A review of Moa Sightings by Chris Chilton in the Southland Times, 26 March 2011, C3.
(The rating of good was added by B Spittle).
Moa sightings probed.
Moa Sightings by Bruce Spittle (Paua Press, RRP $70 a volume, or $210 for the set)
Did some moa exist for five centuries after they are thought to have been hunted from the face of the Earth? If Bruce Spittle thinks so he isn’t saying. Instead, he lets people who claim to have seen New Zealand’s mighty flightless bird tell it like they thought they saw it.
About 150 of them. From ground zero of European settlement, all the way to 1993.
It takes three 400-odd-page hard-covered volumes to consider all the sightings, so you’ve got to be prepared to settle in for the long haul here, or at least do it in bite-size chunks, but the premise is so tantalising it’s seductive.
Common sense and scepticism tells us the odds against a stray moa surviving into the 1800s, let alone 1993 (the Craigieburn sighting), are as long as dinornis giganteus’ neck, but maybe, just maybe, there’s a possibility.
After all, there is a certain romantic logic in thinking at least a few moa may have defied extinction a little longer than commonly believed in the vast, uninhabited wilderness that is Fiordland.
Some of the claimed sightings are quickly dismissed as hoaxes, or genuine mistakes. Spittle gets credit for expressing an opinion, based on the bleeding obvious, and quickly moving on. But some of the voluminous evidence here has the intoxicating whiff of credibility.
The cross-referencing is exhaustive—if not exhausting. Individual accounts of the same reported sightings are described at length, then cross-referenced and compared to test their validity.
Spittle routinely cross-refs historic letters, transcripts and publications from multiple sources, first to confirm they refer to the same event, then to weigh their accuracy and probability. He sifts through obvious typographic errors, searching for evidence of a different nuance.
Even the character of the people claiming to have seen moa is scrutinized. And some of them were characters, all right.
Despite the meticulous— some might say obsessive— attention to minutiae, the text is utterly compelling and thoroughly readable, well enhanced by colour maps, scene photos and illustrations.
A grim-chinned editor might well have amputated this monstrous triptych into a single weighty tome, but then a remarkable chunk of New Zealand social history would never have seen the light of day.
Southland and Fiordland being sparsely populated, there a fair bunch of claimed southern sightings recorded, and with them comes an informal history lesson.
Prominent Southland names such as Howell, Turnbull Thomson, Orbell, Hall-Jones and Gunn feature in the supporting cast. There are also vast tracts of fascination Maori history, mostly verbal intergenerational hand-me-downs that might have been lost forever if Spittle hadn’t taken the time to collate them.
It’s fascinating. Valuable, even.
These three books represent a Herculean undertaking of investigative journalism and, as the late sceptic Denis Dutton says in the foreword, Spittle has done us all a great service.
But did a single moa really make it into the 1800s or beyond? Do moose roam Fiordland? Do black panthers stalk the Maniototo veldt? If you’re entertained and educated by reading Spittle’s books, does it matter?
The three Moa Sightings volumes are available from www.pauapress.comRating: [5 of 5 Stars!]