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The New Zealand landscape
in our hymns



  First there was the land,  its forms,  its creatures,  its plant and animal life.   There were no songs;  only the fluting of the birds,  the wind in the trees,  the crashing of surf on empty beaches,  the roar of water rushing down rocky river beds.   There was no landscape,  for landscape is a human invention,  a way of looking at the world of nature,  which is too preoccupied with itself and its own activities for introspection.

The first humans to beach their wakas on our shores may have perceived these new-found islands as no more than a place to satisfy their need for food,  shelter and space.   But they brought with them deeply-rooted religious ideas and attitudes towards their whole physical environment.   And so,  for its earliest human inhabitants,  New Zealand soon became numinous,  spirit-filled;  their own existence perceived as a partnership between themselves and the sacred land.   There were songs and legends and stories now,  expressing that spiritual relationship between their own life and the equally significant life of the land forms and its plants and creatures.   But that tale may only be told by those people and their descendants as and when they choose.

nz pic
The earliest European settlers and successive waves of immigrants also brought with them pre-conceptions about land and its character.   Many were entirely secular and commercial in nature:  mute and passive,  the land existed for their personal good,  to be ploughed for crops,  cleared and sown to make pasture for their sheep,  to be built on or mined for its gold and coal,  to be owned and traded like any other commodity,  a thing like all other things,  devoid of innate spiritual significance or incarnate life.

For others who brought with them religious traditions they had learned in their homelands on the other side of the world,  these new landscapes were there for the reading  (or mis-reading)  in terms of the ancient Hebraic and European traditions.   The land  -  like all creation  -  existed to be brought under dominion by human beings,  to be tamed and civilised,  to be re-created as a new Garden of Eden,  or re-invented as a faithful copy of the civilised downlands of England and the lowlands of Scotland.   The hymns these colonists sang,  like the estates and cities they founded,  were an extension of the world they had left behind.   Whether they were British hymns,  or later American and worldwide in origin,  they addressed other landscapes than our own, and reflected the inherited theologies of the old world.


Two influential traditions were mediated in the hymns sung in most New Zealand congregations until the late twentieth century.   One was the biblical tradition of landscape reference,  derived on the one hand from the poetic body of Old Testament psalms and on the other from the historical geographies associated with the life of Jesus and the travels of the earliest Christian missionaries.   The other was the rich heritage of eighteenth-century,  Romantic and Victorian poetry dealing with British and European landscapes:  the familiar writings of such poets as Pope,  Wordsworth,  Burns,  Blake and Tennyson.

In these hymns,  all earth is presented as the locus of God's activity;  and all nature's work is simply to praise the Creator.   Nature is credited with no independent life of its own;  the actual and local multiplicity of life forms is simply ignored.   General features of most terrestrial landscapes are drawn upon as poetic/religious subject matter:  mountains and valleys,  earth and sky,  'All things praise thee,  Lord most high'.   Taken mostly from recognisably middle-eastern countries,  certain features are used over and over again as metaphoric images:  fountains,  rocks,  deserts,  mountains and hills.   Other landscape features are appropriated as powerful symbols of the inner life of religion:  green pastures,  the valley of the shadow of death,  the waters of life,  flower gardens:

In our dear Lord's garden,  planted here below
many tiny flowerets in sweet beauty grow.

For most of the singers of such traditional hymns,  sacred biblical places such as Bethlehem,  Bethel,  Calvary and Galilee were more familiar than any contemporary European or Australasian place-name.


The imaginative world of those older hymns is dominated by biblical land forms,  plants and creatures;  the landscape is read essentially as a 'sign' pointing to the more important inner and spiritual world.   There are seldom any extended evocations or descriptions of the natural world indicating delight in nature for its own sake,  and significantly the natural world is rendered as pacific,  obedient and domesticated  (despite the Romantic interest in the sublime and terrifying aspects of nature).   Reassuringly for pioneers and their descendants,  the focus is on nature as a passive arena for the display of God's mighty attributes;  nature's work  (like that of its human inhabitants)  is confined to glorifying and serving God.

But the New Zealand landscape did not easily fit into such borrowed stereotypes,  and although it was for too long displaced by overseas images in a vain attempt to perpetuate a lost world,  some pioneering writers looked first for antipodean parallels to northern images,  then became bold enough to celebrate our special identity and location.

And this land does provide a unique landscape,  characterised by great variety and extreme physical forms.   It is distinctively an island landscape,  featuring marginality  -  not only in terms of its elongated sea-coast,  but in terms of the common sense of our existence on the very margin of the inhabited earth,  at the 'bottom' of the world.   It is not a pacific or pacified landscape:  as the annual toll of deaths of trampers,  swimmers,  skiers and mountain climbers shows,  it is dangerous for humans,  only partly 'tamed'.   Indeed it is still so little colonised by humans that all but the most urbanised can still enjoy immediate access to the natural world.   Further,  because of the residual Maori heritage,  there is a double sense of the spirituality of creation;  whether or not they accept its implications,  the dominant pakeha culture recognises and is trying to come to terms with the ancient Polynesian sense of the sacredness of the land.

nz pic

But things are changing.   Under the impact of Maori and Western thought the distinctive plant life of the New Zealand scene is rapidly becoming the subject of a new composite mythology,  ripe for exploration by religious poets:  kauri,  pohutukawa and rata  (with irresistible Christmas associations),  fern  (the coiled koru).   The creatures of our world are also developing symbolic and religious status:  kiwi,  kea,  godwit,  kotuku,  hawk,  albatross,  penguin,  whale and dolphin;  and the land forms and features await symbolisation,  for New Zealand is rich in potential landscape imagery  -  braided rivers,  great waterfalls,  glaciers,  the sounds,  our wilderness areas and 'high' country,  volcanoes,  forest,  greenstone and granite  -  the whole bathed in light of extraordinary intensity.

There are special issues and themes here,  too,  awaiting the hymn writers of today and tomorrow:  New Zealanders' acute consciousness of 'the land';  the threat posed by development and exploitation to the harmony and integrity of creation and the natural environment in this place as in others;  new impulses to honour the earth,  and save and protect what remains of our outstanding catalogue of plants and animals.   And all this leads to the hope that from this distinctive New Zealand landscape may emerge a matching and distinctive spirituality.


New Zealand hymn writers have been slow to recognise the rich potential for indigenous imagery and theological reflection in their own environment.   They lag behind many so-called 'secular' poets such as Bethell,  Duggan,  Brasch,  Fairburn,  Glover and Curnow,  the musicians  (Lilburn,  Hamilton,  Pruden,  Ritchie)  as well as the painters and photographers  (McCahon,  Wollaston,  Drake,  Potton,  Apse and many others).   The sense of alienation and isolation in an indifferent or even hostile scene which possessed the secular poets of the 40s and 50s has quite passed them by;  and the numerous hymn-writers of conservative and charismatic modes of thought have been and still are content to go on ignoring their own environment for the conventional biblical images.

But there are welcome signs of new songs and hymns expressing new attitudes and theological positions.   They are to be found in such New Zealand collections as  Singing Love,  Alleluia Aotearoa  and  Carol our Christmas.   There congregations may learn,  and express in worship,  new hymn-texts alert to the difference between the New Zealand scene and the landscapes of other lands,  hymns and songs and carols that transform northern traditions into southern equivalents,  sacred songs which appropriate New Zealand landscape images to express their themes,  and hymns that celebrate this land or address ecological issues.   In hymns and carols such as  'Carol our Christmas',  'Come to our land',  'Where mountains rise',  'Where the road runs out',  'Awake before sunrise',  'You are born in us again',  'God of the galaxies',  'These hills where the hawk flies lonely',  'The jersey cow came mooing'  and 'Voices of the earth',  the world of Aotearoa New Zealand is finding its own voice at last.



The formidable 'secular' effort to understand and celebrate the New Zealand scene in creative writing may be sampled in such anthologies as  Countless Signs:  The New Zealand Landscape in Literature,  edited by Trudie McNaughton,  Auckland:  Reed Methuen,  1986,  or Diane Hebley's  The Power of Place:  Landscape in New Zealand Children's Fiction  1970-1989,  Dunedin:  University of Otago Press,  1988.   There are no comparable religious studies known to me.

©  Colin Gibson,  1998



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