OPINION: I live on the edge of the Marlborough Sounds. An exquisite waterway that encompasses a staggering 20 percent of the coastline of Aotearoa, New Zealand.
I am very privileged to be able to see and sail on it every day – but I wish it could more closely resemble the wonders of yesteryear.
It has towering beech, rimu and totara. There is Birdsong, which Captain James Cook described as the most melodic, wildest music he had ever heard. And there are lobsters, so numerous their antennae are visible at low tide.
Other people think similarly.
There are groups of volunteers who remove wild pines and control pests to help native birdlife return. And of course we have fishing regulations aimed at preventing overfishing.
These volunteer groups often work alongside an overburdened Department of Conservation.
* DOC reports 15th dead Hector’s dolphin in six months
* The vision for Marlborough’s economic well-being describes challenges and actions
* Appeals dismissed for damage to wetlands in Kāpiti district
* The biosecurity team cannot find any fur or rabbit from an invading “wallaby” in Northland
* Marlborough’s innovative ‘pile and panel’ marina on course for summer opening
What is being done is amazing. But it never seems to be enough.
We usually call all this effort conservation.
By nature conservation we mean what other people do to protect nature. Although it is weighed against our many economic and recreational claims, which unfortunately are often the direct cause of the problems that conservationists seek to solve in the first place.
Is that just hand wrestling? We shouldn’t think.
The United Nations has now declared that global environmental degradation and biodiversity loss are so advanced and so significant that they should be equated with the dangers of climate change.
In other words, the habitability of the planet is at risk.
It seems fair to conclude that our relationship with our natural world is dysfunctional, and in doing so we must include the Marlborough Sounds.
Recently I came across a very different type of idea that seems highly relevant and valuable.
It’s an idea put forward by a botanist and respected New York State teaching professor of environmental biology named Robin Wall Kimmerer.
Kimmerer also happens to be a member of the Potawatomi nation, and while she is an expert in modern science, she draws on her heritage and its unique relationship with the natural world in her work and teaching.
In this world, all the plants, trees, fish, birds, and insects, as well as the rivers, lakes, and mountains, are considered gifts to the people.
The idea of a gift is of enormous importance.
When we give and receive a gift, it signifies a special relationship. And at the heart of any authentic relationship, she says, is the idea of reciprocity.
You give me and I give you.
This philosophy and practice gave rise to the somewhat derogatory European adage of the Indian giver, which reflected a European view that if one gives something one should not expect, as the Indians appeared to do, that they would receive it back in due course. We got it wrong.
The reason the idea of reciprocity is so important is because it would entail obligations for us personally to the natural world every day and in virtually everything we do.
Take the sounds during the past Easter holidays.
Many hundreds of families brought boats to enjoy the time on the water. As they should.
Many caught blue cod or crayfish as they have the right to do.
They received many gifts from the Sounds, including the fish, the scenery, and the experience of being on the water.
When we think of reciprocity, it asks everyone who sets sail, what have we given in return?
For example, we know that the bottom of the Sounds is heavily sedimented by the heavy runoff when pine forests on the hills are cut down.
We know that with habitat destruction, the beautiful Hector’s Dolphin is becoming increasingly rare.
We know it’s getting harder and harder to catch enough fish for a meal without first killing many young, undersized fish that don’t survive the gauntlet of the waiting crows.
On a beautiful Easter day, it is likely that our collective investment in the boats we adopt will be measurable in the many millions of dollars and individually in the tens of thousands.
Kimmerer would ask what did we give for it?
In a coastline of about 1800 km, we have two marine protected areas that should not be taken, which together make up more or less only 8 km or 0.44% of this coastline.
This truly tiny area is the sum total of the total protection we offer to marine life in the Sounds.
Certainly this is a particularly stingy gift of ours, in return for the bounty we have long received, but which we have had the privilege of rejecting as a shadow of what came before.
We can be guided by the philosophy of the indigenous North Americans. Instead of relying on regulations or the efforts of greenies, we can ask ourselves: what did we say in response?
What gifts did we give in return?
As it happens, we can start at home with the Māori concept of kaitiakitanga, or guardianship.
Kaitiakitanga brings with it the same kind of connection and responsibility to the natural world that Kimmerer describes.
It’s not exploitative. It is a gifting relationship such as one might have in a loving family.
The idea of reciprocity embedded in our daily lives can be the key to transforming our supremacy
Worldview that land, sea, lakes, rivers and all living things are for our use and enjoyment
This morning a Pīwakawaka (New Zealand fantail) perched on the stick I was holding for a chat. I considered this an act of reciprocity in exchange for helping to eradicate its predators.
But maybe I’m imaginative.