Hunting Tongan lions
John Key has been busy arguing that the silver fern should adorn a redesigned New Zealand flag, because the fern is 'native' to New Zealand. Some commentators have nominated the kiwi for the same reason. But the boundaries between a native and an exotic piece of flora or fauna are not always easily defined.
Ferns may have unfurled in the forests of New Zealand since our islands were securely locked up in the ancient super-continent of Gondwanaland, but other plants often understood as native, like the kumara, probably arrived no more than a thousand years ago with our first human settlers. Testing indicates that the apparent ancient groves of wild taro that hikers and pot growers notice in the backblocks of Te Ika a Maui may have arrived as recently as the nineteenth century.
The Polynesian rat is in some parts of New Zealand considered a native creature, and recognised as endangered by the predations of its larger and more aggressive Norwegian relatives. In other places, though, like small islands nominated as bird sanctuaries, the creature is exterminated.
The distinction between exotic and autochthonous becomes even harder to maintain when we turn from nature to culture. Just like forests and swamps, human cultures are ecological systems in which new arrivals strive to niche themselves. Cattle are latecomers to New Zealand, and are still considered aliens by conservationists, but they have nevertheless become a symbol of regional identity in the Waikato. Denis Glover's poem 'The Magpies' made those pests into New Zealand icons.
The lion is an animal whose symbolic reach far exceeds its real world habitat. The beast has never roamed further north than the extreme south of Europe, yet for many centuries it has a found semiotic home in England and Britain, where it has become a national symbol. Lions may be scarce on the Yorkshire moors, but they can be found rampaging across flags designed for the queen and the uniform of the English football team.
Lions are also surprisingly plentiful in the Kingdom of Tonga, where they acquire shapes and significances that seem strange to many outsiders. Over at EyeContact I’ve published an essay about the young Tongan-New Zealand artist Tui Emma Gillies, who has been stalking the lions of her homeland. You can read 'Tui Emma Gillies and the Lions of Tonga' here.
[Posted by Scott Hamilton]