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January 2021 Issue
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A lifetime of discovery

Entomologist Dr George Gibbs has explored the life and work of his grandfather, George Hudson, the pioneering naturalist who amassed perhaps the largest private collection of New Zealand insects, and published seven books with more than 3100 illustrations.

What do you remember of your grandfather?
My memory is of snippets as picked up by a 5-8 year-old who had the opportunity to meet up at his house when my mum, his daughter, was paying a visit for a meal or perhaps my father was mending a broken observatory roof in the weekend. Otherwise, the meetings were at Butterfly Creek or at Paekakariki where he would be fossicking for coastal beetles. In the house he showed me drawers of his favourite insects. The event that really stuck in my memory was the day at Butterfly Creek when he toppled into a pool and spent the day with his three-piece suit drying in the sun. He was left in long pink woollen underwear, something I have never seen before or since.

Did he influence your direction in life?
It is pretty clear that he did but it took my research into his life to reveal the full extent of that to me. I became an entomologist – it was inevitable. He had fostered that interest every time I saw him. He left me with boxes of insect specimens and all the paraphernalia of the passion. I ignored the hints when at school, but when it came to a Masters project – there it was, the obvious field of research; fossicking in the South Island mountains for the life story of a tiger moth. As a professional academic, I admit that my topic of choice inevitably turned out to be an insect.

He must have lived through an exciting time for entomology in New Zealand?
New Zealand was newly ‘discovered’ by scientists. The first thing they wanted to know was what lived there, on these islands remote in the Southern Ocean. The birdlife, plants, and animals were all new to them. They needed classifying and to be given names. That was his role and he never deviated. The trouble with insects is their diversity – for each bird species in New Zealand, there are well over 100 insect species.

His field trips in NZ must have been quite the adventure?
The term ‘wilderness’ applied quite literally in his time. He had a special passion for the mountains, and when in his prime, would mount an expedition to a high country location. His collecting gear was bulky and heavy because the specimens had to be prepared while fresh. He tried to visit mountain huts but tents were necessary for some places, food packed, and maybe horses organised to load them in. On one occasion he was rained out from the Wakatipu mountains and the lake rose to fill the streets of Queenstown. On another, a mouse got into his drying racks and munched the bodies of the larger insects.

How important was his work to science in New Zealand?
He was a pioneer. The lasting value of this sort of contribution is in the data that is obtained about the state of New Zealand’s fauna at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries. Some species were already declining, others arriving from overseas. He was very aware of changes induced by forest clearance for agriculture and suggested that other entomologists should concentrate on the lowland forest habitat because it would soon be largely destroyed. In his view, the mountains would keep for future collectors.

Why is this the first time people may be seeing his illustrations?
His seven books are rare collectors’ items today and because the printing presses of Victorian London were not capable of reproducing the true quality of his art-work. They may have been state-of-the-art then but with modern digital methods we can now achieve perfection. So in this new book you are seeing them exactly as they were painted over 100 years ago.

Is it true your grandfather proposed the introduction of daylight saving time?
This is very simply an acceptance of the role of clocks in our perception of time. As we know from international travel, changing clock time to suit our convenience is just what we do. But when he suggested it to reduce the consumption of electricity (a new phenomenon) in summer in 1895, it was ridiculed. The suggestion arose from his shift work experience with the Post Office which had him trudging up and down Karori at all hours. He soon realised that a lot of daylight hours were wasted as the population lay in bed on summer mornings. They could use the extra daylight for leisure activities and save electricity if they changed the clock for summer time.

– Buy An Exquisite Legacy from the Wilderness book store. Subscribers get a 10% discount.