OPINION: I live on the edge of the Marlborough Sounds. An exquisite waterway that contains an astonishing 20% of the coastline of Aotearoa, New Zealand.
I’m very privileged to be able to see it every day and navigate it – but I wish it looked more like the wonders of yesteryear.
It has towering beeches, rimu and totara. There is the song of the birds, which Captain James Cook described as the most melodious and wildest music he had ever heard. And there are lobsters so prolific their antennae are visible at low tide.
Other people think the same way.
There are volunteer groups removing wild pines and waging pest warfare to help native birds return. And, of course, we have fishing regulations designed to prevent overfishing.
These groups of volunteers often work in tandem with an overburdened conservation department.
* DOC reports 15th Hector’s dolphin dead in six months
* Marlborough’s vision for economic wellbeing defines challenges and actions
* Appeals dismissed for damaging Kāpiti district wetlands
* Biosecurity team finds no hiding places or hare of ‘wallaby’ invaders in Northland
* Marlborough’s innovative ‘piles and panels’ marina is on track for summer opening
What is accomplished is astonishing. But that never seems enough.
Usually we call all this effort conservation.
We understand that conservation means what other people do, to protect the natural world. Although it is balanced against our many economic and recreational demands, which unfortunately are often the direct cause of the problems that conservationists seek to address in the first place.
Is it just hand wringing? We should think not.
The UN has just declared that global environmental degradation and biodiversity loss are so advanced and so important that they must be put on an equal footing with the dangers of climate change.
In other words, the very habitability of the planet is threatened.
It seems fair to conclude that our relationship with our natural world is dysfunctional, and in this we must include the Marlborough Sounds.
Recently, I came across a very different type of idea that seems very relevant and valuable.
It’s an idea put forward by a botanist and distinguished professor of environmental biology in New York State, named Robin Wall Kimmerer.
Kimmerer also happens to be a member of the Potawatomi Nationand while being an expert exponent of modern science, she draws on her heritage and unique relationship with the natural world, in her work and teaching.
In this world, every plant, tree, fish, bird and insect, and also rivers, lakes and mountains, are considered as gifts to people.
The idea of a gift is extremely meaningful.
When we give and receive a gift, it signifies a special relationship. And at the heart of any authentic relationship, she said, it’s the idea of reciprocity.
You give to me and I give to you.
This philosophy and practice gave rise to the somewhat derogatory European adage of the Indian giver, which reflected a European view that if you give a gift you should not expect, as the Indians apparently did, to receive it. on time. We misunderstood.
The reason the idea of reciprocity is so important is that it would imply obligations for us individually to the natural world every day, and in virtually everything we do.
Take the sounds this past Easter holiday.
Several hundred families brought boats to spend time on the water. Like it should be.
Many caught blue cod or lobsters, as they are allowed to do.
From the Sounds they received many gifts, including the fish, the scenery, and the experience of being on the water.
If we think about reciprocity, it asks each person who set sail, what did we give in return?
We know, for example, that the bottom of the straits is very sedimented because of the strong runoff whenever pine forests are crushed on the hills.
We know that as its habitat deteriorates, Hector’s beautiful dolphin is becoming increasingly rare.
We know that it is increasingly difficult to catch enough fish for a meal, without first destroying many undersized young fish, which do not survive the ordeal of waiting cormorants.
On a beautiful Easter day, our collective investment in the boats we release is likely to be measurable in the millions of dollars, and individually, in the tens of thousands.
Kimmerer would ask, what did we offer in return?
On a coastline approximately 1800 km long, we have two prohibited marine reserves totaling, more or less, only 8 km or 0.44% of this coastline.
This really tiny area is the entirety of the absolute protection we give to marine life in the straits.
Surely this is a particularly miserly gift from us, in return for the abundance we have long received, but have allowed to wane into a mere shadow of what has come before.
We can be guided by the philosophy of North American Natives. Rather than relying on regulations or the efforts of environmentalists, we can ask ourselves – what have we given back?
What gifts have we given in return?
In this case, we can start at home, with the Maori concept of kaitiakitanga or guardianship.
Kaitiakitanga involves the same kind of connection and responsibility to the natural world described by Kimmerer.
It is not exploitation. It’s a giving relationship, like one might have in a loving family.
The idea of reciprocity, rooted in our daily lives, can be the key to changing our
worldview that the land, sea, lakes, rivers and all living creatures are there for our use, our enjoyment
This morning, a pīwakawaka (New Zealand fantail) perched on the stick I held in my hand, to chat. I took this as an act of reciprocity, in exchange for helping eradicate its predators.
But maybe I’m fanciful.