Story: Perceptions of the landscape

Page 1. Ways of looking

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Māori views of the land

Land was of great importance to Māori, who often described it in a symbolic or metaphorical way. The North Island was Te Ika-a-Māui, a fish caught by the demigod Māui; the country was Aotearoa, the land of the long white cloud; the land itself was Papatūānuku, the earth mother. Hills and other natural features revealed the stories of ancestors.

However, Māori art did not include landscapes, and their oral traditions did not involve aesthetic descriptions of outdoor scenes.

Landscape – an imported concept

The concept of ‘landscape’ (the land viewed as scenery, valued for its aesthetic qualities) was a cultural import to New Zealand from Europe. Even there, the practice of climbing a hill to see the view, or describing a complete landscape, had begun only in the centuries just before Europeans reached New Zealand.

Paradoxical truth

In 1907 Katherine Mansfield lay on the sand at Island Bay in Wellington, looking at the ‘fairy land’ of the South Island to her right and golden hills to her left. She wrote in her journal, ‘When New Zealand is more artificial, she will give birth to an artist who can treat her natural beauties adequately. This sounds paradoxical, but is true.’ 1

Different observers, different views

Europeans in New Zealand looked at the land in different ways, depending on their reason for being there. Scientists recorded natural features, surveyors made maps, travellers looked for the exotic, and promoters of immigration or tourism had a commercial agenda.

New Zealand is a country of great natural variety. People who enthused about one type of scenery, such as snowy mountains, may have found other landscapes, such as treeless plains or rocky coasts, unappealing.

People’s perceptions of the landscape come partly from the wider culture, but responses are also subjective. Different views have sometimes led to heated conflict over the beauty or value of particular places.

Understanding attitudes to the landscape

The historian of attitudes to the landscape must rely on written or painted sources. Artists and writers (including explorers and scientists) recorded their views of the landscape – but their attitudes may not have been typical of the wider society.

Also, until the mid-20th century, people who wrote about the land were usually addressing a British audience. New Zealanders may have responded quite differently.

Footnotes:
  1. Quoted in Trudie McNaughton, Countless signs: the New Zealand landscape in literature – an anthology. Auckland: Reed Methuen, 1986, p. 19. › Back
How to cite this page:

Jock Phillips, 'Perceptions of the landscape - Ways of looking', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/en/perceptions-of-the-landscape/page-1 (accessed 30 May 2020)

Story by Jock Phillips, published 24 Sep 2007