National Chicken lady day (US) came about to honour Dr. Marthenia “Tina” Dupree, a woman who worked for 12 years in the second largest chicken restaurant in the world (and, rather more integrally, helped to raise educational standards in the United States as Director of Community Relations and Training), but chicken ladies the world over can, and happily do, also take this day as an honorary hat tip to them.
There are a surprising amount of chicken ladies in Christchurch alone and they are not limited to the countryside – the resurgence of backyard chickens is on the rise and as a crazy chicken lady myself, I can vouch for the fact that once you start keeping chickens, you will never want to go back.
Chickens really are a champion pet – not only do they provide you with fresh eggs every morning, but they also show affection in their endearingly goofy, chicken way. Our girls like to follow us about as we do gardening, jump onto the windowsills and stare in at us curiously as we eat dinner, and try their luck at an indoors adventure or lap cuddle.
They are also not the scatter brains that people think – a study conducted by Australian University in 2015 found that chickens can count, while a report by neuroscientist Lori Marino has revealed chickens to be on a par with many other animals when it comes to self awareness and emotion. If you are wanting to learn more about the chicken, Annie Potts, associate professor and co-director of the New Zealand centre for human-animal studies at the University of Canterbury, has written a highly informative and entertaining book on the chicken from its origins as a jungle fowl to its current status as domesticated poultry. Along the way, Potts explodes the many misconceptions and myths surrounding this often revered and conversely often mistreated animal.
There are so many fantastic books on chicken keeping at the library, which will help chicken ladies as they begin their mama hen journey. A real stand out for me is the chicken chicks guide to backyard chickens, which gives helpful day to day advice on selecting a breed, your chicken routine, how to treat your ill chook, dietary requirements and much more. Our selection of books on backyard chicken keeping are really worth a look at whether you are new to chicken keeping or not.
The library also has an excellent selection of books which serve as a guide to the many chicken breeds out there- from the hard working to hybrids to the fancy show girls. Just a warning though- once you start with one type of heritage breed you won’t want to stop adding to your flock.
Wanting to go the extra mile and build your own coop? The library has some great books on the subject filled with ideas and even detailed plans of your new architectural wonder.
November fourth is the ideal day for chicken ladies the world over to celebrate their successes – and for aspiring chicken ladies to take the plunge and start up their new flock. As Kathy Mormino (the chicken chick) says in her guide, the question isn’t why chickens but why not chickens?
We have great native birds, and some don’t even fly. If you listen to Radio New Zealand we have the bird call every morning.
And on right now is the Bird of Year competition, last year the Kea won. New Zealand Geographic called them “the mad geniuses of the bird world” because of the way way the experiment with things just fun. A group of Kea were filmed setting off stoat traps using sticks, just to make them go bang.
I do like the Kea but this year I think I am going to vote for the Royal Spoonbill (Kōtuku Ngutupapa) because it is kinda goofy looking and it has random feathers that look like a weird hairdo and it is New Zealand’s only cutlery themed bird. Another bird with a good barnet (hairdo) is the Rockhopper Penguin, he looks like the hipster penguin. My kids want to vote for the Kōkako. They actually want to vote for the South Island Kōkako but can’t because it is officially extinct but there are rumours that they are still alive in the depths of the bush. There is a $10,000 reward if you manage to photograph one which might be the reason they want to go tramping.
What did the Bison say when his son left for College?
World Animal Day is on Thursday 4 October 2018. It is important to recognise our furry friends of the animal kingdom, and World Animal Day is all about raising awareness to improve animal welfare standards across the world.
World Animal Day was a concept originating with German writer and publisher Heinrich Zimmermann. He coordinated the first World Animal Day event in Berlin on 24 March 1925, and held it in the Sport Palace (Berlin Sportpalast) where over 5,000 people attended. Aside: Incidentally, the Berlin Sportspalast later proved a popular venue for party rallies and speeches during the rise of the Third Reich.
Four years later, in 1929, World Animal Day migrated to its current date of 4 October. Whilst involvement was initially limited to Germany, Switzerland, Czechoslovakia and Austria, Zimmermann lobbied hard to have World Animal Day recognised universally. In 1931 he achieved this goal when his proposal was unanimously accepted at a congress of the world’s animal protection organisations in Italy, and World Animal Day became recognised globally as it is today.
What is the significance of 4 October? This is the day of Francis of Assisi, the patron Saint of ecology. Two days before my birthday too, just in case husband is reading this (lol) and wants a birthday gift idea.
Endangered species are those plants or animals considered to be at risk of extinction. Contributing factors include loss of habitat (e.g. through deforestation), hunting, poaching, disease and climate change.
At present, critically endangered species include:
Black Rhinoceros – which is in fact grey, and has been poached to the point of near decimation. The black rhinoceros is sought after for its horn, which is used in traditional Chinese medicine and in the making of traditional dagger handles in Yemen.
Both the Eastern and Western Gorilla – the largest of the apes. The decline of the Western Gorilla is attributable to loss of habitat through deforestation and the Ebola virus, which wiped out a third of their population between 1992-2007. Eastern Gorillas – situated in the Virunga Volcanoes region, the Democratic Republic of Congo and parts of Uganda – face the poaching of their young, and are often caught in the crossfire of armed conflict occurring in and around their habitat.
The Northern Hairy-Nosed Wombat of Australia. One of the worlds rarest critters, these wombats declined due to drought and the introduction of livestock, decreasing their access to food. Recovery plans are in place, but the plight of the animal is grave.
Red Wolf – The red wolf roams the USA, and is threatened by loss of habitat due to agriculture, and being hunted to near extinction.
Sadly, this is merely the tip of the iceberg, and many of the world’s beautiful and exotic creatures are in imminent danger of slipping away forever. Just to think that in my lifetime we may bid adieu to the majestic tiger, is a terrible thought. And it’s not only animals who are heading for extinction, many of the earth’s plants, algae and fungi are also disappearing.
You can find information on the status of any animal on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, and Arkive also has some in depth coverage on conservation issues and the endangered species of plants and animals.
Quick Animal Facts
On a lighter note, here are some rather riveting animal facts in honour of World Animal Day:
An elephant creates around a tonne of poo every week. No more said.
Caterpillars have 12 eyes. That’s four more than a spider. How creepy of them.
Mosquitoes are attracted to feet that smell. Explains a lot.
Find out all you need to know about animals and the natural world through Christchurch City Libraries’ impressive selection of eResources. Here are just a few, click on the links to find out all about your favourite animals 🙂 :
I would recommend Adventures of A Young Naturalist, the exploits of British broadcaster David Attenborough, and any of his groundbreaking and educational documentaries about the natural world which you can borrow for FREE at Christchurch City Libraries (in case you hadn’t heard, documentaries are now free at our libraries!).
Some of our latest animal titles:
You will also find animal mags online through our eMagazine resource RBdigital:
What kind of monster could resist that face? Reading to Dogs sessions are designed to provide a relaxed, non-threatening atmosphere in which children may practice their reading skills and develop a love of reading. Our dogs are the beloved pets of the Christchurch City Council Animal Management team, and have all been trained and tested for health, safety and temperament. Our dogs:
Can increase a child’s relaxation while reading
Do not laugh, judge or criticise
Allow children to proceed at their own pace
Can be less intimidating than a child’s peers
Library staff and a dog handler will be present at all times to help facilitate the sessions.
Arion Farm Education Park
Note: Arion Farm Education Park is part of the National Trade Academy (NTA), which has been providing NZQA approved Animal Care, Agricultural, Horticultural and Equestrian training courses to people entering land-based industries for the past 14 years including pre-employment training for people of all ages.
Spring has almost arrived – depending on which definition you use* – and the weather is certainly reflecting this.
It is easy to be inspired by nature. When I was younger I used to take every opportunity to make something out of whatever I could find in the garden. Daisy chains, bouquets, weavings, dried flowers that just looked dead…couldn’t have anything nice in the garden with me around. Those lovely red roses would soon find themselves dangling from my bedroom door frame in a preserved state of shrivelled brown decay.
Christchurch City Libraries has a wealth of books that are full of ideas for the nature loving craftarians out there. Here are just a few:
Helen Ahpornsiri creates beautiful artwork out of pressed flowers. Her book, Helen Ahpornsiri’s A Year in the Wild, is a beautifully illustrated (with her pressed flower art – no paint in sight) account of the four seasons of the natural world. I will commission husband to make me a flower press at once. Or just use a heavy book.
For fans of both Shakespeare and the natural world, I introduce you to: Botanical Shakespeare, exquisitely illustrated with the flora and fauna cited in the works of the most famous playwright Shakespeare, alongside accompanying verses.
Though a British guide, Margaret Wilson’s Wild Flowers of Britain is so beautiful to look at that it really transports me to a scene straight out of English romance novel. The author was a keen botanist and documented, in watercolour, (over the course of a number of years!) a thousand British and Irish plants.
As a huge Tolkien fan, no way could I pass up on Flora of Middle-Earth. This book is a catalog of each and every plant found in Tolkien’s fictional world, Middle-Earth. Nerdy bliss.
About: The seed swap has proved wildly successful over the years, just bring in your leftover seeds and we’ll put them out to share (though don’t worry if you don’t have any this year, you can always bring some next year 🙂 ). We welcome vegetable, herb, flower, native, and heritage seeds. You can also bring any spare potted-up seedlings. Yay gardening.
During the chaos of dashing between WORD sessions, writer and co-editor Laurence Fearnley kindly agreed to sit down with me and answer a few questions about her new anthology To the Mountains and other works.
What brought you to writing about mountaineering?
My parents used to do a lot of climbing in Scotland and Wales after the war [before moving to Christchurch]. We spent a lot of weekends tramping — dad went on a couple of expeditions to the Himalayas, my brother was a keen climber… When I was doing research for my novel The Hut Builder I read a lot of Alpine Club articles and ended up with boxes and boxes of material, so I thought it would be quite nice to do something with that. There hadn’t been an anthology of mountain writing since Ray Knox’s A Thousand Mountains Shining in the 80s, so it seemed a good time. I hadn’t really kept up to date with modern mountaineering writing but [co-editor] Paul Hersey edited the Alpine Journal and is a climber, so he had that sort of knowledge.
You researched a lot in the Hocken Collection. What was that like?
They have full archives from the Alpine Club, which was established in 1891. It’s interesting because they allowed women to join as members right from the start, compared to others like the Canterbury Mountaineering Club which didn’t allow women in until the 1980s. I got material from those archives and also from notebooks, journals, and letters that individuals have donated to the collection. It’s an amazing archival record, it’s incredible. It does taper off from the 1970s/80s onwards so it would be great if people continued to donate to the collection, if this could be our central repository of mountain writing.
A lot of voices chosen for this anthology aren’t those most people would associate with alpine writing — usually we only hear from those at the cutting edge of mountaineering.
That’s the sad thing because that’s how you get the same old voices coming through, if they’re not disrupted by allowing different voices. Mountains are a big part of our sporting identity, it would be nice if it was seen as something families do, not just rugged individuals. There are so many reasons why people go into the mountains — photography, art, for somewhere quiet and restful, to admire the beauty… The public perception of conquest [of the Alps] doesn’t really hold true, it’s not necessarily a motivation for most people.
At the same time a lot of the 1930s Canterbury Mountaineering Club articles are of trips in the Port Hills because it was difficult to get good transport to the Alps — they might only be able to get into the mountains once or twice a year but they were very fit. It was a class orientated sport, particularly in the early days. It’s interesting when the boundaries start breaking down between the upper middle class mountaineers and the working class mountain guides. Guides weren’t allowed in the Alpine Club because they were professionals.
Which doesn’t give credit to the fact that the guides were doing a lot of the work putting up tents, cutting steps, carrying the equipment…
Yes, you get someone like Dora De Beer on an expedition overseas in China, they walked 400 miles before they even got to the mountain, it was a real Victorian expedition. They would expect shelter from whatever was available, from monasteries to embassies, just take over their house. She was an amazing woman — during the 30s just before the war she would drive from London through Holland, Germany and Switzerland to get to Italy, on her own a lot of the time. Her diaries are from 1936-37, a lot of her entries are things like “Very inconvenienced getting across the border,” such a sense of imperious entitlement with no mention of the political climate. People like her were so curious and enthusiastic, in New Zealand they’d set off on horseback across Otira to the West Coast, just loving the absolute freedom of being out of that rigid society. They thought it was a great hoot.
Some of my favourite parts of the book are letters from the 1800s, there were some really funny excerpts. You must have had a lot of fun finding these in the Hocken collection. Do you have any favourites?
The ones I liked were the quieter, reflective pieces, people going back later in life and just enjoying being in the outdoors with their friends. I guess Jill Tremain had a big impact on me as a kid when she did the [1971 traverse of the Southern Alps] with Graeme Dingle — I can remember it being on the radio, there was a lot of controversy about them sharing a tent as she wasn’t married. From her letters she seemed to have such a generous outlook on life.
Voices I like least would be the 1970s slightly macho hard men stuff, that’s not a voice that appeals to me but quite a big part of the literature of the time. When you compare those writers with Aat Vervoorn, so reflective and spiritual, learning from the landscape… The ones who enjoy being in the space rather than needing to prove themselves or get a reputation, those would be the voices I like.
What are you currently working on?
I’m two-thirds of the way through a novel looking at landscape through scent and identity, under the umbrella narrative of a woman who loses her job when the university Humanities department is done away with. That one will be coming out next year. I’m also looking at doing an anthology of New Zealand women mountaineers. This will be more historical, it will be worthwhile to have a chronology of women mountaineers as there are so many of them.
What are you reading at the moment?
Just read a couple of books that I reviewed for Landfall, one called Oxygen by [New Zealand freediver) William Trubridge — not a book I’d necessarily be drawn to but interesting to see just how determined and focussed he has to be. The other is a beautiful book about hunting called Dark Forest Deep Water by Richard Fall, which would normally be something that turns me off but hearing him reflecting on why he hunts and the emotional journeys of hunting… It’s a great book, I’d really recommend it.
Thanks Laurence for a lovely interview, and I look forward to reading your next books!
Prisoners planting trees on the Hanmer Plains [ca. 1904].
Between 1900 and 1901 reserve land was set aside in Hanmer Springs for planting exotic trees to supply the Christchurch market. Planting of radiata pine and Douglas fir began in 1902-1903 and prison labour was used 1903-1913. There were 25 prisoners here in 1904, most of whom had asked to serve their sentence at Hanmer. Conditions were the same as a city prison, the only difference being the men got an additional four marks a week remission for industry. See The Press, 10 Sept, 1904, p. 3; The weekly press, 24 Mar. 1909, p. 67.
Do you have any photographs of Hanmer Springs? If so, feel free to contribute to our collection.
Kete Christchurch is a collection of photographs and stories about Christchurch and Canterbury, past and present. Anyone can join and contribute.
It was a chilly, damp, blustery and all-over a very Christchurch kind of day on Friday. Sheltered in the foyer of the Piano was a small and well-wrapped group of people, both long-term locals and people visiting just for the weekend, waiting for our 90 minute tour of the central city with Joseph Hullen (Ngāi Tūāhuriri/Ngāti Hinematua). I was really looking forward to it – I love finding out the stories behind a place, how human histories are represented in art and design. Joseph, and Ōtautahi – did not disappoint. The work that Matapopore has put into Ōtautahi Christchurch is incredible.
We started the tour in Victoria Square, near the site of Puari, a Waitaha Pā. The square was later known as Market Square after colonial settlement, and Joseph talked about the European design of the square and how it’s a bit… higgledy-piggledy (my word there, not his). Queen Victoria faces toward a building that isn’t named after her, faces away from a street that is named after her, and the closest figure to her is James Cook, a man she shares no whakapapa with. Their life spans never even crossed over.
In 1857, Ngāi Tahu rangatira, Matiaha Tiramōrehu, wrote a letter to Queen Victoria calling “That the law be made one, that the commandments be made one, that the nation be made one, that the white skin be made just as equal with the dark skin.” These words, and more from his letter, now adorn the tall windows of the Hereford Street entrance of Te Hononga, the Christchurch Civic building. A lovely link between Victoria Square and the Council building.
Our second stop was our very own Tūranga, the new Central Library. Joseph told us the story behind the naming of the building as he explained the artwork carved into the stone above our heads. Tūranga was the place that Ngāi Tahu ancestor Paikea landed in Aotearoa, after his journey from Hawaiki on the back of a whale. It is a fitting name for a library – a repository of knowledge – as Paikea bought with him all the wisdom and knowledge from his homeland. The art on the side of Tūranga represents migration stories, and the pathways that bring people from all over the world to our shores.
Another thing to note, when standing directly under Tūranga and looking up at the building, is how ABSOLUTELY MASSIVE it is! Phwoar!
Next we ventured down toward Te Hononga on Hereford Street to see Matiaha Tiramōrehu’s words on the windows, and explored the art and the rain gardens across the road at the Pita Te Hore Centre, where the old King Edward Barracks used to stand. Before the barracks, it was at the edge of the Puari Pā site. Joseph drew our attention to the banks of the river and the fact that the side we stood on was higher ground than the other – a very sensible place to build as it was much safer when the river flooded!
There’s a lot to see in the Pita Te Hore Centre, the landscaped courtyard in the centre of the office buildings is gorgeous. The stormwater is all treated on site in the rain gardens which are full of native plants. A moving sculpture, called Pupu Harakiki, commemorates Lisa Willems who died in the 2011 earthquake. Another sculpture, Kirihau – Resilience, speaks of the kaha – the strength and resilience of the tuna – the long finned eels – to adapt to their environment and it acknowledge the durability and adaptation of the people who live here as well.
The tiles under our feet are laid out in a poutama pattern – it looks like a series of steps, climbing toward excellence. The pattern also represents the pathway that the local soldiers took during World War One – out of the King Edward Barracks, across the river, toward the train station, over to the port at Lyttelton, and off to war.
We followed the same path as the soldiers across the river (although there is a bridge there now – the soldiers at the time trudged across the water), across the Bridge of Remembrance. In front of the bridge is one of the series of 13 Ngā Whāriki Manaaki – woven mats of welcome. This one, Maumahara, remembers the men and women fallen in battle. Images of poppies are woven into the pattern that represents the march to war, and the journey after death to the spiritual realm.
Next we stepped down toward the river where little tuna were poking their heads out from beneath the steps, drawn out by Joseph’s tempting fingers on the water. This whole area was a mahinga kai – a food gathering place – rich with tuna. This started a discussion among the group about sustainability – you get heaps more protein and calories from an acre of tuna than you could ever get from an acre of cows, and farming tuna is much better for the environment than farming cows.
Onward we walked to Hine-Pāka, the Bus Interchange, where the artwork on the ground in front of the entrance understandably represents navigation. Joseph drew our attention upwards too. Ngā whetū, constellations used for navigation, adorn the ceiling.
From the exchange we looped up Manchester Street, where the high density housing in the East Frame is going in – and the greenery around it in the Rauora Park. There’s also a basketball court and climbing frame – places to play are a vital part of any residential area.
Finally we heading back past Tūranga for a group photo, then back to the Piano where members of the group thanked Joseph with a waiata, a moving close to a really brilliant tour.
The conversation quickly turned to fatbergs, stinking accretions of fat and other unsavoury substances that so many of us misguidedly pour down our drains, which clog up the sewers of cities around the world. Reference was repeatedly made to the mythical place called “away” that we refer to when we “throw things away”. There is no away; these things have to end up somewhere. So-called “flushable wipes” may be flushable in the sense that they will go round the U-bend and disappear from view, but that doesn’t mean they are biodegradable and will breakdown somewhere in the waste disposal system; it just means they are someone else’s problem now, although they are still all our problem in the end as we have to pay for the resulting mess to be cleared up.
The tone of the conversation lifted only slightly when the topic turned to the concept of “toilet to tap” drinking water. This is the reverse of the usual situation. Laurie was incredulous that we currently flush our toilets with water that is clean enough to drink. How ridiculously inefficient is that?, she asked. With the right kind of processing however, toilet water can be turned into potable drinking water. The processing of course is crucial (“you really don’t want to have contact with faeces”, she said), and expensive, so this is only really a solution for drought-prone cities. Remarkably, blind taste tests have revealed that people actually prefer the taste of recycled water over tap water.
Even when the topic turned to transport we were straight back to hearing about human waste. We were shown a picture of a poo-powered bus. Hilariously, this was the number 2. Apparently, the taxis in Stockholm are partly fueled in this way. It’s genius really when you think about it, turning one problem (waste disposal) into the solution for another (fuel consumption). Brilliant!
Another huge source of waste is the way we treat our electronic devices as disposal ephemera, but this is changing. Landfill mining is now a major source of recycled materials for the industry. Experiments are currently underway to turn single-use plastic waste into building materials. There is even a trial of an asphalt mix that incorporates waste plastic currently underway at Christchurch Airport.
While Laurie had managed to restrain herself until now, she went into full on rant mode when it came to cars, roads, and traffic (although she confessed to being a motorsports fan). New Zealand, she told us, has the highest car ownership in the OECD. While there are understandable reasons for this that she recognizes (small pockets of people separated from each other by large distances) this threatens to impact on the clean green image that we trade on. Don’t think “Oh no, I’m stuck in gridlock” she said, “you are the gridlock!”. Fewer cars on our cities’ roads would have measurable economic and health benefits, but this would require alternative means of public transport, which would necessitate something of a culture-shift.
Michelle raised the interesting question of what cities might look like if they were designed by women. Laurie wouldn’t be drawn into making any firm conclusions, but she did make the point that “to build better cities we need to listen the voices of the people living in them, half of whom are women”. She seemed more concerned about listening to older people and those with access issues. “Cities built with older people in mind”, she said, “will be better for everyone”. “Modern cities are built to be easy to get to, but not worth arriving at”, she quipped.
This led on to a nuanced discussion of green spaces. Laurie is a big fan and cited many benefits of urban trees, not least their effect on cooling cities down. “We need to prioritise green over grey” she said. But she’s not such a fan of more gimmicky solutions, like living walls and vertical gardens, which she sees as largely hype and greenwashing, and she was ambivalent about urban farming. She would like to see a more evidence-based, problem-focused approach. Ask first what we are trying to achieve and then pick the best tools to do that job.
The conversation then moved on to smart cities. Smart cities rely on sensors she said, but these are difficult to incorporate into concrete buildings. There is a trend among urban planners and designers to add more and more sensors to every new structure that we build, but how we will use the enormous amounts of data that they collect is less clear. Laurie seemed to be calling for a more mindful approach, in which sensors are deployed to achieve particular aims, rather than incorporated willy-nilly into all our new buildings by default.
Before questions, the main part of the session concluded with a brief, but fascinating, discussion of driverless cars. They are not coming to all of us anytime soon, Laurie said, but we don’t have to wait for everyone to have one to reap the benefits. To illustrate this, we were shown a compelling video, which demonstrates that just one driverless car can improve traffic flow on a busy road.
Questions were taken at the end, most of which focused on local issues. Laurie clearly felt that New Zealand is doing some amazing things in this space, but not taking the credit it should for that. “New Zealand’s energy mix is the envy of the world”, she said. Let’s hope that local and central government start taking more notice of people like Laurie who have looked at cities around the world and understand the evidence the underpins the ways that science and technology can be used to improve our cities to all our benefits.
Nic Low (writer of an upcoming book described as “a bicultural response to the Southern Alps”) opened the session by asking author Laurence Fearnley to read a passage from To the Mountains, her recent anthology of alpine writing co-edited with Paul Hersey. She chose Young, short, and loving it by Rebecca Smith, a short account of the mad rush of preparing for a weekend in the mountains while she was still at high school.
Laurence explained that the anthology was consciously structured in the shape of a mountain, beginning at sea level, rising towards the bush, glaciers and saddles, up to the peaks and the epics, and then coming down and reflecting. There was also an interesting shift in the style of writing used from generation to generation, with earlier (mostly British) climbers in Aotearoa using very romantic language to talk up the scale of their climbs, compared to the more laconic writing of Kiwi climbers later on:
“The more deadpan the description the harder the climb,” joked Nic.
Most writing was also limited to those of a certain wealth and class until access to the mountains became easier and mountaineering became more democratic in the 40s and 50s. After that came the 70s hard-man stories, full of machismo, before getting into more reflective and gentle narratives like Aat Vervoorn.
Laurence warned that this book is definitely not of the most extreme mountaineering experiences, so don’t look to it for the top 100 climbs. When selecting material they consciously expanded the boundaries from those first ascents and difficult routes (which tends to favour one particular voice), and looked at the experiences of family groups, women who used guides early on, the guides themselves, and Māori experiences in the mountains.
When you include these people, those who enjoy going into the mountains to connect with the beautiful landscape or as an escape from the city with friends, then you realise how many people participate — people who would be overlooked if only looking for those at the peak of New Zealand mountaineering.
Some of these experiences make difficult reading. Anyone even tangentially involved in mountain climbing will know of someone who has perished in the hills, and some of the extracts address that loss along with other miserable experiences on the mountains. “Why do we love suffering so much?” wondered Nic, but of course the flip side is the emotional connection that being in the outdoors can provide, the joy of a successfully completed challenge.
Some pieces in the anthology had me laughing out loud: a group of climbers lugging a bunch of tins of various luxury food items along on their trip, only to open each one to find the same disappointing can of kidneys; Jill Tremain’s ‘Letter to Mavis Davidson’ about being caught out by bad weather for several days and finding her decades-old food stash, getting drunk on the tin of apricots and trying everything to make the stale biscuits more palatable.
These highs and lows are all documented in To the Mountains, the latest in our whakapapa of alpine climbing and literature, so if you’re an avid mountaineer, tramper, climber, or simply interested in some gripping stories of the New Zealand outdoors, I’d recommend having a look. No crampons required.
Jonathan Drori loves trees. So much so that he has spent a career working with them as a documentary film maker at the BBC, and on the boards of Kew Gardens in London, and the Eden Project in Cornwall. On a very wet afternoon yesterday in a full auditorium at The Piano for WORD Christchurch Festival an audience of enthralled drendrophiles (tree lovers) and nemophilists (woodland enthusiasts) got to hear Drori tell us about his passion for trees, and recount some enlightening stories from his recent book Around the World in 80 Trees.
Jonathan was first introduced to the wonderful world of plants by his father, a Russian emigre to the UK, who would take him to botanic gardens where he took a very unorthodox approach to botanical education. His father would feed him small pieces of the plants on show, some of which were psychoactive (like the opium poppy his dad suggested he lick), or even poisonous, like the unfortunate plant known as the dumb cane. The story behind this particular plant is deeply unpleasant as the name comes from that fact that slave owners fed it to their slaves as a punishment as it was extremely distasteful and could cause the mouth and tongue to swell up until the slave could no longer speak.
There is much talk these days, Drori said, about what people need, but he is more interested in what trees need, and this provided the structure for much of his talk. Firstly, trees need water, and it seems that this sets a fundamental limit on how tall they can grow of about 120 meters, above which they are physically unable to bring water up from the ground to the leaves, flowers, and fruits in their uppermost reaches. For this reason, none of the tallest tree species ever exceed this height, and they never will, despite any evolutionary pressure that might otherwise drive them to do so.
The second thing that trees need is food, which they get not from the soil, or even sunlight (although that does drive the process), but in fact the mass of a fully-grown tree has almost entirely come from carbon dioxide in the air, a fact that is of obvious significance in the context of climate change.
A perhaps less known requirement of trees is for particular species of fungi, called mycorrhizae, that live in the soil and form close associations with tree roots. In many cases, the trees can’t survive without them. These associations are often very specific, for example the fungi that birch trees need form the familiar red mushrooms with white spots known as fly agaric, which are very poisonous. (Drori had some entertaining stories about these mushrooms, but I’ll let you discover them for yourself in his book, see p.21). The mushrooms themselves are only a temporary, and very small part of the fungus as a whole, necessary only for its reproduction, but the vast bulk of the fungus is in the form of thin threads, hidden from view in the soil, which wrap around and interact with the roots of trees and other plants. Drori painted a picture of a vast information super-highway of fungal threads that allow trees to communicate. For example, when one tree is attacked by insects it can use these fungal threads to warn others around it, so that they can activate their defenses.
Defense was the next need that Drori told us about, and he spent quite a long time on it, telling us several amazing stories. He told us how caffeine is used by plants to defend themselves from attack by plant-eating insects. We learned that the alder tree, which lives in boggy ground and is highly resistant to rot, was used extensively for building in water-logged renaissance Venice, and apparently its charcoal makes the best gunpowder, still favoured by the military.
We heard about the whistling thorn, which whistles in the wind because of small holes made by ants that live inside the tree and protect it from other insects. A particularly gruesome story in this section was about how certain Buddhist monks used a tea made from the sap of the lacquer tree to mummify themselves while still alive, becoming ‘whole-body relics’, a truly horrific form of suicide by dehydration that is now thankfully no longer practiced.
Drori then moved on to talk about sex and seed dispersal, as trees need to make more trees. We heard that the laxative properties of many fruits are an evolutionary adaptation to make them pass through the gut quickly before the seeds are digested so that they can be deposited elsewhere in their own little pile of fertilizing dung. We heard about the extraordinary, and provocatively-shaped coco da mer, the heaviest seed in the world, once highly revered, which exchanged hands for extraordinary sums of money. We also heard about the traveller’s tree of Madagascar, the blue seeds of which can only be dispersed by lemurs as they are the only animals strong enough to break open their seed pods. This means that the fate of the tree is tied to that of these endangered lemurs, emphasizing the connectedness of trees with the other organisms in their environments, and the extent to which species rely on each other in fragile ecosystems.
This brought Drori to his final, and perhaps most important point; trees need love. To make this point he talked briefly about his involvement with the Eden Project, “the largest rainforest in captivity”, and mentioned the possibility of an Eden Project coming to Christchurch’s red zone, although in a rather different form much more suited to the needs of the local community, and in keeping with our own native flora. What we need, he said, is “a mycorrhizal network of people” dedicated to caring for, and looking after, the interests of trees. Inspirational stuff!
Drori finished his talk by pre-empting a question he had been asked before; if you could be any tree, which one would you be? The Quiver tree, the national tree of Namibia, he said. Why? Because whenever anyone sees one they smile, and then they want to stroke it – a lovely end to a delightfully entertaining and informative tour of the fascinating world of trees.
Drori’s talk was accompanied throughout by beautiful illustrations from his book drawn by Lucille Clerc. They are truly stunning, and this is one of the most beautiful books I have seen this year. It is full of many more amazing stories about trees like those we heard in this wonderful talk and I can’t recommend it highly enough!