Nga Manu Dactylanthus

Te Māra a Tāne: Radical Connections to the Larger Ecosystem with Gini Letham, Judge

For Lead Ranger Gini Letham, creative non-fiction and her science communications work at Zealandia Te Māra a Tāne are both about connection. This is particularly fitting given Gini is one of the judges for the Zealandia Te Māra a Tāne Essay Prize, which invites submissions on the theme of Radical Connections.


What’s cool about writing creative non-fiction, Gini reckons, is having an opportunity to engage readers and get them to learn something new: “You don’t need to be an expert or have an academic background; creative non-fiction engages you, gets you to care about the topic and draws you in”. Science writing, she admits, can be “more dry and factual” but the ways in which creative non-fiction engages readers and gets them to think about the ‘why’ makes it easier to “open people’s eyes to the world around them”. This is a goal not dissimilar from Zealandia’s own desire for the public to enjoy nature inside the predator-proofed sanctuary, but also to take that experience home and consider the larger ecosystem of which they’re a part.


Gini is absolutely not prescriptive about what type of entries for the Essay Prize she thinks she’ll enjoy the most, however. “Surprise me!” she says, because it’s the unexpected that she enjoys about others’ writing: “At my monthly writers’ club meeting, we sometimes get given the same prompt and then come back together to share what we’ve written. It’s always interesting to see what different things we come up with, how people’s minds work so differently”.


One of the parts of her work at Zealandia that Gini’s most enjoyed to date is itself a radical connection and the type of bigger picture view that could inspire writers considering submitting an entry for Te Māra a Tāne Essay Prize: the translocation of pua o te Rēinga or Dactylanthus taylorii, New Zealand’s only fully parasitic plant, from Pureora Forest Park to the sanctuary. “It was the first time all six iwi in the Wellington region collaborated on a translocation and I was fortunate to be part of the team who went to Pureora Forest Park to collect the seeds. It was such a rich experience to see nature outside the typical Pākehā lens, with iwi representatives sharing their knowledge and stories of pua o te Rēinga and what it meant to them during the translocation”.


Gini admits it can be a challenge to find time to do a lot of reading during the year, which makes her family camping trips over summer even more appealing since there’s no internet to supply distractions. Some of her favourite nonfiction books to date don’t shy away from challenging subjects that, she notes, can be “hard to get your head around” - from Ed Yong’s engaging account of microbes and our interaction with them in I Contain Multitudes to Mary Roach’s study of death and cadavers in Stiff. Similarly, Robin Wall Kimmerer’s Braiding Sweetgrass is already in her list of favourites even though she’s only part way through: “I love how Robin shares her world views and how both western science and her indigenous culture tie together with her relationship with plants and both are given equal importance”.   


If you’re interested in submitting your work for the Zealandia Te Māra a Tāne Essay Prize, submissions are invited from 1 August - 12 September 2021. Gini will be joined by Thom Conroy and Pete Monk on the judging panel with winners to be announced in October 2021. The prize is offered as a joint project by Headland, Zealandia Te Māra a Tāne, and Massey University.


Header photo: New Zealand short-tailed bat with dactylanthus; credit Nga Manu.

Stef Head

Stef Head is a former Headland editorial team member and current sometimes helper-outerer. She completed her Ph.D. in English Literature in 2011 while on a Fulbright scholarship to the U.S.

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