The call of the wild
Take a look on almost any Kiwi bookshelf and he'll be there - gruff, rough and ready to skin a deer. Barry Crump. The quintessential New Zealand bloke whose genial tales of outdoor life were first published in 1960 and have sold quicker than fresh whitebait ever since.
One in four New Zealanders owns a Barry Crump novel. But as of 2013, only 15 per cent of us live outside the city. Most of us have never stuck a pig. So are we still good, keen Kiwis? And if not, why does the myth persist?
"Everyone likes to think they're a hunter-gatherer," says Cameron Petley, the hunting, fishing Putaruru cook who won hearts with his rough charm on television's MasterChef in 2011.
"Even if they're not, they like the idea of it."
Petley has run into dozens of these Kiwis since he published his book on cooking wild food. They come to his signings and he listens to them talk about catching "a feed" and enthuses along with them, understanding the allure.
"I've taken people out hunting before. First-timers. As soon as they catch their first animal they're hooked. It makes you feel more like a man. That you've killed with your bare hands and brought it home for the family. You feel like you're providing."
A look at the figures tells you the idea of the backcountry bloke was one founded on more than simply a desire to provide - it was a necessity. In 1881, almost 60 per cent of the country was living in a rural area, slogging it out against the bush to carve a place for themselves. Land agents successfully sold the idea of a farmer's paradise to Britain, and by 1916 the rural population numbered 501,000, accounting for half the population.
However, that's where the farming boom stopped.
While we've still got 30 million sheep to our 4.4 million people, working on the land is no longer a major occupation. Less than 10 per cent of the workforce are employed in either agriculture, forestry or fishing. And as of 2001, the number of those living rurally was still just 532,000, with the other four million of us living in towns and cities, making us one the most urbanised countries in the world.
"The rural myth is one embedded in Pakeha culture and reinforced by politicians and advertisers who talk about the ‘Great Kiwi Dream'," says urban designer Tom Beard, from Wellington.
"But in reality, it's like something off an L&P advert, all sepia toned."
Beard is a proud "townie" who hasn't been camping since his childhood in Christchurch. He refuses to own jandals - "they're not elegant" - and hunting is about as far from his ideal hobby, restaurant reviewing, as can be.
"I prefer other people to catch the pigs and make them into a nice lunch and serve them in a cafe."
According to the numbers, there must be thousands more pure urbanites like Beard. Except, as he points out, you won't see them reflected in our stories about ourselves. "Advertisers tell us that we're supposed to like rugby, racing and beer and if you don't then what are you?"
According to Statistics New Zealand, exposure to rural New Zealand is probably through watching Country Calendar - after a workout at the gym: Kiwis spend about two hours a day watching television, and the use of sports facilities and parks is ever on the rise.
Chief executive of Recreation New Zealand Andrew Leslie says the number of people working in the recreation sector - sports clubs, gyms, parks, etc - now numbers upwards of 50,000 people, with an economic impact comparable to the dairy industry.
"People have less time and less money so they're making more use of facilities in urban environments. And that's predicted to grow."
Leslie said that doesn't necessarily mean people are less outdoorsy.
"Because people have less time, the experience they can have in an urban environment becomes really important," he says.
"We know that things like green belts in the city are gateways to the bush. And we want people to recreate in the urban environment and the great outdoors because it's good for them so we've got to make sure the experience in the urban environment leads to an appreciation of the great outdoors."
Just how great that appreciation is has been difficult to measure.
While the Department of Conservation knows that New Zealanders like camping - 37 per cent of us say we do it on a regular basis (without electricity, for the most part) - figures on New Zealanders' usage of their famously scenic bushy "backyard" are hard to come by.
Environment and recreation planner Kay Booth, who did a recent audit of the literature on participation, says the reasons why New Zealanders don't get into the outdoors are unknown.
"Are there reasons stopping them or are they just not interested? We don't know."
Booth said an example of a good study would be on how many people bought mountainbikes or four-wheel-drives then actually took them off road.
"Owning those sort of things would support our image but whether we use them to take us into places is another question."
Vice-president of the Federated Mountain Clubs Peter Wilson said he believed many Kiwis did use the outdoors, with tramping remaining one of the country's most popular activities.
"In the past 10 years we've seen a steady increase in the number of people joining tramping clubs," he said. "There was a drop off in the late 80s and early 90s, probably related to the recession, but it's picked up again now."
Wilson said tramping had always been popular because it was something you could do no matter your age.
"Plus it leads to other things - kayaking, mountainbiking, and fishing, for example."
According to 2007-08 research done by Sparc (now Sport NZ) on recreation, 10 per cent of Kiwis had been tramping in the 12 months surveyed. Walking, gardening, swimming, equipment-based activities, cycling, jogging, fishing, golf, and dance were done more often.
Wilson said the surveys showed that even if they couldn't get out in the outdoors as much as they would like, Kiwis still highly valued the experience.
"Whether they actually put that into action is another thing, but they do like to think of themselves as outdoor people and people of the land."
Beard believes that whatever the truth, it's time Kiwis started to be proud of their urban roots as well as their rural ones.
"Currently there's a real sameness about our culture. And it can be detrimental, that No 8 wire mentality," he said.
"We act like we're afraid of noise and the city and intellectualism, rather than being professional."
Beard was hopeful that as cities began to become more liveable, New Zealanders would begin to embrace a new identity and the stereotype would begin to evolve.
"I like to think it's changing because not only do I find urban life fascinating and entertaining, but it's more sustainable as well."
After all, even Barry Crump came out of the bush eventually.
- Sunday Star Times
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