A very late Victorian, David Young

Charles Fleming: Environmental Patriot
Mary McEwen
Craig Potton Publishing, $50.00,
ISBN 1877333239

Before the imposition of celebrity culture on the recent New Zealand telescape and its consort media, being famous in New Zealand was possibly even more of a problem for the offspring of the famed than it was for the famous. The pervasive ethic of egalitarianism until the late 1980s not only demanded humility from tall poppies but also their poppets. The progeny of those who cast long shadows were, by cultural agreement, required to remain in those shadows. If they did break out, it was usually in ways that involved rebellion.

It is with such thoughts that I opened Mary McEwen’s biography of her late father, Sir Charles Fleming. Mary, an ecologist, is Sir Charles and Lady Fleming’s middle daughter. This project consumed her, initially part-time, for well over a decade. But fears that it might be a hagiography or a biography that politely withheld uncomfortable elements of the Great Man’s personality are quickly dispelled. The daughter has written this as an act of love, but the author is diligent and unafraid to seek out and confront her subject’s weaknesses.

To some, the name Fleming will be unfamiliar, even though he has been dead for less than a generation and during his lifetime attracted the highest honours in science and civic life. Charles Fleming was a pre-eminent scientist of his generation as well as being a highly significant figure in the development of the modern (1960s forward) conservation consciousness.

Born in 1916 into privilege and wealth, and driven by a powerful intelligence, enormous curiosity and a punishing Calvinist work ethic, Fleming died in 1987 from heart disease and, one might speculate, almost unrelenting overwork. But life favoured him with both talent and opportunity. Not only was he able to attend King’s College during the Depression, but was also fortunate to make contact from an early age with those who would guide him on the trajectory of his life.

The beach house at Takapuna served as the nursery for his early exploration of nature, and for his first shell collection. The family library of natural history books he read and, while still young consumed, contained most of the old Transactions of the New Zealand Institute. From an early age he was equipped with a microscope. But it was Fleming himself who attracted the attention of eminent naturalist A W B Powell while on Waiheke Island identifying a rare slug. Powell, based at Auckland Institute and Museum, immediately became an important mentor. By the time he was 14, Fleming had won the Thomas F Cheeseman memorial prize for a natural history on birds, and met Dr Charles Reed Laws, a collector of molluscs. Indeed, Fleming’s early associates are a who’s who of New Zealand natural science; others include Robert Falla and Gilbert Archey.

While still at King’s the enterprising lad traded tobacco with dredging skippers for whatever interesting creatures they might bring up. No swot, he managed to excel in gymnastics and, at 66kg was a heavyweight boxing finalist at school. With prizes from school in science and divinity (a point which intrigues his daughter) he was on his way – definitely a young man to watch. At 16 he accompanied Powell on a trip to Pitt Island, beginning a life-long association with the Chathams. He spent part of the war stationed on the Auckland Islands and was acquainted with many parts of natural New Zealand.

What distinguishes Fleming from any of his remarkable mentors is that he mastered three distinct fields of science in a way that might have seemed more appropriate at the dawn of science in New Zealand, half a century before his birth. In this, and in other ways, Fleming emerges as a very late Victorian, with inter-disciplinary learning as his task. He specialised in palaeontology and geology (fields which are closely related), but also ornithology, entomology and biogeography (the history of evolving life), as well as the history of science. It was his ability to hold these disciplines together that made his contributions to biogeography and to conservation so considerable.

Indeed, Fleming probably had the drop on almost all his contemporaries when it came to continental drift theory, still a heresy in the 1950s and 60s but one informed by his understanding of the close relationship between plants and animals living in separated lands too far apart for another explanation to work. Being in New Zealand, for so long isolated and uninhabited, offered great opportunities for such inquiries – and one that the naturally shy but driven Fleming came to feel bound to defend. These disciplines also gave strength, scope and edge to his conservation arguments which were always considered and well expressed.

On a trip to Little Mangere, Chatham Islands – by dint of a head for heights as much as for ornithology – he rediscovered the now recovered endangered Chatham Island robin. He also took up an interest in cicadas, studying their lifestyle and songs, identifying some 40 taxa. While his output was tireless, producing on average six papers a year in various fields, he retained a sense of fun. Once, he combined his interest in serious music by providing an illustrated talk on cicada song to the Wellington Gramophone Circle. As in so much of his life, his wife Peg, a scientist herself and soulmate, was an active associate on the cicada expeditions.

Conservationists come in a number of forms, usually with a mix of motives. These can range from simple sentimentality and pseudo-religion at one extreme to hard-nosed, atheistic science at the other. Fleming, as the last of the old-fashioned naturalists saw conservation as a religion, but his text was science and reason.

By the late 1960s, Fleming, who spent his working life at the Geological Survey, felt bound to speak out at the losses and the risks he presciently saw were coming from the National Development Policies and the Forest Service. Sometimes he could influence decisions through the mandarin echelons in Wellington to which he belonged. At other times, he took the fight to the people, as he did in his influential New Zealand Listener editorial “Mammon on the Mamaku” in 1969:

We have lived at the best time, with modern medicine and transport, able to enjoy New Zealand before it loses the flavour we love. The world, man’s environment, is being altered by human manipulation, and to form balanced judgements about our future environment we must cease being technologists and economists and become philosophers, not afraid to look at the total picture.


It was unusual for public servants to speak out then, as it is now, and Fleming lost friends and made enemies as he continued the charge, at one stage falling victim to the ultimate tall poppy gibe, an accusation from a Forest Service manager that he was “Sir Silverspoon”. He mentored and encouraged many, including botanist Alan Mark with whom he shared a scientific advocacy role in the landmark conservation battle to Save (Lake) Manapouri.

His was, then, a full and significant life. His sacrifices were his children, who clearly wanted much more from him than he had time to give, and his health. The biography, based on 54 file boxes, was the means by which one daughter, at least, got to really know him.

The writing in this truly handsome book is plain, almost too unadorned, but clear. Chapters are placed in time, but shaped by theme. They are short and well condensed, scientific terms are succinctly explained and stories about Fleming are often deftly tied off with family insights. I would have loved more description of some of the places he defended and of the older conservationists who influenced or may have influenced him – Richdale, Moncrieff, Sanderson and Guthrie-Smith. But this is a significant work about a significant life.


David Young’s Our Islands, Our Selves: a History of Conservation in New Zealand was reviewed in our August 2005 issue; his next book, on endangered whio (blue duck), will be published this year.


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