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Solstice Across the Blue Ocean

How the Pacific Binds All Beings


Saturday, December 31, 2011

Nā Tāne I took, ka mawehe a Rangi rāua ko Papa, nāna I tauwehea ai, ka heuea te Pō, ka heuea te Ao.

It is by the strength of Tāne that sky and earth were separated, and light was born.

Our winter solstice marks the shortest day of the year in the Northern Hemisphere. It is a beautiful day marked by cobalt blue skies and cool winds from the Pacific Ocean. Down under, in New Zealand, while we celebrated our shortest day, they celebrated the longest day of the year in their summer solstice.

Across the blue ocean of the Pacific, summer and winter solstice are united. The familiar landscape of Santa Barbara and the unfamiliar seascape of New Zealand are connected by the solstice celebration and the changing patterns and seasons of a diverse Pacific seascape. I have grown to understand the subtle patterns of the sea that unites diverse peoples and places — there is one river, one ocean, one breath.

Michael McGinnis
Click to enlarge photo

Michael McGinnis

Like the great green sea turtle, I have followed the path of honu (the Polynesian word for the turtle) across the Pacific for several years now. My focus has been to gain a greater understanding of the Pacific. While we are part of the Pacific, we are also of the Pacific. I have been lucky to spend time in our beautiful region with its blue islands on the horizon and have begun to increasingly understand the connections that sea birds and marine mammals have across the Pacific.

The changing light of solstice awakens and is reflected in the seasonal migrations and paths that animals have followed for thousands of years. It is a path that has been created by the winds, currents, and lives of the sea. On the west coast of New Zealand, I witnessed the new dawn of a chorus of bird songs, the sounds of a rolling creek, the rain dancing on the surface of the sea in an afternoon squall. In the late afternoon, a double rainbow cast a spell on me. While I walk the shore collecting shells, I am thinking of our region’s great diversity of life. As the blackness of storm passes by, I think of the golden rising sun and the colors of our coastal chaparral.

While in New Zealand, I began to learn the importance of the cultural ways of the diverse Māori peoples, and I now believe that many of their beliefs and values have meaning for us. The Māori have inhabited the islands for over 800 years. A fundamental principle of living life in accordance to Māori tradition is grounded in the concept of kaitiakitanga — the obligation of whanau, hapu, and iwi (which all roughly translate to “tribe”) to protect the physical and spiritual well-being of taonga (things of value) within their mana (control).

This Māori value is an essential part of how the people of New Zealand cherish the values carried by land, river, and sea. Kaitiakitanga recognizes the deep connection that the people have with a place: it embodies a principle of living with a more than human community. Indeed, the Māori embrace a concept of whakapapa, or genealogy, which strengthens a concept of kinship so that it includes the mountain, river, coastal, and marine area that is part of the family and place inhabited. Māori have passed on the values of whakapapa and kaitiakitanga across generations. In reference to the marine environment, these traditional values denote the authority for the exercise of the stewardship obligation as deriving from atua or ancestors.

A yellow-eyed penguin on the New Zealand coast.
Click to enlarge photo

Trevor Penfold

A yellow-eyed penguin on the New Zealand coast.

The traditional method of greeting in Māori is a hongi, which is completed by pressing one’s nose and forehead (at the same time) to another person at an encounter. It is used at traditional meetings among Māori people and on major ceremonies and serves a similar purpose as a formal handshake in our culture. The power of the greeting resonates in the sharing of a common breath. In the hongi, the ha (breath of life) is exchanged and intermingled. In some ways, it is similar to the Polynesian greeting of aloha, which can be translated as of the breath. Ha is translated as “the breath of life.” Through the exchange of these greetings, you are recognized as of the land and the sea. With each greeting, you are reminded of your obligation to share in all the duties and responsibilities of the home people.

So, as we feel the cool winter breath of the sea on our winter solstice, it is a time to recognize our deep connection to one another, our landscape, and the great circle of animals, plants, and insects that share our place with us. As we celebrate the holidays with family and friends, we share a common breath and a common place.

In the bright white and yellow glow of this day, we turn to the mountains and think of the sea. Today, we can begin the hard work of community building — contemplating our connection to a creek, to the greater watershed, to the coastal bioregion of Gaviota or Santa Ynez or Point Conception — to celebrate our gift from the sea. We are grateful for the gifts of this place and region. It is the breath of our song, our clear winter breeze. Let’s celebrate this place with renewed partnerships and a renewed sense of community and continuity with others.

This is my New Year’s resolution: We should be grateful to the wild beings, their secrets, freedoms, and ways. We should be grateful to the sun-facing, light-changing sycamores that grow along our coastal creeks. We depend on this earthhousehold by the sea, this amphitheatre by the sea. There are shadows of wild southern steelhead in the creek. We should cherish the bloom of ceonothus, Chinese house, and monkey flower, and the interface between those beings of the land, fresh, and saltwater.

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