The Squad has already heard lectures from several New Zealand experts, including Dr. Colin Meurk and world-famous botanist Hugh Wilson, and in just one week we have learned a staggering amount about the natural history of New Zealand as well as the current measures being taken to protect the land. From tracking tui birds to removing invasive plant species from protected areas, we are learning hands-on in one of the most beautiful countries in the world. Here are a couple of the coolest things I’ve learned so far:
1. Approximately 170 million years ago, Pangaea was the dominant land-mass. Gondwana was the name given to the southernmost portion of Pangaea, and one of the first regions to break away from Gondwana was New Zealand. Because New Zealand left Gondwana relatively early on in evolutionary history, the only land mammals that existed in the country were bats. The biotic realm was dominated by birds and an incredibly diverse array of plant species. This means that all mammals in New Zealand now, excluding bats, are introduced and exotic. Rats, possums, cats, dogs, and members of the ferret family have all taken a huge toll on New Zealand’s biodiversity.
2. Humans (those pesky mammals) have also played a huge role in the destruction of New Zealand’s biodiversity and in the altering of the landscape. The first humans arrived here from Polynesia between 700 and 1,000 years ago, making New Zealand one of the last areas settled in the world. The indigenous people here are called the Maori, and after their arrival, many of the native bird and plant species were lost (including the massive ostrich-like bird, the moa). Living off the land certainly came at a high price, especially after the arrival of European settlers.
3. The Maori culture exists strongly through to the present-day. Most New Zealanders know many Maori words, including the common greeting Kia Ora, and a lot of the native plant species are referred to by their Maori names, which we are in the process of learning.
4. I don’t know if it’s because they are in touch with the Maori culture, or if it’s because New Zealand is simply so beautiful, but New Zealanders (Kiwis) are very in touch with conservation measures taking place around the country and are passionate about the natural world. I find this so admirable, and I think the rest of the world can learn a lot from this. Caring about the environment is the first step to bridging the human-nature gap. Compassion leads to action. History has shown us this time and time again. All we have to do is listen.
So after that VERY brief selection of some fun New Zealand facts, I want to tie everything together by talking about detours. I have recently added detours to The List of Things I Am Passionate About. (This is a list that will surely grow in perpetuity.) Here is why: Our mini-adventures led by Dr. Hostetler (in between our grand restoration projects, tea breaks, and lectures) have contributed to the life-changing nature of this trip for me. Each detour reinforces everything we’ve learned (including those listed above), how incredible this country is, why I am proud to be a part of the global scientific community, and why I hope I can always lead a life that helps the world and its people rather than hurts it.
We have visited Birdling’s Flat twice, an outcropping of land on the ocean. What do we do there? We look at rocks. I’m not kidding. We could spend hours there, looking at the millions upon millions of rocks that line the shore, picking out the ones that “speak to us,” as Dr. Hostetler says. There is something about that little detour that, without fail, makes us giddy with excitement and pure happiness.
We took a detour down Onawe Road, where we climbed a cliff that looked out on a bay by Akaroa. We stood there in silence (which is strange for our normally boisterous and talkative group) to absorb the view of the mountains stretching out for miles around us. We saw lava rocks that looked like fiery swirls of red and orange clay. We saw chitons suctioned to the bottom of seaside rocks, creatures that are tens of millions of years old. I will admit that I had a moment when I picked up one of these rocks and saw the ancient organisms resting in a colony underneath it. I felt stunned as a gap of time and evolutionary history shrunk into an inch of space while I held the rock in my hands. I stared for about five minutes before I could move away.
We pulled over to the side of a random road on our way home from our three-day visit in Akaroa to hike up a slippery slope to a giant totara tree. It was damp from the rain, its bark damaged here and there from extreme wind and scattered storms, but it was the most beautiful tree I’ve ever seen. I felt stupid, small, and unworthy in its presence. It was 600 years old and I am barely 20. I understood very suddenly that the tree knows a lot more than I do.
These detours have made me understand how and why New Zealand is so special. The combination of historical, biological, and anthropological events that have led to its formation – the natural processes along with the unnatural – are so unique in occurrence that there simply is no other place like New Zealand in the world. This place changes you. I have learned so much here, through classes, through hands-on experiences, and through detours that have proven to be more profound and moving than I could have ever imagined. And there is so much more to discover.
If the structure of this post was confusing, I apologize. Sometimes it’s hard to convey my excitement and amazement eloquently. I will be posting again in a little less than a week to update you on The Squad’s adventures!
Wishing you well,