Vanished world, Dale Williams

Buller’s Birds of New Zealand: The Complete Work of J G Keulemans
Geoff Norman
Te Papa Press, $150.00,
ISBN 9781877385889

Kids in a sweet shop. Nineteenth-century naturalists given a brand new country to play in gobbled up the apparent endless abundance of New Zealand biota. It was a time when which system to use for classifying plants and animals was a matter of lively debate; when naturalists like William Swainson could write of going for a walk before dinner and coming home with a couple of new species. Discovering the rich resources of untapped countries was a heady business, to those coming from a Britain where the major wildlife and best sources of protein had for centuries been the fiercely defended preserve of the aristocracy. In New Zealand, the practical pre-occupation of early settlers was which of their new country’s plants and animals made the best tucker.

It was also the era of cataloguing and collecting, as Geoff Norman points out. In the 1840s, John James Audubon in America and John Gould in Australia had published magnificent books featuring colour plates of the birds of their respective countries, and New Zealand found its own Audubon and Gould in Walter Lawry Buller (1838-1906).

Born in the Hokianga, Buller was a fluent Maori speaker and worked at first as an interpreter in the magistrates’ court, advancing so fast that by 1862 he was appointed resident magistrate in Manawatu. The law, and his work on land purchases for the Wellington Provincial Government, may have provided his income, but his heart lay in ornithology. By the age of 14 he was supplying birds and skins for the brand new museum in Auckland, and by 19 he was a fellow of the Linnean Society of London.

It was Buller’s consuming passion to be the first to assemble a comprehensive volume of the birds of New Zealand. By 1871 his bird collection was largely assembled, and he was in London studying law and acquiring a doctorate in natural history from the University of Tübingen. He found his illustrator/lithographer in John Gerard Keulemans, and their hand-coloured book, A History of the Birds of New Zealand, appeared in 1873. It was credited with obtaining a knighthood for Buller two years later. A second edition was published in 1888, and a supplement followed.

Keulemans (1842-1912), already a natural history illustrator of some repute and a competent taxidermist who had supplied Dutch museums, had made a career move to London. His bird paintings for Buller, originally executed as watercolours, and hand-coloured in the first edition, suffered in the second edition when the oil needed for chromolithographic reproduction cast an olive tint over the page. Modern printing techniques avoid this, and the clarity and quality of the reproduction of the colour plates in this volume is superlative. We can now see the colours that Keulemans intended, along with the fine detail of his meticulous work. All 95 illustrations are reproduced from both editions, and the supplement.

The facing text comprises brief extracts from Buller’s original descriptions. Comments on the stupidity of wood pigeon (because of how easy they are to shoot), on the tastiness or otherwise of certain species, and on the Maori who brought Buller a kokako specimen ripping off its blue wattles and sticking them on his cheeks for an ornament, all rather give the impression that some of the excerpts have been chosen for their entertainment value.

I have no problem with that – after all, we don’t usually take our science information from 140-year-old texts, bird-lovers today having current ornithological knowledge at their fingertips. It is period flavour we seek, and this is a book aimed not so much at contemporary ornithologists as at art lovers and devotees of fine printing. Norman’s very readable and well-researched introduction is as informative about 19th-century printing techniques as it is about the lives and tastes of Buller and Keulemans.

It is hard to fault the book’s production: it’s immaculate. The quality is that of a classic limited edition: large format, boxed, cloth binding, gold stamped, gold leaf edged – one half expects Victorian-style marble endpapers (they’re navy blue). And Te Papa has certainly stepped up its game when it comes to proofreading.

Some of Buller’s original descriptions hold an extra fascination. Writing of the Fiordland King Penguin, for example, he states “nothing is at present known of its breeding stations”. That reminds us not only how fresh his information was when first published, but also how recent is our discovery of our country and the creatures with whom we share our corner of the biosphere.

But while we celebrate the art, and Keulemans’ and Buller’s outstanding feat in compiling and recording the science, we should also mark the signs that even by 1873 there was a spectre at the feast: predators were looting New Zealand’s sweet shop. Introducing the Stephens Island wren and lamenting its extinction in a single poignant paragraph (the entire species believed demolished by a lighthouse-keeper’s cat), Buller signals a warning about the fragility of the new country’s fauna.

The sticking point modern scholars have with Buller is his philosophical attitudes, which some have described as Darwinian. Like many of his generation, he believed that races as well as species died out, and that this was regrettable but inevitable. Even while he was shooting or purchasing birds for his collection, some of his contemporaries expressed misgivings about the number of very rare species that he was determined to catalogue. Fatalistically, Buller saw it as a scientist’s duty to make a record of the last remnants of these unfortunates, and if what it took to do that was to shoot and collect the last few, then that is what the scholar must do, because that was the form that “conservation” took.

We might blench at this perspective on conservation, but our own era is also no stranger to the concept of destroying a village in order to save it.

Of course, collectors and cooks were not the only villains in bird destruction. Assigning an economic value to certain birds also played a role in their extinction; commercially speaking a bird’s chief value was as body parts. The market did what the market does, and as huia tail feather prices soared, supplies were rapidly exhausted. Bird habitats in New Zealand as elsewhere were replaced by crops with a higher cash value. It still happens worldwide, and on a large scale: I’ve been an ear-witness.

For over 30 years I have been visiting family on the Suffolk border. This is Constable country, and the sites of his famous paintings around Dedham Vale such as “Flatford Mill” survive as carefully preserved tourist attractions, the emotional essence of rural England. The surrounding countryside has not been as lucky.

On my first visit, I was jolted out of a jetlagged sleep by a shrill sound-wall of the rural alarm clock. Chirruping and chattering in their thousands, the abundant birds of the hedgerows which crisscrossed the south East Anglian landscape held their dawn chorus.

It was the 1970s, when the Wurzels sang: “I’ve got a brand new combine harvester”, picking up on the agricultural zeitgeist. The EU’s Common Agricultural Policy subsidies were just weighing in, and economies of scale were beginning to impact on a smallholding landscape which had survived through Boudicca’s uprising against the Roman yoke, through Viking invaders, and North Sea incursion.

“I got 20 acres, and you got 43, I think that we should get together,” warbled the Wurzels. The rapidity with which small farms vanished, their land taken over by agribusiness conglomerates, surprised everybody. And the first thing the new farm companies did was rip out the space-occupying ancient hedgerows and copses which cramped the style of huge modern agricultural machinery. In the 1980s and 90s, in the name of efficiency, East Anglia began to be farmed like a prairie.

By the new millennium, it was game over: hedgerow life in the newly empty prairies had dwindled to remnants. It would be comforting to think that the birds had migrated to more favourable locations, but in reality, they failed to survive the loss of habitat. The dawn chorused no more; the early morning silence was accusatory.

In his effusive introduction, Stephen Fry calls this book “a memorial to a vanished world and a reminder of the vulnerability of biodiversity”. Let the memorial also be to predatory attitudes that serve none of us well – particularly New Zealand’s wildlife.


Dale Williams is a Waikanae reviewer.


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