Treasured alpine plants revisited

01:56, Jan 25 2013
Alan Mark

Let me say from the outset I'm a big fan of botanist, ecologist and heavyweight conservationist Emeritus Professor Sir Alan Mark who has just written another book on our native alpine plants.

Titled Above the Treeline, A Nature Guide to Alpine New Zealand, it covers not only our alpine flora but also, for the first time, our alpine fauna, with contributions from several noted biologists.

Sir Alan's books and work will be known to anyone with an interest in conservation and our unique alpine plants.

But what sets Sir Alan's latest book apart from his earlier editions on alpine flora is that, instead of using paintings, this time he uses photographs to illustrate the plants.

I've been a fan of his work since the mid 1970s when I purchased the magnificent landmark publication New Zealand Alpine Plants (A H & A W Reed Ltd, 1973) he co-authored with water colour artist, the late Nancy Adams. The year was 1974 and I was spending my student summer holiday working as a gardener at The Hermitage Hotel in Mt Cook National Park.

And what a summer it was. Apart from the legendary parties, the weather was especially notable, so hot some days and so cold others, including Christmas Day when, as I recall, it snowed at The Hermitage (altitude 764 metres), something I was to discover was nothing out the ordinary. New Zealand's short and often cold alpine growing season is one of the defining factors of our highly adapted alpine plants which could yet be affected by global warming, Sir Alan explains in the preface to his latest book.


That summer at Mt Cook I spent my days off wandering the mountains with the huge and heavy Mark and Adams tome (all 262 pages, large format hard cover) tucked inside my daypack to acquaint myself with the plants of the park.

New Zealand Alpine Plants became my new best friend as together we wandered the park tracks, scrambled over rocky precipices, mountain streams, scree slopes and struggled through waist high alpine scrub, sidestepping mountain daisies and Mt Cook "lilies" (that in fact are buttercups) the size of rhubarb plants. It was botanical heaven.

Using (then) Associate Prof Mark's simple, but excellent, descriptions alongside Nancy Adam's rare gift of botanical accuracy in her unusual dry brush (as opposed to wet brush, watercolour wash) technique, I was able to identify almost any plant I encountered.

While both the book and I survived the experience, we also left with the patina of a summer well spent in the mountains.

And just a year or so afterwards, I attended an exhibition of the original paintings Nancy Adams used in the book. It revealed, remarkably, the reproductions in the book proved as close as you could expect to find to not only the paintings, but also to the actual plants growing in the wild such as that of the humble, but very likeable, Raoulia grandiflora.

And when Mark and Adams' book was revised and republished in 1995 I was pleased to see it was as good as the large format original 1970s book, only in a more user-friendly handbook format.

Which brings me to Mark's latest book from Craig Potton Publishing. Like other recent botanical works from this publishing house, it includes some input and photos from a number of stand-out Nelsonians, including botanists Shannel Courtney and Cathy Jones, keen alpine plant photographer Rebecca Bowater, herpetologist (amphibian and reptile specialist) Tony Whitaker and, not surprisingly, photographer and publisher Craig Potton.

But, of course, the bulk of the huge amount of work is that of Sir Alan. Chatting with the Emeritus Professor some 18 months ago at a botanical type function, he mentioned the work was in progress. What he didn't say was how long he'd already been working on it or when it would be published.

That's how botanical publications go. They don't happen overnight, especially when they have as much revised work in them as this latest one has. As Sir Alan also explains in the book's preface, changing and unresolved plant classifications - such as that of hebe and related genera, now included by some botanists in its earlier Veronica genus - have meant including both accepted names as well as newly proposed synonyms. It's a big ask to get it right as constant research brings new information to light.

Which makes such work very laborious indeed. You don't do it for the money. It's a labour of love. You have to be committed and patient and love the plants. And be dedicated to the cause.

And that's always been evident in Sir Alan's work and life. To me it's what sets him apart from so many of his academic and professional colleagues in this country.

It was not just his books on alpine plants that won my admiration and respect long ago. It was because he's an academic prepared to speak out, bite the hand that feeds and put his professional expertise on the line. Rather than remain simply an armchair academic, he became an eco-warrior for conservation in the 1960s before most people here had heard the word.

Among others, it was a young Manapouri GP, an engineer (who both later moved to Nelson) and a botanist from Otago University that lead the protests against raising and ruining Lakes Manapouri and Te Anau to feed a hydro-electric power station to satisfy Government promises of the day to an aluminium smelting company called Comalco.

And in 1970, more than quarter of a million New Zealanders signed a petition to stop the flooding, which had become an election issue. Duly elected, in 1973 the Kirk-led Labour Government stopped the raising of the lake and named six guardians of Lake Manapouri and adjacent Lakes Monowai and Te Anau, among them the botanist Associate Professor Alan Mark, Dr John Moore and engineer, the late Jim McFarlane.

Looking back, the Save Manapouri Campaign is regarded by many as pivotal in our conservation movement and national consciousness about the environment. Not surprisingly, Sir Alan later went on to become president of the Royal Forest and Bird Protection Society and receive a string of accolades, including his knighthood for conservation in 2009.

If we must have knighthoods, then to me Sir Alan's is what they should be awarded for - going above and beyond the call of duty, standing out in the crowd and being prepared to make a stand, rather than being rewards given to people who are simply doing the job for which they are (often most generously) paid.

Without such a doggedly determined man as Emeritus Professor Sir Alan Mark this country and its ecology would be the poorer and Lakes Manapouri and Te Anau probably flooded beyond recognition and I am one of many who deeply appreciate his work and commitment.

His latest book is another important chapter in the journey of knowing ourselves and our country and increasing the collective awareness of the jewels in our alpine crown. And it will be a lot lighter to carry in a backpack than the 1973 version.

Bravo Sir Alan! Take a bow.