Go to National Library of New Zealand Te Puna Mātauranga o Aotearoa
Volume 70, 1940-41
This text is also available in PDF
(168 KB) Opens in new window
– 171 –

William Herbert Guthrie-Smith, 1861–1940.

H. Guthrie-Smith, as he always signed himself, and under which name his books were published, was born at Helensburgh in 1861, son of John Guthrie-Smith, of Mugdock Castle, Stirlingshire. He attended school at Rugby, and soon after he left he came to New Zealand, and on 4th September, 1882, he and his partner (always referred to as A.M.C.) took delivery of the run Tutira, which block of country had seen varied and heart-breaking misfortune overtake several owners since its occupation in 1873, when first leased from the Maori owners by T. K. Newton.

The book Tutira, 1921 (ed. 2, 1926, and a third in preparation), is a graphic and detailed picture of the past and present of that run; the very gradual learning and breaking-in of the country which broke several owners before it was finally brought into control (never subjugated). The land and its original covering, its original condition, is described, the slow changes, the substitution of one flora for another, of one fauna for another, the usurpation by modern manof the ancient heritage of Nature, and the final triumph of man, but a triumph held only by the utmost vigilance and the exertion of every mother-wit and the expenditure of every ounce of energy.

The subduer of Tutira was a composite of Gilbert White and Guthrie-Smith; the farmer and the naturalist were always playing at give and take; the bread of the body was often stinted that the bread of the spirit might be enjoyed. The book is really an epic of the conquest of the wild combined with the preservation of its essential beauty; an assertion of the practical moving in a glowing nimbus of the aesthetic. He laments the necessity for the reclamation of the swamps, the subduing of the fern, the felling of the bush, because it entailed the banishment of the shy graces who were their first and unobtrusive tenants; he takes with one hand, but he gives with the other, and his heart is in the hand that gives.

Because of its revealing biography of the country and of the man, Tutira is reckoned as one of the greatest books produced in New Zealand; some reckon it the greatest; but it has gem appendages; books in which Guthrie-Smith's love of the Nature he pitted himself against finds full scope: Birds of the Water, Wood, and Waste, 1910; Mutton Birds and Other Birds, 1914; Bird Life on Island and Shore, 1925; Sorrows and Joys of a New Zealand Naturalist, 1937. These books share with the single book of Thomas H. Potts, Out in the Open, the charm of the writing of one to whom the writing on natural history is as natural as the study of it. Both men travelled about New Zealand, both were acute observers, both were blessed with a humour that dews their pages with freshness, enhancing their charm, and adding point to many a shrewd observation. One thinks with pleasure of Guthrie-Smith's chapters on the dainty pipit, the harlequin pukeko, in Birds of the Wood and Waste; on the sea-hawk in Bird Life on Island Shore, to single out only three; but all have their charm.

– 172 –

Guthrie-Smith excelled in photographing plants and birds. He started with a quiet stalking of his bird-sitters, but found that birds are like human beings in having very varied characters; some shy, some confident—usually the shy are always shy, the confident always confident—and it is better to pay attention to the latter than disquiet the former. His chapter on the whitehead in Bird Life on Island and Shore shows how the same habit in a bird, watched by two different acute observers, may be interpreted quite differently, and this indicates that the social and seemingly communal life of this bird requires a great deal of study before it is thoroughly understood. The same applies to the mysterious life of the cuckoo, its stealthy comings and goings, its elusive egg-laying or egg-depositing.

It is perhaps not generally known that the first book published by Guthrie-Smith was not concerned with natural history at all; it was verse—Crispus, a Drama—and was published in 1891, nine years after he had begun his work on the run. The book is literature, and shows that his imagination had not been subdued with the labour of subduing the wild. Throughout his writings, too, apt references to or mention of various characters in fiction show how literature must have been an absorbing passion, and it was the imagination this implies that helped him, not only in his interpretation of Nature, but in his approach to her rather as an adapter than as a reformer; it was this that helped him to his sucess both as a sheepfarmer and as a writer.

He was not a scientist, but an imaginative observer with science leanings; and that his observations had value was recognised by the Royal Society of New Zealand when they made him a Fellow in 1924. He had been a member of the Hawke's Bay Branch of the Society since 1984, contributing occasional papers to its Transactions on various phases of the run he was breaking-in.

He was by nature a gardener, and his books tell how he had to keep a restraining hand on his pukekos, also in the way of being enthusiastic investigators among his plants; and when age with his stealing steps made the arduous outdoor life he had lived so long less possible, he gave more time to the cultivated garden, one of his hobbies being rare Dutch bulbs: he sent me a little boxful of these, and whilst they were strangers to me, whenever they appear in spring like Persephone from the Underworld, I give them warm greeting with the familiar name of my friend—Guthrie-Smith!

Johannes Andersen.