News that New Zealand history is to be compulsory in our schools will cause much discussion once the initial approving noises die down and we confront the issues that will have to be addressed. Not least will be the need to find a consensus on what is included and the consequent funding of teacher training and resources.
For me an essential chapter of our history would be entitled, "Paradise Lost". Our ancestors arrived to a land teeming with life in clean rivers and abundant forests. You could say it was "God's Own" Eden without the serpents. It was a rich and uniquely evolved ecosystem with stunning wildlife.
Bushy Park/Tarapuruhi has just opened a beautiful visitor centre and with the volunteer educators it is a great place to take school children to see a precious remnant of rainforest ringing with bird song. It achingly reminds us what we have mostly lost. It also reassures us that we have so much to regain if we learn the lessons of history.
Humans have opportunistically exploited nature wherever we have gone and our fellow-travelling mammals like rats and dogs soon set to work on the wildlife that we didn't eat ourselves. Both Maori and Pakeha lit disastrous fires that could have been seen from space if there were satellites back then.
We point the accusatory finger at Brazil for the Amazon fires ripping through the biggest remaining lobe of our planetary lung, yet we are displaying historical amnesia. Our forest destruction is proportionally greater. Indeed, our small population has whittled down our forests to less than what the far greater Japanese population has managed to preserve on a similar land area.
Forests and wetlands slowly grew our productive soils but now those life-giving soils are washing and blowing away. They are going much faster than they did in the Middle East, where unsustainable agriculture has so thoroughly scarred the landscape. Not learning from ecological history could lead us into conflict here as it has in such depleted lands.
While we need to learn about the New Zealand Land Wars, we also need to recognise that the war on the land must end too.
Of course, I would not want our youth to just hear such an unmitigated and demoralising tale of woe. We are dumping enough on children already without that. Just as our cultural history needs to talk about the seeds of reconciliation and co-operation as it addresses past wrongs - so we need to find hope in the story of our environment.
In that vein, we can salute our history of visionaries and the examples they provide for our future. The original natural philosophers of Aotearoa pondered the loss of abundance as the human population grew. These tohunga developed sophisticated tikanga (practices) based on matauranga ki te taiao (knowledge of nature).
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A history of New Zealand that is fit for purpose should include the ancient conservation practices of rahui, taiapure, and kaitiakitanga. If these words mean little to you, then that reflects the failure of our schooling to recognise the breakthroughs made in this country that are as relevant to us as the Magna Carta is to our democracy.
So the arc of ecological history starts with tremendous natural wealth only appreciated by people when they finally saw how fast it could go. As modern environmentalists fought to end the destruction they realised the value of traditional knowledge. Our treaty partnership lessons can now be extended to a new sustainable relationship with the environment.
I hope our New Zealand history lessons will include this narrative to underpin the coming generations' search for a sustainable future; one that retains our rich natural heritage. This should be a unifying theme and give purpose to young people's lives.
Keith Beautrais is a Whanganui educator and environmentalist