Finding a Teacher

Learning from the fieldguide

I have been a tramper for years now, marching off into the bush with friends to enjoy the scenery and their company when I can. I‘ve learnt to cross rivers and, more importantly, to tell when not to cross. I’ve walked in both islands, on beaches, in bush and on mountain tops, and I’ve been out in all seasons. And yet, ask me what I’ve seen and I’d say trees, shrubs and birds. Or if pushed for detail: beech trees, fantails and woodpigeons Beyond that I start to run out of words, because despite all those years I am sadly ignorant about the flora and fauna that make up our native bush.

When I started tramping this didn’t matter. Really I went for the adventure of it, for hanging out with friends and roughing it. The bush was the dramatic background to all this, like the painted desert in an old cowboy film. But in recent years I began to feel my ignorance. To realise how strange it was that after all this time so much of the bush is a mystery. ‘Over there, by that Kanuka, someone might say, and I’d look around and see only trees.

So much of it a mystery and, just as mysterious, was how you got that knowledge. I had no desire to become a birder or tree expert, but it would be nice to know a few more names than just the obvious. I tried looking at a book or two, and then weeks or even months later, when I tramped into the bush, all that information had evaporated. I needed a teacher, someone to point to those things I was blind to and tell me just what they were. But there was no one I could really ask, none of my tramping buddies had enough of this information. At least that’s what I assume, because really, I just hate asking for help.

Enter the field guide. While the tradition goes back to Buller, Andrew Crowe is the current guru of the popular, portable New Zealand field guide. A series that began with the guide to edible native plants he wrote after surviving without supplies in the bush. Last Christmas I was given his Which Native Tree? and his A Mini Guide to the Identification of New Zealand’s Land Birds. In each he provides photographs or sketches as well as brief descriptions and some interesting additional information. For trees, he tells of uses by both Maori and Pakeha, and the animals that live around them. But my favourite feature has to be his onomatopoeic representation of bird calls: ‘chichichi tu zweet zweet zweet.’ Sound familiar? It’s a greenfinch of course.

As the name suggests, these books are made to be taken out into the field. The trees one even has a plastic sleeve for rainy day nothofagus spotting. With these in my hands I have begun to relook at the world around me. I’ve had lunch beside a mahoe, and walked by rifleman flitting among the kahikatea. Admittedly, doing this has involved a lot of stopping to flick through my books and examine leaves, but it’s a start.

And one day, I realised I had learnt something. Sitting with friends beside open doors to a verandah, I watched a bird swoop in and land on the railing. ‘What’s that?’ someone said, ‘A sparrow?’

‘It’s a chaffinch,’ I said right away without checking my book, not sure at all but making it sound that way. But the funny thing was that later, alone, when I did check, I was right. I had found my teacher after all in those slim little books.