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Bull Hill
by David Rothenberg : Editor, Terra Nova

For the Birds or for the Elves?

In New Zealand there are twenty times more sheep than people. Seventy million of them. You work it out. Luckily there are fences, so it’s not all gleaming green pasture. Behind barbed wire are some very curious forests, I’d say a mix of Norway and Hawaii. Breezy conifers, and gargantuan ferns and mutant palm trees. It’s subtropical, but there are glaciers. The wind is everywhere howling. Most of the native birds can’t even fly. Why not? Before human history, there were no predators. That’s why this island could support a bird as outlandish as the giant moa, something like an ostrich on steroids, standing nearly twenty feet tall. But we hacked them all to pieces already two hundred years ago. A lot of meat on that beast, and pretty easy to catch because they couldn’t fly away.

image, Marlborough Sounds's clearcut forests.
Clearcut forests at the Marlborough Sounds are returning.
Photo by David Rothenberg.

You’ve heard of the national bird of New Zealand, the kiwi? I was shocked to discover that hardly anyone I met had ever seen one in the wild. They are rare enough to be invisible. Near extinction are the Kokako, the Takahe, the Kaka, the yellow-eyed penguin, and the rarest duck in the world, the Campbell Island teal. Several of those species hang by a thread, with less than a few hundred individuals surviving. Why?

Because no country is an island anymore. With all the human traffic to the place, exotic animals and plants easily land. Flightless birds are easy prey to rats and especially the Australian possum, which runs rampant everywhere except special bird reserve islands. They make a super soft sweater, but they mark the end of life for a gently flightless bird.

Marlborough Sounds.
Aerial view of New Zealand's Marlborough Sounds.
Photo by David Rothenberg.

This nation so prides itself on its natural heritage, that even its human inhabitants call themselves after a bird. That kiwi again that no one ever sees. Imagine, a national nickname wrapped up in near extinction. I guess that's what America did with the bald eagle, and we have succeeded in bringing that large buzzard back from the silent spring of the DDT era. New Zealand is hard at work at species recovery as well, but the odds of course are against them. Too many predators now on the loose, and we are all among them.

But from the land of endless sheep and dwindling bird life a new imagery has arrived, a modern mythology placed there with the help of Hollywood, or should I say, Wellywood. You can now pick up a tourist brochure describing a forest trail and it will most likely say, "take a few hours’ walk into a Lord of the Rings landscape." Air New Zealand has painted two 747s with scenes of warriors marching across the tussock in The Two Towers, and Frodo and Aragorn each have their own smaller planes. The world premiere of The Return of the King took place in the Embassy Theater in Wellington on December 1st, and atop the historic cinema dwelt a huge dragon. Other beasts were scattered around the city center. All the stars flew in and a hundred thousand onlookers arrived to welcome the new mythology, one which has built its creatures and perched them atop buildings without needing to save them out there in the wild. It was the biggest party to ever hit New Zealand, and no country has ever welcomed a single film so dramatically into the center of its national image. "New Zealand is Middle Earth," proclaims a proud poster outside the parliament building.

image, Lord of the Rings dragon atop Embassy Theater in Wellington.
A Lord of the Rings dragon atop the Embassy Theater in Wellington,
site of the world premier of The Return of the King on December 1, 2003.

Photo by David Rothenberg.

"I didn't grow up in Middle Earth, mate," says Rob Thorne, a Maori musician specializing in flutes and whistles made out of shells and stones found by the sea. "We don’t need no foreign mythology here." True enough. New Zealand has a rich heritage of traditional lore about nature, as well as having the most progressive laws regarding its 10% native Maori population. They have the earliest fair treaty with their indigenous people, far surpassing the situation in nearby Australia or the shameful United States. And the latest news is that all New Zealand students will soon be required to learn the Maori language, thereby cementing the notion that the land’s traditional heritage is every New Zealander’s heritage, not just the Maori themselves.

I walk down a trail in the forest in the Marlborough Sounds. Earlier in the trip I passed the exact location of "Rivendell." Enough cinema imagery has convinced me that I could be in the midst of a Lord of the Rings saga, a hobbit or a wizard on to the next great challenge. "Never trust an elf," I vaguely remember a line from one of the films. "Don’t look at the knights." Movies design my consciousness as much as anyone else who has seen too many of them.

image, New Zealand's weka flightless bird.
New Zealand's weka—the country's most common flightless bird.
Photo by David Rothenberg.

But I’m not in a movie. The forest resounds with a history greater than its trees. My eyes dart around looking for invisible near extinct birds. Instead I see a weka, the most common of the flightless ones, out by day whereas kiwis walk by night. Later in the great Te Papa Museum I see a reconstructed giant Moa, the tallest bird to live in recent history, nearly thirty feet in height, either a giant ostrich or final dinosaur. It too couldn't fly, and was easy meat for hunters to catch. Gone before the white man got there, though.

image, Reconstructed head of a Giant Moa.
The reconstructed head of a Giant Moa, Te Pap Museum, Wellington.
Photo by David Rothenberg.

I saw tiny fantails engaged in a busy mating dance. Mellifluous bell birds chiming in an odd open chorale. I’ll make my mythology right here out of the nature I see. The real movie has no beginning, and no end.


David Rothenberg's latest book, Survival of the Beautiful: Art, Science, and Evolution, was published by Bloomsbury in 2011. His latest CDs are Expulsion of the Triumphant Beast and You Can't Get There From Here. His next book, Bug Music, will appear in 2013. Catch up with him at www.DavidRothenberg.net.
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