At sea, the feasts are grand and impromptu—and everyone’s invited.
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At sea, the feasts are grand and impromptu—and everyone’s invited.
Fifteen years ago, I reported on a family who had lived off the grid for decades. As a young, idealistic couple, the parents had set up on a 100-hectare block of bush north of Auckland. They made their first home out of nīkau fronds and mattresses out of raupō and had 10 children, homeschooling them all. They got by on goats and sacks of sugar and rice. The woman, Inge, knitted all their clothes. They shunned plastic, electricity, running hot water, contraception, and medical care. When I entered their property, I was met by the teenaged boys carrying .22 rifles. The little kids were splashing in the creek, riding on their big sisters’ backs, while Inge stirred peach jam over an open fire. The dad—the one who’d driven this lifestyle—had died the year before. After seven years of pain, he had hitchhiked to hospital, accompanied by Inge. He was riddled with so many tumours that doctors couldn’t tell where the cancer had started. “He had a lump as big as a passionfruit in his thigh,” Inge told me. “He must have been in a horrific sort of pain. It just ate him up.” We headlined the piece, which appeared in the Herald on Sunday, “Living the good life”. Inge was proud of her kids and her lot, and happy. She’d built a safe space, and spent 35 years utterly immersed in it. Is that a good life? Maybe. But I thought of Inge often during Auckland’s last, long lockdown, and wondered how she’d endured the isolation. The grind. The preppers (survivalists, preparing for disasters of various stripes) in Tom Doig’s feature on page 38 would likely argue they’re just being pragmatic in trying to build a safe space to weather whatever collapse—and ensuing grind—may come. Certainly there’s an appealing primal logic to it: we should all have the basics of life covered, just in case. But I wonder whether there’s also self-soothing in play. We all seek to control what we can, especially when we’re a bit freaked—I pack and repack my bags whenever I have to fly. Shuffling through the photo options for this issue, I came across a shot of shelves piled neatly with gear, and thought: that’s a psyche trying desperately to stay cool. And good on them. It’s increasingly tempting to follow suit, especially after the past couple of years. There are lessons to be learned, too, from our Viewfinder feature on page 10. Trans women of colour are a group with more reason than most to be anxious. They face discrimination and physical danger, and it starts young: New Zealand statistics show being transgender means kids are five times more likely to be bullied at school. The Counting Ourselves survey, which started in 2018, showed this group are also much more likely to be sexually abused. Further, it found an alarming 79 per cent of trans and non-binary (those who identify as neither male nor female) people in New Zealand have seriously contemplated suicide, and two out of five had self-harmed in the previous year. It’s the ballroom community’s response to fear and uncertainty that I find the most inspiring: instead of retreating, this group of femme queens worked together and built themselves a safe and enduring space in society. Walk through the doors of a vogue ball and you enter a bunker where outside rules do not apply: here, queerness is a badge of honour. Being trans makes you top of the heap. In an increasingly crowded, frenetic world, perhaps the moral here is simply that we need to learn to give each other space. Like Nelson’s cave spiders hiding in the velvet dark, like Inge and her family, like the preppers and the femme queens, we’re all wired differently. We need room to move, grow and follow the path we choose—it’s the great privilege of living in Aotearoa.
New Zealand’s extinct Haast’s eagle may have hunted like an eagle, but it feasted on guts and organs like a vulture, according to new research. The giant bird of prey’s beak and talons closely resemble those of living eagles, while its skull is more alike to the Andean condor, a type of vulture. This finding suggests that Haast’s eagle may have had the featherless head typical of vultures—which aligns with a Māori rock painting of an eagle with a black body but an uncoloured head and neck.
Nearly 500 songbird species have been flagged as targets for wildlife poachers thanks to their unique plumage. Among them are three New Zealand species: the popokōtea/whitehead, mohua/yellowhead, and kōkako. Like their parrot cousins, songbirds garbed in eye-catching colour palettes attract more human admiration. But bright colouration is a double-edged sword: it also makes birds highly sought after in the pet trade. In turn, this means that populations dwindle as poachers snaffle birds from the wild—a fate that currently befalls around 30 per cent of songbirds, especially in the tropics. Colourful birds in the “perching bird” (passerine) family are more likely to be both traded and threatened with extinction, according to a new analysis. Surprisingly, white is a popular hue in captive birds—exemplified by the Bali myna, which tops off its snowy plumage with a crisp black tail-tip and zingy blue eye-liner. The myna is critically endangered due to poaching for the caged-bird market. As populations of desired species decline, poachers shift their efforts to birds with similar qualities. “Most of New Zealand’s birds are not too colourful—although the hihi and kōtare offer obvious exceptions,” says study co-author James Dale from Massey University. Nonetheless, New Zealand is pinpointed as a place that could see a drop in both colour diversity and uniqueness among birds. Without conservation efforts and proactive trading regulations, the future for our feathered friends could be decidedly drab.
Judges sifted and sorted, ranked and graded, compared and contrasted until the winners emerged from 55 finalists in Photographer of the Year. These are they.
The origin story of Orokonui Ecosanctuary’s environmental educator, Samuel Purdie
When Tom Doig started reading about doomsday preppers and survivalist subcultures, his first question was: “What if they’re crazy?” His second question was: “What if they’re right?”
As comets streak across the night sky, their radiant heads often glow green—but not their long tails. In the 1930s, physicist Gerhard Herzberg suggested that the lime halo may be produced by sunlight destroying diatomic carbon, C2. But because diatomic carbon is so unstable, no one on Earth has been able to test that theory—until now. Researchers in Australia used a vacuum chamber and powerful lasers to simulate the comet environment, proving that the breakdown of C2 produces the emerald hue.
The glare and babel of tourism have left the Nelson cave spider with precious few footholds.
A pivotal scene in the superhero movie Avengers: Infinity War involves one character snapping his fingers while wearing a metal gauntlet. It made biophysicist Saad Bhamla wonder: would it actually be possible to snap your fingers while wearing such a glove? Turns out, no one had explored the physics of the finger snap, so Bhamla and his colleagues at Georgia Tech in the United States filmed a finger snap in ultra-slow motion. The key to a successful finger snap is skin friction, which is partly created by the squishiness of the finger pads. Skin friction builds up energy like a compressed spring, then releases it quickly to fuel rapid motion. During a finger snap, the middle finger rotates about 20 times faster than the blink of a human eye, and when it hits the palm, the impact creates a mini-shockwave, producing that characteristic pop. Researchers failed to snap while wearing slippery gloves or stiff metal thimbles, while bare skin created the perfect amount of friction. The verdict: Thanos’s snap wasn’t possible according to actual physics, but researchers admitted they could not account for the supernatural powers of the gauntlet.
You find something, something old, something with a tale to tell. Who do you call?
If you sail west from California for nearly a week you’ll end up in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. Then the plastic starts bobbing past—a buoy, a bucket, a net, a toothbrush, microplastics floating like bubbles—tens of thousands of tonnes of it spread over an estimated 1.6 million square kilometres.
One day in 2008, marine science student Kura Paul-Burke was diving in Ōhiwa’s murky waters when the grey-brown of the sea floor suddenly gave way to a brilliant orange. At first, she was struck by the beauty of it. Then she realised she was looking at hundreds of thousands of 11-armed sea stars—pātangaroa, a native species—stacked five or six layers deep. Behind them, the seabed was littered with empty green-lipped mussel shells. In 2007, the Bay of Plenty harbour was home to an estimated 112 million mussels. By 2019, only 78,000 were left. Paul-Burke’s Ngāti Awa elders had noticed signs of decline well before then. No-one knew why the mussels were dying. Was it overharvesting? Sedimentation? But they knew there used to be more mussel beds, and in 2006, they urged her to investigate—then helped her to map the old mussel beds using both traditional landmarks and scuba surveys. Researchers are still confirming the starfish are to blame, and figuring out what is causing the ecosystem imbalance in the harbour. In the meantime, Paul-Burke—now a professor of mātai moana (marine research) at the University of Waikato—wanted to see if it was possible to save the mussels and the harbour. The project wove together four iwi (Ngāti Awa, Te Ūpokorehe, Te Whakatōhea and Waimana Kaakū [Tūhoe]) and three councils, kaumātua and young people (pictured below, L-R: Megan Ranapia, Te Waikamihi Lambert and Cameron Phillips), mātauranga Māori and marine science. Together, they built four restoration stations where baby mussel spat could attach and grow. Instead of using commercial plastic spat lines, they experimented with natural fibres. The strongest were made from fallen tī kōuka leaves woven into rope by master weaver Rokahurihia Ngarimu-Cameron and her students. In late 2018, the team hung them on floats in midwater, out of the reach of clambering starfish. It worked. Mussels began growing in such numbers that they dragged the floats under the surface. When the tī kōuka lines eventually degraded, young mussels fell to the bottom “as a whānau”, Paul-Burke says, before reattaching to the sea floor. As the researchers describe in a new paper, by 2021, three new mussel beds had formed close to the restoration stations, and the mussel population had increased ten-fold—showing what can be accomplished, says Paul-Burke, when several knowledge streams and communities pull together.
Almost all animals sleep—insects, mammals, even jellyfish and sponges. Some of them even dream. But what is sleep for, and how has it shaped us?
On the surface, this is a straightforward book of fish facts. On another level, it’s a story about gorging and slurping, about human nature, about waste, about greed. There’s a bit near the end about how the hagfish (or “bloody snot eel”, as Dad would call it) will patiently rasp itself inside softening corpses on the seafloor. If that doesn’t work, the hagfish will force its body against the rotting ribcage, or belly, or whatever, writhing until it gives way. Gross, but not as gross as the human appetite. The reading experience reminded me of being a kid and watching, horrified, as my uncle ate a whole bucket of prawns. Robert Vennell fillets his beautiful book into five sections, from fresh water and shorelines to the deep seas. Within each he covers just a handful of creatures. Bold choice, quality over quantity—and undoubtedly the best one. Each chapter is deep and rich. Māori perspectives, stories and histories are centred. Taxonomy and etymology, aptly, are broken out into little boxes. Vivid illustrations (some of which are reproduced here) flicker and dart throughout. Vennell is very good at writing about abundance. He conjures an Aotearoa where dogs lap up whitebait from rivers; the piper fish swim in shoals three kilometres long; kids walking home from school stop off at the rockpools, picking up a crayfish for each family member. His language is plain: eels are “gigantic tubes of meat”; pāua “thick, meaty chunks of protein”. But the numbers are obscene. Twenty thousand eels served at a feast in 1838. Eighteen million crayfish tails shipped to the US in 1949 (the tails were often snapped off, the crays dumped at sea). One weekend, 50,000 people turned up at a beach near Dargaville to dig for toheroa. They took home more than a million shellfish, leaving what they couldn’t eat at the tip. There are small numbers, equally grotesque: Vennell writes of a Dunedin hotel serving up flounder less than five centimetres long, and of blue cod for sale, weighing less than 100 grams. There’s a chapter about upokororo, the New Zealand grayling, last seen in 1923. Māori had stealthy methods of catching these particularly skittish fish. Pākehā simply dynamited the rivers, “causing entire shoals to float to the surface, where they could be scooped up and collected”. How on Earth have we managed to drive only one fish extinct? The true secret of the sea is that we ate it all.
Whether it’s shaping landscapes for sports and events or avoiding dangers in the mountains, Otago Polytechnic’s sports turf management and avalanche safety courses are unique.
“As soon as we die, we enter into fiction,” said the late English writer Dame Hilary Mantel. “Once we can no longer speak for ourselves, we are interpreted.” In the case of transported late-18th-century English convict Charlotte Badger, both the fiction and the interpretation have been prodigious. The known facts are few. Born in Bromsgrove, Worcestershire, Badger was sentenced to seven years’ transportation for the theft, in 1796, of “four guineas and a Queen Anne’s half-crown” from the house of Benjamin Wright—a man who may have been her employer. After four years in jail, she was shipped out to the penal colony of New South Wales. She then reappears in the records aboard the colonial brig Venus, fetching up in the Bay of Islands in 1806. She made a return trip to New South Wales, via Norfolk Island, the following year, and in 1811, aged 33, she married 48-year-old army veteran Thomas Humphries at St Philip’s Church in Sydney, which one guidebook described as “the ugliest church in Christendom”. In 1843, after years of apparent calm, she had one last entanglement with the law. Charged with stealing a blanket, Badger was acquitted, after which she fades from view. Ever ready with a telling phrase, Mantel defined history as “what’s left in the sieve when the centuries have run through it—a few stones, scraps of writing, scraps of cloth”. In Thief, Convict, Pirate, Wife, Jennifer Ashton manages to do the seemingly impossible: from the slightest of marks left by Badger, she crafts a compelling story. In common with others of her social class, Badger mostly came to official notice when she transgressed. No letters of hers have survived—it is unlikely that any were written, given that she signed the church marriage register with a cross. She had no important friends or acquaintances to record her eccentricities or witticisms for posterity, and she did nothing of note. Unless you count mutinying and taking control of the Venus. The Dictionary of New Zealand Biography repeats a fanciful story that while at sea in the brig she dressed as a man, and “armed with a pistol, flogged the captain and conducted a raid on another vessel to obtain supplies and weapons”. Another version: she incited the male convicts aboard to do the rebelling. While admitting that her fate was not known, the Dictionary also offers the possibility of a “very corpulent” Badger reaching Tonga in 1826 with an eight-year-old girl in tow, perhaps en route to the United States. Ashton will have none of it. She turns such stories to good use, though, as examples of how the past is embroidered, distorted, redacted, or amplified to suit present needs and according to shifting notions of what history actually is. And it is certainly exhilarating to see how Badger shape-shifts her way down the years, in historical accounts, but also in novels, plays, songs, and exhibitions. In reconstructing Badger’s life, Ashton was obliged to write a different sort of biography. “We have to abandon our desire to understand her thoughts and feelings and focus instead on the wider meaning of her life,” she writes. “When we do, we enlarge the ways in which we can understand the past as well as the practice of historical writing.” Mantel would have approved.
Sperm whales are tribal creatures—and they avoid interacting with those from other clans, even when they share the same waters. But how do they identify each other?
In New Zealand, if you see a tree turning red or golden in autumn, it’s almost certainly exotic. Out of more than 500 native species of woody flowering plants, just 10 lose their leaves in winter—most notably the tree fuchsia, kōtukutuku. But northern hemisphere forests at similar latitudes are full of deciduous trees, and in South America, close relatives of our southern beech trees drop their leaves each year. So why do Aotearoa’s temperate forests stay green, and was it always this way? Geologists examined a hundred fossil leaves from four sites in Otago dating back to the middle Miocene—around 11-16 million years ago—and found multiple lines of evidence that some of our extinct beech species were deciduous. The leaves of several deciduous Chilean beech species appear corrugated, with deeply etched veins, and the scientists found the same patterns in some of the Otago fossils. The leaves were also large, comparatively light for their size, and poorly defended, as evidenced by insect attacks—all trademarks of deciduous trees. (If you’re going to keep your leaves for just six months, it makes sense to make them cheap and disposable.) But here’s the paradox. Otago in the Miocene was much, much warmer than it is today. There were crocodiles and palm trees. If the winters weren’t frigid, why were those ancient beeches shrugging off their leaves every autumn? Lead author Tammo Reichgelt from the University of Connecticut theorises that deciduousness is less about temperature than light. Central Chilean summers are practically cloudless, while westerly winds make winters cloudy and wet. In New Zealand, cloud cover is relatively constant through the year. In Miocene Otago, as in Chile, the beeches soaked up the abundant summer sunshine—“it was really worth it to photosynthesise a lot”, says Reichgelt—but there was little point to keeping green during the dark, wet winter. Then, at the end of the Miocene, the planet cooled dramatically. Zealandia got wetter, its seasons less pronounced. “It wasn’t worth it anymore to throw away your carbon in autumn,” says Reichgelt—so all our deciduous beeches disappeared.
Tom Doig has come full circle on prepping. He spent a couple of years stressed to the max—agonising over the pragmatics of what to buy and where to stash it and, most importantly, gaming it all out: what difference would a pallet of rice make in the end, really?
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