Monday, June 15, 2009

Life in the South Pacific

We spent the last five days on Rarotonga, the biggest of the fifteen Cook islands. But it is all of 5 miles across at its widest, and is out in the middle of a very large ocean. It is a classic Pacific Island, with volcanic peaks and lots of coconut palms and surrounded by coral reefs. Walking on the beach you get a clear sense that it is a little island in the middle of a very large ocean, with nothing else around it but salt water. You feel the sense of insularity very palpably there. The boundaries of terrestrial life are clearly marked, and it makes you aware of the limits of your existence. New Zealand is an island nation, but this place is really an island. Life is simple and slow, as far as we can tell. No one has to go fast because there is never far to go.

In a country of 14,000 residents and 70,000 tourists, the locals generally delight in playing upon the ignorance of the visitors— telling people things that may or may not be true, but which the newcomers generally believe, not having much basis for disputing the claims (big storm coming! you need a submarine to go see the sea turtles! drink the water! don't drink the water! good snorkeling just down the road! a woman died from stepping on a stone fish last week! and so on). It is easy to live here—plenty to eat just growing on the trees and swimming in the water, but not much money. Tourism and black pearls bring in some income, but most people seem to have very little in terms of material possessions. Houses are very simple, most people just ride motor scooters, people burn their trash in their yards and dogs and pigs roam most everywhere; there are lots of strange fruit trees—mangoes, star fruit, bread fruit, banana, other things that I don’t recognize at all. Taro and cassava and hibiscus, and bougainvillia. There are also lots and lots of churches, with a mix Seventh Day Adventists, Mormons, and the “Bible Believers Church of the End Times” (just down the road from the island's gaol). The population has shrunk in the last twenty years, with most Cook Islanders now living in New Zealand and Australia.
(In the battle between nature and machine, chalk one up for nature)

The water is wonderful, and the coral is beautiful in places, but there is also lots of dead coral, with problems with run-off from the developed land, and an infestation of coral-eating starfish a while back that wiped out lots of the coral. Of the seven major lagoons around the island, only two are still really still thriving. But we saw plenty of beautiful fish, eels, an eagle ray, a shark, a lion fish, Moorish idols, a giant trevally, and many more. It was encouraging to see that diversity. I really enjoyed just floating in this magical world, sometimes surrounded by schools of dozens of colorful fish who were content to just float there within a few feet of you.

There’s been lots of swimming and bicycling around the island, with the students going off to do their own things, including a few more getting tattoos. We met with some staff at the Cook Islands Parliament, and also with some biologists doing research on the biodiversity on the island and reef, learning more about the ecological issues here and the political dynamics of a quasi-independent island state. They are looking at doing some deep sea mining (of manganese nodules), but it seems fraught with lots of uncertainties and hopefully won't happen. They seem resigned to the fact of climate change, seeing it as something to which they will just have to adapt. I admire their stoicism, but also hope that the rest of the world can get its act together and minimize how much we’re changing the climate.

(Piri telling the story about traditional fire making in the Cook Islands)

The last day here we met up with a Rarotongan named Piri, who has a great smile, an infectious laugh, and a good dose of showmanship. He used to do performances as a palm tree climber, but has gotten a little old for that. He showed us the traditional way of making fire and preparing a umu oven in the sand. Everything he used was gathered locally, and we had no utensils or tools other than a machete and a kitchen knife to prepare and eat the whole meal. The coconut, banana, and taro plants were used for food, plates, utensils, cooking containers, and flavoring. We all helped with weaving up plates from coconut leaves, gathering the special kindling and materials for starting the fire, and chanted with him as he rubbed a hibiscus wood stick in a groove in a log until a little spark started. The spark was then carefully set in a basket of kindling and then swung around until it burst into flame. The flame was then carried to the fire pit, the fire started, more logs laid on top, then a pile of stones.
(Laying rocks on the fire)

After the fire died down to hot coals and the stones were piping hot, we laid segments of banana tree stalk on to cool the fire, and then put on the food. Chicken, squid, kumara, taro, banana, breadfruit, potato, all wrapped in leaves, covered in more leaves, and then sand, and left to cook for 3 hours. Meanwhile we swam, heard stories, wandered the beach, talked about traditional cultures and simple lifestyles, and watched the sun sink into the sea. The meal was amazingly simple, and completely free of anything processed, manufactured, or imported. And there was no trash left at the end--just the left over leaves and food scraps which got thrown in the fire pit. It seemed an entirely fitting way to end a trip about environmental politics and biodiversity—on an island in the middle of the ocean learning how to live with what we have, and learning that we really don’t need that much to be happy (at least when you're living in a tropical paradise with a guy who knows how to live off the land). I hope we can carry some of that sensibility back to our lives back on a mainland that is so full of people who seem to always want more.
(Gathered on the beach for dinner around sunset)

It’s been an incredibly rich month all in all, and we’ll be processing and thinking about it all for a long time. I feel that I have gotten to know this planet better, have a fuller sense of what there is on this earth besides what I've seen in the U.S., Canada, and Europe. It is an amazing place, with so much to see and experience. I’ve gotten to know a great group of students and colleagues, and learned some more about teaching. This all-encompassing travel education, although hard work, seemed to be a kind of teaching that I’m drawn to. Might just have to take another trip one of these days.

Monday, June 8, 2009

The Southern Alps

(the view at the north end of Lake Wakitipu, near Glenorchy, north of Queenstown)

June 8, Queenstown

Our last night in New Zealand after a solid week of exploring the Southern Alps. We had a nice hike up Queenstown “hill” this afternoon (only a 500 meter ascent), and then to dinner at this restaurant high up on another hill overlooking the lake and city. The Southwestern section of the south island is some amazingly rugged and dramatic country that is a mix of temperate rainforest, marine, and alpine ecosystems all packed in together. The pace has been so hectic that I haven’t been able to write for awhile. We had some car trouble, various people getting sick, a death in the family of one of the students, all on top of our regular work to teaching, cooking, driving, making arrangements, and so on. We’re so busy learning and seeing things, it’s hard to find the time to write about it all.

From Cass we headed south to Harihari on the west coast where we visited the Franz Josef Glacier and walked along the beach, with views of Mt. Cook.

(On the beach in Harihari, with Mt. Cook in the background)

We got to hike in the ice fields of the glacier, squeezing through crevices and clomping along with our crampons on. The glacier is receding, but slowly, since the ice field that feeds the glacier gets something like 150ft. of snow a year.

(in the blue ice of the glacier, with about 300 ft. of ice below us)

Further south we stopped for a visit with Jerry McSweeney, who was the head of the Royal Forest & Bird Society here (akin to our Sierra Club). He is now running two eco-tourism outfits, and also running a sheep station (ranch) up in the mountains. He talked about the work of trying preserve the local native ecosystems, and how ecotourism has worked to provide an economic basis for that work. Their lodge is in the midst of some amazing native rainforest, with some rare species (including the tufted penguin). That would be a nice place to return to and spend some time.

We then headed inland, stopping at another large sheep station near Wanaka. This was a more traditional operation, that provided us with the perspective of a successful big farm. The raise sheep, cattle, and red deer on some stunning land above Lake Hawea. They gave a nice tour and talk and lunch, and we got a feel for the challenges of trying to produce lots of wool and make a living at it when wool prices are down. He is making a fair amount of money now selling the antler velvet from the red deer (on the Asian market), and arranging for people to come in and hunt prize stags.

Into Queenstown, a very touristy town, but for good reason, as it is surrounded by spectacular peaks. We drove out to Glenorchy, along the shores of Lake Wakitipu, and “tramped” along one of the tracks there, where Bill Capman spotted a few very rare birds (a yellow-head, and some others I forget), and over some beautiful mountain streams that cascaded down through carved rock ravines. Some of the students went off bungee jumping and snowboarding on their day off, and all survived and had some good stories to tell. There have been thousands upon thousands of pictures and videos taken on the trip—part of traveling in the modern age it seems. Sometimes I think it would be nice for everyone to just put away the cameras and sit and just take in the place.

Our final destination was Te Anau and Lake Manapouri, which as far south as we got on the trip. This also included visiting a cave with glow worms in it—a strange sight indeed. We took a boat back into this cave with a guide, in the dark, and could look up at the ceiling and see what looked something like a starry sky at night, with the stars a phosphorescent green. The next day we drove out to Milford Sound, and it did indeed live up to its reputation. Again the weather cooperated, with brilliantly blue skies, and we were able to cruise around the sound with these sheer cliffs and mile-high mountains towering above us, waterfalls cascading down at regular intervals, and dolphins swimming in the boat’s bow waves. The grandeur of it all, the scale and wildness, was a good note to go out on. Now its on to the Cook Islands, for some warming up, snorkeling, and class discussions about all the stuff we’ve experienced in the last month.
Milford Sound, with Mitre Peak, which is over a mile high, rising straight up out of the ocean. The scale is very hard to grasp, especially from a picture, but even in person.

Saturday, May 30, 2009

To Arthur's Pass

(View out from Cass Hill, near Arthur's Pass)

(At the Stockton Coal Mine, in front of the world's largest bulldozer)

(Sunset at Cape Foulwind)

We sit in the dining room of the Cass Field Station in the Southern Alps, with a fire blazing away, Bill playing guitar (as J.T. has finished and passed the guitar along to him) and we relax with cards and books. A few students review pictures taken earlier that day and try to identify some of the birds and our fauna observed today.

We are up in the mountains, in a wide basin surrounded by snow-covered peaks, next to the Cass “settlement,” population of 1. If the weather holds, we’ll stay two nights here, but we’re watching a storm coming in from the Southwest to see what it has in store for us. The road up here was probably the steepest I’ve ever driven up (and I hear there are steeper ones to come), and we’re a little apprehensive about heading back down with snow on the road.

We drove here from Westport, where we spent 2 nights and had visits to a seal colony, and an extensive tour of a major coal mining operation in the big coastal hills near there. The mine has had the typical history of massive environmental damage over the last decade (including acidic run-off an aluminum contamination of the local river, and destruction of the native snail habitat), but they are engaged in an ambitious set of environmental remediation and protection projects now, all funded with the healthy income from the mine. We heard from a few of the mine workers, including their environmental manager, who were all quite proud of the mine operations (and all its HUGE machinery), and wanted us to feel the same. We left with a range of views and mixed feelings about the whole operation, although the whole issue of the greenhouse gas emissions from burning the coal remained a troubling dimension to the whole operation (even though most of the coal was used for coking operations and for high-quality carbon filters, not to be burned for generating electricity). While we were visiting the mine, Beth had a walk along the gorgeous coastline here, which was her favorite part of the country so far (and that’s saying something). The coast is lush, almost jungle-like, with a wonderful wildness along much of this northern stretch.

One of the best parts of the trip has been how the political science students are learning about keas, carnivorous snails, climbing liverworts, and ecological niches, and the biology students are learning about the challenges facing the New Zealand foreign ministry and the controversies over New Zealand’s fisheries policies. There have been some really nice interactions and interdisciplinary conversations between the two courses, and it reflects the way in which all these issues are so inter-related. At our visits to the Siefried vineyard near Nelson, and the coal mine, we learned about biology, chemistry, economics, business management, marketing, politics, history, and geology. It is fun to see how all these, and other, dimensions to the real world challenges we are all having to grapple with these days.

When we arrived here at the alpine field station, a bunch of us quickly headed out for a tramp up the ride behind the lodge, and were reminded of how deceiving the scale of things can be around here. What looks to be a reasonable hike quickly turns into an insurmountable hike. We made up an impressively steep slope through beech forest and then some bush and scree, and almost got to the ridge top of one of the lower mountains, but had to turn around before getting to the top and fight out way back through some of the thickest foliage and brush I’ve ever tried to get through. This was complicated by the fact that there were some very fierce thorns on one of the bushes (called matagouri or “bush lawyer”) which required donning all our raingear to protect us from them. Beth and I and three of the students (Laci, Katie, and Jake) managed to finally bushwhack through and get back to the lodge for dinner, with some good stories to tell. We should sleep well tonight.

We are getting an amazing feel for the country, and managing to keep our spirits up, despite the packed schedule and constant movement.

Well, to bed.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Students Bio Blog Posts

To get a feel for what some of the students are getting out of the trip, there are some interesting posts on the blog that Brian (the Kiwi bio prof who is teaching the biodiversity course on the trip) has set up.

To get to that blog just click here.

We're in Westport now, after a spectacular walk along Cape Foulwind, where we saw seal pups, and a glorious sunset. The drive out here from Mapua took us through more mountainous country and along Buller River and Gorge, where we stopped for a brief hike, more botanical exploration, and a walk across a high swing bring. Tomorrow we head up to the Stockton Coal Mine and get to learn more about the carnivorous snails (!) that inhabit the region.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Volcanoes, Geothermal vents, and visits with Maori

(Geothermal activity in Rotorua)

(Hiking up to Mt. Ruapehu)
(The beach at Paekakariki)

Already day 9 of the trip and we begin to transition into the rhythms of being on the road and in our group. We are now heading out of Wellington harbor on the large ferry boat Kaitaki in a healthy southerly gale. The crossing to the south island had been cancelled yesterday and was delayed almost three hours this morning because of the rough conditions. I’ll see how long I can keep typing without getting seasick. This passage will bring our stay on the north island to a close.

We’ve had a jam-packed time the last week, staying first at Paekakariki on the West coast with some exploration of the coastal ecosystems and marine life. We took a trip back into Wellington for a visit with the Maori MP Rahui Katene and Pita Sharples, who, along with their staff, talked to us about Maori culture and issues and perspectives they bring to government. The central reality of Maori politics here is that of displacement and land seizure that leaves them with a strong sense of injustice and the need for a return to what they understood to be the terms of the treaty that originally established relations between Pakeha (the white immigrants) and Maori. The culture is very much alive, and their traditions and spirituality (what they call mana) is still strong. This was reinforced when we visited with some of the Maori in Rotorua a few days later. We had the chance to have a hongi or dinner at a meeting house (marae).

(Well we’re out in the big swells now, and I think I better wait a bit to type more.)

The swells aren’t too bad (although Katie and Stacia would beg to differ, as they’ve been quite sea sick), so I’ll continue.

The Maori community there has struggled financially, with lots of very ramshackle housing, and the two women who presented to our group, Wireti and Tess, have been putting together some eco-housing project that was really encouraging to hear about. We’re hoping to take some of their ideas back to the Minnesota. It was a great example of sustainable development used to remedy an environmental injustice.

In Wellington, we met as well with the Department of Conservation, who talked about their challenges in keeping the unique and endangered species of New Zealand, including most of the flightless birds. We also have a great briefing from New Zealand’s negotiator at the climate change talks, and officials from the Agriculture, Energy, and Economic Ministries who gave a thorough overview of their climate change policies. They were very open and accessible, and seemed to appreciate our interest.

After those visits, we headed north from Paekak, as the locals call it, toward the World Heritage site of Tongariro, with its dramatic volcanic cones. We are getting used to driving on the left-hand side of the road, even with a stick shift and towing a trailer, but it has been another element of the disorientation accompanying our visit. We stayed at a big lodge with a wood-burning stove and big kitchen, nestled into the other-worldly forest that grows in the valleys running down from the peaks.

In the morning we woke to a frosting of snow on the ground, and the skies clearing, and we hurried off to “tramp” up the mountain. We made our way up through wonderful southern beech forests full of ferns, huge lichens, waterfalls, mushrooms, and all sorts of strange plants that Bill and Brian helped us understand. I’ve been repeatedly struck by the feeling of being on a different world, where all the species are unfamiliar, and the landscape strange and wondrous. This was certainly the case in Rotorua, where we headed next, with its profusion of geothermal formations and sulfurous steam rising out of the ground all over the place. The whole place feels new in various ways—new geologically, evolutionarily, and in terms of human settlement.

In Rotorua we also visited a biological research station that is working on all sorts of innovative uses for New Zealand’s ample natural resources (like making plastics out of kiwi fruit waste), and then toured around a Maori village called Te Puia. They did some traditional dances and we got a tour around in which we learned about the carving, weaving, and other aspects of Maori culture. At night we were able to cook our dinner in a steam-cooker that used the local geothermal heat that gave everything a pleasant hint of sulphur.

So we have packed about as much as we could into the first week, and are looking forward to an equally educational and exciting time on the South Island.

Sunday, May 17, 2009


This is one of the scarlet-crowned parakeets that we saw flying around on Somes Island. We've also seen the tui (another bird that you won't see in Minnesota), and we got a live Portuguese Man-o-war from the beach yesterday.

After two very informative meetings with the environmental activist/scholar Cath Wallace, and representatives of the Department of Conservation in Wellington, and a full day of visiting the National museum here--called Te Papa--we picked up our 4 vans, and headed north up the west coast of the north island to the beach community of Paekakariki where we are staying at a "holiday park." The landscape is spectacular already--steep hills descending down to the shore--and we aren't even to the "dramatic" part yet.

At night the stars are all different, which, as much as anything, makes me realize we're in a very different part of the world. We saw the Southern Cross last night, and will be looking up more of the stars as we go.

Today we met with a Maori Member of Parliament named Rahui Katene, who talked with use all about the Maori culture and role and goals in government. There is a strong sense of injustice and a desire for righting the wrongs of the past, which centers of the Treaty of Waitangi, signed by the British and Maori in 1840. It is an ongoing struggle to find some sense of common ground and equal partnership between Maori and Pakeha (non-Maori Kiwis). Dr. Pita Sharples, the head of the Maori Party, and major figure in New Zealand politics also stopped by and talked with us for a bit, which was a great treat.

This afternoon we head off for a meeting with the foreign ministry to hear more about climate change policy. We've had a pretty hectic pace so far, and not much time to write, but we'll slow down a bit once we get out of the city.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

The flight across the Pacific was almost surreal in quiet and detachment from the vast distance covered. We took off at night, and after a little rattle on the take-off it was as if we sat still for 12 hours, each of us with our meals, blankets, movies, and headsets. Then, with a little more rattle, we landed again in the dark on the other side of the globe. But the plane had a number of Pacific Islanders, and the crew with their lovely Kiwi accents, and it began to feel like we were on to something new.

Emerging from the terminal in Auckland to walk to the domestic departure terminal, we smelled the maritime air and saw the strange trees (Norfolk Pine and other names to be supplied after our full tour) and could sense that we were in new place.

Then flying down to Wellington we passed over Mt. Egmont (very similar to Mt. Fuji) and over Marlborough Sound before landing in the capital, which reminds me a lot of Marin County and San Francisco.

Off now to Somes Island to explore a local nature preserve on a beautifully sunny day. Pictures coming shortly.