Review: Geoff Park,Theatre Country

Review: Geoff Park, Theatre Country: Essays on Landscape & Whenua. Victoria University Press, 2006.

Julian Kuzma

Geoff Park’s latest book Theatre Country has been long awaited in NZ environmental circles, so I was somewhat disappointed to find it was a collection of previously published material from a variety of publications collated together into a book of essays. Chapter 12, for example, “Swamps which might doubtless easily be drained,” is taken unadulterated from Brooking and Pawson’s Environmental Histories of New Zealand. However, it is good to have this material collected together in what is a beautifully presented book. The unique origins of the chapters by no means make the book incoherent – indeed overall it appears seamless and logically structured. Furthermore, Theatre Country is a pleasure to read.

Geoff Park’s writing has a certain quality of engaging personal observation blended with a patient gravitas, together with an apparent genuine response to the landscape and appreciation of its environmental history, that reminded me of the voice of another, much earlier, New Zealand ecologist – his predecessor Herbert Guthrie Smith. Park has been working on a film about Guthrie Smith of Tutira, so maybe he has absorbed some of Guthrie Smith’s mana. As all historians know, it is difficult and often irresistible to write about a period without adopting some aspects of its characteristics. Indeed, when queried ‘Where do you work?’ Geoff Park replies ‘In the 1890s.’

Historical awareness of land and place is the unifying thread of Theatre Country, and the joy of this book, as in Park’s previous work Nga Uruora: The Groves of Life (1995), lies in the strength of its historical sources. Park has superbly selected a wide range of historical evidence and quotations, often from surprising and refreshing directions. With such a wealth of material to draw on the book cannot fail to be engaging. In honesty, I did not initially click with Nga Uruora – at the time I saw too much of the ecologist in it. I do not mean this as a criticism, merely that it contravened my sensibilities of the undefined objective boundary between the fields of environmental history and nature writing (indeed to explore this was the point of the book). But in Theatre Country this tension is not evident. Park has truly found his voice as both a contemporary ecologist or nature writer and an environmental historian.

Across the chapters there are several recurrent themes: the almost entire loss of New Zealand’s indigenous lowland forest and the fortunate chance of historical influences that preserved the remaining pockets; the transformation of the landscape and the importance of the 1890s as a crucial period of not necessarily contradictory transformation and preservation (nice to have one’s own work validated!); notions of the scenic with the improving ideal; contemporary identity with landscape and place; and the need for an evolving conservation policy. Along the way Theatre Country takes in subjects as diverse as Colin McCahon, the photography of Henry Wright in the 1890s and Wayne Barrar in the 1990s, the fashion for Claude Glasses, the story of McCahon’s Urewera Mural, swamp drainage, bird preservation and early tourism, encountering a diverse cast of personalities with environmental influence on New Zealand including landscape designer Thomas Shepherd, Charles Darwin, Walter Buller, Elsdon Best and of course Herbert Guthrie Smith. Park most interestingly advocates the influence of Wordsworth on New Zealand’s scenic preservation (almost certainly a factor, not to mention the overlooked influence of the poetic efforts of New Zealand’s own multitude of indigenous Wordsworthian imitators, many of whom were influential in scenic legislation, such as William Pember Reeves). Theatre Country, then, is a thoughtful, all-encompassing journey through “the land’s ecology and its human history as they have intertwined to give us our particular landscapes.”

Theatre Country is well presented, with excellent black and white photographic plates separating each essay. A landscape seen through a Claude Glass on the front cover and the same view through the screen of a digital camera on the back effectively symbolise the book’s preoccupation with historic and contemporary attitudes to scenery and landscape. My one criticism is that in a book with a chapter concerning an exploration of the history and symbolism behind Colin McCahon’s Urewera Mural – a work that is referred to repetitively in several other chapters – does not contain a picture of this painting for reference, especially for the international reader. Perhaps Park was right to leave this out – reproduction would inadequately convey the power and the glory of McCahon’s “liturgy” to land and identity. But one of the repeated full-colour fold out front and back inner-cover photographic plates could have been given over to the Urewera Mural, which at least would give us a Claude Glass portrayal of it.