Unique, fascinating and vulnerable, Alan Mark

Natural History of New Zealand
Nic Bishop,
Hodder & Stoughton, $59.95

Yet another natural history of New Zealand, I hear you say, but this one is sufficiently different, attractive and up-to-date to appeal to the wide audience that is known to be interested in this subject. Nic Bishop’s version differs from its many forerunners in its enlarged format and particularly in its greatly enlarged scope. Chapters on the Past, Mountains, Forests, Inland Waters (including wetlands and braided rivers), Coast, Islands and Conservation are perhaps predictable, but less so one on The Sea (written by Keith Probert) and certainly not so those on Farmland and Cities and Settlements (by Nic’s father, Owen). Although decidedly novel, these last two topics were much less exciting to me and, I predict, to many other readers who continue to be intrigued by the many fascinating features of New Zealand’s unique but vulnerable biota and ecosystems. I’m not sure one would expect (or even want) to read in a natural history book of the antics of the introduced house mouse, or the ecology of ‘pavements and pathways’ as ‘city microhabitats’, or of the exploitation of microhabitats in home lawns by a range of exotic flatweeds in relation to the setting of the mower. Or am I showing a bias not shared by most other readers of natural history books?

Although the photographs are numerous, relevant and generally of very high quality, and are supplemented by some delightful and informative sketches by well-known natural history artist Chris Gaskin, this is far from a mere pictorial book. Indeed, the substantial text is most informative, lucid and certainly up with the latest biological literature. The numerous ‘boxes’ add real substance, both in breadth and depth, for those who want to digress from the more generalised main text. It is clear that Bishop has devoted much time and effort to assimilating, and rewriting for his readers, a wide range of information from the biological literature in various scientific publications. Bishop’s biological background is obvious in the success of his efforts at interpretation and simplification for a general audience. As expected, only major works are referenced as ‘suggested reading’ (some 61 publications in all), but I believe more credits should have been cited for some of the information used, particularly for two of the maps: the break-up of Gondwanaland (from Graeme Stevens) and New Zealand’s changing shape over the last 45 million years (from Charles Fleming).

There are remarkably few mistakes of fact or spelling, but an obvious one in Bishop’s own speciality of plant physiology (CAM plants fix carbon dioxide in organic not inorganic adds), while the identity of some insects could be challenged ‑ that of the two alpine grasshoppers (p39) is obviously transposed.

The opening double-page given to each of the ten chapters is particularly impressive, with a striking, much-enlarged photograph, and a brief but forceful statement that cannot fail to convey a strong message to the reader. Appropriately for the last chapter, on conservation, Bishop reiterates the much-used statement from the IUCN document on the World Conservation Strategy: ‘We have not inherited the earth from our parents, we have borrowed it from our children.’

The varied messages on conservation in this chapter are tempered somewhat by the rather conciliatory sections on farmland and plantation forests. Given the huge displacement of a wide range of indigenous ecosystems and biota by these developments in New Zealand over the brief 150 years of European occupation, it was probably helpful for Bishop to be able to acknowledge the landmark conservation agreement of the 1989 Tasman Accord, given the major sponsorship and sympathetic foreword provided by senior executives of Fletcher Challenge and Tasman Forestry. Certainly the inclusion of exotic forests in a book such as this is more than the late Sir Charles Fleming, author of that unforgettable Listener editorial ‘Mammon on the Mamaku’ and many other conservation classics during the heady days of the 1960s and 70s, could ever have contemplated. These events, of course, would have preceded Bishop’s arrival here from England in the 1980s.

This book is not meant as a field guide. Bishop states in his introduction that it is intended to focus on the processes and principles of natural history, or how New Zealand’s unusual natural history is thought to have come about: how plants and animals interact with one another in a community, and how organisms are adapted to their environment. Each major habitat is discussed in turn, and, without doubt, Bishop has achieved his purpose with a well-balanced text and illustrations within 200 pages. It will provide pleasant and informed reading for most of those who open its very attractive cover.


Alan Mark is Professor of Botany at Otago University.



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