Swords into ploughshares

. . . and survey pegs into peace symbols

Parihaka installation on Waiheke Island / Kennedy Warne

Yesterday I was asked by National Geographic to write a “letter from New Zealand.” When I thought about what I might write, I reflected that on Friday 15th, the day of the mosque attacks, I had kayaked to Waiheke to see the annual sculpture show, which sprawls along the coastal hills above Matiatia.

I paid particular attention to one installation about Parihaka—a place and community and history I feel close to, having written at length about it. The installation, by Anton Forde, consists of 1881 survey pegs, the number referring to the year of the Parihaka invasion, and the pegs representing the issue that led up to the attack: government appropriation of Taranaki land, with surveyors the front-line agents of dispossession.

Viewers were invited to take a peg from a boundary line and place it in a triple-feather design that had been laid out on the land. The triple feather has become the symbol of Parihaka, evoking its stand of nonviolent resistance in the face of state aggression. I placed a peg and paddled back to Auckland.*

When I came to write my letter, I thought about the symbolism. Parihaka literally opposed the sword with the ploughshare—the community’s chief act of resistance was to plough up the surveyors’ pegs and lines. The great outpouring of aroha I am seeing in my own neighbourhood of Avondale towards the Muslim community here, and across the country, is a Parihaka-style response to the evil that struck in Christchurch: facing down an ideology of hatred with a demonstration of love. A symbolic melting of the cold steel of violence in the hot tears of compassion, welcome, and the radical identification that says: “They are us.”

Here is the letter.

*By the time the sculpture show closed in late March, 9000 people had participated as peg shifters. Such is the enduring resonance of Parihaka.

Although it is the night

In the dark times will there also be singing?

At my local Islamic centre this morning / Kennedy Warne

At the end of my January post, a tribute to the poet Mary Oliver, I quoted from her “Lines Written in the Days of Growing Darkness,” in which she urges us to “go on / though the sun be swinging east, / and the ponds be cold and black, / and the sweets of the year be doomed.” I concluded with the words, “Yes, much that is sweet is gone or going, but Oliver’s poems will continue to pour their syrup on sorrowing souls. We will go on.”

What a pang those words bring me now. How different they look. How different our world looks. I have been thinking about Bertolt Brecht’s little poem, which asks a desperate question and receives an encouraging answer:

In the dark times
Will there also be singing?
Yes, there will be singing
About the dark times.

Who sings about the dark times? I suddenly remembered I know someone who has: Seamus Heaney. Here is his poem about those times.

Station Island, XI

As if the prisms of the kaleidoscope
I plunged once in a butt of muddied water
Surfaced like a marvellous lightship

And out of its silted crystals a monk’s face
That had spoken years ago from behind a grille
Spoke again about the need and chance

To salvage everything, to re-envisage
The zenith and glimpsed jewels of any gift
Mistakenly abased…

What came to nothing could always be replenished.

‘Read poems as prayers,’ he said, ‘and for your penance
Translate me something by Juan de la Cruz.’

Returned from Spain to our chapped wilderness,
His consonants aspirate, his forehead shining,
He had made me feel there was nothing to confess.

Now his sandaled passage stirred me on to this:

How well I know that fountain, filling, running,
although it is the night.

That eternal fountain, hidden away,
I know its haven and its secrecy
although it is the night.

But not its source because it does not have one,
which is all sources’ source and origin
although it is the night.

No other thing can be so beautiful.
Here the earth and heaven drink their fill
although it is the night.

So pellucid it can never be muddied,
and I know that all light radiates from it
although it is the night.

I know no sounding line can find its bottom,
nobody ford or plumb its deepest fathom
although it is the night

And its current so in flood it overspills
to water hell and heaven and all peoples
although it is the night.

And the current that is generated there,
as far as it wills to, it can flow that far
although it is the night.

And from these two a third current proceeds
which neither of these two, I know, precedes
although it is the night.

This eternal fountain hides and splashes
within this living bread that is life to us
although it is the night.

Hear it calling out to every creature.
And they drink these waters, although it is dark here
because it is the night.

I am repining for this living fountain.
Within this bread of life I see it plain
although it is the night.

Vanishing into something better

Mary Oliver showed us how to take the world into our arms

‘May I stay forever in the stream’ / Kennedy Warne

On cold winter nights, Mary Oliver wrote in her poem “In Praise of Craziness, of a Certain Kind,” her deranged grandmother would spread newspapers on the floor of her porch so that ants could crawl beneath them and keep warm. Such kindness from a woman “with ownership of half her mind—the other half having flown back to Bohemia,” prompted in Oliver the wish that when she, too, was “struck by the lightning of years,” she should prove as loving.

And so it turned out. Love for the small, the meek, the insignificant and the overlooked became a hallmark of the beloved American poet, who died this month, aged 83.

Whether she was writing about finches bathing in a puddle or mussels clinging to the sea rocks of Provincetown, Massachusetts, her home for more than 50 years, whether of oaks or otters, geese or green beans, her affectionate regard cast a glow around these ordinary things, restoring to them the luminous worth that a careless mind misses. And being herself restored in the process.

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Martin in the mangroves

Today is the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr in Memphis, Tennessee. I made an unexpected connection with that event when I was exploring mangrove forests in the Bahamas . . .

Mangroves of Bimini, which Martin Luther King Jr visited days before his death.
Photo by Kennedy Warne

On February 1, 1968, two Memphis rubbish collectors took shelter from pelting rain inside their compactor truck. Moments later, the dilapidated and defective vehicle malfunctioned, crushing Echol Cole and Robert Walker in its machinery.

For the city’s 1300 mostly black sanitation workers, the men’s horrible death was a spark in their long-simmering protest against miserable pay and dangerous working conditions. Ten days later, they went on strike, demanding the right to belong to a union and to earn a living wage.

Through February and March, while trash piled up in the streets of Memphis, the workers marched to City Hall to voice their protest. They faced intimidation and police brutality. Photographs from the time show wary workers walking past a phalanx of young white National Guardsmen holding rifles with fixed bayonets. The workers wear placards around their necks saying “I am a man”—a line from an address by Rev James Lawson, a Memphis pastor and chairman of the strike committee. “For at the heart of racism is the idea that a man is not a man, that a person is not a person,” he had told the workers. “You are human beings. You are men. You deserve dignity.”

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Happy birthday, HDT

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.

A walk through Alice’s restaurant

money ruins everything (Custom) (2) 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.

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In the marina of mangroves

earl in mangroves (Custom) 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.

Earl
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?
earl
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.

He called me: “Earl’s gone.”

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On the island of mangroves

veronika 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.

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Tuhoe’s Bloody Sunday

raid 2 new
Police approach Maungapohatu through the rugged Te Urewera forest. / Alexander Turnbull Library

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.

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Wildlife and chocolate

skink 3 (Custom)
Wright’s skink, endemic to Seychelles, on Aride Island

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.

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