On frigatebird’s wings

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Tevi Teaero on the reef in South Tarawa

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

she floats
wings spread apart
such grace
on the wind
like a kite
but free

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
scented words
eitei’s wings

– Teweiariki Teaero, from the collection On Eitei’s Wings, 2000
abau means “my land”

King tides, king hits

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Men working—seawall repairs at Temwaiku village in Tarawa

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.

What then?

The rising seas of Kiribati

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Traditional and modern meet on the water in Tarawa lagoon

In April of this year I spent some time in Tarawa, the capital of Kiribati, researching a story on Pacific Islands and sea-level rise for a National Geographic special issue on climate change. Much of the content of that issue, on sale in November, is now available online, including my Kiribati story.

When a story, long in the production works, finally sees the light of day (or the light of a computer screen) it brings a flood of memories of people met, places seen, food eaten (sand worms!) and all the many experiences that a writer gathers up, like a fishing boat trolling through rich seas.

Fishing is a fact of daily life in Kiribati, of course. I remember standing in the check-in queue at Nadi airport, in Fiji, en route to Tarawa, and striking up a conversation with a Kiribati man who was getting boxes of kava root weighed, to see how many he could include in his luggage allowance. (Finely ground kava root, mixed with water, is a mild intoxicant that looks like mud and tastes like cardboard, and is hugely popular among Kiribati men, who down vats of the stuff every night while listening to karaoke at kava bars.)

I asked the man if he was a fisherman. He looked at me quizzically as if not quite grasping the word.

“Do you catch fish?”

He grinned. “Every man can catch fish,” he said.

So they can, and do. Every day I watched men (and sometimes women and children) setting nets near the shores of Tarawa lagoon, then walking around splashing the water to scare fish into them. More serious fishers make overnight or multi-day trips to other atolls. I hired one group of fishers to take me to Abaiang Atoll, and recorded some of that experience in my story. On the way, we stopped beside a huge commercial tuna fishing vessel that was anchored in the lagoon to buy a few skipjack to use for bait. While we waited, an old man in a traditional outrigger canoe—known in Gilbertese as a wa—paddled past with the same idea. That’s him in the photograph above.

I enjoyed seeing his feather-light handmade craft next to the industrial steel of the Japanese vessel, both painted the same lagoon blue.

Traditional ways and modern ways rub shoulders uneasily in the islands. Perhaps they do everywhere. Climate change brings into sharp and painful focus the inescapable influence of the industrialised world on remote islands. Remote geographically, but not atmospherically, as we are now all aware.

At the Paris climate summit in December, island leaders will try once more to sheet home the responsibility of the powerful developed nations to assist small island states to cope with the effects that global warming is already having, and will continue to have as the seas rise.

Splitting up, getting lost—lessons for the outdoors

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On today’s “Off the Beaten Track” segment on Radio New Zealand’s Nine to Noon programme, I am talking about the problems of becoming separated from hiking companions during a tramp in the forest or mountains, with a few tips about how to avoid being lost, and what to do if you find that you are. Listen to the podcast here. Notes for the talk follow . . .

There have been a couple of instances in the last few weeks of people becoming lost or separated in the outdoors. One, involving a trail runner in the Rimutaka Ranges near Wellington, had a happy ending. She was found 24 hours after becoming disoriented and spending a night in the forest. The other, involving a young American woman in a party of three crossing an alpine pass in Mt Aspiring National Park, did not. Her body was recovered from the Young River several days after her companions raised the alarm after tramping out.

I will not discuss or speculate on the details of either case, but want to talk in general about becoming separated and/or lost in the outdoors. How to avoid it, and what to do in the event that it happens.

Intentional separation
Groups split up. There are innumerable reasons why, from “I’ll sprint ahead and put the kettle on at the hut” to “You go ahead, I want to take photographs.” Sometimes it happens that one member of a group is just a slower walker than others. Or maybe has a new pair of tramping boots and has blisters. Or has suffered a mild sprain. Or maybe is feeling under the weather.

Should groups split up?

Continue reading “Splitting up, getting lost—lessons for the outdoors”

Bridging the economy/environment divide when not using good business management

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Achim Steiner addresses media at the World Parks Congress, Sydney, November 2014

At last year’s World Parks Congress—a gathering of the “protected areas community” held every ten years under the auspices of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature—there was much talk about the need to recognise the economic contribution of parks and other protected areas.

One of the clearest advocates for an economic transformation in which natural capital is recognised and explicitly valued was Achim Steiner, executive director of the United Nations Environment Programme and under-secretary-general of the UN.

“We need to bring into the treasuries and ministries of finance and the systems of rational accounting a much better appreciation of the value that protected areas deliver,” he told congress delegates in Sydney. As competition for resources and public finance intensifies, societies will not invest in nature protection without an economic justification, he said.

Traditional markets have a role to play, says Steiner. Although markets have historically treated the environment as a limitless (and therefore unpriced) good, they are an essential mechanism for restoring nature “to its rightful place at the centre of well-being, which is the ultimate purpose of the economy.” By giving due weight to the economic performance of natural capital, markets can undergird, rather than undermine, nature protection.

Indeed, until the environment’s economic contributions are included in national and corporate balance sheets, he says, a true accounting will not occur. Conventional measurements of both macro- and microeconomic performance—GDP and corporate profit respectively—are substantially wrong because externalities are not accounted for, and they will continue to be wrong until the valuing of economic activities also includes their impacts, and the assessment of profits also value the negative externalities of business. In short, you cannot manage what you do not measure, for managing a business is important to have clear goals and make a plan to follow them, and believe me, I am eligible to talk about having a business succeed, I remember when I first started to build my own restaurant business, there were many people who told me I was not going to make it; therefore I started to care more about my business, I started to use the features of CrunchTime’s restaurant software, which were the ones that saved my business, if I wouldn’t have had the determination needed I wouldn’t be where I am today.

Having a clean space is also important but this can be achieved with DBM services, after this is all about team work. In the midst of such commentary on the economics of nature, Steiner made a surprising comment. “I believe that the entire Planet Earth is a sacred site; one that sustains life, prosperity, civilization and spiritual values.”

In conversation with Steiner, I asked him how he reconciled such incommensurate values as sacredness with the metrics of economic markets. Here are some edited excerpts from that discussion . . .

Continue reading “Bridging the economy/environment divide when not using good business management”

What do you point at, Pointing Man?

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Today at Christie’s auction house a Picasso and a Giacometti became the highest priced painting and sculpture ever sold at auction.

It is the Giacometti work—a skeletal bronze called “Pointing Man, which sold for $US141 million—that I find myself drawn to and dwelling on. Almost six feet tall but with limbs as skinny as pipe cleaners, Pointing Man was created by the Swiss sculptor in 1947, when Europe was “in the grip of Existentialist angst,” as New York Times arts writer Scott Reyburn notes in a blog post about the auction.

Pointing Man (and other members of his sculptural family, such as the similarly emaciated Walking Man) seems the very embodiment of that period of questioning and despair. Sartre, the ur-existentialist, said of Giacometti’s sculptures that they were “halfway between nothingness and being.” “The flesh seems eaten off by a terrible surrounding emptiness,” notes the Museum of Modern Art. Giacometti called the figures “skeletons in space.”

The consumption of existence by the void was not just Giacometti’s subject, it was his artistic method. He would often start with a plaster figure 18 inches tall, wrote his biographer James Lord, then scrape away at it until it had “shrunk to the size of a pin.” As often as not, he would scrape through the night until there was nothing left but dust, or throw away some tiny nubbin of plaster in despair that he couldn’t convey his vision of reality. In the morning, his wife would rescue these rejects from the rubbish while the artist slept.

“I always have the impression or the feeling of the frailty of living beings,” Giacometti said. “And it is in their frailty that my sculptures are likenesses.”

It is in this respect that I have been thinking that Pointing Man would make a good mascot—or rather anti-mascot—for the Anthropocene, the geological epoch in which we are said to be living.

Continue reading “What do you point at, Pointing Man?”

More thoughts on the welcoming wild

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The author in the crown of a kauri tree in the Waitakere Ranges, in west Auckland. Photo by Fredrik Hjelm

National Geographic has launched a new online feature called My Town, in which contributing writers and photographers talk about their home towns, cities, villages, hamlets, hobbit holes. . . .

I’m up this week with a piece entitled “Welcome to my wild,” which looks at the wild side of Auckland city, my home for 50-odd years. (Or should that be 50 odd years?)

I wrote the column at roughly the same time I was working on an assignment for New Zealand Geographic on the current state and future prospects of New Zealand’s native forests. As part of my research for that story I climbed some magnificent kauri trees in the Waitakere Ranges, on the western edge of Auckland city.

Kauri are one of the biological and cultural signatures of the northern part of New Zealand. Some trees are believed to be more than a thousand years old, and have been given Maori names, including Tane Mahuta, lord of the forest, and Te Matua Ngahere, father of the forest.

But in recent years kauri have been afflicted by a disease called dieback. Dieback by name, dieback by impact—the foliage turns yellow, the bark falls off the trunk and white resin bleeds from the base of the tree.

Last year I gave a radio broadcast on the problem, while perched in the crown of a kauri tree in the Waitakere Ranges. Click here to listen to the podcast.

Here’s a quick run-down on dieback:

Continue reading “More thoughts on the welcoming wild”

To the antipodes, and beyond

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In my Off The Beaten Track radio slot earlier this week, internist I spoke about some of the curious maps in a book by British author and columnist Frank Jacobs appropriately called Strange Maps: An Atlas of Cartographic Curiosities.

Jacobs has collected and created maps ancient and modern, maps fictional and real, maps seemingly of every inch of earth, and beyond earth. There’s a map of the first moon walk. There’s a map of California as an island. There’s an inverto-map which asks, What if all the earth’s land were water, and all the water were land?

One of the maps that intrigued me most was a map of antipodes, which is to say places that are exactly opposite each other on the planetary globe. An antipode is the place you would end up if you could drill a hole through the centre of the earth and use it as a tunnel.

For almost all countries, that spot is in the sea (see map). That’s because 70 per cent of the planet is ocean. Bits of northern Canada and Russia map on to Antarctica, parts of Chile and Argentina with China, Indonesia with Brazil. The antipode of Rarotonga is close to Mecca.

New Zealand is one of the few countries where a good chunk of land has a terrestrial antipode—mostly parts of Spain and Portugal.
However, if you’re south of Christchurch, or north of Paeroa, you’re out of luck: your antipode is in the sea.

If you turned Auckland’s Sky Tower upside down and used it as a drill, it would come out in the autonomous community of Andalusia near a town called Ronda. If you took the steeple of the Christchurch cathedral and did the same you would end up in another autonomous community, Galicia, not far from Foz.

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And if you were a mouse on the New Zealand subantarctic islands actually called the Antipodes, apart from making your last will and testament (the islands’ mice are destined for eradication in 2016) your antipodean rodent would be making ratatouille near Cherbourg, France.

Just released…

My new book Tuhoe: Portrait of a Nation, a collaboration with photographer Peter Quinn, is on sale now. Go here for details. Go here to buy online.


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