(First published in The Dominion Post and on Stuff.co.nz., February 21.)
If the recent Nelson fires hadn’t caused such massive disruption and economic pain, they would have been a public relations master-stroke.
Think about it. What other part of New Zealand is endowed with such evocative place names as Teapot Valley, Appleby and Pigeon Valley? Thanks to the fires, the world now knows of these magical-sounding locations.
And that’s just the start. People familiar with the region - as I am, having lived there for four happy years in the 1980s - could rattle off plenty of other charming Nelson place names: Orinoco, Dovedale, Foxhill, Ruby Bay and Spring Grove, for example.
Or how about Aniseed Valley, Woodstock, Dun Mountain, Brightwater, Fringe Hill, Neudorf, Golden Downs and Haulashore Island?
Tolkien himself could hardly have done better. Who wouldn’t want to check out such localities for themselves and see first-hand the qualities that inspired the early European settlers to take poetic flight?
Nelson stands in stark contrast to the utilitarian place names otherwise bequeathed to us by our stolid, unimaginative forebears. Northland, Southland and Westland speak of a colonial society that valued dull functionality over euphony. But study a map of the Nelson region, and you could swear someone flitted across the landscape in the 19th century scattering pretty names like fairy dust.
And the marvel is that many Nelson localities live up to the scenic promise of their names, as TV viewers would have appreciated during the Tasman fires as they saw journalists reporting against an idyllic backdrop of gentle, wooded hills.
It wouldn’t surprise me, then, if one incongruous consequence of the Tasman fires is an increase in tourism – because once the last embers are extinguished, New Zealanders who have never previously thought to visit Nelson might well be motivated to remedy that deficit. And so they should, because it’s a matter of shame that Nelson seems to attract more visitors from overseas than from our own country.
Those who make the trip will discover that Nelson has a slightly other-worldly quality which has long attracted people seeking an escape from the rat race. I had uncles who moved there in the post-war years for exactly that reason.
This appeal can probably be attributed, at least in part, to Nelson’s isolation. From every direction, you have to cross physical barriers to get there. And as with Gisborne, another charming city that’s hard to reach, you don’t pass through Nelson to get anywhere else. You go there for its own sake or not at all.
All this gives it a distinctive character that was even more noticeable when I worked for what was then the Nelson Evening Mail. I likened life in Nelson then to living in a warm bath. It was comfortable, soothing and not too challenging – an impression reinforced by the benign climate.
Inevitably, all this bred a certain insularity – you might even say smugness – on the part of Nelsonians. It was possible to live in Nelson and be largely unaware that the rest of the world existed.
All provincial papers subsisted on local news, but the Evening Mail more than most. If it didn’t happen in Nelson (sporting events excepted), it didn’t happen.
Minor local issues excited far greater passion than anything on the national stage. So unworldly was Nelson that when Pizza Hut proposed to open a local outlet, there were restive stirrings from citizens fearing … well, I’m not sure what. It was just that an American-owned pizza chain was outside Nelson’s realm of experience, and therefore something to be viewed with deep suspicion.
In many ways Nelson then was still like a large country town. Despite its reputation as a haven for hippies, stoners and alternative lifestylers, at heart it was representative of the conservative New Zealand provincial rump.
It’s very different now. By comparison with the 1980s, Nelson today is cosmopolitan and sophisticated. Its population has almost doubled since the 1970s, with consequential effects on house prices, and people complain about the traffic.
But back to those place names. In Nelson, even some of the suburbs have charming names: The Wood, The Brook, Annesbrook and Enner Glynn. And what other city has a downtown carpark called Millers Acre, which sounds like something out of A A Milne?
Even where the European settlers adopted Maori place names – such as Mahana, which means warmth – they chose ones which conveyed a sense of pleasantness and wellbeing.
The origins of some Nelson place names appear lost to history. Peter Dowling’s book Place Names of New Zealand isn’t able to explain, for example, why someone named a settlement in the Motueka Valley after a South American river. But hey, who wouldn’t want to live in a place called Orinoco?
Oh, and did I mention Rainy River, the Shaggery (it’s not what you think), Oyster Island, Teal Valley, Delaware Bay and The Glen?