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Bottom of the lake: How the setting for a classic book of New Zealand literature became a toxic swamp

An essay by Dr Philip Steer on Lake Tutira in Hawke’s Bay, now an unswimmable toxic dump, but once the idyllic setting for one of the greatest books ever published in New Zealand.

 

Pinea rawatia ki Tutira ra;

Ki te ue pata, ki te kai rakau.

A ehara e hine i te roto hou;

He roto tawhito tonu na matou ko o nui.

 

Let us gather together to Tutira

Where are eel-weirs and fruit-laden trees.

The lake, my little girl, is not a new lake,

But an ancient lake possessed by thy ancestral great ones.

 

–From a lullaby recorded in Tutira: The Story of a New Zealand Sheep Station

 

The government announced in late February that 90 per cent of New Zealand’s rivers and lakes would be swimmable by 2040. A fortnight later came the news that Lake Tūtira, in Hawke’s Bay, had been closed due to a massive bloom of cyanobacteria that reportedly could be smelled at a distance of several kilometres.

It stinks in more ways that one. This latest in a long-running series of algal blooms, e coli outbreaks, and die-offs comes almost a century after the lake became the setting for New Zealand’s most influential and searching work of environmental literature, Herbert Guthrie-Smith’s Tutira: The Story of a New Zealand Sheep Station, first published in 1921.

It’s regarded as a classic of New Zealand writing, and was voted the ninth best book ever published here when former Listener books editor Steve Braunias assembled a panel to rate our greatest books. One of the judges of that 2003 panel was Michael King. He wrote of Tutira, “Our first ecological book, and still our best example of this genre. The transformation of New Zealand from bushlands to grasslands farming is anatomised in this close examination of the effects of plant and animal introductions on one piece of Hawke’s Bay. Added values are the author’s quiet erudition and self-deprecating sense of humour.”

That’s the book. What about the reality? Lake Tūtira is some 40 kilometres north of Napier, tucked away amidst hill country that is largely grass-covered and eroded, skirted by State Highway 2 as it winds on its way to Wairoa. The tangata whenua are the Ngāti Kurumōkihi hapu, and several of their old pa sites surround the lake—seasonal residences, as Guthrie-Smith learned, “a sort of connecting link between the seaside villages and the ranges of the interior.” The Guthrie-Smith Trust today retains 90 hectares of the original sheep station, including the homestead and an arboretum. The lake also has many of the trappings a typical New Zealand encounter with the outdoors: on the one hand, a wildlife refuge and a regional park, with a DOC campsite and walks; on the other hand, a boat ramp and regular releases of trout by Hawke’s Bay Fish and Game.

The form that nature takes here now is a fair way off how things stood on September 4, 1882, when 21-year-old Guthrie-Smith and his business partner first rode their horses onto the 20,000 acres of Tutira station that they had leased from its Māori owners. Then, the hills were largely covered in bracken, and of little apparent worth to Māori or Pākehā—to Ngāti Kurumōkihi, Tutira recounts, the lake was everything: “[T]he flax growing about its swamps was celebrated for strength, the shallows of the lake were paved with mussel-beds—kakahi, the flavour of its eels was unsurpassed. They were speared in the lakes, they were caught in enormous numbers in eel-weirs—patuna—or in whare tuna built along the edges of streams. . . .The glory of the hapu was in their continued occupation of so famous a lake, in their possession of so unfailing a food supply of the most highly prized kind.”

The one and only measurement of the lake’s ecological condition recorded on the Land, Air, Water Aotearoa website dates from mid-2008. Even then, it was rated at only 18%, or “poor,” its lowest category where any signs of life still remain. Between 2008-2014, its water quality—determined by clarity, chlorophyll, phosphorus, and nitrogen levels—has fluctuated between “average” (“mesotrophic lake conditions”) and “poor” (“eutrophic lake conditions”). The adjacent Lake Waikopiro has fared even worse, often verging on a “supertrophic” state.

Tutira, circa 1930, Hawke’s Bay, by Herbert Guthrie-Smith. Te Papa (B.000741)

Reading Guthrie-Smith can put you into a supertrophic state: it’s like spending a week with your sprightly but mad grandfather, where he recounts everything that’s ever happened on his farm over the last half century or so. As he says in his original preface to Tutira, “Every man has his idiosyncrasy: it has been that of the writer for half a lifetime to note small things; it has interested him.” (Also like a mad grandfather, he is prone to racist outbursts, especially at the thought of New Zealand being swamped by immigrants from Asia).

What makes his enormous book bearable is the sheer energy of his inquisitiveness, his deep love of the area, and his disarming awareness of his own folly. In the early years, overwhelmed by debt, his bank advises him and his partner to sell: “It was good advice,” he reflects, “the difficulty was to find a buyer, the number of fools in the district being limited.”

What makes his book important, however, stems from its deliberately narrow focus. He writes, “First and last, then, Tutira is a record of minute alterations noted on one patch of land”—albeit a patch comprising up to 60,000 acres. Within those bounds, Guthrie-Smith describes the interlocking of geology, hydrology, plants and animals, Māori and Pākehā—an ecology in its richest sense.

While today our debates focus on water quality, Guthrie-Smith—writing in an era before top-dressing, and dairy intensification—was much more concerned with the issue of soil quality, and the causes and effects of erosion. After detailing the general hydrological conditions that have produced the station’s rock-walled valleys, he turns to the effects wrought by sheep. As they have consumed the original scrubby vegetation, and hardened the hillsides with their tracks, he finds that “the countryside has been transformed from a sponge to a slate.”

The effect of this has been to exacerbate the effects of heavy rainfall, and thus to radically transform the region’s geography: “The fluctuations of the streams themselves are more marked: there is a higher rise in flood, a lower fall in drought. Instead of a permanent percolation from the whole body of the countryside, there is a violent brief surface scour.”

Guthrie-Smith on the Waikoau river estuary: “Stock have destroyed the growth of the old banks: the accumulated silt of centuries, no longer bound by mated root-growth and protected from violent currents, has been carried oceanwards wholesale in the enormously larger floods of modern times. With the edges stripped of their plexus of roots, with current no longer confined, the Waikoau changes its course in every flood; a score of wasteful channels trickle over a wide, stony, shallow bed.”

One reason scientists love Lake Tūtira is because its bed contains a unique record of sedimentary events, such as volcanic eruptions, that have occurred since its creation in a landslide some 6,500 years ago. In 1992, two scientists from the DSIR—N A Trustrum and MJ Page—concluded that the lake bed had risen some 154 cm in the last 110 years, since the surrounding landscape began to be converted to grass, compared to a rise of only 150 cm over the previous 700 years. In the language of the scientists, “results indicate a 7 x increase in sedimentation since European settlement.” A good few of those centimetres, of course, are there because of Guthrie-Smith.

Tutira, circa 1930, Hawke’s Bay, by Herbert Guthrie-Smith. Te Papa (B.000632)

At its peak, in the early 1900s, Guthrie-Smith had expanded Tutira station so that it covered 60,000 acres, and was carrying some 30,000 animals. He had mastered “the most fascinating pastime in the world—land reclamation,” that is, he had figured out how to most efficiently eradicate the indigenous ecosystem and establish grass in its place. He got rich in the process, and this funded his increasingly wide-ranging expeditions in search of New Zealand’s flora and fauna.

These contradictions come through in the Waitangi Tribunal’s Mohaka ki Ahuriri Report, issued in 2004, which addresses 20 claims in the Hawke’s Bay region. The Tribunal drew heavily on Tutira, especially its account of the intensity and complexity of Māori resource usage. “Though elsewhere in our inquiry district we lack the level of detail that Guthrie-Smith provided on the use of resources by Maori around Tutira,” it observed, “we can be sure that the land, rivers, lakes, and sea were similarly utilised in those places.”

However, it also concludes that the Crown breached Article 1 of the Treaty in failing to constrain the environmental degradations caused by pastoralism, and that it breached Article 2 by failing to protect the fisheries of Lake Tūtira.

It’s a shock to find Guthrie-Smith seeming at times thoroughly clear-sighted about just such findings: “Often have I wondered if any work at all done on the station was legally done . . . was it clearly defined that Newton and the succeeding tenants of Tutira were permitted to destroy the ancient vegetation of the run, to cover it with clover and grass, to drain its swamps?”

Today we can drive through the provinces and revel in the sight of a pastoral landscape, and Fonterra can advertise the natural goodness of our grass. Guthrie-Smith’s question hangs over all of these things, however, reminding us of the violent acts and illegalities that got us to this point.

Pākehā today would like to think that we are more enlightened than our colonial ancestors, that we have moved on from the attitudes that marred the past, that our environmental crimes—like our cultural crimes—are behind us, that we know who we are. Yet as we contemplate the wretched state of our waterways, Tutira suggests we are not that far removed from our colonial past after all.

For one thing, Guthrie-Smith already had a fairly good grasp on some of the key issues a century ago. He could recognise that the damage caused at Lake Tūtira was intimately associated with the ways that the surrounding land was being used, and that this was ultimately a function of what his society chose to value. He saw that an economic perspective could only ever view the land and the water as inert, objects to be exploited, and viewed with a short-term horizon.

Once, he had asserted that a “fence-line can be erected to the glory of the Lord as truly as a cathedral pile.” By the time he was preparing the third edition of Tutira, just before his death in 1940, he was increasingly doubtful of the ethical and spiritual value of his “improvements”. He writes, “Nor being of philosophic mind, am I absolutely happy on another score—my substitution of domestic breeds of animals for native lizards and birds; my substitution of one flora for another; my contribution towards more quickly melting New Zealand through erosion into the Pacific—a question of ethics this, of simple right and wrong, one increasingly clamatory in years. . . . Have I then for sixty years desecrated God’s earth and dubbed it improvement?”

He couldn’t quite bring himself to answer the question. But for even daring to ask it, Tutira deserves to still be read.

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