Book Review: The Face of Nature: An Environmental History of the Otago Peninsula, by Jonathan West

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_The_face_of_nature.jpgThe Otago Peninsula is a clearly defined geographical area. Bounded by the sea and the hills, it provides an environment for seals, penguin and albatrosses. The abundant resources of the peninsula also made it an important place for the early Polynesian arrivals. This book follows the story of the Peninsula from pre-settlement to the end of the 19th Century.

Jonathan West has a love for this area where he was raised. He has tramped the hills and researched the history thoroughly. He melds the natural environment with the imposed implications of settlement. This is not an unreadable scientific document, nor is it a retrospective History. Instead, the Chapter headings clearly lead us across a changing landscape.

It begins with the land: He Whenua Hou. This is followed by Arrival and Adaptation, first of the Māori and the early settlement of Otakou. Each chapter includes maps and photographs to ensure the reader can visualise the enormous changes to the landscape. The research is thorough and includes many small details, which added depth to my understanding. The accounts of conflicts between settlers and Māori and the impact these have had on the development of certain areas and cultural practices, showed an understanding of the changes in perception of what is good and right. Whilst the British came to a shared arrangement for settlement, this was no easy journey. I found the chapter: The Axe and the Lucifer Match of particular interest… Such rapid destruction of the land, and the competition for the fisheries made startling reading.

Jonathan West concludes with the chapter from which the title of the book comes: ‘The Whole Face of Nature is Altered’. This is a quote from a reflection written in 1899 by G. M. Thomson. The journey is ongoing and in the concluding chapter, West reflects on the future of the many endangered species present on the Otago Peninsula.

This book is an essential for anyone with a love of, and interest in the Otago Peninsula. It unites the land and the people over a rapidly changing landscape and raises a number of pressing questions about what happens next. The illustrations allow easy access to understanding and the comprehensive notes at the end, allow access to further information.

Reviewed by Kathy Watson

The Face of Nature: An Environmental History of the Otago Peninsula
By Jonathan West
Published by Otago University Press
ISBN  9781927322383


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