Some of the essays are national in scope. "A Fragile Plenty" looks at pre-European Maori and the New Zealand environment, covering the role of environmental history in determining settlement dates (around 1250 AD), the extinction of avifauna and deforestation, and differences between windward and leeward provinces. "Resource Frontiers" argues that New Zealand was part of a world economy from first European contact, with resource extraction a driving concern right from the beginning.
Three essays, though independent, together are almost a mini-history of New Zealand conservation. "Children of the Burnt Bush" covers conservation from 1880 to 1930, looking at economic arguments, "scenic preservation" societies, and botanist Leonard Cockayne and the shift to an ecological perspective. "The State as Conservationist" continues the story from 1920 to 1960, focusing on the state's role in forest management and soil and water conservation. And "A History of New Zealand Environmental Law" describes the Manapouri development controversy and the reforms of the fourth Labour government.
"[B]y using high principles such as sustainability in environmental law, and not defining and prioritising them tightly enough, Parliament has created a situation where the law's bark is far greener than its bite.""Losing Ground?" considers the environmental challenges of the future, sometimes with more passion than objectivity. And "Pests and Weeds" recounts the tale of rabbits and gorse in New Zealand, concluding that there is no simple solution to pest problems and that rather than "bellicose, national-security rhetoric" New Zealand needs active husbandry and the recognition of human agency in nature.
Many of the essays touch on Maori concerns, but two focus specifically on indigenous land tenure and ties to the environment. "Contesting Resources" looks at the effects of the timber and flax trades on Maori society before 1840, then briefly at the Treaty of Waitangi, the Native Land Tribunal, and the extinguishment of native title. Focusing on the Taranaki area, "Bound to the Land" considers the historical nature of Maori ties to land and its significance for Waitangi Tribunal claims and earlier disputes.
Other papers are about specific environments. "Remaking the Grasslands" chronicles the nineteenth century changes brought about by fire, grazing, and the introduction of new species. "The Grasslands Revolution Reconsidered" contrasts the dominant progressive thrust of scientific agriculture with organic farming, which has come from tentative early steps to broader recognition. "The Forest" looks at deforestation from 1840 to 1920, with unthinking destruction tempered by growing unease and disquiet, and then by restraint and reflection. "Mining the Quarry" focuses on gold-mining, disputes over waste disposal and conflicts with agriculture, and the state's role as arbitrator: the New Zealand government did far less to check miners than their Californian and Victorian counterparts. And "Swamp Drainage" portrays the destruction of New Zealand wetlands as an imperial project.
"Making Urban Places" situates towns liminally, as centres of progress against nature, as vulnerable to natural hazards, and (as suburbs) combining environmental amenity and urban convenience. "The Twentieth-century Home Garden" uses gardening manuals to follow changes in suburban gardens, which placed "the rare and exotic above the native".
"The persistent use of barriers to exclude the 'wilderness' and other variants of the external environment is comparable to putting walls on a house, and a preference for certain native plants, which look more like domesticated garden cultivars than wild species, is akin to the keeping of pets."And "The Meanings of Mountains" stretches over four different topics: European attitudes towards mountains and the early explorers, the roles of mountains in tourism and early nationalism, in climbing and tramping in the first half of the century, and in the formation of the national park system.