Feathers and fins, Janet Hunt

Kakapo: Rescued from the Brink of Extinction
Alison Ballance
Craig Potton Publishing, $49.99,
ISBN 9781877517273

The Tasman: Biography of an Ocean
Neville Peat
Penguin Books, $62.00,
ISBN 9780143011385


Time was when “non-fiction” meant staid, largely black-and-white books on a relatively narrow range of subjects, with plain, unvarnished writing to match. No more: recent non-fiction is aimed at a popular audience and is sumptuously produced with high printing values and superb photography and design. Authors are writing more lively prose and finding interesting and creative ways to translate and transmit scientific and technological data, while readers are responding to these changes in the best possible way, snapping up these publications for private consumption, for use in schools and libraries and as gifts.

Kakapo: Rescued from the Brink of Extinction and The Tasman: Biography of an Ocean are both very good examples of this genre. They are handsome, thoroughly researched and well-written natural history titles from established, award-winning authors.

In Kakapo, Alison Ballance pursues a long-standing passion for a creature that has overtaken the kiwi as New Zealand conservation’s poster bird. These flightless, nocturnal parrots with their magic combination of green-gold, black-tipped feathers, whiskery, near-human countenances and eccentric behaviour are rare survivors, not just from pre-human New Zealand but possibly from the time of Gondwana, some 65 million years ago. It is thought the kakapo is not only the oldest member of the parrot order but possibly belongs at the base of the entire avian family tree. Kakapo are utterly endearing, and it seems that all who have dealings with them become besotted.

They are under the spotlight for another reason, however. At the time of writing there are only 121 of these birds in the world, a situation that seems incredibly perilous, but this number is, in fact, cause for celebration: in the mid-1990s, when Ballance first became involved with them, there were a mere 50 known individuals, of which only 19 were female. By dint of years of trial and some error, at great human and financial expense, the kakapo management team has coaxed this amazing creature back from the brink.

Ballance trained as a biologist but early turned her talents as communicator to bridging the divide between science and the wider public, working as a researcher, film-maker, author and more recently, radio journalist, telling stories of New Zealand wildlife. Her take on kakapo has an added dimension: in 1994, at the urging of photographer Rod Morris, she made a documentary about kakapo, utilising remote-operated infra-red-sensitive cameras to film the birds’ night-time doings, first on Hauturu in the Hauraki Gulf, and later on Whenua Hou off the coast of Rakiura. She became intimately involved with the kakapo management programme and with the people working on it, placing her in a privileged position when it comes to telling this story – she has both the large picture and the in-depth, insider view of her subject.

The first half of Kakapo (two of three parts) outlines the bird’s biology and distant and recent history, including its vulnerability to predators and the slow and singular breeding habits that contribute to its situation. Valuable as it is to have it assembled and retold here, much of this material has appeared in earlier publications so it’s largely just setting the scene for the real story told in the second half, when Ballance moves onto new material, the most recent developments in the kakapo recovery story. She describes how hard-won knowledge of the species has increased in parallel with scientific advances in areas such as DNA profiling; how supplementary foods have been devised to support the female birds as they care for their young and to encourage more frequent breeding, and how management techniques, including cross-fostering and hand-rearing, are contributing to this fragile conservation success.

Ballance has a conversational style that would not be out of place as the script for one of her documentaries and, on the whole, she gets the mix of science and explanation about right. My misgiving is that in this second half of the book she begins sometimes to write in the first person, and I generally prefer my author out of the picture. However, I concede that this is not inappropriate, given her involvement with her subject, and it does create on-the-spot immediacy. I’m not so keen on the switch to the present tense with which it is invariably accompanied; it’s disconcerting, especially when it shifts back and forth.

A degree of anthropomorphism is unavoidable. All the birds have names, an alphabet’s worth from Adler to Zephyr, and they are such personalities there is even a 20-page appendix in which each has a biography and a whakapapa. If anything, this illustrates the ambivalence of the kakapo team towards their charges – it must be nigh impossible to remain objective about the birds. (On those lines, I imagine there are more than a few heavy hearts at the news on January 14 of the death – reported nationally – of Richard Henry, the last Fiordland kakapo. He attained the grand age of at least 80, and bequeathed a separate and valuable genetic line to the future).

The photographs are a magnificent accompaniment to the text, from more general shots of kakapo to close-ups of management procedures. More than anything, they explain why people fall for this unusual parrot – just look at the picture of uber-conservationist the late Don Merton, cradling the fledgling Adler. A small niggle is that the images often don’t relate directly to the immediate context – I want to see the bird under discussion, not a generic example – but conversely, if an example must be used, I want to know which bird it is. (I’m clearly bewitched as well.)

All that aside, this is a wonderful book – an excellent printed record of the current moment in an ever-evolving story and a solid accompaniment to all the online and video material available.

Kakapo is a single topic book and ostensibly so is Neville Peat’s The Tasman: Biography of an Ocean, but they could hardly be more different. The enormous, complex subject that is the Tasman Sea calls for an equally complex, intricate book. Its scope is immense, and it is a trove of fascinating and hitherto unconsidered facts, a book to dip into or read cover to cover (several times if you want to take it all in).

Peat, who was supported by the Creative New Zealand Michael King Writers’ Fellowship and who is the author of more than 40 publications, joins a recent trend where a single large topic is explored from every angle (think Mark Kurlansky’s Salt: A World History and Cod: The Fish That Changed the World or, more closely, Simon Winchester’s Atlantic: A Vast Ocean of a Million Stories, also published in 2010). It’s ambitious, and Peat is almost as brave in tackling this project as those about whom he writes, who pioneered flying, sailing and paddling across this often inhospitable stretch of water and often lost their lives in doing so. He could have been content with natural history, confining the book’s ambit to the life story of the Tasman as the subtitle implies – its definition, its evolution, how it works and what it contains – but, by including the shores that shape the sea and the people whose lives are founded on it, he effectively extends his brief into social and cultural history.

Like Kakapo, The Tasman is in three parts, each comprised of four or five chapters. The first and smallest, “Tasman Nature”, begins with the physical – the sea’s formation, topography, composition, currents and eddies, and marine life. Part two, “People of the Tasman”, is somewhat of a miscellany of chapters covering exploration, shipping, harvesting of resources (seals, whales, fish, petro-chemicals) and the heroic – and often tragic – crossings by sea and by air. The third and by far the largest part, “Coast and Communities”, skirts the Tasman’s coastlines – Tasmania, New Zealand’s west coast and Australia’s east as far north as Lord Howe Island.

The Tasman’s inclusiveness is both its strength and its weakness. Comprehensiveness comes at a cost because it’s a challenge to communicate such a vast quantity of information in an interesting and logical manner without succumbing to the making of lists. Peat doesn’t avoid this, especially in the section about marine life where transitions from one subject to the next are rapid, and at times it feels as if we are going through the motions as we travel up the coastlines in part three. However, his writing is always excellent, and the mass of data is leavened by many anecdotes and by sidebars and boxes as asides to the main text.

The book is not flawless: a couple of trifling typos, a photograph that appears twice and an inexplicable change in caption style towards the second half are small imperfections. The notes are puzzling and irritating, though, because most could have been accommodated in the main text or other sidebars (I found the back cover flap a useful page-marker, though).

Like Kakapo, the text of The Tasman is well-complemented by images, and is especially strong in old maps and dramatic and historic paintings. Peat has taken many of his own photographs, and they are unfortunately a minor weakness – informative but mundane and sometimes badly-lit; however, they are countered by many others, such as the marvellous sea dragon that particularly takes my eye, or the unforgettable image of heroic kayaker Andrew McAuley. There are maps too, though at times I needed more detail and turned to an atlas to track the story as it roamed north, south, east and west. I’d have also liked line illustrations, especially in the part about the sea’s topography and wildlife. What does a seamount look like? And all those fish and marine mammals – without images, they are largely names.

However, it’s great to have all this material in one place and very useful to reconsider an entity that we tend to take for granted but which has a huge influence on our climate, our economy and on those of us who inhabit our west coast. I am particularly entertained by the notion that the sea is both divider and connector, positive or negative space depending on whether – as with Rubin’s vase – you attend to the defining land masses or to the waters between. I am never going to look at the Tasman quite the same way again.

I am full of admiration for both of these books: The Tasman and Kakapo are timely and welcome achievements.


Janet Hunt’s Wetlands of New Zealand: A Bitter-sweet Story won the Montana Medal for Non-fiction at the 2008 Montana New Zealand Book Awards.

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Posted in Natural History, Non-fiction, Review
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