Between rocks and hard places, David Hill

The Real McKay
Graham Bishop
Otago University Press, $45.00, 
ISBN 9781877372223

The Amazing World of James Hector 
Simon Nathan and Mary Varnham (eds)
Awa Press, $25.00,
ISBN 9780958275071

The first time I went on a Geological Society field trip, we drove out into twisted hill country where human foot had seldom trod (the farmers preferred trail bikes). There at the base of a collapsed cliff that you had to slosh through shin-deep mud to reach was a torso-sized, arch-shaped chamber in the rock. When you clambered up and peered in, you could make out a receding series of curved, pale shapes that instantly suggested fossilised ribs. A university lecturer had already visited, and a primitive whale had been postulated. So had the Oligocene Epoch.

Alas, the whole thing turned out to be the result of chalky water seeping through cracks in rock strata. But I haven’t forgotten the physical adventure, the quickening excitement, the resigned reassessment. Similar experiences – thank you for bearing with me – feature in these two accessible, affectionate science biographies.

Alexander McKay was a scary late-Victorian life-form who trekked through much of New Zealand, wrote 200-plus scientific papers, and made his own equipment (including lenses ground from some of the whiskey bottles he emptied). In his idle seconds, he wrote epic poetry: “At greater height, with richer hue,/All wild and tangled there;/Magnificence enwraps her slopes/With many a shrub that’s rare.” Ouch. I make him sound a quaint polymath. He was also physically and intellectually daring, meticulous and visionary in his fieldwork. Retired geologist Graham Bishop sees McKay’s studies of Earth processes as underpinning contemporary neo-tectonics. He produces plenty of evidence and narratives to support the claim. He offers a nice blend of anecdote and scientific context.

After brief education in Scotland, McKay came south in the 1860s, had little luck in the Otago goldfields, walked from Bluff to Dunedin and later to the Mackenzie Country, where Julius Haast offered him work with the New Zealand Geological Survey. Suddenly, a career was made. He began collecting fossils; 100,000 of them eventually, including the marvellous mesosaur in the Canterbury Museum. During three decades till 1905, he reported on over a hundred significant sites from the Far North to Stewart Island.

James Hector praised McKay’s “novel and important” results. The most significant of these came after the Scot’s studies of limestone strata in Marlborough convinced him that nearby mountains hadn’t existed when the limestone was deposited, 60 million years ago. Mountains could rise so high, so quickly? Astonishing. Allied to this was his investigation of the 1888 Glynn Wye Earthquake, near the Lewis Pass. Bishop’s summary, complete with famous archival photograph of a fence wrenched metres sideways, shows how McKay’s analysis established the reality of horizontal faulting. It was a discovery acknowledged across the world.

McKay could be combative. His part in the Sumner Cave body puzzle estranged him from Haast; (rather endearingly, the younger man wrote a 340-verse poem about it). He could be lyrical: “a peep of sky dropping west from the zenith is seen, filled with the glistening snows … .” He was inventive; the biography credits him with the first successful telephoto image – of a Russian warship. He seems to have been mainly absent from his family’s lives.

Bishop is clearly committed to his subject, and reluctant to leave things out. Less matter and more art might have helped occasionally. The glassy paper and the severe (also abundant and apposite) black and white illustrations make the book look less attractive than it is. But it’s a respectful, attentive life story; McKay would probably have given an approving grunt.

Awa Press have published some of our niftiest recent non-fiction, and their eagerly-titled The Amazing World of James Hector extends that list. It’s an appealing concept, originating in a 2007 Te Papa seminar to mark 100 years since New Zealand’s “Mr Science” died. So we get 14 short essays, in a sensibly chronological sequence, on the explorer, doctor, geologist, administrator. Contributors include science historian, entomologist, museum director, landscape architect and two great-grandsons. The diverse voices acknowledge a diverse man. As summarised by Hamish Campbell, Hector surveyed large tracts of the South Island, published work on fossil whale skeletons (where was he when our society needed him?) and coalfields, drew up impressive geological maps and built up an equally impressive range of scientific institutions.

Perhaps less well known is that he came to New Zealand in 1862 from Western Canada, where he searched for a pass through the Rockies. Peter Hector narrates three years of near-starvation, grizzlies and rattlers. A horse kicked the 24-year-old at – yes, Kicking Horse Pass – and he recovered consciousness to find his companions digging his grave.

Also comparatively unknown is James Hector the meteorologist. Jock Phillips discusses his role in encouraging some of the earliest weather recording in this country, and in establishing a national time. No longer would telegraph operators on different coasts work to local times 30 minutes apart. Then there’s Hector the founder and administrator. He helped set up the New Zealand Institute and the Colonial Museum. Tim Beaglehole evaluates him as Chancellor of the University of New Zealand (emphatically not a progressive; exam papers were still shipped to England for marking). Winsome Shepherd and Walter Cook outline his role in managing what became the Wellington Botanical Gardens.

Simon Nathan contributes two thoughtful assessments of the science entrepreneur who was also one of the last major generalists. George Gibbs covers his studies of marine animals, swimming crabs, alpine plants. Chris Hector writes on his great-granddad’s good marriage, the spectre of child and adult mortality in his private life, the homes in the Hutt Valley, the 100 living descendants.

Illustrations are generous, clear, and include a number of Hector’s own sketches, plus a shy, enchanting photo of his wedding day with Georgiana. The book has a handy index, bibliography, and list of the molluscs, protozoa, brachiopods, other bearers of Hector’s name. There is indeed a dolphin. And a lake and a town and a medal and a street in Petone.

A few contributions are steady rather than spirited. A few repeat bits of others. However, this and The Real McKay are tidy examples of popular, perceptive science writing. They affirm that geologists – thank you again for bearing with me – really rock.


David Hill’s YA novel, Fire on High, will be published by Mallinson Rendel in July.



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