October 14, 2007

Lonely Isles

After I came to the U.S., I developed a habit of checking in secondhand bookstores for titles by New Zealanders or about New Zealand. It's interesting to see what bits of flotsam and jetsam from your home country make their way here. For instance, in Fredericksburg, Maryland, I bought New Zealand by William Cameron, a history of the country's attempt to "lead the islands of the South Pacific in the creation of a new Anglo-Polynesian civilization." It was published in 1965 in Englewood Cliffs, NJ (where, incidentally, I once spent a miserable five weeks as a freelance fact checker for Life&Style magazine.) I was leafing through it today and found an interesting passage in a chapter titled "From Bonanza to Export Drive." (For the record, I'm not one of the many New Zealanders who disparage the country's history as boring and not worth reading about, but I must say that titles like that don't help.) Anyway, over the years I've heard many explanations for the solitary strain that runs thought a lot of New Zealand art and writing and culture, but Cameron's take was new to me:

"There can be no doubt that the peculiar form of isolationism that prevails in New Zealand is produced by the occupational habits of her farmers. Preoccupation with producing wool, butter, cheese, and meat for a seemingly inexhaustible market created by a continuation of Great Britain's nineteenth-century concentration upon industrialization has tended to make New Zealanders think that all one needs to worry about is producing the goods and they will sell themselves. This attitude was probably engendered in the pioneers very early by bonanza conditions. No one needed to worry about a market for gold; all one had to do was find it and mine it. No one needed to worry about a market for wool; all one had to worry about was the price offering.... The consequences of having one's main market on the other side of the world induced the feeling that one could not really manipulate that market.. The New Zealander soon learned to keep his eyes on his own garden."

I'm not sure about explaining the national character through the vagaries of the export market, but I do think that, as with most places, the way New Zealand was settled had a lot to do with the kind of culture that developed there. I remember my grandmother telling me about how her mother came to New Zealand from the island of Jersey in the English Channel. She had only known her husband for a few months before she decided to take a three-month sea voyage to the other side of the world with him. She spoke only French, no English, and couldn't read or write, so at first it was hard for her to communicate with her family at home, at least until her children grew old enough to help her write letters. They lived on a farm several miles from the nearest road and even further from the nearest town, which was the small settlement of Eketahuna, a Maori word which means "to run aground on a sandbank."

Being a pioneer in New Zealand wasn't like being a pioneer in the American West. Unlike the wide plains that you find in the Western states of the U.S., New Zealand is all hills and gullies, mountain ranges and valleys. Today, the landscape is mostly settled farmland, but back then it was covered in dense, tenacious bush. You couldn't see past the next hill or the bush that hemmed in your house or your town. Driving in New Zealand, you very rarely get that sense of unimpeded possibility that is a common experience in the American West--and nor did you get the optimism and recklesseness that those limitless horizons inspired. Instead, you got caution and pessimism, a sense that if things were bearable where you were, you'd better stay put, because they might be worse if you moved on. And a pragmatic self-sufficiency and an ability to cope without other people that later became a culture which put less value on community, and had a kind of loneliness soaked into its bones.

I think I mention this because I was thinking about my grandmothers today. Both are over 90 (the older one is 96). Both of them are extremely resourceful and independent and, until very recently, lived for quite a long time on their own. My Nana is cheerful and practical; my Grandma is curious and inquisitive. I've always thought that in their different ways, they embody some of the more admirable aspects of that older New Zealand culture, which has changed a lot in my lifetime, mostly for the better, and looks likely to keep on changing.