Producer Christine Dann talks about No ordinary Sheila, a documentary about an inspiring woman and the power of wonder

“I’ve got books instead of babies” — these were the words of Sheila Natusch, whose cinematic portrayal is coming to the big screens in Christchurch today and tomorrow (Friday 11 and Saturday 12 August).

As the movie proves, it isn’t just books that inhabit Sheila’s world. It’s also wonder and passion for the natural world — plants, animals and rocks. This translates into writing and beautiful illustrations.  The documentary shows so much — her love for the sea and sailing, honeymoon spent in the hut under Mt. Aoraki, the fun of learning Icelandic and swimming with seals, her close and dear friendship with Janet Frame in their formative days as young writers. Got the feeling? Who needs a TV and a car if you can enjoy a night camping under the stars and a bicycle tour from Picton to Bluff?

Sheila
Sheila Natusch. Image supplied.

Sheila Natusch greatly contributed to the understanding of nature by writing and illustrating Animals of New Zealand, the first comprehensive reference guide on this subject. She carried on writing all her life, on nature and history. Sheila has her artistic talent (inherited from her mother and grandmother) to accompany her words with convincing yet soft illustrations. In 2007 she was awarded New Zealand Order of Merit for her services to writing and illustration.

Watching the movie, it is not hard to see what compelled producer Christine Dann and filmmaker Hugh MacDonald (Sheila’s cousin) to capture Sheila on film. With premieres rolling out in cinemas from Auckland all the way to Gore, they are both fully occupied these days, but Christine still found some time to reveal the backstory of this inspiring project.

When did the idea to make a documentary about Sheila become obvious and where did it come from?

Director Hugh Macdonald has known Sheila all his life and always wanted to make a film about her, as she is such a fascinating character, as well as a woman of great achievements. I knew about her achievements before Hugh introduced me to Sheila, and as soon as I met her knew she’d be a great film subject.

Sheila is such a cinematic character, her enthusiasm and love for life in all its forms is beaming from the screen. Her story and persona are perfect for a form of a film storytelling. What was your intention in making this documentary, besides portraying Sheila and telling her story (because it also is a film about nature, New Zealand, wonder, curiosity and passion)?

Hugh and I share Sheila’s love of nature and the wild places of New Zealand. We agree with her that they are a source of much joy and inspiration. In making a film about her we wanted to share some of that joy and inspiration via someone who embodies it.

sheila2
Love for the nature shines through the warmth of Sheila’s illustrations.

You produced the documentary but also contributed as a researcher and writer. How long did your research take, what were the main resources you used?

The research for the film took about nine months, but that was spread over 18 months in time as it involved going to Dunedin twice, down the West Coast, and to Southland  and Stewart Island. My written sources included Sheila’s letters to her parents in the 1940s, and to Professor Ramsey in the 1950s and 60s, plus all her published work, both books and articles. Of course I talked to Sheila a lot to check things out as needed.

Is there a funny story from behind the scenes, something that happened during filming that you could share with our readers?

There always seemed to be lots of surprises happening, mostly good ones – such as the completely unexpected delivery of a box of chilled mutton birds to Sheila’s place when we just happened to be there with the camera for other reasons  – and that enabled us to shoot the scene in the Bach Cafe where Sheila takes them to her friend Maraea to cook up for them all.

The visit of the Ecuadorian navy sailing ship the Guayas to Wellington in January 2016 was another such good surprise, even though we had to scramble hard to get the filming organised

Sheila made nature and science accessible to New Zealanders in a user-friendly and encouraging way, especially with the Animals of New Zealand. However, she was to an extent criticized by scientists due to a lack of scientific language in her works. Why do you think that happened?

She was writing at a time when the scientific community (especially the Royal Society) was trying to raise the status of science as a profession of experts who communicated largely with each other, rather than the general public. Sheila has always believed that knowledge about nature needs to be shared as widely as possible, and that means writing in non-technical, jargon-free and also lyrical ways.

Sheila is extraordinarily talented in so many different ways: she is an amazing self-taught illustrator as well as a writer, she has a great passion, understanding and an eye for the natural world, she is a researcher and an “outdoor pioneer-ess”. And she managed – it seems like all throughout her life – to nurture and develop all those talents, which must have been quite hard in those days.

Sheila is not only very intelligent, she’s also very determined, so although she was certainly knocked back and excluded from some things she wanted to do, or ways she wanted to do them, she just kept on pushing until she found a way around the obstacle.

sheila3
The film focuses on creation of two integral works: Animals of New Zealand and The Cruise of the Acheron.

Which is your favourite motto or a thought from Sheila’s wise yet witty repertoire of thoughts?

Too hard to choose! But in the film you’ll hear her say several times that you have to ‘keep on keeping on’ when challenges arise, and that’s a good advice.

I was very delighted, when I realised that Sheila quotes Walt Whitman in her introduction to Animals of New Zealand (his poem The beasts, which talks about the animals). I wonder if she ever in your conversations revealed her fondness for any other authors and who were they?

She has a big library of books on ships and sailing, and likes novels and poems about the sea and life on it. She can remember a lot of songs and poems from her early years with a sea theme, such as John Masefield’s Cargoes. She’s pretty good on Shakespeare as well.

Is there anything else you would like to share with our readers about Sheila and your movie?

It has been very rewarding for Hugh and me to share our enjoyment of Sheila, and her enjoyment of life, through this film, and find that is (as we hoped) resonating deeply with other people.

Sheila’s story told through the camera lens is full of curiosity and wonder for nature and great outdoors that surround us. It proves that those who observe and see, will be rewarded greatly – with life-long beauty and content. Make sure you see it!

Find out more

Chatting with New Zealand’s Threatened Species Ambassador

Nicola Toki and a kiwiToday marks the beginning of Conservation Week and who better to talk to about nature and conservation than New Zealand’s own Threatened Species Ambassador, Nicola Toki.

A what ambassador? The Threatened Species Ambassador is a new role that was established within the Department of Conservation earlier this year. Perhaps we’d best ask Nic what that involves exactly…

What does a Threatened Species Ambassador do?

My job is to raise awareness and profile of our threatened species in NZ, and the issues they face that are impacting on their survival. NZ has the dubious honour of having one of the highest numbers of threatened species in the world (799 threatened and another 2700 ‘at risk’).

New Zealand’s flora and fauna is so amazing it has been described by author Jared Diamond as ‘…as close as we will get to the opportunity to study life on another planet’ because it is so unique from anywhere else. Rudyard Kipling described NZ’s environment as the “Last, loneliest, loveliest…”

How does someone get to do a job like that?

I have worked in a bunch of jobs where I have been an advocate for nature in New Zealand, in DOC last time around I was lucky enough to write and present “Meet the Locals” a series of 200+ mini wildlife documentaries for TVNZ’s digital channels. I also worked for Forest & Bird as a conservation advocate, and I used to have a job taking people swimming with Hector’s dolphins a very long time ago when I finished University. (I also sold a lot of polar fleece while at Varsity at my local Kathmandu store).

What made you want to be New Zealand’s Threatened Species Ambassador?

I have been a ‘nature nerd’ for as long as I can remember – lots of family trips camping in our wee pop-top caravan (which I now go camping in with the bloke and our two year old son), and I was lucky enough to spend part of my childhood in Mount Cook National Park and Twizel, so spent a lot of time outdoors. I was constantly bringing home animal skeletons, shells, feathers and assorted nature paraphernalia.

What one thing could we do to help a threatened species survive?

The best thing you can do is learn more about what makes our wildlife here so special and unique. Read lots of books about it, go outdoors and have a poke around! The more you learn, the more you’ll be blown away by how ancient and wonderful our flora and fauna are. Did you know that our native frogs are so ancient they were literally hopping around the feet of dinosaurs?

In practical terms, the best thing you can do is set up some pest control at home. Get a good rat/stoat trap and give local birds and reptiles and invertebrates a place to thrive. If every person in every house in NZ did this, who knows what we could achieve for our native wildlife. Kiwi in our backyard maybe! Then you can build on that by finding out what are the best things to plant in your area, then you’ll have a whole mini-National Park at home!

For more on wildlife conservation –

Exploring nature’s pattern magic

Cover of Exploring nature's pattern magicPatterns in nature are beautiful. Exploring Nature’s Pattern Magic by Dee and Mike Pignéguy is an ingenious, well designed book that captures those spectacular forms – from spirals to fractals, and crystals to camouflage.

There is a lot of fascinating scientific information in here, presented in neat bite-sized snippets. Here’s some things I learned:

  • The patterns you see in rose petals are equiangular spirals.
  • Spheres are circles in three dimensions.
  • The head of the marine iguana is a study in tessellations.
  • There are Fibonacci patterns in pineapples.

There’s an action point in each chapter, encouraging kids to find examples in nature and lots more activities at the back.

I think adults will like this as much as kids. Yay science!

For more information, visit Dee’s website Feed me right.

Science for kids

“The sea! The sea!”

Ancient Greek historian Xenophon and the August nature and science newsletter seem to have a thing about the sea. Dive in and see if you are on the same wave-length. Catch the drift of the reading picks, if you don’t like one, there are plenty more fish in the sea. Get on board our sailing ship of great aquatic reads. Have a whale of a time with some sea-tastic snappers of a sea-related….nope, that’s it, I’m out.

Book cover: the power of the sea Book cover of The Reef Book cover: The empty ocean  Book cover: The secret world of red wolves Book cover of The urban bestiary Book Cover: Animal architecture

Science lovers may also want to check out the WORD Christchurch session featuring Michael Corballis, author of The Wandering Mind.

Subscribe to our newsletters and get our latest titles and best picks straight from your inbox.

Making jam, making love, some big questions and great pictures: Cool stuff from the selectors

Love with a chance of drowning: A memoir by Torre DeRoche.
Ivan, a handsome Argentinian obviously ticked all the right boxes for this author as she battled seasickness and a morbid fear of water to accompany him a year-long voyage across the Pacific.  Good to read if you like a touch of romance with your travel!

Jambusters: the story of the Women’s Insitute in the Second World War by Julie Summers and A green and pleasant land : How England’s gardeners fought the Second World War by Ursula Buchan

Two books about working as a community, making do, thriftiness, recycling, and mucking in.  You will find these books in our history section, but the lessons learned are just as relevant today.

Fifty shades of feminism by Lisa Appignanesi
50 years after the publication of the Feminine Mystique and following in the footsteps of another type of Fifty shades, fifty women reflect on what being a woman means for them today. Contributors include some well-known writers eg  Siri Hustvedt, Kathy Lette, Kate Mosse and Jeanette Winterson.

Africa: Eye to eye with the unknown by Michael Bright
Seen the series? The book gives you the opportunity to really pore over the stunning photography.

Rubelli : a story of Silk in Venice by Irene Favaretto
The story of the Rubelli family and their textile company in Venice going back to the 18th Century. Lots of gorgeous illustrations of their beautiful material.

The Wonders of life by Brian Cox
Featuring (on almost every page if you are to believe this digested read by Jim Crace in the Guardian weekly) Brian Cox, the rock star of the science world, Wonders of life looks at those big questions about  the amazing diversity and adaptability of life.

Nature and Science covers for December

A selection of covers from our Nature and Science newsletter for December 2012.Subscribe to get the full newsletter in your inbox every month.

covercover cover  covercover

cover  cover

Never Smile at a Crocodile

CoverI chose my first festival event using the time-honoured technique of stabbing at the page with my eyes screwed shut. That’s how I ended up with a ticket for –Des Hunt and his book The Crocodile Nest. I like the fact that I don’t know anything about either the author or his books. I t makes me feel like an intrepid adventurer as I stride out on safari across Aotea Square to The Edge.

This turns out to have been a very good choice of event. Packed to the rafters with young people who give you real hope for the future, I sat next to a young man so bedecked with achievement badges that even if he dropped out right here and now he would probably still qualify as an Alpha Male.

Des Hunt is a great presenter and must have been a terrific teacher. He had that audience in the palm of his hand and they loved him. With eye-catching graphics, touches of magic, a science experiment and his sharp sense of humour, Des elucidated for us what made a good piece of writing.

I swear I could write a book after all his advice, but will instead make do with practicing on you dear bloggers and blogettes. He has what sounds like a really appealing story in The Crocodile Nest – adventure, nature, a bit of technology and a happy ending  but admits that the book that challenged him most was Whale Pot Bay whose main character was a girl and therefore challenging by her very nature.

I emerged from the packed venue humming you know what and with a big crocodile grin on my face. My first Festival event – we have lift-off!