The Polynesians who arrived in New Zealand about 1300 came from societies where growing crops was important to their survival. In New Zealand, growing crops must have seemed more difficult, because the cool climate made it harder to grow imported plants and thick forest had to be cleared.
While Māori found alternative foods in the birds and plants of the forest, and fish and shellfish, they also cultivated kūmara (sweet potato), taro, uwhi (yam) and hue (bottle gourd), which they brought from Polynesia. They also brought the mythology associated with this cultivation.
The major god of agriculture was Rongo (or Rongomātāne), who was the protector of crops. He was also the god of peace. Symbols of Rongo such as tapu (sacred) stones were placed in the fields to promote fertility. Before kūmara planting began people chanted to Rongo; and at harvest time the first kūmara were buried as an offering to him.
The kō or digging stick was the main cultivation tool used, and the story of Rākaihautū, the explorer of the South Island, describes him digging out the lakes with his kō.
The first European visitors to New Zealand also brought mythologies about agriculture. Christian traditions spoke about the Garden of Eden, a paradise before the Fall, where fruit grew in abundance. Such ideas would have been part of the cultural background of James Cook’s artist, Sydney Parkinson, when he first looked at the New Zealand coast (near Tolaga Bay) in October 1769 and recorded: ‘The country about the bay is agreeable beyond description, and, with proper cultivation, might be rendered a kind of second Paradise.’ 1
Seeing the agriculture practised by Māori, Cook and his crew suggested the country had great potential as a site for European farming. Cook himself noted that ‘the face of the Country appear’d Green and pleasent, and the soil seem’d to be pretty rich and proper for Cultivation.’ 2 The scientist Joseph Banks considered the soil around Thames would make ‘ample returns of any European Vegetables sown in it.’ 3
Making a ‘middle landscape’
As Great Britain became industrialised, Romantic ideas about the moral and physical superiority of rural life emerged. Cities were characterised as dirty, smoke-filled places, where disease was rife and mobs of unruly people roamed the streets. There was a desire to preserve rural innocence and beauty. Paintings like John Constable’s idyllic rural scenes became popular.
Untamed New Zealand
Some observers considered the country so wild that they compared it to ancient Britain, before it was ‘civilised’ by the Romans. Missionary Richard Taylor described New Zealand as being in ‘the fern age’. Charles Hursthouse thought that New Zealand was like ‘Caesar’s Britain’. If people could be shown that period, much English country ‘which we call beautiful, would vanish, to reveal the gloomy forest and repulsive rugged waste’. 4
Early travellers saw New Zealand as a land that could become like a beautiful English rural landscape. But, for this to happen, it had to be cultivated and transformed. Many found New Zealand’s untamed bush to be dark, savage and intimidating, and untended plains to be a dreary wilderness. Once grasses were planted and deciduous trees introduced, then the land would look more like an English meadowland.
The idealised ‘middle landscape’ – a cultivated rural landscape, which sat between the dirt and decadence of the European city and the fearful barbarism of the bush – became an essential part of New Zealand’s rural mythology.