Tuesday, December 11, 2012


(Above: The world's only alpine parrot, a native Kea peers down into New Zealand's Fiordland region from nearly 5,000 meters above sea level.)

Living here requires imagination. I steer my kayak into a slough of the Arthur River, a narrow channel of water where ferns of every size and shape gather along the banks and moss-covered trees intertwine their arms overhead. In the luminous, chlorophyll-filled sunlight filtering through the forest, birds' melodies fall like raindrops. It is like paddling through Jurassic Park.

Imagine, for a moment, that it is not the year 2012, that you do not live in a Jetsons-like world of sleek electronics and tiny computers, a world where cities encroach ever further into wild places. Imagine you live in the year 1200 a.d., when the Maori first reached the shores of New Zealand and discovered an evolutionary wonderland devoid of mammals and overrun with birds. In the absence of predators, the islands' birds lost their defense mechanisms and grew to outrageous proportions. There were enormous moas that no longer needed to fly to escape from hungry jaws; flightless parrots that roamed the forest floor beneath brilliant green and turquoise plumage; penguins that nested among evergreens. There were eagles capable of plucking a fully grown man into the sky. The only native mammal was a small bat. People took a long time to arrive.

In the morning, the birdsong was deafeningly loud, bouncing off steep valley walls. Early European explorers wrote that they couldn't hold a conversation while enjoying their morning tea because of the competing choruses of songbirds. But by the time they arrived in the 1800s, the Maori had already decimated many of the defenseless giant birds, hunting them one by one for meat until 26 species were eliminated. The Europeans inadvertently finished the job, bringing rats and cats and opossums that further wiped out New Zealand's native bird populations by preying on their eggs. Today, the flightless kakapo parrot lives on only in isolated, controlled islands off the coasts. The emblematic kiwi is critically endangered. And in the still mornings, only a handful of bellbirds fill the air with their clear, beautiful melody. Some environmentalists argue that the government-led effort to control invasive mammals is further poisoning the forest, ushering in a third wave of extinctions even as it tries to restore an ecological balance.

But forget about that. It is relevant, and yet it is not. On mornings like this, the past is still present, still very much alive. Squint your eyes until you are gliding through a web of green jewels. Dip your kayak blade into the water. Forget that you live in a time when species are disappearing in rapid succession, when animals and plants must adapt to an anthropogenic world or be relegated to a few protected strongholds. As John Haines writes, it is foolish to believe that we erase life by killing it off. Vanquished in one place, life springs back in another. Echoes remain. Use your imagination. 

 (Above: Endangered Whio, or blue ducks, live exclusively in New Zealand's clear, swift-moving streams and rivers, often playing in whitewater rapids.)

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