From Island to Island

Chronicles of Connection and Conservation
I never considered an international internship as part of my undergraduate plans until my professor suggested the idea to me. He informed me of a scholarship opportunity available through VIU where I could go to New Zealand and spend every day deep in nature. I could care for it, learn from it, and gain knowledge from the organization. So off I went.
Rakiura Track (one of New Zealand’s “great walks”) on Stewart Island, Photo by Georgia Mason-Guertin
Rakiura Track (one of New Zealand’s “great walks”) on Stewart Island
Photo by Georgia Mason-Guertin

Aotearoa is the Māori name for New Zealand and is used interchangeably within this piece. 

I walked down the Kieke spur, boots striking the ground in a rhythmic thud. The hiking track in New Zealand had been gently carved through this old and wild forestland, and it was then that I had a painful realization. The landscapes around me felt so … alien. Despite the unwavering chorus of birdsong from the canopy above, I felt alone while hiking the seemingly never ending trails within the Brook Waimārama Sanctuary.

I had arrived in the town of Nelson in Aotearoa roughly three weeks prior, and since then I had spent almost every day in this forested valley contributing to the conservation efforts of the Brook Waimārama Sanctuary. 

My days as a conservation intern were often spent monitoring invasive predator animals, maintaining the 130 kilometres of hiking trails, assisting with building projects within the sanctuary, and guiding visiting school groups. 

I never considered an international internship as part of my undergraduate plans until my professor suggested the idea to me. He informed me of a scholarship opportunity available through VIU where I could go to New Zealand and spend every day deep in nature. I could care for it, learn from it, and gain knowledge from the organization. So off I went. 

But somehow, even by doing the things I was passionate about, I still felt entirely separate from all the non-human inhabitants of this space.

I consider connection to nature to be integral to my identity and well-being, so this disconnect was difficult to grapple with. I’d been to many places around the world with ecologies and landscapes entirely different from the ones I was familiar with back home, but never struggled to embody the energies of foreign ecosystems and landscapes. Nature has always invigorated me, sometimes bringing me to tears.

Yet, there I was, centred in this beautiful New Zealand forest that I worked in every day, unable to access that connection and appreciation to the Earth.

Maybe I feel so disconnected because I’ve never been somewhere with a plant and animal life so unfamiliar?

Maybe I must simply be patient, and those feelings will eventually arrive.

Two weeks later, I was driving northwest up the coast of Te Waipounamu, the southern island of Aotearoa. I was on my way to the Abel Tasman National Park and Golden Bay. areas which had been advertised to me by tourists and locals alike as some of the most incredible places to visit. It was a fulfilling few days that consisted of camping on golden sand beaches, trekking through coastal forest, and having my snacks stolen by the cheeky, yet beloved flightless birds called Wekas.

On my final day on the coast, I decided to stop by the Te Waikoropupū Springs that had been strongly recommended to me by a friend. When I arrived at the springs, I was still acutely conscious of the distance I had been experiencing. What’s going on?

The entrance to the springs was decorated with carved statues made of greenstone and informational plaques, all hinting to arriving visitors the temple-like significance of this natural space. The plaques described the high cultural and spiritual importance of the Te Waikoropupū Springs to the Māori people and told the story of Huriawa, a great water spirit who is believed to reside in the springs. I was also informed that the springs are beloved for their spectacular clarity, with onlookers able to gaze in awe roughly 80 meters into the depths of the waters without obstruction.

As I ventured down the trail, my eyes darted eagerly in search of the springs, only to see shallow streams rushing around me that did not at all resemble what was described. When I finally looked up from the forest floor, I was standing at the base of a giant Kānuka tree, which I immediately identified by its long strips of peeling bark, a gnarled growing pattern of the branches above, and the subtle scent of eucalyptus. This tree must have been at least three times the age of any of the others in the immediate surrounding area. It reminded me of the lonely ancient giants you can find while hiking through second and third-growth forests on Vancouver Island.

As I stared at this incredible natural being, I recalled one of my favourite books, Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer. One of the primary teachings in the book is the importance of reciprocity and relationship forming with the natural world. For Kimmerer, as a member of the Potawatomi Nation, reciprocity is something that is rooted in her cultural practices. But, for those of us who come from cultures that somewhere along the way may have lost connection to the Earth, she recommends (among many other things) forming a friendship with a tree.

With Kimmerer’s teachings present in my mind, I sat down and began to tell the tree all about the internal struggles I had been experiencing as a stranger in these lands.

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The Kānuka tree
Photo by Georgia Mason-Guertin

“Hello, tree,”  I said in a lowered voice, while looking around to assure I was alone. 

I took a deep breath and sat down cross-legged at the base of this statuesque elder. From this vantage point, it appeared as if the sky was made of its branches. 

“I’ve been feeling so alien in these lands and I thought that maybe you, who is so connected to everything around you, could help me figure out how to do the same.”      

While I felt a bit silly talking to a tree, and continued to periodically pause to check there were no other people on the trail who would hear me, I left the “conversation” feeling a bit lighter and more present in the forest. The subsequent steps on the trail felt more inspired than any other moment I had experienced so far in Aotearoa, and it felt as if something had truly changed. 

A few short minutes later, I turned a corner of the trail and stepped onto the boardwalk that functioned as a viewing platform. As I approached the springs and gazed into the clear waters, my eyes were locked onto an almost unworldly turquoise glow coming from deep within the water. I was so intensely overwhelmed by an indescribable feeling that I physically recoiled.

I’m not sure what happened, but it’s possible that this glow, caused by underwater gardens being magnified by crystal waters triggered my sympathetic nervous system. Or maybe it was the intention I had just set with the tree to open myself more meaningfully to the lands. These springs are believed to be intensely spiritual, which may have also been heightening my reaction. All I know is that six months later, I still can’t look at pictures of the springs without a residual version of that feeling returning.

When I returned to Nelson the next day, I felt as if I had finally opened myself to Aotearoa, or that Aotearoa had opened itself to me.

 

Months flowed past and I became increasingly inspired by this place I inhabited. Through the teachings of my passionate and brilliant human friends at the Brook Waimārama sanctuary, I learned the names of countless plant and animal species, their roles in their ecosystems, and their unique character traits. Slowly but surely, the flora and fauna became familiar friends, and the individual bird songs within the chorus, identifiable. It often felt as if each passing day, the rest of the natural world was welcoming me into their community. Through these experiences, my once-broken sense of wonderment for the Earth had been restored beyond its original form.

Work days were spent engaging in tasks such as trapping invasive mammals and weeding invasive plants. In return, the sanctuary healed, provided habitat for endangered species, and regenerated its remarkable natural beauty. Although it was my job, I could not help but feel as if I had entered a truly reciprocal relationship with this part of the Earth that lay within the boundaries of the Brook Valley in Nelson, New Zealand. Over the course of those four months, I had become an integral part of where I was, rather than simply a visitor.

There were many lessons I endured during my time in Aotearoa and at the Sanctuary. I not only learned to connect to the spaces I was dwelling in, but also gathered a cumulative knowledge from various places and people, solidified by the opportunity to conserve the natural world I’d always felt deep love for. I will miss Nelson and the Brook Sanctuary, but I will return to them again. In the meantime, they will always feel like home and always a part of me—and I, a part of them.

 

VIU has many international education opportunities that can provide life-changing experiences as seen in Georgia’s story. Georgia was the recipient of the Queen Elizabeth II Scholarship, where she was able to contribute to the Building Resilience in Coastal Communities project. For more information on other international scholarships that are available to students visit: https://international.viu.ca/international-student-scholarships-and-awards

Georgia Mason-Guertin
Contributor

Georgia is in her fifth and final year as a Global Studies student at VIU. Having been shaped by the knowledge she has been privileged to acquire in the form of travel, education, and general life experience, Georgia hopes to translate this knowledge into a career that intersects the reduction of both human and non-human suffering.

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