Friday, April 16, 2010


This morning I spent two exotic hours in my garden. The word ‘exotic’ to me means rare, unusual, and brings with it all the hot spicy atmosphere of the Orient. I come from the bottom of the southern hemisphere; maybe New Zealand appears exotic for people in the Middle East.

I have always had trouble with ‘exotic’ when it means ‘coming from another country’ but when I looked it up in the Oxford Dictionary, the first meaning offered was ‘introduced’ and the second was ‘rare and unusual’. So what I had thought was a colonial obeisance to political correctness turns out to be good English usage.

Therefore, the familiar birds of my childhood – blackbird, starling, thrush, sparrow – are all exotic. Geraniums red, delphiniums blue, chrysanthemums yellow and white, and ‘a rose by any other name’ are all exotic. Fruit trees, oak “planted in defiance/of evergreen bush and a bell bird’s song” silver birch, poplar, elm, plane, willow and the nearly 60 year old walnut tree in my garden are all exotic.

Apparently, exotic means introduced by human agency, as the welcome sparrow, which has flown quite easily across the Tasman, is regarded as a native, as is the wax eye which appeared in the 1850’s and is called ‘stranger’ by the Maori. But the wax eye is a very small bird with a swooping tree to tree flight and it is difficult to imagine it could have flown such a distance. If it had hitch-hiked on a sailing ship for a journey of several weeks it still would have required apple, sweetened bread, dripping, alias lard or suet, or aphids. There would have needed to be enough birds to create a viable colony, so I have always suspected some anonymous human to have bought the wax eye across the Tasman.

The word 'exotic' when applied to these introduced brids and trees always sounds pejorative, but how long do you have to live in a country before you belong?

Now before I tell you about my exotic hours in the garden, I need to fill you in about Christchurch weather. Christchurch is built on a swamp which means that I am probably a cathedral depth below sea level, as sea level is the top of the Anglican cathedral spire: It is bordered by the Pacific Ocean, nestles against a great volcanic bump called Banks Peninsula (named after the naturalist on Captain Cook’s ship) and some 50 miles away from the foothills of the Southern Alps of which the highest mountain, Mt. Cook, is a little higher than two fifths of Mt. Everest. The Alps may be much lower, but they are still rugged and avalanche prone. All these conditions make Christchurch weather inconstant and changeable.

On the day in question we had just recovered from a week when the temperature had plummeted from 26° to 16° to 14° to 12° and when it was at the lower temperatures it was grey and blusterous. On the exotic morning it was mostly clear with scudding clouds; I found it a great relief to be outside and to listen to the ground swell of ‘exotic’ birds – sparrow, hedge sparrow, finch, blackbird – all the birds, also, were glad at the relief from cabin fever.

Then I had the first of my three ‘exotic’ visitors; they are native to New Zealand, occasional visitors in the autumn and always a delight.

First it was a bellbird right in my garden; it did not just give one or two peals but a complete chime of bells, a sequence of five ringing notes. The bellbird rang on and off for about ten minutes and was followed by a fantail, the most regular autumn visitor, almost regular enough not to be exotic. Fantails are insect eaters and immensely coquettish. They seem both fearless and friendly but actually I constitute an insect magnet having either disturbed or attracted the insect around me. They chatter excitedly between each mouthful. So even if I can not see them pirouette, I know a fantail is there.

The last of my exotic visitors was a grey warbler, a little grey bird, sparrow shaped but much smaller, with a trill of piercing sweetness. The volcanic bump, Banks Peninsula, must have originally been an island because it has different flora and fauna. I am most familiar with the Banks Peninsula grey warbler with its three descending semi tone trills. But the one on my special morning was either a visitor from some where else in New Zealand, a mutant or a young one rehearsing its song. It sang and sang.

Once I was fortunate enough to watch a grey warbler sing. It's whole body vibrated with the intensity of the song and I knew without a shadow of doubt that the whole world, at that moment, depended for it's existence of that song, you, me, and the rest of the teeming billions. From then on I can never hear a grey warbler without grateful acknowledgement the world is underpinned by some such moments, a bird's song, spider web, or act of generousity.

So who's going to tell me that I did not have exotic visitors on that bright clear morning.


  1. What a lovely morsel you have written Diana. I did enjoy it, and wish to respond about the wax eye. From as long as I have known you I have been intrigued by your 'wax eye'. I've come to the conclusion that it is the NZ equivalent of the NSW silver eye, found widely across Australia except in the northwest and centre where it is doubtless too hot and dry. In Sydney, a silver eye race migrates from Tasmania to breed here so it seems to me they might be capable of a flight across the Tasman to NZ. On the other hand, in the 1840s a forebear of mine was travelling to NZ from Australia to take up land, which was cheaper in NZ. This was common at the time, although my forebear ended up staying in Australia. It occurs to me that silver eyes may have been introduced into NZ from Australia by being transported in ships as cage birds in the early days.
    The Banks Peninsula sounds most interesting too.
    I'm glad you had such a wondrous two hours with your exotics.
    Love Jacquie

  2. Diana,
    Imagine, a bell bird in your garden! -and the same day a grey warbler! I think I have mentioned to you years ago that the grey warbler's song is my very favorite. I think it easily the loveliest of all the bird songs here in the US or in NZ.
    Our Spring weather here the past few weeks has reminded me often of ChCh weather; changeable from one minute to the next, bright blinding sunshine, then dark ominous clouds, windy and cold, and then back again. It has finally mellowed the last few days though and the birds are thrilled and zipping everywhere in their enthusiasm to get busy nesting and mating. Thank you for reminding me of many happy hours spent in my ChCh garden with those precious fan tails and warblers. I was never favored there with a bell bird though!
    love, diane