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.

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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

Primary science week : Stay safe on our roads with science

This year, Primary Science Week will be on 15th to 19th May. The theme is ‘Stay safe on our roads with science’.

The New Zealand Association of Science Educators is asking our young scientists to participate in this year’s national experiment. The aim this year is for classes to carry out road safety related experiments and share their experiments and results with other classes around the country. The students will see how the science community work together to find solutions to problems.

Are you a primary school teacher or a keen young scientist? Then check out NZASE’s Primary Science Week website. You will find some great road safety experiments. Some are suitable for younger children, others are more suitable for older primary children. You never know, you might just be the one that makes an interesting discovery or observation that makes our roads a wee bit safer.

The Gig Guide: April 2017

Planning on attending a concert, show, or gig in Christchurch? Then why not take a look at what we’ve got of that artist’s back catalogue?

Comedy

Kids

Music

What gigs are you looking forward to in the near future? Anything we’ve missed? Do let us know in the comments.

Science Alive Under 5 Fest – Hands-on science fun for kids

Science Alive’s annual Under 5 Fest gives kids under the age of 5 (and their parents and caregivers and educators) a heap of hands-on science fun. It’s on from Tuesday 21 to Sunday 26 March, 9.30am to 4.30pm at Table Tennis Canterbury stadium, 294 Blenheim Road, Riccarton. Library staff will be there from 11am to 12pm daily, doing a 20 to 30 minute Storytimes / Wā Kōrero at 11am, sharing stories, rhymes, music and play.

Science Alive Under 5 Festival

The Science Alive team say there will be some cool new exhibits as well as old favourites. Entry is $6 for all ages, except under 2s get in for free. Make sure you bring some coins, there’s a balloon creator and face-painter on site. If you are there and want to share your pics and vids, use the hashtag #U5FEST

Visit the Science Alive website to find out all you need to know about parking, food (and coffee) etc. You can also subscribe to the Under 5 Fest Facebook event to get the latest info.

Science Alive Under 5

Science Alive at libraries

For older kids, Science Alive also offer Science Snippets, an after school science programme at five libraries across Christchurch.

Science resources for kids

Last year we interviewed Geni McCallum of Science Alive! about the Under 5 fest and kids and science: “Science is about doing”.

Libraries have plenty of science-themed fun for kids:

(Images in this post supplied by Science Alive)

Nanogirl in Christchurch: Quick questions

nanogirl-2016-250x250Nanogirl is coming to Christchurch with a bang! She is putting on two shows on 5th December at the Isaac Theatre Royal. Expect explosions and excitement at Little Bang, Big Bang – the Live Science Show. One hour of science where Nanogirl blows things up, blows things over and blows your mind!

Covering Bernoulli’s principle, firing a massive air vortex cannon, holding fire in her hands and exploding thousands of ping pong balls, this show has science like you’ve never seen it before!  Safe for all ages, this family friendly show shows you simple experiments you can do at  home.

We asked Nanogirl – aka scientist Michelle Dickinson – a few questions ahead of her upcoming visit

CoverWhat resources would you recommend for kids interested in science?

Actually my favourite place to go is online to places like the Science Learning Hub as they have great New Zealand content for all ages and for teachers that includes local content.

I also love Rosie Revere, engineer as an engineer myself, it’s so great to read a book with such a strong female engineer lead character to get girls and boys interested in and familiar with the word ‘engineering’.

What did you read as a child that you enjoyed? What books inspired you?

I read a lot of science fiction books which I loved as they helped me to think about what a future world could look like which helped me to think big about working on solutions that could help our future by helping to create technologies and materials that don’t exist yet.

What do you enjoy reading these days?

Now I’m a total non-fiction biography addict as I follow influential leaders that I admire as I try to piece together how others have overcome challenges in their lives to create the successes they were aiming for.

What role do libraries play in your life?

Libraries used to be the place that I went to borrow books when I was younger but now they are spaces of technology for me as I help libraries who have 3D printers and robotics centres in them and instead of the hardback books I used to borrow, I’m now an avid audiobook borrower from my local library.

 

Fun Palaces at Central Library Peterborough - 3d Printing
Fun Palaces at Central Library Peterborough – 3d Printing. Flickr CCLFunPalaces-2015-10-3-Fun Places – 41 – Fun Times – 41 – 1912

What advice can you give young people wanting to pursue a career in science?

The best scientists and engineers are always asking questions and always testing their theories through creating experiments and researching their ideas, so my advice is to never stop being curious.

More Nanogirl

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Science and technology at the library

See also our post: Inspiring girls to work in STEM – Ada Lovelace Day 2016

The Cashmere Caverns

Imagine a concrete lined room, hazy with cigarette smoke and lit only by a few shaded lamps which hang from the ceiling. In the centre, women in uniform surround a large table, atop of which a map of the Canterbury region is spread. Occasionally one of the women might adjust her headset and then, using a stick similar those wielded by croupiers at gambling tables, move a marker into a new position on the map. From a gallery above, officers look down in silent concentration. A runner enters the room and wordlessly passes a note to one of the officers. Then, from over the radio, a frantic voice breaks the tense atmosphere.

“Godley Battery has fallen. Japanese troops have taken Lyttelton.”

Defence of the South Island

Christchurch. 1942.

For many nights the residents of the hillside suburb of Cashmere had been woken by the sound of blasting accompanied by ground tremors. The war was in its third year and New Zealand was under the threat of an invasion from the Empire of Japan. Throughout most of 1942 black out practices had become a common occurrence in Christchurch. Those living on the hill simply assumed that the military was conducting yet another clandestine operation.

The New Zealand military already had a presence in Cashmere. In July of that year the Government had commandeered Cashmere House, the property of John Frederick Cracroft Wilson, to act as Combined Headquarters Southern Command.

Wilson family house, Cashmere House, exterior, Christchurch. Webb, Steffano, 1880-1967 : Collection of negatives. Ref: 1/1-004979-G. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. http://natlib.govt.nz/records/22772645

Built in 1909 to designs by Samuel Hurst Seager, Cashmere House was set in a depression atop the Cashmere Hills. Reached via a long driveway which wound its way up the hill, the house overlooked an expanse of trees, lawns and gardens. Within, the house contained more than thirty rooms, enough to accommodate the different departments of the Air Force, Navy and Army that were required to oversee the defence of the South Island. Yet while it provided adequate office space, a civilian house was not designed to withstand the threat of aerial bombardment, nor was a house of that size likely to remain unnoticed by any invading troops.

In preparation for its war with Germany, Britain had established subterranean control stations so that the nation’s defence could be coordinated during aerial bombardments by the Luftwaffe. Anticipating the Japanese invasion, Southern Command adopted the same approach. No sooner had the military taken over Cashmere House than it started the construction of what was intended to be a secret, underground command bunker.

Construction begins

To the northeast of the house two separate adits (passage tunnels) were dug into the hillside. Throughout the excavation, the soil and rock was taken via a purpose built rail and disposed of in a nearby valley. Initially proceeding southward, the adits then curved westward, so as to offer protection against external explosions. From there the adits opened into a large U shaped chamber which had been excavated from the bedrock.

Entrance to Cracroft caverns, Cashmere by SueC is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 3.0 New Zealand License

Pre-stressed concrete ribs, constructed at a Public Works Department factory at the Birches near McLean’s Island, were used to brace the chamber. To set them in place a specially designed machine was manufactured at a workshop in Temuka. It was not necessary to set all the ribs in place, only those that were needed to stabilise the caverns. As a result most of the walls remained natural rock

Example of concrete ribs used to frame the chambers. Archway and Tunnel Interior, Cracroft Caverns by CCCArch is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 3.0 New Zealand License

A communications tunnel, intended only for the use of officers, was built to connect the chambers to Cashmere House. The tunnel was accessed from the basement in the house and descended on a slight gradient to the chambers. A ventilation shaft set at the midway point in the tunnel provided fresh air to the chambers. 

Stairs accessed from the inside of Cashmere House. Stairs down into the Cracroft Caverns by CCCArch is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 3.0 New Zealand License

Grand designs

Initial plans drawn up by the Public Works Department show the extent of the military’s aspirations. The plans show that the northern wing of the chamber was to house an office and separate rooms for the Army, Navy, and Air Force, along with a telephone exchange and cypher room. The southern chamber wing was to house another cypher room and a room for teleprinters. The two wings were connected by a western chamber and a further corridor.

Inside Cracroft Caverns by CCCArch is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 3.0 New Zealand License

The western chamber was intended to consist of two levels. The northern end would be the combined operations room. The southern end was the plotting room. Ladders would provide access to the upper floor. There, a gallery would allow observers to watch the movement of air force units being co-ordinated on the plotting table. It was proposed that the bunker would also contain kitchens, bedrooms and toilet facilities.

Work on the chambers continued until April 1943 when the war in the Pacific turned against the Japanese and the threat of an invasion was no longer considered a possibility.

Fire and concealment

By the end of 1944 the Army and Navy services had already vacated Cashmere House, leaving only the Air Force to occupy it. In November, plans were arranged for the Air Force to hand the building and its grounds back to the trustees of the Sir J.C. Wilson estate by the start of December. Yet before this could take place, on 12 November 1944 at 11:40pm, the building caught on fire. Although the fire was eventually brought under control, by 2am much of the building had been lost. The cause of the fire was never discovered.

By January 1945 details of the caverns had been leaked to The Press. The resulting article was accompanied by photographs which showed not only the district engineer of the Public Works Department inspecting the interior of the chambers but also the machines used to construct them. As it was still wartime, the defence force refused to discuss the existence of the caverns and no further information was made public. The tunnels were sealed and the owner of the property bulldozed the entrances to discourage any members of the public from attempting to enter them.

Following the conclusion of the war in September 1945 the existence of the caverns soon faded from public memory. Sworn to secrecy, those who had assisted with the construction or who had served as guards at the Cashmere property never spoke openly about what lay hidden beneath the grounds of the former house. As generations passed, even incoming members of the military seem to have remained unaware that such a project had ever been undertaken.

Tunnel in Cracroft caverns by CCCArch is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 3.0 New Zealand License

A chance discovery

The caverns may have remained hidden from the public for longer were it not for the retirement of a nurse at Princess Margaret Hospital. In 1987, while attending a farewell function being held for his mother, TVNZ reporter Jeff Field was told of the caverns by the hospital gardener.

Intrigued, he visited the Ministry of Defence library where he found the aforementioned Press article. Since he was due to take up a new role, Jeff assigned the investigation to another reporter, Bill Cockram. Following the 1944 fire, a new house had been erected on the site of Cashmere House. Upon visiting the owner, Bill Cockram learned that the building was experiencing problems with drainage. As such, the owner was interested to discover what lay beneath his house and gave Bill permission to proceed with his investigation.

Given that the former grounds of Cashmere House had been redeveloped, the only sign that anything lay hidden beneath was the protruding end of a pipe which marked the location of the ventilation shaft. After breaking the seal with a jackhammer, Bill next contacted Tim Williams of the Canterbury Caving Group. Together, with fellow caver, Bud Chapman, a television crew, and the property owner, they abseiled down the ventilation shaft and entered the caverns.

It was the first time that anyone had done so since they were sealed.

The television crew filmed the experience and the resulting documentary was screened as part of The Mainland Touch. Bill Cockram’s discovery, coupled with the release of the documentary, led to renewed public interest in the caverns. In December 1987 the Heathcote County Council’s planning committee even considered listing the bunker as a historic place.

The university moves in

The University of Canterbury, however, already had a vision for the caverns. Initially their ring laser laboratory which measured variations in the earth’s rotation was set on the top floor of a building on the Ilam campus. Yet such a location meant that the experiments were constantly being disturbed by wind, heat, and the movement of people. After considering the military tunnels in Lyttelton and a seismological station at Gebbies Pass, it was eventually proposed to make use of the caverns.

So it was, for the first time since they were excavated from the earth, the caverns came to be formally occupied. Yet rather than being used to co-ordinate a desperate defence against an enemy invasion, the caverns became a temporary home for numerous PhD students and international scientists who joined together to perform research that might benefit humanity.

University of Canterbury ring laser laboratory. Inside the Cracroft Caverns, November 2002 by CCCArch is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 3.0 New Zealand License
Members of the public tour the caverns. Group on a guided tour of the Cracroft Caverns, 2002 by CCCArch is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 3.0 New Zealand License

In 1995 the Christchurch City Council took ownership of the caverns and in the following year the university installed the CII ring laser. The university continued to use the caverns as their laboratory, installing new equipment, and producing new results. Open days were also held for those members of the public who were curious.

Although they were built to withstand the impact of an enemy bombardment, the facility was rendered unsafe by the Canterbury Earthquakes. They have remained closed to the public ever since.

Find out more

Inspiring girls to work in STEM – Ada Lovelace Day 2016

Today is Ada Lovelace Day – a celebration of the achievements of women in science, technology, engineering and science. It’s celebrated on the second Tuesday in October.

STEM (Science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) is a field that needs more women. Careers NZ looks at where women are working in STEM, and job opportunities.

Having inspiring examples for girls and young women is an important part of adding balance into the sector. Curious  Minds – He Hihiri i te Mahara does it well – Increasing girls’ and women’s participation in STEM publishes profiles of women in science, technology and engineering, and new profiles are added each week. Dr Victoria Metcalf’s New Zealand women in STEM – talented and diverse is a cool look into Curious Minds.
Like Curious Minds on Facebook and follow on Twitter.

Fabriko Electronic Stickers Fun Palace
Fabriko Electronic Stickers Fun Palace, Central Library Peterborough. Sunday 2 October 2016. Flickr 2016-10-2-IMG_6300

STEM at libraries and learning centres

Science Snippets in the library hosted by Science Alive! After school sessions start back next week Monday 17 October.

Anna and Gen from Science Alive!
Anna and Gen from Science Alive!

See also:

Books to give girls STEM inspiration

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Our previous Ada Lovelace Day posts

Science Snippets – Breathe Easy

Each week during term time (except the first and last week) the team from Science Alive bring their Science Snippets sessions into our libraries. Excellent Science Alive educators lead children through interactive activities to stimulate their interest in science, and there is something to take home every week!

There is a different theme for each session and this coming week from Monday 27 June it’s Breathe Easy. 

You are sure to learn all about breathing, your lungs and asthma.

Here are some great nonfiction books that we have in the library if you want to learn more about breathing:

I couldn’t find any stories about breathing and asthma in our catalogue.  There is this Into Reading book for beginner readers about a boy with asthma:

We also have some fantastic eResources with heaps of information about light. Check these out:

  • Britannica Library Kids – a search for ‘breathing,’ ‘lungs’ and ‘asthma’ gives you information about the respiratory system and asthma, with different levels of information for different ages.
  • World Book Kids – a search for ‘breathing,’ ‘lungs’ and ‘asthma’ gives you information about the respiratory system and asthma, along with some suggestions for other topics you might like to look at for more information.

For more information about Science Alive’s Science Snippets check out Science Alive on our website.

Science Snippets – Illuminating

Each week during term time (except the first and last week) the team from Science Alive bring their Science Snippets sessions into our libraries. Excellent Science Alive educators lead children through interactive activities to stimulate their interest in science, and there is something to take home every week!

There is a different theme for each session and this coming week from Monday 20 June it’s Illuminating. This week’s theme ties into the Lyttelton Harbour Festival of Lights which runs from 18-27 June. Check out our page about the Lyttelton Harbour Festival of Lights. 

You are sure to learn all about light and do some fun experiments with light.

Cover of Glaring light and other eye-burning raysHere are some great nonfiction books that we have in the library if you want to learn more about light:

Cover of The game of lightHere are some stories about light and darkness to read too:

We also have some fantastic eResources with heaps of information about light. Check these out:

  • Britannica Library Kids – a search for ‘light’ gives you information about light, with different levels of information for different ages.
  • Logo for National Geographic kidsNational Geographic Kids – a search for ‘light’ gives you some great information from the National Geographic Kids magazine as well as access to several eBooks about light.
  • World Book Kids – a search for ‘light’ gives you some basic information about light, along with some suggestions for other topics you might like to look at for more information.

For more information about Science Alive’s Science Snippets check out Science Alive on our website.

Science Snippets – Turtle or Tortoise?

Each week during term time (except the first and last week) the team from Science Alive bring their Science Snippets sessions into our libraries. Excellent Science Alive educators lead children through interactive activities to stimulate their interest in science, and there is something to take home every week! There is a different theme for each session and this coming week from Monday 13 June it’s Turtle or Tortoise?
You are sure to learn all about the difference between turtles and tortoises. Here are some great nonfiction books that we have in the library if you want to learn more about turtles and tortoises:

Here are some stories about turtles and tortoises to read too:

We also have some fantastic eResources with heaps of information about turtles and tortoises. Check these out:

  • National Geographic Kids – searches for ‘turtle’ and ‘tortoise’ gives you some great information from the National Geographic Kids magazine as well as access to several eBooks about turtles and tortoises.
  • Britannica Library Kids – searches for ‘turtle’ and ‘tortoise’ gives you information about each of these topics, with different levels of information for different ages.
  • World Book Kids – a search for ‘turtle’ and ‘tortoise’ gives you some basic information about each of the topics, along with some suggestions for other topics you might like to look at for more information.

For more information about Science Alive’s Science Snippets check out Science Alive on our website.