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.