Alnus & Frankia

Humanity. Ecology. Synergy.


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Arrival & Survival

When I landed in Auckland at 4:20 am, I had already studied maps, torn through my Frommer’s Guide and researched many of the recreational opportunities New Zealand had to offer. While I would soon find that neither book nor map could accurately cover the breadth of experience available on these 3 tiny islands in the deep Southern Pacific, at least I FELT well prepared.  Since then, it has blown my mind that a millennium prior, Polynesian explorers found and colonized this foreign land with nothing but a bit of traditional ecological knowledge and a waka full of agricultural goods like dogs, rats, and kumara. While archaic theories of colonization suggested that Maori merely stumbled upon their mystical homeland, its now widely accepted that Polynesians were adept seafarers who could to use the stars, tides, whales, and clouds to navigate open water and recognize and the many islands that dot the blue ocean. This navigational prowess may seem far-fetched to those of us who can’t even traverse a city without our GPS apps. And yet, a small group of Polynesians were able to retrace such voyages, using traditional ships and techniques! It’s a mind-boggling but truly inspiring to think that while Europeans were circumnavigating Eurasia, too afraid to lose sight of land, Polynesians had made it to South America and brought back the sweet potato (Kumara) to their tropical islands.

The Journey Begins. Arthur's Pass, South Island

The Journey Begins. Arthur’s Pass, South Island

Millennia earlier, on the other side of the Pacific, indigenous folks undertook a terrestrial, but equally perilous journey across Beringia and down the coast of the Pacific Northwest to settle my homeland. I doubt any Native Americans could conceive of the singular political unit we call California, but aside from its continental situation, Cali bears a striking resemblance to New Zealand. Located on the exact opposite end of the Pacific Ocean, New Zealand spans the latitudinal equivalent of Santa Barbara, CA to Seattle, WA. Both lands, battered by oceanic currents, experience extreme amounts of rain in some places(up to 18 meters a year on parts on NZ’s west coast!!!) as well as arid climes, with Christchurch receiving about as much rain as San Francisco. The wet ecosystem, known as the temperate rain forest, is full of lush fern vegetation and colossal trees.

Those of us from California know of the coast redwood (Sequoia sempervirens) and Sequoia (Sequoiadendron gigantium) as the world’s two largest trees, but have probably never heard of the Kauri (Agathis australis), the southern hemisphere’s biggest. While not as tall as either Sequoias, Kauri are indeed massive, with trunks just as wide as the biggest of the redwoods. Moving polewise on either landmass, we find marginally smaller, but equally impressive species like Douglas Fir in the Pacific NW and the many Podocarp species (e.g. Totara) of the Pacific SE. All the species mentioned are gymnosperms (non-flowering trees most closely related to pines) and all hold significant cultural value to indigenous people, specifically in the production seafaring vessels. They have also seen similar fates in the hands of 20th Century logging practices and merely a fraction of the giant old-growth forests remain in either California or New Zealand. Luckily for a forester like me, I’ve had the great privilege to stand amongst the giants.

Tane Mahuta, Father of the Forest

Tane Mahuta, Father of the Forest

One unforgettable excursion into the Podocarps, tramping the Hump Ridge Track at the southern-most tip of New Zealand’s South Island, truly brought light to the natural resource history of New Zealand. While the Hump Ridge was one butt-kicker of a hike, it led me through the last stand of old-growth Podocarps in New Zealand. Though loggers decimated the surrounding forests, this stand remained untouched, protected by its rugged topography. Using viaducts and railcars to transport logs to ports along the coast, loggers soon ran out of timber and even constructed a 125 meter long bridge to access the rich forests still standing. In their greed to leave no swath of forest untouched, the projected bankrupted the company and thus financial ruin saved the Podocarps!

A long way's away on the Percy Burn Viaduct

A long way’s away on the Percy Burn Viaduct

This is not to say that Maori did not harvest massive trees; they HAD to cut some down if they wanted to make their wakas. However, in stark contrast to the European settlers, the Maori’s strict code of environmental ethics kept forest harvests to a minimum through mythology. One such story tells of a man who forgot to appease Tane, demi-god of the forest, before chopping down a giant tree to carve. After spending an entire day cutting down the tree and working it, the man returned the next day to find the tree standing again. Several cycles of this had to occur before he realized that a ceremony and Karakia (incantation) were necessary before the forest would give up its prize. This is just one example of the sacredness of nature that Maori believed in, a belief that kept their population in relative harmony with nature and her resources. However a look at Maori history could reveal that this harmony was a learned one in the cycle of human ecology.

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Shake It Up: Post-Earthquake Change and Resilience

Despite two major earthquakes rocking the city, I still chose Christchurch as my study-abroad location. My family was terrified that another quake would demolish everything while I was there but I made myself feel more secure by repeating the mantra, “whatever was left standing will need an EVEN BIGGER earthquake to knock it down.” I anticipated a changed landscape, what I did not anticipate however was how that altered landscape would impact the “cultural hub” of the South Island.

Can't Stop Culture at the Great Kiwi Beer Festival in Hagley Park

Can’t Stop Culture at the Great Kiwi Beer Festival in Hagley Park

Christchurch is still the South Island’s biggest city, supporting a population of 350+ thousand even after thousands of people moved away in response to the earthquake damage. Tourism in “the garden city” dropped dramatically after the earthquakes and several iconic landmarks (e.g. Cathedral Square) were still in the “red zone” and thus off-limits. The restaurant and bar scene dispersed to various suburbs and public transportation lines had to shift to account for new traffic patterns that skirted the central city. I too was caught up in image of the city center as dead, for I didn’t even bother to take any pictures of the earthquake damage. Half-fallen brick buildings, huge fences labeled “keep out”, and houses falling off of cliffs near Sumner Beach were all things I saw, but did not bother to document. In my naiveté, I failed to realize that nearby rock climbing crags, a main reason for choosing Christchurch, would be too dangerous to explore. But even amidst all the damage, I soon found myself marveling at the city’s opportunity for a renaissance.

While a significant constituency of the city was begging to restore damaged sites for nostalgic reasons, much of the city’s younger crowd was focused zealously ahead at reinventing Christchurch. Looking at the Central City Rebuild Plan, I could see that designers wanted to recreate the cultural hub by recognizing how a sense of place impacts pedestrians. Through the inclusion of bike paths, greenbelts, and pedestrian plazas along the Avon River at the city’s center, and incorporating efficient technology into new buildings, the earthquakes can actually be seen as a blessing disguised as a disaster; a chance to escape the city’s environmental history and supersede archaic technologies.

Even before the rebuild was underway, the earthquake brought those who stayed in the city together. An innovate mall, made out of shipping containers, became the new central city shopping district and locals and tourists alike were stoked to see such radical reuse of space and materials. Empty lots left where buildings once stood were put to use by Gap Filler and a class titled Christchurch 101 was set up at the University of Canterbury to promote student involvement in recreating the city and providing disaster relief. Most importantly, Christchurch citizens banded together in response to the turmoil. Grassroots organizers burst forth to inform citizens about proper sanitation and waste disposal after all the pipes broke and the whole nation stood in solidarity with those who lost loved ones when buildings collapsed.  In the state that I saw it, Christchurch certainly looked different than it would have only a year prior, but it was not the “dead” city that had been described to me. In fact, in the toughest of times, the broken city was just as much a symbol of resilience, ingenuity, and perseverance as it had ever been.

Appreciate what is left

Appreciate what is left


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Hokitika’s Wild Ride

IMG_1404What do Mountain Oysters, Whitebait, Huhu Grubs, and Kumara chips have in common? They’re all grown in New Zealand and all foods I tasted at the 2012 Hokitika Wildfoods Festival. Though many of the old-timers complained about how the event had been coopted by drunk teenagers (I don’t blame them, the streets were a sh*t show), the party was nonetheless a wild and wicked way to explore some local delicacies.

Delicious?

Delicious?

Mountain Oysters appeared in New Zealand alongside white settlers, who brought sheep for wool and mutton production. The oysters are an ingenious byproduct of shepherding and a unique way to minimize food waste. However, the tradition of shepherding in NZ is waning. As global dairy and beef demand began to boom, cattle, which require up to seven times more water per kilogram of meat than sheep, gradually replaced the dumb-but-cute cottonball grazers associated with Kiwi tradition. Nowadays, dairying is New Zealand’s number one industry while mutton is hard to find. My partner, who visited NZ in 2004, came with a mouthwatering appetite for mutton pie, but all we could find was beef! It seems even the most isolated populous on the planet cannot escape the demands of global capitalism.

Whitebait is an even more traditional food in New Zealand. Tiny fish caught in a yearly anadromous migration, Maori used to seine them up for a seasonal treat. Unfortunately, as Pakeha discovered whitebait’s deliciousness, national demand began to strain the fishery. Nowadays, the fishing season is limited, and rivers that still support significant runs are kept secret by fisherpeople who can sell the four-centimeter long fish for up to 150 NZD per kilogram!

Speaking of tiny packets of protein, Huhu grub was probably one of the weirdest foods I tried at the festival. The larval stage of a New Zealand’s largest bark-boring beetle, this larger-than-whitebait grub was another seasonal forage for the Maori people. Luckily for the grub populations, Europeans seem less inclined to consume insects than fish, even if bugs are far more protein rich.

Finally, we return to the Kumara, a ubiquitous Polynesian staple. Borrowed centuries ago from the distant shores of South America where potatoes originated, Kumara is central to Polynesian survival. Much like indigenous Maori settlements, Kumara production is concentrated in the semi-tropical North Island, where a mild climate protects the plant from frost and agriculture can be sustained year-round. It is hypothesized that Kumara was carried by Polynesian explorers because its starchy tuber could feed them during their journey, and it could still be planted upon arrival.

Wild Drag at Wild Foods

Wild Drag at Wild Foods

Connecting food diversity with traditional ecological knowledge, Kumara was but one of many foods that Maori brought with them to settle Aotearoa. Each species, from dogs to rats to taro, provided indigenous Polynesians with a perennial crop that could feed the people until new, endemic forage was discovered and passed down through generational transfer of TEK. This demonstrates how people take their TEK with them to a new place and how TEK gradually adapts as a population gets to know its landscape. Through the generations, Maori would discover native edible and medicinal plants as well many birds to eat, but they would not simply disregard the old traditions they brought with them.

Diversity in food has never been just for the fun of trying new things, it is part of the redundancy that maintains reliable harvests. If in a wet year one variety of potato fails, a different variety may flourish, or a crop better adapted to saturated soil (e.g. taro) might be planted instead. Certainly wild forage will augment agricultural production, but farming generally produces a more reliable yield. Together, farmers and gatherers, and the foods they harvest, form a safety net for a growing population. And while it is possible to plant and harvest a single genotype over thousands of acres (monocrop), doesn’t an interwoven net present a safer backup than a single strand of twine? Under the same logic, don’t locally grown and harvested foods promote a sustainable food system by protecting a populace from a volatile global market that sends food to the highest bidder?

Stay Safe Y'all

Stay Safe Y’all

 


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GEO-logic

If we define humanity as a diverse matrix of overlapping traditional ecological practices, it is the aggregation of the landscape impacts of these practices that has pushed the earth into the Anthropocene Age, where nearly every system has been altered or shaped by humanity. Unfortunately, nuanced environmental practices are threatened by modern globalization. Western Europe, aside from conquering the globe physically, has also conquered our global ideology, replacing indigenous traditions and practices with economic efficiency and intensive agriculture. Even more odious, increasingly technocratic rhetoric has framed tradition as obsolete and science as infallible. Many of my fellow educated Americans now speak about science as if they were talking about religion, and any opposition must be backed by an indoctrinated (peer-reviewed) source.

While science has definitely added transparency and quantifiability to management and decision making, framing deductive science as absolute leaves no room for adaptation. Indeed, modern science is a tool derived from the alchemy of olde but it has rationalized rather than replaced it. Ignoring millennia of local adaptation in favor of Euro-centric development is much like cultural appropriation without context; fashionable ideas spread because they benefit the elite, further marginalizing true diversity and equality of ideas. Potatoes originated in South America, where there are thousands of varieties, each adapted to local climatic conditions. When a single variety was planted throughout Ireland, one pathogen was able to decimate a nation’s food supply. Extrapolating, adopting western science everywhere is much like monocropping and managing a field that you as a farmer have never visited. Resiliency implies redundancy, for without multiple crops, unanticipated change almost certainly spells disaster.

Following the adage that “change is the only constant,” diversity is the only solution in our quest to “think global [and] act local.” Local people share an intimacy with a landscape that has no substitute. I’ve heard many scientists legitimize themselves and gripe about “uninformed locals,” but can anyone really know the absolute truth? Country bumpkins and greenhorn city-slickers alike are interacting with the landscape and becoming local experts through their own experience. So why do we keep trying to ‘reinvent the wheel’ of knowledge, instead of trusting local TEK to do what it has always done;  inform regional-scale adaptive management, that is.

From Soil Scientist to Son, TEK Transmission

From Soil Scientist to Son, TEK Transmission


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TEK-nologic

Kawakawa- A Traditional Maori Medicinal

Kawakawa- A Traditional Maori Medicinal

Traditional ecological knowledge (TEK) is defined by the Ecological Society of America as, “adaptive ecological knowledge developed through an intimate reciprocal relationship between a group of people and a particular place over time.” Inherent to human survival for all the millennia before the era of globalization, centralized economies, technocracy, and world trade have caused many people to eschew TEK in favor of remote knowledge. Simply put, multimedia, book learning, marketing and peer-reviewed science, are now the status quo in valuable knowledge and nuanced environmental understanding has fallen to the wayside. Gone are the days when most European children were trusted with the task of gathering edible mushrooms and fruits, when Native Americans burned brush to promote deer habitat, and when Maori collected greenstone for use as weaponry or jewelry. Replacing memory with literature we now have field guides, designated burning prescriptions, and contracts that negotiate the human-nature interface. Places like Wellington have extreme examples of humans wishing to modify their landscape with a blatant disregard for TEK and yet, even within our modern command and control ethos regarding the environment, has TEK truly vanished?

"Experience Rock Climbers"= Traditional Ecologists?

“Experience Rock Climbers”= Traditional Ecologists?

Consider an urban environment as an ecosystem (see greek root of ecology); doesn’t me knowing where to score the best burrito count as TEK? After all, that understanding IS based on my traditional sense of place and cultural understanding of the landscape. Since cultural norms regarding nature can actually reshape nature itself, TEK marks the tangent of land management and environmental history. Taking a closer look at America and the European perspective that placed extractive value of land as paramount, it is no wonder why white settlers could not even see the legacy of Native American land management in the landscape. Europeans were too busy looking for farms, neatly tilled cropland, and even-aged forests to see indigenous practices, and eventually those cultural ideals were imprinted onto the landscape.

Placing a more Aotearoan perspective on TEK, it can almost be boiled down to the Maori concept of Whakapapa. To explain further, let’s look at the layers involved in defining Whakapapa. First, Whakapapa is a history of genealogies; children, parents, grandparents, etc. Next, linked to each generation is a migratory history (e.g. my mother came to California from Germany in the 1980’s). Finally, within the migrations of a genealogy there is a historical narrative linking the modern individual to the landscapes and cultural practices of their forbearers (E.g. my mother’s family in Germany had a tradition of farming carp for Easter feasts).

Geothermal vents define the physical and cultural landscape of Rotorua

Geothermal vents define the physical and cultural landscape of Rotorua

For Maori, Whakapapa connects the person now to the ultimate: the creation of the universe. All cultural ideas, taboos, and practices are tied to Whakapapa and thus, through ancestry, TEK is built upon and reinforced with every generation.


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Water Water Everywhere

Part I: Wai

What's In Your Water?

What’s In Your Water?

It used to be thought that life on earth required two elements: sunlight and water to flourish. Luckily for us, our planet is referred to as a “Goldie Locks” planet, orbiting at the correct distance to receive enough solar energy to keep water liquid, while still providing enough warmth for terrestrial life and radiation for photosynthesis. However, with the discovery of  hydrothermal vent communities and chemotrophs that can metabolize molten ions at the bottom of the sea, society has now revised its hypothesis of how life started on earth from involving two elements to just one key: water.

I am always in awe of aqua. Milford Sound, Fiordland

I am always in awe of aqua. Milford Sound, Fiordland

Water makes up 75% of the earths surface and 75% of our body mass. Is there any wonder it is sacred to indigenous populations? In New Zealand, (and Spanish Colonial California), territories were denoted by environmental markers, including watershed boundaries. Though watersheds do not provide straight, surveyable lines, they divided the landscape into ecologically-relevant parcels. All precipitation that falls into a certain watershed will eventually make its way into its namesake river (e.g. Waikato), and out to sea. Generally, watershed boundaries are peaks of mountains or hills and thus the owner of the land controls management from the down-river lowlands to the mountains the cap the headwall of that river’s tributaries. By dividing land on an ecological basis, one land manager (or Iwi in the case of classical New Zealand culture) can oversee all the activities that will impact water quantity and quality, necessary parameters of a sustainable society.

Up until British colonization of New Zealand, Maori Iwi had divided both island into watershed-based territories to ensure yearly supplies of water, crops, birds, and fish to eat. Yet, the British survey system soon broke the islands up into straight-lined, parcels of land, disregarding the natural flow patterns of water. Though this system provided private land for settlers, it resulted in competition for water and a disconnect between the various stakeholders along the river. According to the 1840 Treaty of Waitangi, Iwi were supposed to receive jurisdiction over all the freshwater in New Zealand in exchange for bowing to the British Crown but now, nearly two centuries later, watersheds are broken, and “clean green” New Zealand is starting to experience the same water quantity and quality issues that are being felt the word over.

The Legacy of the Land is Reflected in Every Drop

The Legacy of the Land is Reflected in Every Drop

 

Part II: Crisis

Huka Falls on the Mighty Waikato. Taupo, NZ

Huka Falls on the Mighty Waikato. Taupo, NZ

The global hydrologic cycle is under attack! In the last century, industrial development has prompted nations to build mega-dams for flood control and hydroelectric power, divert and channelize streams to irrigate agriculture, and even overdraw from slow-to-fill groundwater sources.

In California alone, hundreds of dams block the movement of sediment and fishes on nearly every major river system in the state, and all the while agricultural (70+% of all water allocations), industrial, and municipal users continue to expect more water to keep up with an economic system that hinges on constant expansion.

The Canterbury Plains of New Zealand’s South Island already creates seventy percent of NZ’s irrigated water demand, and intensive agriculture continues to expand! The biggest city in these plains, before the 2010/2011 earthquakes, Christchurch was one of the largest cities on earth to still get its water from unfiltered groundwater. But, even if the quakes hadn’t damaged the piping system, nitrogenous waste and sediment from upstream dairying and agriculture was already infiltrating the basin, creating a need to begin filtering the water within the next few decades.

Stockwater race meets the main channel in Canterbury, NZ

Stockwater race meets the main channel in Canterbury, NZ

Water moves through groundwater very slowly, but it seems humanity is even slower to move. Recent leaps in water efficiency technology can greatly reduce the water that farmers and homeowners “need” while maintaining similar yields. Unfortunately, “prohibitive infrastructural costs” and subsidized water prices (users still don’t pay for water in Canterbury) create no economic incentives for users to change the status quo. Luckily, as hydrologic science has improved its metrics, the New Zealand government has stepped in to regulate gaps in management. Resource Districts in NZ were formed along major watershed boundaries to align management regimes with ecological barriers. In 2012, the Canterbury Region outlawed cattle grazing directly on the streambanks to reduce soil erosion, stream sedimentation, and nitrogenous waste leaching. Also in 2012, it was mandated that farmers measure water withdrawals from wells and stock races (irrigation channels).

Last chance looking back at Lee's Valley, a proposed reservoir site in Canterbury

Last chance looking back at Lee’s Valley, a proposed reservoir site in Canterbury

All of the above measures improve accountability in water use and promote local adaptation but are they enough? As measurement technology improves, new pollutant cycles are found and “safe” concentrations are discovered to be unsafe. Some of the first giant dams like the Shasta Dam in northern California are being considered for removal due to ecological impacts but at the same time developing nations are receiving bonds from the World Bank and international investors to build newer mega-dams, often displacing indigenous populations and cultures permanently. Synergies between water development schemes are considered within a single nation or region, but globally projects are being completed largely independent of each other.

The hydrologic cycle, in contrast, is a global phenomenon and linked to almost every nutrient cycle we know of. Take for instance the global silica cycle:

Silica is exposed and released through weathering in the mountains and flows through streams to the ocean. In warm bays and shallow oceans, diatoms and other phytoplankton use silica to form protective cases and once those plankton die, that silica sinks to the bottom of the sea where it will take millions of years before it can be uplifted in the formation of some new mountains. Phytoplankton are photosynthetic and the major source of carbon sequestration/oxygen production on Earth. As my NZ water professor postulated, blocking sediment by damming all the major rivers on the planet could slow or even halt ocean photosynthesis with dire consequences for terrestrial and marine life.

Many Californians are already well aware of the fact that our human manipulation of the hydrologic cycle was over-engineered and under-informed but it seems that many other places will make the same mistakes before humanity will reconsider its place in the global water system.

One man's waterfall is another man's hydroelectic gradient.

One man’s waterfall is another man’s hydroelectic gradient.


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The Classics

It’s hard for us to really appreciate the value of something until it rare or gone. Like me, I’m sure you can look back at a time or place in your life and think, “Dang, I shouldn’t have taken that for granted;” but such is the nature of hindsight. Even currency, with its “set” value can seem to disappear in an instant if you’re not careful. Maybe I should rephrase that to ESPECIALLY currency given the way study abroad and the dubious exchange rate work.

Experience NZ in Franz Bryndwr

Experience NZ in Franz Bryndwr

Monstrous Moa and Haast Eagle. Te Papa Museum, Wellington

Monstrous Moa and Haast Eagle. Te Papa Museum, Wellington

After experiencing how truly easy it was to get carried away by a new mystical land, it sort of made sense how settlers, in both California and New Zealand, could level entire forests and overharvest species to extinction. Hell, when the Native Americans discovered great plains full of charismatic megafauna, they ate them all just like settlers did with the Passenger Pigeon. In the case of New Zealand, the overharvest and subsequent extinction of the Moa is actually part of what defines the Classic Period of Maori history.

How big did you say Moa's could grow?

How big did you say Moa’s could grow?

In the historical mythology of Aotearoa, Maori settled the land through seven genealogies, or the Seven Great Wakas between 1000 and 1200 A.D. From what I understand, life was good for a while, there was certainly conflict in establishing territories but land was plentiful and protein (read Moa) was abundant. Sometime around 1400, however, there was a shift and Maori ecology changed from resource extraction to resource management. Territories had been established between different Iwi and Pa, permanent, fortified settlements with crop gardens provided food and shelter for Maori. Within two hundred years of colonization, Maori were now the dominant ecosystem engineer and the Moa, the previous big-shot on the islands was no more. The Polynesian rats and dogs that Maori brought with them were now spread across much of the landscape, further changing the ecological web. It wasn’t all doom and gloom though, for in this time, Maori art and culture flourished and claims to natural resources remained more or less sustainable.

The Maori, once thought of as a savage, bloodthirsty warrior culture, were actually fairly peaceful until western interference and the introduction of firearms spawned the Musket Wars. “Wars” were typically fought in single hand-to-hand combat style rather than the total warfare known to the post-WWI era and conflicts were usually single events in defense of honor or resources, not feuds of bloodlust. Maori had established a new ecological and social web across the land of the long white cloud, a web that was surrounded by and centered on water.

Whakairo in the Wharenui, Treaty of Waitangi Grounds

Whakairo in the Wharenui, Treaty of Waitangi Grounds