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.

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