoff also imagined the Maori communities who lived in and near these forests who had largely been displaced and overwhelmed by 150 years of relentless modernism. What did remain were those groves of life, persisting with sometimes astonishing tenacity against human-induced adversity.
His was a thesis – as he freely stated – owing much to his former Department of Scientific and Industrial Research colleague and mentor, Geoff Kelly, that was radical in its capacity to jolt receptive New Zealanders. Looking back it helped create a new awareness that has had more than a little to do with one of the most significant phenomenon in the trauma of post-Rogernomics widespread-community-endeavour to make right the yawning ecological deficits bequeathed by our forebears and in so doing giving rise to new and purposeful community.
In simultaneously upholding Maori and ecological truths, which he came to see as profoundly convergent and as forming the basis of a covenant, he put himself offside with the leadership, if not the membership, of the still preservationist Pakeha conservation movement. The “Yellowstone park model”, as he described it elsewhere, imagined, then took native people out of the places where millennia of mutual nourishment had occurred. It replaced it with the empty landscapes of “wildness” of Ralph Waldo Emerson, John Muir and Henry Thoreau. Even the late great exponent of modern ecological thinking, Aldo Leopold, pays little attention to the indigenes. What differs in New Zealand thinking, where philosophers such as Geoff are as rare as mature kahikatea, is that nineteenth century colonisation pushed forest back with axe and fire on a scale and at a speed that, at the time was probably unprecedented worldwide.
If there was one limitation to the book that eventuated, it was Park’s presentism – his judgment delivered upon those who had been so unmindful of what it was that they were destroying. It was terrible but it was no worse – at least in extent – to the unthinking Maori fires that had originally laid waste the first quarter of Aotearoa’s lost forested landscape. And both settler groups – separated by some 550 years but thousands of years of divergent evolution – showed what human settlers the world over have demonstrated: that awareness of the symbiosis of wild and human nature and a spiritual relationship based on respect is uncommonly rare in those first few hundred years of adjustment following arrival.
Geoff Park grew up in Pinehaven, Upper Hutt with the emerging ornithologist, Sandy Bartle, as a close mate. This friendship helped spawn Victoria University’s Ecology Action group who had a great victory in the late 1960s when they were able to force the mighty Ministry of Works to shift part of the Hutt Motorway in order to protect regenerating bush on the valley’s western flanks. It was also Bartle’s knowledge of our endemic and single-destination black petrels and Park’s concern for the landscape that helped turn Forest Service plans to mill it into the exquisite forest, limestone, pancake rocks and wetland-coastal ensemble that is today’s Punakaiki National Park. Both these political triumphs become part of chapters in the meditation that is Nga Ururora.
If you were lucky enough to paddle and tramp with Geoff, he shared his knowledge with great generosity. A day in the wild with him was as good as a semester in the lecture room. Symbolic of the lowland ecology is the kahikatea, of Gondwanan lineage and New Zealand’s tallest tree. I still recall his pointing out the subtle splendour of its lilac fluorescence in spring on the Upper Whanganui. That was the beginning of trips in which we always stayed, at his instigation, in Tamatea’s Cave, a unique heritage experience, but also a potential death trap in the event of unexpected flooding.
On a trip almost 18 years back we roamed by kayak the wetlands, lagoons and coastal edges (“edge” and “connectedness” were favourite words of his) of South Westland. “Bring your umbrellas,” he had said. Sure enough, when we paddled Okarito’s length to view the kotuku colony we had wind assistance, Mary Poppins-style, both ways. The islands offshore of Open Bay provoked a rendition from him of the “Ballad of Davy Louston”, New Zealand’s oldest Pakeha ballad. Seized by a Muir-like turn of transcendentalism, Geoff had hoped we might camp the night out in the vast wetlands of Haast, with their giant flaxes and teeming wildlife. I think most of us were relieved when he finally pronounced that we needed to find dry land for the night.
He could be surprisingly blasé though, about weather forecasts, but maybe that was the John Muir coming out in him too. (Muir’s favourite memory of his visit to New Zealand in 1904 was being lashed by a storm while coming through the Buller Gorge riding shotgun on a coach.) At Geoff’s suggestion, he and I once paddled out to Mana Island with his Nga Ururoa editor, Andrew Mason (Andrew liked to say Geoff had “a corkscrew mind” – but it must be said immediately that writing on holisitic matters does require an orchestral concentration.). Our return journey, however, was against the tide and into the fangs of a big northerly. Andrew disappeared off into the mist and I did wonder if we would make it to shore. When finally we did we lay tuckered out on the beach. For a guy of average build, Geoff had enormous physical confidence and it is unsurprising that at least one of his three sons has been a cliff-jumper, Hawaiian-style.
His artist wife, Lindsay, who is a graduate in geology and ecology and is a great outdoors-person herself and a vibrant partner, had three sons and a daughter, all of whom were imbued with a strong sense of their Pacific-wide cultural and natural heritage.
In spite of the macho streak, what made him appealing was a tender, romantic side. After all, as a lad he raised orchids. He engaged in a 20 year conversation with Ian Wedde on Wordsworth and his Lake District poetry, contributing to his Theatre Country in 2006. There were always the spiritual underpinnings. Raised in a church-going home he once remarked to me that he thought he was “put on the planet to write Nga Uruora”.
He was also a close reader of the American sage of sustainability, Wendell Berry and Black Mountain poet, Gary Snyder whose spare, elegant reflections evoke his Buddhist commitment to nature with a lifestyle to match. While Geoff’s work was all-consuming, even in conversation which had little room for what was outside his thinking, there were times when he grew deeply silent. Once, on a trip coming down the botanically compromised Whanganui he began to reflect on the nature of what was pristine, falling into what I came to think of as “botanic reverie”. He seemed not to emerge from these spells until he had resolved his thinking, which was often, for a small drifting archipelago, truly visionary: a unique way of seeing the land.
His friendship with Sara McIntyre late in life took him back to the Kakahi bach of that 1960s environmental campaigner, her father, painter Peter McIntyre. Here, again mindful of both human heritage and natural, it served as a topic in several of his series in Forest and Bird. Kakahi enabled him to muse on his beloved, lamented kahikatea, still surviving on those river flats just round a bend from where that other great campaigner for the environment, Keith Chapple, had lived and died. Geoff revelled in the serrendipity of all that.
Geoff Park was a wonderful, impossible man and we are all the poorer for his passing so early in his rich life.