How to Watch a Bird by Steve Braunias
Awa Press, $25. Reviewed by DAVID GEARY
It’s hard to write about birds without a flock of avian literary devices dive-bombing you, so stuff it, I’m going to let’em all come to roost. Let it be a testament to how much birds are part of our lives, our language and imagination. Yet, as Braunias laments, for too long we’ve relegated our feathered friends to second-class citizenship. He puts them back on their proper perch, as creations of joy and wonder. His book swoops, it soars, it pecks a few eyes out.
The birds he watches are not just beauts but also brutes. Skua skewer fellow seabirds. A kingfisher stoves in the head of a mouse. And Braunias is keen to stove a few heads in himself. In particular, knock some sense into those who would lapse into the easy revisionism that repaints early Maori as eco-warriors with a sacred connection to nga manu. Lest we forget, it was early Maori who stuffed all nine species of moa, various native geese, duck, adzebill, rail, coot and the giant Haast eagle. They saw birds as kai long before they thought to be their kaitiaki. The demand for kiwi feather coats almost completely plucked our national symbol. The cry was – “Kiwis Can Fry! And cook me some eggs!”
Thus, Nick Blake’s 2006 play Dr Buller’s Birds, which vilifies the great white hunter for the loss of the likes of the huia, while letting Maori off the hook; is dismissed by Braunias as “dreary, simple-minded nonsense.” Not that Sir Walter Buller doesn’t deserve the odd pot shot. This is the man who in 1883 wrote “A pair of Huias, without uttering a sound, appeared in a tree overhead, and as they were caressing each other with their beautiful bills, a charge of No 6 brought both to the ground together.” Still, Buller only embodied the popular English pastime of shooting birds for collection, with its motto – ‘What’s shot’s history; what’s missed’s mystery.”
Buller has taken a lot of flak in his time. Many get in a great flap about his statement that the Maori were a race on the verge of extinction, and the whites only here to “smooth their dying pillow.” The irony, of course, being that it was his breed of bird hunter-gatherer that was about to die out. But I also think he’s too easy a target to look back on with green-tinted specs and condemn. After all, aren’t we are the ones who condone battery farms crammed with antibiotic-enhanced chickens? At least the huia had free range before they came into Buller’s. And aren’t we sitting on a stockpile of weapons that could make extinct every species ever created?
So, who else gets the Braunias’ bash? Robin Hyde, for failing to see that her celebrated godwits not only fly away, but also choose to return. In The Godwits Fly she sees New Zealanders as godwits who ‘must make the long migration [away], under a compulsion they hardly understand; or else be dissatisfied all their lives long’. To Braunias, this is the worst sort of anthropomorphising and just plain wrong, as “godwits understand it quite well. It’s a matter of life or death.” Just lucky for Janet Frame that her Owls Do Cry didn’t attempt any advanced avian analogies beyond referencing the Bard, or I’m sure she would have been similarly dissected.
The feather-brained brushed aside, Braunias pays his respects to “the tribe”of Birders, and “tribal elders” who have preserved NZ’s birdlife, in flesh and print. His coverage of our key ornithological texts is extensive, which makes his own book an excellent Reader. The must-buy being The Field Guide to the Birds of New Zealand by Barrie Heather and Hugh Robertson, illustrator Derek Onley.
Particularly tributes are given to members of NZ’s Ornithological Societies (OS). The old roosters, and odd hen who survived the taunts of “Show us your tits,” to preserve our beloved bird species. The mateship that develops between roosters Stead, Buddle and Wilson over their birding lives is a wonder in itself. And what a delight for the author to visit another wiry old bird, Graham Turbott, to have him quote Braunias back at him “Bravo to the protected species huddling on sanctuaries and islands. But most of us live at home… I am in love with the birds around us.”
Indeed, it’s bravo to Braunias for making us marvel again at the blackbird in our own backyard, and to see there is a special providence in everything a sparrow does. He wants us to love the migrants and settlers as well as the natives. And why wouldn’t you? Otherwise, we’re saying the Pakeha have nothing to offer, to celebrate. Which just isn’t true. After all, it’s no accident that our most well-known poem is not about a native but that raucous Aussie over-stayer, the magpie, the one who’s taught us all to quardle, ardle, wardle and doodle.
One specific group of immigrants that Braunias pays homage to are the ex-pat English who dominate the OS. His attendance at meetings of the South Auckland branch (ha ha) are acutely funny, as they fondle the reeking contents of pongy plastic bags, the product of another dead bird watch along a remote coast. It’s crucial work in keeping track of bird numbers, but something you wouldn’t otherwise touch with a ten foot barge pole! Still, perhaps in saving endangered birds, the Pom’s preserve their own unique species – the Englishman birding abroad.
Yes, they are strange birds. But, as Braunias says “Life in New Zealand is given to eccentrics.” And he ranks up there on a top perch. In my own flight of fancy, I see Braunias as one of the fabulous birdmen in the Bill Hammond paintings that he praises. Albeit one with sandwiches, cigarettes and ‘bins’ – binoculars. He mocks himself as dozy and indolent – exactly how a Victorian condemned our flightless birds for “forgetting” to fly and thus making themselves sitting ducks for predators – but, yeah, yeah, Braunias is himself a rare bird.
For those who think birding is for the bird-brained, when it comes down to it we read Braunias because he illuminates our homes like no other. He has the knack of great writers to make acute observations that we seem to have always known but he can way better articulate. And, sure, it’s comforting when he depicts us in our easy new Zealandness as “casual, open, friendly, smart, mocking, self-mocking,” and New Zealand as the “lazy sensual isles”. But in the chapter To Kill a Muttonbird, he can also capture our unease, and how “The story of small New Zealand towns is told in pride; resentment comes when visitors are attracted to tragedy.”
The author turns up in the wake of the drowning of six muttonbirders when the Kotuku is sunk by a freak wave. Five are from one family, two but children. Braunias is treated to Bluff hospitality, but also feels the cold shoulder. It was just too private, too painful to talk about. Still, he stuck around to get the history of Bluff, bluffing, and muttonbirding up to the point the Maori mafia deem if he knows any more they’d have to wring his scrawny neck too. Yes, they control who’s allowed to take part in the annual hunt – only those who whakapapa back to the original, traditional hunters. No, they can’t tell you where you’d buy a muttonbird locally. Or how they’re distributed. Or exactly where all the money is. End of story.
In between these extremes, Braunias give us middle New Zealanders with “beards and jerseys and arcane dialogue”. The chapter Birdland compiles his Sunday magazine request for readers’ bird sightings. It features some startling stuff, such as how a South Island farmer is hiding an albatross colony from the DOC spoilsports so they won’t confiscate his land. This chapter says a lot more about the albatrosses we all carry around than the birds themselves, and is worth the price of the book alone.
It’s a deceptively slim volume. The clean, concise style packs a huge amount in. By the end you’ll feel you’ve flown a great distance. Learnt about Moa’s Ark, the difference between a Bird Watcher and a Birder, how to analyse Hitchcock’s The Birds, why Darwin’s finches inspired the greatest idea to occur to the human mind, and Twitchers… which, like all the birds, you’ll just have to discover for yourself. And much, much more.
To peek through Braunias’ bins is a rare sighting indeed. In his own words “I felt like I had been introduced to another land of New Zealand, a particular New Zealand geography, another kind of New Zealand history, a different New Zealand story.” Read it. You will, too.
SPOILER ALERT! In a book full of surprises there is a big one. Don’t read any more of this last paragraph if you don’t want to know… In the chapter Little Wing, Braunias alludes to dropping a lot of crumbs for us to follow, so we should have guessed his secret by now, but it went right over my head. Apparently, his year of the birds coincided with the clucky guy finding he was part of his own breeding pair. In a book rife with the perils of breeding and endangered species, it’s nice to know Braunias is nesting. Awa Press’ THE GINGER SERIES has been a treat so far. I can’t wait for Braunias’ next assignment to be How to Raise a Child.
David Geary is an all-rounder. He writes for theatre, television and film. He’s also an actor, teacher, poet and fiction writer. His collection of inter-linked short stories A MAN OF THE PEOPLE was published by VUP in 2003. He is the Writer in Residence at Victoria University, working on a play about Mark Twain’s 1895 lecture tour of New Zealand, and a children’s play about a tuatara.