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Nicola Toki (Image: Archi Banal)
Nicola Toki (Image: Archi Banal)

BooksSeptember 13, 2023

Nicola Toki’s wild and busy life in books

Nicola Toki (Image: Archi Banal)
Nicola Toki (Image: Archi Banal)

Welcome to The Spinoff Books Confessional, in which we get to know the reading habits and quirks of New Zealanders at large. This week: Forest & Bird CEO, and author of Critters of Aotearoa, Nicola Toki.

The book I wish I’d written

I wish I’d written Walden by Henry David Thoreau, because it is a glorious and relatively early look at the hunger we all have to simplify our lives, to turn away from the noise of “civilisation”, towards the natural world and to live a more honest reflection of our values. I think that Walden is also a refreshing and true account of Thoreau’s time there, where he didn’t wish to be isolated entirely from society, and enjoyed a stream of visitors and social occasions, and spent much of his time reading and writing (and presumably not having to “Bear Grylls” it entirely). We can yearn for a more simple life, without having to eschew all of the aspects of the society we wish to step back from.

Everyone should read

Anyone interested in conservation in New Zealand needs to read Richard Henry of Resolution Island by Susanne and John Hill, because it is the only real account of the first ever “ranger” here. Richard Henry was famous for rowing 500 kākāpō and kiwi between 1896 and 1900 to relative “safety” on Resolution Island, which he thought was free of introduced predators such as stoats.

Sadly, in 1900 he spotted a stoat on the island and realised all of his hard work had been in vain. This book proves that his hard mahi wasn’t for nothing, since his techniques and his understanding of the impact of introduced mustelids have formed the cornerstone of the modern conservation approach in Aotearoa and were a crucial glimpse as to why a Predator Free New Zealand would become so important a century later. 

In the late 1800s Henry was one of the first to notice the impact of introduced mustelids on the mainland and recorded the loss of species in areas only a handful of years after the introduction of predatory mammals such as stoats and ferrets. It took a very long time for the government to crack on with getting a ranger instilled, despite the lobbying and entreaties from the likes of the universities and zoological societies at the time. Henry’s work and his understanding of the crucial risk of introduced predators, pioneered the idea of offshore island conservation, as well as the use of dogs to detect species such as kiwi in order to protect them. 

Richard Henry was a complicated man – at one stage, suffering serious depression, he shot himself in the head and the bullet lodged in his skull. He pulled the trigger again and it misfired, which he took as a sign not to proceed further. Luckily, he didn’t attempt a third time, as only days after this suicide attempt, he received the confirmation he’d been waiting for – his appointment as “curator” for Resolution Island. When he eventually died, only the postmaster attended his funeral, which, given the contribution he made to understanding and protecting our most precious species, is an enormous shame.   

John and his late wife Susanne have done an incredible job of researching his story and recounting this crucial moment of our conservation history. As an aside, in 2013 when I was seven months pregnant, I was asked to join a conservation trip to do some trapping on Resolution Island. On my flight to Queenstown, I ended up seated between a couple who turned out to be John and Susanne Hill, and who could not believe I had a copy of their book in the luggage compartment above our heads!    

From left to right: the book Nicola Toki wishes she’d written; the one she wants to be buried with; and the one she thinks we should all read.

The book I want to be buried with

The Dolphin: Story of a dreamer by Sergio Bambaren. I read this in my late teens/early twenties and was taken by the message of listening to yourself, facing up to your fears and chasing your dreams. I was also, and remain, obsessed with dolphins. I reckon the best job I never got paid to do was as a research assistant for a guy doing his PhD on the resident pod of bottlenose dolphins in Doubtful Sound. We spent all day every day out in a little open stabicraft boat, not much longer than the dolphins themselves, idling along behind the pod and recording all of their activities and interactions. After that, and just before I graduated from university, I spent a summer working as a dolphin swimming guide in for an ecotourism business in Akaroa which I loved.  

Since then I have had many wonderful encounters with dolphins, including recently at Kaikōura along with my husband and son, where we ended up leaping overboard on a friend’s boat in our wetsuits and life jackets, and both our families spending an hour in fairly freezing cold water, with hundreds of dusky dolphins all around us, playing and swimming and interacting with us, until eventually, just like in The Dolphin, they chose to go their own way.

The book that haunts me

Into Thin Air by Jon Krakauer. Not only because of the compelling and shocking story of a mass tragedy on Mount Everest, and the personal account of Krakauer on that expedition, but as a child of a ski-plane pilot living at Aoraki Mount Cook, and later in Twizel, I remember both Rob Hall and Gary Ball. My parents remember Andy Harris, who along with Rob was killed on Everest in 1996, as a young climber and guide at Mount Cook. I remember going to a slide show Gary and Rob put on for the locals about Antarctica in around 1989. I became fascinated with Antarctica not long after that – perhaps that event sparked my interest.  The recounting of Rob Hall calling his pregnant wife from high up on Everest and telling her he wasn’t going to make it back down, still makes me cry.  

The book that made me cry

Apart from the above, the book that I loved as a kid and still makes me cry is Bristle Face by Zachary Ball, a beautiful story of a 14-year-old boy who has run away from home, and a scruffy looking dog who instead of hunting foxes, prefers to hunt box turtles. I loved the idea of two misfits looking out for each other and bringing each other love and solace.

The book that made me laugh

Anything by Marian Keyes. I love her writing and I’m not afraid to admit it! Her descriptions of interactions with others, such as “feathery strokers” (we’ve all met a feathery stroker man, I’m sure), and her reflections of the chaos of family relationships are colourful, warm, sometimes appallingly isolating, and always zingingly accurate.

The book I never admit I’ve read

All of the Outlander books! I have adored those books since I read Cross Stitch many years ago, and I still return to them regularly. I loved James Fraser long before Sam Heughan played him in the tele series. I also admire Claire, especially her smarts and her unwillingness to be bowed by patriarchal bollocks, and yet (like many of us), she’s a flawed, feisty and sometimes quite unlikeable character. Despite and indeed because of this, Jamie adores her, calls her out, and they’re the ultimate team (it probably reminds me of my marriage somewhat).

Sam Heughan and Caitriona Balfe who play Jamie and Claire in Outlander, the TV adaptation of Diana Gabaldon’s books.

If I could only read three books for the rest of my life, they would be

Over my dead body by June Opie, a New Zealander who contracted polio while traveling to London in 1947, and within days of arriving there is put in an iron lung, able only to move one eyelid. Her story of recovery, where she would walk out of hospital two years later on crutches, is inspirational. Best of all, are her witty accounts and anecdotes about the nurses, doctors and other patients that make me return to read this incredible story over and over again. 

Born Free by Joy Adamson is one of my favourite books and as a kid, I couldn’t get over the story of a woman who hand-raised a lion cub to become a fully grown lioness who would go camping with her and her husband and become an integral part of their lives. I was also moved by their goal of returning her to the wild. The idea that despite how much they knew they would miss having her in their lives, the right thing to do was to let her go, really moved me. 

Jitterbug Perfume by Tom Robbins. It’s a rollicking and chaotic yarn, and sometimes the lewdness of the characters is too much, but I do enjoy the lightness and madness of it all. It’s a constant and important reminder for me to follow the principle of “Erleichda” (meaning to “lighten up” – according to Robbins’ made-up language).  

The book character I relate to the most

A book that I absolutely love is Fringe of Reeds by Rosamund Rowe. It’s an account of her buying a small cottage, bordering a wet paddock, which she eventually restores to a wetland, and all of the creatures and characters (including her teenage daughter’s boyfriend, and other neighbours and friends), who return to this place of quiet and wildness. I love the sense of calm, and the grounding influence of a place to call home, surrounded by nature and wild creatures, who become a part of her life. It’s non-fiction, so the ‘character’ is the author, but I can relate.

The most overrated book

The Snow Leopard by Peter Matthiessen. I have tried a couple of times to read it, and I can’t get past the first few chapters. People rave about it – and I appreciate a book that delves into a spiritual awakening, but I found it pretty uninspiring.

Favourite encounter with an author

When I was about seven years old, Margaret Mahy came to my school in Mount Cook Village in Aoraki Mount Cook National Park. She had a rainbow wig, and she read us The Lion in the Meadow and she taught us all how to draw a lion the way she could, and I thought she was just amazing. She wrote me a note and drew a lion on it and I had it for years and years.  

When I was younger, I was obsessed with Footrot Flats and I loved to draw The Dog in particularFor a school project in Form 2, I wrote to Murray Ball, and much to my surprise and delight, he sent back a card with The Dog on it, and his message typewritten inside, including a couple of mistakes he’d had to type over. I wish I could find that card! 

I also met Adrian Edmondson when he was on a book tour for The Gobbler when I was a student at Otago University in 1997, and we were all obsessed with The Young Ones at the time, having just gone flatting (I had at least two VHS tapes of all of the episodes stolen from my flat!). I got a signed copy of his book, but I was most excited that I was meeting Vyvyan! 

More recently, in 2016, I wrote to Sir David Attenborough, when I learned that he was coming to New Zealand for a speaking tour. I told him how much he had inspired me and my career, and I basically begged to meet him. He wrote back to me and apologised that he was unable to fit in such a meeting to his “absurdly rushed” schedule but that he was “delighted to know that my programmes have been, in part, the inspiration that has led you to do your current work helping NZ’s native wildlife”. I keep that letter in my copy of Life on Earth.

Greatest New Zealand Book

The History of New Zealand by Michael King. I think it should be compulsory reading for any Kiwi. Michael King had a beautiful and easily comprehensible way of describing the formative events of our country. Being able to understand how first Polynesian explorers, and then European settlers found their way to this country, and the events that led to the Treaty of Waitangi/Te Tiriti o Waitangi, and what followed, is fundamental to understanding who we are as a nation today. 

I genuinely believe that if everyone read this book, there would be a much greater understanding of current societal issues, especially the rippling effects of colonisation, and therefore less conflict and tension around our relationship as Pākeha and Māori in Aotearoa New Zealand today.

From left to right: the greatest Aotearoa book; and the two books that Toki read most recently.

Best thing about reading

I have loved and been grateful for reading since I was a very small girl. For someone like me, who lives a noisy and busy life, the pleasure and sanctuary of being able to tuck up somewhere comfortable and warm and lose myself in the pages of a book, is a necessity and a privilege indeed.

What are you reading right now

I have just finished Identity Crisis by Ben Elton, and I found it funny and terrifying. The most terrifying thing about this book, which is largely focused on how social media and changing societal values can be manipulated to drive division in communities to suit others’ purposes, is that the satire is so close to the bone it’s almost documentary.

Currently I’m reading Deer Man by Geoffroy Delorme. It’s about a man who chooses to leave society and lives in the forest alongside a herd of deer, for seven years. It’s an incredible story and another example of how people turn to nature when they feel lost. 

The Critters of Aotearoa: 50 Bizarre But Lovable Members of Our Wildlife Community by Nicola Toki and Lily Duval can be purchased at Unity Books Wellington and Auckland.

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