A few days ago Eleanor and I went for a walk in the deep, dark forest. We called it the deep dark forest when she was three or four and the name has stuck. We used to look for bears, but we don’t anymore. We walk up a steep track behind Newtown Park that is heavily rutted, and threaded with the roots of pine trees until we arrive up on a bushy ridge. The track along the ridge is narrow and fringed with tall grasses, and gorse and broom and leads us up to a playing field and children’s playground. After the children’s playground we take another path back down around the zoo’s perimeter fence to the entrance of the zoo and Newtown Park then up a zigzagging path past the council flats, through a wide swath of grass dotted with pine trees, and home. It’s a good walk.
On the last bit of the walk – through the grass and between the pine trees – I noticed that there was a lot of rubbish strewn through the underbrush that fringed the area. I’m not sure why I particularly noticed it that day but I did. The day before, again for no real reason, I wrote in my notebook: “We are guests in someone else’s home and we have become rude and arrogant”. I was thinking about the planet when I wrote this and although it is not an original thought it struck me with force at the time, and again at the end of the walk with Eleanor. People like to come to this piece of grass and eat, or smoke, or hang out with their mates and have a drink under the low boughs of the pines at night. Mostly, I suppose, they take their rubbish with them, but it seems that sometimes they don’t. Never mind writing pompous letters to the Wellingtonian; what should I do?
Today I took Eleanor and Rosamund back to the grass and the pine trees and we cleaned it up a bit. Eleanor was delighted to be able to look for disgusting things with my approval, and Rosamund had no idea what was going on but collected six small branches, a handful of stones and a pine cone. We worked over an area probably 50 metres long and about 15 metres wide. It took an hour and it filled three shopping bags. It was satisfying to remove so much plastic and glass and cardboard and paper from a bank of trees, but it was also a little depressing. When I had the idea I had thought I would be picking up some rubbish, but when I actually got down to it the amount of rubbish was much worse than I had thought. When you whip past in the car you only see the big pieces of rubbish: the plastic shopping bags, and newspapers, but in fact across the whole area there was a generous sprinkling of little pieces of plastic: wrappers for chocolate, and muesli bars, and cigarette packets, and chippies, and every other little thing we wrap in plastic, and it occurred to me as I left that my three bags of rubbish were only the surface of the problem. If you wanted to – and I don’t – you could take a rake and disturb the leaf litter and pull up at least another three rubbish bags worth from the same area.
Very, very slowly it seems to me that we are filling up the earth with our rubbish, and it is for no purpose. We are not filling the earth with the rubbish of our grandiose dreams, we are filling it with Roses chocolate wrappers because we can. Or McDonalds burger boxes. Or the little plastic lids for takeaway coffees. It was while I was living in Japan that I realised that we as a race are more likely to destroy the planet not in a nuclear apocalypse but through the desire to have disposable chopsticks or individually wrapped biscuits. What a shitter.
I’ve decided to do something about it. Not much, but something.
I’m going to go back and finish cleaning up my little patch of the commons, and then I’m going to email two sets of people: (1) my local MP to suggest taking ideas about making sustainable packaging a law in this country, and (2) all the companies responsible for the non-biodegradable rubbish I found so that I can ask them what their plans are for changing how they pack their products. There is a third group involved of course: the lazy shits who leave their rubbish behind. However, I am not – and my wife will be pleased to hear this – going to sit up at the park and harass picnickers and drunks.
In the afternoon we went to Petone. It was anniversary day after all and it seemed appropriate to visit the beach where the first settlers lumbered ashore 174 years ago after spending 126 days aboard the Aurora. Te Puni, whose kainga was on the same beach, was there to help them. It was Te Puni and Wharepouri, his cousin, who made a land deal with the New Zealand Company in 1839. The settlers on the beach on 22 January 1840 were the first major consequence of that deal. As with most deals at this time the terms and definitions were culturally misaligned, and the motives of both sides (in this case) questionable. Te Rauparaha wasn’t impressed with Te Puni or Te Wharepouri when he heard of the deal.
It wasn’t a deal that did Te Wharepouri any favours:
Brooding over his wrongs and beset by troubles, Te Wharepouri became haggard and thin. He was frequently drunk. He developed an abscess on his head, which proved incurable, and died on 22 November 1842 at Ngauranga, survived by his wife, Te Uamairangi, and Te Kakapi. His body was taken to Petone for burial, and part of his canoe erected there as a memorial. On his deathbed he consigned the care of his people, both Maori and Pakeha, to his cousin Honiana Te Puni-kokopu. (DNZB)
Te Puni did better, managing to negotiate complex inter-iwi relationships and side with the settlers to good effect.
Still, there can have been little understanding in the heads of Te Puni and Te Wharepouri of what they were unleashing when they agreed to the British presence in their harbour, and “two years before his death the governor, G. F. Bowen, visited [Te Puni] with C. J. Abraham, the bishop of Wellington. They found him disillusioned and bitter.” (DNZB)
The Te Puni Urupa is still in Petone, and you can visit Te Puni’s grave and the graves of his family members. It is a windswept scrap of land on an industrial street; grave plots, headstones and tufts of grass between loading docks and warehouses. A whenua po on the waterfront shows him looking across the harbour at Wellington city. It is a powerful line of sight. Behind those eyes what does the spirit of Te Puni think about the changes he had a hand in detonating here?
In 1940 they opened the settlers museum on the Pito-one waterfront to commemorate that first settler-landing in 1840. Peter Fraser came to the opening in place of the ailing Prime Minister Savage, and the image of the first troop ships sailing out of the harbour for World War Two must have still seemed to hang on the retina of the horizon’s memory behind the new museum. It could have seemed a bad omen.
Next year it will be 175 years since dawn broke on the Aurora in Wellington. I will be 67 when the country constructed at Waitangi turns 200. Where will we be then? What disharmonies will we still ring our hands over?
The wheels that began to turn in the 18th century to create our modern world, that thrust industry, and capitalism, and colonialism into most corners of the earth, are even now still bearing their terrible fruit. That we continue to exploit and gum up the earth, that the first peoples are denied true cultural and political equality around the globe, and that this model that has created more plenty than any society has ever known can still condemn generations of people to live hand to mouth – well, all of these things should direct the compassionate, and wise among us to challenge the status quo.
Or to take your kids down to the park and clean it up.
Or to write letters.
Or to work for change one classroom at a time.