Guthrie-Smith of Tutira
“A not altogether idiotic sheep-farmer” was how Herbert Guthrie-Smith of Tutira deprecatingly spoke of himself. Yet from the unlikely base of his remote Hawke’s Bay station, this retiring Scotsman became an influential naturalist with an abiding passion for the land and the native wildlife that was being eliminated from it. He wrote a series of highly regarded books that pressed the conservationist cause at a time when “more grass” was the catch-cry of the country. His most famous work, Tutira, is regarded as a New Zealand classic.
South of Te Pohue on State Highway 5 the downpour strikes, driving rain hard against the windscreenand masking the plantation forest on either side; reducing the Napier road to an indistinct ribbon of grey gauze.
The deluge is insistent but brief. By the time I reach Lake Tutira, 45 kilometres north of Napier, following what once had been the Wairoa coach road, I am again in clear weather. Black swans and mallards ply untroubled waters fringed with willows. The cradling hills, rugged and timeworn, soften in the evening light.
The lake, declared a wildlife refuge in 1957 and a domain in 1964, is now known for boating, picnicking and year-round fishing, and is a haven for bitterns, dabchicks, pied stilts and spur-winged plovers. Indirectly, it is the birds that have brought me here.
Since 1882, Tutira and the sheep station of which the lake forms a liquid heart have been synonymous with one person, William Herbert Guthrie-Smith. A farmer, philosopher, gifted writer and pre-eminent naturalist, Guthrie-Smith made Tutira his home for almost 60 years—until his death in 1940—wrestling the unyielding land and creating through his books and essays a vivid picture of the workings of nature.
The homestead where in later years he laboured on his writings still stands on a rise overlooking the lake. Behind it, ringed by a newly-painted picket fence and shaded by a favourite cherry tree, lies his unadorned grave.
The airy weatherboard house is now home to station manager Steve Reiri and his partner Margaret, who run the property on behalf of a trust set up, in accordance with the wishes of Guthrie-Smith and his late daughter Barbara Absolom, for the benefit of the country’s youth.
Over dinner, talk turns to the workings of the farm,now much reduced from its height when Guthrie-Smith grazed upward of 30,000 sheep on 61,000 acres. The stock count these days seldom exceeds 4600 sheep and 440 cattle on a 2000-acre rump of land. It is enough, says Steve, to subsidise the trust’s Outdoor Education Centre, whose newish building is visible through the kitchen window. As the evening wears on we all note the rising wind which intrudes increasingly on the conversation. At ten o’clock Steve, with a farmer’s tired vigilance, goes out to check the roof. It is in the process of being replaced, and by the light of a temperamental torch I help him hammer leadheads through loose iron, our words snatched and broken by the storm.
During the night I hear Steve on the roof again, while the wind tosses things noisily about the yard and threatens to stave in doors and windows.
The following morning, the work of what Guthrie-Smith called Hawke’s Bay’s “emotional climate” becomes evident. Gale-force nor’-westers have snapped power poles, ripped out trees and closed roads throughout the district. Tutira station is badly hit. Phone and power lines are down. Twenty-metre poplars uprooted by the 100 kph winds lie across the drive, their deep cavities blocking our exit. A shed has collapsed on to the vegetable garden.
“It’s going to be busy round here for a while,” Steve declares over breakfast. “I’ll sharpen the chainsaw.”
The damage is heavy but not unprecedented. The close-cropped hills around the lake still carry the scars from slips caused when Cyclone Bola came through in 1988. The rainstorm of 1938, when Guthrie-Smith ran the station, was even worse. On slopes weakened by earthquakes, the ground seemed to weep mud. Saturated subsoils erupted, tearing out turf and leaving gaping chasms. Floodwater washed out Lake Ngatapa, formed seven years earlier by earthquake, taking with it the Mohaka bridge. Other bridges went too, severing the link between Napier and Wairoa. Lake Tutira rose three metres, and waist-deep silt covered 1750 acres of the nearby Esk Valley.
A one-time neighbour of Guthrie-Smith, Beatrice Heays—still formidably alert just a year short of her hundredth birthday—recounted the effect on her station, Te Rangi. Stock losses were high, the telephone stayed out for months and, with bridges swept away, supplies were airlifted in. Thinking the road through the gorge would never be rebuilt, she and her husband made the final act of surrender to isolation: they jacked their Buick off its wheels.
Concern for the wellbeing of the Land—often spelt with the capital—whether from flood, fire or animal hooves, was as characteristic a part of Guthrie-Smith as his lanky frame or his public reticence. Out moving sheep when the 1931 Napier earthquake struck, the 70-year-old could not help speculating on its pastoral possibilities: whether the jolts would revitalise the fields, stimulating cocksfoot, ryegrass and white clover; whether, in fact, the tremors would perform “at no cost to the station the work of a titanic rotary plough.”
Typically, he refrained from commenting in his later writing on the human suffering caused by the Napier earthquake—New Zealand’s worst disaster—even when its scale had become known. Often he masked his true feelings with a smokescreen of pragmatism, as when in later life he gifted farm land to war veterans with the excuse that he could no longer manage such an acreage, or when he arranged anonymous delivery of a book he wished to give to a close friend.
Occasionally, he let show a quirky humour. Lured to visit the home of his future biographer, Airini Woodhouse, to see her stuffed laughing owl—a species he had pursued in vain for years—he was indignant to find the bird gathering dust in an upstairs room. He carried it ceremoniously downstairs and set it prominently on the hall table. The next day, on leaving, he turned to his hosts. “Remember,” he said sternly, “if the house catches fire, before you save anything, before the piano, save the laughing owl. And then go back for the children.”
This fierce attachment to wildlife began on the moors in the Scottish county of Stirlingshire under the tutelage of his father John Guthrie Smith, a man he admired throughout his life—the son’s hyphenated surname was itself a token of respect. After an undistinguished education at Rugby, Herbert (as he preferred to be known) emigrated to New Zealand in 1880 in the company of a distant cousin, Arthur Cuningham. The two men took up apprenticeships on a relation’s South Canterbury station for two years before moving briefly to a Hawke’s Bay run. The plan was to make money from sheep farming, as had English writer Samuel Butler 20 years earlier (see New Zealand Geographic No. 8), before retiring to a comfortable life in Scotland.
Tutira was to change all that.Its infertile skin of bracken-covered hills seamed with gullies and ravines had broken the fortunes of a string of farmers since Europeans first tried their hand on the 20,000-acre run in 1873. The early years of settlement coalesced into a painful collage of adversity: crippling stock losses of up to 30 per cent a year, sinking wool prices, nagging debt and the demoralising battle against fern. The fact was that, unlike the rich farmland of southern Hawke’s Bay, the land bordering the Esk River marked the fringes of the agricultural badlands: unproductive country covered in a fine silty clay and worthless pumice. From a sheep-farmer’s perspective, said Guthrie-Smith, New Zealand had been discovered and Tutira taken up hundreds of thousands of years too soon—more time was needed for a deep organic topsoil to form. Once covered in forest, Tutira had been burned but not broken in, and so languished under a reign of bracken. Its Maori owners were content to sacrifice the dubious prospect of riches derived from working the land themselves for the certainty of income as absentee landlords.
They had not always been so aloof. In pre-European times Lake Tutira bristled with pa, its waters heavy with canoe traffic. The lake and the nearby rivers yielded freshwater mussels, crayfish and eels whose flavour was renowned, as well as flax prized for its strength. Saltwater fish were got from the Hawke’s Bay coast, while further inland forests held pigeons, tui and kaka. The local peoples, the Ngai Tatara and the Ngati-moe, joined to defend their rich harvest grounds against envious neighbours, and, following the arrival of missionaries, peach groves and patches of thyme marked their kainga. However, the region was too wet and cold and the land too poor for widespread cultivation of taro or ku-mara, and to the Maori the wealth of Tutira’s waters far exceeded its value as arable land.
Europeans were less interested in the area’s liquid assets, and tried to play down the high rainfall. One runholder was pressured by neighbours to stop filing official rainfall statistics which, they claimed, were hampering settlement. It was a view Guthrie-Smith could sympathise with. Heavy rain was, in his opinion, the bane of Tutira. Not that it was constant, or uniform. Once he measured 17 inches of rain in 48 hours on the homestead lawn, while on Image Hill, less than three miles off, not enough fell to wash dust from the trampled stock paths.
All such knowledge lay in the future, however, when on September 4, 1882, having freed a previous tenant from a large debt to the New Zealand Loan and Mercantile Company, Cuningham and Guthrie-Smith, both barely out of their teens, rode through the sleeping town of Napier, crossed the Esk River and turned inland toward the distant ranges of Tutira.
“Shortly afterwards we . . . splashed across the unsung ford of the Waikoua. We trod Tutira soil. We viewed for the first time our own sheep. They were merino ewes—skin and bone, scrags, their wool peeling off—anxious to escape yet balked by the river, the kind of stock always in the very worst of condition,” wrote Guthrie-Smith years later. “Such was our fatuous folly, that we believed against the evidence of our senses that they were not so very, very, very wretched, that not every single solitary bone in their lank frames was visible.”
If the sight of his scruffy herd had stirred a proprietorial pride, the sudden vision of the glittering lake embraced by silky willows and flax spears, richly flowering kowhai and delicate drifts of peach blossom, began an attachment to the land which was to pin Guthrie-Smith forever to Tutira.
For many years, his chief pleasure was in physical toil: draining swamps, hewing tracks, fencing, sowing seed; delighting in body sweat and the raw work of hands. He wrote rapturously of rising in the early dawn, stars framed by the whare’s open door, and rekindling fire in the glowing heart of the fireplace’s ash cone. “In those times to think of an improvement to the station was to be in love,” he confessed.
Even recreation entailed hard work. Periodically, Guthrie-Smith would ford the river and ride the 30 miles of tracks to Napier, play rugby in the afternoon, dance until midnight, then ride back to Tutira to be ready for work by daybreak.
The daily ebb and flow of money held no attraction, and the partners were astonishingly naive in matters of finance. Accounts were attended to only in the depths of a storm when the “proper business” of improving the run had to be suspended.
Somehow, in the midst of all this activity, Guthrie-Smith found time to make the occasional trip back to Scotland, and on one of these trips, in 1901, he married Georgina Dennistoun-Brown of Balloch Castle, Dumbartonshire. She was somewhat taken aback by the remoteness and roughness of Tutira, but soon put her stamp on the house and grounds. Barbara, their only child, was born two years later.
Guthrie-smith acknowledged that though he managed eventually to see his way to a debt-free tenure of Tutira, it was because he stood on the shoulders—the labours—of the many who went before. Under Guthrie-Smith the station began to prosper, but even then, only after decades of backbreaking work. Wool slumps led almost to financial ruin, as did floods, lungworm, footrot, barren soils, the constant attrition of stock, and that unstoppable plant demon bracken.
When the first farmer took up the Tutira lease, there were not 100 acres of sheep feed on the run. Apart from a scattering of forest, marsh and upland meadow it was an almost unbroken sheet of fern. The animals had to create their own pasture by a process Guthrie-Smith called “ferncrushing”—simple enough on good land, but in marginal country full of snags. It began with an autumn burn-off of bracken followed by sowing grass of whatever quality could be afforded; often little more than floor sweepings. The moment young fern shoots appeared, sheep were driven into the paddock, the number determined by weather and land fertility. If the calculations were right and fate kind the sheep would subsist on the shoots and keep them in check until the grass took over, permanently banishing the scourge.
But Tutira land was poor, and the animals detested the stubborn, unpalatable fern which flourished in the wet climate. “The old sheep died, the young refused to live,” Guthrie-Smith noted bleakly. Fresh sheep were introduced to bolster numbers and the process was repeated—the land, in effect, being “stamped, jammed, hauled, murdered into grass.” Sheep mustered for shearing were often found to have bellies and even flanks worn bare of wool through constant abrasion by fern and scrub. The fleece of merino wethers, stunted through poor diet, became blackened by sand and grit. It was not uncommon to see the backs of sheep drafted in a hot, wet autumn turned green through the sprouting of trapped grass seed.
Success was slow in coming, and Guthrie-Smith learned an expensive lesson: sheep taken from a good environment and introduced into inferior land would never thrive. Nor were merinos suited to the conditions. They preferred dry ground, short grass and room to move, and were replaced for a time by Lincoln. Eventually sheep of several breeds subdued the land, remodelling its contours through the wear of their habitual wanderings.
This unending press of stock, both sheep and cattle, compacted the soil and hardened what once had been an absorbent sponge into a crust of slate. Heavy rain flushed surface dirt and dust into rivers and caused flooding, while the turf deteriorated into a mass of tough native grasses. Especially after times of drought, rain ran from uplands and hills as though from paved roads, gouging out the land in slips which became ever larger and more frequent. Guthrie-Smith called it “the melting of the highlands into the sea,” and, as anyone knows who has flown over the northern Hawke’s Bay, the melting is with us still.
Yet Guthrie-Smith didn’t condemn fellow runholders for what they were doing to the land. He had sympathy for the farmer who “for five extra blades of cocksfoot would scalp his parents.” He recognised that he was implicated in the wholesale alteration of an ecosystem—the transformation, as he put it, of stately woodland into prosaic turf. In his defence, and theirs, he invoked an old world sense of destiny. “It is impossible for any individual to withstand the stream of tendency,” he wrote. “Like the lady in Sheridan’s translation, they ‘fell, but unwillingly fell.'”
The fall was not without its pleasures. His account of the torching of the land, for example, is compelling and seductive: “Towards noon, then, the fateful match is struck, the smoke curls upwards blue and thin, the clear flame, steady at first but soon lengthening and stretching itself, arises like a snake from its cold coils. Then, as often seems to happen, the draught of the fire summons at once the waiting wind; out of the hot calm bursts forth the newborn storm … As a lover wraps his mistress in his arms, so the flames wrap the stately cabbage-trees, stripping them naked of their matted mantles of brown, devouring their tall stems with kisses of fire, crackling like musketry amongst the spluttering flax, hissing and spitting in the tutu-groves, pouring in black smoke from thickets of scrub.”
Alas that Tutira could not again be broken in nor past years relived, lamented Guthrie-Smith the incendiarist, the man who had perfected the art of striking matches on his breeches and from the saddle tossing them into the dry grass before fully ignited. “A fire on a dry day in a dry season was worth a ride of a thousand miles.”
Guthrie-Smith was a stew of seeming contradictions: he mourned the loss of natural sheep tracks caused by the “abominable utilitarian necessity” of running fence lines through farmland, yet claimed a fence could be erected to the glory of God as surely as could a cathedral pile. He despised manuka for the way it resisted efforts to break in pasture, while praising it as a necessary nursery crop for forest regenerating on the station. Above all, he rose to the challenges of farming while begrudging the limits it imposed on his life as a field naturalist—shearing, for example, occurred in months when birds were nesting, and kept him from sallying forth with his photographic gear. With the passage of time, he became ever more interested in the original flora and fauna of the Land—life that was being annihilated as the land was cleared and grassed for farming.
From his first days at Tutira he had noted the habits of its wildlife, and in 1895 read a paper on its birds—awkwardly and self-consciously penned—to the Hawke’s Bay Philosophical Institute.
Earlier, in 1882, to test his belief that land damage could be reversed if protected from fire and cropping, Guthrie-Smith began noting the changes on an unused 10-hectare hillside at his back door. Later he fenced off what had come to be known as the “Hanger” and, until 1938, faithfully recorded its tapestry of renewal. No seeds were sown, no saplings planted, no unwanted aliens grubbed out or misted with herbicide. Yet, seemingly to an ineluctable timetable, bracken gave way to manuka, which in turn yielded to softwoods and finally to totara, matai, rimu and other hardwoods. As if to humour the old man, nu, bellbirds, native pigeons and other long-departed birds returned and bred.
To walk amongst the thick tangle of the Hanger today is to experience a dream unfurled, a wound healed. Yet it wasn’t only through this living monument that Guthrie-Smith inspired future generations. He was a talented writer who developed an engaging, highly confessional style which won over generations of readers to his conservationist cause. Alive with the insights of tireless fieldwork, his books from Birds of the Water, Wood and Waste (1910) to Sorrows and Joys of a New Zealand Naturalist (1936) painted an unsentimental picture of animal behaviour and habitat destruction.
At times he was moved to fulsome eloquence, as in this account of snipe that were quite unafraid of humans on a remote southern island, “I could have lingered for weeks in the company of these fascinating birds, wondering over their loss of flight, large eggs and contracted range, watching the little creatures, brown like Autumn, harmless as Autumn’s fallen leaves. There was something extraordinarily attractive in their trustfulness, an irresistible appeal in their absence of fear, of even the shadow of suspicion of fear. We were back in the days of our first parents to the golden dawn of the world, to that delectable garden where fear and pain and anger and sorrow were all unnamed, unknown. . . . We could not but grieve that a few field naturalists on one lone isle should be in sole enjoyment of what should have been a happiness to hundreds the world over.”
As Tutira prospered, Guthrie Smith could afford to spend more time as naturalist, pursuing vestiges of old New Zealand, generally in its last refuges: out-of-the- way places. Seizing chances—as for example when a berth became available on the Government steamer TutanekaiGuthrie-Smith left Tutira in the hands of a manager and reached for a camera. Laden with tripod and cumbersome glass plates, and often in the company of his enthusiastic daughter, he stalked birds from the Kermadecs to Campbell Island.
No stranger to uninhabited shores, forsaken islands and desolate riverbeds, he spent much time “under canvas, in shepherds’ huts, in grimy gold-washers’ shanties, in the oily wigwams of muttonbirders.” His labours were often attended by epic discomfort. On Big South Cape Island off Stewart Island, for example, in the worst but he had ever struck, he improvised a darkroom: an assistant sitting on the floor while he anxiously paced about, throwing over her whatever was to hand—blankets, rags, musty abandoned clothes—to seal out light. Once developed, the glass plates were carried carefully over rough country to the nearest source of fresh water: a stream almost two kilometres away.
Even on Tutira photography was arduous, each image often needing days of preparation. He scorned binoculars and, later, telephoto lenses, claiming that with patience it was always possible to get close to birds. Getting close was, for Guthrie-Smith, the only way to understand wildlife. His method was to build a screen of raupo or branches near a nest and set up a dummy camera. Days later, once the birds had accepted the oddity, he would replace it with a real camera and crouch motionless for long hours until the right shot presented itself.
Sometimes, more elaborate methods were called for, as in 1926 when Guthrie-Smith photographed yellowheads in Nelson. These birds, known as bush canaries for their colouring and musical trill, are canopy dwellers, living in the trunks of rotting trees up to 20 metres off the ground. Having discovered one of their nests, he had no option but to construct a tree platform at the same height, with the help of a friend, John Morel. The two men then took turns to sit aloft in the buffeting wind, “serene, refrigerated, cold as stone, content.”
Before any photographs could be taken, however, the yellowheads abandoned their nest. With the season drawing to a close, Guthrie-Smith and Morel searched for 12 days in relentless rain before another nest was found. Within two weeks they had built a new platform and over the next nine days took two usable photographs.
Guthrie-Smith downplayed the images he printed from what he called his “vicious brood of negatives,” though others applauded them. Indeed, he was one of the country’s pioneering natural history photographers, producing the first (and, in some cases, probably the last) good photographs of many rare and elusive birds. Despite these achievements, he had little trust in his own technical competence. To guard against overconfidence, he printed in large letters above a set of clear instructions on one of his cameras the words:
Fool! Fool!! FOOL!!!”
Nevertheless, he didn’t skimp on equipment, and ended up with an array of cameras—seven or eight in all. During one of his trips to the northern hemisphere, he was bewitched by an Akley camera in New York. It was almost as pricey as the car Georgina wanted, and for a time the two machines tussled for his attention. In light of the fact that service cars now passed Tutira regularly, Guthrie-Smith concluded that a private car was an unnecessary luxury; the camera was duly purchased.
Domestic comforts were not, however, entirely banished from his mind. On the same trip, he dined at the home of the assistant director of the New York Botanical Garden, and while there searched out unfamiliar electrical gadgets with the enthusiasm of a cargo cultist. Among the objects of desire: a vacuum cleaner, an iron, a coffee percolator and a washing machine. The dignified and knowledgeable antipodean endeared himself to the American scientist, who later wrote: “I have always considered this brief contact as one of the more pleasant experiences of my long botanical career.” The two stayed in touch, Guthrie-Smith regularly sending letters written in his cramped, almost illegible hand.
Staying in touch was one of Guthrie-Smith’s strong suits. Throughout his long life he developed deep friendships with a number of kindred spirits—some unlikely, such as that which blossomed with Captain Bollons, the charming and well-read skipper of the Tutanekai, and a seafarer of formidable bearing and rich experience. Guthrie-Smith was so taken with the man that he offered to help work on his reminiscences, and was devastated by the captain’s unexpected death.
To others he could appear cold and aloof. Beatrice Heays hints at a snobbish disdain of those he felt to be his intellectual inferiors, and recounts with disapproval that once, travelling across the United States, Guthrie-Smith demanded—and paid for—an entire rail carriage to himself in order to avoid fellow passengers.
John Haliburton, now retired to Napier, knew Guthrie Smith from the age of 10 and remembers him as “one of Nature’s gentlemen.” Haliburton, who became a stockman as soon as he had a couple of dogs, recalls the local dog trials and dance nights in the woolshed which stood between Lake Tutira and nearby Lake Waikapiro. Some revellers, arriving in gigs and on horse back, would stay overnight at the homestead. “Guthrie-Smith and his wife were great hosts,” he says. “People helped each other in those days, and Tutira was a warm spot.”
Guthrie-Smith was less accommodating to those he suspected of artifice. Woodhouse, his biographer, recounts the fate of a stranger who rode up late one day assuming lodging would be offered, and feigned an interest in botany. The woman, whose name Woodhouse tactfully surrenders to the mists of time, cajoled Guthrie-Smith into showing her his pressed fern specimens. After much persuasion, he relented. Courteously, patiently, he set each page before her, not moving to the next until she had made a suitable comment. It was almost midnight when Guthrie-Smith put the last dried plant away and the guest could finally stagger off to bed.
“Well,” he said when he found himself once more alone with his wife. “She’ll never trouble us again.”
It would be wrong to portray Guthrie-Smith merely as a farmer who happened to be a bird and plant enthusiast. He was alert to the nuances of nature, and particularly to the changes brought about by colonisation—what he called “the minutiae of the grafting of one civilisation upon another.” Self-taught, he became a leading authority on New Zealand plants—not the arcane world of classification, which he left to ardent specialists, but what might be called the sociology of plants. His was one of the early voices calling for conservation of New Zealand’s native flora and fauna. When the first society for forest and bird protection was founded about 1915, Guthrie-Smith was a leading member. In 1923, when the precursor to the present Royal Forest and Bird Protection Society was set up, he was one of the three inaugural vice-presidents.
While many academic zoologists were studying bones and skins from the comfort of their offices, Guthrie-Smith was braving the rigours of the field, painstakingly piecing together natural history based on the observation of living organisms.
His crowning achievement came in 1921 with the publication of Tutira. Subtitled “The Story of a New Zealand Sheep Station,” the book is an unlikely amalgam of, among other things, geology, geography, history, meteorology,’ animal husbandry and botany. It has insights akin to those found in Thoreau’s Walden, and mirrors the stylistic audacity and inclusiveness of Mary Dick. Totalling more than 440 pages in its third edition, and replete with photographs, line drawings, maps, tables, lists, swelling foot notes and even the results of a bathymetric survey of the lake taken by the future Bishop of Waiapu, it is unique in New Zealand writing; in world literature. Hailed as a classic on publication, Tutira is, above all, an intricately layered biography of the station. It is as though Guthrie-Smith had sunk walls of glass into the earth along the boundaries of his land, divining the history of New Zealand’s settlement, its economy, its distant geological past, its culture, from a close scrutiny of nothing more than what he had contained.
“From the moment a strange sail bosoms towards a new country, that country’s transformation is inevitable,” he wrote. Tiaira charted those changes. Guthrie-Smith was fortunate to have settled in Hawke’s Bay at a time when the effects of European colonisation were accelerating, and to witness what he called “a later and greater trek of living things.” He marked the waves of animal and plant migration, his 60-year vigil giving them the quality of fleeting clouds in time-lapse photography. Alien predators such as stoats and ferrets darkened the landscape with the shadow of their destruction, dislodging native species and forever altering the web of life. Ironically, weasels arrived in Hawke’s Bay before rabbits—the cure, as Guthrie-Smith quipped, before the disease—and moved on without trace.
Meanwhile, farmers grew anxious to detect the anticipated invasion of rabbits. “There wasn’t a sheep-farmer in the province who could not produce rabbit-droppings from his waistcoat pocket, who would not tremblingly request his friends to smell ’em and affirm they were hares’ or lambs’ or sheep—anything, in fact, but what they were.”
Immigrant birds such as thrushes, minahs and magpies, freshly released in New Zealand cities, found their way to the station by following coastal routes, the ridges of ranges, river valleys or road cuttings, according to their habits and needs. Plants arrived and, under the watchful eyes of Guthrie-Smith, revealed the changing pattern of the country’s commerce: Chili grass registered the flourishing trade with South America, Bermuda grass the transfer of troops from India, Californian stinkweed denoted dealings with the United States, Cape barley the exchange of goods with South Africa.
He described the spread—the “pedestrianism,” he called it—of wayfaring plants as they advanced in stages across the countryside, seeding then re-establishing themselves; hitching a short ride on a roadworker’s shovel here, the wheel of a dray there, taking advantage of an accommodating mane or hoof, a warm, sheltering stomach. Instinctively, his gaze fell on the things others ignored or trampled underfoot, elevating the striving of mere weeds to heroic proportions: “To my backwoodsman’s heart there is indeed something austere, distinguished even, in the brotherhood of weeds. They are the MacGregors of our artificial highlands seizing as of right . . . conditions they must yet despise.”
Guthrie-Smith was well placed to mark the changes. When he arrived, Tutira was home to 35 species of bird and more than half of New Zealand’s native ferns. Thanks to accidents of geology, the station, at the centre of a narrow funnel between one fertile belt of land running up from the Wairarapa and another leading down from Waiapu and Poverty Bay, lay in the path of a double current of migration.
Prefacing Tutira, he wrote: “Should its pages be found to contain matter of permanent interest, it will be owing to the fact that the life portrayed has for ever vanished, the conditions sketched passed away beyond recall.” Reading it afresh, I marvel at its brimming footnotes, its spirit of enquiry, its monumental scope.
By the third, and much enlarged, edition, Guthrie-Smith was well known. His writing, increasingly outspoken in defence of conservation, had helped sound the wake-up call over New Zealand’s declining wildlife. The Minister for Internal Affairs even came to Tutira to discuss Guthrie-Smith’s plans for forest preservation. Yet he didn’t live to see the new edition published. Just short of his 80th birthday, Herbert Guthrie-Smith had a heart attack and was confined to bed. He had been tending rhododendrons when it happened, and shifting heavy stones about in what had become a favoured spot: the rock garden.
Three days later, on the afternoon of July 4, 1940, he died. The way we would all like to go. Untroubled, and pain-free. Laughing. In the company of his daughter. “I always dreaded the failings of old age for him,” she confessed. “But he never grew old.”
Oliver Duff, editor of the Listener, described his death as a public calamity, and Guthrie-Smith himself as “. . . not so much a man as a voice—a voice expressing the sorrows and joys of the earth that we in New Zealand know. . . . His field was one small patch of land on which Homo sapiens was no more and no less interesting than the weasel or the rabbit, so that Tutira is literally New Zealand speaking. . . . He noted things as Darwin and Fabre noted them—looked at them, examined them, brooded over them; looked below, above, and around them; got them into focus; established their connection with other things; found what they meant, and still would mean to himself and to generations who would come after him; and not till he really knew what he was saying did he put his knowledge into print.” Eulogies appeared in British papers including The Times and Daily Telegraph, and the world’s pre-eminent scientific journal, Nature.
Driving back from Tutira, I take State Highway 2 through the Ureweras toward Opotiki, imagining newly arrived chaffinches coming at me above the road, following recently cleared farmland and the thread of riversGuthrie-Smith’s “lines of sight.” Seeing the landscape come alive with these lattices, these networks of creaturely migration, I realise his enduring gift. Like all true artists, Guthrie-Smith had the ability to make new things familiar, and turn what we so long have taken for granted into something rich and strange.