Story: The New Zealand bush

Page 2. Attitudes to the bush

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Māori and the bush

Māori had an equivalent word for the bush or forest: ‘te ngahere’. As migrants from Pacific islands, they were initially a coastal people. In time they developed a detailed knowledge of the foods, medicines and other resources to be found in the bush.

While they never lived within the forest, they learnt to travel through it and they evolved a rich mythology about the trees. The bush was the home of Māori gods and spirits such as patupaiarehe, who were fairy-like creatures.

A bushman's trick

As a young geologist in the 1930s, Harold Wellman found it impossible to make a fire in the rain. An experienced bushman showed him how to prune strips off the nearest telegraph pole (made of white pine), and he soon had the billy boiling.

European perceptions

When Europeans first arrived in New Zealand, they found the sunless and impenetrable character of the bush rather frightening. Because it was evergreen, they often described it as dark, monotonous and lacking the seasonal variety of European trees. They found it silent and damp, with few obvious sources of food. There was a constant fear of getting lost.

Europeans also regarded the bush as a haunt of Māori. In the early 19th century, explorers looking for Māori often noted that they ‘took to the bush’. During the New Zealand wars, the bush was seen as the preserve of Māori guerrilla fighters. Wiping out the bush and converting it to farmland was part of the process of eradicating Māori opposition. Only the occasional farmer fenced in a small symbolic piece of forest, to show what the land was originally like.

Like settlers in other societies, colonial New Zealanders saw their role as bringing civilisation to a wilderness, and associated the bush with rough behaviour. In his 1886 handbook for emigrants, Arthur Clayden warned: ‘If you do “go into the bush”, meaning really going in for country life, be on your guard against the common danger of relapsing into barbarism’. 1

A new respect

The later 19th century saw the rise of a romantic view of nature, and of wild, untamed environments. In New Zealand this led to a new respect for the bush. International tourism and recreational walks such as the Milford Track encouraged a more positive view of the forests as unique and beautiful.

During the first half of the 20th century, tramping (hiking) became a leisure activity, and a network of tracks and huts was built through forested areas. From the 1950s, gardeners began to appreciate native plants. The ‘bush walk’ became a common recreation, and images of lush vegetation near lakes or on hillsides were promoted to tourists as ‘beautiful New Zealand’.

Because it was wild and ‘uncivilised’, the bush was now seen as a welcome escape from urbanised routines and polite conventions. Some people began to value the crude language, rough humour and mateship of the bush as distinctively New Zealand qualities. In 1960 Barry Crump’s story of the male world of deer cullers, A good keen man, became a best-seller.

People still feared the forest as a dark region in which it was easy to get lost. But for Pākehā, as for Māori, it now had an important place in New Zealand identity.

  1. Arthur Clayden, Popular handbook to New Zealand, its resources and industries. London: Wyman and Sons, 1886, p. 225. › Back
How to cite this page:

Jock Phillips, 'The New Zealand bush - Attitudes to the bush', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 5 October 2022)

Story by Jock Phillips, published 24 Sep 2007