Book Review, New Zealand Landscapes

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New Zealand’s landscape is like Scotland on acid: a young, exotic botanical garden atop a split twisted submerged continent spun off by Gondwana.  I was captivated by an early visit to New Zealand, and have been back subsequently to marvel at the vividly active creation of this land.  I wish I’d had this book back then: now I have it, I want to return more than ever.

Paul Williams is a Kiwi with a lifetime’s fascination with the tectonic and surface processes that have moulded the country he obviously loves.  He is Emeritus Professor, School of Environment, University of Auckland, with a long-standing research interest in geomorphology.  In writing this extremely comprehensive, clearly referenced and detailed book on the New Zealand landscape he seeks to explain, step by step, how the picturesque variety of scenes can be pieced together through evolution.  He admirably sets out a vast, effortlessly clear chronology of geologic events, culminating in an assessment of the impacts and risks caused by humans intervening in an active, often hazardous, natural environment. 

His educational talent has a helpful effect on the format of the book.  Like a military briefing, you’re told what you’re going to read, you read it, then you’re reminded what you just read.   Each chapter starts with a short introduction that poses a central question.  Williams takes us on a journey of investigation to amass and consider all the evidence, encompassing excellent diagrams, maps and breath-taking colour landscape and aerial photographs. A short conclusion followed by an extensive bibliography references each chapter.   

It would be easy to highlight the riveting geologic issues of active volcanoes and earthquakes of New Zealand, but William’s tours de force are the impressive central chapters on the development of New Zealand’s landscape through immensely powerful water and glacial erosion to form a wide spectrum of types and features.  We look at mass movement and the work of rivers, we consider the balance of rock removal and the counter process of uplift.  Williams picks apart the ancestral history of river valleys to comprehend geologic formation.   A noted specialist in karst hydrogeology, Williams lyrically explains the bizarre subterranean landscapes abounding in both North and South Islands.  Glaciation and periglacial processes are richly evidenced and Williams unravels their effects alongside climate change.  This encyclopaedic book is a significant development in collating a richly detailed 4-D picture of the New Zealand landscape and an accessible knowledge bank upon which risk management can be considered to safeguard people’s future.

New Zealand Landscape: Behind the Scene by Paul W Williams, 2017.  Published by Elsevier ISBN 978-0-12-812493-2