I spent the afternooon with an elderly lady, Joan Alison, who has written a local history of Purua where I live. She, and her even more elderly husband (Walter, 94), have a wealth of stories, memories, documents and photos which they very generously shared with me. Walter's father was one of the original European settlers who turned the land from Kauri swamp to pasture.
I was particularly interested in a party of Belgian settlers- including an Abrahams family whom I suspect were Jews- who arrived in 1894, some lasting only 3-4 years before returning to Belgium. Imagine arriving here from intensely civilised Western Europe via a 3 month sail literally half way around the world.
Purua was only surveyed in the 1880s and intially the economy consisted of gum digging and flax harvesting. Clearing the forests and draining the swamps using horses and bullocks were the backbreaking tasks facing the Belgians, along with building slab houses to live in and planting vegetables to eat. Town was a 15 mile horseride along a rough track, with a bridgeless river crossing halfway. One or two dozen households were scattered through the area, separated by dense swampy forest and difficult tracks. The Belgians were, by the few available accounts, a close knit group. They would have been isolated by language from even their nearest neighbours but friendships with other settler's children developed and were sustained even after some returned to Belgium. There is no record of why they returned after such a short time here, but I suspect that the harsh realities of breaking in the land were at odds with the arcadian fantasy imagined from Belgium. The Belgiums that stayed (including the Abrahams) married locals and built up their farms through a period of intense change.
After my afternoon immersed in local history, I spent the evening contemplating the future at a Green Party event on the topic of peak oil. The DVD The End of Suburbia: Oil Depletion and the Collapse of the American Dream was a sobering reminder that most of what we take for granted at this moment in history is premised on the extremely shakey fantasy of unlimited energy supplies. Then MP Jeanette Fitzsimmons related the American film to the situation in New Zealand and offered some hopeful ways to mitigate, or at least, slow the impact of peak oil. Peak oil is no longer considered an hysterical fringe concept but is acknowledged by the most conservative energy analysts in the world. Fossil fuels will not run out per se but sometime in the next 5 to 30 years (and unless global demand slows it's likely to be sooner than later) it will swiftly and dramatically become much more difficult, expensive and slow to extract with barrel prices doubling, and doubling again. Modern food production, commuting lifestyles, centralised production and global distribution of goods are just some of the aspects of modern life that will become unsustainably expensive.
If the worst scenarios come to pass, it will be at least as shocking and difficult an adjustment for us as coming from cosmopolitan 19th century Belgium to the wild back blocks of Purua. But this time there will be no where to run back to. We can only move forward with ingenuity and compassion, and I suspect, quite a lot to learn from earlier generations who created communities and local economies without dependance on fossil fuels.