An Extraordinary Land is a finalist in the non-fiction category of the New Zealand Post Book Awards for Children and Young Adults. It is available at bookstores nationwide.
Peter Hayden is prolific. He writes books, produces, directs and hosts documentaries, and even acts on stage and screen, all with a high degree of competence and efficacy. With photographer Rod Morris at his side, Hayden has for many years chosen to focus the attention of his audience upon the wild life of Aotearoa New Zealand. So it is with An Extraordinary Land. As you might suspect of two such experienced and creative persons, the fruit of their recent labours is as beautiful and useful as the vivid blossom of a pohutukawa tree.
Hayden un-controversially states in his introduction that ‘New Zealand is an extraordinary group of islands…’ then asks, ‘How did they get so strange?’ Isolation is the short answer. In the midst of a vast ocean, these islands became ‘a wild laboratory where evolution could conduct experiments…’ and ‘a refuge where ancient creatures could exist…’
Isolation. It is easy to forget, in a modern era of cultural homogenization, that isolation has been a shaping force in the evolution of life forms. It has led to floral and faunal diversity based on specific local conditions. It is a catalyst for eccentricity. In the case of New Zealand, as Hayden posits, extreme isolation has led to extreme eccentricity: flightless parrots, nocturnal birds, living dinosaurs, defenseless myrtles, and giant podocarps.
In seeking to impose some order on all this eccentricity, An Extraordinary Land has been organised into four main sections: Mystery Solved; Who Knew?; That’s Weird; and To the Rescue. Further segmented into twelve sub-sections, with titles like ‘Sensory Superstar’, ‘Playing God’, ‘Kiwi Comeback’ and the quite succinct ‘Bob’, the book runs to bang-on two hundred pages. With well over half of those pages dedicated to colour photographs of en situ wild life, it is not a demanding read, though it is an engaging one, for a host of reasons.
Rod Morris is a crafty and affectionate genius. The subjects themselves (kakapo and kea, volcanic rock and braided river) are splendid in their own right, so Morris is onto a winner. But the clarity and revelation of detail are the signatures of an aficionado, and certain emotional and aesthetic responses are evoked by such artistry. The only risk here is that the reader might decide that it is not actually necessary to leave home to see New Zealand.
Who knew that the pohutukawa belongs to the myrtle family (a family that includes eucalypts, manuka, feijoas and guavas)? That while eucalypts have evolved side by side with possums, and developed toxic oils to repel them, pohutukawa have not? That as a direct result of that vulnerability, pohutukawa have been nibbled almost to extinction?
Who knew that the Kiwi, already a sensory superstar with its enormous brain and nostrils at the tip of its bill (unique among ten thousand bird species worldwide), also has in the tip of its bill a cluster of cells that detect vibrations produced by prey moving underground?
Peter Hayden not only writes as if geological and biological history is an epic narrative visibly un-scrolling all about us, he is as inquisitive about his subjects as the species-discovering children whose curiosity he praises within the pages of this book.
This is not to suggest that academic rigour and accuracy have been neglected. Rather, Hayden’s storytelling method weaves fact, theory, speculation and possibility into a highly digestible and coherent whole. His is a gift consisting of equal parts technical skill, subject knowledge, metaphoric tendency and the willingness to extend little invitations to the reader: ‘Take a midsummer stroll when New Zealand’s Christmas trees are in flower and you will be perfectly placed to witness another pollination partnership in full swing. The cloak of red that covers pohutukawa trees, and the urgent chimes from the throat of a bellbird show that the tree is open for business. Silhouetted above the tree, a scribble of bees runs random relays from tree to tree, hive to flower.’ Pollination as poetry – why not?
Heroes, and hope ahead
It is probable that most New Zealanders are aware of the horrendous effect that humans and other introduced predators have had on this country’s eccentric and thus vulnerable wild life. The thing is, as attested to in the section entitled To the Rescue, it could have been much worse. The pest eradication and general ecological heroism of such conservationists as Peter McClelland, the late Don Merton and innumerable others, has led to resurrected ecosystems and rebuilt habitats.
Presently, organizations such as Backyard Kiwi in Northland, and Project Crimson (which also originated in the Far North but has now exported its pohutukawa protection mission to all parts of the country), are helping species back from the brink of extinction. This book, while not glossing over the calamitous state of many of our habitats, celebrates these successes and directs our attention toward the possibility of a predator-free New Zealand.
With its gorgeous photos and well-told stories from the front line, and its immaculate presentation, An Extraordinary Land certainly achieves its stated objectives: ‘to explode a few myths, solve a few mysteries, and get alongside those working hard to rescue species in trouble.’
An Extraordinary Land: don’t leave home without it; but do leave home, so as to experience this extraordinary land for yourself.
Reviewed by Aaron Blaker
An Extraordinary Land – Discoveries and Mysteries from Wild New Zealand
by Peter Hayden, photographs by Rod Morris
Published by HarperCollins NZ