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).


Science must trump ideology in the GE debate
104784 2019-04-18 08:52:29Z Politics

Science must trump ideology in the GE debate

by The Listener

A New Zealand-developed super-grass that appears to drastically reduce greenhouse gas emissions might be blocked in this country by the Green Party.

Read more
Simon Bridges hails PM Jacinda Ardern's capital gains tax u-turn as victory
104803 2019-04-18 00:00:00Z Politics

Simon Bridges hails PM Jacinda Ardern's capital ga…

by Jo Moir

The National Party is calling the u-turn on a capital gains tax a massive failure for the Prime Minister.

Read more
John Campbell is replacing Jack Tame on TVNZ's Breakfast show
104860 2019-04-18 00:00:00Z Television

John Campbell is replacing Jack Tame on TVNZ's Bre…

by Noted

The TV network is switching things up - again.

Read more
John Lanchester’s ecological-dystopian tale about a barricaded Britain
104431 2019-04-18 00:00:00Z Books

John Lanchester’s ecological-dystopian tale about…

by Catherine Woulfe

The Wall may be speculative fiction, but it feel like it's just round the corner.

Read more
Why we should take care when we talk about drug side effects
104426 2019-04-18 00:00:00Z Psychology

Why we should take care when we talk about drug si…

by Marc Wilson

If we find that up to 10% of people report insomnia after taking Panadol, does that mean it was a side effect of the drug?

Read more
Capital Gains Tax debate should have been a godsend for Simon Bridges
104754 2019-04-17 00:00:00Z Politics

Capital Gains Tax debate should have been a godsen…

by Bevan Rapson

Talk of a capital gains tax hits a particular nerve, but changing the tax system doesn’t always have to be like pulling teeth.

Read more
Government abandons capital gains tax plan
104759 2019-04-17 00:00:00Z Politics

Government abandons capital gains tax plan

by Noted

No consensus was reached over the capital gains tax recommendation.

Read more
How tough is it for the middle class in New Zealand?
104675 2019-04-17 00:00:00Z Social issues

How tough is it for the middle class in New Zealan…

by Pattrick Smellie

Money worries have set off a wave of populist politics in most Western democracies, but not here. Pattrick Smellie investigates why.

Read more