What has become of the “great naturalists”?

I have been reading about the debate and discussion related to forest destruction and preservation in the latter half of the 19th century, and what strikes me most about this debate is the character of the men that took part in it. These were the likes of  William Travers (1819 – 1903, lawyer, politician, naturalist and explorer), Thomas Potts (1824 – 1888, politician and naturalist), Charles Heaphy (surveyor, artist, explorer, soldier, politician), Harry Ell (1862–1934, politician, soldier, conservationist) and Leonard Cockayne (1855 -1934, botanist).

All of these men were strongly multi-faceted, and had a keen interest in knowledge beyond the bounds of one particular discipline. Many were autodidacts (self-taught), taking it upon themselves to learn what there was to know about any subject they came into contact with. They all chose to show leadership and to speak out about the things they felt strongly about, even if it may have made them unpopular with their fellow countrymen. Finally, whether they were trained in the field or not, they all had a streak of “the naturalist” about them.

However, not all of the “great naturalists” died out 80 years ago. Charles Fleming, (1916–1987, geologist, ornithologist, conchologist, geologist, paleontologist, and conservationist) was described as one of “the last naturalists”. He too, not only demonstrated leadership in the research and academic fields he excelled in, but also took an important role in the early conservationist movement (Manapouri for example) and in promoting the natural sciences and the environment.

Sadly, I never met Sir Charles, (though I am honoured to serve on the same Trust board that he did), but I had the great fortune to meet a man who I would also describe as a “great naturalist” in his own way.

Peter McKenzie, founder of Nga Manu Nature Reserve in Waikanae, was only in his 20s when he hit upon the idea of creating a “zoo for New Zealand species”. Though by  no means a “book-ish” person (he had frankly been bored by classroom studies), Peter was a voracious learner – like these earlier “naturalists”, he had a passion for knowledge and the world around him. He became a self-taught naturalist and wildlife photographer, a talented sailor, as well as be an extremely astute and well-respected business person, and a philanthropist. Despite being intensely modest and understated, he demonstrated leadership in many ways. He was also a mentor to many. The reserve that he established in 1974 (which became much more than the “zoo” first envisioned), included a rare example of lowland swamp forest in the region. The remainder of the reserve he (with the help of many others, over the years) transformed from a weather-worn area of farmland into what is today lush with regenerating forest, interspersed with wetlands,  aviaries and other enclosures, housing rare and endangered indigenous species. True to his mission, the reserve has become a hub of learning and discovery, particularly for children, who would otherwise have little contact with New Zealand’s indigenous forest and animals.

Peter passed away earlier this year, at only 59, a great loss both to his immediate community, but in my belief, the country as a whole. He was a true leader, an inspiration, and, in my mind, one of the last “great naturalists”.

Further reading: Waikanae nature crusador dies (Dominion Post); Nga Manu History Project

See also: A Kapiti environmental history – Nga Manu Nature Reserve; First day of spring at Nga Manu Nature Reserve; Welcome to Year of the Dragon: a New Zealand “dragon” story

Painting top: View in the valley of the Nairne River, with Port Wakefield in the distance (1840), by Charles Heaphy. Shows the Nairn River winding between bush-clad banks away to the harbour of Port Wakefield (Waitangi). There are ships in the distance, and the whole is framed by foreground trees. Not to be reproduced without permission from Alexander Turnbull Library, ref. ID: C-025-016  Photo top left: Harry Ell in 1914. Above right: Peter McKenzie with Governor General Sir Paul Reeves (and kiwi) in 1989 on the opening of the nocturnal house. Above: Nga Manu Reserve today.

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