Alexander Hatrick

The Healing Power of Nature

Family group from Turakina Valley, enjoying the great outdoors, 1930s (2008.17.11)

Family group from Turakina Valley, enjoying the great outdoors, 1930s (2008.17.11)

By Dr Eric Dorfman, Director

People who live close to nature know first-hand the benefits of integrating a positive relationship with the natural world into their lives. In many cultures, however, people spend far less time in nature than even 25 or 50 years ago. In fact, many aspects of western culture actively discourage people from spending time there and pervasive urbanisation is beginning to change our fundamental relationship with nature.

A wood rose, Dactylanthus taylorii, named after Whanganui missionary Rev. Richard Taylor (2014.11.1)

A wood rose, Dactylanthus taylorii, named after Whanganui missionary Rev. Richard Taylor (2014.11.1)

Parents have become fearful about their children playing outdoors and children who grow up mainly in built environments often fear nature, largely because it is unfamiliar. In movies, newspapers, and in exaggerated personal stories, nature is often portrayed as the villain or evil and these stories contribute to a social outlook that is increasingly “biophobic” (afraid of nature). In a very short period of time, humanity has moved from the industrial revolution to a technical one in which people are able to live their entire lifetimes rarely having to encounter nature at all. Exceptions to this isolation often occur only in the midst of natural disasters such as floods, hurricanes, tornadoes, droughts, earthquakes and tidal waves. Lack of contact leads to lack of understanding, which leads to fear.

Family group from Turakina Valley, enjoying the great outdoors, 1930s (2008.17.11)

Family group from Turakina Valley, enjoying the great outdoors, 1930s (2008.17.11)

And yet, research has shown that spending time in natural spaces strengthens neighbourhood ties, reduces crime, stimulates social interactions among children, strengthens family connections and decreases domestic violence, assists new immigrants cope with transition and is cost effective for health benefits. Despite a global reaction in coalitions such as “Leave No Child Inside” or “Children and Nature Network” that have formed in the US and “Natural England” in the UK, western society is increasingly losing the potential benefits of this lifestyle.

The ferns in display in this album were carefully laid out (1960.141)

The ferns in display in this album were carefully laid out (1960.141)

New Zealanders are, in many ways, exceptions to this trend. We have always celebrated activities such as canoeing, tramping, kayaking and mountaineering – all outside. For many of us here it is important that we encourage others to be outdoors, often teaching our kids outdoor travelling and life skills, all helpful in being more at home outdoors. Probably every one of us believes that being outdoors creates health and wellness benefit. It’s not surprising, then, that in Whanganui much of our most quintessentially local imagery is based outdoors and, of course, much of that associated with our magnificent river.

This 12 inch (30 cm) ruler was made locally from native timbers by Sovereign Woodware (2014.54.22)

This 12 inch (30 cm) ruler was made locally from native timbers by Sovereign Woodware (2014.54.22)

When going through the Museum’s collection of objects and imagery, that connection to nature is palpable. We can see furniture and implements made from local woods, herbarium specimens carefully pressed into exacting symmetry, photos of families enjoying picnics or working on the river to partake of its bounty. Many of our taxidermy specimens come from the bush and wetlands that, while substantially reduced, still exist here.

This large kauri wardrobe was retrieved from the summer residence in Castlecliff, Wanganui, of Alexander Hatrick, Mayor of Wanganui from 1897 to 1904. The wood is believed to have been sourced locally (2005.68.1)

This large kauri wardrobe was retrieved from the summer residence in Castlecliff, Wanganui, of Alexander Hatrick, Mayor of Wanganui from 1897 to 1904. The wood is believed to have been sourced locally (2005.68.1)

This opportunity to engage with our natural environment is also the reason many tourists come here, to watch the excitement of the Jet Sprints or to enjoy the solitude of paddling downriver on a canoe. All around us, the reminders of nature are everywhere in Whanganui, in front of our eyes.

Advertisements

Rhine of the Antipodes

The houseboat  'Makere' moored at Marae Kōwhai on the Whanganui River.

The houseboat ‘Makere’ moored at Marae Kōwhai on the Whanganui River.

The Whanganui River has always enchanted those who have travelled its winding waters. Tangata whenua (people of the land) hold the river sacred and express their relationship with it in the saying: Ko te Maunga, Ko te Moana, Ko au te Awa, Ko te Awa, ko au; From the Mountain, To the Sea, I am the River, And the River is me. The later years of the nineteenth century opened up the Whanganui River to the rest of the world. Travelling for pleasure was fashionable and increasingly affordable. Tourists had explored and gloried in the long, winding Rhine that moves through the heart of Germany, with its towering precipices and picturesque castles. They had gasped at the Pyramids in Egypt and seen the Greek Parthenon. Now they started looking for other marvels.New Zealand with all its natural curiosities and exotic locations, such as the Thermal Wonderland in Rotorua, drew tourists from overseas in their thousands. The Whanganui River was marketed as the antipodes of the Rhine in Europe, its direct opposite on the other side of the world. New Zealanders also came from near and far to bask in its beauty, to picnic, to meander by canoe and to enjoy a pictorial paradise not seen by many before.

William Salt, his sister and a small party rowed down the river from Taumarunui, circa 1910.

William Salt, his sister and a small party rowed down the river from Taumarunui, circa 1910.

Visitors left a legacy of photographs and paintings to lure many more to Whanganui.  The photographs record a brief moment in history, but capture the magnificence and timelessness of the river.  North of Pīpīriki, ladders of vines that made Māori cliff top settlements accessible from the river were an exciting and awe inspiring subject for a photograph. Arawhata, the name of the area, actually means ladder. Variations on what was known as The Ladder Scene were created many times by different photographers and became a standard shot for publications and postcards.

The Drop Scene, taken early 20th century by FJ Denton

The Drop Scene, taken early 20th century by FJ Denton

Also upriver from Pīpīriki, voyagers come across what is known as The Drop Scene. There are several stories about how this place got its name. One is that the dramatic scenery looks like a theatre backdrop. Another is that as you look upriver through the gorge, an optical illusion gives the impression that the river is dropping away in front of you.

Alexander Hatrick, an astute and energetic businessman, built up a fleet of riverboats that were used for local freight and passenger transport and also for tourist travel.  He set up two hotels to support his river transport business and created a commercial kingdom on the Whanganui River.  In the busiest years Hatrick’s fleet was composed of 19 vessels, including paddle steamers and motorised canoes. The journey up the Whanganui River could be made in a pleasant three days. Hatrick linked up with Thomas Cook Travel, putting this region on the world map of scenic wonderland tours.