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Wellington's Heritage - Plants, Gardens and LandscapeBOOK REVIEWS

Wellington's Heritage
Plants, Gardens and Landscape

By Winsome Shepherd
Published by Te Papa Press, 2000

Reviewed by Walter Cook
Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington

Humanity's greatest impact on the surface of this planet has been its manipulation of the land and the landscape. This predates the advent of village settlements, city states, and empires, in fact it was a precondition that made these possible, and all cultures which participated in the neolithic revolution have played a part in this process. There have been disasters. Some of the planet's distinctive geographical features are the ruins of past human landscapes. In Syria there are Byzantine churches, the bottom steps of which are some five feet above the present ground level, a consequence of the erosion and degradation of once productive land.

Even western culture's idea of "nature" originated within the context of some of the world's most modified landscapes. Wordsworth's Lake District had never recovered from the deprivations of neolithic farmers. Landscapes of meadows and woodland encountered by l9th century explorers in the United States, and now enshrined in national parks, were not wildernesses untouched by human intervention. These apparent "edens" of "nature" were the result of long interaction between the landscape, its human inhabitants and their controlled use of fire.

This tenuous relationship between us and the land is so essential to a settled culture that it is a constant wonder to me how little interest has been shown , in this country, in its origins and history. Te Papa, that great window on New Zealand and our current fantasy of a national identity, hardly mentions it, and then only implicitly in an exhibition on wool. Yet Te Papa, as a public institution, is embedded in an economy which still depends for about 50% of its GDP on agriculture. The maintenance and conservation of this source of wealth requires, I think, a knowledge of its development, of how and why it happened, and of the successes as well as the mistakes that this entailed. And in understanding this a knowledge of its history is as essential as a knowledge of science, the craft of land management, and an understanding of economics in ensuring the maintenance and survival of the human landscape and all that it supports. I therefore applaud the Museum of New Zealand in moving to redress an imbalance in its presentation of our culture by publishing Winsome Shepherd's "Wellington's Heritage" a history of the region's plants, gardens, and landscape.

I believe that this book is a pioneering work in its field, and is comparable to Louis Ward's "Early Wellington" published in 1929 and still a basic source of information on the colonial history of Wellington. Like "Early Wellington", "Wellington's Heritage" is a compilation of information from primary and secondary sources, an anthology of histories rather than an overview narrative. These histories are organised as "bites" around estates, gardens, and the people who created them. These in turn are organised in relation to the country and town sections surveyed by the New Zealand Company and within which settlers established their basic economies of survival. Early colonial farms and gardens often worked together as productive units supplying produce for local markets and export. Other histories are grouped in sections such as, for example, Gardens of special significance, Wellington's pioneer nurserymen and seedsmen, and Wellington's parks. This structure allows for the inclusion of a lot of detailed information, extracts from letters and diaries, quotes from published sources, lists and graphs. The result is that, in contrast to a generalised narrative, the reader is involved in a variety of recorded experiences from participants of different backgrounds, and establishes that this "heritage" is indeed the work of human hands.

The first part of the story is one of adaptation and discovery in the face of the failure of the grain based economic strategy insisted on by the technocratic visionaries of the New Zealand company. The failure was no joke, and the settlement faced starvation on more than one occasion. Responding to real economic opportunities in relation to the limitations of the soil, the climate, and the market, was the medium and long term challenge for colonists working at the coal-face of settlement Out of this situation evolved a new social structure, a different land organisation and landscape. When capitalists returned broke to England, or moved elsewhere to set up grazing estates, in many cases their servants took over, and it was mixed farming and gardening, not wheat, that in the short term saved the day.

The historian Eric Hobsbawm in his book "The Age of Capital" dates the origins of a modern global economy to about 1850, and New Zealand as a European settlement never experienced a period of separation from the parent culture as was the case in North America, and for a shorter period, in Australia. This is reflected in the remarkable speed with which a suprising range of plants became available to settlers. During the 1840s Wellington's first horticultural society was exhibiting an impressive range of fruit varieties and vegetables assisted no doubt, by the accumulated fertility of virgin soils. Winsome Shepherd has loaded her account with lists and information from letters, diaries, and nursery catalogues on the sources of plants, the varieties available, and how they were distributed among the colonists. Exchanges in kind were very common, while many people also sold plants grown in their gardens as a money raising sideline. Her research shows that as well as seed and plant stock brought from or sent from Britain, nurserymen in Australia were important suppliers in the early decades of the colony. But international networks were also operating which resulted in gardens with remarkable horticultural collections such as those of Ludlam and Mason in the Hutt Valley which were well established by the 1850s. These networks were used in stocking the Botanic Garden from 1869, and this was to shape the vegetation of Wellington and its hinterland during the late nineteenth and first half of the twentieth centuries. At no time was New Zealand behind the rest of the world in the international exchange of plants and plant varieties.

The rapid clearing of the land left Wellington with a treeless, pasture covered hinterland, which in combination with the endemic winds made for a harsh environment. Travellers in the early 1850's wrote of the clouds of dust in the town from which there was no escape. But it was within the city that new vegetation was established. Well furnished gardens on Wellington's town sections had, by the 1880s, provided the western side of the city with a green belt stretching from affluent Thorndon in the north to affluent upper Willis Street in the south. The ample illustrations in the book show the variety and density of these gardens which have all but vanished from the city. An example illustrated is St Ruadhan situated on a town acre, which with its neighbour, Dalmuir, was backed by 1920 with plantings on Town Belt section 48. These gardens and the reserve must have given the intersection of Ghuznee Street with the Terrace the appearance of access to a large inner city park. Both of these gardens which were established in the 1840s vanished, along with the plantings on Town Belt section 48, in the late 1930s and 1950s. Just as the inner city has been rebuilt about six times since 1840, our city landscapes have also come and gone. As large private gardens declined, public gardens like the Town Belt provided an accessible backdrop of green to the inner city, and from the 1960s small public parks and more street trees have brought greeness back to the central city.

"Wellington's Heritage" also documents survivals of past landscapes and their vegetation. Parks may be characteristic of Wellington city, but in the Hutt Valley private suburban gardens are the descendants of the gardens of Ludlam and Mason. Among them are many old trees surviving from the gardens of the past which include some of the nikau palms which Ludlam retained when he cleared the forest on his estate. Remains of original native forest survive in the Botanic Garden and at Wilton's Bush. An early colonial landscape with additions of conifers supplied from the Botanic Garden in the 1880s can still be seen in the Ohariu Valley area. And then there are the wild flowers and garden escapes. Some like the weeds of our lawns and roadsides have been travelling with us across the temperate world for thousands of years, the camp followers of agricultural, pasture maintaining, humanity. Others came from new lands discovered by Europeans and brought back for their gardens. One at least, the white rose Alberic barbier, was deliberately planted by the Wellington Beautifying Society in the 1920s and 30s. Today it mixes and mingles with everything else in a city where the official and unofficial vegetation blends into each other, and barriers are hidden by it.

When it comes to our landscape and its vegetation, the final message of "Wellington's Heritage" for me, is that change is the only thing that is constant. Winsome Shepherd makes us aware of our landscape heritage in all its multi layered variety, and, I believe, recognise it for the human artifact that it is. Even bringing native forest back to the western Town Belt is a human decision arising from current values and priorities held by the community.

I recommend this book to Wellingtonians in particular, but also to anyone else who is interested in the history of plants, gardens and the development and survival of the human landscape in New Zealand.

New Zealand Garden Journal: Journal of the Royal New Zealand Institute of Horticulture 2001 4(1): 23-24

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