Almost a century ago, New Zealand and Australia were at the forefront of an environmental crisis that was also deeply geological in nature: erosion

Just as writers and artists today react to the Anthropocene through climate fiction and ecological art, previous generations have chronicled an environmental crisis that foreshadowed humanity’s global impact.

The Anthropocene is a proposed geological epoch that powerfully expresses the planetary scale of environmental changes brought about by human activity.


Read more: How the term ‘anthropocene’ got from geoscience to hashtags – before most of us knew what it meant


Yet almost a century ago New Zealand and Australia were at the forefront of an environmental crisis that was also deeply geological in nature: erosion. And that too left its mark on culture.

A forgotten global problem

Erosion was first brought to the attention of the Western world in the 19th century by the American diplomat and mathematician George Perkins Marsh. In Man and nature: or physical geography modified by human action (1869), he argued that much of the “Old World” of the Mediterranean had been turned into a desert by deforestation.

Shutterstock / Marc Henauer

He warned that European colonization threatened a similar fate for other parts of the world. These concerns came back in force in the 1930s, when the Dust Bowl in the United States began to sound the alarm bells about the long-term security of the global food supply.

In the 1930s, Southeast Australia was also plagued by Sandstorm. The biologist Francis Ratcliffe, in Flying Fox and Drifting Sand: The Adventures of a Biologist in Australia (1939), described the situation in South Australia as a struggle for survival.

Nothing less than a battlefield, on which man is engaged in a struggle against the ruthless forces of drought, erosion and drift.

In New Zealand’s different climate and topography, another version of the erosion crisis was also becoming evident. Geographer Kenneth cumberland describes the growing desolation of the hill pastures of the North Island.

Miles and miles of the backcountry of Hawkes Bay, Poverty Bay, Wanganui and Taranaki-Whangamomona have slippery slopes. […] The recent history of these regions is that of abandonment, the decrease in population, a succession of serious floods and communications cut by landslide.

Cumberland argued in 1944 that New Zealand’s soil erosion problems “are of the utmost national importance. […] from those in the United States.

Likewise, in 1946, the geographer JM Holmes claims:

Australia faces no greater peacetime problem than conquering soil erosion.

Detail of eroded rock
Shutterstock / photolike

Cultural crisis

Because agriculture is so central to Western ideas of civilization, commentators have found that cultural and environmental issues are intertwined. This overlap of science and ideology is evident in GV Jacks and RO Whyte’s Land Rape: A Global Soil Erosion Study (1939), written by two scientists at the Imperial Bureau of Soil Science, Oxford.

The organization of civilized societies is based on the steps taken to wrest control of the soil from the wilderness, and it is only when complete control has passed into human hands that a stable superstructure of what we call civilization can be erected on earth.

The belief that nature must be subdued and remade was particularly powerful among the settler populations of Australia and New Zealand. There, colonial identity and economic survival were both inextricably linked to the success of agricultural and pastoral production.

Elyne Mitchell, better known today as the author of Silver Brumby Children’s Books, wrote extensively in the 1940s on the direct impact of white Australian cultural norms on the soil.

To fit Australia into the model of Western Civilization, economically and socially, we have upset the natural balance and turned ourselves into destroyers instead of creators.

The cultural commentator Mount Holcroft used even stronger language to express a similar thought in Creative Problems in New Zealand (1948).

But we also see the barren hillsides, the remains of the forest, the swollen rivers, and in some neighborhoods the impoverished soil. The balance of nature has changed. Are we to assume that a people who have owned the land in this way – violating it in the name of progress – can remain serene and secure in the occupation?

As the title suggests, erosion was now a “creative problem”. Even though they were attached to colonial forms of society, settler writers were increasingly aware that their environmental foundations were not as stable as previously assumed.

dead trees
Shutterstock / brackish_nz

Mystic of the ground

In New Zealand literature, the landscape was not simply a backdrop: writers have often described the pākehā identity as being produced by direct confrontation with geology. The poet and critic Allen Curnow describes the feeling “that we are intruders on an indifferent or hostile scene” as a “common problem of the imagination”. As Curnow wrote in his poem, The Scene, in 1941:

Here among the shaggy mountains rejected

The form of man must be reshaped

Colonization has also been described as an encounter between “man” and the landscape in an influential poem by Charles Brasch, The Silent Land, in 1945:

Man must sleep with the gaunt hills like a lover,

Gain their privacy in the calm sigh

From a century of calm and assiduity.

Critical francis book called this nationalist concern “soil mysticism”. By focusing so tightly on the land, the pākehā writers were also able to ignore its occupation by the Maori and their own in-depth knowledge of the land.

Erosion awareness

Yet Brasch’s call is to “gaunt hills”: the landscape of literature was more often than not eroded rather than untouched.

Frank Sargeson’s The 1943 short story Gods Live in Woods draws on the experience of his uncle, who cut down the forest to establish a mountain farm in Te Rohe Pōtae / King’s Land.

And the places where the grass still stood were marked with slides that showed the clay and the daddy. One of them had come down from the top of the track, and had piled up there before going back down into the stream. A chain of fence had been in her way and she was gone too. You could see poles and wires coming out of the clay.

Erosion has also spread to the common stock of literary imagery. In a short poem by Colin Newbury, In My Country (1955), he appears as a metaphor for disappointed love.

He stands close to the earth,

My stubborn compatriot,

Drawing on the breath of the wind,

The arid sweetness of the flower and the mountain;

Do not know of green grass for heart erosion.

Such texts demonstrate the ecological concept of “baseline shift syndrome”, as described by Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing and his collaborators, where “newly shaped and ruined landscapes become the new reality”.

eroded coastline
Shutterstock / Filip Fuxa

Alternative possibilities

Although much of Pākehā’s writings on the geology of this era imagine the relationship between humanity and nature as hostile and irreversibly damaged, some have offered glimpses of alternative possibilities. One was Ursule Bethell, whose poem Weathered Rocks (1936) extended his Christian beliefs to find common ground with geology. Through this, she imagined a less antagonistic relationship with nature.

And we are parents, made up of the same elements,

Ditto for an unknown purpose.

Another approach is proposed by Herbert Guthrie Smith in Tutira: the story of a New Zealand sheep station (1921). Through the local stories he gleaned from the ancient Ngāti Kurumōkihi, Guthrie-Smith came to reject a Pākehā view of Earth as a mere resource to be tapped.

When a block of land passes, as it can in the hands of ten owners in half a century, how can one consider at length its rights? Who under these conditions can give their arpents what is due to them?

Auē, taukari e, anō te kūware o te Pākehā kāhore nei i whakaaro ki te mauri o te whenua. Alas! Alas! that the Pākehā must thus neglect the rights of the land, thus forgetting the traditions of the Maori race, a people who recognized in them something more than the capacity to cultivate meat and wool.

This vision of the territory as a political partner, endowed with independence and rights, seems to offer a new environmental perspective which is in fact inspired by the Indigenous legal principles of Maori tikanga.


Read more: Dead like the moa: oral traditions show early Maori recognized extinction


Anticipating the anthropocene

The writings of mid-20th century settlers on erosion are now attracting renewed interest because they convey a surprisingly literal and visible sense of the Anthropocene: the geological impact of colonization was clearly evident in the drift of sand, dust storms and scarred hills.

The writers were not blind to environmental damage, but overall their responses are reminiscent of what critic Greg Garrard has called the “grim trio of anthropocene futures – status quo, mitigation, and geoengineering.”

But writers such as Bethell and Guthrie-Smith demonstrate the continuing importance of creative work to challenge the values ​​that created and sustain the Anthropocene we all live in now.The conversation

Philippe Steer, Lecturer in English, Massey University

This article is republished from The conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read it original article.



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