The renaissance man of Karori
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In this issue you will find meat and spuds—natural history and geographical stories—plus some exotic spices (jack fruit and saffron with your roast anyone?). One article in particular might seem to be slightly left-of-the-geographicfield: we poke a bony finger at the subject of death, that pesky thing occurring just prior to litigation over an estate. Reactions from people with whom I’ve discussed this subject have been interesting. While some folk find it intrinsically unwholesome to speak of, many are piqued and become garrulous about what they suspect the Fates may have decreed. Equally instructive is an assumption that such an essay would be about multi-ethnic or multi-denominational funeral rituals and beliefs, or that it would focus on the death industry and services, or about grieving, or other issues that arise for the living. These are all subjects worthy of contemplation in their own right of course, but none deal specifically with the phenomenon of death. To my mind, an essay about death in a magazine such as this is one that explores a certain biological gamut: why you die, the mechanics of how you die, what happens to your mind and body as you die, what the medical fraternity is doing to help you side-step an untimely dissolution, and how mortality was experienced by your ancestors and might be experienced differently by your descendents. Such a story could also consider the afterlife by looking at what sort of ongoing life the organs you no longer need can lead if they are transplanted into other people. Being New Zealand oriented, our death story would also mine local statistics—how WE shuffle off the mortal coil. These are big ideas. Death is never far from our lives. The news and entertainment media are awash with fatalities: tragedies, grieving families, war, ghost stories and extrapolations on the dramatic themes of murder and life after death. Hardly a surprise, then, that we tend to view this event in a psychological rather than physiological context. I would confidently wager that were we to announce a regular food column in Geographic, readers—even those who should be hardened to our editorial eccentricities—would expect a cuisine column: recipes, restaurant guides or perhaps a gardening column. Yet food is much more than its preparation and flavour. Food is life: organic matter that has sequestered energy from its environment, which humans and other grazers transform back into energy to sustain themselves. Its flavours or preparation are only a tiny and not very salient portion of the sum that is food. So an informative food column might document how this transfer takes place. It could examine how living things acquire this energy in the first place and how other organisms are adapted to exploit it. It would detail the way our senses are organised to detect toxins, how and why pleasure centres of the brain are stimulated by eating, and explore the constituents and by-products of living matter (such as oxygen and global warming). There might even be a sidebar on the harvesting of food and how this activity has been streamlined into agriculture and horticulture, plus the genetic side effects of all this activity on the food chain, but you don’t see too many food columns like that. NZ Geographic, though, is a different kettle of poissons. We aspire to tell you at least some things that you might not know, and we take this responsibility seriously, which is why amid the usual fare—conservation, locations and natural history—you will find more miscellaneous nuggets: Clouds (issue 26), Scurvy (issue 37), and the Search for Extraterrestrials (issue 74). And speaking of astronomy, try gazing up at the night sky while thinking about how any of those tiny twinkling lights can possibly be visible to a naked eye when that eye resides on a rock in an outer arm of an undistinguished spiral galaxy, and many stars that we can see unaided are a thousand light-years or more away—a light-year being 9,460,730,472,580.8 kms. What awesome energy do stars unleash that allows their light to travel for a thousand years and still be visible over such distances? Seventy years—less than a single life span—is not very significant in human history, yet before 1938 we couldn’t have told you the answer to that question. That was the year Hans Bethe, a pioneer of quantum mechanics, surmised correctly that the sun is driven by nuclear fusion. Since the dawn of civilisation, philosophers and astronomers had simply assumed that the life-giving sun was divine in nature. But scientific curiosity has a habit of, not-so-much demystifying our world as revealing deeper, stranger mysteries. Many taken-for-granted features of this world contain such miraculous seeds of surprise. The Vatican and other institutions of faith often surmise that they are under seige from science and that their doctrines are undermined by concepts like evolution or the Big Bang. Not so. It is a complete misunderstanding of what science can tell us about ourselves if we conclude from it that we are in any way threatened or diminished by it, by reality. By truth. So too in an exposition on death. Most interest in this topic resides outside the material substrate, in the realm of spiritual and cultural mystery, in what we think we might become after death. That view ignores the profound mystery of life. Understanding what we are, what is life and therefore what is death, is not a bad preoccupation for someone who is alive. A bird in the hand, as they say.
Moriori gave the Chatham Islands the name Rekohu or “misty skies”, a most appropriate name since cold water from Antarctica meets a warm current from the north to produce a lot of mist in the area. But this mixing of waters produces more than mist—a great wealth of marine life that the Moriori used as their main food source. It was observed soon after the first Europeans made contact that birds on the Chathams held no fear of the Moriori, meaning that the people must have drawn on the sea for necessary protein. But unbeknown to both native inhabitants and European arrivals, the Chathams have a rich paleontologic past. Here, the marked imprint of ancient ocean upwelling and the associated diversity of fossil organisms is preserved in extensive coastal rock exposures and on wave-cut platforms along the north-west coast of Chatham Island. The recent first discovery of a host of dinosaurs, marine reptiles, many families of sharks, macroinvertebrates (ammonites, nautiloids, gastropods, sponges) and plant life in a rock formation called the Takatika Grit attests to this rich biologic past. In the July–August 2006 issue of New Zealand Geographic, I alluded to another major discovery from the Chathams—if the discovery of only the third known dinosaur locality in the New Zealand region and the first on the Chathams wasn’t enough of a good start. The fossiliferous rocks of the Takatika Grit crop out along a 2 km stretch of coastline between 43.750°S latitude, 176.667°W longitude and 43.743°S, 176.683°W. Early in 2006, there was, fortuitously, a new section exposed. On a rather comfortable afternoon in mid-February (the best time for fieldwork here) my team, which consisted of PhD students Chris Consoli, Lucas Buchanan and myself, decided to survey a part of the coastline that had not yielded fossils previously, largely because it was covered in sand and few rocks were exposed. In the early afternoon of February 17, we were hopping across tidal pools at low tide and getting down on hands and knees to peer at the rounded, concretionary mounds of hard sandstone and grit. After several minutes of finding no ancient biotic treasures of any kind, I decided to try my luck along the eastern sector of Maunganui Beach. Just a few metres from the beach on the rock platform, I saw beautifully preserved, caramel-colored fossils exposed on the surface of the rock. Several specimens were present in one concretion, and I was quickly able to ascertain they belonged to one-and-the-same creature. But what type of critter? Experience from my long-term work in the Antarctic and mainland New Zealand gave me the first inkling of what these fossils represented. But how could they be present on the Chathams and in rocks of such immense age? I waved for Chris and Lucas to come over. After a few emotive expletives, we had to think of a way to cut out the block before the tide returned in just a few hours. Having a rock saw is a necessity for this type of work, so we quickly got it running and were able to cut out the block holding the fossils in its entirety. At that point we could see fragments of other fossils in the same rock, but could not ascertain just how many were present or how complete they were, as some could still be hidden within. The following days were spent surveying the same horizon and we discovered more and more of the same types of fossils. There was no question...we had uncovered the oldest known fossil aviary in the New Zealand region—a horizon of beautifully preserved bird bones. Because their bones are usually delicate, birds are rarely preserved in the fossil record, so this is a most significant find. In all my years as a paleontologist, I have never seen fossil bird remains dominating a deposit. Few other fossils are present apart from scarce shark teeth, teleost fish vertebrae, possible dinosaur bones (or mighty large birds!) requiring fossil prep, and parts of sponges. An intriguing combination. How many species of birds are represented? One—yes, two—yes, three—probably, four—perhaps. The hardness of the Takatika Grit makes specimen extraction very slow. As far as can be deduced at present, most of the birds comprise post-cranial elements. Many bones are associated and/or semi-articulated, which means that we can tell that they belong to individual birds (see images). One particular block containing more than 50 bones belonging to a creature we affectionately called “Dolores” (with other bones, too) found by me on the last day of fieldwork, has been CAT scanned (see image), and there are many more bones including an articulated limb inside. Many of the bones were scattered to some degree after death due to post-mortem processes and later entombed and petrified. Fortunately, these processes, occurring over millions of years, have been kind to the bones, and we are left with many choice diagnostic bones to study. Thanks to the generosity of a grant of $10,000 from New Zealand Geographic, many of these fossils have now been extracted from the rock, and intense research is providing exciting new information on what ancient life existed on this remote corner of the New Zealand microcontinent. So far, we have discovered the oldest, articulated remains of birds, and the presence of further dinosaur bones that were not included in the first paper, including another partial theropod centrum, and two other long bones, identified as a proximal metatarsal and the ulna of relatively large bipedal theropod dinosaurs (probably a basal group). In the geologic past the Chathams has been dubbed the Chatham Peninsula because in these ancient times it was a finger-like, emergent tract of low-lying, forested land extending east almost 1000 km from the New Zealand mainland. However, the machinations of plate tectonics meant this peninsula was situated much further south than it is today. Most of it is now submerged along the Chatham Rise. The greatest challenge for a paleontologist like myself is to find out (as far as can be ascertained from detailed study of the rocks and fossils) how many different plants and animals lived on this peninsula within greater Zealandia, and their respective ages. This is a tall order for several reasons. Perhaps most importantly, most of the fossil record consists of preserved hard parts of organisms such as bones, shells, teeth, etc. The soft parts of these species have rotted away and soft-bodied organisms without skeletons that lived in both terrestrial and marine environments are rarely preserved at all. Consequently, we are left with a patchy record of the biota at best, and, in an average shallow marine community, samples of only about 5–10 per cent of the original assemblage would be preserved for the paleontologist to collect and study. Additionally, calculation of the age of the fossils depends on any available age data on each species recovered and the known geologic ranges of associated species in the same interval of rock. If we are really lucky, further corroboration of the age of both fossils and a particular deposit can be provided by radiometric age dating utilising various isotopes, where appropriate rocks are available. The complexities of geologic processes such as deposition and erosion must also be taken into account. Considering all of the available data, we estimate that the bird horizon was deposited some 66–64 million years ago, yet most of the theropod dinosaur bones from the Takatika Grit are probably many millions of years older. Given the high species diversity and the latest Cretaceous age of microfossils in the beds below and earliest Paleogene age of fossils just above the bird horizon, the birds are most likely to be just over 65 million years old, meaning that they lived among the dinosaurs just before the Cretaceous-Tertiary (K-T; also the Cretaceous-Paleogene or K-Pg) mass extinction event. However, we still cannot discount the possibility that these birds were robust survivors of the K-T annihilation, and lived in the early years of the Paleogene during the dawn of the modern world. Irrespective of which side of the boundary they lived, fossil birds similar to these undoubtedly shared coastal habitats with the dinosaurs and other organisms at the end of the Cretaceous Period. This scenario will be explored in detail in a final article, along with particulars of what the birds represent. Melbourne artist Jon Hoad will paint a paleoenvironmental reconstruction of the biota of the Takatika Grit—presented for the first time in NZ Geographic magazine. The scientific significance of our finds in the Chathams is highlighted by a recent grant from the National Geographic Society Committee for Research and Exploration (my third) to finance a further field season of delving into the old secrets of the Takatika Grit. Not only is a third season of funding rare from NGS, but I received every cent that I requested for the work—almost unheard of in funding for research. This groundbreaking research has, to date, increased our knowledge of the ancient Chathams in leaps and bounds—from that initial hunch in 1995 when I initially surveyed the NW coast to major discoveries a decade later of the first fossils of many groups of fauna and flora—a paleontologist’s dream.
An otter with a serious toothache mews plaintively on the operating table. No one likes a trip to the dentist, including this mustelid. But while it may sense the impending tooth extraction needed to relieve its pain, what it does not know is that it is one of the first patients to be treated in the Auckland Zoo’s new state-of-the-art facility for conservation medicine. The 32-room, $4.6 million New Zealand Centre for Conservation Medicine (NZCCM) is the first of its kind here, and the first nationally-dedicated centre of its type anywhere in the world. An operating theatre, laboratory, isolation wards and quarantine unit are among its host of facilities, although staff are at pains to point out that the new centre is not just an expanded animal hospital. As project leader and senior zoo veterinarian Dr Richard Jakob-Hoff explains, the centre is also a commitment to the relatively new but expanding field of conservation medicine. Conservation medicine focuses on the intersection of the environment, human and non-human hosts, and pathogens. It has developed from a crisis: unprecedented levels of disease and ill-health in many species, driven by the increasing burden of anthropogenic environmental change. Diseases are depleting animal stocks locally, as well as affecting humans (eg HIV, Nipah and Hendra virus outbreaks). Climate change, chemical pollution, global trade, domestic animals, encroachment into wilderness areas, and the overuse of antibiotics are some of the mechanisms through which humans are rapidly altering hostparasite ecology worldwide. Conservation medicine practitioners form multidisciplinary teams that try to unravel the complex causes of environmental ill-health and work with educators, policy-makers and conservation managers to devise ways to improve species’ health. “It’s about taking a holistic view of health...integrating what we know about the health of the environment with what we know about our health and the health of animals,” Jakob-Hoff says. “The thing that is important about life is that ‘business as usual’ is not going to cut it, we are going to have to change our behaviour, and in order to change our behaviour we’re going to have to change our thinking,” says Jakob-Hoff. “We need to start recognising we are a part of nature, and what we do to nature, nature will do to us, and that can be both negative and positive.” Avian influenza is a case in point. The transmission of bird flu to domestic poultry has seen the disease move to cats and humans, at a cost not only to animal and human life, but to the vast Asian poultry industry. It is feared that the disease may yet mutate to allow person-to-person transmission, potentially causing a pandemic. With issues like this, centres such as the NZCCM may be able to help. By working across disciplines and organisations they can research and share knowledge of human, animal and environmental health and health threats. To date, the zoo has cooperated with the Department of Conservation and Biosecurity New Zealand in areas such as disease surveillance, and also works with tertiary institutions, the public health sector and community groups. According to Jakob-Hoff, collaboration is the key. “We work with people who have many different areas of expertise, and if we pool that expertise we suddenly start to stimulate new thinking and new insights that you wouldn’t have got otherwise,” he says. The vision for the centre has grown in part from the zoo’s increasing role in native species conservation programmes. When animals were bred at the zoo for release into the wild, questions were raised about what diseases the animals could have come into contact with, their susceptibility, and whether they might spread new microbes back into the wild. In response, the zoo set about gathering baseline data to establish normal health parameters—a practice which remains at the core of the centre’s goals. The zoo’s expertise in wildlife conservation has also been transferred to both local and overseas personnel. Recently, a Seychelles-based vet visited the NZCCM to be schooled in field diagnostic sampling techniques for the Seychelles’ endangered white-eye. Within days of returning home the vet was using her new skills in the field and had found a blood parasite that had not been identified before. Accessibility to knowledge also extends to the public. Visitors to the zoo are literally given a window into the activities normally carried out behind closed doors via wall-to-ceiling glass between the public viewing gallery and the hospital, allowing visitors to watch animal examinations and operations. Interactive displays also feature in the gallery, inviting visitors to delve into drawers containing zoo hospital delights ranging from giraffe faeces to polar bear parasites. The crown jewels of the display are perhaps the instantly fascinating testes from Fudge the castrated hippo, which, by the way, are packed in a very large jar. However, the visitors’ gallery is not just about spectacle. “I hope they share a bit of the excitement. I hope that they understand a little bit more about what’s involved in working with wildlife... the whole importance of taking a holistic approach in conservation management,” says Jakob-Hoff. For the zoo, the centre is a major achievement, a place within which to expand research capabilities and foster knowledge and awareness in the overlapping fields of animal, human and environmental health. And, while the centre is just a fragment of the global effort required, it is hoped it will play a significant and valuable role in conservation medicine for both native and more exotic species. Good news too for those like the little otter with toothache, who is now short of a few molars but a whole lot happier.
Welcome to the “Science Round-up”, the first of what is anticipated to be a regular summary of interesting science stories relevant to New Zealanders. There are many worthwhile articles published each week in scientific journals, but where can they be found? In this first column I will attempt to answer that question. Access to current issues of most scientific publications requires annual subscriptions, although many public libraries maintain subscriptions via the National Library’s EPIC project. Some authors also have personal web pages at their institutions and place full copies of their recent papers on these. Older issues of many periodicals (beyond 1–3 years depending on the publisher) may be freely accessed from publishers’ websites. For books and still older journals, technological advances allow the scanning, indexing and free dissemination of historical literature, some dating back centuries. While writing this, I can, at the touch of a few keys, see the works of French botanical illustrator Pierre Vallet who could never have imagined in 1623 that nearly 400 years later I would be sitting on the other side of the world (in a country yet to be discovered) looking at a copy of his book. I can do this courtesy of the Biodiversity Heritage Library (BHL) at www.biodiversitylibrary.org). The BHL aims to digitise and index the combined collections of 10 of the largest natural history museum libraries in the world. In total they plan to digitise some 2 million volumes. Another key international resource that will eventually be closely aligned with the BHL is the Encyclopaedia of Life, www.eol.org. The dream of Harvard scientist Edward O. Wilson, the Encyclopaedia of Life could revolutionise how we access biological information. Closer to home several organisations have been funding projects to digitise New Zealand’s historical scientific literature. The National Library has recently provided on-line access to all volumes of the Transactions and Proceedings of the New Zealand Institute, http://rsnz.natlib. govt.nz). The first issue published in 1869 includes subjects as varied as the Celtic origin of English vowels and the botany of Great Barrier Island. The transactions were the key scientific forum in New Zealand for nearly 100 years and contain a rich store of information that in many cases remains highly relevant today. They were later split into several series that have undergone further transformations to their current titles, which are available (with a three-year delay) to non-subscribers at www.rsnz.org/publish/journals.php. These include the New Zealand Journal of Botany, NZ. J. Zoology, NZ. J. Agricultural Research, and the NZ. J. Marine and Freshwater Research among others. The Terrestrial and Freshwater Biodiversity Information System (TFBIS) is a government programme to increase access to biodiversity information. To date, $800,000 has been spent digitising past literature, and nearly $4 million dollars on facilitating access to key national datasets and collections, such as the national vegetation survey databank, via web services. As a result of TFBIS, many smaller society journals, such as the Entomological Society of New Zealand (www.ento.org.nz/nzentomologist), Ecological Society of New Zealand (www.newzealandecology. org/nzje) and the Ornithological Society of New Zealand (www.notornis.org.nz) have been able to digitise and provide free access to their historical issues. Other society journals such as the New Zealand Journal of Forestry (www.nzjf.org) and the New Zealand Veterinary Journal (www. vetjournal.org.nz) have also done this as private initiatives. A new and exciting TFBIS funded resource to look out for in November is the online repository of the BUGS bibliography. This will be a comprehensive archive of terrestrial invertebrate literature relevant to New Zealand published before 1993. A fully searchable resource of more than 200,000 pages, it will be indexed by species and common names. The last major New Zealand group to keep an eye on is the New Zealand Electronic Text Centre (www.nzetc.org), based at Victoria University. They have a small but expanding collection of digital resources. This includes full text access to Tuatara, the old journal of the biological sciences department at Victoria. Some time ago Dr Raphael Did-ham and I put together a list of electronic resources relevant to entomologists. This list, published online in the entomological societies bulletin The Weta, is also relevant to the wider community; many people will find this a useful guide to electronic services currently available. A copy of this can be found at the New Zealand Geographic website, www. nzgeographic.co.nz. Now for some recent science. The iconic New Zealand kauri tree appears to be one crafty customer, capable of manipulating soil nutrition at the feet of its not inconsiderable trunks. Tests by Verkaik and Braakhekke reported in the New Zealand Journal of Ecology have shown that the nutrient content of hangehange leaves (sampled as an indicator of plant-available nutrients in the soil) were significantly lower under kauri canopies than other forest types. Why would kauri do this? Young kauri seedlings can tolerate low soil fertility better than most others, thus by inducing low soil fertility the mature kauri trees can give their seedlings a competitive advantage over other species. Sticking with a northern theme, Auckland readers might like to pay attention to the works of Steven Sherburn and co-authors in the New Zealand Journal of Geology and Geophysics, describing Auckland’s volcanic seismic monitoring system. It records eruption precursor earthquakes that occur when magma ascends into the crust beneath the city. Rangitoto was the last eruption centre in the Auckland Volcanic Field, active approximately 600–800 years ago. However, the city should not be complacent as Sherbourn estimates that the city’s five seismographs may only give a few days to two weeks warning of an eruption in the region. Speaking of catastrophes, Darren King and co-authors (Journal of the Royal Society of New Zealand) highlight the importance of Maori historical environmental knowledge, or matauranga taiao, and its contribution to identifying modern day natural hazards. Descriptions of earthquakes, eruptions and tsunamis are handed down orally in song and verse, and also appear in place names. For example, “the coming of the sands”, is an oral account of a great storm in south Taranaki that brought sand from Hawaiki. The storm, said to have been conjured by a karakia from the old priest Mango-huruhuru, sent sand far inland causing death and great destruction. Events such as these described from the 1600s are consistent with the result of a tsunami. Amy Driskell and co-authors, writing in the Australian Journal of Zoology, have discovered that the hihi, or stitchbird is genetically so distantly related to the other New Zealand honeyeaters (bellbird and tui), that it deserves its own exclusive family, the Notiomystidae.
Each summer, tens of thousands of holidaymakers flock to the ocean beaches and saltwater estuaries of Whangamata to enjoy this popular aquatic playground. All the while, tensions, acrimony and debate over the use of those attractions bubble just under the surface.
Before Northland had fully recovered from the exceptional rains of March the exceptional rains of July arrived. More than 100 mm fell in less than 24 hours over a large part of Northland and in places more than 200 mm arrived. Kaeo, for example, had 272 mm and Puhipuhi 216 mm, while Whangarei Airport had 194 mm. Heavy rain also fell over Auckland and the Coromandel Peninsula. Extensive flooding occurred in Northland, including some houses just repaired after being damaged in the March floods. A number of roads were cut by slips and a bridge washed out at Kirikopuni east of Dargaville. The easterly winds were much stronger than during the March storm and damage was extensive across Northland, Auckland and the Coromandel Peninsula. Trees and power lines came down in many places, cutting power to thousands of homes. In Auckland, the harbour bridge was closed to all traffic for a time and a number of ferry sailings were cancelled, forcing some passengers to sleep the night on board. The roof peeled off a central city apartment block in Symonds Street, and, near Thames, the roof was torn from a new gymnasium. A group of school pupils had fortunately left the building a short time before, when it had begun shaking and groaning. A number of yachts and boats were driven onto beaches and some were wrecked on rocks. In Tutukaka Harbour, Noel Kelly fought a losing battle to save his ferro-cement yacht, throwing out a second anchor and turning on the yacht’s engine to try to sail into three metre waves driven by wind gusting to nearly 200 km/h. Mr Kelly was eventually forced to jump into the water, from where he was rescued by a coastguard boat, just as his yacht smashed on the rocks. Mr Kelly, a manufacturing jeweller, who had been living on his yacht, estimated his losses at close to $200,000, as his insurance had lapsed. To add insult to injury, the spare set of clothing he salvaged as he abandoned his yacht was stolen from a drier in the Tutukaka Marina an hour or so later. Meanwhile, as the storm battered the top of the North Island, a ridge of high pressure covered the South Island, ushering in a sequence of heavy frosts that covered trees in rime ice and eventually created 25 cm thick ice on the Idaburn dam so that a curling tournament or bonspiel could be held for the first time in six years. For Northland, a second hundred-year flood in just months raises the question, what is going on? Statistically, such a thing could be a coincidence, but it is more likely that there is some common cause afoot in the atmosphere. More frequent heavy rain events have long been predicted as a consequence of global warming, based on the simple physics that warmer air is capable of holder a greater amount of water vapour and therefore of unleashing a greater amount of rain. Among climatologists grappling with the expected consequences of global warming, there is a school of thought that much of the anomalous weather around the world is driven from the tropics because that is where the greatest energy exchanges occur. Sunlight is most intense in the tropics; hence the greatest amount of water is evaporated from the oceans there. As this air rises, it cools by expansion causing some of the water vapour to condense, thereby releasing heat into the air. This year the monsoon rains over Asia have been much heavier than normal. Consequently, the release of heat into the air by condensing water has been greater than normal. When air is heated it expands and at high levels in the atmosphere, significant amounts of this air spill over the equator into the Southern Hemisphere. As this air moves further south, towards the Tasman Sea, the spinning of the Earth causes it to accelerate, forming the high level wind maximum known as the sub-tropical jet stream where wind speeds can exceed 200 km/h. The stronger the jet-stream, the greater its ability to help intensify the anticyclones and depressions that cause the weather down on the Earth’s surface where we live. So, hotter temperatures and heavier rain over Asia can increase the frequency and intensity of storms affecting New Zealand and beyond. The World Meteorological Organisation has found that extreme weather events have become more frequent world-wide over the last 50 years. This seems to have been particularly noticeable this year. In the last few months record breaking heavy rains have brought major flooding to places as far apart as Texas, China, India, Switzerland and England, as well as New Zealand. Recordings of rainfall over England and Wales go all the way back to 1766, and the period May to July of this year has been the wettest on record with 406 mm of rain, breaking the previous record of 349 mm in 1789. Nine lives have been lost and the total damage bill estimated at US$6 billion. After heavy rain in June over the north and east of England, several Church of England bishops blamed the flooding on a decline in moral standards, although not particularly the moral standards of the people whose houses were flooded. However, The Sun newspaper speculated that the flooding may have been caused by excessive playing of pop singer Rihanna’s hit song Umbrella, which topped the charts during the nine weeks of bad weather. Meanwhile, in southern England, the Wessex branch of the Pagan Federation was exhorting its members to pray for rain. They had taken offence at a large portrait of Homer Simpson holding a donut aloft that had been painted in biodegradable paint on a field next to the famous Giant of Cern Abbas in Dorset—an ancient figure carved into the chalk underlying the grass. Their prayers were followed by heavy rain over southern and western England which caused extensive flooding that lasted for days. Paradoxically, with all the water lying around, water fit for human consumption was hard to find as pumping stations were inundated and sewerage contaminated supplies. Water companies stationed portable tanks in urban areas and promised to fill them several times a day but were unable to keep up with demand, leaving the spectacle of English families wandering the streets carrying plastic containers looking for water. A black market developed as some people took more than their share and tried to sell it. Some neighbourhoods organised a 24 hour guard over their tanks and instituted rationing, inking the backs of peoples hands as they filled their containers. Happily, there are growing signs that the juggernaut of Western Civilisation is beginning to respond to concerns about global warming and halt the rush towards ecological disaster. In Rome, the Vatican is attempting to become the first carbon-neutral state by planting forests in Hungary to offset its carbon production, and the Institute of Rural Studies at the University of Wales has announced preliminary research results showing that feeding garlic to cows can reduce their methane emissions by half!
These recent books will be little read but much listened to. Recordings of readings will be distributed by the Royal New Zealand Foundation of the Blind’s talking book service among the 5600 people throughout the country whose eyesight no longer allows them to enjoy a book in the normal way.
Just when you’ve come to terms with being old, you die! Some claim it a blessed relief, for others it is a valley of shadows. Why do we die? How do we die?
Angel-tongued and devil-faced—kokako is one of our rarer and most striking birds. Two species once flourished: an orange wattled South Islander, declared extinct in 2004, and the blue wattled North Islander. With resurging numbers (now exceeding 600 breeding pairs), conservationists are optimistic that their haunting song will again flood through the forests of the North Island.
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