Work on evolving tome loved

Emeritus Prof Colin Townsend, of Wanaka, with the newly published fifth edition of his book...
Emeritus Prof Colin Townsend, of Wanaka, with the newly published fifth edition of his book Ecology: From Individuals to Ecosystems, which he co-wrote with Michael Begon. Prof Townsend is a former head of the zoology department at the University of Otago. PHOTO: MARJORIE COOK
Emeritus Prof Colin Townsend must have read his doorstopper on ecology more than 100 times over the past year, while checking proofs for a new edition. He talks to Marjorie Cook about his 35-year labour of love.

Prof Colin Townsend (72) retired to Wanaka several years ago to play his drums at birthday parties and make greenstone pendants for his friends.

But the former head of the University of Otago zoology department ended up rewriting the massive book, Ecology: From Individuals to Ecosystems, which he and co-authors Michael Begon and John Harper first published in 1986.

The fifth edition of the 884-page academic tome was recently released by the scientists’ UK publisher, Wiley-Blackwell.

"Building it together is an art," Prof Townsend said.

"Writing satisfies a different part of your brain, and even when you have finished there is probably a year where you have to go through the proofs ... I must have read that book a hundred times. Imagine sitting down and reading that whole book."

Fortunately, members of the local branch of the Royal Society probably can imagine that.

"Wanaka is just a big, busy branch.

"I am not sure there is any other like it in New Zealand. It is impressive to give talks to 200 people or more."

The book’s newest edition features a cover illustration of people painting over rock art, a concept developed by the publisher’s artists after Prof Townsend saw a Banksy work showing art being waterblasted off a wall.

He described his labour of love over five editions as "one of the greatest pleasures of my academic life".

"After the third edition, a reviewer said we would need a wheelbarrow to get it around."

The fifth edition actually has 32 pages fewer than the first edition, but the page size has grown somewhat, making the word count reasonably similar.

Prof Townsend said the authors, all Royal Society fellows specialising in different fields of ecology, had tried to edit it down.

"We added 1000 new references, so it never got any smaller," he said.

The British scientists had not met until they were selected by the publisher to write the critically acclaimed book.

Prof Townsend moved to New Zealand to work at the University of Otago in 1989 and worked on rewrites in 1990, 1996 and 2006.

The book has been translated into several languages and has won the British Ecological Society’s Exceptional Lifetime Achievement Award.

Dr Harper died in 2009 and Profs Townsend and Begon had not planned a fifth edition.

"But, rather to to our own surprise [we] realised in 2015 that we were ready to embark on a fifth edition," Prof Townsend said.

"It has been even more pleasure than the earlier editions for me, because having retired I didn’t have to juggle departmental and professorial duties with my writing."

The book is aimed at third-year and postgraduate students.

A simpler version, The Essentials of Ecology, has been produced (in four editions) for first- and second-year university students.

Rock art was a recurring front cover theme for all editions, "because from very early times people have had to be ecologists of a sort, to know about food and hunting ... the idea is that homosapiens have been destroying ecosystems at a very fast rate", he said.

"But there is something else hardwired into us. A lot of people enjoy going into nature ... a lot of change is happening.

"With the biodiversity crisis, a lot more effort is being put in [to stop destruction]," he said.

Prof Townsend said while the planet had big problems and it was important for scientists to communicate what they knew, "I am not a doom and gloom merchant myself".

"It is essential to contribute to [social and political] debate but I am not going to tell other people how to live ... though I agree, the polluter should pay from an economic and ecological argument."

Now the book is done, all Prof Townsend wants to do is continue greenstone carving, which he took up about five years ago, and make more music with his Doubtful Sounz bandmates Graham Walmisley, John Parr and Bob Fellows.

"I was in a rock band when I was 17 and joined this when I was 70, so there is sort of symmetry about it. I am the oldest. We have not done many gigs but we are not too bad."

- By Marjorie Cook

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