When the forecast is just right, Irene and Crispin Middleton wake up in the middle of the night and put to sea.
When the forecast is just right, Irene and Crispin Middleton wake up in the middle of the night and put to sea.
Charlotte Graham used to live on the top floor of a wooden house in Wellington. On November 14, 2016, two minutes after midnight, it began shaking so badly that she struggled to make it to the doorway to shelter. When the earthquake finally subsided, and she heard her flatmates return to bed, she wondered: Do we all need to evacuate? Head up Mt Victoria? She couldn’t find anything online about tsunami risk. Someone on Twitter sent her a map of Wellington council evacuation zones. It didn’t have street names, but she knew the city well enough to place her house in one of the safe zones. It made her wonder: What about people who didn’t use social media? Or the internet? A longterm Radio New Zealand producer, freelance journalist and community volunteer, Graham was well versed in earthquake reporting. She wanted to know what provisions were in place for the vulnerable in disaster planning in New Zealand, and whether the organisations looking after them were getting the same kind of help as quake-stricken businesses. “It became clear that the picture in Wellington was a lot more interesting than I’d first realised,” she says, “but also in the way that Wellington’s most vulnerable were not included.” In early 2017, she won a Scoop Foundation grant that enabled her to do the legwork of finding out more: “I ended up putting in an Official Information Act request to every council in New Zealand to find out what they actually had in documentation to address the safety of vulnerable people.” Councils were, by and large, baffled. No one had asked this before. Some have yet to furnish Graham with answers to questions first posed beginning in April 2016. It’s information she believes is vital. “You can ring a government department and ask for the national picture, but you’re not necessarily going to get the minutiae of the challenges that different areas are facing,” she says. Sometimes the reporting process is time-consuming and boringly administrative—and sometimes the outcome is vitally important. The result of Graham’s research, which has spanned eight months and counting, is a national picture of our disaster readiness, more detailed than ever before.
For five years Richard Robinson has been heading out into the blue realm far beyond our shores to photograph the pelagic creatures that live there. It wasn’t an assignment as such, but the beginning of a body of work propelled only by curiosity. He began accruing images of events that occur so rarely that few have had the opportunity to photograph them—orca hunting, the birth and first breath of a pilot whale, feeding frenzies that included several hundred animals. Soon, he had the kernel of an idea that began to coalesce around a working title, ‘Where the Buffalo Roam’—a reference to the American West that matched Robinson’s vision of this vast ocean prairie and its cast of leviathans. The project received two big boosts. First, researcher Jochen Zaeschmar allowed Robinson to accompany him on his many trips offshore, where the photographer took up a spotting position high in the crow’s nest. Later, Robinson won the inaugural Canon Personal Project Grant, enabling the completion of the project with the new 5D Mark IV. The coincidence of vision, curiosity and good fortune are captured in the pages of this issue: “Some of the best work of my life,” says Robinson.
Formerly the editor of Mana magazine, Leonie Hayden faced a unique set of challenges writing for a more mainstream audience in this magazine. “I was surprised by how many words and concepts common to Māori required definition,” she says. “I thought that ancestral maunga, the idea that a mountain can be more than mountain, was a concept that all New Zealanders understood. But despite hundreds of years of shared history, not everyone understands the physical and psychological connections to landmarks that are important to Māori.” This lack of understanding in language is also reflected in law, the ultimate construct of state. “But world views differ,” says Hayden. “Māori are unable to question it, and still have to play by the rules. We have to look to academic leaders to lead the conversation, to slowly translate and incorporate the Māori world view into the British legal system. But how do you even do that? It feels like a long and impossible task.” The SOUL protestors, profiled in her feature, are part of advancing that public discussion of difference, of redefining what it is to own land and what it is to belong to the land. “I’m not convinced that we’re very good at protecting our taonga,” she says. “In researching this I feel like Heritage New Zealand have let a lot of New Zealanders down. I don’t see how outcomes like this can protect special places. “Providing resources for people who are here right now is more important than what has gone before. You have to house and clothe people, and history won’t do that, but I hope that thinking of the past as a living thing will be a concept that’s relevant to more than only Māori.”
Photographing actors on the set of a Shakespeare play is a far cry from Peter Meecham’s last story for New Zealand Geographic. In 1992, he documented a 160-kilometre horseback journey through Central Otago for the magazine; 25 years later, he’s back, with the story of a four-month theatrical production in Auckland. Meecham, a photojournalist who works for a variety of newspapers, is more accustomed to spending time on the sidelines than in the wings, but the Pop-Up Globe and the passion of its cast and crew proved unexpectedly compelling. To his surprise, his 13-year-old son also took a liking to the plays, insisting on being his assistant in order to covertly watch the performances—and developing a brand-new interest in the arts. “He’s the captain of the open-weight under-13 rugby team in Auckland, he’s rugby-mad, he plays cricket, he watches basketball consistently on TV—it drives me nuts,” says Meecham. Meecham had a front-seat view of the evolution of the four plays, following them from previews through to closing nights. He saw jokes emerge and actors’ confidence grow, as the crew formed a tight-knit bond born of their marathon four months of shows. The plays may be 400 years old, but as Meecham and his son saw first-hand, they can still make an audience of a thousand people laugh.
The shaking started a few minutes after midnight, just as sleep was finally drifting across the threshold of my fractious mind. I was on the top floor of a Blenheim motel, with a group of 16 Americans on a New Zealand tour with National Geographic. We had spent the morning at Te Papa, taking in, among other exhibits, Awesome Forces, a dramatic telling of how earthquakes and other geological ructions have shaped the landscape. Now we were getting a first-hand demonstration. It was a new experience for me. We don’t get earthquakes in Auckland; here, we just wait for the next volcanic cone to poke its head out of the ground and smother us with molten lava and asphyxiating ash. As I crouched in the doorway of the bathroom while the room swayed, I wondered: At what stage does the plaster start falling off the ceiling? My next thought was: So this is what the people of Canterbury have endured for the past six years. A life lived on tenterhooks, ruled by uncertainty, knowing what’s coming but never when. A life of permanent impermanence. I checked on the guests. Surprisingly, only one of them had emerged from her room to see what was going on. I went out into the street, where some people had gathered around a house where the chimney had toppled. A siren wailed in the distance. This was actually the second earthquake the group had experienced while in New Zealand—though the first was metaphorical. The tour had begun on the day of the American elections. None of the guests were Trump supporters, and I watched the dismay growing on their faces as the results streamed in on their cellphones. “What are you doing, America?” I heard one say. The night dragged on, punctuated by bouts of lurching and jolting that felt to me like severe aircraft turbulence—the kind that makes you grip the armrests and hope the wings are well attached. By the time we walked around the town in the morning, glaziers were already at work on smashed windows, barrier tape was cordoning off damaged buildings and shop assistants were picking up toppled mannequins and strewn goods inside their closed stores. And Blenheim had come off lightly. Even for those of us on the periphery, earthquakes undermine our sense of stability and trust. If we cannot trust the ground under our feet, what can we trust? One of the prayers used by the Catholic diocese of Christchurch for those affected by earthquakes asks God to “be their rock when the earth refuses to stand still, and shelter them under your wings when homes and offices no longer exist”. I thought of farmers I had met in the Clarence Valley and inland from Kekerengu when I was writing about the Clarence River in issue 74. I read that a house on Sue and Chid Murray’s 40,000-hectare station between the Seaward and Inland Kaikōura Mountains had been demolished by the earthquake. They took it in their stride, as farmers tend to do, although they have a special reason to take a long view of disruptive events. Bluff Station is one of the few places in the world that contain a visible geological marker of the asteroid that struck the Earth 65 million years ago, wiping out the dinosaurs and half of all living species. (Warren Judd wrote about that apocalypse in issue 101.) I was sorry to hear that the seal pups that delight tourists with their antics in Waterfall Creek, near the popular seal-spotting viewpoint at Ohau Point, had lost their bathing facilities, buried under a landslide, but was then pleased to read that they are now using other waterholes further upstream. As a former marine zoology student who had studied rocky reefs at Kaikōura in the 1970s, I was stunned to learn that some portions of those shorelines had been lifted by metres in the earthquake, leaving thousands of intertidal organisms high, dry and destined to perish. Public attention, not surprisingly, focused on the plight of paua. To avoid dehydration, molluscs like paua and limpets clamp down tightly to the rock when exposed to air, waiting for the tide to return. What would they do now? The tide would never cover them again. A group of local people calling themselves Kaikōura Paua Relief took it upon themselves to shift stranded paua back into the sea. In the days following the American election, some of my guests were feeling as limp and emotionally dehydrated as those abalones. Their stability had been rocked. The political meteor they dreaded had struck. I shared their dismay. It seemed to me that the long arc of the moral universe, in Martin Luther King Jr’s famous line, had just got longer. Recent gains in justice for minorities—including, to the amazement of many, the outcome for Native Americans at Standing Rock—now seem as impermanent as land on a fault line. “Everything changes, get used to it,” writes James Norcliffe in an anthology of poems about the Canterbury earthquakes. That takes some doing, I suspect, for those picking up either the literal or metaphorical pieces. Our hearts are with them.
Bill Morris grew up on a farm in the headwaters of the Rakaia Valley, the son of a farmer and bush poet. As a result, he became interested in writing at a young age, and the sometimes-fraught relationship between people and the land. Later, he worked as a commercial diver around the coast of Stewart Island, trying to eradicate the invasive seaweed Undaria. The team had been tearing up the fast-growing weed by its roots for four years already, and Morris worked in the frigid waters for a year before DOC ultimately pulled the project—Undaria had got away on them, and their work had become futile. He crossed Foveaux Strait and began a career in journalism, first with the Southland Times, later as a freelance writer and television director at Natural History New Zealand, where he still works. His first feature for New Zealand Geographic was on country music, his second on 60-million-year-old whales. In this issue he writes about the tiny fresh-water fish, kōkopu. Variety is the spice of Morris’ life. “I didn’t really know anything about native fish before writing the story, but found this entire subculture of conservationists, scientists and impassioned people—almost a secret society—that exists around these little fish,” he says. “Most of the species are endemic to New Zealand and we know so little about them, people are fascinated by that, and the prospect that there may still be new species to be found.” This month, he was browsing produce at the Dunedin farmers’ market when he came across one of his dive buddies from his days combat- ting Undaria. To Morris’ alarm, his mate was selling Undaria, which also happens to be the raw ingredient wakame, the seaweed used in Japanese cuisine. He bought some. “It raises some interesting philosophical questions,” says Morris. “How much energy and effort do you pour into protecting indigenous ecosystems, when nature is a thing that’s in constant flux? All conservation is artificial, in a way, so where do you draw the line? “In New Zealand we have a very black and white view of conservation, of trying to return to a Garden of Eden state, but we live in a modified landscape, and we need to find a balance between existing here and using the country’s resources without compromising what makes it unique. We’ve got a long way to go in terms of finding that balance. It’s something we’ve been searching for since the first Polynesian set foot here, and that influences not just our environment but our identity as a people.”
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