Saturday, January 14, 2012

An unquiet land

When I was a young girl visiting South Africa, I remember my cousin and her husband taking me on a daytrip to Franschoek. With my English-reared eyes, I looked at the pine-covered hillsides and thought how beautiful they were. My Afrikaner cousin broke into my thought with an impatient comment "Ach! It's such a shame how these alien forests have spoilt the habitat like this! I would so love to see it free!"

Like South Africa, New Zealand has its native species and its aliens, the ones brought by English colonists and Australian ships. An uneasy relationship exists between the native and the invader, an ongoing battle for supremacy and preservation of which our lawnmower, currently still impounded by the Ministry for Agriculture Farms and Fisheries, is an accidental victim. (It's been there for weeks, its crime to arrive uncleaned. No news ekes out from its prison cell. I wonder how New Zealand law permits such indefinite internment, whether the machine will require therapy on its release. Perhaps I shall shortly be having solemn conversations about its behavioural issues, and joining support groups for Owners of Imprisoned and Traumatised Lawnmowers)

But of course there is a reason for this seemingly neurotic concern with grass-covered lawnmowers. Seeds. Foreign ones. A plant like gorse grows sparingly in the United Kingdom, in isolated clutches. In English culture it is regarded fondly by poets, associated with the remote and romantic. Here it has spread wildly, pushing out native plantlife. It's a pest. The same is true of rabbits. Beatrix Potter sentimentalism has little place in a country where they have bred like, well, themselves, and are pushing out other species and destroying crops and farmland.

Our balcony view is remarkable. We are on the edge of a reserve, native forest rears up all around us. For a city house, it feels astonishingly remote. "Who needs a bach [holiday house] when we have this?" I joked to my husband. On the one level it is peaceful, consoling. Yet - when I look at the view, at the houses dotting the landscape and the forest breaking through towards the sky in between - I am conscious of a quiet undercurrent of unease. It takes me a few days to work out the cause of this feeling. Then I realise. It is to do with a different sort of fight, between landscape and the city where we live.

Europeans settled this particular area less than two hundred years ago. Before that, yes, it was inhabited, but sparingly. I can't help but feel, irrationally, that the land is unhappy with the rate and pace of settlement, and that the forests are crying out in astonishment and grief at the land they have lost. I buy ant-killer and flyspray to seal our house from "pests." In forest terms, we are the truly damaging pests. Our homes encroach upon the ecosystem, destroying as much as we save. Like my Afrikaner cousin, I have an impossible, impractical, yearning to reverse all this, to pull up the alien buildings and vegetation and see it all again "free."

New Zealand is a modern country, it needs houses and streetlamps and sewage systems and hospitals. I don't begrudge any of these things. But they come at a cost, the desecration of the open landscape. Sometimes I feel, raising children - any children, of course, but particularly those with additional needs, who are challenged more than most by the task of learning society's rules and regulations - that there is something about protecting a vulnerable ecosystem, the child's inner sense of balance, of comfort and right and wrong, as much as there is of teaching them to "fit in." As parents we are caught in this tension. We have the desire to respect our child as they are, to understand them, to give them ear defenders on the plane to New Zealand to shut out the nasty noise. That is our understanding of a fragile eco-system. And equally, we want to teach them that loud noises are OK, that they do not need to take fright and run into traffic every time a motorbike roars past. That is our desire to socialise, to integrate and tame, the clearing of their private forest so that a social world can grow.

We can see this tension in the different styles of treatments that are available for autism. Some, like ABA, are very successful in teaching children to come alongside others, to learn and reproduce the skills to survive in a social world. Others, like Floortime and Sonrise, are focused more initially on getting alongside the child, building relationships on the child's terms, with the hope that longterm more reciprocal interaction will come. I am fortunate, in that all my children have a keen desire to interact and the basic skills to do so. Hence I do not need or desire an intensive program. But I do desire the same outcomes as these therapists aim to provide. I want to give my children the skills to manage in everyday society. The social city where we must all rub along. But alongside that, I want to recognise their difference, their individuality and their need for individual understanding and space. I am desperate to ensure they get time to play in their inner forest too.

Because as the Christian theological tradition teaches, wholeness is cultivating our inner life and our outer connection to others. Our primitive "I," as well as our social "us." The medieval distinction between active and contemplative spirituality sought to centre love not solely in outer works, but also in quiet inner sanctity, the removal of the social in order to make time for aloneness and prayer. Very appositely, Christian spiritual writings tend to use nature imagery for this soultime: the desert, the garden. To that I would add the native forests of New Zealand: quiet, brooding, dense. Unexpected, and unsettling at times. But also very freeing. I can imagine finding great peace in them, as well as the differentness and sense of struggle with urbanisation that shocks me now.

That's good, because some changes to an ecosystem are irreversible. Gorse cannot be returned to England, any more than modern society can be undone. We're not going home: neither this family, nor the 200 years of European settlement. That may be upsetting to some. When I was in South Africa, I paid a second visit to Franschoek, this time to visit the winery with some Xhosa friends. They were very poor and had rarely left the Cape Flats. On the way home, perhaps fortified by the wine, one of my Xhosa friends cried out in grief at the state of the land, exactly as my Afrikaner cousin had done. But his cry was different "How can it be that all this land is owned by so few?" He meant, of course, the whites. That cry has always haunted me. New Zealand is very different socio-economically from the Cape, and the Waitangi Tribunal has done much to address land and economic injustice, but for some land takeover, in the sense of immigration from Europe, is still a contentious issue. Of course, we're a long way here from the rhetoric of the Pan-African Congress "One settler, one bullet:" but the basic facts of colonialisation and post-colonial landscape remain the same. As Maori academic Margaret Mutu recently demonstrated (September 2011: comments in response to a report on racial attitudes) English migrants are felt by some to bring attitudes destructive to Maori. Some would see my very arrival in New Zealand as intrusive, unsettling, bad for the country. That is something I have to live with. On a practical and personal level, I am also, in a sense, an alien. Due to my accent, perhaps I will never completely "fit" in New Zealand. The roads may always seem a little too wide, the forests may always surprise me with their density and depth. That's OK. I am comfortable with that. What I want is for my children to fit in, both socially and physically. I want them to make up their developmental lags to fit in with their peers as they grow older: and to feel the instinctive comfort with this landscape and culture that I, at this time, do not.

1 comment:

  1. Gosh, C, there is so much in this post. You are clearly suffering from culture shock! But your points are so interesting. We are all desecrating our landscapes, of course, back here in England as well as in newer countries. I am so interested in reading about how you are settling down to life in NZ - have often wondered, but too wrapped up in own problems to go into Facebook for updates. Then today found your new blog - will read it to keep up with your progress!