By GREG DIXON



This is a true story. An American woman visits New Zealand. Being of inquisitive mind, she asks a local, "What's the dominant religion in your country?"



Now this is an interesting question in godless Godzone and one many of us - roughly half with tongues in cheek - know the answer to without even thinking: rugby.



But no, this particular local, no doubt after a brow-furrowing pause, offers a more thoughtful response. "The New Zealand religion," this Kiwi said, "is the outdoors."

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Good answer, and it's one Julienne Stretton is inclined to agree with.



The director of a new documentary series on us in the outdoors, Our New Zealand (TV One 7.30 tonight), believes that our connection with the landscape most certainly has a spiritual dimension.



"It's where we talk of being at one. And the whole thing of being at one with the universe or something is a spiritual kind of concept and experience. And that came out again and again in the people we spoke to for the series."



Across five episodes, the documentary explores New Zealanders in our back country. Tonight, for example, we visit the Burkes, a working-class family who bought a bach-cum-slice of heaven in Endeavour Inlet back in the 50s and have managed to hold on to it as lawyers and doctors have bought up all around them.



Tonight's episode also goes bush trekking in Te Urewera, rafting on the Grey River and climbing on Mt Taranaki. Other stories featured in the series include a ridge-top climb over the Lewis Pass, the unbelievably lush nikau forest on the Heaphy Track and the beaches of the Whanganui River.



Stretton has been told Our New Zealand feels like Heartland without Gary McCormick. She calls this fair.



"It's quite gentle. It's not looking for conflict, it's not challenging people. The people's relationship with the landscape and us [as programme makers] was gentle."



What Our New Zealand isn't, thankfully, is a blat about the regions (these days usually led by Helen "Gung-ho" Clark) looking for bungy jumpers and other assorted nut jobs.

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"That's the easy way. I'm just not interested, it's not what attracted me. I love stories from ordinary people. I'm always moved by the way ordinary people organise and confront their lives."



Stretton gathered an interesting group to help her make the programmes, including journalist and author Geoff Chapple, writer Philip Temple and producer-director Tainui Stephens, which goes a long way to explaining the mature, measured and intimate feel of the series.



"It's all very charter-ish too," but Stretton says the programme was conceived before that document was a twinkle in the Government's eye.



"We did finish it a year ago and they have waited to put it to air - it was supposed to go to air last April - because of the charter. I suppose TVNZ believes it conforms to the tenets of the charter and wanted to launch it at the same time.



"I was very frustrated about it and I was frustrated for the people because they were saying, 'When is it going to air? What's the problem? Don't people like us?' There again, I think it does represent what the charter is trying to do."



Stretton, a keen tramper and sailor, says she found herself most moved by the connection to the land felt by the huntin', shootin', fishin' and gruntin' types she talked to.



"I think men, on the whole, are fairly inarticulate about emotions. But look at their actions and their relationships and you often see there is some kind of connection there, and watching it moves me. You sort of understand them in a way that you can't do in ordinary conversation because they can't communicate like that. Of course that's very much from a female perspective."



And what does she hope viewers get from their perspective?



"It is a celebration, there is a lot to do with New Zealand identity in it, I think. I hope viewers feel proud and think, 'Aren't we fantastic, aren't we lucky to be able to have these places and enjoy these places?'."