Today is the 200th anniversary of the birth of the American philosopher Henry David Thoreau, who observed, among many other quotable remarks, that the mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation and that in wildness is the preservation of the world. Thoreau lived for two years in a cabin he built on the shores of Walden Pond, in Massachusetts. In 2009, I visited Walden with National Geographic photographer Tim Laman, and today National Geographic has published a selection of the photographs Tim has made over the years at the pond, along with a short tribute from me.
I suppose that for many people Thoreau seems ancient, remote and irrelevant—a poet out of time. Yet the questions he asked are timeless—and arguably more pertinent than ever. What is the secret of contentment? What should our relationship be with nature? Can we live with less? Is less, in fact, more?
As the photo above suggests, let us stay in sync with Walden’s wanderer, wherever the path leads.
Making a statement in the deluge zone. / Kennedy Warne
Auckland’s billion-dollar road tunnel between New Windsor and Waterview is about to open to traffic. For a few days before that happens, the public can walk through part of the 2.4 km tunnel to admire the engineering. I did so a few days ago with geographer colleague Robin Kearns and a few of his friends and family. The tunnel was bored by a machine nicknamed “Alice,” so for me it was a walk through “Alice’s restaurant.”
As we joined a stream of Aucklanders descending underground, Robin remarked that it felt like being “on a stage set for some post-apocalyptic march out of the city.”
I said I thought there was a certain irony to the fact that while we were paying obeisance to the mighty motor vehicle and its demand for pathways and passages, across town a group was launching a climate declaration calling on New Zealanders to phase out the use of fossil fuels by 2050.
Errant Earl in the Te Atatu mangroves. / Kennedy Warne
Almost a year after my post about meandering among Motu Manawa’s mangroves with Ms Meduna, I was in the vicinity again, not in a kayak but a dinghy. I was there to search for an escapee named Earl. Earl is a clinker-style dinghy that belongs to my son Jeremy. The name comes from a poem by Louis Jenkins that we had both been enjoying at around the time he bought the dinghy.
In Sitka, because they are fond of them,
People have named the seals. Every seal
is named Earl because they are killed one
after another by the orca, the killer
whale; seal bodies tossed left and right
into the air. “At least he didn’t get
Earl,” someone says. And sure enough,
after a time, that same friendly,
bewhiskered face bobs to the surface.
It’s Earl again. Well, how else are you
to live except by denial, by some
palatable fiction, some little song to
sing while the inevitable, the black and
white blindsiding fact, comes hurtling
toward you out of the deep?
One night in March, Jeremy was aboard his yacht, Peer Gynt, on a mooring off Northcote Point, near the Auckland Harbour Bridge. Just before he went to sleep he checked the dinghy, only to find his knot had come undone and the dinghy was nowhere to be seen.
Veronika Meduna photographing mangroves at Motu Manawa. / Kennedy Warne
Tonight’s “Our Changing World” radio programme features a visit by Veronika Meduna and me to Motu Manawa, the “island of mangroves” beside Auckland’s northwestern motorway. Here’s how it came about . . .
I hadn’t seen Veronika Meduna, one of the founders of Radio New Zealand’s long-running “Our Changing World” science and environment programme, for years. She’s based in Wellington, and I’m in Auckland, and our paths don’t cross very often. So when she texted to ask if we could visit some mangroves for a radio spot, I was delighted. Both because she’s a very good radio presenter, and because any day in the mangroves is a good day.
I immediately thought I would take her to Motu Manawa/Pollen Island, my “wilderness next door”—a nature reserve in the heart of a marine reserve right next to SH16, one of the main commuter routes between central Auckland and the northwest.
The day before she arrived I thought I should check that my usual route—under the motorway bridge over the Whau River at Te Atatu—was still open. Major roadworks on that stretch made me suspect it might not be. I squelched through ankle-deep mud as I made my approach. A man in a high-vis vest standing under the bridge spotted me and called, “Where do you think you’re going, young fella?”
“Just going to the island, if that’s OK?”
It wasn’t OK. There was scaffolding around the concrete pier and some workers chipping away with chisels. Evidently that constituted a hazard to walkers. The Well-Connected Alliance—the construction consortium doing the motorway work—had disconnected me.
I returned home to consider my options. Find some other mangroves—there are plenty up the Whau—or . . . approach by sea.
On this day 100 years ago a notorious arrest took place.
It happened at Maungapohatu—Tuhoe’s sacred mountain and site of a messianic community established by prophet Rua Kenana.
On Sunday April 2, Police Commissioner John Cullen led a column of 57 sweating constables, armed with automatic pistols and carbines, up a steep path from the valley below. They had walked all the way from Ruatahuna, deep in the forest heartland of Te Urewera, to apprehend the prophet on charges of sedition and resisting arrest.
In a show of contempt, Cullen flouted protocol and rode his horse on to the marae and up to a newly built wharenui where Rua stood with two of his sons. Cullen demanded Rua’s immediate surrender.
From somewhere, a shot was fired—it has never been determined from which side—and a short but disastrous exchange of fire left Rua’s son Toko and his uncle, Te Maipi, dead, and several on both sides injured.
Further horror followed. Descendants speak of rape and torture. Several men were mock-buried in an open grave. Jewellery, money and greenstone taonga were pillaged as trophies.
The events of that day have seared Tuhoe’s memory, and continue to do so, despite Crown apologies and a landmark treaty settlement.
My story on ecological restoration in Seychelles has just been published on National Geographic’s website (with a compilation of video clips at the start), and will soon be available in the March 2016 print edition.
One of the islands I visited, but which didn’t end up being included in the story, was Aride, which has been a nature reserve for 50 years. Unlike some privately owned island reserves in Seychelles, which have luxury resorts on them, Aride is home only to nature and a handful of caretaker staff. I was there for less than 24 hours, but I felt a quiet enchantment on Aride that I experienced nowhere else. Here’s a short account of that visit. . . .
I have a knack, it seems, of finding the one seat on any small open boat that gets the greatest soaking from the sea. And so it proved on the eight-mile journey by inflatable from Praslin to Aride—one a well populated residential and resort island in the eastern Seychelles, the other a privately owned nature reserve with a caretaker staff of six. I arrived well drenched, but that was no hardship in the tropical heat of Seychelles. And especially not when stepping ashore on one of Seychelles’ best preserved enclaves of indigenous wildlife.
As with most Seychelles islands, Aride was heavily cleared for coconut plantations in the 1800s, and the copra era persisted until well into the 20th century. Despite the coming and going of vessels to carry coconuts away for processing, not to mention the movement of labourers on and off the island, Aride somehow escaped being invaded by rats. As a result, much of the island’s ground-dwelling reptile and invertebrate fauna remains intact, and now that the island is a reserve, seabird populations are rebounding. More than a million roseate terns, lesser noddies and tropical shearwaters breed on the rocky slopes of the island.
On a night walk with wildlife officer Juan Michel I heard the haunting calls of wedge-tailed shearwaters, and next morning I watched seabirds emerging from the forest canopy as if being breathed out like winged pollen. White terns, noddies, shearwaters, and, soaring above them all, crawling across the sky in slow motion, frigatebirds, pirates of the sky.
For the past six years, the Hauraki Gulf Forum has been holding seminars on the current state and future prospects of the gulf. The seminars are part of the SeaChange initiative to create a marine spatial plan for Auckland’s marine front doorstep.
This year, one segment of the day-long seminar—entitled “Heart Talk”—focused on the emotional and spiritual connections people feel to the gulf. I was invited to talk about my own relatedness to an expanse of sea that has been part of my life since very early childhood.
The seminar was videoed, and my talk can be watched above, and the text is available here.
At the seminar there was a palpable sense of positive change happening, with more in store. Hauraki Gulf Forum Chair John Tregidga (who reminded me on the day that we had connections going back to my very first media job, at the appropriately and coincidentally named Hauraki Herald newspaper in Thames in 1980) summarised a few of these developments in his opening remarks:
Will atoll nations like Kiribati sink as sea level rises, or not?
The prevailing media narrative—which you encounter everywhere: in print, on air, online—is yes. And that narrative nearly prevailed in the choice of headline for my Kiribati story in National Geographic’s just-published climate change special issue.
Several months ago, my editor at the magazine sent me a layout of the story with a gigantic headline stretching across the opening spread: “Going, going, gone.”
I gulped. Only six months before I had written a story for National Geographic’s website that described scientific findings that more than 75 percent of atoll islands in the Pacific are maintaining their size or growing, despite slowly rising seas. I was deeply opposed to suggesting that these islands will soon be going down the oceanic gurgler.
I discussed with my editor the idea of putting a question mark after “gone.” But the problem with doing that, I felt, was that the familiar slogan contained such a strong message that merely adding a squiggly piece of punctuation at the end would scarcely dent its impact.
Psychologists have a term for this: confirmation bias, the tendency for the mind to interpret new information based on previous assumptions. Another cognitive bias (there are dozens of them; it’s surprising we can think straight at all, ever) would also come into play: the availability cascade, in which a collective belief gains increasing plausibility through constant repetition. Readers would expect to see a “disappearing islands” headline, I argued, and a question mark was unlikely to disturb that misperception.
I and one of the National Geographic researchers simultaneously came up with an alternative headline: “Against the Tide.” This appealed to me because not only is it the challenge that people of low-lying atolls face every month, as spring tides bring sea level within striking distance of coastal land and infrastructure, but also many I-Kiribati people are taking a stand against the tide of world opinion that their islands are doomed. They “refuse to think of their homeland as a ‘disappearing island nation,’ its fate already out of their hands,” I wrote in my story. “They do not think of themselves as ‘sinking islanders,’ rather as descendants of voyagers, inheritors of a proud tradition of endurance and survival.”
The editors approved the new headline, and the print magazine has duly been published with the title “Against the Tide” above the Kiribati story.
A fortnight ago, however, the headline battle was fought again, when the online version of the story appeared. It was published under the line “Water May Erase These Pacific Islands but Not their Culture.” Again my heart sank, and I begged the editors to erase the word “erase.”
Meet Teweiariki Teaero—poet, artist, lexicographer, educator and candidate for parliament in Kiribati’s upcoming elections.
Teweiariki—Tevi, for short—was an invaluable source of Kiribati traditional knowledge for me when I was in Tarawa researching my story on sea-level rise for National Geographic’s special issue on climate change. His account of the trinity of marawa, karawa and tarawa—sea, sky and land—formed a key part of my narrative.
I was especially interested in the way that I-Kiribati think of marawa, the sea.
“We do not see the ocean as a separating entity, but a connecting entity,” Tevi told me. “As a mother that provides food, and as a highway to be travelled.”
I had read similar statements in the work of renowned Tongan scholar Epeli Hau’ofa. In his influential essay “Our Sea of Islands,” Hau’ofa said that Pacific Islanders “were connected rather than separated by the sea. Far from being sea-locked peoples marooned on coral or volcanic tips of land, islanders formed an oceanic community based on voyaging.”
Hau’ofa distilled this idea into a single memorable formulation: Pacific peoples do not view their world as islands in a far sea, but as a sea of islands.
Clearly, Tevi and Epeli are paddling the same canoe.
In a photo essay that accompanies my story on National Geographic’s website, I quoted a line from one of Tevi’s poems, “Song of Rising Isles.” It is a poem of optimism, neatly reversing the prevailing (but inaccurate) notion that the atolls of Kiribati—not to mention those of Tuvalu, Tokelau and Marshalls—are “sinking isles.”
But it was another poem of Tevi’s that I cherished as I tried to express something of the soul of the I-Kiribati in the words I was writing. “On Eitei’s Wings” evokes the high-soaring frigatebird, Kiribati’s national bird. With Tevi’s permission, here is that poem:
On eitei’s wings
wings spread apart
on the wind
like a kite
come now pen
give me wings
that i may fly
let me go
so i may hover
and then soar
on eitei’s wings
and rain abau
– Teweiariki Teaero, from the collection On Eitei’s Wings, 2000 abau means “my land”
When sun, moon and earth are in alignment and in closest proximity to each other, the sea responds by producing the highest tides of the year, known as king tides. These tides can be 30 or 40 centimetres higher than a normal spring tide, and since that is the expected increase in global sea level by mid-century, today’s king tides show us what ordinary spring tides will be like in 2050.
For low-lying atolls like Tarawa, capital of Kiribati, that new baseline will be a problem. When I visited Tarawa in April 2015 to research a story on sea-level rise the islands were still repairing seawalls and re-armouring vulnerable areas of coastline after damage inflicted by a king tide in February. That event closed the maternity ward in one of Tarawa’s hospitals, not far from where a shipwreck was pushed ashore, piercing a seawall.
Photographs I took of the damage and repair work have just been published on National Geographic’s website, here.
The challenge for all low-lying atolls—indeed, for all coastlines—is that as the sea creeps higher, coastal defences such as seawalls and rock barricades will be more frequently and more severely tested, and in some cases the cost of protection will rise to untenable levels.