canterbury’s own lifestyle magazine / a great local read

We arrive at the Christchurch hillside home of Dr Simon Pollard to find him poring over the manuscript of his latest work for younger readers. Best known for his engaging, award-winning spider and bug books for children, this new 130 page volume is something a little different.

Te Papa Press, which commissioned this latest project, wasn’t asking for much really … just an entertaining, informative children’s book covering New Zealand’s natural history!

It is a huge topic but, as Simon explains, his tactic for getting it done over the past year has been to pose, then answer through research, a series of intriguing questions that get to the heart of New Zealand as a wild and wonderful place.

Why is that Lake Blue? – A Children’s Guide to New Zealand’s Natural World feels like just the right title for a book designed for curious 9- to 12-year-old readers. It is due to be published this November.

“A lot of the book is around the idea of New Zealand being part of this continent Zealandia, which is half the size of Australia, only 94 per cent of it is underwater,” says Simon. “We have this technology now to map it so we have a really good idea of what Zealandia looks like. And we have this reminder of the size of it when you think of our far offshore islands, largely untouched because of their isolation.”

The book starts with a bang by inviting young readers to jump in a time machine and travel back 50 million years ‘to the lush rainforests of Antarctica’.

“It was a subtropical paradise – no glaciers or icebergs – and one of the birds living there about that time was an ancestor of New Zealand’s most famous bird, the kiwi. Recently, it has been found that the closest relative of the kiwi is, in fact, the extinct elephant bird of Madagascar!”

As Simon has learned in his years of writing for children, the trick to creating successful content for a book like this lies in crafting something that’s fun to read but not silly.

“Kids love the unexpected so I’ve included pop-ups in each chapter. For example, I’ve got one on the giant native kauri snail, the biggest carnivorous snail in the world. It has thousands of tiny teeth which it uses to grate worms to pieces; it’s also a cannibal that eats other snails!”

I’m sure Simon would have relished a ghoulish detail like this in books he read growing up. He still adores horror classics like Dracula and Frankenstein and so appreciates how much kids enjoy scary-but-true elements he weaves into his own writing.

As a science advisor to Te Papa and Weta Workshop on the blockbuster Bug Lab exhibition in 2016, he played a big hand in promoting the nightmarish story of the jewel wasp, which conducts brain surgery on cockroaches that ultimately results in cockroaches being used as living larders. He also advised on the story of how Japanese honeybees defeat the giant hornet, (by covering the hornet in bees and generating enough heat to cook it).

His flair for getting to the nub of what makes life on this planet so interesting (and sometimes downright terrifying) saw him named as Science Communicator of the Year in 2007. Currently, he serves as Adjunct Professor of Science Communication at the University of Canterbury and is a regular speaker for schools, community groups and writers’ festivals.

Simon firmly believes that people should follow their passions in life. At the age of seven he knew he wanted to be a zoologist and he stayed true to that dream.

Writing about things that creep and crawl has long been a passion. Simon’s popular children’s book titles include I am a Spider (2002 LIANZA Elsie Locke Award for Non-Fiction), I am an Insect (2004 Children’s Choice Award, New Zealand Post Children’s Book Awards, non-fiction), Biggest Littlest Spiders (2006 Non-fiction Book of the Year, Mockingbird Book Awards, Texas, USA), Biggest Littlest Insects (Banks Street College, New York, Best USA Children’s Books of 2009), and The Genius of Bugs (2017 Finalist in the New Zealand Book Awards for Children and Young Adults, one of The Listener’s top 50 children’s and young readers’ books of 2016).

Dear Alison, published in 2009, was a departure from bugs that nevertheless won a fistful of accolades including the 2010 LIANZA Elsie Locke Award for Non-fiction and the Children’s Choice Award in the New Zealand Post Children’s Book Awards (non-fiction). This book was inspired by and included a 55-page diary that Simon’s great uncle Dudley wrote for his young niece while being held as a POW in the Second World War.

“It was so different from researching and writing about natural history, but I loved hearing my father’s stories about his uncle Dudley and learning about life in the camp.”

Simon firmly believes that people should follow their passions in life. At the age of seven he knew he wanted to be a zoologist and he stayed true to that dream, eventually enrolling in a science degree at the University of Canterbury in the mid-1970s.

His specific interest in spiders was sparked by an entomology course in his third year that involved collecting spiders. “That’s when the light went on in my head about wanting to study spiders.”

A year later he met spider biologist Robert Jackson, who took him under his wing. “I finished my degree and then did a masters and PhD with him and then got these postdocs overseas at the University of Virginia, the University of Alberta and at Cambridge.”

The focus of his PhD research was on how crab spiders get the insides out of their prey. “What the spider was doing was using the prey as an extension of its own digestive system…”

After his PhD, Simon spent several months alongside National Geographic photographer Mark Moffett who was working with Robert Jackson on an article about jumping spiders. Gradually, Simon began to take his own photos of the natural world and later became a frequent contributor as both an author and photographer to natural history and science magazines, including Natural History (New York), BBC Wildlife (UK), New Zealand Geographic, GEO (Australia) and Nature Australia. Not long after getting his first images published in Natural History, he was snapped up by a Manhattan photo agency.

“I was travelling a lot with my research work and then as an advisor on natural history documentaries, so I was in places where I could take pictures of bugs. I had this huge library.”

Since the mid-1990s, Simon has worked variously as an advisor, script writer and presenter on many unforgettable nature documentaries including The Hunt (BBC, 2015), Planet Earth (BBC, 2006), Life in the Undergrowth (BBC, 2004) and Spider Power (National Geographic, 2003). (And yes, he has met David Attenborough, whom he describes as “genuinely interested as well as interesting”.)

Some stories told in these documentaries could not have happened without Simon’s close observational eye. For example, the Planet Earth tale of the red crab spider that goes fishing in pitcher plants and can stay underwater for 40 minutes; Simon first started delving into the behaviour of spiders around pitcher plants in 1996 but it took him years to really piece together exactly what was going on.

In The Hunt, Portia – ‘the spider with three superpowers’ (eyesight, jumping and intelligence) – was filmed hunting web spiders and spitting spiders. Knowing that Portia can be a real prima donna, Simon recalls it was a huge relief when one of the feisty little hunters, nicknamed Norman Bates, killed prey on cue so the cameraman got all the sequences. An edited version of the clip had 10 million hits on Facebook before the
series was shown in the UK.

It was a proud moment for Simon to have a native species of jumping spider – Trite pollardi – named after him in 2017.

There is simply not enough space here to share the ins and outs of how Simon used to collect spider vomit for a biotechnology company; or how he scored a spread of spider photos in a Spiderman comic after a chance meeting with the vice president of marketing for Marvel Comics; or how he once tucked live tarantulas into his carry-on for a flight to New Zealand in the days before people really thought to check these things, (though he did have all the required permits!).

He’s travelled so far, to so many remote places. I close our interview by asking Simon to pick his favourite jungle.

“Bako National Park in Borneo: It’s half an hour by road from Kuching and half an hour by boat on the South China Sea. It’s home to pitcher plants, red crab spiders and the biggest monkey in the world.”

Sounds like the closest thing to heaven for this dedicated natural historian!

[ WORDS Kim Newth, IMAGES Lucy Hunter-Weston ]