Thursday, March 13, 2014

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]



Anonymous Anonymous said...

Tigers are as rare in Aotearoa as lions are in England, yet they have featured parts of the national consciousness since the early 19th century. The Te Arawa people were given a stallion named Taika (tiger) by Ngapuhi, the first tribe to own horses. (presumably the stallion was already named Tiger when Ngaphui acquired it, since they are unlikely to have named a horse after an animal of which they little or nothing.) That name was then applied to entire dynasties of horses, and later also to their owners. The best-known current bearer of the name is film-maker Taika Waititi whose father, of the Te Whanau-a-Apanui people of the northern East Coast, has the same names.

1:23 pm  
Anonymous Scott said...

Thanks for that, anon- fascinating! Cook brought horses to Tonga, but apparently they died out for a time, ebfore returning in force late in the nineteenth century.

I was pondering the fact that Ethiopia, another of the rare 'southern' nations to escape colonisation by the north in the nineteenth century, had, up until the 1974 revolution, a lion as its national symbol. In the case of Ethiopia, I think the symbol reflects the emperor's claim to be a descendant of King Solomon...

8:28 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

During the course of World War II, Japanese forces were spread out to far flung islands throughout the Pacific theater. These operations often threw the soldiers into strange lands, where they were faced with new cultures and mysteries they could not fathom. These remote, exotic new locales occasionally presented ethnoknown creatures that had previously been unknown to the outside world.

Let us take a crypto tour of some of these cryptozoological mysteries. Here is a round up of just a few of the creatures encountered by Japanese soldiers during the Pacific War.

10:47 pm  
Blogger Richard said...

re Tigers the tiger of Blake's poem Tyger is depicted in the illustration to that work (part of Songs of Innocence and Experience) but it looks like a little stuffed one you'd give to a child (Atwood had a word for what it looked like to her): the power and mystery of the tiger in the poem is strangely offset by that tiger. But his other illustrations add to his poems as they are in multiple colours. Etchings.

Re the flag I like the Maori one.

The art of Tui Emma Gilles is very vivid and interesting. I got a bit confused as to how if her ancestors were allied to the King who ousted the others she would be associated with (is it Tupala? and the song they sang or the slogan shouted in the riots): but the woman depicted has a certain sadness. For a moment I thought she was slightly satirizing or using as a kind of 'template' (subconsciously so to speak?) the usual pictures we see of Queen Elizabeth (on stamps for example).

Tigers and lions are certainly wonderful animals.

11:57 pm  
Blogger Richard said...

I see Ted has taken Futa Helu's interpretations of Hereclitus to task in the latest Brief. It was a very good and well thought and researched review of Helu's book.

How respondeth thou?

12:00 am  
Anonymous Scott said...

I'll be very interested to read Ted's review, Richard. From the conversation I had about with Ted I'm guessing that I'd agree with a lot of his points.

I think I suggested in my original piece of writing on Helu and 'Atenisi, 'Decline and Defiance at the Athens of Tonga', that Helu was too quick to draw connections between Herclitus' fragmentary and somewhat vague writings and all sorts of later intellectual developments, like the ideas of Einstein and Freud. Great to see Ted thinking and writing, despite his recent health problems. He's a national treasure.

8:55 am  
Blogger Richard said...

I haven't read Helu but Ted's essay / review is very in depth. It doesn't mean it invalidates Helu or Heraclitus as sometimes one is inspired by aspects of a thinker's works. (That might be different from presenting what one says as being kosher).

But the fragmentary nature of the writings is always fascinating. That probably interested Niezsche and others.

It is necessary to know about the other philosophers, not only Anaximandar etc but the well known ones such as Plato or Socrates via Plato: even if only to try to "refute" him.

Yes it is good that Ted is working steadily. He has a lot to contribute with his wide knowledge of the Classics and Pound and writers such as your mate Robbe-Grillet who Ted and I value a lot!

Also he's keen on Claude Simon and we both also like Louis Golding especially of 'Pincher Martin'...but Golding is rather "dark" and unforgiving if fascinating - engaging and 'committed' might be the term.

Maybe because Golding was also deeply imbued by the Classics...

2:41 pm  

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