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?

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Bridging the economy/environment divide

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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.”

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 . . .

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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.

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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:

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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.