Book Review: Bringing Back the Birdsong, by Wade and Jan Doak

Wade Doak was a pioneering scuba diver cv_bringing_back_the_birdsongin New Zealand in the early 1960’s. Along with fellow ‘oceanauts’ Jan Doak, Kelly Tarlton and others, Wade Doak strapped on Cousteau’s aqualung and set about “exploring a blue continent,” starting with Poor Knights Islands off the coast of Northland.

Fifty years on, having explored, photographed and written about that blue continent (funded in part by coins found in shipwrecks and other treasure salvage) the Doaks “emerged from the sea and entered all the lovely forest worlds of Northland.” This transition, mimicking the evolution of our fishy ancestors, impelled the husband and wife to “create a record of the wilderness of [their] locality.”

pp_wade_and_jan_doakBringing Back the Birdsong chronicles this process. As they gradually move up out of the blue depths and into the tidal zone and so on up onto the headlands of the Tutukaka coast and so into the forests proper, Wade and Jan Doak have their ears and eyes open, minds poised and cameras ready. The observations are gathered during the passage of four seasons but the written details are rendered primarily in present tense. Readers may be led to feel as if the leaf is unfurling before their eyes, the cicada twitching and singing now, the kereru’s wing beating overhead as the pages are turned. The other effect of this style of writing is an absence of narrative drive. This could be disconcerting, until the reader allows that Bringing Back the Birdsong might be best thought of as a passionately conceived reference book.

This is not to say that this book is without a definite point of view. Its subtitle reads: ‘Two dedicated conservationists work to restore the natural balance of their slice of coastal New Zealand.’ This is indeed the subplot, visible in glimpses throughout the text but not stated so explicitly until the final chapter, ‘Towards Gondwana – Or Bird Silence?’ The Doaks have not only been acutely observing and describing the natural world, a labour of love in its own right. They have also been actively attempting to return their own patch of land to its former pristine pest-free state. Their action and this book are a plea to New Zealand’s citizenry and its elected representatives to take ever more seriously the role of ecological guardianship. In the final chapter, the Doaks outline the challenge issued by the late Sir Paul Callaghan. To connect existing sanctuaries and pest-free reserves to one another to make of New Zealand “a series of protected wildernesses, stepping stones and corridors to tomorrow.”

That is a gorgeous phrasing of what many may consider a chimera. Not so Wade and Jan Doak, who conclude the text with these words: “We really think it can be done. We hope that this book has shown what is at stake and what there is to gain.”

Reviewed by Aaron Blaker

Bringing Back the Birdsong
by Wade and Jan Doak
Published by New Holland Publishers
ISBN 9781869664015

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