Dark of the Moon and Beak of the Moon,
Penguin, each $24.95
Sailor, explorer, writer, mountaineer: Philip Temple was all of those things when I first met him in the 1970s. Originally from England ‑ he emigrated as a teenager – he began exploring and climbing in New Zealand in the 1960s and he soon discovered and came to love and admire the extraordinary mountain bird, the kea.
Before long Temple realised that the kea was regarded by some high country farmers and others as a pest. Keas were being trapped and shot in substantial numbers and Temple was appalled. A novel featuring keas began to take shape in his mind and he resolved to write it. Unbeknown to Temple, in England Richard Adams was at work on Watership Down, a work which appeared in 1972.
Beak of the Moon didn’t appear until 1981 and while Beak and Watership Down have many dissimilarities, I recall saying to Temple, “They’ll be calling Beak New Zealand’s Watership Down; you wait.”
He ground his teeth and looked rueful. “I know. And what’s more, most won’t even spot the differences.”
A principal difference in both Beak and Dark of the Moon is that unlike Adams’ rabbits, Temple’s keas never do anything or behave other than in ways in which keas act in their natural lives. (They don’t converse with seagulls, for instance.)
In Beak Temple tells the stories, the myths and the legends of the keas of the land of Kawee, recognisably the valleys and mountains of the Southern Alps. Life is never easy for the likes of Strongbeak, Huff‑Tuft, Glintamber, Skreek and many others in their threatened mountain homes; and, pointedly, it’s humans and other creatures introduced by us that pose the greatest threat to the keas’ survival.
Beak was very popular and sold well, deservedly so, but I suspect it was seen primarily as an entertainment rather than a serious and major work of art. The New Zealand literary community, such as it was, could hardly have been expected to admit to the canon a book about keas, especially given the anthropomorphic element of it.
Twelve years after Beak we have Dark of the Moon, again with keas to the fore, the story set mainly in Fiordland and northwest Otago. It’s here that Snowflier, Mistwing, Highsoar and others confront the forces of good and evil (including the amoral kea Kraak and the perplexing creatures known as “Longlegs”) and struggle to assert their right to survive and emphasise the need to protect their traditions, to pass on history and lore.
These are adult novels that flocks of young people, especially adolescents, will enjoy. A bonus is the fact that they are chock full of information about flora, fauna, geology and the seasons. Often they are wonderfully evocative of the places and times of the year. I like and admire them, too, because of their allegory, satire, humour, fables and myths; for the way in which the keas debate and solve moral and ethnic dilemmas. As a result the reader can’t avoid reflecting on human behaviour and our methods of resolving argument and conflict.
Keas are mischievous, alert, insouciant, clever, persistent, opportunistic survivors. They are sociable, yet strongly independent; they are wary, curious and never entirely trusting. Sometimes they are wicked. In other words, they have characteristics which make them highly attractive to a writer and to readers.
It’s fascinating and enlightening to see the world and the seasons through keas’ eyes – seasons known as Leaf Time, Flower Time, Berry Time and Grass Time. Then there are times of the day and night and month known as Allsun, Left Beak of the Moon (the first quarter) and the last quarter, Right Beak of the Moon. Then there’s the expectant and slightly sinister time known as Dark of the Moon.
I can’t think of any other New Zealand novels where the magic and importance of names and naming is so palpable.
Keas have their own sports and games and Temple’s descriptions of these are often utterly magnificent. I think particularly of Snowflier’s last attempt to retain his title as Hard Soaring champion at the Sunberry Flocking, his soaring up the face of the mountain called Roots of the Clouds and of Fogfeather’s last daring dive in the diving competition.
Both books, and especially Dark, deal with profound moral and ethical questions: how we treat and mistreat the land, for instance, and what rights we have as compared to the rights of other creatures. And fiction itself is the device Temple uses to force us to consider why we – and whether it is fair of us to – object to and destroy the kea habitat and the birds themselves because they fight back and kill a few sheep and damage some of our property.
Just who are the intruders, the unreasonable ones here?
Anthropomorphism is a problem for some people, especially those who think animals are incapable of reasoning or learning and can’t possibly have an emotional life. This suits the more rabid amongst us who see nothing wrong with treating other creatures as part of the worldly furniture, to be used and exploited when and how we see fit. A lot of scientists have until recently come into that category; but recent scientific reports reveal that not only humans can lay claim to sentience. This will come as no surprise to Temple and others who know and love the kea.
So while there is indeed anthropomorphism, in no way can Temple be accused of anthropocentrism. One message these books powerfully convey is the need for an ecocentric approach to life and living.
In Beak and Dark Temple shows us the art of story-telling at its finest. I can think of no other New Zealand books like them; as novels they rank among the best in our literature. Congratulations, too, to Chris Gaskin, whose covers for both novels are attractive and striking.
In the blurb for Penguin’s reissue of Beak, the publisher claims it is a “New Zealand classic”. If by classic one means work that will endure, they are right. With Dark, Temple has written another.
Brian Turner is a poet. His most recent collection, Beyond, was published last year.