From the store-house, Andy Dennis

Maori Bird Lore
Murdoch Riley
Viking Sevenseas NZ Ltd, $89.95,
ISBN 0854671005

The reissue of Elsdon Best’s Forest Lore of the Maori in 1977 coincided with my own first attempts at writing about the value of wilderness and the urgent need to increase our efforts in nature conservation, especially in those parts of New Zealand that had been most affected by the impact of human settlement. Although I was never previously a particularly avid reader of Maori lore, I was fascinated by the wealth of material Elsdon Best had managed to unearth, and gratefully recycled bits of it into some of my own early writings (like the section on birds in The Paparoas Guide, which is liberally sprinkled with bird lore anecdotes borrowed from Best). It has not, however, proved to be an abiding interest for me, in part because of the more pragmatic historical issues –  with regard to our Maori heritage – that many of us have been trying to come to grips with over the past ten or fifteen years.

Murdoch Riley’s Maori Bird Lore accordingly brought with it the promise of rekindling an interest that for me had been largely dormant for a decade or more, and to some extent it has succeeded. Its large format, splendid illustrations, and anecdotal narrative style will, I think, appeal to a somewhat wider audience than more scholarly ethnologists like James Herries Beattie and Best, although I hope that a significant number of those reading this book will feel the need to delve deeper into authorities that are closer to the original oral sources. Appending a list of references to the long introduction and sections on each of the species of bird included will certainly help in this respect. However, it is disappointing, in a book announcing itself as “An Introduction”, that no attempt has been made to describe or evaluate at least the more important of the sources used, or to provide readers with a select list of recommended further reading.

What has been provided though is a “little from the store-house of knowledge … of history, legend and proverb”, a sample of traditional lore for more than 40 species of New Zealand indigenous birds, ranging from the genesis of birds in Maori creation myths through esoteric knowledge and sacred rituals to more everyday things like methods of snaring, cooking and preserving birds, or the use of feathers and other bird-parts for adornment. The book has been attractively printed with broad margins, in which numerous aphorisms and proverbs relating to birds are recorded and explained, and it is further enhanced by both black-and-white and colour illustrations. The latter consist of 37 full-page reproductions of the colour lithographs made from paintings by 19th-century natural history artist John Gerrad Keulemans for the 1888 edition of Sir Walter Buller’s A History of the Birds of New Zealand, and these alone probably justify a sizeable slice of the purchase price.

There are on the other hand aspects of this book which are likely to detract from its overall appeal. The most perplexing of these is the failure to provide both a table of contents at the front and an index at the back, omissions which I found to be a major inconvenience in a book of this scale and complexity. There are, to be sure, regular cross-references throughout the text, but given the way this book has been assembled from the vast “storehouse of knowledge handed down by the ancestors”, both a table of contents and an index really are essential. (It would, for example, be virtually impossible to find your way around either Best’s Forest Lore of the Maori or Beattie’s Traditional Lifeways of the Southern Maori without the detailed indexes provided for both of these books.) It is, moreover, only when you get to the end of the Introduction that you discover for the first time that the remainder of the book is arranged as an “ABC of New Zealand Birds”. And, even then, the lay of the land ahead remains hazy until you discover for yourself which particular species have been included (among our extinct birds, for example, the huia, piopio, laughing owl and New Zealand quail have qualified for selection but, surprisingly, not the moa) and which have been listed according to their English rather than Maori names (about three-quarters are listed under their English names).

I am left too with the feeling that within the ebb and flow of virtually every section of the text of Maori Bird Lore there are far too few roots reaching back to touchstones and anchors in the more tangible world – like place and source or the author’s own part in gathering together this store-house of ancient lore. It is these more tangible points of reference which, for me, make accounts like those of Beattie and Best so regularly absorbing. In contrast, the text of this book unfolds for the most part as a kind of seamless web of universal Maori lore, drifting like early morning mist across a still largely mythical face of pre-historic Aotearoa and ancestral Maori homelands.

This may however be a little pernickety, given that the author makes clear in his preface that the aim of this book is merely to collate something of the wealth of material available “to allow you, the reader, to ponder it, and draw your own conclusion”. But even so, the reader is left rather too much to his or her own devices in confronting terrain which for many is likely to be far from familiar. Though, in saying this, I can already hear a response emerging from deep within this keti of ancient lore: “Ahakoa he kahu-kakapo, amuamu tonu koe mo te makariri” or “You have a kakapo cape, but you still complain of the cold.”


Andy Dennis is a Nelson writer on natural history and conservation.


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Posted in Māori, Natural History, Non-fiction, Review
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