Tuesday, 22 May 2007

The Kiwi re-defined: it's the egg!

A meditation by Steve Braunias in the Sunday Star Times, 20 May on the godwit – a miraculous bird that flies en masse non-stop from the mudflats of Golden Bay to Korea (for food), then on to Alaska (for sex) – prompts enquiry about birds as symbols of national identity. To me, the kiwi has been pretty useless symbolically and evokes the unfortunate "she’ll be right" period of New Zealand. Braunias: "We are our most famous bird, that freak of nature known as a ratite or flightless bird…dour, modest, shy. Feet on the ground and happiest left alone to go about its chores and its rituals in the bush." Hardly the behavioral model for a modern society. The Kea network chose well for their branding – the cheeky, extroverted, South Island mountain parrot who loves tourists (or at least their motor vehicles). Painter Bill Hammond has spent a career deep into the primeval bird life of New Zealand – his mutant half-human, half-bird creatures are dark and edgy (versus the “good taste and regional appeal” of Don Binney’s iconic bird-works).

Evolutionist Charles Darwin would have made a prototypical New Zealander – reserved, socially conservative, slow to make up his mind but eventually pulling off the big kahuna. A new book on Darwin - The Kiwi’s Egg, by David Quammen, a Montana science, nature and travel writer – offers hope for a metaphorical makeover, one that puts the kiwi in the territory of innovation and big ideas, rather than hoodies and hunched shoulders. Thing is, a kiwi’s egg weighs almost a pound – constituting about 20 percent of the female’s total weight. Its relative, the female ostrich, by contrast, lays an egg weighing less than two percent as much as herself. Relative to her body size on a standard with other birds, the brown kiwi's egg is about six times as big as it should be. No other avian matches the kiwi. Quammen spends several pages on the pregnant kiwi: "An X-ray photo of a gravid female kiwi, taken fifteen hours before laying, shows this: a skull, with its long beak; a graceful S-shaped neck; an arched backbone; a pair of hunched up femurs; and at the center of it all, a huge smooth ovoid—her egg—like the moon during a full solar eclipse."

The term "punching above our weight" is hackneyed nowadays, but the thought is not. The juice is that it’s not the kiwi that should be the revered icon, but its egg: symbolic of big ideas and impressive scale-to-output ratio. Maybe evolution will deal the kiwi a favor and one day it will literally sprout wings.

In the meantime, we have the godwit to contemplate as the "eternal migrant". Robin Hyde’s The Godwit’s Fly (1939) about the process and emotions of expatriation is a seminal work of New Zealand-metaphor-as-novel. “Later she thought, most of us here are human godwits; our north is mostly England. Our youth, our best, our intelligent, brave and beautiful, must make the long migration, under a compulsion they hardly understand; or else be dissatisfied all their lives long. They are the godwits.”

New this week is How to Watch a Bird by said Steve Braunias: "This book is a personal journey – a beginner's guide to bird-watching by a beginner. It's also a New Zealand history, a geographical wandering, an affectionate look at the people who are captivated by birds. Mostly, I think, I hope, it's a book about birds. Birds, past – from the flightless ratites who had it good here, in a land without predators, until the arrival of the first humans. Birds, present – the introduced birds, common birds like the starling, the thrush, the blackbird. Birds, coming and going – migratory birds that fly incredible distances to get here every year. Birds, modern and now completely at home – the white-faced heron, the welcome swallows. Birds, everywhere."

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