What can we learn from a tiny octopus?
The Moa were perhaps the most unusual family of birds that ever lived. Some boasted legs built like an elephant, others laid eggs the size of rugby balls, and the giant moa was the tallest bird ever to walk the planet. They evolved in isolation over millions of years, roaming the forests of New Zealand, but were ill-prepared for humans. By the time European explorers arrived, moa were ghosts of the past. “First we killed them, then we ate them, and then we forgot about them. Human beings have not been kind to the moa,” writes Quinn Berentson, author of Moa: The Life and Death of New Zealand’s Legendary Bird. The 200-page book recounts how for 180 years or so, the moa fascinated and mystified the finest minds in natural history. It was rediscovered in the 1840s, when an unusual bone was presented to the ambitious English biologist, anatomist and palaeontologist Richard Owen. He puzzled over the bone, eventually declaring it to be from a giant extinct bird. To build a more complete picture of this bird, however, would take another two centuries. “The moa had simply refused to be pinned down by science, and each effort to categorise it seemed to blur the picture even further,” writes Berentson. The identity of the feathered bird was built bone by bone, as land was colonised and cultivated, mined and explored. Maori traded bones for money, settlers bartered with bones, and Julius von Haast traded a surplus of moa skeletons to establish the Canterbury Museum with a world-class collection of elephant, alligator and gorilla specimens. In 1938, a century after the moa was rediscovered, farmer Joseph Hodgen and his son Rob found a huge trove of moa bones in Pyramid Valley, North Canterbury, while disposing of a dead horse in a swamp. The remains were immaculately preserved under a layer of “yellow quivering jelly” writes Berentson, a limey alkaline gel made of billions of freshwater crustaceans. The pit was the first large find of complete skeletons. And from it, the then director of Canterbury Museum extracted the bones of more than 180 birds, which contained clues as to what the moa ate and how they bred and behaved, allowing scientists to begin to understand moa ecology. “The moa did not exist in isolation—it evolved as part of a complex ecosystem and over millions of years it shaped, and was shaped by, the plants and animals around it,” writes Berentson. “And as it turns out, if we look closely at the precious fragments of the moa’s lost world which are all that we are left with today, there are still visible traces of the moa in the New Zealand wilderness that have outlived the birds themselves, like ripples from a sunken stone.”
A nail-thin nick on the ridge of a silver police whistle marks the downfall of a dastardly gun-toting highwayman, and a life spared
Trampers, mountaineers and explorers alike have sought shelter within the wooden and iron frames of the nationwide network of backcountry huts for nearly 200 years. Shelter from the Storm details the stories behind these remote abodes. Huts were often built from corrugated iron and whatever materials could be scavenged from the site. In Bealey Spur Hut (right), in Arthur’s Pass National Park, beech saplings were felled for framing. Each hut was a feat of ingenuity and energy. Farmers, miners, clubs and government entities were spared the back-breaking burden when materials were air-dropped to sites in the 1940s. In 1951, a team of 16 assembled 109 air-lifted bundles to build the original Esquilant Bivouac, high on Mt Earnslaw. The hut was rebuilt in 1989 (opposite) after climber Darren Hawes, 18, fell from nearby Leary Peak. It was tragedy, too, that decided the site of Tarn Ridge Hut II (top) in Tararua Forest Park. It replaced a leaky older hut built after Carterton hunter Basil Blatchford perished attempting to make the crossing in “atrocious conditions”. A nearby wooden cross still marks his grave, a standing testament to the power of inclement weather and the value of strategically located huts.
Instead of submitting a conventional art portfolio in sixth form, the culmination of Elliot O’Donnell’s entire year’s work was spray-painted across the school walls as graffiti. The school voted to allow the submission, perhaps endorsing his future, more subversive, activities. O’Donnell, also known by his pseudonym Askew One, grew up in Morningside, Auckland. During the 1980s, he was immersed in hip-hop culture filtering in from New York. Adidas stirrup track-pants were popular, breakdancing was “phenomenally huge”, and Smooth Crew—a group pioneering the graffiti scene at the time—were making their mark on neighbourhood walls, arches, pillars and train stations. “In ’93, I started going out at night, sneaking out of the house and tagging with one or two of my close friends—the local park, the local train station, the stretch of train tracks, all over the school,” he says. At Auckland Metropolitan College—the city’s ‘alternative’ secondary school in Mt Eden, now closed—O’Donnell met other graffiti artists, such as Tanja Jade Thompson, a.k.a. Misery, and decided that graffiti was something he wanted to pursue as a career, if that was possible. As it turned out, his work since school has been diverse—he published a magazine, organised events, ran an art gallery and set up a music label. O’Donnell makes a distinction between what he describes as graffiti and a more publicly acceptable form called ‘street art’, produced by “wishy-washy” art school graduates “who haven’t faced the kind of adversities in doing what we do”. The difference, he says, is in the illegal act of graffiti. The crime, the anti-establishment protest, the troubled journey of the artist, lend legitimacy to the art. “The majority of graffiti artists have fairly significant rap sheets and run-ins with the law.” Graffiti, he says, is not just a form of self-expression, but an existential statement. “It’s a very simple message. It’s a message that says, ‘I’m here, I exist’, and it’s a message of wanted gratification and recognition from your peers. “It’s a very, very raw and genuine human thing to feel, and want to do.” However, in May 2011, O’Donnell received a wake-up call. It arrived as a “thunderclap headache” which rendered him temporarily deaf and periodically unable to feel half of his face, or arms. He had developed Call-Fleming Syndrome, a rare condition that results in spasms of arteries in the brain, causing temporary stroke-like symptoms—possibly as a result of the fumes from the enamel paint he was using daily. Recovery has been slow, and O’Donnell remains highly sensitive to paints. When spray-painting, he must use non-toxic paint, work in ventilated spaces, cover every patch of skin and wear a respirator. The health shock prompted O’Donnell to turn to more conventional surfaces, but this had anunexpected benefit; it gave his work permanence, and led to Smoke Signals, his biggest solo exhibition to date, in March this year. Large-scale canvases with bold graphics, stark colours and strong graffiti influences debuted on exposed brick walls in Britomart, downtown Auckland. Many of the works used stylised slogans as social commentary, but retained the anti-establishment undercurrent of his illegal work; ‘A fool’s paradise’, ‘Island of promises’, read one. “A lot of our key artists have always centered around graphic use of type and words. It’s part of the New Zealand painting tradition,” O’Donnell says, quoting Colin McCahon among his influences. “I have a sketch book and I play around with phrases, and they’re kind of like mini-poems in a way, because I try to find the perfect symmetry between letters, the right play on words, and trying to make them as concise as possible.” The messages might have been the same as his illegal activity, but this exhibition was commercial. The Mayor of Auckland, Len Brown, even called his work “patriotic”. Does that undermine the legitimacy of his art? O’Donnell believes it still challenges the public. “I got to define myself, I got to show where my work is going, I got to put a value on my work and say to people, ‘This is where I’m at right now.’ “I feel I’ve found a harmony between my background, and I’ve found a place where I can take it, where it comfortably fits within the scope of the New Zealand painting tradition,” he says. O’Donnell now splits his time between graffiti, fine art, graphic design and directing music videos. Olivia Laita, his girlfriend and business manager, lives with him in their rented warehouse art-studio in Onehunga, reminding him to do “regular” activities, such as walk the dog or call his parents. Together they manage an online shop of his artwork, packaged into accessible formats for his fanbase: T-shirts, prints, silk-screen editions and smaller canvases. He travels regularly to the United States—Miami, New York, Los Angeles and Detroit—to make murals, and also to Australia, Tahiti, Germany, France, Switzerland and Denmark for his work. He recently contracted to graffiti silos in Auckland’s Wynyard Quarter. “At the end of the day I’m an artist,” he says. “I’m no different to anyone else, with the exception that a good majority of what I’ve done, I’ve done outside the law.”
IN THE 1960s, while Barry Crump’s hard-case yarns of deer-hunting in the Ureweras were taking New Zealand by storm, another eccentric take on the culling business lay languishing among family papers. Those Wild Men From the Bush, the visual diary of a government deer culler written 20 years before Crump’s novel, had to wait another half century to taste printers’ ink. The diary’s author was 20-year-old Neville Spooner—“Stag” to his mates—a lively, bright-eyed lad with a wiry beard and an unruly mop of hair. Born into a hunting family (one photo shows 15 or more of the Spooners’ guns leaning against a wall), he developed an early interest in both art and hunting. As a boy, he neatly combined the two by producing illustrated stories about his shooting and fishing exploits. Spooner’s impulse to record reached a peak with Those Wild Men. Across 80 pages and 320 captioned drawings it faithfully recorded the daily doings of cullers contracted to bring the country’s burgeoning wild deer population under control. The 80-page diary begins in the severe winter of 1939, with the men cutting tracks in the Tararua Ranges near Spooner’s Carterton home. Action then shifts to the Whitcombe Valley in Westland where, armed with his old ex-army Lee-Enfield rifle, Spooner proved to be a skilled marksman. He shot a record 525 deer in the season downing 41 on one memorable day alone. The diary has now been reproduced in facsimile as part of a generously illustrated biography by Chris Maclean, Stag Spooner: Wild Man from the Bush. Spooner’s vignettes are to treasure: “While Pete went up to bag a lone hind (losing his knife in the process) Stag boils the billy but set light to the tussock slope—silly fellow,” declares the caption to one drawing. After much tramping and shooting, camp making, letter reading and billy boiling, punctuated by several forays back to civilisation, Those Wild Men trails off into uncaptioned pictures and pencil sketches then, finally, a blank ruled page. Spooner’s thoughts had turned to war. On July 1, 1940, he volunteered for active service, surprisingly fetching up as a non combatant with the Fourth Field Ambulance. Military minds apparently rated his early job driving a grocery vehicle around the Wairarapa more highly when it came to waging a world war than his prowess as a sharpshooter in the mountains. Army life stretched Spooner. He was stationed in North Africa and described his experiences (which included, briefly, being taken prisoner) in a steady flow of letters to family, enclosed in outrageously decorated envelopesWild Man from the Bush reproduces more than 30 of them, along with several drawn by brothers Tory and Bryan. Soon he was selling specially printed envelopes to fellow soldiers, reporting that one edition of 1500 copies sold “like hot cakes—DOENUTS—at 3d each”. In June 1944, Spooner’s ambulance unit entered newly liberated Rome. “We stared in wonder. There was the great marble pillars of the Old Roman Forum, and the world’s largest amphitheater the ‘Colosseo’ which will hold 87 thousand people, and all round those old historic ruin sare the 18, 19 and 20 century buildings, including the greatest monument I have ever seen, the King Emmanuel Memorial,” he wrote in a letter home. “Ten years ago I would have never dreamed that I could come here, and although it is a great thing in a bloke’s life, I would enjoy myself much better on the mountain or at the coast but then one can always do that, can’t one.” In 1945, the brothers arrived back in New Zealand, their army days at an end. Spooner took up cabinet making and dreamed of living off art. The next year, aged just 28, he was dead. The cause is unclear, but it seems that he caught pneumonia while on a solo hunting trip in a remote spot at the northern tip of Lake Te Anau. In a letter to Mrs Spooner, the boatman who had dropped her son at the isolated camp site wrote: “I have seen practically every bit of New Zealand and Australia and also a fair bit of the world during the recent war but I still have to see a more beautiful spot than this final bay of the North Fiord.” The fact that he died in such a place, while engaged in an activity he loved, could have been little consolation to Spooner’s mother. Or to readers who see the talent and promise at the heart of Stag Spooner.
Te papa holds more than 200,000 New Zealand fish preserved in alcohol. The beady-eyed and sometimes odd-shaped or long-toothed specimens—many collected more than 70 years ago—are stored in thousands of jars, buckets and tanks. “The collection’s like a library,” says collection manager Andrew Stewart.“But instead of books, we have preserved fish. The people who use this library have learned to read the specimens like books.” The repository is where many of New Zealand’s marine and freshwater species are described and classified, providing information on the biogeography, evolution, life history and ecology of our fish and fish communities. The collection grows weekly, as recreational fishers, crew on fishing boats, scientists and fishery observers all send unusual specimens in. The fish collection is part of the staggering 2,000,000 objects Te Papa safeguards for New Zealand, a selection of which appear in 100 Amazing Tales from Te Papa, a book detailing the history and stories behind the museum’s acquisitions. The objects are spread across the public museum space, and the ‘backstage’ of the museum, an impressively large labyrinth of storerooms, labs, offices and passages weaving from ‘dungeons’ in Tory Street to a roof terrace on top of the museum. The well-illustrated book collates cultural artefacts and art works, enabling readers to enjoy the extended collection at home, and includes a DVD of the ‘Tales from Te Papa’ series fronted by the authors and produced for TVNZ7. Many of the tales in this book are of individual objects that reveal something special, even unique, about life and living in Aotearoa, and the people and events connected with the objects,” write Morton and Hotere. For Doris Whiting, a well-worn killing knife represents one of the most fulfilling periods of her life. When she was 22, Whiting left her job as a dressmaker in Pahiatua and signed up as a Land Girl, a government initiative which placed nearly 3000 women in farm roles while men served in World War II. Whiting mucked in on a Wairarapa farm with a friend, and helped with fencing, slaughtering, crutching and milking. Fragments of this rich cultural history are captured throughout the 208 pages: from the scooter helmet worn by protest leader JohnMinto during demonstrations against the 1981 Springbok tour of New Zealand, to Bessie Murray’s lifelike dolls of Maori men and women. Among the natural treasures is a fossilised tooth of an iguanodon—a 10-metre long dinosaur, found in England in 1820—and a giant 150-year-old ammonite, the largest shellfish ever found in New Zealand, measuring nearly a metre wide. “Fossils are the memory banks of our planet,” say Morton and Hotere. “Specimens like the giant ammonite give valuable clues to how these prehistoric creatures lived and the world they lived in—and the history of life itself.”
Derived from voix de ville, literally voice of the city, vaudeville performances became popular in the United States at the turn of the 20th century, competing for patronage as an upper-class alternative to the more sultry form of burlesque. A troupe in Auckland is the latest in a worldwide revival of the variety show, translating the voice of their city for a new generation of theatre-goers.
Paul Moon has gained a reputation as a straight-shooter, writing on subjects as controversial as smoked heads and cannibalism
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