Reconnecting With Nature

November 21, 2014
Iain MacLeod

I write a lot in this blog about the practical difficulties of securing a long term future in New Zealand in terms of the rules and regulations and labour market barriers and sometimes don’t think I focus enough on the life that might await you once you have.

Perhaps I take the laid back New Zealand way of life for granted because it is my life. That maybe I don’t get across just how easy it can be living in a highly developed but relatively sparsely populated country of 4.5 million and yet enjoying a connection with nature most people can only dream of.

I was never reminded more of this than this morning and the difference 5 days can make. I am in Hong Kong, having arrived at my hotel at 2am this morning.

I awoke to what I thought was the sound of a bird singing and it really made me start. I had never heard a bird in Hong Kong before (actually thinking about it I don’t think I have ever seen one outside of a cage). Goodness me I thought as I pushed back the fog of sleep – a bird! How nice. Then came the realisation that it was only the ‘beep beep beep’ of a reversing truck somewhere close by. I sighed, rolled over and dozed, thinking, of course, this is Hong Kong……nature and humans do not mix.

I got up and ventured out mid-morning, grabbed a coffee and then went looking for a sim card for my phone. And down onto Canton Road which was clogged with people – thousands and thousands of cigarette smoking, cellphone using, footpath blocking and jibber jabbering people. No one interested in getting out of anyone’s way. No one it seems conscious that to stop in the middle of a 3 metre wide footpath with your three large suitcases and two small children is not all that conducive to the smooth flow of foot traffic around you. But then as I have come to realise in Asia – the rule here is there really aren’t any – it is every man and woman to themselves. And those cellphones! This constant need to be connected to God knows who even when walking down a busy footpath. What is with that???

As for me I do what I always do like some sort of small town village idiot. I put my phone away. I dodge and weave and say ‘excuse me’, bump into someone, apologise again and probably walk about three times further than the actual distance needed to travel because I am so aware of being polite to everyone else and dodging those in my path.

Having got the sim card sorted I sat down for a coffee and considered what a difference a few days can make when you are a New Zealander who spends a lot of time overseas doing business as so many of us these day do.

Last weekend my wife and I were up at our beach house.

Saturday morning was a quiet affair whiled away at a local café and farmer’s market – buying local produce, immigrant artisan foods and as I usually do buying a few more native tree seedlings to take back to the beachouse. After that I headed to the local landscape supplies company to get a trailer load of compost. I needed the compost as I am busy planting up about 4000 square metres of our land in native plants. I spent Saturday afternoon digging scores of holes, preparing them for the trees, adding fertilizer and planting.

As I prepared the holes, the leaf litter exploded with the scurrying of Skinks, a small brown native lizard anxious to escape. Fat worms were dug up and twisted and turned in reaction to the light and air they are unused to with every shovel I made. If birds could smile the local Blackbirds would surely have been as they pounced on these worms – a bird’s version of fast food.

The native Piwakawaka, or Fantail, cheeped with excitement and dived around me producing aerial acrobatics as they chased the insect clouds thrown up by my activities and gorging themselves.

At one point a plump native pigeon, known as a Kereru, feathers all white, iridescent green and grey, flew into a tree beside me, it’s impending arrival being heralded by the ‘whomp whomp whomp’ of its wings which I always get the impression struggle to keep this large bird in flight. It began eating the new shoots of a native tree I planted a couple of years ago.

I cannot tell you how rewarding that sight was. Most of the land we bought 15 years ago was poor quality farmland, clay soils and covered in a rampant African grass species known as Kikuyu. It smothers everything and the dense mat does not allow trees to take root and push through to the sunlight.

Having planted many fast growing and nitrogen fixing Australian Acacias in recent years a stunning transformation has been taking place. These trees are rapidly growing in the warm climate and as they grow they have denied sunlight to the grass which has been thinning out. A rich leaf litter has started to build up and form a highly nutritious layer of humus ideal for seedling trees.

The more trees I have planted the more birds that have come back. The more birds that come back the more seeds they bring with them and new native tree species are appearing everywhere thanks to their droppings (saves my wallet and my back from have to plant fewer trees).

A virtuous cycle and a pleasure to watch unfold down the years.

Around dusk I stopped, exhausted and had a quiet drink sitting on our deck with my wife enjoying the changing light and colours of the sky as the sun set behind us. The sky to the east changed from a deep blue, to mauve, then dark purple, to grey and finally to black over the islands of Taranga which lie about 15km out to sea.

It has been a month of unusually spring like big winds and showers and so Saturday night turned out to be. Although we have a 3 bedroomed house we prefer to sleep in our safari tent I bought in South Africa a couple of years go and which is big enough for a Queen sized bed, rugs and a few pieces of furniture and a million dollar view over the ocean (when lying in bed).

We drifted off to sleep to the sound of a gentle rain on the tent roof over our heads and the sounds of rivulets of water dripping off the sides. We could smell the damp Earth and hear the wind rattling the leaves in the trees around us. Some time in the small hours the rain stopped and the wind died away completely and all we could then hear were the night owls, the waves breaking on the beach about a kilometre away and….nothing else.

At dawn we were awoken by Tuis, Kingfishers, Mynah birds and Rosellas all screeching at the new day within meters of our heads.

Doesn’t make for a lazy lie in.

As the sea was calm (as spied from our bed!!) we decided to go fishing. We packed up the boat, towed it down to the beach on my rusty and not very reliable big blue tractor and launched it into the waiting Pacific. Less than 10 kilometres out to sea we stopped, deployed the sea anchor and drifted for the next three hours enjoying the solitude, the sea and the prospect of fresh fish. We caught ten snapper (a beautiful eating fish) of which we returned four to the sea (the first to give thanks to the sea for the fish). The six we took home we have been eating all week.

Now, you may not have a boat when you come to New Zealand and you may be a bit wary of the sea if you come from places like KL, Singapore and Hong Kong but New Zealanders have grown up on and beside it. You need to get to know it. Teach the children to swim (swimming lessons are freely available all over the country). Like many New Zealanders I cannot bear to be long not seeing or smelling the sea. I am never happier than when I am on it or scuba diving under it.

Of course Hong Kong was once a fishing village and the wonderful harbour made it a natural place for our ancestors to settle. What a shame that virtually all traces of that are gone, where you wouldn’t swim in the water if you valued your health and if you could find any fish you’d be taking your life into your hands if you were to eat anything you caught given the polluted state of most water around here (and the rest of Asia for that matter).

For those of you not here yet getting close to nature, to the sea, to forests, beaches, birds and fish is never more than a 30 minute drive away from wherever you settle.

It is I hope something you look forward to so you and your children can connect with nature as much as I do.

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