Hard man, Geoff Chapple

Harold Wellman: A Man Who Moved New Zealand 
Simon Nathan
Victoria University Press, $49.95,
ISBN 0864735065

He carried gelignite in the back of his V8. He could roll cigarettes with one hand, make his own beer, and when confined to the city at last, he let his potato patch spill surreptitiously into the Wellington Green Belt. In fact it’s that back-country skill as much as his intellectual horsepower that makes Harold Wellman such an attractive scientist. For he was also the first man, with fellow geologist Dick Willett, to discern the true length of the South Island’s alpine fault. And he was the man who insisted that same alpine fault was offset by 480 kilometres. An offset of that magnitude was unthinkable to the geological world of 1948. Faults might move vertically, but no known mechanism could explain 480 kilometres of sideways slippage. Wellman was unconcerned.

He had begun his geology unconventionally, as a surveyor, and then been hardened by a two-year stint of black-sand gold mining. Now, as a geophysicist for the New Zealand Geological Survey, he’d simply laid out the geological map of the South Island on the dining room table of his Greymouth state house, and used scissors to snip it along the line of the fault. When you slid Nelson towards Otago the rock bands matched. That solved every puzzle of unusual rock distribution in the South Island. QED.

Many academic colleagues could not accept the theory, and it’s part of the Wellman myth, at least as conjured by a friend, that in the weeks that followed Wellman would trace the amazing slip-strike fault in beer suds on the polished mahogany bar of Greymouth’s Albion Hotel and convince instead an  audience of rough, tough West Coast bar patrons.

Wellman’s memoirs, written when he was in his 80s and apparently too disjointed overall for publication, nonetheless make up the first 58 pages of Simon Nathan’s book. In his later years as a lecturer, Wellman taught his students a cat-sat-on-the-mat simplicity in prose, and obviously practised that himself, for these 58 pages, concerning mainly his English childhood and his early New Zealand life, are a clear and stimulating read. Simon Nathan then takes over and writes clearly also. He has done a very good job of setting Wellman into his time and place within the small New Zealand earth sciences group. In particular, he penetrates and describes the cultures – inevitably beset with prejudice and rivalry – of Wellman’s various employers. These included Shell Oil and BP, but Wellman worked primarily within the DSIR and later Victoria University’s Geology Department, and both institutions benefited and were buffeted by Wellman’s continuous flow of ideas.

Nathan is a cool writer, who will not whip up any untoward excitement around Wellman’s pioneering breakthroughs. Indeed, it may be that 480 kilometres of “dextral transcurrent displacement” or the other Wellman advances in coal ranking, geosynclines, neotectonics and paleoseismology are not particularly malleable material for a whipping up. But Nathan’s assessments of where the various Wellman contributions stand in the history of New Zealand geology are very clearly and professionally handled. Even those of us who are not in the trade get the idea: Wellman was always turning up new information and trying new theories, and his instincts, at least in the broad sweep of things, were generally right.

In 1951 he went back to estimate – to underestimate as it turned out – the rate of movement of the alpine fault, but his interests ranged very widely either side of his seminal work on the fault. He even postulated – probably correctly – that the small piles of polished stones found in the bush might be the gizzard stones of moa.

The book has an academic gloss, perhaps inevitably, because Nathan himself is a geologist, but it’s to the author’s credit, that Wellman’s personality shows through so clearly. He has consulted and interviewed widely. Wellman’s wife Joan features in a separate section. She often drove the car so hubby could stare at road cuttings, and her opinions even take in Wellman’s toe-stepping dance technique. His kids recall the camping trips. His colleagues have a bruised and somewhat rueful remembrance of his aggressive dialectics. And there are memorable cameos of Wellman as an older man, ageing disgracefully. At a surprise party organised for his 60th birthday by the Geology Department at Victoria University, he enlisted students to help roll one of the featured concretions from the foyer of the Easterfield Block away down Kelburn Parade. When Head of Department Professor Bob Clark complained, “Harold, I’m getting too old for this”, Wellman replied, “Well, if you organise surprise parties, you have to expect surprises.”

A general reader will quibble that despite this popular approach, the book uses too many terms that are familiar only to those with a background in geology. There’s no glossary to assist, nor any table of the geological periods. Personally I found it a bit like Anthony Burgess’ Nadsat language in A Clockwork Orange. You get used to it, and after a time, you just read through it. If you really want to know where the Cretaceous period fits, then you simply look it up elsewhere.

What’s finally of great interest here is pioneering scientific discovery made by an extraordinary man within a New Zealand setting. Wellman could go out into the dumb landscape and begin, by chipping rock, by direct observation of index fossils, and finally by logic and geometry, to make some sense of it. He saw through the glass darkly and put together ranking categories for rock strata, and theories as to the behaviour of those strata, that stood the test of time and helped validate – when the mechanism for that abnormally long alpine strike-slip fault finally emerged – plate tectonics. He deserves all the intricate care the author has put into this book.


Geoff Chapple is an Auckland reviewer.


Tagged with: , , , , ,
Posted in Biography, Non-fiction, Review
Search the archive
Search by category