He warned that European colonisation threatened a similar fate for other parts of the world. These concerns came back with a vengeance in the 1930s, when the Dust Bowl in the United States began to raise alarm about the long-term security of global food supply.
In the 1930s, south-eastern Australia was also plagued by dust storms. The biologist Francis Ratcliffe, in Flying Fox and Drifting Sand: The Adventures of a Biologist in Australia (1939), described the situation in South Australia as a fight for survival.
Nothing less than a battlefield, on which man is engaged in a struggle with the remorseless forces of drought, erosion and drift.
In New Zealand’s different climate and topography, another version of the erosion crisis was also becoming evident. Geographer Kenneth Cumberland described the growing desolation of the North Island’s hill-country pasture.
Miles upon miles of the Hawkes Bay, Poverty Bay, Wanganui and Taranaki- Whangamomona inlands have slip-scarred slopes […] The recent history of these regions is one of abandonment, of decreasing population, of a succession of serious floods, and of slip-severed communications.
Cumberland argued in 1944 that New Zealand’s soil erosion problems “attain the extreme national significance […] of those of the United States.”
No greater peace-time issue faces Australia than the conquest of soil erosion.
Because agriculture is so central to western ideas of civilisation, commentators found that cultural and environmental questions were inextricable. This overlapping of science and ideology is evident in G. V. Jacks and R. O. Whyte’s The Rape of the Earth: A World Survey of Soil Erosion (1939), written by two scientists at Oxford’s Imperial Bureau of Soil Science.
The organisation of civilised societies is founded upon the measures taken to wrest control of the soil from wild Nature, and not until complete control has passed into human hands can a stable superstructure of what we call civilisation be erected on the land.
The belief that nature must be subdued and remade was especially potent among the settler populations of Australia and New Zealand. There colonial identity and economic survival were both inextricably bound up with the success of agricultural and pastoral production.
To fit Australia into the pattern of Western civilisation, economically and socially, we have upset the natural balance and turned ourselves into destroyers instead of creators.
The cultural commentator Monte Holcroft used even stronger language to express a similar thought in Creative Problems in New Zealand (1948).
But we see also the bare hillsides, the remnants of forest, the flooding rivers, and in some districts the impoverished soil. The balance of nature has changed. Are we to assume that a people which possessed the land in this manner — raping it in the name of progress — can remain untroubled and secure in occupation?
As the title says, erosion was now a “creative problem”. Even as they were committed to colonial forms of society, settler writers were increasingly aware that their environmental foundations were not as stable as had previously been assumed.
In New Zealand literature, the landscape wasn’t simply a backdrop: writers often depicted Pākehā identity as being produced through a direct confrontation with geology. The poet and critic Allen Curnow described the sense “that we are interlopers on an indifferent or hostile scene” as a “common problem of the imagination”. As Curnow wrote in his poem, The Scene, in 1941:
Here among the shaggy mountains cast away
Man’s shape must be recast
Settlement was also described as an encounter between “man” and the landscape in an influential poem by Charles Brasch, The Silent Land, in 1945:
Man must lie with the gaunt hills like a lover,
Earning their intimacy in the calm sigh
Of a century of quiet and assiduity.
Critic Francis Pound has described this nationalist preoccupation as a “soil mysticism”. In focusing so closely on the soil, Pākehā writers were also able to overlook its occupancy by Māori and their own deep knowledge of the land.
Awareness of erosion
Yet Brasch’s appeal is to “gaunt hills”: the landscape of literature was more often than not eroded rather than untouched.
Frank Sargeson’s 1943 short story, Gods Live in Woods, drew on the experience of his uncle, who had felled the forest to establish a hill country farm in Te Rohe Pōtae/the King Country.
And places where the grass still held were scarred by slips that showed up the clay and papa. One of these had come down from above the track, and piled up on it before going down into the creek. A chain or so of fence had been in its way and it had gone too. You could see some posts and wires sticking out of the clay.
Erosion also spread into the common stock of literary imagery. In a short poem by Colin Newbury, In My Country (1955), it appears as a metaphor for disappointed love.
He stands close to the earth,
My obdurate countryman,
Drawing from the wind’s breath,
The arid sweetness of flower and mountain;
Knows no green herb for the heart’s erosion.
Such texts demonstrate the ecological concept of “shifting baseline syndrome”, as described by Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing and her collaborators, whereby “newly shaped and ruined landscapes become the new reality”.
Although so much of Pākehā writing about geology from this time imagines the relationship between humanity and nature as hostile and irreversibly damaged, some offered glimpses of alternative possibilities. One was Ursula Bethell, whose poem Weathered Rocks (1936) stretched her Christian beliefs to find common ground with geology. Through this she imagined a less antagonistic relationship with nature.
When a block of land passes, as it may do through the hands of ten holders in half a century, how can long views be taken of its rights? Who under these conditions can give his acres their due?
Auē, taukari e, anō te kūware o te Pākehā kāhore nei i whakaaro ki te mauri o te whenua. Alas! Alas! that the Pākehā should so neglect the rights of the land, so forget the traditions of the Māori race, a people who recognised in it something more than the ability to grow meat and wool.
This view of the land as a political partner, endowed with independence and rights, appears to offer a new environmental perspective that in fact draws on the long-standing Indigenous legal principles of tikanga Māori.
Mid-20th century settler writing about erosion holds renewed interest today because it conveys a strikingly literal, visible sense of the Anthropocene: the geological impact of colonisation was plainly evident in sand drift, dust storms and scarred hillsides.
Writers were not blind to environmental damage, but in the main their responses are reminiscent of what critic Greg Garrard has called the present-day “gloomy trio of Anthropocenic futures — business-as-usual, mitigation and geo-engineering”.
But writers such as Bethell and Guthrie-Smith demonstrate the ongoing importance of creative work for questioning the values that created and sustain the Anthropocene we now all inhabit.
Meet Otis. He’s eight years old and until recently he didn’t want to read or write. Then his teacher changed the way she taught and things began to improve.
After a few weeks, Otis (not his real name, but he’s a real child) wanted to read and write at every opportunity. With this new-found knowledge and motivation his skill increased too. And his confidence.
So what was different? Technically, Otis’s teacher had begun using what is known as a structured approach to teaching literacy. Essential for children with a literacy learning difficulty such as dyslexia, it has been shown to be beneficial for all children.
The structured approach is a departure from what is known as the “implicit” teaching approach most teachers have used in the classroom. There are now calls for “explicit” instruction to be adopted more generally, including a petition recently presented to the New Zealand Parliament.
New data suggest this is an urgent problem, with growing numbers of young people turning off reading. According to a recent report from the Education Ministry’s chief education science adviser, 52% of 15-year-olds now say they read only if they have to – up from 38% in 2009.
The report made a number of recommendations, including that the ability to “decode” words become a focus in the first years of school. The importance of decoding to literacy success was reiterated by learning disability and dyslexia advocacy group SPELD NZ. It called for a change in teacher training and urgent professional development in structured literacy teaching.
Structured literacy teaching means the knowledge and skills for reading and writing are explicitly taught in a sequence, from simple to more complex. Children learn to decode simple words such as tap, hit, red and fun before they read words with more complex spelling patterns such as down, found or walked.
Learning correct letter formation is a priority. Mastery of these skills builds a strong foundation for reading and writing, without which progress is slow, motivation stalls and achievement suffers.
The books children first read in a structured approach employ these restricted spelling patterns. Reading these with his teacher’s help, Otis built on his skills with simple words and progressed to decoding words with advanced spelling patterns.
These structured lessons also allowed him to master letter and sentence formation, so he made progress in writing too.
Old approaches aren’t working
By contrast, an implicit approach to teaching reading essentially means children have lots of opportunities to read and write, and learn along the way with teacher guidance.
Unfortunately, children like Otis can get lost along the way, too.
Implicit reading books use words with a variety of spelling patterns – for example: Mum found a sandal. “Look at the sandal,” said Mum.
When Otis tried to read these books, he looked at the pictures or tried to remember the teacher’s introduction before attempting the words. But he was not building his skills and was getting left behind.
Otis is not alone, and New Zealand’s literacy results support the calls for change. Despite many interventions and the daily hard work of teachers, it is common for schools to report 30% of children with low reading results and 40% with low writing results.
However, a Massey University study in 2019 found reading outcomes improved when teachers were trained in a structured approach. The results were particularly good for children with the lowest results prior to intervention.
Overall, the findings suggest the change in teaching had a positive effect on children’s learning.
Change is already happening
Fortunately for children like Otis, more teachers are now seeking training in a structured approach. One project based on the Massey research involved more than 100 teachers in over 40 schools. Teacher comments suggest the knowledge and training support has helped them change their teaching for the benefit of the whole class.
Further signs of hope include recent Ministry of Education efforts to develop structured approach teaching materials, and the resources now available for teachers on the ministry’s Te Kete Ipurangi support site.
No one pretends change is easy in a complex area such as literacy teaching. But every child like Otis has the right succeed, and every teacher has the right to be supported in their approach to helping Otis and his peers learn.
With courage and effort at every level of the system – not just from classroom teachers – a structured approach to literacy teaching can improve outcomes and have a positive impact that will stay with children for the rest of their lives.
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