The greening of science

by Rebecca Priestley / 31 December, 2005

In the 1930s, Charles Fleming got about Auckland in a smart pair of plus fours, with a fresh rose in his jacket buttonhole. He smoked a pipe, always wore a hat, and drove a black and white Hillman Minx. And all this as a teenaged university student.

At Auckland University College, Fleming caught the eye of vivacious young arts student Peg Chambers, who shared his interest in the natural sciences. On the eve of their wedding, after a five-year courtship, Fleming reminded Peg to "add a pair of gumboots" to her trousseau. They were to start married life in a geologists' camp in Waipukarau, setting a theme for their lives together: Science Comes First.

Charles Fleming: Environmental Patriot tells the story of Fleming's life as a scientist, husband and father. As Fleming's daughter, and a fellow scientist, author Mary McEwen has special insight into her subject, and her use of personal letters, photographs and family stories - as well as her own memories - gives a poignant level of personal detail to the biography.

Fleming's first job after graduating was palaeontologist with the New Zealand Geological Survey, leaving him to indulge his passions for ornithology and entomology in the evenings and weekends. A generalist in the mould of a 19th-century naturalist, Fleming was a prolific researcher and published hundreds of papers -on geology, ornithology, mollusca, cicadas, science history, bio-geography and conservation; over a 50-year career he became one of New Zealand's best-known and most accomplished scientists. He was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of London in 1967 and knighted for his work in 1977.

Fleming credited his success, in part, to growing up with "a big garden, house full of books, parents sympathetic to useless interests, the romance of the beautiful, the rare and the old ..." Born into a wealthy Auckland family in 1916, he had a Victorian-style childhood: reading natural-history books, watching birds, insects and snails in the large Remuera garden, and taking advantage of his parents' indulgences -- including microscopes, piano lessons and specialist books. A committed shell-collector and bird-watcher from early childhood, he maintained his interest through high school and university, eventually graduating with a Masters degree in zoology.

When Fleming married Peg in 1941, she became his old-fashioned helpmate, both personally and professionally. She continued to help Fleming with his research, often accompanying him on cicada hunts and birdwatching trips. More often, however, Peg was at home with their three daughters while Fleming was having adventures; rediscovering the Chatham Islands black robin, guarding the Auckland Islands from enemy ships, and saving the kokako habitat from logging trucks. In later years, he enlisted his family's help as he travelled the countryside catching cicadas for his intensive investigation into cicada species and song. In the summertime "cicadas dominated weekend activities in Wellington and Waikanae, where many witnessed the Flemings wielding butterfly nets on long metal handles or creeping up on singing cicadas with tape recorder and microphone in hand".

Fleming achieved so much by neglecting what we would now call his work/life balance. In 1971, after suffering a coronary thrombosis and cardiac arrest (he was 54), Fleming described himself as a "workaholic" and his "own worst enemy". But he wouldn't change. While Peg longed for lazy holidays, Fleming "was never happy unless he was achieving something". At the holiday bach in Waikanae, Fleming logged bird observations, monitoring changes in species and numbers and occasionally publishing his results. When Peg arranged for them to take up whitebaiting as a way of reducing his stress, he kept a meticulous log of catch weights, locations and times, turning their fun into work.

In the 1970s, Fleming became a campaigner and spokesperson for the conservation of New Zealand's forests and birds. His vocal involvement in the Save Manapouri campaign gave the conservation movement "scientific credibility and social respectability" and helped save the lake. He also rallied against the sale of South Island beech forests for Japanese woodchips and against the destruction of native bird habitat on the Mamaku Plateau.

"He serves his country best/Who loves the land itself", wrote Fleming in his 1972 poem "Environmental Patriot". Fleming served New Zealand well, and his life and work are elegantly presented in this sensitive and accomplished bio-graphy.

CHARLES FLEMING: ENVIRONMENTAL PATRIOT, by Mary McEwen (Craig Potton Publishing, $49.99).

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