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Mt. Taranaki in New Zealand

Michael Vincent McGinnis

Mt. Taranaki in New Zealand


A Conversation with Ocean and Stone

From One Edge of the Pacific to Another


I stand on a rock and face the waves of the Tasman Sea. They are brought to the west coast of Taranaki by the storms and winds that brew off the coast of Antarctica. Taranaki is a coastal province on the north isle of New Zealand. I have been lost in this landscape from across the Pacific Ocean, and caught between memories of the familiar seascape of Santa Barbara and the unfamiliar coastline of Aotearoa (the land of the white cloud). Rock hopping along a creek’s bank up to a volcano, I remember a distant homeland. I am far from a landscape steeped in the smell of sage with the gathering of bay leaves along a creek’s bank and the evening call of a great horned owl. I am in both places at once.

Michael McGinnis

In the middle of this coastal region is Mount Taranaki, the most active volcano in New Zealand. Taranaki is ready to blow, and when it does it will likely explode across the landscape and seascape. The largest volcano in recorded human history is the explosion of Mt. Taupo on this north isle. Taupo sits with over 40 other volcanoes of this island and is about a four-hour drive from Mount Taranaki. It is part of a larger ring of fire that links diverse peoples and places across the Pacific. Taupo is now a large crater lake. The Egyptians recorded that after the Taupo eruption some 2,000 years ago, the Earth was covered in a dark haze for two weeks. The entire north isle of the country — all the birds and plants — was destroyed. One thousand years later, the north isle was settled by Māori tribes who first landed on the coast and travelled by river up the valley to inhabit the landscape under the mountain.

There is a Māori myth of the mountain and an albatross feather. The feather is the symbol of a long white cloud which is often seen slightly covering the top of the great sacred mountainous center of the province. Women of the coastal tribe — or iwi of the region — wear an albatross feather in their hair to signify their connection, kinship, and relationship to the mountain and region. You can sense the strength of the mountain, the depth of the soil, the history of the culture, the change across the landscape.

I spent two years in New Zealand. During this time, I only began to understand the landscape and the wild sea that surrounds it. The sea is something that awakens in you as you begin to walk along a wind-blown shore, with large volcanic rocks lining the coast. It is a rugged coast with seabirds nesting in the sand and along the rocky shores and cliffs. It is as if you are walking toward something alive in the world. Getting to know this new landscape is a difficult journey. It is an intimate landscape, but I can never fully realize what it means to be “inside” this landscape, to have a language that intensely embraces this landscape or brings it into presence.

The soil of New Zealand is deep in volcanic ash and the droppings of thousands of years of accumulation of bird guano. When Captain Cook arrived in New Zealand, his crew returned to the ship because they could not sleep; the bird chorus was loud across the landscape. The richness of the soil caused by this mixing of guano and ash is the foundation for the richness of New Zealand’s dairy industry, and an important foundation for the re-wilding of the native bush in the low country and hillsides. The hope is that the native birds will return. But the morning chorus of birds during early spring rarely occurs and then in only a few of the wildest remaining places.

On the way home from Taranaki, the sun fell over the mountain, and the fence posts lining the coastal road became less visible; the boundaries between the sea and land less clear. It would be the last time I would see Taranaki for some time. I think of my return home to Santa Barbara and the majestic coastal range of the Santa Ynez with the small creeks flowing south to the sea. There are snowy plovers and other shore birds nesting on the sands of Coal Oil Point, and in the foreground there are blue islands on our horizon.

The fact is that the lines between places are not as clear as we presuppose; that the difference between peoples is obscured by the beauty of landscapes we inhabit, the wakeup calls of bird songs, the river’s path, the ocean’s whisper in my ears. In time, the landscape speaks, and the knowledge of the sea can change you. Our understanding and appreciation of the distant places we visit can form the basis of new awareness of our home; the unfamiliar or unknown landscape can shape new insights about our sense of place and community. We can begin to find joy and comfort in small wonders that we often take for granted: the movement of birds in an oak canopy, the change in the direction of the wind, the first rain and the bounty of our local farmer’s market. Earthly light from darkness to fire to gold poppies to starry night and coyote howls.

The familiar landscapes and places of this region take on new meanings and significance when you are far from home. Your home can be a reference point to see new places as well. It is what you see and feel in other places that matters. I’ve left the cold winter rains and roaring winds of the Tasman Sea behind and have grown closer to our coastal province. May we respect the passing storm with parting words. May we receive the gifts and grow new roots. May we find compassion to guide our way.



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