The man between the rivers
From 1860 to 1864 Samuel Butler chased sheep in the foothills of the Southern Alps,
explored unknown mountain passes and propounded his philosophies to the gentlefolk of Canterbury. He left behind a legend and a 100,000-acre sheep station, Mesopotamia. It was there that novelist James McNeish went to discover what it was that inspired one of the world’s great satirists.
Samuel butler, gentleman, of Canterbury” was how he described himself in 1860. There are two ways of fixing the legend of Samuel Butler in New Zealand. One describes a crank. In the eyes of his contemporaries Butler was “the small dark man with penetrating eyes who took up a run at the back of beyond and carted a piano up there on a bullock dray.” The other version, by a modern historian, Robert Pinney, is more exalted: Butler, author of Erewhon, The Way of All Flesh and the Notebooks, was “the most celebrated literary figure ever to own a sheep station in the southern hemisphere”.
That sheep station in the foothills of the Alps was Mesopotamia, the setting and crossing point into Erewhon, Butler’s Utopia beyond the range, which alone has conferred on Mesopotamia in particular and Canterbury in general a kind of immortality.
Butler discovered Mesopotamia; he named it, he defined and stocked it, and, when not riding over one of the two mountain saddles which now bear his name into the MacKenzie to play whist with a friend, or when not visiting Christchurch, Butler actually lived on the place.
He was, it happens, the first, and for 80 years the last, owner to do this — the other owners were absentees. Then, in 1945, Malcolm and Thelma Prouting arrived from Clent Hills, bought the 100,000-acre run and founded a dynasty of owner-managers which looks set for another century at the least.
When I first visited Mesopotamia in 1969, Laurie Prouting, Malcolm’s third son and today’s owner, was a young man and somewhat reserved — sceptical — about Samuel Butler,the “gentleman farmer” who had begun it all. Greeting me when I returned after a gap of 20 years, Laurie at first seemed even more sceptical of the legend— “Why all this fuss about Butler?” he asked. “Butler was no sheep farmer.”
It was September, 1990. The spring muster had ended the day before, and the shearing of some 17,500 merinos had just begun. There was a lot of activity, and Laurie was seldom still for five minutes at a time. It was only on the last evening before we left that he sat down and gave me his real view of Butler— one which leads me now to think that this 45-year-old shepherd-owner has understood something that generations of scholars and climbers poring over Erewhon and trying to identify points of that mythical journey have missed entirely.
It is true: Samuel Butler was an unlikely sheep man. At Mesopotamia, besides writing, he sketched and painted. He had really wanted to be an artist, but his father, a Nottingham clergyman, pushed him towards the church. Butler acquiesced—he made a half-hearted attempt to be ordained — then rebelled, and in the end was packed off to the colonies with a yearly allowance of £1000 to become a farmer. Butler had one aim: to increase his capital so he could achieve independence and escape the influence of a domineering father forever.
Landing at Port Lyttelton in January, 1860, Butler was optimistic. He was 24. Unoccupied land for grazing could be had, he had been told, for a farthing an acre. He quickly discovered that although the infant settlement was barely ten years old, all the country available for leasing — that is, all the plains and surrounding wastelands as far as the Alps — had already been taken up. He would have to look further afield.
Butler had received a classical education at Cambridge, and at this stage did not know a cast ram from a cockatoo. He was undeterred. He bought a horse and set off up-country. Runholders laughed when he said he was going exploring — “The worse the account you hear of occupied or unoccupied country,” he told them on return, “the greater the reason for going to look at it.”
A chronology of Butler’s early rides gives the extent of his determination. He explored the Rakaia and the Harper rivers. He found nothing there. He rode up the Hurunui, and found nothing there. He rode up the Waimakariri — still nothing. Then up the Rangitata, but once again he was defeated. When he got up past the gorge, past Mount Peel where the Acland and Tripp families lived, and came to Forest Creek, hard up against the Ben McLeod Range, all the land that he could see — Mesopotamia as it would become — was also taken up by runholders.
Energetic, naturally robust, Butler simply kept going — he and a companion. They set off up Forest Creek and camped in the river bed. What happened next day, Butler describes very well. He speaks of waking “on a clear frosty morning — so frosty that the tea leaves in our pannikin were frozen, and our outer blanket crisped with frozen dew. We went up a little gorge, as narrow as a street in Genoa, with huge black and dripping precipices overhanging it, so as almost to shut out the light of heaven…” Seven hours later they were on the tops of the Two Thumb Range, and Butler found himself gazing on a tract of hidden country that took his breath away.
In fact, three things in succession had happened with dramatic suddenness. First, scrambling up, Butler had looked left and seen the MacKenzie Plains unfolding in an unbroken steppe to the south. The view was unsatisfactory, so he scrambled a few hundred feet higher, and there, to his surprise, bang in front of him, was Mount Cook:
“The effect was startling. It rose towering in a massy parallelogram, disclosed from top to bottom in the cloudless sky, far above all others. It was exactly opposite to me.”
Then, without moving, merely by turning his shoulders, Butler looked back and saw, secreted between the Two Thumb and Sinclair Ranges, a basin of ten to fifteen thousand acres of tussock and snowgrass country that had not been seen by any European before.
“A useful little run,” was how Butler described it, masking his feelings. It was undoubtedly one of the most thrilling moments in his life, and, certainly in financial terms, the most rewarding.
An excited Butler hurried back to Christchurch, drew a map, applied for and took up the land. It was at 3500ft with vegetation rising to 5000 and 6000ft, the nucleus and dress circle of a vast area he would gradually accumulate lower down between Forest Creek, Bush Stream and the Rangitata River, and name Mesopotamia — “the land between the rivers”.
This high, hidden basin was Butler’s first run, known locally as “the valley country”. Butler wrote that “people meet me whenever I come down to Christchurch and ask me if I am frozen out yet.”
He first time I saw this country was from the cockpit of Laurie Prouting’s Auster, his “station hack”. We flew up Bush Stream, hopped over the Two Thumb range to look down on Tekapo and the Mackenzie, and returned scouting the valley country and overflying the length of Forest Creek. It was February, high summer. We had taken off in warm sunshine; on the way down, it began to snow.
“Laurie,” my diary records, “wore a crash helmet and slippers. He has a habit of patting the dashboard and talking to it when the plane stalls. We flew to the Butler Saddle (5500ft), the only exit from the valley hidden behind Bush Stream, and fell down Forest Creek amid great turbulence. Suddenly, without warning, snow came at us. The peaks disappeared, we flew in circles. As we climbed and banked and turned, the rock faces came about us, almost touching the wings.”
Afterwards, I got down from the plane shaking. But I had learned something. Laurie had already told me that in winter the valley country was death for sheep — “a whiteout”. And Butler, I realised, must have tumbled to it.
Butler’s discovery was made in April 1860. He did a clever thing. Returning in May, he brought two companions and put up a rough A-frame hut. Instead of stocking the run at once, he spent the winter months exploring and climbing up to see if it was safe to put sheep over the top. It wasn’t. Quite soon he had moved down to the warmer river plain, where he brought up supplies, his first flock, a cat (transported on the pommel of his saddle in a bag and soused from the innumerable river crossings), and eventually a piano. He bought out the other runholders, acquired a strip of downs along the base of the Sinclair Range and, on a shelf overlooking the immense Rangitata plain, staked out a desirable site for a homestead.
But there was a problem. The site Butler had chosen to build his house on was already occupied by a hut. The hut’s owner, a dubious character named Caton, with a ruffian’s temper, was twice Butler’s size. No amount of persuasion could induce Caton to sell or move the dwelling, which was undoubtedly on Butler’s land. How the dispute was settled — by a dramatic two-day race by horse to the Land Office in Christchurch — is now a famous story (Butler tells it in his A First year in Canterbury Settlement).
Butler won, but only just, and afterwards rushed round to his solicitor’s rooms in Oxford Terrace, banged up the piano lid and spent the rest of the morning working off his feelings playing Bach fugues.
Two weeks later he had bought out Caton, and early in 1861 built a small sod hut, and presently a second, bigger but — two rooms and a verandah — a cob dwelling he dignified by the term “homestead”. He settled in, with six servants, and almost at once a legend began to grow.
Two pictures come down to us. One is the face of an explorer, soon to discover the Whitcombe Pass; a face blackened by sun — “not only his neck burnt chocolate red but his face right up to the line on his forehead marked by his hat”. The other picture has to do with the domestic scene, and there are many stories. Butler, we’re told, thatched the house himself, but put the snowgrass the wrong way round, starting at the ridge instead of the eave, so that when it rained all the water ran inside.
There are stories about Butler’s candlesticks, about his branding irons (which disappeared but have since been found), about his piano (which also disappeared and has never been found). Even Butler’s dinner forks have entered the legend.
“For a long time I had to do the washing up after each meal,” Butler wrote. “I used to do the knives first, for it might please God to take me before I came to the forks, and then what a sell it would have been to have done the forks rather than the knives.”
The homestead was primitive, with odd unexplained projections. “What’s that for?” a visitor asked, pointing to a beam which didn’t appear to support anything. Butler replied, “That’s to hang myself from, when I’m tired of chasing sheep.”
Butler hated sheep, according to Ngaio Marsh. Dame Ngaio, who died in 1982 and is buried down the road in Mount Peel churchyard, had a fund of stories about Butler. When she was writing her books she used to visit the Aclands at Mount Peel, just as a century earlier Samuel Butler beginning to dream of an imaginary land which he would one day call Erewhon, had visited the Aclands and the Tripps.
“Samuel Butler was a constant visitor,” wrote Ellen Tripp of his visits to Mount Peel homestead. “He was full of wild theories. My husband enjoyed talking to him, but I found his views [on religion] very upsetting, and we did not like it when he tried to convert our maid to his ideas.”
Canterbury at that time had a marked ecclesiastical flavour. Butler, considered an atheist, quickly became its enfant terrible. His attempts to corrupt Mrs Tripp’s maid at Mount Peel, and subsequently at Mount Somers, are well documented. Less well known is the story, acknowledged by Mrs Tripp’s descendants, that when Butler had departed the premises she would go from room to room swinging a shovelful of live coals to exorcise any contaminating spirits he may have left behind.
Butler is said to have courted unsuccessfully — a 16-year-old school girl who sang in the choir at Avonside Church. Back at Mesopotamia, he spent the evenings playing his piano and telling ghost stories. The piano took up half the hut.
By 1863 Butler was comfortably established and, though he denied it later, almost ludicrously contented — “My sitting room is hung with the pictures I had at Cambridge. I have more books than I can read.”
He had a garden — “three peach trees, four plum trees and four cherry trees. I have plenty to eat and drink, fresh air and good health, and nice quiet steady industrious servants (a shepherd, a bullock-driver, a hut-keeper, two rouseabouts employed mainly at fencing, and an overseer).” His ewes were multiplying, there had been no killer snows, the price of wool was rising — in Butler’s words, “What more can a mortal desire?”
The answer was, in a word, society. He was bored. It was 40 kilometres to his closest neighbours, the Aclands and Tripps, and a three-day journey to his nearest bookshop. Butler was lonely, and he missed “the intellectual society of clever men”. In the end, his longing for a more stimulating lifestyle drew him back first to Christchurch and then, a year later, to England.
Mesopotamia is a cruel station. Not far from a clump of rowan and willow there is a grave with 1800 sheep in it they were bulldozed into the ground in 1967, victims of that November’s snow.
Before the Proutings came, the owner was William Nosworthy, MP (later Sir William), and he was broken by a combination of snow and rabbits. The member for mid-Canterbury walked off Mesopotamia defeated. The bank took over.
The risks today are more likely to be mechanical. “I suppose,” Laurie said to me one afternoon when we had flown across the Rangitata and put down at Arrowsmith, “I’ll come a gutser one of these days.” Laurie has had two forced landings and survived. Two of his brothers have died in accidents, the youngest, Peter, 23, in a plane crash in 1980 just below the downs in view of the homestead and in full view of the father.
In Butler’s day the risk was of drowning, known then as “the national death”. One of Butler’s first tasks at Mesopotamia was to provide a burial stone for Andrew Sinclair, botanist and former Colonial Secretary. Sinclair and Julius von Haast had been using Butler’s station as base camp for scientific exploration in the area. Sinclair had drowned attempting to cross the Rangitata on his way back to Mesopotamia in 1861. Butler himself had several close shaves while exploring. On one occasion, when knocked over and swept away by rapids, he saved himself by lying on his back and kicking out with both legs.
Early in 1861, joining forces with a young surveyor, John Baker, he set off from Mesopotamia to explore the headwaters of the Rangitata.
It was this jaunt, opening up a pass to the West Coast — the Whitcombe — that would lead John Pascoe, in Great Days in New Zealand Exploration, to place Butler alongside Mr Explorer Douglas and Thomas Brunner. “My admiration for Butler,” Pascoe once wrote, “is based on my belief he was a great explorer by topographical instinct.”
Butler said that he and Baker were looking for “more country”. However, since he had already accumulated, or was in the process of accumulating, 80,000 acres — a more than adequate plot, one would have thought, for a young bachelor starting out in life — it seems likely he was equally attracted by the prospect of being first over the Main Divide at this point. Butler was competitive.
He was restless. And, as Pascoe reminds us, in 1861 Arthur’s Pass was undiscovered, the Haast uncrossed and the Southern Alps still “virtually terra incognita for hundreds of miles”.
One result of their discovery was that two years later John Whitcombe was sent over with the Swiss guide Jakob Lauper to attempt the first complete crossing to the Coast, but Whitcombe drowned on the other side.
By then, 1863, Butler had published in the Press newspaper a revolutionary article, “Darwin among the Machines”, which, together with a landscape germinating in his mind, was to become the kernel of Erewhon.
Erewhon was published in 1872, after Butler returned to England. Because of it Butler was hailed, by Bernard Shaw among others, as a giant among satirists.
Erewhon is now regarded as a farsighted prophecy of computers. It is a prophetic book. But it is also a physical book — in it, Butler seized on the imaginative potential of what to most New Zealanders is everyday experience, and provided, in the early chapters, a fascinating topographical jigsaw for generations of New Zealanders both past and to come.
We now know from two Butlerphiles, the mountaineer-historian John Pascoe and the geologist-physician Peter Maling, that almost every feature in the opening section of Erewhon can be traced to Butler’s wanderings around Mesopotamia. Looked at another way, almost every footstep in the climb to the top of the Whitcombe Pass giving on to Butler’s Utopia, which he first called Nowhere, and then turned inside out, can be identified in the first 50 pages.
New Zealand enters the book more than most of us realise. Chowbok the guide, for example, is based on an aboriginal mail-runner Butler knew who worked for the Aclands at Mount Peel.
Still today, scholars are mystified by the statues at the top of the pass: those moaning figures which have been compared to “the groaning and labouring of all creation”.
Inventions of the Butler imagination? Not so. Peter Maling identified them for me first (“Up Forest Creek they’re perched blocks, sitting on the top of pillars of eroded gravel”). Laurie Prouting, when I mentioned the statues to him, agreed — “Forest Creek,” he said, and as we flew up that sombre gully early one evening he slid back the cockpit window and pointed. But the light was going, the “statues” almost invisible against the grey rock.
Laurie turned the plane and circled. Suddenly, and just for an instant, the sun appeared over a spur, lighting up for our photographer the strange pillars that were almost certainly the source of Butler’s invention.
People turn up at Mesopotamia all the time, according to Laurie and Anne Prouting, because of Butler. “We had three people from England in the space of a week this summer,” Anne said. “Two were doing a thesis, and a third a book on Butler. They’d travelled from England specially.”
I asked Laurie how much Mesopotamia had changed in 130 years. “Hardly at all,” he said. “The boundaries are still rivers and high tops. In winter two-thirds of the run is closed down by snow. Basically, the layout, the way we do things, hasn’t changed since Butler’s day. Of course, we have machines and can do some things faster than he could, but our muster is still done the same way — we go out with packhorses into the valley country. We have no tracks.
“We take the horses, a team of seven men, a packman. We cross the Bush Stream 15 to 20 times, a very steep climb the first day. This is the autumn muster. It takes nine days, bringing the stock down from the summer country, from the snow regions.
“What amazes me: I never have to ask for musterers. We take on casuals. They’re lined up waiting, they’re so keen. Young fellas. Really, they are trying to retire me. I’m 47. They’ll say to me, ‘Do you really want to come out this time, Laurie?’ The tone being, `There’s plenty to take your place.’ But I’m a bit selfish and keep going out myself.”
We were sitting talking after the evening meal. It was late. Laurie, his daughter Neroli and Matt, one of the shepherds, had just come in. They had been straggle-mustering above Bush Stream, lifted in that morning by helicopter, but the starter motor had jammed, and they had had to walk out, a total of 68 miles between them.
Laurie was talking again about valley country, Butler’s first run, and I quoted to him something Butler had written in Erewhon — a view he describes in the early morning, looking down from a saddle towards Mount Harper and the Ben McLeod Range. Laurie murmured, “Yes, that’s right.
That’s from the Bullock Bow Saddle. That’s exactly what you see.”
He said, “It is high up there. The valley floor, once you get through the impassable gorge, as we term it, would be 3500ft rising to our top hut, with tall snow tussock and vegetation to 5500, going higher in places. Sheep will be living out at 6500ft. In the autumn muster they’ll go to 7000ft to get away from us, as high as 7500ft. The Two Thumb Range is 8400 — that’s the thumbs of the range. But we’re petering out at 7500.”
A dreamy look had come over Laurie. He suddenly said, “I don’t know what Butler was looking for up there. Do you?
“My version of Butler, he was looking for — I don’t know, but some people call it Utopia. Butler called it Erewhon, the land of Nowhere. I put myself in his shoes, and nothing would suit me better than to be the first to be looking on, say, a beautiful valley with copses of trees and clear, crystal water running through. A sunny aspect. Virgin country, untouched. Wouldn’t that be your ideal?”
But in Erewhon, I explained to Laurie, Butler wasn’t describing real land at all — “It’s entirely imaginary, Laurie,” I said. He wasn’t listening.
“It’s like a sanctuary, this valley,” he said. “It’s ringed by mountains. It’s got an impassable gorge leading to it. To get there you’ve got to climb. You’re in there, protected, safe. You’re far from the troubles of everyday life. It comes very close, if you’ll allow me to get back to this Utopia again, to the land I’d be looking for.”
Today’s homestead is a postwar building. It stands in a copse of pine and willow above the school. Down below, alongside the school, a mound is visible showing where the walls of Butler’s house once were. A bronze plaque says: “On this site was Samuel Butler’s Homestead 1863.”
At one end there is a heap of stones, said to be the remains of Butler’s dairy (it isn’t). Laurie can remember the stone dairy — “Somebody dropped a tree across the roof and flattened it” — though not the homestead. Of Butler’s house, made of thick mud walls and a large stone fireplace and chimney, there is no sign. The last vestiges of the period, an old stone cookhouse and an iron-roofed but built for shearers, have also gone.
All of which many people find surprising, given the Butler legend in Canterbury, the acclaim that burst upon him when he died and the fact that in the year of his death, 1902, Butler’s home at Mesopotamia was standing solid, fully thatched, as remarkable a literary landmark as New Zealand would be likely ever to possess.
At this stage, Butler’s piano had vanished, but some of the pictures he had painted were hanging still, and nearly 20 years later, when Arnold Wall was up there, the building was intact — “The cob structure in good order,” Prof. Wall wrote, “just a few sheets of iron needed thrown over the thatch to preserve it for all time.”
The pictures Butler had left on the walls were covered in dust and cobwebs and “quite smoke-dried”. Lying in a corner were sketching materials, manuscripts, musical scores, Greek verses and, among Butler’s books, a remarkable Bible.
In the following years the building gradually deteriorated, the thatch breaking up, the interior used for the storage of rabbit skins. Then, in November 1925, this report in a Wellington newspaper: “News has been received that the home of Samuel Butler, the author of Erewhon, who wrote there the first part of his now famous book, has collapsed owing to a heavy fall of snow.”
By 1929 it was all over. There had been protests in the newspapers, a committee formed to try and preserve the cottage against the heavy snows, but to no avail. In 1929 an anonymous station hand wrote that visitors were arriving from near and far “to take away any small part of the old Cottage as a souvenir”. That was the year the manager declared the building unsafe. It was carted down the road and dumped, a pile of rubble and debris, on the river flats below.
In New Zealand today there is thus a legend but no shrine. However, there is a footnote.
Butler returned to England in 1864, financially secure, and spent most of the rest of his life immured in London living between Clifford’s Inn and the British Museum. He died, unaware of the critical adulation waiting to descend upon him, a sad and lonely man.
In 1865, shortly after he got back to England, he wrote to Charles Darwin that he might return to New Zealand — “very probably I may return,” he said. He never did. And yet, in the oddest way, Butler has never really departed.
He has left a foot in New Zealand — more accurately, a piece of land.
This was discovered many years ago when Sir John Acland, a member of the Geraldine County Council, was asked by the county clerk if he knew the whereabouts of one of his Rangitata neighbours, a Mr Butler, who was a runholder at Forest Creek.
“It appears,” said the clerk in a puzzled way, “that he hasn’t paid his rates for a number of years.” In fact, rates were being demanded by the council from an invisible Mr Butler right up to the time of the Second World War. The land in question, described as “Rural section 2591, situate junction of Forest Creek and Butler Creek, 20 acres freehold, purchased 28 June, 1860, cash paid in full £40”, was Samuel Butler’s first purchase at Mesopotamia.
Butler has been dead almost 90 years. But he is, according to the Department of Survey & Land Information, Christchurch, still a landowner in New Zealand. Today, unbelievably, the 20-acre section at Forest Creek is still in the name: “Samuel Butler, gentleman, of Canterbury”.