While in Hungary I researched wolves for an essay. Here are the notes from the interview I did with Dávid Sütő from WWF Hungary.
I’m the Programme Leader of the Large Carnivore Programme at WWF Hungary, mainly dealing with human-wildlife conflicts. I got into this work because of the ecosystem aspect, and because working with charismatic species like large carnivores is really interesting. It’s also really interesting that we’re working on the human-wildlife conflict – it’s psychology, social norms and nature resources.
Surrounding large carnivores there can be challenges, because they were missing from almost the whole continent for at least 50 years. There are four large carnivore species in Europe – the wolverine (which is not occurring in Hungary), the grey wolf, the brown bear and the lynx. We didn’t really have wolves since the 1950s until the early 2000s, so we have to relearn how to live with them.
We consider wolves and bears as generalist species, meaning they are really flexible about their habitat and prey. We also consider them as opportunistic species, meaning they usually choose the most easily available food and other resources. That’s why we have problem bears sometimes in some areas, especially in Romania, because they are easily habituated to badly managed human food waste. They can cause a lot of problems because we’ve forgotten how to live with them.
People moved into towns, livestock keepers turned to a more intensive way of keeping livestock, the forest cover increased, large carnivores have become legally protected, and we stopped persecuting them – so the large carnivores started to come back. It’s a common myth that these are alien species or that they are reintroduced, but it’s actually happening naturally. In Hungary we now have 40-70 wolves.
It’s a bit artificial to consider a country a habitat because wolves do not really care about borders. In Hungary large carnivores mainly occur in the Northern Hungarian mountains in three national parks – Duna-Ipoly National Park, Bükk National Park, and Aggtelek National Park.
In Europe there are 19K wolves at the moment. Wolves are important because they help balance the ecosystem. We call them the guards of the forest. They are helping the trees regenerate and can help to keep invasive species like racoons at bay, leading to a healthier ecosystem. For a fully functioning ecosystem you need apex predators. Deer avoid patches where it’s too easy to be predated, and that can help the forest regenerate. Wolves can have a beneficial effect on deer population by selecting the old or ill individuals. They are opportunists – they don’t want to fight a big buck – so they try to grab the easiest prey.
Wolves are naturally afraid of humans, and that’s true for all large carnivores – but they can learn to find their resources near humans. That’s probably the most dangerous for the species itself, and the humans.
What we’re trying to achieve is to move from conflict to coexistence, and we’re trying to do that in several ways. The easiest is around the preventative tools – electric fences and large guardian dogs. But we also consider it important to involve all the stakeholders – livestock keepers and game managers, hunters, conservationists and even the local public.
The livestock keepers’ concerns are obvious, because depredation happens – but preventative measures can reduce that. Historically we had dog breeds to help protect the livestock. In Hungary we have a breed called kuvasz.
The perception of hunters is not really great in Hungary. They are usually seen as a group who just kill animals for fun. But to take resources in a sustainable way can be acceptable. Hunters have to lease the land where they hunt, and that’s expensive. They also have their conflicts with large carnivores, and sometimes complain that they eat all the prey species – but based on the ecological rules, large carnivores wouldn’t eradicate their prey species because then they would starve.
The survival of apex predators in Hungary really depends on our tolerance. In Europe we have this really long cultural history where the natural and anthropogenic landscapes have mingled. We have a shared landscape with large predators.
In Hungary, all the carnivores are strictly protected – also at an EU level. If for some reason you want to shoot something you think is a stray dog, you’d better be sure about the species.
The problem with all poaching is that these types of cases are usually cryptic. It’s like “shoot, shovel, and shut up”. In the forest there are no witnesses. Poaching is an issue, and not only in Hungary – it’s everywhere. It’s related to the human-wildlife conflicts because the hunters see these species as competition for the deer and livestock keepers as a pest. They shoot these animals because they cause nuisance for them. It’s not really correlated with the damage, it’s more about the perception. And if other locals or members of certain groups think poaching is acceptable or justified, it’s really hard to investigate these types of cases.
It’s really important to have a better understanding of the species to avoid misconceptions.
Wolves usually live in family packs. It’s not really true that they have ‘alphas’ – there are two parents who lead their family pack of four to six, just like humans with their children.
Trying to join another pack can be dangerous – if a lone wolf meets a pack, they might kill them. Being an apex predator is pretty dangerous. You have to battle with prey, and you can injure yourself and then starve to death. Adding to this, roaming long distances, crossing roads and settlements it is not easy and has a risk. Among the pups the mortality is really high. The summer times are not really good for wolves. They’re better at hunting during the cold months – probably because it’s not as easy for prey to hide and they move easier in the snow, although we hardly ever have snow in Hungary anymore.
Knowing that wolves are present can cause fear in people, but wolves are not as dangerous as we think. In Northern Hungary, you’re much more likely to get hurt driving a car than you are to be mauled by a wolf. They are more afraid of us than we are of them. The wild specimens that have lived in nature have not attacked anyone and it is crucial to try to keep it in this way. To keep them wild, never bait them with food. Don’t let them to habituate to us, humans and to our resources.
To avoid the conflicts we recommend some rules to follow. For example if you are with a dog in the forest, you have to keep it on a leash. Take your waste with you, and obviously never feed a large carnivore. If you are visiting a country with large carnivores try to stay on the hiking routes. Try to do your trips in small groups and chat with each other so the animals have a chance to recognize you as a human and have time to get away. And if you meet a large carnivore, stay cool. Usually it will leave you alone. If you feel threatened, you can clap your hands and shout to scare it away.
I’ve always dealt with mammals. You have some kind of kinship with mammals. Because we are mammals too, it’s easier to get in their understanding. But working with mammals is harder than working with other animals like birds. You can see the birds, but if you’re working with mammals, you can see their footprints, scat, maybe some hair – but you never really meet the animal itself. I haven’t met a wolf yet in their natural habitat. Usually only hunters and people who are out in the forest all day meet these types of animals.
Károly, my Hungarian Writers Residency contact, had told me that staying in the Zsolnay Culture quarter in Pécs would be like staying in an art gallery - and it really was. There are statues and bird baths everywhere, beautiful gardens, pop-up art exhibitions, and gorgeous architecture embellished with Zsolnay ceramics and the ornamental, frost-resistant Zsolnay Pyrogranit roof tiles that sparkle in the sun. The still-operating Zsolnay factory sells a range of ceramics, including vases and ornamental animals glazed using the secret, iridescent glazing technique called Eosin, named after the Greek goddess Eos and developed in 1893. The Zsolnay gallery was just one delight along the 'street of shops' that also included a cafe and a chocolate shop.
Hungarian is known as a difficult language to learn, but my husband and I got a surprising long way with the two words we did manage to pick up - szia ("see ya") for hi/bye and kösz ("cursie") for thanks. My husband also said he had a good conversation with a man in a supermarket about apples, even though the man was speaking Hungarian and my husband was speaking English.
Though part of what attracted me to Hungary was the idea of sharing a landscape with animals that don't live in New Zealand, I didn't want to visit any zoos, and after a while I thought I wouldn't see any wildlife at all. But gradually, creatures revealed themselves. First the dogs, then the pigeons, then the skinks, then the cats... and then the birds. I was woken from a siesta one hot afternoon by a tap-tap-tap outside my bedroom window. The tapping creature was (I think) a tiny Eurasian Nuthatch. More mysterious was the alarm that starting going off on the hot nights. It would start once the sun had gone down and only stop before the sun came out, emitting a metronomic peep. After a couple of nights my husband said he thought the alarm was actually a bird. I googled 'bird that sounds like an alarm' and am pretty sure the 'alarm' was actually a Eurasian Scops Owl. The bugs were also interesting - the very pretty and very randy yellow and black moths, red beetles with black spots, and a bug I photographed at a cafe that I later identified as a probable stink bug. When a similar bug made an appearance in our apartment later, it was removed with extreme caution (stink bugs apparently give off a smell like burnt tyres). In the forest we also saw emerald-green beetles that looked as though they'd been glazed with the Zsolnay factory's eosin glaze. The landscape was different, too. Train rides revealed vast fields of beautiful sunflowers on Hungary's plains. Even the clouds were different from New Zealand clouds. And the weather was different, with several mid-summer thunderstorms.
I was in Hungary to write, but having come from the other side of the world, I wanted to soak up as much Hungarian culture as I could, too. While in Pécs I saw and experienced some of the delights the city has to offer - the ornate Basilica, the oldest university in Hungary (established in 1367), the Jakovali Hassan Mosque (a church with an interesting history) with its beautifully decorated dome, and the Early Christian Necropolis of Pécs. The Necropolis featured a display of unearthed artefacts. For a time I worked to support the New Dunedin Hospital rebuild, and when the archaeologists excavated the site we were amazed by the 1800s bottles they unearthed. This bottles on display in the Necropolis dated back to around 500 AD!
Before visiting Hungary I had also heard about 'fruit soup', which I really wanted to try. I never did see sour cherry soup on a menu, but in Pécs I tried apple soup - and I also had a mixed berry and cherry soup several times from a diner near my apartment - a recipe that I think would make a perfect New Zealand Christmas dish. I'm vegetarian, so some traditional Hungarian foods were off the menu for me, but I really loved the foods I did try, which included cucumber salad, a beautiful hot pea dish from the diner, battered zucchini, a street food dinner of lángos (fried bread with sour cream and cheese). In general it was pretty easy being vegetarian in Hungary, though the food options were a little limited at the train stations. Fresh produce was abundant and we bought beautiful tomatoes, potatoes, spinach, fresh figs, apricot and mascarpone tarts, and flowers from an outdoor market nearby. The Hungarian cakes are also incredible. I think I will always regret not trying the strawberry soup we saw advertised outside a restaurant in Budapest - but I did have a slice of the most incredible strawberry cake at the Palace Hotel.
There was so much art to enjoy in Pécs - a Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec exhibition, the Vasarely Museum, and the Festival of Light, which provided free entertainment such as circus performers, live music, and incredible animated lightshows projected onto the Basilica. The day after we left, the city held a Roman festival, and through Károly's photos I saw the streets filled with people in authentic-looking costume.
I had an idea for an essay about wolves, so part of my time in Hungary was spent following the thread of that idea. For writing research I wanted to climb the hills behind Pécs, past the Zoo and up to the TV tower. On the way we spotted a Victor Vasarely artwork in the wild, walked through the 1930s stone Gates of Mecsek into the Mecsek Forest, and wondered about the animals we could hear rustling in the undergrowth. Apparently a creature called a dormouse lives in the forests - a small, mouse-like creature with big eyes and a bushy tail.
As part of my writing research I also headed north to beautiful Lillafüred - a place that everyone who's a romantic at heart would absolutely love. We crossed the country to reach the tourist resort, which is in the Bükk Mountains in Borsod-Abaúj-Zemplén county. I'd read a novel set in a similarly grand estate in the Zemplén mountains before coming to Hungary. When we arrived, I felt as if I'd stepped into a fairy tale. The town has inspired poetry and films, and between the waterfall, the swallows, the hanging garden and the forest train, I could see why. The Palace Hotel, where we were staying, has a long and intriguing history. The hotel became a military hospital for wounded Russian soldiers during WWII, and later became a resort for employees of the National Council of Trade Unions. It's been a hotel again since 1993, and it was the most beautiful hotel I've ever stayed at. We saw several couples getting their wedding photos taken in the beautiful surroundings. From Lillafüred we also made a day trip to the small town of Hidasnémeti, the site of a scene in my essay.
We met a lot of wonderful people. From our perspective at a day-to-day-level level we didn't find the cultural differences too marked, and people were very warm and friendly. A favourite moment was my encounter with a man who worked at the dairy across the road. One morning I wanted some canned fruit for breakfast, so I popped over to the dairy. We didn't have a can opener in our apartment and none of the fruit tins in the shop had pull tabs, so I mimed wanting to buy a can opener. The man mimed that I could probably stab the can open with a big knife, but eventually he opened the can himself with a can opener from out the back, and even indicated that he could give me a spoon and let me eat the fruit in his courtyard if I wanted to. It was a lovely start to the day.
My residency contact Károly was very warm and hospitable, and provided me with lots of useful information that I used in my writing. I also did an online interview with reporter Reka Mohay for the Pécs newspaper. I had the opportunity to meet her on my last morning in Pécs. I really enjoyed our coffee together, and Reka also gave me some really good writing and reading leads. When I left Károly gifted me a literary journal. Featuring international writers such as Roxanne Gay alongside Hungarian writers and writers commenting on aspects of Hungarian culture (I found the piece about 'Hungarian Indians' especially fascinating!), it's been a wonderful companion as I've made my slow way home through Frankfurt, Hong Kong and Auckland.
By the time I left Hungary I'd finished a first draft of my wolf essay. Moe importantly, I'd stored away a lifetime of memories that will help me with my writing for years to come. In the shorter term, I intend to use some of the details from the trip to colour the short stories for a collection I'm working on called Delight. In the longer term, my life has been enriched by this experience - and I know it will enrich my writing, too.
Thanks to the Hungarian Writers Residency and also to the Winston Churchill McNeish Fellowship.
30 Kiwis have bravely shared their stories about a topic that remains taboo: not being a mother. In ‘OTHERHOOD, an essay collection to be published by Massey University Press, the writers explore a diverse range of difficult, complicated, and sometimes joyful experiences.
Edited by Alie Benge, Lil O’Brien and me, ‘OTHERHOOD will be stocked in bookstores around Aotearoa from 2024 - and the Boosted crowdfunding campaign launching today will ensure the contributors get paid.
“Thirty incredible stories written by some of Aotearoa’s most exciting writers have been selected to appear in the book - and we need help to pay them,” says Lil.
“Contributors include MP Golriz Ghahraman, Jackie Clarke from The Aunties, and Paula Morris, who is a legendary figure in the Aoteraoa literary scene. But we’re also stoked to publish some new and upcoming writers, some of whom have never been published before.
“We aim to raise $15K to pay the 30 writers $500 each for their mahi – and for their bravery in sharing their stories about a common experience that still doesn’t get talked about.”
Not being a mother can feel profoundly ‘othering’. Those of us without children are familiar with the insensitive comments. Even the question ‘Do you have kids?’ can be hard to answer – what do you say if you’ve been bereaved, or if you’re having a miscarriage? Often, it’s easier to be silent. ‘OTHERHOOD gives voice to those of us who aren’t mothers.
Alie says care has been taken to ensure that the essays touch on joy as well as sorrow.
“The hilarious, heart-breaking and thought-provoking essays cover topics including religion, blended families, bereavement, queerness, foster care, disability, infertility, domestic violence, mental health, and freedom from social expectations,” she says.
“And some of the essays are about the joys of being a big DINK – Double Income, No Kids!”
People who contribute to the Boosted campaign can have their name included in the book, will receive a discount code once the book is published, and will be invited to the launch parties.
Donations can be made on the Boosted platform.
Somehow I've managed to be just as busy this year as I usually am when I work a regular job. I always seem to have several projects vying for attention, and this year they include the Misconceptions web series, a top-secret web series, short stories, essays, a secret path adventure book, co-editing the essay anthology 'Otherhood, and progressing a novel that may or may not turn out to be any good.
The second Misconceptions web series - Unravelling Anxiety - is out now via NZ Herald. Director Charlotte Wanhill is the mastermind behind this project, and I wrote the articles that accompany the webisodes. My secret path adventure book The ManyEnding Story was shortlisted for the Laura Solomon Cuba Press Prize, my essay Who Shot The Last Huia was published on The Spinoff, and I handed the second draft of my novel to a manuscript assessor just before flying off to Hungary for the Hungarian Writers Residency.
While I'm here I'm learning about wolves - and launching a crowdfunding campaign to pay the 'Otherhood contributors. When I get back I'll continue juggling my projects, and teach a couple of fiction classes to University of Otago students and staff.
But it hasn't all been work - I've also had fun in the University of Otago Print Room, I got to get my portrait taken by photographer Graham Warman, and I've regularly been catching up with the other Arts Fellows for coffees and chats. And while I'm in Hungary I'm getting as much sight-seeing in around my writing as I can, too.
I've had the incredible good fortune to be selected for the Hungarian Writers Residency, and am partway through a journey that's taken me from Dunedin to Budapest and now Pécs, which is in the South Transdanubian region of Southwest Hungary.
We spent three days in Budapest before coming to Pécs and in both cities we have been amazed by the history, the culture, and the evident importance of the arts in Hungarian culture.
In Budapest we stayed in Callas Hotel opposite the newly-renovated Opera House. We visited the National Gallery where I loved the work of József Borsos and Róbert Berény. We went to the cheeky, modern Pygmalion Effect ballet, and I went to Cafe New York, once the hub of the Hungarian literary scene, where I sampled strawberry coffee and raspberry ganache beneath gilded frescoes.
We went on a walking tour that included Magyar Tudományos Akadémia - The Hungarian Academy of Sciences - founded in the 1880s to develop the Hungarian language, sciences and arts. A group of writers led the reform that added ten thousand words to the language. We also visited Parliament, the Castle District in Buda, and got caught in a thunderstorm after a night cruise on the Danube.
Here in Pécs we are staying in the vibrant Zsolnay Cultural Quarter. Formerly the residence and ceramics factory of the Zsolnay family, the quarter features a planetarium, museums, an excellent chocolate shop, a puppet theatre, and works from the Zsolnay factory. One of the lovely things about Pécs is the music. We can often hear beautiful music being played here in the quarter, and musicians play around Széchenyi Square, too. The square has been used as a marketplace since the Middle Ages.
The town centre is a short, pleasant walk from our accommodation. On the way are the remaining ruins of the Budai gate of the old city wall, now featuring the city seal of Pecs from 1445. Once in town there are all sorts of indulgences to enjoy. The Dubai shop sells baklava, dolmades and feta, and there are plenty of ice-cream and cake shops. I have been on the hunt for fruit soup. I would really like to try sour cherry soup and strawberry soup. (I've tried apple soup so far.)
Pécs appealed to me because it is similar in some ways to Dunedin. It’s about the same size in terms of population, it’s also a university town, and it's also very pretty.
On the other hand, there are also some pretty big differences. New Zealand is a young country, whereas people have lived in the Pécs region for around 80 thousand years, originally in the caves of the nearby mountain range. Though it might sound strange, the clouds are different here - familiar to me though from artworks set in Europe. And of course, coming from winter in Dunedin, it's a lot warmer here. It's amazing how hard it is to do the simplest things once the temperature nudges the mid-30s!
Before coming to Hungary I read Embers by Sándor Márai and The Door and Katalin Street by Magda Szabo - all excellent books. I particularly enjoyed The Door. As part of my preparations I also met with a Hungarian lecturer from the University of Otago. He gave me some information about Hungary, and also said: "Have you heard about the wolf?"
I had not heard about the wolf... but now I'm on a hunt that might take me from Pécs in the south up to the Zemplén mountains in the north.
Thanks to the Hungarian Writers Residency and also to the Winston Churchill McNeish Fellowship.
My op ed about creativity and AI appeared in the Otago Daily Times today. An earlier version of this piece was delivered as part of the University of Otago 2023 welcome for the Arts Fellows at the Hocken Collections research library.
I arrived at the University of Otago at the same time as artificial intelligence chatbot GPT-4.
As the 2023 Robert Burns Fellow, I’m drawing on my capabilities and experience to write stories and essays. So is the chatbot.
It’s a strange time to be a creative person. Throughout history artists and writers have often occupied outsider roles, and been subject to censorship, competition for resources, evolving technologies, changing social attitudes and their own internal struggles.
I was working in the music industry when CDs and DVDs died, and people began getting their content online often for free. You wouldn’t steal a handbag, but you’ve probably watched a pirated movie.
Now artificial intelligence poses new opportunities and threats for artists.
You might have read An Angel at My Table by Janet Frame, or Aue by Becky Manawatu, both books that excavate childhood trauma, and both written by Robert Burns Fellows. Does it matter to us that these books were written by real people, and informed by their own thoughts and experiences? Or are we comfortable with AI crowdsourcing stories of pain and joy, and weaving its own tales from the echoes of our humanity?
Earlier this year I went to a concert where Sean James Donnelly (SJD), the university’s Mozart Fellow, performed a set of his nostalgic pop anthems. His song Waterhole has been stuck in my head ever since. It recalls long summers spent swimming, going to the shopping mall and eating gas station pies. Remember those days?
Actually, you might not remember - and neither do I. I’ve never had a summer like that, but Sean’s song tells me what they feel like. In listening to Waterhole, some part of Sean’s humanity has connected with mine.
To me, Waterhole is an ode to the best summer ever. To someone else, it might be a troubling tale about unsupervised children. Drawing an even longer bow, it might advocate unhealthy eating or the support of capitalist structures.
Different people interpret the same material differently, and art edges human culture forward in ways that can sometimes be challenging.
In America, attempts to ban books doubled last year, with most of the books targeted being those that seek to advance human rights. What are the consequences of letting computers compose our music and tell our tales at a time when real, human stories are being removed from bookshelves?
If you sing Waterhole several times in a row, like I have, it will come to feel not only like an ode to summer, but also like a lament. A waiata tangi for innocence.
We are on the cusp of a new age, and holding on to our humanity is increasingly important. Rather than being in a digital universe reading automatically generated books, I want to stretch out under the sun and connect with human stories written by people like past Burns Fellows Hone Tuwhare, Renee, and Emma Neale.
Will the ability to connect with human stories continue to be one of life’s simple comforts and pleasures, or will it become a luxury? Like organic food, will organic art - once abundant and accessible - become a premium product?
If I told you GPT-4 wrote this for me, you might feel impressed. You might feel cheated.
Perhaps you’d think this piece had more value if I told you it took hours to complete as I formed and reshaped my thoughts, talked with other writers, read relevant literature, and wrote and rewrote sentences.
But the real value of this piece is in your own engagement with it, my words sparking ideas in your mind the way SJD’s music sparks emotions in mine.
This wasn’t written by GPT-4, it was written by me, a real human who is grateful to the people who had the foresight to establish the trusts that make the University of Otago’s arts fellowships possible.
Because in changing times like these, art provides solace, inspiration, and human connection.
2023 Burns fellow Kathryn van Beek has an MA from Victoria University Wellington - Te Herenga Waka’s International Institute of Modern Letters. She is a winner of the Mindfood Short Story Competition and the Headland Prize. Her collection of short stories, Pet, is available as a podcast, and her work has also appeared in Overland, takahē, Newsroom, and the Sunday Star-Times. She lives in UNESCO City of Literature Ōtepoti Dunedin with her two rescue cats.