Like many New Zealanders, I have a love / loathe relationship with weta. They are fascinating, but I am always startled and a little frightened by them, and I think they are wretchedly greebly. I get that slightly sick feeling in my stomach when I see them. They are often described as “brown grasshoppers” but that does not really capture their appearance, at all. I suggest that if you think I am being over squeamish, you check out some pictures of weta.
The most memorable encounter I have had with a weta was the day we got married. I woke early that morning, despite the family gathering the night before, feeling a bit anxious, and slightly melancholy. I crept downstairs, made myself a cup of coffee, and found some magazines to read. I was wearing a white cotton nightdress – high buttoned to my neck, long sleeves with elastic at the wrists, long enough to touch the floor, lacy frills. My mother gave it to me a few months after my future husband and I became a couple, and I’ve often wondered what she meant by it. One cup of coffee and two magazines later, I wandered back through to the lounge, but as I walked along, I felt a scratching by my feet. There was a gawdalmightyfeckenhuge weta clinging to the edge of my nightgown, and trying to climb up. I opened my mouth to scream, but just in time remembered that everyone else (my parents, my brothers, my elder brother’s wife, my two friends who were to be my attendants) was still asleep upstairs. So the scream came out as a panicked gasp. I leapt up and down, trying to flick it off, and just in time, remembered that I had magazines in my hand, so I used those to pry it loose, and then grabbed a brush and shovel to get it outside and into the garden.
The adrenaline rush was incredible. It put paid to feeling melancholy, and the rest of the day was very happy indeed.
I’ve always tried to be sensible about weta – they are after all much smaller than me. The common tree weta can give you a nasty scratch with their back legs, but other than that, they are completely harmless. But still greebly. I’ve become even more sensible since I had children – there’s no need to pass on my fears to them. However, I still think that one of the braver things I have done was taking all three girls into a disused mine shaft in the Karori Wildlife Sanctuary so that we could shine lights on the creeping crawling mass of long spindly cave weta on the roof. I like neither caves nor weta, but the children had no such inhibitions, and they simply exclaimed in delight at the fascinating insects.
So you could say that I was not predisposed to like Tane’s Weta. But I do like it. It’s a simple creation story. Tane (“Tah-neh”), god of the forest, accidentally stands on five soft-skinned weta. Grieving, he decides to change the weta, to protect them. He creates giant weta, tree weta, ground weta, tusked weta, and cave weta, all with hard skins and long legs, some with spiny back legs, others with tusks and strong jaws. And they each find their own place to live, in safety.
The pictures are accurate, and the various weta are shown in natural settings. The book ends with some facts about weta, enough for a classroom lesson based on the book. It’s no surprise to find, on the back cover, that Jenny McIvor was a primary school teacher who developed the material in the book as part of her teaching materials.
I still don’t care to meet weta unprepared. But at least I know a little more about them now, and I do have some liking for them. In the abstract, that is.