March 5, 2004. Cape Reinga, New Zealand.
More than Middle Earth
Many Americans know New Zealand principally through the lens of The Lord of The Rings.
Like them I was unsure what to expect. To my astonishment I found a way of life which
I think is better than my own.
This is not such an easy thing for an American to admit. Our culture is so confident that we
oftentimes judge the world by the quantity of its KFCs: the more deeply a place is Americanized,
the more we feel, viscerally and spiritually, that it's right.
The New Zealand I encountered is more than Peter Jackson's spectacular scenery. It's a
visceral challenge to my sense of what it means to live happily. These are some of the reasons.
Lack of pollution
New Zealand is the first place I've ever known where the world is clean. I stood on clifftops at Cape Reinga and the Bay of Islands and saw with absolute clarity to the ends of the earth. This is simply not possible in California, where the horizon is brown on even the most perfect of clear spring days.
Even the rural outback of America is impacted. Lake Tahoe receives the drifting air pollution of the San Francisco Bay metropolis, while national treasures such as Yellowstone and Yosemite are threatened by acid rain and by right-wing ideologues in office who gleefully grant snowmobile entrepreneurs egregious freedom of destruction.
Lack of noise pollution was equally striking. I was many times able to climb hills and hear nothing but wind and waves. Perhaps it seems surprising that such a simple thing could cause such an impact. Yet it amazed me. There's not one square foot of ground anywhere on the North American continent where you can stand longer than three minutes without hearing jet planes overhead. This may of course be frustrated hyperbole. But I don't think so.
What was life like for people when all the world was clean? I could not have imagined this question just two months ago.
Rhetoric of partnership between Maori and Europeans
I many times heard it expressed, in what seemed to be official discourse, that in New Zealand the creation of the nation goes forward in partnership between Maori and Europeans.
It's hard to convey how unimaginable this rhetoric is to American ears. We simply do not discuss the people who lived here before we Europeans arrived. They were eradicated by disease and war, and today they're present neither in popular consciousness nor political discourse. We see them in movies, of course: John Wayne kills them, Kevin Costner joins them; and these twin antinomies of demonization and romanticism are naively all we know. There's no notion of partnership: that would imply equality.
March 5, 2004. Sand Surfing, 90 Mile Beach, New Zealand.
I don't understand the substance of these issues in New Zealand. But I was shocked and absolutely delighted to find that they exist. To my ear this is a signal that there's a different experience of civilization unfolding there than the one which unfolded here.
Small towns in New Zealand look like those of my American childhood. While chain stores are evidently taking over like weeds choking a field, right now there are still independent merchants, maybe more of them than chain stores, just like little Lemon Grove, California, in the early 1960s. A place I loved, which died, that is, lost its identity, more than a generation ago.
Let me tell you a story about this. Here in San Francisco independently-owned stores are so rare that neighbors ban together to protect them. A neighborhood called Inner Sunset fought for years to prevent Blockbuster Video crushing their local movie merchant. The struggle was so fierce that during its construction somebody actually torched the Blockbuster building. The neighbors won: Blockbuster went away. This story is interesting because it's so rare. Normally there's no struggle, and it's the small merchant who goes away, silently and forever. It's hardly worth commenting on, because nearly everywhere it was over long ago. Kids grow up never knowing what was lost.
Across the north island I saw the downtowns of my childhood many times. Waipu, Paihia, Thames, Coromandel, Te Awamutu; even Mt. Maunganui and Rotorua weren't so far gone that they'd become like Lemon Grove is today, a strip mall like any other.
In New Zealand today there are about 6,500 convicts in prison. To American ears this is an astonishing number. In America in April 2004 there were 2,019,234 prisoners: the equivalent of approximately half of the population of New Zealand.
To view these numbers in proportional comparison. New Zealand imprisons about 150 of every 100,000 of its inhabitants. The U.S. imprisons 702, the highest number in the world. More than seven million living Americans have been jailed.
Yet crime in New Zealand is far less common than in America. In 2003 there were 1103.7 crimes per 100,000 people. In the U.S. in 2001 there were 4,160. America imprisons four times as much of its population than New Zealand, yet there are nevertheless four times as many crimes per person. This statistic indicates that crime does not decrease when prison population increases.
Why then are so many Americans behind bars?
March 5, 2004. Cape Reinga, New Zealand.
Sadly, much of the answer is race. Here's a disquieting figure. In 1993 before the fall of Apartheid, South Africa imprisoned 851 adult black males per 100,000. In 2002 the U.S. imprisoned 7,150 adult black males per 100,000. The figure for Hispanic males is almost as chilling: 1,740 per 100,000. The so-called "War on Drugs" is disproportionately a war on people of color.
Yet political culture is also part of the story. In America the dominant political discourse descends from Puritanism, and it emphasizes repression. The European tradition of Social Democracy, which included the notion that enlightened governance can have a rational basis in science and fact, has no traction in America, where politicians gain office by manipulating primitive fears and stereotypes. I don't know what politicians say to get elected in New Zealand. But I'll note that when I was there I listened on the radio to what seemed to my jaded ears to be reasonable, rational discussions of practical issues such as the best strategies for easing traffic congestion in Auckland. Compared to American political gobbledygook, that's a hopeful sign.
I've never seen greens like those. Subtle and spectacular, in the ocean, the forests, the hillsides. Emerald, turquoise, aquamarine, lime, glow-in-the-dark: subtle gradations blending from one hue to another. Look over the ocean from a high promontory: it's like green and blue paint are running together over god's easel.
With magical light, so vibrant it feels like a living thing, not so much falling from the sky as growing there, settling over the world like warm arms. No, I was not high on drugs. I will go to New Zealand again and again just to look at things through that light.
Food with flavor
Agriculture in America is so productive that we could feed the world if our leaders chose to do so. Yet that productivity comes with an ironic downside. Our vegetables ripen in transit, our meat and poultry are raised in pens on hormone-and-antibiotic-laced feed, so that American food tastes diluted. Right now New Zealand seems to enjoy very favorable circumstances for agriculture, the combination of scientific pest control and fertilization with short shipping distances and a small population to feed, so that cows can range free and fruits can ripen on trees. I can tell you without exaggeration that food in New Zealand tastes noticeably better than food in America.
We locked our keys in the car. Don't ask. Let's just say it took all the ingenuity which two bright and experienced travelers could bring to bear. Tapu, a roadside village with a few bungalows, an ice cream store, and a lovely rocky shore. Before you could say uh-oh the whole town was on the job. George the panel beater arrived with wire coathangers and crowbars and implements from every safe-cracking movie you've ever seen. Presto-chango, he's got the lock open, and I haven't even had time to finish my ice cream. Won't accept payment. Won't even let us buy him a beer, which shocks me speechless. Let's just say the people are really, really nice.
Now think about America. The car would have been stripped and resting on cinderblocks before we could ask for a phone book. OK, that's not true. There wouldn't have been cinderblocks. That's not true either, but the joke has an edge of realism to it. In the States people are wary, pretty much everywhere, pretty much all the time. Walk up to a stranger and say hello on any city street in California. Watch their eyes. They'll think you're Charlie Manson and you've come to write in blood on their walls. I never saw that reaction in New Zealand.
Small is beautiful
March 5, 2004. Moonrise, Paihia, New Zealand.
In Paihia I arrived at the very peak of the summer tourist crush. "The whole town is full!", said the motel manager, with only the very slightest hint of stress in her very friendly voice. I expected to see crowds but, looking up and down the street from one end of town to the other, it was like my neighborhood Safeway late on an off night. There were a few figures, but, mostly there weren't.
Of all the novel sensations I felt in New Zealand this may have been the one which delighted me most consistently from day to day. That you could be in an environment with Internet connections and book stores and restaurants, yet still feel you had room to turn around and stretch in public without bashing someone with your elbows. I've struggled with agoraphobia since my return.
Clean is beautiful, too
With the rational part of my brain I realize that this must be romanticizing things. But I swear that all the public toilets I used were spotless, as though the nation, in its pride of hospitality, made it a particular cultural emphasis to offer consistently immaculate facilities. You could hear my jaw drop, as the saying goes; the good news is that the floors were clean, too.
There's more. I found myself having to search out cigarette butts. People do smoke in New Zealand but apparently they swallow the filters when they're done, 'cause there weren't any. Toward the end of my first week I finally found one, on the ground outside the lighthouse at Pt. Reinga. Probably left by an American.
I have pictures to prove it. On the road north of Auckland I took an impromptu hike to find a waterfall audible in the distance. No people, just a public trail with terraced steps leading through forest of tree fern. I liked the dappled light so much that I shot about two dozen trail pics, including close-ups of dried leaves on ground without footprints. In America because of lack of public funding a trail this minor would be littered with refuse potentially years old. This one was immaculate: there's not a cigarette butt or a candy wrapper or a soda can in any of my images, including the observation deck overlooking the falls.
You have to experience this to realize how greatly it affects you. There's some kind of resonance in our nervous systems, or in mine, anyway. It's as though cleanliness triggers the all-is-well centers of the brain, like the endorphin release after exercising. It must be extraordinary to live in that environment, at least if one knows what the rest of the developed world is like.
The fact that there are (probably) no nuclear warheads pointed at your head
As I sit here in Silicon Valley I'm conscious that there are doubtless two dozen ex-Soviet MIRVs out there with my name on them. This consciousness is part of the American experience: it's like the emotional equivalent of background radiation. New Zealand's brave anti-nuclear stance means that Kiwis may never need to know this feeling. It's a good thing not to.
It's sad to realize that the wheels of free-market "progress" will one day grind down these unspoiled advantages, as they very likely will. But it's hopeful to remember that Kiwis have a tradition of political rebelliousness which has kept them nuclear free. Perhaps there's some chance that this rebelliousness can be translated into a sustained, responsible stewardship of the nation's environmental and cultural treasures. Arm-wrestling, as it were, against Adam Smith's hidden hand. Realistic or not, that's a lovely image.
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of this piece was published by the
one of New Zealand's two independent newspapers, in May, 2004.
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