Author Archives: Mike

New Zealand Wikipedian-at-Large

I’m excited to announce that from the end of June I’m on a one-year contract, funded by the Wikimedia Foundation in the USA, to be Aotearoa’s first ever Wikipedian-at-large. Who? What? Read on.

Who and What

The Wikimedia Foundation is the non-profit based in San Francisco that runs Wikipedia, as well as Wikidata, Wikimedia Commons, and a handful of other projects. They don’t write or edit Wikipedia: that’s all done by hundreds of thousands of volunteers. Their job is to run the servers, fundraise, and administer outreach programmes and community grants worldwide. This funding round they gave out US$355,473 to 11 successful grant proposals, one of which was me. It’ll cover my salary and travel and some conference fees for the year while I’m a Wikipedian-in-residence at institutions all over New Zealand.

Me helping beginning Wikipedians at the NZ Insect Cards workshop last year. Pic: Lanipai CC BY-SA

A Wikipedian-in-residence is based in an institution or organisation for a fixed term, and their job is not to just sit and edit Wikipedia. Again, that’s done by volunteers. The Wikipedian trains staff about editing, copyright, and how to make collections more freely-usable. They run public events, like Wikipedia workshops and edit-a-thons. And they help the organisation develop a Wikipedia strategy, figuring out how to engage with this amazing resource—because after all Wikipedia is the first place most people go for information, and if your institution’s mission is to communicate you can’t just pretend it doesn’t exist.

New Zealand currently doesn’t have a strong community of Wikipedia volunteers, and the coverage of New Zealand topics in Wikipedia is a bit dire. We’ve fallen behind. Another part of my job description is working out how to boost the number of editors, by organising regular editor meetups, running training sessions, and encouraging institutions to support the editing groups in their community. The Wikimedia Foundation is especially keen to recruit from under-represented groups, such as women and Māori, to help counter some of Wikipedia’s biases.

Where and When

Lots of institutions are keen to have me as a Wikipedian-in-residence, so I’ll be travelling all over New Zealand for a year (that’s the “at-large” part). I’ve enjoyed the last four and half years at Whanganui Regional Museum, but it’s time to move on. The timetable for the next year has to be negotiated between all the interested parties, but at this stage it might be:

  • June–August: Auckland, based at New Zealand Geographic magazine, Auckland Museum, and Landcare Research Manaaki Whenua
  • August–September: Dunedin, to give a talk at the SPNHC conference and work at Otago Museum
  • October–March: Wellington, in residence at Zealandia, the National Library, the Ministry of Culture and Heritage, DOC, and Forest & Bird
  • I’ll also be working with the Antarctic and Southern Ocean Coalition in Christchurch, the Nelson Provincial Museum, and other organisations as time and funding permits.

For more information, see the news story by Farah Hancock back when I first applied for the grant, and the detailed Project Page, which has timelines, reports, details on upcoming activities and so on. I’ll be blogging the highlights of each month here, filed under Wikipediana. You can also join the Facebook group Wikipedia New Zealand to keep up with the news, or subscribe to the Wikipedian-at-large mailing list, so you can hear about what events I’ll be running in your area.

How you can help

Are you part of an institution that might be interested in hosting me as a Wikipedian-in-residence? Would you like me to come and give a talk on Wikipedia to your colleagues or run a workshop? Get in touch and we can find a space in the calendar.

I’ll be putting my possessions in a storage locker and being a digital hobo for a year all over New Zealand. Do you know of any house-sits, writer’s residencies, spare rooms, sublets, visiting-scholar accommodation, or DOC huts in need of a warden in your area? All suggestions and offers gratefully received, as long as they have wifi.

Are you just interested in Wikipedia and want to volunteer to help? We have a good team of volunteers and can always use more.

The Whip Scorpions of Bali

I’ve done field work in lots of places, but this was the first time I’d had to wear a purple sash.

The sash and sarong were hired for 5,000 rupiah (about 50c) from a shop by the main road on the island of Nusa Penida, near Bali, Indonesia. I was about to venture into a cave to look for endangered crabs, but because the cave is also a popular Hindu temple I needed to be properly attired.

At one point the Giri Putri temple would have just been a smallish hole partway up a cliff face; you have to crouch, clamber, and shuffle to enter, before the ceiling rises and you’re in one of several roomy caves. Today, there are steps, buildings, white-clad priests praying, and a visitor’s book for you to sign and donate about Rp 20,000; I was a bit more generous. Giri Putri has been a holy place for a long time, but it’s only recently we realised it was a biodiversity hotspot as well.

Giri Putri crab. Photo by the late Tony Whitten.

Back in 1993 Australian biologist Tony Whitten ventured into the cave when it was just a hole in the hillside. He was struck by the number of crabs scuttling about on the cave floor, and collected a few. They turned out to belong to not one but two new species, Karstarma emdi and K. balicum. Freshwater crabs like these can be found in several cave systems in south-east Asia: they have long legs for feeling their way about in total darkness. Isolation and time leads to speciation, and the two Karstarma species in Giri Putri seem to be found nowhere else but this one small cave system on this single island.

Unfortunately, they’re under threat. Giri Putri is now a busy temple, with artificial lighting everywhere, large fans to keep the air moving, lots of concreted and tiled floor, and benches and altars set up in several places. Whitten noted that every few years when he visited there were fewer crabs to be seen. In the hour I spent searching with a headlamp in the dark corners of the cave I didn’t see any at all. I asked one priest if the crabs were there; he told me “sometimes”. The IUCN is pushing for better monitoring of the crab population, and the temple authorities seem keen to work to minimise human impact, so let’s hope. But really there needs to be a resident biologist there studying the cave environment and ecology to come up with a management plan.

There’s plenty of other life in Giri Putri, though. In all the dark corners I was disturbing bats which zipped through my torch beam in silence, sometimes an inch from my face. I was very conscious that I hadn’t gotten a rabies vaccination before coming to Bali; killed by a rabid bat is not my preferred demise. The walls of the cave were crawling with invertebrates: large Periplaneta cockroaches, camel crickets that looked just like the cave wētā back in New Zealand, and good-sized tailless whip scorpions. I took photos as best I could with my phone.

Back home, I uploaded the photos to NatureWatch and tried to get IDs. I sent the whip scorpion photos to Mark Harvey at the Western Australian Museum to see what he thought. Mark placed them in the family Phrynidae, probably the genus Phrynus. This was interesting, because almost all species of Phrynus are found in the New World, through Mexico and Central America. The sole exception is a species Mark himself named and described: Phrynus exsul from the island of Flores, Indonesia, thousands of kilometres away from its closest relatives.

Only one problem: Bali is 400 km away from Flores. So either these beasties are Phrynus exsul and a new record far to the west of where they were first observed, or they’re an undescribed species of Phrynus, only the second known from outside the neotropics. A bit of quick searching reveals there are similar-looking whip scorpions at nearby Kentung Cave and probably other caves on Penida. Who can say how many species, and whether they’re endemic or endangered?

Whip scorpions are not especially inconspicuous. Giri Putri is right by the main road, and a popular tourist destination. Nusa Penida is a short ferry ride from Bali, which has millions of tourists a year. And it it seems that in over 20 years nobody has thought to collect one of these critters, take it to an expert, and find out if it’s an undescribed species or not. This is the plight of the tropics writ small: stuffed full of biodiversity, which is disappearing faster than we can discover and put a name to it.

Wikipedia as an Entomology Outreach Tool

(Notes for a presentation I gave at the 2018 Entomological Society of New Zealand conference in Whanganui.)

It all started when I wrote a piece for the local paper in 2015 on conservation funding for threatened species, lamenting how all the money goes to charismatic birds and not much to ugly insects and endangered leeches. Jesse Mulligan interviewed me on the radio, and wanted to know what he could do to help spotlight our more obscure threatened species, and Critter of the Week was born, a regular interview with DOC’s endangered species ambassador Nicola Toki. It’s been a great success, covering 120 critters to date – many of them insects, snails, fishes, shrubs, and other overlooked organisms.

My role has been behind the scenes, wearing my Wikipedian hat. Every week, when the critter is announced, I check to see if it has a good Wikipedia page – or indeed any page at all. With the help of other volunteer editors, I work on improving the article and adding photos. We maintain a list of all the species covered, with notes on which still need work. You can see the effect of the project by comparing the article for the New Zealand giraffe weevil (Lasiorhynchus barbicornis) before and after. Sadly, despite all this, Jesse Mulligan still calls me a Wikinerd. Sigh.

Critter of the Week is an example of how Wikipedia can be part of your science communication toolbox. Wikipedia is where people are getting their information, and anyone can edit it. it’s easy and quick to update it and correct mistakes or vandalism. There’s a whole spectrum of ways that scientists can work with Wikipedia and take advantage of its reach and impact.

  1. Lend your expertise, even indirectly on a Talk page. Every article has a Talk tab, and anyone can leave comments there, even if they don’t consider themselves a Wikipedia editor. Weevil researcher Chrissie Painting for example left some great suggestions on the giraffe weevil Talk page, noting inaccuracies and possible references for more information.
  2. Publish in open-access journals or make PDFs available in a repository. Everything in Wikipedia needs to be referenced, and so often when I’m trying to track down sources for an article I hit a paywall. It’s wonderful to find a repository or publications page that posts PDFs, even if it’s since been taken down and exists only in the Internet Archive. Open-access publications are 47% more likely to be referenced in Wikipedia.
  3. Lasiorhynchus barbicornis male and female
    Lasiorhynchus_barbicornis by Christina. J. Painting, CC BY 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

  4. Donate images to Commons, and use Creative Commons licenses (not NC). That giraffe weevil illustration was taken from an open-access paper in PLoS, and uploaded to Wikimedia Commons, a repository for freely-usable images. This was possible because it was published under a Creative Commons Attribution licence (CC-BY). Creative Commons, invented in 2001, is a great alternative to All Rights Reserved copyright if you want people to be able to freely use your work – here’s a book (released under a CC license!) if you want know more. There are hundreds of Wikipedia articles on New Zealand moths (like this one) because Landcare Research made its photo collection available under a CC-BY license. Some institutions don’t. Adding a “non-commercial” condition (CC-BY-NC) is too restrictive: Wikipedia is published under an open license so its content has to be usable by anyone for anything. Almost none of the thousands and thousands of photos in NatureWatch NZ for example can be used in Wikipedia, because NatureWatch’s default setting when you create an account is CC-BY-NC, and most users would never think to change it.
  5. The New Zealand Insect Cards edit-a-thon, banner by Emma Scheltema and photo by Leilani Walker, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

  6. Help your local editors. Wikipedia editors are all volunteers, often toiling anonymously. It’s nice to reach out, for example via the Wikiproject New Zealand noticeboard. You can offer to host an edit-a-thon, like the University of Auckland did. You could give editors freebies, like behind-the-scenes tours of your insect collections or the opportunity to help with a research project. And you can give them access to your expertise and your institutional library. Let them know their hard work is appreciated.
  7. Develop an institutional Wikipedia strategy, like you would for any other public comms or outreach. Effort put into Wikipedia pays off. This pūriri moth article, for example, is not very good, but it uses Landcare Research photos, and those photos are getting (as of April 2018) 560 unique views a month. Popular or timely Wikipedia articles (like “Kiwi”) can get thousands of views a day, far greater impact than newspaper stories or magazine articles. To help develop this strategy, you can host a Wikipedian in Residence, a short-term paid or volunteer position where an experienced editor teaches staff about Wikipedia, helps you move images to the Commons, and runs edit-a-thons and other events.
  8. And you can just edit Wikipedia yourself. Your advantage is you’re a subject expert, with all the literature at your fingertips. You still need to reference every sentence, as if you were writing a student essay – your authority doesn’t count here, and you can’t base an article on unpublished research. Like any other written medium, it has its own style and codes, so it’s worthwhile getting experience with small corrections and adding citations before you launch into new articles. Luckily there’s plenty on guidance and information available, in Wikipedia’s help pages, and even from other researchers. There are plenty of Wikipedians delighted to help a new editor: let them troubleshoot for you. Ask me if you get stuck.

If you want to get your research out there, and communicate with the largest number of people in the most efficient way, Wikipedia is a good tool to use. Institutions seem very keen to create information silos that proudly display their brand identity, but keeping these up to date can become a huge time suck, and they often just stagnate and die. Working with a community of editors and putting your effort into open resources is far more rewarding. Wikipedia is where people are already going, and you may as well meet them there.

Hunting Insects in Suburban Paraparaumu

I was asked to conduct an insect survey of Kaitawa Reserve, Paraparaumu, by Forest and Bird Kapiti branch. The purpose was to photograph an interesting selection of insect life that could be featured on interpretive boards, to accompany billboards already being designed for the birds and fishes of the reserve. I think it’s great when conservation groups take insect biodiversity seriously, so I was happy to help.

I also put out word on Twitter that I was doing the insect survey and invited people on the Kapiti Coast to come join in. There was plenty of interest, and in the end one couple came for the evening and again the next day, along with one more person and a family with two small kids. All the adults said they had a great time, and the kids got to play in the stream and chase butterflies and look at eels, so it was fun all around.

About

Kaitawa reserve is 7 Ha, a mixture of remnant coastal wetland forest and revegetation that volunteers have been adding to since 1996. It contains tōtara, rimu, kahikatea, puriri, kohekohe, titoki, tawa, hinau, rewarewa, kowhai, swamp maire, and turepo.

What We Did

Saturday Feb 3
8:30 pm – midnight: Light trapping
I set up a LepiLED UV light trap to attract moths and beetles in sheltered open area near the playground. The night was calm, warm, and a bit humid, excellent conditions for attracting insects. I was a bit concerned because there was almost no cloud and we were close to a full moon, but in the end it didn’t rise until shortly before we called it quits for the night.

The white sheet was quickly covered with caddisflies – unsurprising, as we weren’t far from a stream. I was hoping for dobsonflies, but no luck (although we did find a dobsonfly larva in the stream the next day). There were plenty of porina moths, loopers, and pug moths, and some orange Netelia wasps, which are caterpillar parasites. Reasonable diversity, though it would have been nice to see more beetles – such as huhu and other longhorns – and a wider variety of moths.

Richard Hall’s How to Gaze at the Southern Stars is evangelical about the value of stargazing just through binoculars, something I’d never tried. And it was extraordinary. The Pleiades resolve from a smudge to distinct stars, and you can see the shadows of the edges of the moon’s craters.

Sunday Feb 4
08:30 am – 3:00 pm: Insect hunting

  • Sweep netting in long grass
  • Beating vegetation with stick and beating sheet to dislodge insects
  • Hunting flying insects with butterfly nets
  • Looking under logs and stones
  • Completely disassembling rotten logs with the trusty butter knife
  • Searching the stream for aquatic larvae
  • Emptying pitfall traps I set two weeks ago

The next morning was fine and sunny, and straight after breakfast the reserve was alive with butterflies: yellow admiral, monarchs, cabbage whites, and common blues (no coppers or red admirals). Cicadas were calling, and tūī and kererū flapped noisily overhead. My volunteers ran to and fro chasing tiger beetles with butterfly nets, or thrashing bushes with a stick to see what was dislodged (the expected stick insects duly appeared).

I happened to have some fish nets, so we checked out the stream and almost immediately caught two small longfin eels and a school of īnanga. When we put them in an enamel pan to look at, a local family who’d been using the playground could contain their curiosity no longer and came over to ask questions. We ended up having a great conversation about biodiversity, fresh water, eel breeding, and the importance of reserves like this.

By mid-afternoon, we were fairly exhausted, but had managed to find enough colourful and obscure insects and spiders to fill an interpretation panel. Next time I run a survey like this, it should be something like a miniature BioBlitz, with a call for public participation: having multiple searchers was tremendously helpful, and locals would be fascinated to learn what was living in their backyard.

Box of pinned insects: butterflies, moths, beetles, a praying mantis

Insects collected at Kaitawa Reserve, Paraparaumu, 3–4 Feb 2018

After much work processing, pinning, setting, and photographing with the help of visiting Earlham College students Anna Carlson and Julia Freeman, here are all the specimens collected that day. Some still have to be identified to species level, but I was able to give Forest and Bird Kapiti a list of everything we saw, and it will all be accessioned to the Whanganui Regional Museum collection. From there it will go on NatureWatch NZ, and thence into GBIF so the data will be available globally. We’ll also be putting some of the insects on display as part of the Children of Tane section of the Museum’s revamped exhibitions. Waste not want not!

One Hundred Days

Inspiration is for amateurs. The rest of us just show up and get to work.
— Chuck Close

Last year, and in 2014, I signed up for the 100 Days Project. This is simply an agreement you make with yourself to perform one creative act every day for 100 days in a row, no stopping. Signing up with the project website allows you to post a public gallery of every day’s achievement, which is a critical part of keeping you going. It’s very, very hard.

The project was started by Auckland graphic designer Emma Rogan in 2011. She was inspired by a class taught by designer Michael Bierut, called “100 Days of Design”. Bierut realised that most creative work consisted of just showing up: doing something, no matter how small, every day until a habit forms. Creativity is not about waiting for the muse to strike, it’s about doing something whether you feel inspired or not.

Since 2011 the 100 Days Project has grown to thousands of participants all over the world. Many people sign up with grand intentions: paint a landscape every day; write a sonnet! But the graveyard of abandoned projects attest that most of these ambitions last for a couple of weeks, then peter out. Both times in the past I’ve resolved to just draw something every day, and that’s been hard enough – on several occasions I had only five minutes to make a quick sketch of my lunch or something on my desk. And several days I just couldn’t get anything done, which leaves a big embarrassing numbered space in your gallery. Last year I managed over 90% of the days; this year I’ll be trying for all 100. (Update, May 2017: I did not go the distance! Maybe next year.)

If you’re interested in kickstarting your creativity and exercising your commitment muscles, I’d recommend giving it a try. Let me know how you go in the comments.

Reading List for 2017

Here we go again. I console myself with the fact that a) I do read more each year when I make these lists, and b) I do actually read some of these books. It’s a selection from Year’s Best compilations, unread books from previous lists of mine, suggestions of friends, and ideas from Andy Miller’s excellent The Year of Reading Dangerously.

  • Don DeLillo | Zero K
  • Iris Murdoch | The Sea, The Sea
  • Fyodor Dostoyevsky (Oliver Ready transl.) | Crime and Punishment
  • Dave Eggers | What is the What
  • Dave Eggers | Heroes of the Frontier
  • Rebecca Solnit | Hope in the Dark
  • Dexter Palmer | Version Control
  • China Miéville | The Census-Taker
  • Alexander Weinstein | Children Of The New World
  • Brian Evenson | A Collapse Of Horses: A Collection Of Stories
  • Siddhartha Mukherjee | The Gene: An Intimate History
  • Han Kang | The Vegetarian: A Novel
  • Ann Patchett | Commonwealth
  • Stephen Asma | Stuffed Animals and Pickled Heads
  • Shaun Hendy | Silencing Science
  • Philip Larkin | Collected Poems
  • Michael King | Moriori: a People Rediscovered
  • Breece D’J Pancake | The Stories of Breece D’J Pancake  
  • Mikhail Bulgakov | The Master and Margarita
  • Joris-Karl Huysmans | Against Nature
  • Isabel Allende | Zorro
  • Arthur Golden | Memoirs of a Geisha
  • Hannah Arendt | Origins of Totalitarianism

2016 Reading

Last year I managed to read fewer books than the year before, due of course to the Four Horsemen of the Bookopalypse (Twitter, Facebook, blogs, and downloadable TV). Some were great, some not so much.

Of the science books I finished, Hope Jahren’s Lab Girl stood out. Stunning writing about plant biology interspersed with memoirs of a career in science. A book I’d like to give to all the young women I know starting on a research career; both inspiring and sobering. Resurrection Science by M. R. O’Connor is an up-to-date overview of current conservation debates: Why should we save endangered species? Are resurrected species the same or different? To what extent are humans managing nature and steering evolution? George Monbiot’s Feral, in the same vein, was an interesting meditation on rewilding and recreating vanished ecosystems, but too concerned with creating wilderness in that least wild of areas, Wales. Melissa Milgrom’s Still Life: Adventures in Taxidermy, a cultural study of British and US taxidermy, the dioramas at the American Museum of Natural History, Victorian fads, kitsch, and Damien Hirst, had, unforgivably, no photos.

Danyl McLauchlan has created an entire genre of Dan-Brown-esque Wellington Absurdist Noir in just two books: Unspeakable Secrets of the Aro Valley and Mysterious Mysteries of ditto: great rollicking reads, deflating themselves at regular intervals, although I enjoyed the first more. They’re especially poignant for anyone with the misfortune to have lived in damp depressing Devon St, as I once did. I once even excavated an Aro Valley backyard in much the same way as black-robed cultists do in Unspeakable Secrets, but found only bits of broken bottle.

Steve Braunias’s How to Watch a Bird captures the pull of birdwatching as an outsider immersing himself in that world for a year. It includes a great interview with grand old man of New Zealand ornithology Graham Turbott, and a cameo by Major Wilson of Bulls (whose egg collection I recently inventoried). The other natural history book I adored was Dave Hansford’s Protecting Paradise, an important overview of the 1080 debate that doesn’t satisfy itself with just stating the science but delves into the psyche of hard line 1080-haters and examines their motivations. Very relevant in this era of alternative facts.

This year I took part in the 100 Days project, trying to draw something every one of those days. My guide for this was the inspirational Laws Guide to Nature Drawing and Journaling by John Muir Laws, a simply superb tutorial book. Also a fine teacher is Lynda Barry, in whose amazing Syllabus we see a class of non-drawers learning to write, observe, and depict themselves and their lives through exercises, movies, diaries, and non-destructive feedback. It’s epitomised by Barry’s rule about candy in the classroom: the students can have as much free candy as they want, but they have it draw it first.

My favourite book of 2016 was by my friend Ashleigh Young. In Can You Tolerate This? she created a Wunderkammer of essays, all connected by invisible threads, all in her distinctive thoughtful voice. Whether it’s growing up in Te Kuiti or skeletal deformity it’s a pleasure to be in her company and see the world with fresh eyes. Recommended.

The disappointments of the year included Simon Rich’s Spoiled Brats (mostly forgettable New Yorkerish amusements), Bruce Sterling’s Visionary in Residence (one of my favourite SF writers but not a good collection), and re-reading Julian Barnes’s A History of the World in 10½ Chapters, not as impressive as recall it being 20 years ago.

So in 2016 I managed only 19 books, (out of interest, six by women). That compares to 28 the year before, just 18 in 2014, and 30 in 2013. The last time I made a serious effort to read more, blogging each month, was in 2012 when I finished 73 books (discussed in crushing detail in the rest of the category Bookishness). I think making reading lists is how I fight to delay Bücherdämmerung.

Recommended Reading

Instead of a bio I used to have this following carefully-curated list of books on my About page, in line with the philosophy that a person’s true nature is revealed by their bookshelf. Now I just think they’re good books.

  • Possession • A. S. Byatt
  • Atonement • Ian McEwan
  • Distraction • Bruce Sterling
  • Master and Commander &c. • Patrick O’Brian
  • How Buildings Learn • Stewart Brand
  • A Pattern Language • Christopher Alexander et al.
  • Eccentric Lives, Peculiar Notions • John Michell
  • The Empty Space • Peter Brook
  • Last Letters from Hav • Jan Morris
  • A Short History of Nearly Everything • Bill Bryson
  • Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable • Ebenezer Brewer (et al.)
  • On Food and Cooking • Harold McGee
  • Little, Big • John Crowley
  • Classic Italian Cooking • Marcella Hazan
  • Finer Points in the Spacing and Arrangement of Type • Geoffrey Dowding
  • Real World Scanning and Halftones • David Blatner &c.
  • The Elements of Typographic Style • Robert Bringhurst
  • The History Man • Malcolm Bradbury
  • Catch-22 • Joseph Heller
  • Trees for the New Zealand Countryside • John & Bunny Mortimer

Pigeon Spotting

Years ago, I was at an ecology conference where scientists were sharing the results of a study on our native pigeon or kererū. They’d been tracking the long-term decline of kererū in native forests; some of the birds they’d been monitoring had been killed by predators during the study; others had been poached by hunters. Their conclusion was that kererū were in trouble.

Kererū, kūkū, or kūkupa are known to scientists as *Hemiphaga novaezelandiae*, the “New Zealand half-eater”, for the way they gobble up fruit and poo out the undigested seeds.

Kererū, kūkū, or kūkupa are known to scientists as Hemiphaga novaezelandiae, the “New Zealand half-eater”, for the way they gobble up fruit and poo out the undigested seeds. Photo: CC-BY-SA, Angrysunbird/Flickr

Someone in the audience stood up: a local. How could these scientists say that kererū were in decline, he asked. Why, just the other day he’d seen a flock of twenty five!

To the local, the evidence of his own eyes counted for more than years of research by scientists. But our own observations can be misleading. We tend to remember the day we saw twenty five kererū, and forget all the days we saw none at all. Also, our memories don’t stretch back very far. A few generations ago, flocks of dozens or even hundreds of kererū were not uncommon; today they’re very rare.

It matters if kererū are less common than they used to be. Our native pigeons play a vital role in the forest’s ecology: they’re the only bird species left with a big enough mouth to swallow the fruit of native trees like karaka, tawa, and matai. These trees have evolved to have their fruit eaten by birds, and the seeds passed out the other end some distance away. Now that larger birds like moa are extinct, we rely on kererū to help native forest regenerate.

The 2015 Great Kererū Count results, reflecting the distribution of observers as much as pigeons. From: greatkererucount.nz

The 2015 Great Kererū Count results, reflecting the distribution of observers as much as pigeons. From: greatkererucount.nz

One way to find out where kererū are – and aren’t – is the Great Kererū Count, a citizen science project that enlists members of the public to look for kererū locally and note down whether they’re regularly seen there. It runs September 16th to 25th. To take part, you just need to make an observation for 5 to 30 minutes, which could be in your backyard or walking in the park. You note down how many kererū you see, or if you saw none (equally important data) and enter the results at the Great Kereru Count site. You can add what the birds were doing or eating, and how common is is to see kererū in your area. You can even download an app to help count kererū on the go, or join up with the Great Kererū Count project at NatureWatch NZ.

Enlisting thousands of volunteers means kererū numbers are no longer just one person’s opinion. Last year there were over 8,700 observations, and over 19,000 kererū counted. It’s not the absolute numbers that matter, but the trends over time. As the data accumulate over the years, ecologists will be able to build up a picture of regional trends in kererū population: where numbers are healthy, and where the birds are in trouble. Most participants are in cities, so observers from out in the country are especially valuable. Looking at the map from last year, there are very few observations between Kai Iwi and Hawera, so I’ve been asking people around Whanganui to consider volunteering for half an hour and keeping their eyes peeled for kererū.

(This post appeared in the Whanganui Chronicle, 10 September 2016)

Slowly Saving the Longfin Eel

New Zealand has two species of native freshwater eel, longfins and shortfins. Longfins are found nowhere else. They live further inland than shortfins, and get older and bigger: over a century old, for ones that are 2 m long and as thick as your leg. They’re down to about 20% of their former numbers, and the population has been declining for decades from overfishing, pollution, and forest clearance. If it drops any more, DOC will have to declare them an endangered species.

800px-NZ_eelEvery longfin eel in NZ is a virgin. At the end of their lives, some time between 30 and 100 years old, they head out to sea, spawn in the ocean near Tonga, and die. The tiny fry make their way back to NZ and work their way up rivers as elvers, where they settle down and slowly grow bigger. So every eel we catch is one that has yet to breed.

And yet, amazingly, there’s a commercial export industry in longfin eels. It’s perfectly legal to catch tonnes of them every year, and export them alive to countries who long ago wiped out their own eel stocks but still think eels are a delicacy.

The Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment prepared an excellent and very readable report on the longfin eel in 2013, looking at numbers, threats, and the commercial fishery. She concluded:

“It is critical that we stop fishing longfin eels. It is not just fishing that is a problem, but stopping it is the only action that has immediate potential to reverse the decline of this extraordinary creature.”

The commercial eel industry employs maybe 100 people, mostly part-time eel fishers, and is worth only $0.5 million a year: a tiny fraction of our exports. Quite a bit of taxpayer money is spent propping up this industry though. Apart from the PCE report, the Ministry for Primary Industries (MPI) assembled a panel of international experts to comment on the longfin monitoring, ran workshops, consulted, and has now prepared a discussion document on the South Island quota, which it will have to administer, collect data on, make regular reports, monitor… It seems like a lot of effort so that 30 full-time eel processors can keep making private profits off a public resource.

One of the recommendations was that the MPI set up a separate quota for the South Island longfin stocks (they’d been lumped in with shortfins) so the fishery could be at least monitored and controlled. The MPI are setting the quotas for different regions in the South Island right now, and are inviting public submissions, deadline Monday 11th, 5pm – although submissions opened on June 13, fisheries biologists were apparently only told a week or two ago, and the word’s hardly gotten out. There’s a Forest and Bird blog post with some advice on making a submission (it’s quick and easy, just write a clear, concise email stating your interest in this and your opinions and suggestions). Here’s mine.


TO: FMSubmissions@mpi.govt.nz

I am writing this submission on discussion paper 2016/15, Review of Management Controls for the South Island Longfin and Shortfin Eel Fisheries (LFE 11–16 & SFE 11–16) in 2016, to comment specifically on the South Island longfin eel fishery.

I am a biologist, and Curator of Natural History at the Whanganui Regional Museum. Whanganui has a deep connection with tuna and their harvest, and local iwi have resolved to improve the health of the river so stocks can recover; in my job I talk to the community about freshwater health and the biology of our native fishes. And of course as a South Islander, and a New Zealander, I’m a stakeholder in the health of South Island freshwater ecosystems, including longfins.

The independent panel commissioned by MPI in 2015 concluded that, although longfin numbers had probably dropped 80% from its original level, the decline may have slowed or “perhaps even slightly reversed” in the last five years. I am concerned that MPI has represented this as evidence that longfin eel stocks in the South Island are now recovering and can continue to support a commercial eel harvest.

There could be numerous explanations for the small uptick that is being used to claim longfin stocks are now recovering. Given longfins take well over a decade to reach a commercial catch weight, any real population increases would have to have begun at the height of mass dairy conversion and degradation in water quality we are observing in the South Island. Conversely, impacts being made today on breeding success and the recruitment of elvers into waterways will not affect the commercial eel harvest for over a decade. So it is unlikely that variations in catch per unit effort now, in isolation, are actually giving us good information on longfin population trends.

The independent experts commissioned by MPI found numerous problems with measures currently being used to assess eel numbers, and recommended that an integrated, long-term monitoring process begin, using a wide range of techniques and assessing all potential threats to longfins. Even adjusted for unit effort, catch rates represent the behaviour of fishers as much as the number of eels present – eel fishers are highly mobile and target just the areas where eels can be most easily caught, which can mask pervasive declines in the population.

There appears to be a difference of opinion between MPI and the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment as to whether the longfin population is at a harvestable level, and whether it is continuing to decline. It would seem impossible to allow a commercial fishery until, at the very least, both of these questions are settled to the satisfaction of the research community.

My opinion, speaking as a scientist, is this:

  1. The South Island longfin quota for 2016 should be reduced to zero (0) tonnes, and maintained thus for 20 years, during which longfin populations will be monitored to determine if they are in fact recovering.
  2. The quota should be uniform for the entire South Island, as elvers do not return to a specific stream, and so the entire breeding population of New Zealand is a single management unit, with harvestable eels in a few areas supporting the eel population of the entire country. It seems odd to allow effectively unrestricted harvest of longfins in areas like the West Coast (LFE 16) when these populations are supplying elvers, and thus determining stock levels, for the rest of the South Island.
  3. If the quota is not reduced to zero, it should be reduced to a level well below the current commercial take, as one of the few methods available to immediately help reverse the decades-long decline of longfins. The “nominal catch” levels indicated for LFE 11, 12, 13, & 14 would be appropriate, and should be extended to LFE 15 and 16, instead of the proposed levels of half the current average commercial catch (LFE 15) or an unrestricted continuing commercial catch of 25 tonnes (LFE 16).
  4. MPI should take the initiative in supporting a research programme, run by all fisheries biologists and ecologists with expertise in longfin eels, that will clearly determine a) a population level of longfins able to support a commerical harvest (for example, 30% of the pre-fishery stock) and b) robust, well-accepted methods of determining whether that level has been reached.
  5. Until those methods have been settled on, and until the population has recovered to that agreed level, the TACC should remain at 0 or nominal.
  6. This research programme should be totally or substantially funded not by the New Zealand taxpayer, but by the commercial longfin industry. If the commercial eel industry is not willing to help determine if longfin stocks can be sustainably harvested, they should no longer be allowed the privilege of taking and exporting this publicly-owned resource. Other extractive industries are responsible for determining the environmental impact of their activities: the eel fishery should be no exception.
  7. Recreational and traditional quota should remain unchanged if not reduced to a nominal level, but a consultation and education programme should begin with iwi to give each region the option of setting traditional harvest levels to 0 – effectively, a rahui – for a similar period, and working with ecologists to monitor the health and population levels of their local longfin stocks.

Quite apart from the scientific arguments, though, about methods for assessing stock levels, I would like to propose another reason why the South Island longfin quota be set to zero.

It is abhorrent.

I believe that if most New Zealanders understood the population trends and breeding biology of longfins, and that this species was nevertheless still being caught and exported for profit, they would vote to shut the industry down tomorrow. If it were similarly-threatened native birds being harvested for export, there would be public outrage. Future generations will shake their heads in disbelief that we allowed a commercial longfin industry to carry on into the 21st century, long after the decline of this species was clear; just as we do today when we recall New Zealand was still carrying out commercial whaling into the 1960s.

Thank you for considering this submission. I am happy to be heard in person in support of it if required.

Dr Mike Dickison
Whanganui Regional Museum


Some useful info:

Basically Everything is Worms

I was reading a piece by Melissa Hogenboom on the currently-recognised 35 different…well, let’s call them kinds of animals. A few years back I’d have been happy calling them phyla, but a phylum, like other rigid taxonomic ranks, is becoming unfashionable these days, as is the idea than all evolutionary trees fit neatly into same hierarchical categories. It’s a bit like how forms that want your postal address assume you have a state and ZIP code. (New Zealand has never has states, and when I was a kid there were no postcodes either.)

Nevertheless, the idea of fundamental difference in basic body plans is an interesting one; currently there are 35 different ways of being an animal. Some of these ways are enormously successful, others barely exist. There are over a million species of arthropods, 100,000 chordates (including us), 11,000 cnidarians, 1,200 ribbon worms, 100 comb jellies, 11 species of horseshoe worms, and a single kind of placozoan.

Most of these 35 groups contain just a few hundred species, or even fewer; the animal kingdom seems to have a “long tail”. In the literal sense, too, since the most common animal body plan is some kind of worm.

all35kindsofanimals

Hogenboom apparently had some difficulty preparing her story, particularly having to extract usable photographs from the one or two researchers working on some of the more obscure groups. I feel her pain. Still, when you’re the world expert on a family of tiny parasites that only live in squid kidneys, I doubt you have a press kit ready.

Sympathy for the Wētā

Mercury Islands tusked weta on Korapuki Island, May 2016. Photo by Rob Chappell/DOC

Mercury Islands tusked weta on Korapuki Island, May 2016. Photo by Rob Chappell/DOC

The Mercury Islands tusked wētā is an insect the size of a mouse. Its long curving tusks are weapons that males use to joust and grapple with each other in ritualised combat over mates. This bizarre species was discovered in 1970, living on one small island off the Coromandel Peninsula in northern New Zealand. It very nearly went extinct, saved in the nick of time by heroic conservation work, yet hardly any New Zealanders have even heard of it.

Middle Island is tiny, only 15 hectares, but in 1970 had the distinction of being the only one of the Mercury Islands with no introduced mammalian predators; in particular, the Polynesian rat or kiore. In the decades after tusked wētā were discovered on Middle Island there seemed to be plenty of them living there – you could see dozens in a single night. Then in the 1990s the population plummeted to less than 200, possibly because of a severe drought. Fewer and fewer were recorded each year. The last time a tusked wētā was spotted on Middle Island was in 2001: eight subsequent searches between 2009 and 2012 turned up nothing. Just 31 years from discovery to demise.

But not quite. In the 1990s the NZ Department of Conservation ruled out relocating any tusked wētā to other islands, worried about the effect of taking even a few from the tiny population still surviving. Instead, they captured two females and a male and tried to breed them in captivity – without success. They tried again with three more wētā in 1998, but this time everything went right: the insects bred prolifically, producing 181 hatchlings. In 2001, just as the species was going extinct on Middle Island, DOC released young wētā on two other islands in the Mercury group they’d newly cleared of mammals through poisoning and trapping. Since that release, hundreds more wētā have been bred and released onto four other pest-free islands, and all seem to be doing well. Every Mercury Islands tusked wētā in the world is descended from those three individuals captured in 1998, in a last-ditch, and fortunately successful, attempt at captive breeding.

This is a particularly New Zealand story: a species gets down to a handful of individuals and is heroically pulled back from the brink. It’s almost our trademark: we don’t get out of bed until the species is down to double figures. But when we do heroic conservation feats with birds, like the kākāpō and black robin, sponsors line up to be associated with the rescue, and TV crews fly in from all over the world to make inspiring documentaries. Even though the Mercury Islands tusked wētā story is just as inspiring, even though DOC’s earnest publicity drive in the ’90s managed to get it onto a postage stamp, it isn’t a household name.

UnknownThat’s a shame, because the wētā story is much more representative of what we’ll need to do to save New Zealand’s biodiversity. Most of our endangered species are not birds. They are fungi, lichens, insects, worms, shrubs, and snails: things TV crews overlook. They don’t require heroic multi-million-dollar conservation battles. Rescuing the tusked wētā cost a few thousand dollars a year; they were reared in recycled ice cream containers. Many of our critically-endangered species could be saved by similarly small projects: potting up cuttings in a back yard, fencing a patch of forest to keep cows out, trapping all the predators on a tiny island.

With its budget being reduced almost every year, DOC simply doesn’t have the personnel or funding anymore to rescue everything, and increasingly depends on the public’s help. The small-scale projects that could save obscure endangered species would be perfect for these sorts of partnerships. But instead, the public conversation about conservation seems obsessed with saving cuddly celebrity animals, ones people would perhaps secretly like as pets. It’s as if we don’t trust New Zealanders with the facts.

Slugs and spiders are just as endangered, and count just as much, as penguins and dolphins. If we’re tallying biodiversity, a species is a species. Last year I wrote about how we can prioritise species conservation to get the biggest bang for the buck, and Jesse Mulligan interviewed me about it on the radio. Jesse got quite impassioned about the neglect of uncharismatic species, and started a Critter of the Week slot with DOC’s Nicola Toki to highlight the plight of the rare and overlooked; these days I help by beefing up the corresponding species’ Wikipedia page each week. Perhaps by telling these stories we can help people care about all New Zealand’s threatened flora and fauna. Even the prickliest wētā.

(A version of this piece originally appeared in the Wanganui [sic] Chronicle, 16 May 2016, unfortunately stripped of all its carefully-applied macrons.)

Museum Myopia

The Museums Australasia conference, MA 16, is happening right now in Auckland, and I’m not there, although three of my colleagues are. It’s a typical large museum/gallery conference, with inspiring keynote speakers and parallel streams, and participants from museums large and small in both Australia and New Zealand.

IMG_1908What’s odd is that a major part of the museum sector in both countries has been excluded. In today’s session I counted 54 speakers. Every single talk was on cultural history, art, indigenous culture: the humanities. There were no presentations at all by scientists or about natural history.

That’s surprising, because natural history collections and research are a major part of museums in New Zealand and Australia. These institutions hold millions of specimens and dozens of curators, collection managers, and researchers. Many of them were founded as natural history or geology collections, by directors who were scientists and believed that understanding the natural world was part of a museum’s core mission. Today, with climate change and an ongoing biodiversity crisis, the research they do and the collections they hold are more important than ever.

Why were there no scientists presenting at MA 16 today? Anyone would think museums didn’t do natural history.

No doubt there are plenty of reasons the organisers could offer. Scientists don’t go to these sorts of conferences. Humanities people like to hear from other humanities people. Scientists only want to talk about science. Scientists don’t put themselves forward to speak or run plenaries (perhaps they’re shy). Scientists aren’t interdisciplinary enough; they should act more like humanities people. If these sound familiar, they’re the same excuses rolled out to explain why there aren’t women speaking at a conference.

IMG_2665

Some of this is obliviousness and insularity. Some of it, though, is the asymmetry identified by C. P. Snow in The Two Cultures. It’s the idea that a grounding in the humanities is sufficient to be a well-rounded “cultured” person, but that understanding science is an esoteric unnecessary specialisation. This manifests in the museum sector as someone curating an exhibit on, say, insects (almost always characterised as “bugs” [sic]) despite having no background in entomology or even science. But hey, how hard could it be? Natural history exhibits are for children, aren’t they?

Slide03Slide04Imagine if someone with a geology degree, perhaps an MSc in the stratigraphy of Devonian trilobites from Canada, was hired to curate a show on Victorian wedding ceremonies or Aboriginal artworks. There’d be an uproar; and rightly so. Not having any background in such a nuanced and complex field means the exhibition could end up wildly oversimplified, or even full of awful mistakes. But the reverse happens all the time: museum professionals with Arts degrees are curating galleries (or managing collections) of snails, birds, and butterflies. This seems to be perfectly acceptable.

It looks like one of the five concurrent sessions on Wednesday has a couple of science speakers, but that’s about it. It’s really not good enough. The conversations at MA 16 today were about the battle between colonial and indigenous presentations of stories, about which group of people should have their worldview acknowledged. And yet this scope is so shortsighted, and so humanocentric, encompassing just a few thousand years. The story of the universe is physics, geology, life; people are such a very small part of that, yet we seem to think the conversation is all about us.

A Day in the Life of a Natural History Curator

I’ve been working at a smallish provincial museum for two years now, one of a dozen staff. People outside the museum profession (or hoping to enter it) sometimes wonder what a curator’s job entails, so here’s an account of a typical day.


06:00 Up, thanks to my ruthless internal clock. Check Twitter, news, and emails while still in my dressing gown. Sometimes I reply, but people who are obviously clearing their In tray at 07:30 are depressing.

08:20 Bike to work, only five minutes away. The joys of living in a small city.

08:30 More battling against the tide of emails. Once I adhered to the doctrine of Inbox Zero. No longer.

IMG_7656We’re sending out some mounted birds and moa bones as a short-term display elsewhere, responding to a loan request. I’ve made a shortlist of the specimens we could use, most of which need to be properly registered, photographed, and condition-reported. Two of them are huia, which are extinct and quite valuable. One of us will have to accompany the loan and install them in secure museum cases so there’s never a moment when they’re unsupervised. Then I check the cases everything’s supposed to go in and discover there’s no way the birds and bones I’ve sorted out will fit. Back to the drawing board.

10:30 Phone call: someone has turned up at the front desk with a mysterious insect. Now that it’s summer, I’m getting identifications of this sort about once a day, usually garden bugs, spiders, fossils, or things discovered on the beach. The visitor presents me with a small brightly-coloured insect wrapped in plastic, and he wants to know if it eats kiwifruit vines. I promise to get back to him. I remember seeing something like this in a Facebook group devoted to bug identification, find it, and double check in Andrew Crowe’s book to confirm. It’s a lichen bag moth, an Australian import. The larvae spend their lives in a bag they make themselves, eating lichen (not kiwifruit), and eventually hatch out as adults that live just a few hours – long enough to mate. The females are flightless and look a bit like brightly-coloured beetles. While calling the visitor back, I reflexively clean up the moth’s Wikipedia page and add a reference. Then I pin it for the collection, and log the “visitor interaction” in a Filemaker database for our stats.

Moa bone over 1000 years old conveniently labelled with 1938 typography

Moa bone over 1000 years old conveniently labelled with 1938 typography

12:00 Just before lunch I meet up with the organiser of the Whanganui Science Forum. There’s a talk at the museum next week by a visiting Massey professor, on poisons in the environment, and I need to publicise it via Twitter and Facebook; I maintain the Museum’s Twitter account, help with the Facebook page, and sporadically feed Instagram with odd museum-related objects.

During lunchtime I have to take my new bike round for a checkup, as the pedals keep falling apart. While they switch out new pedals I try lunch at the Indian place round the corner, and find out why you don’t order the Indian Pizza lunch special.

13:00 Finished checking a case full of bones from the Makirikiri moa excavation of the 1930s, when the Museum recovered thousands of moa bones from a farm swamp a few miles upriver. Part of my job is to register, photograph, and display the entire collection in visible storage in its own dedicated gallery. I discovered that some suspicious-looking bones I was about to register were in fact from a horse, which must have fallen or been dumped in the swamp some time after the moa met their demise. To be sure, I checked them against Google image search, which is an excellent anatomy manual, and the mounted horse skeleton we happen to have on display at the moment.

Prattkeeping in the Moa Gallery

Prattkeeping in the Moa Gallery

15:00 A meeting at the Department of Conservation offices for Friends of Gordon Park, a community conservation group looking after a local forest remnant. I want to do a collaborative research project with an Auckland researcher on the occurrence of Mecodema beetles in the remaining fragments of forest around Whanganui. Chatting with DOC about collecting permits on reserves gives bad news; the permit-processing backlog is currently four months, so I doubt I’ll be doing any collecting before next spring. Ah well. Perhaps I can find some forest on private land that won’t need a permit.

Tweets over the course of the day: celebrating Hector Day, a discussion with the Cawthron Institute on whether river restoration is so great if it’s just for nasty introduced trout, the awful comments posted on the newly-available TVNZ documentary Ghosts of Gondwana, a possible title for the new Indiana Jones movie (Indiana Jones and the Interminable Festschrift), the flag referendum, and the unbearable sogginess of Indian Pizza.

16:15 Flip through some other projects: another loan request, valuing the moa collection for insurance purposes, drafts of new Collection and Documentation policies for the natural history collection, and more emails.

17:30 Biked home in the rain, checking at the PO box to see if Monday’s Film Society movie had arrived yet (no; so much for overnight delivery). I’m on the committee of the Film Society, and handle the projection; movies screen IMG_2110at the Museum’s lecture theatre, downstairs from my office, which makes setup convenient.

19:30 After dinner, I bake granola, and correspond with Nicola Toki about this week’s Critter of the Week segment on the radio. Nicola picks a different endangered and uncharismatic species to talk about each week, and I make sure the Wikipedia page is spruced up and informative. Sometimes this involves writing a new article from scratch, but this week’s critter is the longfin eel, which is great, because the Wikipedia page for longfins is pretty good and only needs a little tidying up. I suggested Izatha caustopa, Chevron skink, and Pimelea actea as future Critters for Nicola. I add a news-story reference to the Hutton’s Shearwater page, and some nice photos supplied by DOC to the Powelliphanta article.

21:00 It’s Hector Day – Sir James Hector’s birthday – which reminds me I was supposed to write a review of Simon Nathan’s new Hector biography months ago. Refresh my memory by going through the Te Ara bio. Took the book off the shelf, flick through, make a couple of edits to his Wikipedia page instead.

21:45 Remember, at the last minute, that tomorrow I’m rostered on to supply the staff Thursday afternoon tea, so hurriedly whip up a tray of fly cemetaries. While they’re baking, Twitter and more emails. And so, eventually, to bed.


That’s my day: a mixture of curation, collection management, outreach, identification, exhibition, volunteer work, with research, reading the literature, and collecting mostly happening in my spare time. Pretty typical for a small museum with a limited budget. But if you’re ever in Whanganui, be sure to come and say hi. My office is right in the moa gallery, so you can tap on the window and I’ll wave back, in much the same way museum specimens don’t.

Earthquake Lesson #2: Biking

It’s more important for a bike to have a basket than gears.

Look, I said to the soldier. Those civil defense guys, with their hard hats and axes? That’s my apartment they’re about to go into. He relented and escorted me to my own door, in time for me to greet the team searching my home for bodies. I apologised for not being able to make them a cup of tea; there was no water or power.

This was February 24, 2011, two days after 185 people had died in the Christchurch earthquake.

Getting a car through the central city at that point was a nightmare (and was for many months to come). Roads were buckled and potholed, the biggest hummocks and cracks marked with spray paint and maybe a road cone. Immediately after the quake, recycling wheelie bins with bright yellow lids served as impromptu hazard markers. It was impossible, from my apartment, to drive north without going south and west.

P1020241I lived in Cashel Street, near the Arts Centre, just inside a Red Zone cordon staffed by police and soldiers. You had to pick your moment. The police were older guys, usually serious and not open to negotiation. The army were younger, more relaxed, and multinational – many countries had sent Search and Rescue teams to help clear buildings, leaving cryptic sigils in fluorescent paint on the front of each. The Army’s transport was light armoured vehicles (LAVs) draped with camouflage netting. In the months to come, I had a couple of particularly eerie experiences when these rumbled past at night on darkened streets.

I’d been camped at a friend’s for a couple of days, and this morning thought I would try my luck at getting back into my flat. It was a solid Art Deco block, probably built after the Napier earthquake. There were some minor cracks in the walls, but Civil Defense had just green-stickered it, so I felt safe being in there. I carefully emptied fridge and freezer, and propped them open with towels, assuming I wouldn’t be back in my home for a couple of months. What could go on my bike? In the end, I packed a backpack of clothes, filled the basket and carrier with food including a frozen rabbit, slung one of my ukuleles and carried the other. Gumboots were the fashion footwear of #eqnz, so I wore mine. And so, biking one-handed, I wobbled carefully back through the cordon towards St Albans. The sentry was trying to suppress a smirk, I think.

The rabbit was from Waimate, bought from a farmer at the tiny French Market in central Christchurch, in a brick lane that’s almost certainly now a levelled empty lot, filled with parked cars.

The rabbit went onto the freezer-emptying earthquake barbecue the next day.

The rabbit went onto the freezer-emptying earthquake barbecue the next day.

I wish I’d biked to work the day of the quake. Trying to get home in the confusion, I got stuck in the interminable snarl and had to ditch the car; a bike proved to be the transportation mode best suited to a broken city, able to navigate kerbs, slip through fence gaps, and weave around cracks in the road. Mine was a used Japanese mamachari with no gears but a sensible chain guard, basket, and pannier.

When my grandmother was little, her family escaped the WWI German invasion of the Netherlands by bicycle. As I wobbled away from my apartment, with two ukuleles and a defrosting rabbit, I imagine them all neatly dressed, ties and overcoats, on sensible black Dutch bicycles. As Marx said, history repeats – the first time as tragedy, the second as farce.