Stories in the Landscape

About ten years ago I was in the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam with my grandson. The rich collection of the Dutch masters is spellbinding, gallery after gallery of finely detailed paintings. My grandson was only two years old then yet we were in the Rijksmuseum for three hours. What held his attention? Certainly not the large portraits of wealthy merchants. It was the landscapes. Probably the fact that his grandfather was able to spin stories into and out of the paintings kept his interest, a little bit of ‘Where’s Wally?’ as we looked for cows and dogs and trees, boats and birds. Even his parents became involved as he retold his landscape stories.

A herd of cattle crossing a ford - Rembrandt

A herd of cattle crossing a ford - Rembrandt

Life in New Zealand is about stories in the landscape. The landscape of the central North Island is one of the most richly painted in New Zealand, with volcanic ashes and ochres, verdant forest greens and ever changing lake blues. Local iwi paint cultural landscapes of mountain gods, rivalry and challenge and of peaks so sacred that one dare not gaze upon them when passing. It’s a dynamic landscape very different from many others in New Zealand. Less than 2000 years ago the landscape palette changed in an instant as Taupo erupted and the region was heavily brushed in pumice and ash, grey and beige.

mt ruapehu erupting

Mt. Ruapehu, Tongariro National Park, in eruption June 1996

In 1995 and 1996 ago a rewriting of the central North Island landscape began with the eruptions of Mt. Ruapehu. The effects are still being felt. Eventually, after an eleven year wait, the expected lahar from the Crater Lake rumbled down the Whangaehu River, adding more pages to the story of the central North Island landscape.

There are hundreds of stories in the landscape told each year by volunteers who freely give their time to assist conservation staff in carrying out their duties. Some volunteer their time as part of an organised club or society and that effort has cleared much of Tongariro National Park of invasive exotic wilding pines. More than forty years of puffing, grubbing and cutting down this inva­sive pine so that future generations do not tell stories of a pine-clad park.

Ali Beath

A volunteer with a dead rat - one less predator in our forests

Throughout New Zealand others come to plant, guide visitors through our heritage sites or teach the art of fishing. Some look after our huts while yet others measure, plot and record so that we can monitor the health of our forests and kiwi. All have stories to tell. We owe them a debt of gratitude.


The Pukawa Wildlife Management Trust is a self-started community group that won a conservation award for their efforts

We can’t change the past but if we listen carefully to the stories in the landscape then surely we can try and make the right decisions for the future.

Connor is twelve now, a rugby fanatic, and a proud participant in the Rugby World Cup victory parade for the triumphant All Blacks where he got to dance with Piri Weepu and hi-five Ma’aa Nonu. Stories to tell his grandchildren, and so the cycle turns.

As we left the Rijksmuseum on a crisp September afternoon we passed under the fine stoned archways where a Russian brass quintet painted a resonant musical landscape, the sound of trumpet, oboe and trombone richly filling the stone enclave. Connor bobbed and swayed to the music and I couldn’t help thinking of how important cultural landscapes are to young minds. But that’s another story


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