REVIEW: Seeds of Empire, The Environmental Transformation of New Zealand

Tom Brooking & Eric Pawson, Seeds of Empire, The Environmental Transformation of New Zealand, L.B. Tauris, London, New York, 2010, 256 pp., ISBN 978-1845 117979. 

David Young 

This is a bold venture with a bold title and an even bolder subtitle, one in a series of such books examining “how and why our environment changes”. Supported by a Marsden Grant, its editors have commissioned a strong group of contributors from the three South Island universities to develop this enterprise, including besides themselves: Paul Star, Vaughan Wood, Peter Holland, Jim McAloon, Robert Peden and Jim Williams.

Written with an international academic teaching audience in mind, each essay sets out its intentions in an introduction and then follows its analysis with a formal conclusion. While essays are pithy and spare, together a wide range of topics is covered, so that the overall effect is of discursiveness, but with a relentlessly sharp, schematic focus chapter by chapter. Seeds of Empire begins with the naturalization of grasses in a land previously of wetlands, forests and tussocks that had evolved largely for anything but what was to come – ruminants and large mammals. The book then seeks to explain how through experiment and trial and error, settlers began to develop grass seed that suited a range of the soils and conditions that New Zealand experiences, as well as the animals that they introduced.

Settlers’ first discovery was that once forests had been felled and fired, the flush in the nutrient-rich ashes lasted no more than a few seasons. Then came the quest for permanent pasture, and hence the nation’s Faustian bargain with guano began. This was imported first from Peru, we learn, as early as 1854. It rapidly became an addiction from which few farmers even nearly 160 years later – and to the ruin of Nauru – have yet recovered. (The book provides a graph of the rising demand for artificial fertilizers from 1890 to 2000. Our productivity from it is described in a fleeting reference from Samoan historian, Damon Salesa  as yet another iteration of colonization.)

For those of us accustomed to what are now almost monthly pleas from the environmental lobby for the dairying industry to internalize its costs it may be of interest to learn that nutrient accounting was espoused – in another on the hoof reference – by the versatile German chemist Justus von Leibig in a publication in 1845. “Nevertheless, imported guano and rock phosphate came at a cost to producer and consumer alike, and it was several decades before the true cost to the New Zealand environment was recognized.” This dates from 1891, from the polymath Sir James Hector.

In some ways little has changed. Some farmers welcomed the addition of science, others pooh-poohed it. Getting the balance right between practicality and where the data led was the trick, as was noted by visiting writer Andre Seigfried, a geographer and political commentator, who visited New Zealand in the early 1900s

Seeds of Empire recounts the nation’s never-ending quest to perfect a product that will satisfy a market; what the sadly now disbanded Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries Quality Management organisation used to call “plough to plate” marketing and later ‘plate-to-plough.’  It is a quest that is, of course, eternal. The surprise is that the systematics of improvement began so long ago. The model employed in this book’s research inevitably uses the popular core-periphery paradigm, but it refines this in adopting a model of mobility, network and web which implies feedback loops, with consequential and continuing refinements and contributions from both core and periphery.

The interactive, on-going reciprocal nature of the relationship has been closely drawn by Jim McAloon in his chapter on mobilizing capital and trade. Wool from Australasia got on the international map by 1876, at the Philadelphia Exhibition; by the 1890s the intensification of “the refrigerated economy” saw a shift from private to state provision of advice on grassland development.

Once the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research was established in 1926 there was an overemphasis on what was termed the ‘grasslands revolution’ led by the indomitable Bruce Levy, and one driven by plant genetics more than plant ecology. Influenced by British ideas, this approach took no account of native vegetation. It spanned the country in ways that may have restricted a more diverse and heterodox agriculture. It has taken most of us a long time to make an indigenous response to that.

Since the arguments are spare and evidence is necessarily highly selective, one reads this book wanting more. It is a book more fully understood by a reading of its complement from the same editors, Environmental Histories of New Zealand. Where might future lines of enquiry fall? Contributor Vaughan Wood is working on a book on Akaroa cockfoot grass. One could imagine, using this model, a Ph.D. or two more falling out of the multiple interests of the grasslands experimenters of the past 100 years. Potential revised biographies also include those of: James Wilson (forestry), Herbert Guthrie-Smith (conservation), Frederick Hilgendorf and James Grigg.

This is proudly a South Island enterprise, and just occasionally, this emphasis shows through as a mild limitation. For instance, James Wilson (one of the most innovative and energetic of all the late Victorian, early 20th century farmers, who rose to Cabinet, and as a ‘wise use’ farm forester was influential in the formation of  the Forest Service) is described as living ‘in the Manawatu’. Now, for all those who live south of the Waitaki River, it is worth remembering that the Rangitikei River is just as important a divide in the North Island, separating the Manawatu and the Rangitikei – but the still significantly Scots community who live to the north of that river just don’t make the same kind of fuss about it as do their southern cousins. A small matter, I know, but not the only loose caption.

My only other concern is that the title’s tag-line, ‘the environmental transformation of NZ’ is not entirely accurate. Pawson and Brooking’s previous collaboration, Environmental Histories of New Zealand might more easily have carried such a catchline. Arable farming, forestry, even wine and orcharding, are not the focus of this book, although it does show for some decades into colonisation that a future rooted in grasslands was by no means a certainty. So ‘The grasslands transformation of New Zealand’ I feel might have served this book better, because it is more concerned with grasses and the science of what varieties best grew and provided most feed. It’s what the authors like to refer to as addressing “the silences of grass” (a slightly odd reference to its long unfurrowed academic history).

Nor is this a narrative history – geographers and economists play too big a part in it for that! But what those contributors bring is something else. For example, the chapter on “Learning about the environment”, by Peter Holland, with its discussions on how Pākehā learnt from Māori, contains a marvellous diagram displaying how the vocabulary of Joseph Greenwood, a Banks Peninsular settler, changed in his diary between 1844 and 1847 as he became more familiar with the weather. This chapter, too, is tantalizing in its brevity, and perhaps raises more questions than it answers. Indeed, Environmental Histories’ first chapter by Atholl Anderson on the Māori colonisation of New Zealand, would greatly amplify a reading of this chapter, as would Geoff’s Park’s chapter on swamps in that same volume in regard to some later chapters in Seeds of Empire.

While attractively produced, with a clever cover image and excellent tables and graphs, drawings of seeds, this book is selling online for $151.95 (AUS), $174.95 (NZ). A useful, impressively researched text, it seems a great pity therefore that it is unlikely to reach anyone other than an academic audience.