Wellington: Dead or alive?
I wasn’t sure why my feet took me there, not sure what I wanted to look at. Out of habit I walked up the stairs, across the foyer, into the Awesome Forces hall, and on towards the natural history exhibits. Someone with a little digicam was photographing the great, upraised foot of the enormous moa; above him, poised at the moment of impact, a huge Harpagornis stretched talons down to strike the moa. Nearby, a set of scales balanced three mice against a giant Deinacrida—3 blind mice, the equivalent of a dry weta. At the far end of the glass case I found reconstructions of two extinct birds: the long-billed wren (Dendroscansor decurvirostris) and the Stephens Island wren (Traversia lyalli). I crouched beside the case, reading the text. I’d thought the Stephens Island wren had been known from only a few specimens (that terrible word) brought in by the lighthouse keeper’s cat. Not so, apparently. According to the text, in 1894, Walter Buller looked at what the cat brought in and declared it a new species. Within two months, 15 specimens had been caught and sold to collectors.
No more were seen .
In the adjacent Mountains to Sea exhibition, a display showed some of the fauna and flora of the Southern Alps. A kea called from above and I recalled the last time I’d heard that sound, just a month ago above Lake Adelaide in the Darrans.
Then I found the rock wrens; male and female. Old and faded, their colours almost gone. Very still. Silent. They refused to look at me—so unlike the attentive, interested little lives I’d met at Sefton Biv, above Lake Adelaide, at Phil’s Biv, and on the yak pastures below Sabre. I moved around, but the female maintained a slightly downwards gaze, as if trying to remember something from long ago. I looked at her for a while, then left the building, walked out into the open where gulls flew and argued along the waterfront, where sparrows fossicked in the tussocks and shrubbery of a rock garden, and a pair of mallards swam out of the darkness into rippling light. I felt as if I’d been kicked in the chest.
What does it matter—what we do with things after they die?
(Click on the photos to get a larger image)
1. Other accounts of the Stephens Island wren’s extinction exist. Perhaps the best researched is that of Galbreath & Brown (2004); the authors concluded that 14–17 birds were collected from 1894 until possibly as late as 1899, not all by the same cat. The outcome, of course, was the same. [Galbreath, R.; Brown, D. 2004. The tale of the lighthouse-keeper's cat: Discovery and extinction of the Stephens Island wren (Traversia lyalli). Notornis 51(4): 193-200. (Abstract)]
Photo 1: Detail from the Wellington waterfront: an extract from Denis Glover’s Wellington Harbour is a Laundry. Extracts from other poems, by other poets, have been incorporated into the waterfront’s architecture in ways like this. Poem as sculpture; words made concrete.
Photo 2: Dawn over Wellington Harbour, from where I was house sitting last weekend, high on the hills above Eastbourne. Central Wellington directly below the moon.
Photos and words © 2006 Pete McGregor