South Island high country means much more than the “iconic landscape” epithet too often emptily uttered by passive passers-by and urbane resource-consent submitters. And these three books about it, handsome as each is, deserve much more than to be placed on coffee tables to attract five-minute flips through their pages.
For an overview, it would be hard to go past Antonia Steeg’s photography and Philip Temple’s introduction in High Country New Zealand: The Land, The People, The Seasons. Steeg, a latecomer from Germany, shows impressive sensitivity to the land and its life, in images gained during 120,000km of travel in just a few years. She carried her cameras to remote, giddy perspectives few have witnessed. Temple, the craftsman, gives an excellently spare word summary of the geological, natural, pre-human, pre-European, settler and modern eras, giving life to the whole high country story.
Without preaching, the book reinforces the sense that this environment has an integrity retained since millennia before human contact and will retain that integrity after humans are no longer present on the planet.
Books featuring specific high country properties and families have become more frequent. Here are two of the best. Although the family names passed through the generations are of men, both accounts of run-holding feature strong partnering by women in the lives of both land and homes. Both properties have been subject to the mixed blessing of tenure review, in which big swathes of formerly Crown leasehold high country are taken into the conservation estate and the families get compensation that includes freehold title to the easier portions.
The gain to pure environmental values rather depends on the sensitivity of the former husbandry by graziers and on the Department of Conservation budget. The answer is sometimes unclear.
High Country Legacy, by Alex Hedley, covers Mt Aspiring Station (high in the headwaters of the Matukituki River, west of Lake Wanaka) through four generations of the Aspinall family’s stewardship. This was never one of the great tussock country runs in farming scale. But the environment is awe-inspiring in grandeur and challenge, and the Aspinalls’ costly commitment since 1920 to conserving and enhancing it is rare. The station’s hospitality to climbers, trampers and hunters is legendary. The family demonstrates that the values of farming and environmentalism can harmonise. Hedley’s photography and text are excellent.
A Fabled Land is the story of Mesopotamia Station, sprawling into the Great Divide from the headwaters of the Rangitata. Former Listener staff writer Bruce Ansley and photographer Peter Bush (better known on rugby sidelines but acquainted with Mesopotamia through four decades) combine well. The founding run-holder, from 1860, was the traumatised, cultured but incredibly tough Samuel Butler, who returned to England after only three successful years. The Mesopotamia environment is, of course, reflected in his Erewhon novels.
However, the book’s central story begins when Malcolm Prouting took over as manager of the near bankrupt run in 1943, achieving nominal ownership (with no significant financial equity) two years later. The Proutings continue in the fourth generation of stewardship – now, after tenure review, of a mere 8000ha of Butler’s 24,000ha. This book deserves a broad readership.
Every generation in every society needs the witness of the few who dare to practise radical detachment from the mainstream. The history that matters features people whose choice of discomfort in isolation is motivated not by escapism but by a deep desire to experience dimensions of reality far beyond the ken of the common comfortable. Forget idyllic and super-religious images; here are stories of plain, hardy New Zealanders who would hate to be the subject to any such sentimentality.
Top of the class is Catherine Stewart’s A Wife on Gorge River: Raising New Zealand’s Remotest Family. Gorge River is on the rugged South Westland coast, roughly midway between Haast and Milford Sound – a tough two-day tramp, boulder- hopping and river-fording to carry children and supplies to and from the nearest road.
Stewart’s husband, Robert (“Beansprout”) Long, hit the bookstands with A Life on Gorge River: New Zealand’s Remotest Family in 2010. He was living solo and hard until Catherine joined him in 1990. A graduate immunologist, she is neither a simpleton nor a submissive wimp and took on a big challenge in both the environment (fancy a diet featuring hand-gleaned ground sedge seed?) and partnership. The couple continued to live hard, marrying and proudly raising their Christian and Robin.
They’re not all that reclusive: light aircraft occasionally land there on a hairy strip; fishing boats, trampers and hunters call; and they have a wide circle of friends and family. Stewart writes with candour and humour.
Stewart and Long also make it into the pages of Gerard Hindmarsh’s Outsiders: Stories from the Fringe of New Zealand Society – short accounts of 13 individuals who chose to live in isolated hardship, were forced to by depressions like those of the 1880s and 1930s, or simply abhorred mainstream bureaucracy and social mores. They range from hard-case William (“Arawata Bill”) O’Leary, whose solo wilderness gold-prospecting sojourns in the South extended from the 19th into the 20th centuries, to rule-challenging Bruce Reay, who has fished eels in remote stretches of the Karamea and Heaphy in recent times.
Hindmarsh has known many of the characters and shows a keen ear for the sometimes tallish stories told in backcountry huts. Most of his subjects are male Pakeha southerners. Philip Holden died in 2005, bringing closure to a long list of books full of wisdom and storytelling in words and photos. He was a consummate New Zealand hunter writing for serious hunters. The Best of Philip Holden: Hunting Lore and Back-Country Yarns will be bought by those who love the back country, the hunt and the yarns, and remember the author with respect.
HIGH COUNTRY NEW ZEALAND: THE LAND, THE PEOPLE, THE SEASONS, photography by Antonia Steeg, introduction by Philip Temple (Te Papa Press, $99.99); HIGH COUNTRY LEGACY: FOUR GENERATIONS OF ASPINALLS AT MT ASPIRING STATION, by Alex Hedley (HarperCollins, $44.99); A FABLED LAND: THE STORY OF CANTERBURY’S MESOPOTAMIA STATION, by Bruce Ansley with Peter Bush (Random House, $49.99). A WIFE ON GORGE RIVER: RAISING NEW ZEALAND’S REMOTEST FAMILY, by Catherine Stewart (Random House, $39.99); OUTSIDERS: STORIES FROM THE FRINGE OF NEW ZEALAND SOCIETY, by Gerard Hindmarsh (Craig Potton Publishing, $34.99); THE BEST OF PHILIP HOLDEN: HUNTING LORE AND BACKCOUNTRY YARNS, by Philip Holden (HarperCollins, $44.99).
Boyd Wilson is a sometime agricultural journalist, rural parish priest and poet. He lives in Cromwell.