Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Abandon Ship! Abandon Ship!

Kia Ora Koutou,

The following are some pics from an outing we had here in Wellington Harbour, on 2 Aug 2009. My employer, NZ Police, recently circulated an announcement that the Interislander Ferry was going to run a full-scale Fire/Abandon Ship Emergency Drill and needed volunteers to serve as "disaster victims", though they assured us there would be "no actual abandoning of the ship". Police staff and their families living in the Wellington region were encouraged to volunteer.

In exchange for our cooperation, we would get a free light lunch, refreshments and a cruise around the harbour. Since we have never been on the big ferry, have no plans to ride anytime soon and are so broke we jump at any free lunch, we decided to volunteer. Luckily, our winter weather cooperated giving us mostly sun and calm waters. It lasted most of the day and was great fun.

Hopefully, Eric will post a longer and more elloquent update soon. But I thought I would post these pics to let you know we are still here.

To our family and friends in the US, we love and miss you all! Three cheers to my Mom, who is bravely leaving the US on her first ever international trip - to visit us - at the end of Sept.! Have a safe and wonderful trip Mom!

Love, Linda

Friday, July 10, 2009

Quick Note . . . Seven & Toothless!

Kia ora mates,

Connor turned 7 and lost 2 more teeth in June. I don't know if I will ever get used to experiencing winter in July and summer in December, but I suppose we can't really complain. We regularly go down to Percy Scenic Reserve at the bottom of our hill and feed the ducks, in the middle of winter! Hope all of you are well.

Cheers, Linda

Monday, February 23, 2009

The Unbearable Lateness of Being

Yes, yes, I know. Almost eight months, no blog post. What can I say? I’m a charter member of The Procrastinator’s Club. I never seem to make it to the meetings, though.

There is a terrible negative feedback loop inherent to keeping a diary, a journal or a blog. The longer you put it off, the more there is to write. The more there is to write, the less you want to write it. Soon an insidious threshold value is exceeded, and the endeavour tranforms into something like health care reform – you nod at the problem, make resigned noises and head off to the pub for a cold one.

Besides, I keep reading that true spiritual enlightenment consists in living fully in the NOW. Since blogs are often mostly concerned with the recent past, slavery to their maintenance is the mark of an undeveloped soul. At least, that’s my story and I’m sticking to it.

It would be impossible to document the last few months fully, so I won’t even try. Instead, I’ll just blow like a whirlwind through the weeks, sprinkle in some nice pictures, and soon we’ll all be right here in the sacred now.

Fall. When last we met late fall hovered over Kiwiland and our son Connor circled like a vulture over his birthday. We are happy to report that he reached the venerable age of six accompanied with the traditional inundation of gifts. The highlight of his two-week break between school terms came on a misty Saturday afternoon when we ventured up the Hutt River to Silverstream and took Connor on a ride – okay, two rides – aboard a 1900-ish passenger coach pulled by a steam engine. Before we left I hoisted him up into the cab and he gloried in the red roaring coal flames in the firebox, oogled the maze of guages, levers and valves and marvelled at the driver warming tea on the hot steel boiler plate. Boy Heaven. Okay, Dad thought it was pretty cool too.

Winter. Long. Gray. Stormy. Wallet-sucking utility bills.

The “Roaring 40’s” birthed storm after storm through July and August, bringing rain and hurricane-force winds roiling up our ridge. We escaped damage, though broken branches, wrenched gutters and leaning signs littered the neighbourhood. On a couple of days snowflakes danced teasingly down but did not stay. Across the Hutt River valley the Rimutakas displayed occasional white cowls.

A houseguest arrived with winter: a gray field mouse. Every evening around eight he did his fitness work, running from the kitchen to a hiding place under the entertainment centre, or sometimes the reverse, making a circuit around the living room (“lounge”) perimeter. A live-trap finally ended his stay. Relocated to our local park, we assume he is now busily engaged in avoiding fate as a possum, cat or bird snack.

Spring. Three or four days of winter, three or four days of sun, repeat cycle. Flowers everywhere by October. The odd metallic sing-song of Tui’s announcing longer days. Birds claiming our yard, perching on the unused television antenna over the garage and turning the front end of our car into a Jackson Pollack painting rendered in avian excrement. October to November, watching the world go crazy with Obamamania. The NZ media devoted more attention to the presidential race than to their own imminent national elections. Not that I blame them, the American circus was more entertaining. Kiwis were no more immune to the messianic fervour for Obama than Americans were. You would have thought he was running for President, Prime Minister of New Zealand and Grand Global Potentate. For several weeks our American origins transformed us into political pundits. Everyone wanted to know what we thought about the election, what we thought about Obama, were we excited, etc. It is an interesting cultural contrast that Kiwis are much less reticent to ask you about your politics than Americans are. May be it has something to do with the near complete lack of personal firearms here. Anyway, the pro-Obama mood of the country was so thick that we felt the need for caution in our answers, lest we disappoint, disillusion or offend. My stock “well, honestly, I’m not that excited about either of the two as president” answer often drew a response akin to that of a hearty belch in the middle of a sermon. People seemed surprised, and even put off, to find an American who didn’t feel that Obama was the Second Coming.

As permanent residents, Linda and I were eligible to vote in the New Zealand election. We exercised our suffrage with a mixture of pride and amusement. Election day fell on a glorious spring Saturday. A bright cool afternoon, pleasant folks about, a barbecue going on out front of the community centre polls, and, for an utterly surreal touch, two guitar-playing teens entertaining the locals with “Sweet Home Alabama.” For a brief instant in time, it felt more American than America. However, being a parliamentary democracy, the ballot was anything but American. The simplicity was elegant. You cast all of two votes – one for a party, one for a local representative. Parties have a list of representatives, and the number they send to Parliament is determined by the percentage of vote they win. Naturally, the party and individual we voted for lost. Made us feel right at home.

Christmas. Connor’s summer break. Six weeks home with dad. A survival challenge. The family took a couple of nice Saturday outings over the break – a day hike along the Waekaeni River, about half an hour or so up the Tasman Sea coast, and a trip to Staglands Wildlife Preserve, about an hour north, nestled high in the mountains.

This was the first Christmas where Connor truly fell under the spell of Santa’s annual visit. Each day required multiple advisories on the countdown status --- “Five more sleeps 'till Christmas! Four more sleeps 'till Christmas! Three more . . . “ On tree-getting day, we arrived at the local tree stand to find A.) a movie crew packing up vans and trucks after a shoot and B.) all the best trees gone. As a result we ventured home with something of a Charlie Brown tannenbaum. I thought it humble and somehow warm and an appropriate symbol for a season of love. Linda, I think, would have traded me for a better tree. Grandparents and relatives showered Connor with great giftage this year; for several weeks after, woe to the unfortunate soul who asked Connor “what did you get for Christmas?” Heck, people didn’t even have to ask – Connor frequently offered people an unsolicited inventory of his loot.

A New Year. January to February. Connor and dad taking daily walks, playing on the playground, having lunch together down at our local cafe and doing household tasks. It was an enjoyable time, but I was also happy to see school start again in early February. The Boy is back in class, a small measure of peace and quiet has returned to the day. For now, dad retains tenuous hold on sanity.

Odds and Ends. Connor has been attending “Kea Scouts,” the NZ equivalent of a pre-Cub Scout troop. So far, he seems to enjoy it. Linda has been reading voraciously in her free time, blasting through several multi-volume series of science fiction and fantasy. I am still looking for suitable work, still being house dad. The global economic downturn has reached us, and a growth in unemployment hasn’t brightened prospects for me. The US/NZ currency exchange rate took a nosedive over the past few months, from a high of about $.77 Kiwi to US dollar last year to about $.50 now. This is great for US funds coming here. Unfortunately, if you’re trying to pay down any US debt with Kiwi dollars, it effectively doubles the burden. Financially times are hard, but fortunately we are all healthy, happy and still enjoying life here in New Zealand.

Until next time!

Monday, June 9, 2008

Our 1st Anniversary in NZ & Connor's 6th Birthday!

Hello friends, family and interested strangers . . .

The 7th of June, 2008, marked our first anniversary of the date we first arrived in NZ. It was also the day that we decided to celebrate Connor's sixth birthday, which actually falls in the middle of the school/work week on the 11th of June.

In honour of Connor's birthday, we let him select where we would have our Saturday lunch and he chose Speights Ale House; (no, we aren't starting him on booze early, he just likes their strawberry sundaes which come with every kid's meal).

Connor told us months ago that he did not want to have a birthday party with his friends, he just wanted to spend the day with his "family unit" and help mom bake cupcakes. This was a great relief to Eric & I (and our pocket book), since we were afraid he would get his heart set on a big party with inflatable bouncy castles and professional entertainers - like so many of his friends have for their birthdays. Instead, he was just as thrilled to dress up in his Chef's costume and help mom in the kitchen. (We suspect our anti-social personalities must be rubbing off on the boy.)

As you can see much of the chocolate batter and icing ended up in and on "the Chef" before the cupcakes were even baked. Needless to say, the day was pretty much a constant sugar high for the little man, which made calming him down for bed later a bit difficult. But, all in all, he seemed to have a really great weekend.

He loved the gifts that family mailed him, especially his handmade red afghan from Great Grandma - which he has slept with every night since - and the smaller matching one for his "Baby Kitten" (stuffed animal). We have been told that more gifts are on the way, so it will be a nice surprise when he gets to have a "second party" after they arrive.

For those of you anxious to read something from Eric, he promises me he will be posting to the blog in the next few days - so check back again soon!

Love, Linda

PS: A third box from Grandma arrived the day after Connor's actual birthday and the boy was thrilled to find a t-ball set, notebook and magicians costume, along with the all-important "Shells & Cheese"! (Thank you mom.)

Connor immediately tried out his magicians costume. When the rabbit failed to come out of the hat after several variations of the traditional incantation, he looked quizically at the wand and shook it very dramatically. Finally, his frustration got the better of him and he said "Mom, I think my wand needs batteries."

I have encouraged him to look for a book on magic when he goes to the school library today, so maybe that will help. We hope the weekend will be a bit drier, so that we can try out the t-ball set in the backyard. In the meantime, Connor has been using his new notebook to practice his writing, which is really coming along nicely, and has pretty much worn his magician's costume every waking moment he has been home since it arrived.

Friday, April 11, 2008

PS For Paekakariki

Earlier this week I posted a nice long message to friends & family (see: "Maungaraki Views" below); but, since we just returned from a pleasant Saturday drive along the Kapiti Coast I wanted to post a "PS" and share a few more pics.

We had originally set out this morning to take the train from Petone Station (bottom of our hill) to the Wellington CBD, for lunch at Queens Wharf and a stroll downtown. But, after sitting for 15 minutes on the railway platform, we were advised by a custodian that the train was not running today because the tracks were being torn up as part of a major upgrade.

So, we all climbed back in the car and set off down the highway. I had been curious about Paekakariki Hill Road, which runs parallel to SH1 (what equates to a major interstate highway for NZ), but is a bit twistier and more scenic - with views of a lush green farming area, then a climb up onto a ridge overlooking the Tasman Sea and Kapiti Island. Along the way, we stopped at an overlook and Eric took these shots. The small town you see at the bottom of the hill is, as you may have guessed, the town of Paekakariki. It is an artsy little place with several cafes, ice cream parlour, dairy, train stop, and a number of cute refurbished cottages along the beach.

We are thinking about settling in this area if/when we can ever afford a home of our own, as it is only a 35 minute drive to the Wellington CBD by the motorway. We had a pleasant lunch, ice-cream for dessert, stroll around town, and then drove on another 6 minutes to Paraparaumu, the main shopping hub for the Kapiti Coast District. We then came home and are now gearing up for some intense couch-potato-i-ness.

Before I say farewell, I wish to congratulate a couple of people:

First, my former boss - Connie, for announcing this week that she is finally retiring after 33 years working for the same municipal Police Department in Oregon. I wish you all the best Connie and REALLY wish I could be there for your going-away extravaganza! Maybe I will get to visit you again after you have poured your boundless energy into a new plant nursery or other endeavour.

Second, my cousin Sean and his partner just welcomed a new son into the world - Liam Allen. (Thanks to Mom for sending me many pics!)

Love, Linda

Monday, April 7, 2008

Maungaraki Views

Kia Ora Friends & Family,

Well, not much has really been going on at "Gross-haus" of late, hence the absence of blog posts.

I am reminded of the words of Buckaroo Banzai, "Wherever you go, there you are". Here we are living about as far away from where we were born as we could get without heading back again; and, not surprisingly, our day-to-day lives have changed very little. I go to work, Eric walks Connor to and from school every day, we pay bills, eat, sleep, buy groceries, read, watch a movie every now and then, yadda, yadda, yadda. And yet, somehow, we are changed - more content, more at peace with ourselves than we have felt in a long time.

Even despite Eric's lack of job prospects, we are adjusting to life on one income here better than we did in Arkansas. Eric is still looking for the right career "fit"; but, in the meantime, he is enjoying the stronger relationship he has developed with Connor and the increase in exercise they are both getting together. He has lost weight and feels much healthier.

We have extended our home lease another 12 months, since the only thing more depressing than seeing what real estate you can't afford is seeing the only thing you can afford. But that is okay. Our rental is a lovely home, albeit difficult to keep warm in the winter, and it is located in a peaceful neighbourhood and good school zone. Here is a view of the Maungaraki shops taken as Eric & Connor walk down-hill from our home on their way to school, (the harbour is actually quite a bit lower in elevation and maybe a kilometer or two distant, but the views in Maungaraki make it look like it is just a stone's throw away.):

Each weekday, I usually take the car to work and Eric walks Connor to school. After dropping the boy off, Eric has gotten into the habit of popping into Benedicts, the neighbourhood cafe/dairy/post shop/meeting place, for breakfast. While there, he peruses the classifieds, reads a book or sometimes has a chat with the locals. Then he walks back up the hill, where he cleans house, does laundry, maintains the yard, you know - all those "house husband duties" - and maybe snags an afternoon nap or computer game before walking back down the hill to pick up the boy. Connor has been having a fantastic term at school this Autumn, so a stop in Benedicts on the way home in the afternoon, to do homework and have a special treat, is not uncommon for them.

After they get home, clean out and re-make Connor's lunchbox, Eric usually sends me an e-mail to update me on his and Connor's day. This is something I look forward to each day, and here is an example of why from one of Eric's daily e-mails:

"Connor had a good day. We stopped at the cafe, I got him some water, split a brownie with him, and we walked back. As we left Benedicts, he gave me a hug and said he loved me. After I told him that I loved him too, he asked, "how long have you loved me?" I said, "Well, I have loved you since we knew that mom was going to have a baby, and that baby was you." This, of course, was my first mistake."

  1. "How did you know mom was going to have a baby?"
  2. "What kind of changes happen to moms when they have a baby inside?"
  3. "Moms get their stomach big when there is a baby inside. Was mom big?"
  4. "How did you know I was going to be a boy?"
  5. "It's not good that girls don't have a peepee!" (I told him one day he may think differently.)
  6. "How do girls pee?"
  7. "Was I inside mom when you got married?"
  8. "When I am all grown up maybe I will marry and have children"
  9. "If I had a baby would you be grandpa?"
  10. "I can't have a baby because I am a boy, right?"
  11. "Maybe I will marry a child from school."
  12. "I can't marry Samuel because he is a boy."
  13. "I want to marry Brock." (Brock is a sweet little girl in Connor's class.)

And so it goes, the age of many difficult questions; and, thankfully, Eric gets the bulk of them these days! Woohoo!

Meanwhile, I am at work, but that location can vary from my main office on the third floor of a high rise in the Wellington CBD, overlooking the U.S. Embassy, (go figure); to the Royal New Zealand Police College in Porirua; or, even my private home office, (where I usually work one day a week, so that Eric can take the car for household errands, grocery shopping, etc.). We have 2 double-size bedrooms & 2 single-size bedrooms, so the later two have been converted into his & her separate offices. Here is a shot from my home office window, so you can see I am quite happy to put in a day of work in the peace and quiet of home:

Strangely, despite having the workload of 4 full-time Analysts dumped on me, I generally feel "unstressed" at my job. Actually, I love it! For the first time in my life I really feel challenged and invigorated by my career. I guess I figure there is absolutely no way I could ever do ALL the work requested, and everyone else I work with agrees, so I have the freedom to pick and chose the most important tasks and let the rest go. When I am at work I am really working, no time to get bored or worried; but, when I am away from work, usually, I am able to let it all go and concentrate on enjoying time with my family or by myself.

The best part of my job is that I have complete autonomy. I can vary my workday however I see fit, and the tasks that I do take on are challenging and have the potential to make a significant impact on the way NZ Police operate. I feel like I am paid for the work that I produce, rather than the number of hours I warm a seat, something that I have sought in my career for years.

While no one will ever compare to my former boss, Connie, who was both a good friend and a great manager; my current supervisor - a career cop and Superintendent - has been really supportive of me going out and learning first-hand about how NZ Police do their job. I have observed new recruits go through their training, taken rides in patrol cars, visited the communications centre and talked to a lot of sworn staff members about how Kiwi cops operate differently than American cops.

Working for one of the few visibly "unarmed" police forces in the world has been quite a departure from my work in the States; but, also unlike my previous work, I am actually more involved with the operational side of policing, which can be quite exciting. Just yesterday I got to hold a Bushmaster assault rifle and try out a new "red dot" targeting sight, (though they didn't let me shoot anything). Tomorrow I will be developing a slideshow presentation for Police executives and Thursday I will be working on a long-term project to create a new query and statistical reporting capability for our use-of-force database. I am not sure what I will decide to do on Friday, but that is what makes the work so interesting.

Well, speaking of work, I need to get back to it!

I hope, as you read this post, you are all healthy, happy and living life without fear. Know that we miss you and love you all and look forward to our next opportunity to visit. In the meantime, stay in touch and keep checking our blog. I promise to get Eric to post more of his beautiful long stories really soon!



Thursday, February 7, 2008

Somes Like It Hot

Kia Ora!

I have always been drawn to islands. There is something innately mysterious about islands. They are spills of possibility on a bare, polished floor of water. Perhaps it is their literary associations with buried treasures, lost civilizations and strange creatures bypassed by the tides of time and natural selection. Maybe it is their offer, whether real or symbolic, of uniqueness in a world dominated by continental mass. Then again, it could be their promise of isolation and refuge.

The historian in me also finds islands a natural attraction. In a field where borders and boundaries are more illusion than substance, and eras, empires and events merge and diverge with far greater complexity than implied by their dates, islands offer a refreshingly distinct and naturally defined subject. Each island is its own story waiting to be told.

Given this, it was inevitable that one day we would explore the little island poking its green flanks above the blue waters of Wellington Harbour.

This last Saturday, morning clouds melted away to a bright, blue summer day, a perfect day for adventure. So, of course, the dreaded weekend exchange surfaced:

“So, what do you want to do today?”

“I don’t know, what do you want to do?”

“Whatever you want to do. I just want to do what would make you happy.”

“Well, what would make me happy is doing what would make you happy. What do you want to do?”

Wars have started this way.

Eventually, after a few volleys of reciprocal selflessness (or indecision, the distinction is often slight) I overcame my genetic inclination to park in front of the computer and suggested we ride the train to Wellington, eat lunch at Queen’s Warf and take the inter-harbour ferry over to Somes Island. Calm days are fairly rare around here, and with no whitecaps streaking the harbour I thought Linda stood a reasonable chance of surviving the boat trip without motion sickness. (Linda’s inner ear, like her sense of smell, has a sensitivity rivalled only by the most advanced sensors found in the world’s premier particle physics laboratories.)

The fine weather, arrival of a cruise ship and coincidental weekend of “The Sevens,” New Zealand’s annual international rugby tournament, brought out a noticeable increase of locals and tourists. White official tournament vans dodged about, each carrying the name and flag of some visiting national team. The sidewalks, usually clean, were dotted with abandoned beer cans and bottles. They lay discarded like empty fuel cans marking the trail of some advancing army.

We ate lunch at “Chicago,” a cafe/sports bar that is a fine testament to the cultural hegemony of America. We enjoyed quite good chicken quesadillas while sitting under a Chicago Cubs banner, next to a table of South-Pacific Islanders and across from a platoon of Aussies and a small contingent of Germans besieging the bar. The world is a village indeed. (This also engenders a question: who then, is the village idiot? I know my first choice.) Connor was quite concerned that we might miss the noon departure of our boat and punctuated lunch with his anxiety. “Has the boat left?” “Did we miss the boat?” ‘When does the boat leave?” “Where is the boat?” “Is that the boat there?” And so on. I drifted, not for the first time, into pondering the possible uses of duct tape as a parenting tool.

Much to Connor’s relief our ride, the Cobar Cat, lay tied up at the dock and attended by a flock of waiting passengers grilling in the midday sun. The lack of a normal Wellington brisk breeze accentuated the building heat, although by Florida or Arkansas standards it wouldn’t bear noticing at all. With the temperature nudging the 90 degree mark, the afternoon turned out to be the warmest so far in a summer which is setting records in the Wellington region for fine, warm days. When boarding time arrived, most of the passengers opted for the open top deck. Linda, already hot and getting a headache from the glare, and Connor, glowing a faint rosy pink despite industrial strength sunscreen, sensibly opted to sit below on the enclosed main deck. I love the sight of open water, the smell of sea and the feel of wind tugging at me too much to miss a chance at it, so I went back up and squeezed myself into a space at the rail in the starboard aft corner. The trip out took about 20 minutes, half of which I spent trying not to step on or sway into the utterly spent-looking German mother of three next to me, and the other half snapping pictures in hopes that one or two might actually turn out well. (I love digital cameras. At last I can snap away gleefully without feeling guilty about the cost of film and prints!)

The Cobar Cat pulled up at Somes Island’s small pier, a simple work of cracked concrete, sun-bleached wood and rusting fittings. About half the passengers disembarked, and we were all ushered into a small, one-room plywood cabin at the base of the dock. Here a blonde, freckled, bare-foot ranger, looking very much like a delivery from central casting (“Hello? Yes, do you have any corn-and-lamb-fed Kiwi girls, say, 30’ish, basic Scots-Irish immigrant stock? You do? Good, please send her up.”) gave us the requisite orientation and made sure that we and our bags were free of any exotic, unwanted flora or fauna before letting us loose upon the island.

From the preceding you may have surmised, correctly, that Somes Island is a plant and wildlife refuge.

But, naturally, it wasn’t always this way . . .

Note: if you’re short of time, patience or interest in history, feel free to skip the section that follows. Enjoy the photographs and return to a journal of our family adventures at “Waitangi Day,” somewhere around page 37. (Just kidding.)

One Island’s Story

Maori tradition claims that Kupe, the legendary explorer and discoverer of Aotearoa (“Land of the Long White Cloud,”) first set foot upon this little island in a large bay around a thousand years ago. He named it Matiu, and the small rocky islet off its northern tip Mokopuna, after two of his daughters or nieces (the story varies.) Kupe returned to his home, somewhere in Polynesia, with stories of virgin lands of plenty waiting to be claimed. Over the next few centuries successive waves of voyagers repeated his journey, settled in Aotearoa and became the Maori people.

The Maori never lived on Matiu permanently; it was too small, too steep, too rugged and too exposed to hammering storms for any sizeable community to comfortably occupy. However, those very conditions made Matiu an ideal site for a pa, a place of refuge in times of war. Raids, disputes, tribal fractures and other opportunities for man’s oldest team sport were plentiful among the Maori, and different generations built and maintained pa’s on the island. The arrival of Europeans and their alterations to Matiu erased all visible traces of these havens, and all that remains of this period are the last remnants of a few Maori middens – garbage dumps.

In time, different settlers arrived after one of their own legendary explorers, James Cooke, charted Aotearoa’s coastline in 1769. These people proved more proficient at development and warfare than the Maori, and in time made the place their own. In 1839 Matiu, along with most of what is today the Wellington region, came into the possession of the New Zealand Company. The company rechristened Matiu as Somes Island, after Joseph Somes, the company’s deputy-governor and one of its primary investors. In 1866 colonists built a lighthouse on the island’s southern flanks, the first harbour lighthouse in New Zealand. The original structure was replaced in 1900, and that beacon, now automated, still guides ships into and out of Wellington Harbour more than a century later.

As it has so many times and in so many places, disease played a key role in shaping Somes Island’s story. In 1872 the immigrant ship England sailed into Wellington harbour flying the dreaded yellow flag – a declaration of illness onboard and warning to stay away. In response officials ordered the construction of a quarantine camp on Somes Island, a natural outpost to Wellington. The station remained in operation until 1920, and over nearly half a century hundreds of immigrants spent time there until they either recovered and were declared safe, or died. The later fate befell 43 people from 17 different ships. Few victims were actually buried on the island, and those who were later were exhumed. Today a small monument stands at the island’s northern peak, reminding the present of the past and honouring those whose long journey to a new land ended just offshore from their destination.

Human epidemics were not the only medical concern of the day. In some ways even more threatening to the colony’s livelihood and more likely to occur was the arrival of some disease that might devastate the agricultural economy. Every year ships disgorged thousands of animals to stock New Zealand’s farms, haul wagons and carriages, carry its citizens on their backs and pull plows and reapers across fertile fields. Any one of those immigrants could carry a parasite or disease capable of rapid and deadly spread, making it vital to identify and isolate ill or suspect animals before they reached the mainland.

As it had been for human quarantine, Somes was a natural site for this work. The first known use of the island for animal quarantine occurred with the isolation of a flock of sheep in 1853, though the island was not officially designated for that purpose until 1886. In 1893 the Department of Agriculture built a dedicated livestock isolation facility on Somes, then one of the two major animal quarantine sites for the nation.

Human and animal quarantine stations operated side by side until 1920. Over this period the small island changed dramatically. Nearly all of the primal vegetation vanished; paths and trails were cut into the rock, buildings constructed and in 1919 a tramway built from the landing to the main facility atop the island. Somes’ original rich population of birds, insects and reptiles dwindled away as well, victim to the destruction of the flora and an invasion of rats and mice carried in by a steady stream of vessels.

Although humans were no longer quarantined after the end of the First World War, animals continued to be screened and housed in large numbers. In 1968 a new, state-of-the-art maximum biological security station replaced the older facility. Within two decades, however, rapidly declining livestock imports, advances in veterinary medicine and the advent of invitro fertilization techniques rendered the facility obsolete and unnecessary. In 1995, after more than a century of protecting New Zealand from parasite and pathogen, Somes Island’s history of animal quarantine came to an official close. The derelict buildings remain, paint faded by sun and rain, concrete paving and foundations cracked and colonized by grass and weeds. The site reminds me of some bizarre mixture of a closed Cold-War military base, derelict and without purpose, and an abandoned prison, once seen as progressive but now deemed barbaric by society’s changing sensibilities.

As war drew the Maori to Matiu hundreds of years before the European arrival, war brought new interest in Somes Island in modern times. In August of 1914 the great European powers, snockered on a century of relative peace and chronically preoccupied, paranoid and pissed off over any number of frustrated ambitions, historic animosities and attempts at altering the international pecking order, had a go at each other. Nasty things were said, punches thrown and soon friends joined the fray willingly or not. In short order the world’s first global bar fight was underway. Kiwis answered the call of the mother country.

The contributions and sufferings of New Zealand in that tragic, horrific struggle are many. In fact, relative to the population of the nation and the number of troops it contributed, New Zealand suffered a greater casualty rate than any other combatant nation.

Among the domestic problems accompanying a globe-spanning conflict between multinational alliances, there emerged a question: what should be done with foreign, now enemy, nationals living in New Zealand? Were they loyal residents and harmless guests? Suspect variables? A nest of potential saboteurs, subversives and spies? Historically, most governments in times of great workload, limited resources and high paranoia resolve this dilemma by locking them all away and letting the scholars, lawyers, diplomats and moralists sort it all out later. New Zealand was no exception to this rule.

The 1911 New Zealand census recorded just over 4000 German-born individuals in the islands. When war came, the definition of just who was a German, however, was problematic. Danes, Scandinavians and Poles were classified as Germans; anyone with south eastern European origins might be classified as Austrian. Hundreds of individuals, many of them harmless labourers, farmers or seamen caught in port when the balloon went up, were arrested and interned.

With its central location in Wellington harbour, small area and pre-existing quarantine facilities, Somes Island offered an ideal location for a detention camp and served as New Zealand’s main internment facility during the war. Exact record of whom and how many were interned there between 1914 and 1918 is not available. One study of the existing sources for 1917 shows 277 internees on the island, 234 of whom were “German.” Hundreds more spent some period in camp during hostilities, either to eventually be deemed no security risk and paroled or transferred elsewhere.

Life on Somes Island was Spartan at best, but as far as is known the internees were not intentionally deprived or subjected to systematic abuse. There were occasional escape attempts, all unsuccessful. Only one internee is known to have died on the island, having collapsed after carrying water up from the shore to the camp. Eight other Somes internees passed away during the war; six to natural causes or illness after being sent to hospital in Wellington; one of natural causes complicated by a failed suicide attempt and one of exhaustion and exposure after swimming ashore in a bid for freedom.

Twenty years later, world war once again turned Somes Island into an internment camp. This time the New Zealand government exercised more discernment in classification and detention of enemy aliens and security risks, if for no other reason than that most Germans were now naturalized citizens and there were relatively few Italians and Japanese in the country. In 1939 the island technically possessed quarters for up to 450 people and a capacity to cook for around 250. The detainee population most likely never reached 200. Records indicate a maximum of 185 internees in January of 1943 -- 98 Germans, 30 Italians, 47 Japanese and a motley of individuals from various places deemed a threat to security for political or personal reasons.

On January 31st, 1943, Somes’ “guests” were relocated to a purpose-built facility at Pahiatua. The move stemmed from a formal complaint lodged by the Swiss Consul, who observed that since a degaussing station and anti-aircraft battery had been built on the island, Somes was a military installation and thus New Zealand in violation of Geneva Convention protocols forbidding collocation of prisoners of war with military facilities. Eighteen months later, however, the detainees returned to Somes when the government decided to use Pahiatua to house Polish refugee children. By this point in the war, the danger of an attack had long passed.

Such a threat had been a remote, but not impossible consideration in 1942. Though distant from Japan and the main areas of action in the Pacific, New Zealand was within what Japan considered its natural sphere of dominion. Long range strategic plans for the eventual occupation of both Australia and New Zealand existed, should the course of war allow. Though Japan never had the opportunity, resources or forces to bring either nation into its empire, Australia was directly attacked by air and New Zealand briefly threatened with the possibility. Throughout the conflict, as it had during World War One, New Zealand contributed valuable troops, food and materiel to the United Kingdom’s war effort, and in addition served a key logistical support role for American operations in the Solomon Islands and New Guinea. It was a viable and logical, if secondary, object of Japanese attention.

As one of the two major ports in New Zealand, Wellington’s docks, warehouses, machine shops, industries and shipping required protection. As part of the city’s hastily constructed defence system, engineers blasted and gouged more than 50 feet off Somes Island’s southern peak and built gun pits, an ammunition magazine and fire control bunker for a heavy anti-aircraft battery. Later, a degaussing station was added, operated by women naval reservists. This facility protected shipping against magnetic influence mines, a new weapon in the arsenal of World War II combatants. Traditionally, mines were either set off manually by an observer or by a contact detonator when struck by a ship’s hull. Magnetic influence detonators (when they worked; not always guaranteed) greatly increased a mine’s effectiveness by detecting the magnetic field of steel hulled vessels and detonating the mine in close proximity. Laid deeper than a contact mine, magnetic mines created a hydrodynamic shockwave that could snap a ship’s keel in half – almost always fatal damage. As defence against these weapons, degaussing stations temporarily demagnetized vessels by ringing their hulls with cables carrying a powerful electric current.

As during World War One, an internee’s life on Somes was anything but ideal; but, by the overall standards of prisoner camps among the belligerents, it was humane, safe and relatively comfortable. The care given to internees is evidenced by the fact that only one Somes island prisoner is recorded as dying during the war -- a 57-year old German who suffered from heart failure while at the Pahiatua camp.

There was also only one known escape attempt, but for a few days it captured the imaginations and fears of Wellingtonians, as papers warned of the dangers of three German escapees at large. The exploit centres on one Karl Schroeder, interned not only for his German pedigree, but also as a “communist agitator.” In November of 1941 Schroeder and two other men stole a dinghy belonging to the island’s caretaker and made it ashore. One wonders whether or not it had occurred to the trio that escape was only relative, New Zealand being over a thousand miles from the nearest neutral territory and quite a bit further from German controlled soil. Inevitably, geography and climate gained the upper hand. Authorities found and arrested the escapees six days later in the Akatarawa Mountains. Cold, wet and hungry, the fugitives gave themselves away buying food at a local store. They were summarily returned to Somes.

Failure apparently only whetted Schroeder’s appetite for freedom, and soon he and his two fellow conspirators were at work again. This time Schroeder planned on a seawards flight. Sailing to liberty across the vastness of the Pacific, however, required some means of accurate navigation (not to mention a great deal of luck and a rather large set of cahones) so Schroeder painstakingly constructed a working sextant from bits and pieces of wood, metal and scrap. The contraption truly was an amazing work of craftsmanship. Tighter scrutiny and changes in security protocols also forced the men to seek more clandestine methods of egress. On July 26th, 1942, an anonymous note was left with camp guards, advising that Schroeder and Co. were digging an escape tunnel under Hut Number 7. What action followed is, alas, not available to me at this moment. Whatever it was, it was enough to end further attempts. If the group actually was excavating a shaft, it seems either a most desperate or doomed undertaking; Somes island is rock. Upon war’s end and his release from detention, Schroeder handed his sextant to a bewildered camp commandant. “You might as well keep it,” he said. “The bloody thing is of no use to me now.”

In relation to Somes’ history as a wartime detainment camp, one comes upon the bizarre and fascinating account of one George Dibbern. An avid sailor, lover of adventure, philosopher and preacher of individual freedom and the brotherhood of man, Dibbern had the misfortune of being a German resident in New Zealand at the outbreak of World War I. Interned on Somes’ island, Dibbern returned to Germany shortly after release, apparently filled with joyous anticipation for the future of his nation under a new, democratic government. The failure of that government and the suffering of the Great Depression brought Dibbern disillusion and dismay, and in 1930 he left Germany, his wife and his family. What followed was a most bizarre odyssey, the kind one would never believe if contained in a work of fiction. Dibbern returned to New Zealand, but for most of the next decade his residence – and eventually his “country” – was his 32-foot ketch, Te Rapunga (“Dark Sun,” a reference to a stage in the Maori creation epic, a moment of pre-dawn when all is in anticipation, awaiting the revelation of day.)

In 1937 Dibbern flaunted German law by refusing to fly the Nazi swastika aboard his yacht. Instead, he created a flag of his own devising as a statement of his belief in the sacred nature of the individual and their divine right to pursue their own path. In 1940, while seeking an American publisher for his memoir, Quest, he renounced his German passport and created his own, identifying himself as a citizen of the world. German authorities were not amused. Nazi party chapters in Canada, The U.S. and New Zealand reported his activities to the Gestapo. His wife and children were threatened. Efforts were undertaken to force his return.

As the war in Europe grew larger and more dire in 1940 and 1941, Dibbern sailed the waters of the southwest Pacific on a crusade for peace on earth, human rights and goodwill toward men. On February 12, 1941, Te Rapunga put into Napier, New Zealand, after its long wandering. Officials did not accept his homemade passport or protestations of global citizenship. I imagine that such a romantic idealist and square-peg-in-round-hole-world like Dibbern stretched the boundaries of a bureaucratic world view to breaking. In any regard, an odd German semi-resident flying his own flag, bearing documentation of his own creation and cruising freely about in wartime waters set off too many warning lights. He was arrested and sent off to an internment facility. And thus George Dibbern sat out the war as a guest of the New Zealand government in the accommodations of Somes Island. Again.

Wars come; wars eventually go. Peace returned to Somes Island. The degaussing station was dismantled; the antiaircraft guns, ammunition and fire control systems hauled off for other duties or scrap. Grass grew amidst the emplacements. The procession of animals through the stations of the quarantine compound resumed. Fifty years after the last internees watched the island shrink over the fantail of a boat, the government closed down the quarantine operations.

Even before the end of Somes’ quarantine era, the next chapter of the island’s story was being written. In 1981, The Lower Hutt Valley branch of New Zealand’s Forest and Bird Association, in tandem with the Department of Agriculture and Fisheries, launched a project to return Somes Island to as close to its natural state as possible. For nearly three decades now thousands of volunteers have laboured to eradicate imported pests such as rats, mice and possums, reforest cleared ground and livestock fields and remove much of the evidence of man’s century and half of utilization.

As regeneration of plant life progressed, the natural food chain re-established itself. Somes rapidly turned into a refuge for many native species of birds, reptiles and invertebrates. Endangered species were reintroduced, and the island is vigorously protected and patrolled to prevent the return of alien species or predators. In 1995 the Department of Conservation opened Somes to the public as a nature, scientific and historic reserve.

Protection and restoration work continues and Somes Island draws thousands of tourists, nature enthusiasts and scientists every year.

And now, we have been three of them.

At home Saturday evening, face glowing warm from the day’s sun and a pleasant fatigue from the walk washing over me like one too many glasses of wine, I watched sunset unfurl a glorious red and orange banner over Somes Island. As twilight drained the colour from the sky and turned the island into silhouette, my mind cycled through the day’s discoveries. What had I learned? Where, now, did this little bump of land fit in the larger scheme of things? What message did it whisper across the waters, across the years, across the pages of its story?

Protection. Perhaps that is the theme of this island’s story. Pa’s. Quarantine. Internment. Defence installation. Refuge. For a millennium Somes Island has served successive generations of two cultures as a place of protection for what they held dear and a place of protection from what they feared.

This island’s story testifies to our enduring drive as individuals, polities and civilizations to preserve not just ourselves and our brief moment in time, but also protect our ways of living and cherished attachments from the hand of change. It is, in its way, an ironic tale, for in defence against unwanted change – personal, communal, economic, political and environmental – man has continually changed Somes Island.

I cannot help but wonder: a century from now, how will this little island have changed again?


Waitangi Day

Yesterday was Waitangi Day! So there!

Okay, okay, I’ll explain.

On February 6, 1840, various Maori chiefs and British officials signed an agreement in which the Maori recognized British sovereignty and the New Zealand islands became part of the British Empire. In exchange, the Maori were promised ownership of their lands and the same rights as British subjects.

The treaty itself always was, and remains, a problematic and controversial foundation. The English and Maori versions of the treaty varied greatly and different Maori signatories had different understandings of what it meant. The Maori generally regarded the document as a sacred pledge; the colonial and later national government largely ignored it until the middle of the 20th century. Today a government commission exists to interpret the treaty and reconcile Maori grievances and current claims based upon it. The task is further complicated not only by more than a century of informal disregard, but also by a lack of the original document and paucity of copies, some of which differ.

Be that as it may, Kiwis regard, and celebrate, Waitangi day in much the same manner as Americans do the 4th of July. Waitangi Day is considered New Zealand’s national birthday and is a public holiday. Since they are in the southern hemisphere, however, fireworks are fired into the ground, rather than in into the air. Okay, well, not really.

We observed Waitangi day by driving over to the Tasman Sea and through a couple of communities we are considering as potential future homes. The western side of the North Island receives less precipitation than the east, since dominant weather patterns bring systems in from the south and east and the mountains wring a great deal of the moisture out of them before they reach the Tasman. This summer has been notably dryer than normal, and the mountain pastures and brush look decidedly dry, parched and ready to spontaneously combust.

Our destination was Queen Elizabeth Park, a considerable chunk of coastal territory north of Kapiti. During World War II the park was used as a camp for American Marines. Though nothing identifiable from that camp now remains (at least to my view) there is a modest display and memorial remembering their presence and contribution to New Zealand’s wartime defence.

The park is also home to an organization committed to obtaining and preserving old trams (trolley cars for Americans), once the mainstay of public transportation in New Zealand and Australian cities. (If you’ve seen Peter Jackson’s remake of King Kong, you’ve seen one this group’s restored trams in the opening sequences, dressed up as a Broadway Trolley of the 1930’s.) Several of these old trams are in operating condition, and visitors can ride them from the park entrance to the beach and back. These trams, most of them originally hand-built at local machine shops between 1900 and 1940, are more works of the craftsman’s art than modern mass produced vehicles.

After a tram ride and a walk through the restoration facility, we treated Connor to his first horseback ride at an adjacent stable. Connor looked very serious for most of the “ride,” (being led around on a pony by a stable hand), obviously trying to master his natural anxiety and look cool at the same time. Towards the end he did loosen up a bit and smile, and proclaimed “Yeehaw! I feel like a cowboy!” Since then, he delights in reminding us that he is an expert horseman.

On our way home we stopped at Mainline Steam, a company which operates one of, if not the last steam locomotive in New Zealand. Today the engine sat quietly at rest on a siding, ticking occasionally in hot sun. Connor, devoted fan of Thomas the Tank Engine that he is, was still thrilled at being in the presence of a real “steamie,” even if it was dormant. I walked him around the locomotive, seeing which parts he could identify (a lot!) and explained how the engine worked. He enjoyed it immensely, and, well, I did too.

Today was Connor’s first day back at school after his Christmas/summer break. As I walked him down the hill, I noticed that many of the mothers delivering their children to school wore unusually radiant smiles. Some even greeted me with more than the perfunctory pleasantries. The shared bond of liberation from a house under siege by offspring joined us all in happy accord. Today the sun burned a little brighter, the flowers glowed with richer colour and life seemed just a little more sweet. So this is how my parents felt when I returned to school . . . .

And that’s the latest news from us. I apologize for the length. As Linda likes to say, “If I had had more time, I would have made it shorter.”

Our love to you all.

*Note: the first two views of Somes Island are not my photographs. The island is visible from our living room window, but the image I have from that vantage point is a bit hazy. So, I borrowed these off the web.