Browsing, squawking and squabbling, Janet Hunt

Moa: The Life and Death of New Zealand’s Legendary Bird
Quinn Berentson
Craig Potton Publishing, $50.00,
ISBN 9781877517846

It’s only 10 years since Richard Wolfe’s paperback Moa: The Dramatic Story of the Discovery of a Giant Bird (2003) hit the shelves, so it was a little surprising to see a second book on the same subject within what is a relatively short space of publishing time. No worries whatsoever! Although, in the early chapters especially, the books cover similar ground, they are, in the end, birds of very different plumage. Without detracting from Wolfe’s publication, Berentson’s, for many reasons, soars at higher altitudes.

First, and most obviously, there’s the physical object itself. Nothing has been spared in production: at 220 x 250mm and 300 pages, Moa is a large hardback, and, because of the quality of its paper, a heavyweight at 1.6kg.

The all-important cover is immediately compelling, with a photograph of the head and neck of a moa on a white background. The neck snakes from bottom left to the head at top centre, with the bird looking at something beyond us, wide-eyed, mouth agape. What am I doing here? it seems to ask. How did this come to pass?

Look inside and the first thing that strikes you is the generous layout and the plentiful use of visual elements to create variety and momentum, and to complement and extend the narrative. All bar two spreads are embellished with at least one and often more images – photographs, paintings, drawings, wood-cuts and etchings illustrate the inevitably numerous bones, articulated skeletons and mummified remains; there are also many portraits of key personalities dating back to the mid-19th century, along with early location shots and photographs of, for instance, men posing with leg-bones as tall as themselves, women fossicking for moa bones in their Sunday hats, and a memorable shot of a young girl holding a moa egg the size and shape of a rugby ball.

The historical images are counterbalanced by maps and by author photographs of current New Zealand landscapes that link the story to the present. There is also what you might call “moa ephemera” – moa stamps, moa collecting cards, postcards, posed shots of “moa hunters” attacking dazed and wooden birds, and even an hilarious page from a 1973 issue of Action Comics featuring Superman in combat with a moa that flies, not with its wings but “by thrashing its FEET at super-speed!”

Some large books are for dipping into. Not this one. Moa is best read from beginning to end for the very good reason that it’s a detective story, a gradual unpeeling of layers, and slow – as the events themselves were slow – clarification, until first blurry impressions of a mysterious, flightless creature gain resolution and come into focus.

In many ways, Moa’s subtitle could be reversed to The Death and Life of New Zealand’s Legendary Bird, given that we start in a moa void and end with the vision of a living, breathing creature, tantalisingly lost in the hills and mountains, forever just over the horizon. By the conclusion, we have such a clear picture of moa that we know where they came from, how many species there were, where they lived, what they ate, what parts of them we would eat (and no, it’s not the breast meat but ask yourself why not), how they walked and how they died, and can speculate what sounds they made. We even know what their poos looked like.

Moa is ostensibly about birds and is a treat for bird-lovers, but, equally, it is human history, a story that runs in parallel to the exploration and shaping of modern New Zealand, touching on events and lives over the past 170 years.

It kicks off in 1839 with the appearance in Britain of a mere six-inch piece of bone, brought to light in a time when the birds are so utterly extinct and fallen into oblivion that there is scarcely a trace of them, even in the Maori oral record. News of their potential existence in far-off New Zealand is initially met with incomprehension and disbelief … and then the drama begins.

It immediately becomes a cut-throat contest, to be the first and most authoritative, to locate bones and name species: this, after all, is the “Great Victorian Age of Collecting Things”, and the finding of moa is part of the seismic shift that accompanies the discovery of dinosaurs and the exposition of the theory of evolution.

There is an element of pecuniary interest in excavating and selling bones, but the big payoff is in careers and reputations, with many ambitious larger-than-life personalities in the frame, each in his own way (there are few women in this story) greedy for the supreme accolades: recognition, glory.

It was “moa-mania”, a fever not unlike the passion for gold that swept through the 1800s – and, indeed, miners played a part in unearthing early remains. The mystery of the giant birds cast a spell over an extensive troop of players, particularly the brilliant but unscrupulous and powerful Richard Owen and his rival, the driven but hapless, comparatively powerless and ultimately tragic Gideon Mantell, whose spine – oh cruel fate! – becomes an exhibit in Owen’s charge in the Hunterian Museum.

But we meet many other extraordinary and colourful personalities, including the free-wheeling adventurer, Joel Polack; the frustrated missionary, William Colenso; Gideon Mantell’s son Walter; and a host of others, among them Richard Taylor, Edward Shortland, James Hector, Julius Haast, Ferdinand Hochstetter, Walter Rothschild, Gilbert Archey. There is also a goodly number of lesser players – the finders of bones, eggs and moa-hunter camps. Even conservationist Richard Henry makes an entrance.

And so the story builds, each discovery adding to moa lore and, at times, rewriting it altogether – in 1907 eccentric animal lover Walter Rothschild redesigned the moa family tree, coming up with as many as 38 different species (there are now considered to be nine).

Berentson’s prose is very readable, almost conversational, but covering the ground at a good clip, concise, scientifically exact and sufficiently descriptive. Berentson has a bit of fun with chapter titles such as “Tommy Chasland’s Remarkable Feet” and “Haast Hits the Jackpot”, and follows them with small scene-setting epigrams from sources as diverse as the Bible and Prince Gautama Buddha. The opening quotation from the Reverend H N Hutchinson (Extinct Monsters, 1910) promises: “Everything you will see here is quite true. All these monsters once lived. Truth is stranger than fiction; and perhaps we shall enjoy our visit to this fairyland more for that reason.”

Nothing is perfect, but this book’s weaknesses are largely behind the scenes. In particular, there is no full bibliography, which means that should one be inspired by this story – and there is every likelihood of this – there is no easy way to follow Berentson’s footsteps back to his sources. Then there is the accidental observation that the image of takahe on p101 is not from Walter Buller’s Birds of New Zealand as claimed. Although not too concerning in itself, an error such as this casts a tiny question mark over all else. Likewise, Berentson’s enthusiastic assertion that Mt Taranaki rises from “totally flat plains” deserves a small hello?

On the whole, Moa is an excellent book, its ultimate measure being that my view of New Zealand is forever changed. I don’t have space for elves or patupaiarehe in my vision of this land, but I do now envisage moa: they walk or run like weka or pukeko, dart, browse, squawk and squabble like the tui in our backyard. I look at our native plants and understand how many of their forms were shaped by moa eating habits, and consider the Southern Alps, which in rising, isolated moa groups and in time determined the different species.

Of course, had they not been extirpated c1450, following the multiple onslaughts of killing adults, consuming eggs and burning of habitat, there was little chance – despite the few hopeful sightings – that they would have survived later centuries of Maori occupation, let alone European colonisation. Can we imagine them alive today? That’s another discussion.

Moa is a champion. At the time of writing, it is the deserving winner of the 2013 New Zealand Post First Book of Non-Fiction and also of the prestigious 2013 Royal Society of New Zealand Science Book; it will be a surprise if it doesn’t take the 2013 Nielsen Booksellers’ Choice in the New Zealand Post awards in August. You, dear reader, will know by now.


Janet Hunt is a Taranaki writer and reviewer.


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Posted in Natural History, Non-fiction, Review
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