Space Invaders: Sadly, for the extreme conservationists, the conquests of ecological imperialism cannot be rolled back. The creation in Aotearoa/New Zealand of yet another Neo-Europe in the years following 1840 was completed in less than a century. The founders of Christchurch were part of that process, as these lofty oaks in Hagley Park attest.
THE FATE OF CHRISTCHURCH’S TREES is currently a low-level debate. It shouldn’t be. If the partisans of indigenous flora emerge triumphant over the lovers of Oaks and Cherry Trees, then Christchurch will become a season-less, olive-drab city. Retaining the beauty of their city’s exotic heritage vegetation requires Cantabrians to make their voices heard. Now.
Aucklanders, too, must stay alert. Not only are their city’s trees at risk of wholesale felling by property developers, but the likely next Mayor of Auckland, Phil Goff, is promising to repair the damage by planting a million trees every year – “mostly natives”. Auckland’s floral glory, like Christchurch’s, is under threat.
New Zealand is cited by Professor Alfred Crosby as the most extreme example of a “Neo-Europe” on Planet Earth. To a far greater extent than those who settled North America and Australia, New Zealand’s European colonists would dramatically transform the new landscape in which they found themselves. This “ecological imperialism”, as Professor Crosby describes the biological expansion of Europe, extended not only to the exotic flora introduced by the newcomers, but also to their release of a host of exotic fauna.
These cows and sheep now constitute the foundation of our key export industries. In this respect, New Zealand is no different to Canada, the United States or Australia. Its location in the planet’s southern temperate zone facilitated the rapid and extraordinarily successful transfer of agricultural, industrial, cultural and political processes perfected in Eurasia over a period of 10,000 years. Evidence of both the durability and extent of that success is all around us.
New Zealand’s success as a Neo-Europe is not, however, a matter of universal celebration. As Emeritus Professor of Nature Conservation at Lincoln University, Ian Spellerberg, wrote in June:
“There is more to plants that just species and varieties. There are plant communities with myriads of interactions between all the plant and animal species and their physical environment. Humans have mixed and stirred the biogeography of plants around the world. As well as causing plant extinctions, we have introduced exotic species into foreign surroundings and in doing so have extinguished the natural interactions. Such practices are as bad as habitat destruction and the ultimate threat to native plants – their extinction.”
At the heart of this argument lies the anachronistic desire to restore New Zealand’s natural environment to its pristine – that is to say pre-human – status.
That these islands boasted a unique natural environment is indisputable. Bereft of large reptilian and mammalian predators, it became a world of insects and birds. Its extreme geographical isolation encouraged the evolution of such extraordinary megafauna as the Moa and the Giant Weta.
It also meant that Aotearoa/New Zealand was the last substantial landmass on Planet Earth to be populated by human-beings. In marked contrast to the Americas and Australia, where Homo Sapiens have been present for between 25,000 and 50,000 years, the human settlement of these islands began a mere 800 years ago.
The New Zealand Bush: Evergreen - in every sense of the word.
The flora encountered by these Polynesian settlers was little changed from the age of the dinosaurs. The deciduous trees that register the transition of the seasons to contemporary New Zealanders with such beauty and bounty were almost entirely absent. With a handful of no doubt welcome exceptions, such as Kowhai yellow and blood-red Pohutukawa, the world the Maori encountered was dominated by vast forests of grey-green trees and ferns: an arboreal empire enlivened only by the cacophonous calling of birds.
It is easy to imagine how fervently a conservationist like Professor Spellerberg might wish to restore this vanished empire of trees and birds. It must have been a magical (if somewhat forbidding) place for the European botanists who first encountered it. In 1769, even after 600 years of sparse human habitation, much of the pre-human environment remained. Outside of Antarctica, that could not be said of any other place on Earth.
Sadly, for the extreme conservationists, the conquests of the ecological imperialists cannot be rolled back. The creation of yet another Neo-Europe in the years following 1840 was completed in less than a century. The founders of Christchurch were part of that process, as the lofty oaks in Hagley Park attest.
That it was a destructive process cannot be disputed, but it was also a creative process. The introduction of plants and animals from Europe, and elsewhere, has made New Zealand a staggeringly colourful and productive place. The idea that we should consciously deprive ourselves of the colour and variety bequeathed to us by exotic plant species – trees especially – bespeaks a romanticism that is as puritanical as it is misguided.
In his heart, Professor Spellerberg must understand that, ultimately, to achieve the sort of ecological restoration he is seeking, New Zealand would have to be emptied of human-beings. But only after every last oak, birch, poplar and pine had been uprooted and burned.
This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 15 August 2016.