Naturalist blessed with an inquiring mind

Sheila Natusch out for a paddle in her wee inflatable dingy in Owhiro Bay, Wellington.
CRAIG SIMCOX/STUFF

Sheila Natusch out for a paddle in her wee inflatable dingy in Owhiro Bay, Wellington.

Sheila Ellen Natusch (nee Traill) - naturalist, writer, illustrator: b Invercargill, February 14, 1926; m Gilbert Natusch; d Wellington, August 10, 2017, aged 91.

A childhood spent in the wilds of Stewart Island shaped Sheila Natusch into one of the country's most respected naturalists.

Over her long and adventurous life she became one of the country's foremost illustrators and documenters of New Zealand wildlife.

Natusch, pictured with a painting by her grandmother, was an accomplished artist herself illustrating her own books with ...
JILL MCKEE

Natusch, pictured with a painting by her grandmother, was an accomplished artist herself illustrating her own books with pencil and watercolour sketches.

A prolific writer on natural history, she published more than 30 titles in this genre. 

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Her magnum opus, Animals of New Zealand, was first published in 1967 and took years of research, including finding good specimens of hundreds of the smaller creatures to draw from life.

Natusch was a familiar sight paddling out on the South Coast in her inflatable dinghy.
CRAIG SIMCOX/STUFF

Natusch was a familiar sight paddling out on the South Coast in her inflatable dinghy.

Natusch, who described the book as a "layperson's guide', said at the time her language reflected the way she spoke.

"I have been chided for not using scientific and formal, stately language. It's just not in me. I can't be formal."

She branched into biography with Brother Wohlers, which covers the life and times of her ancestor Johann Wohlers, a German missionary who spent most of his life with the Maori community on Ruapuke Island. Her deep research included mastering the German language.

Natusch's life was documented in No Ordinary Sheila screening at the 2017 New Zealand International Film Festival
NEW ZEALAND INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL

Natusch's life was documented in No Ordinary Sheila screening at the 2017 New Zealand International Film Festival

Her major historical work, The Cruise of the Acheron, is the first published account of the voyage and work of the survey ship which surveyed the coastline of New Zealand from 1848–1852.

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As an accomplished artist, Natusch illustrated her books with pencil and watercolour sketches. In 2007 she was awarded the New Zealand Order of Merit for her services to writing and illustration.

Her life was recently documented in the feature film No Ordinary Sheila showing at this year's New Zealand International Film Festival.

She had been unwell at the time of the premiere of the film, directed by her cousin Hugh Macdonald, but managed to see it with a packed auditorium in the 100-year-old Paramount cinema in Wellington just two days before her death.

Natusch's long life had been one of inquiry and adventure.

She cycled more than 1200 kilometres from Picton to Bluff in 1958. She spent her honeymoon at Aoraki's Haast Hut during a snowstorm.

To the horror of her father, she swam with the seals at Wellington's Red Rocks in the waters of Cook Strait.

"I just wanted to sort of say 'gidday' to a seal, but it wasn't interested in conversing with me, "she recalled in Macdonald's documentary.

Born and raised on Stewart Island, Natusch followed in the footsteps of both her father, a fisherman and wildlife ranger, and her artist mother.

Blessed with an inquiring mind, she enjoyed an early education in nature. From age eight, she and her brother would carry packs and accompany her father on week-long deer-culling expeditions, to allow the yellow-eyed penguins to nest in peace.

"That was very exciting. I'd be on the lookout for small plants and being fairly low to the ground I could see all those things," she said in an interview with The Dominion Post in 2007.

She kept a property in Stewart Island where she visited well into her 80s, though much changed over the years. The moss tracks she used to walk along barefoot as a child became boardwalked, the population swelled and tourists discovered its charms. But this was a price one paid for making the island free of deer and rats.

She was bullied at primary school - "Being a bush child among other bush children was hard sometimes," she recalled in an interview - and at the age of 11, she was shipped off to Invercargill to attend Southland Girls' High School.

She went on to Teachers' Training College and Otago University in Dunedin where she studied natural sciences, languages and literature, graduating with an MA Honours in English.

It was at the Training College that Natusch met and befriended a young Janet Frame.

Their lives ran in a curious parallel, both quiet girls, one from Stewart Island, the other from Oamaru. They shared a love of learning and literature, of poetry, music and art and although neither went on to develop a teaching career - controlling the children was not Natusch's strong point as it turned out. "They walked all over me," she once said.

Their friendship was captured in a series of letters Natusch went on to publish spanning a period of more than 50 years in Letters From Jean  (the name Frame often used) following the writer's death in 2004.

After graduating in 1948, Natusch married hydro engineer Gilbert Natusch. She would spend the next six decades in a hillside cottage in Owhiro Bay on Wellington's South Coast.

It was an austere life, without a car, television, alcohol or cigarettes.

Having grown up in a sparsely populated Stewart Island, Natusch was most at home surrounded by nature. She swam daily in the sea even in Wellington's most brutal winter weather.

"I don't like busy thoroughfares and great crowds and noise. Having lived on the edge of the bush and on the edge of the sea, that's where I want to be."

Indeed, she was a familiar sight rowing a toy inflatable dinghy - chosen because she could carry it by herself - out toward Cook Strait.

"It's just to get out there and enjoy it," she told one interviewer. "I have always all my life had boats. I feel pretty seaworthy."

Sources: The Dominion Post (Nikki Macdonald, Dani McDonald), Christine Dann, Hugh Macdonald, The Southland Times (Pat Veltkamp-Smith), Radio New Zealand, National (Kim Hill).

 - Stuff

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