Life in the Shallows: Wetlands and their stories

Options abound for exploring wetlands in Aotearoa – how about by bike? Cruise along with Hauraki Rail Trail to check out the internationally significant Pukorokoro Miranda shorelines on the Firth of Thames.

When Karen Denyer, Executive Officer of the National Wetland Trust was contacted by Massey University Press to write a book on wetlands in Aotearoa, there was an immediate dilemma – a sumptuously illustrated, and information-rich book had already been published in recent years by valued colleague, Janet Hunt. How could a book like that be bettered? The simple answer? It couldn’t.

So, what if a book was created that looked at wetlands through the lens of those who spend their time studying the plants, creatures and special features that make up wetlands? This was Karen’s brainwave. Having collaborated on other projects with Karen, I couldn’t turn down her offer to join forces on this one. But which scientists to profile? How many? We wanted a cross-section of scientists (as well as the crème de la crème!) to achieve an intriguing experiential, gender and cultural mix of people, and their areas of research expertise. Shoulder-tapping (and some gentle cajoling) was integral to the process – the science community is quite tight knit, and those that focus their research on wetlands quite small. Conveniently, most of the 17 scientists profiled in the book are already friends, colleagues and co-workers.

Engaging with scientists… to make science engaging

The exciting arrival on my doorstep: an advance copy of Life in the Shallows!

To kick start content for the book, the scientists provided us with an insight into their research and experiences based on individualised questionnaires developed by Karen. I took care of the post-questionnaire interviewing to expand on points, harness quotes and clarify any queries we had. We then divvied up the chapters to write between us, with Karen penning most, and with a handful of overarching chapters contributed by others. Right from get-go, the book was never going to be a series of dry biographies. No way. There were several musts: break down stereotypes of scientists (i.e., heavily bespectacled poor communicators clad in lab coats), of science (i.e., dull, repetitive work with little relevance to the real world), and of wetlands.

Changing perceptions

For some of the public, wetlands = wastelands: inaccessible, oozing with stinking mud, rife with weeds and littered with abandoned shopping trolleys, used tyres, bottles and plastic junk. We wanted that to change – so does the National Wetlands Trust. Although “typical” wetlands such as swamps and estuaries are included, so are other wetland systems most folk wouldn’t readily identify as such. We’ve included scientists whose research covers braided river systems, small pools in Antarctica along with bogs you can wander through wearing jandals instead of waders. Each chapter also has a wetland to visit – either where the featured scientist has carried out their field work, or a similar place (given places like Antarctica are a little hard to get to!). 

The National Wetlands Trust’s activity trail at the jewel in the crown of the Waikato peat lakes – Rotopiko, 20 mins south of Hamilton

Digging a little deeper

Sitting down for an in-depth interview with someone opens up whole new territories that otherwise wouldn’t crop up e.g., in a morning tea break chat. It’s only then you really gain insight into the what, the why and the where of their work and life. I remain in awe of those whose science-learning began in childhood – the passion was there from the get-go, and they’ve morphed that into a career. The scientists featured in the book cover so many facets of wetlands from microscopic biota right through to the processes that occur at landscape-scales and over millennia. They’ve helped grow a huge amount of new knowledge about these complex systems and how best to manage them, but they’re quick to point out how much we still don’t know.

Cyanobacteria – the building blocks of life on earth are found in Antarctica, as well as in the geothermal wonderland of Rotorua!

Order a copy (or two!) of Life in the Shallows

We hope readers will find the 300-page “Life in the Shallows” with its richly illustrated stories and as fascinating as we do. We also hope readers will take the time to explore the diverse wetlands highlighted at the end of each chapter. The book is published by Massey University Press and will be released mid-2022. For further information and to order a copy get in touch with the National Wetland Trust.

We would like to extend our thanks to the tireless Tracey Borgfeld at Massey University Press who reached out to Karen and the National Wetlands Trust for this project. Tracey and her tireless team of editors, designers, proofreaders and index writers worked hard to guide and support us through the numerous stages of bringing the book to fruition!

Negativity around wetlands still abounds and it’s embedded in everyday language – swamped, bogged and mired all depict them as places you’re likely to get stuck in …and possibly sucked under!

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