happily stuck, yet we go forth

We’re the ‘stuck Americans’, as our wonderful host Tania introduces us, happily stuck, since our April Auckland to Honolulu flight was cancelled. Alas, our lovely lark as resident artists at Wharepuke, in the Northland region of New Zealand, one of the safest places on the planet is timing out. We return to our troubled homeland on July 11. 

By an odd and retrograde quirk of fate, Drask is returning to his former IT job at the medical school in Lewisburg, WV and we’ll live in the Greenbrier County house we left in 2014. 

On May 11, 2020, an email from Kelly, the tenant in the house we built and sold, shared her July plans to move into her own handmade house. Over the years, we hear from her with house /land appreciations and technical questions. On reading her note, a tiny thought formed, in answer to our present question: where to go when we have to leave the shelter of New Zealand, when our visa extension times out in September, where is safe in this time out of time? A long shot, I contact the house owner, who I knew had returned to a great job in Texas. And the next day, another long shot hit the mark; Drask is invited to interview for his former job at WV Osteopathic School of Medicine.

in July, we close on the Teaberry Road property and Drask starts at WVSOM. Part of my mind repeats the wisdom of a refrigerator magnet, a wedding present from my dear pal Caroline Smith, ‘why do I have to get married? I didn’t do anything wrong’, updated to ‘why do I have to go to America?‘…  And although everyone here, even the Air New Zealand Representative who spent two hours on the phone arranging flights with us, suggests we just stay in New Zealand, ‘at least until after the election’, we love it in Greenbrier County, maybe as much as Wharepuke, and feel remarkably fortunate to be returning to our beloved community and favorite little holler in the world.

Autumn Subtropical Forest Night Sounds

Just before dusk, the birds all break into an noisy uproar of chatter, roosting, sharing stories of their day; it gets loud. The lovely cacophony stacks in distinct layers, it’s especially loud from the tree tops. The doves with their confiding tones fill in the middle range of sound. The tui are always the joyful weirdos of percussion, all day and into the night. ( find sound clips of tui and doves in the previous post) As dusk arrives, crickets join the chorus with their cheery metallic sound.

Australian Brushtail Possum Noises

When true dark arrives, we hear the possums nearly nightly now, when the white sapote fruit falls in abundance. The possums startle us with their hissing, engine trying-to-engage cackle, scrapping around in the bush. The Brits here say it’s a dirty old man sound. Our cottages are in the shadow of a fine big, spreading Casimiroa tree that drops its big sapote fruit when ripe, kachunk on our tin roofs, where the posssums clunk around in the night, heavy footed, eating, hissing, cackling loudly. From Newshub, June, 2019, among the eighteen documented distinct sounds include “grunting, growling, hissing, screeching, clicking and teeth-chattering calls, many of which would not be out of place on a horror movie soundtrack.”

Possums are one of many mammals brought to these islands to solve a problem that in fact created a much larger problem. At home in Australia, possums occupy a cozy niche, here they do not play well with others. Brought to build a fur trade in 1837, and with the island’s abundant edible flora and no predators, possums are now a menace to local fauna, kiwi birds and Kiwi farmers.

The ground, too, between our cottages is covered with fallen, smashed fruit, half eaten by possums. The fruit brings an infinity of fruit flies and bugs and then grubs that are part of the insect life cycle. The grubs bring me to the best part of my story (perhaps a unique sentence). Grubs are a favored kiwi food, which they dig up with their long beaks, with nostrils near the ground end, oddly. Three full days of April rain apparently generated a perfect kiwi habitat between our cottages, softening the earth beneath, full of grubs and worms and fruit, all kiwi’s favorite nibbles. Three days of rain gave us four nights in a row of compelling kiwi calls outside our window. The kiwi calls are reminiscent of the whippoorwill call, very breathy, keening and melodic.

We view our kiwi experience as a sub category of our exceptional luck to weather a pandemic in the safety of New Zealand, to hear kiwi, and be in their presence. Our human hosts in the forest remark how unusual and special it is to witness the beloved and rare kiwi bird.

Morning forest sounds

Morning forest sounds / So many birds, so much sound

Morepork. December 2012. Image © Adam Clarke by Adam Clarke

Evening calls, Tikitiki, February 1957, Night, Carl & Lise Wiesmann (deceased), McPherson Natural History Unit Sound Archive, www.archivebirdsnz.com

The morning sounds around our cottage start with a familiar owl-y hoot hoot, the ruru, New Zealand’s native owl. There’s at least three owls nearby, so it’s an overlapping triangulation of sound. The name the Brits gave the ruru is more-pork and both names offer a pretty accurate sound translation.

Barbary dove. Adult male displaying. Kerikeri, Northland, September 2013. Image © Les Feasey by Les Feasey

Song, November 2011, Nicholas Allen, Nicholas Allen, nick_allen@xtra.co.nz

Next to join the chorus are the creamy-hued Barbary doves, cooing their comforting and soft, deep-throated gargle. The doves greet each other with a dissonant sound component that precisely evokes the jeering, scornful laugh of a teenager. It catches me off guard, seems so out of place in a subtropical forest. I see the doves in pairs or threes, never solo and they let me get very close.

New Zealand pigeon. Adult perched in tree. Wanganui, August 2008. Image © Ormond Torr by Ormond Torr

Calls from captive birds, Mount Bruce National Wildlife Centre, August 1979, 1415, Les McPherson, McPherson Natural History Unit Sound Archive,

Tui. Adult. Dunedin, August 2009. Image © Craig McKenzie by Craig McKenzie

Adult song, Kapiti Island, October 1956, Daylight, Carl & Lise Wiesmann (deceased), McPherson Natural History Unit Sound Archive, www.archivebirdsnz.com

Of all the morning sounds, it is the exotic call of the tui bird that slays me the most. The tui’s song goes long and contains pretty bird melodies punctuated by a odd bunch of grackles, grunts, pops, whistles and metallic cracks. It takes a few days before I realize the familiar- it’s cuckoo for Cocoa Puffs!. I haven’t heard that ad jingle for 50 years. The tui call can transport me in a heartbeat to a time when I knew every word to every tv ad. The tui birds start their kooky festival at dawn and keep going all day. It is the dominant soundscape of this subtropical forest and I love it; I’m nostalgic in advance.

Eels and water spirits, people we meet and the stories they tell us – more about our New Zealand Pacific Studio residency

Gaye and her friend Mary introduce us to the powerful, captivating Maori  concept of taniwha. To say, try  ‘tawny- fah ’. The taniwha is a water-dwelling spirit. They inhabit tricky spots, like eddies. In fresh water, the spirit resembles an eel. The taniwha in the sea is said to look like a whale or a shark. A real all-purpose mythic creature, the taniwha is a nurturing presence sometimes and a scary monster sometimes, a protector and a demon. The taniwha is employed, for example, in stories for children as a cautionary tale pointing to dangerous stuff to avoid. Then again, contemporary road building projects have been modified because construction could impede where a taniwha spirit resides. I find the contradictory character of the myth figure compelling, that the thing can hold opposite meanings. Are there other folkways where a spirit is both demon and protector?

Mary reads us a poem. Mary brought a perfect round watermelon to share for lunch, and wearing a perfect striped top. After lunch, she sat under the tree in front of our cottage, the dappling light activating her watermelon stripes, her kind voice and authenticity, to share her story poem of a significant encounter with a striped taniwha. (As I listen now, the wind sound is annoying, not so perfect, please forgive.) 

Gaye tells her taniwha story. She is a brilliant, compelling storyteller, listen here.

Gaye shares another story, ‘Death and the Rabbi’, also great.

Madeleine, lovely poet, shared There is so much time about the remarkable life cycle of the native eel, part of a ceremony to welcome the elvers back on their yearly return to inland fresh water.

On our way away, Michael, visionary forest builder, took us to Pukaha National Wildlife Center. The story of how the land was returned, with a formal apology, to the Maori family, is fascinating and well told in the linked Planet Money piece, totally worth a 20 minute listen. 

New Zealand Pacific Studio

Back in the before times, February 2020, in the countryside of the Wairarapa region, not far-ish from Wellington, NZ, on our first artist residency in New Zealand, we stay in a charming cottage set in a splendid olive grove – native plant food forest with visionary owners Gaye and Michael. Our two-fold project includes creating portals in the landscape and an art+science study of eels. The Maori name for NZ is ‘world of the long clouds’, Aotearoa.

A stream full of eel runs through Michael and Gaye’s land, on which they have planted hundreds of trees, inviting shade and biodiversity.

The New Zealand Pacific Studio residency program takes an innovative community-based approach. Rather than hosting artists at a physical location, NPS pairs artists with like-minded local hosts who provide housing and a willingness to show their visiting artist guests a good time, with relevant field trips, resources, hikes, gatherings, even eel petting opportunities. This brilliant spin on the residency concept sprung from necessity; when the original house place had to be sold, the organization found a way to go forward.  Our hosts could not have been more lovely, generous and thoughtful- big thanks to Gaye and Michael, super activist allies to indigenous people and natural history. We learned so much!

When the world rights and travel is a thing, I encourage all my artist friends with an interest in New Zealand to check out NPS. 

Day 32 (in captivity)

More stuff I find on the ground

Every day, once, twice, three times, we bound up the switchback path through the sculpture garden to the food forest on top. We get our 10,000 steps in and I think of Heraclitus. You know, the Ancient Greek philosopher who basically invented the concept of flux : “no one ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and they are not the same person.” ( I fixed a gender problem in this quote.)

We walk this same labyrinthine path, and yet each time some botanical wonder comes into our field of vision to delight us anew. There is stuff so visually arresting that it seems impossible that I ever walked by and did not notice. I am captivated by a fantastic shaped leaf, or a pod of an unusual hue of blue underfoot, or a crazy cool scarlet-pink bromeliad flower with deep purple tips that were dark red yesterday. A tall stand of fuschia – white orchids looms over the path forming an arch with a huge deep green fern.  

A leaf of fantastic shape and some more ground scores
Purple tipped bromeliad flower
Looming Orchid

When we get to the hilltop, the grove of towering macadamia nut trees is spacious and nurturing. The mac nuts drop when ripe, their outer shells rich green and pebbly; every day there are more and bigger green globes scattered on the dark red-brown leaf litter. We check in on a persimmon tree- the fruit is ripe when the birds peck into it, leaving on the branch a half-eaten hemisphere. We duck under the foliage of Plinia cauliflora, a Brazilian tree with its’ trunk packed with bright green to deep purple to black shiny marble-like fruit that looks a bit like a giant Concord grape, called ‘Jaboticaba’. Drask thinks it tastes grape-y, too.

Mac nuts in the leaf litter, clover too
Persimmon so heavy with fruit, branches break off completely

So, can one walk through the same forest twice? Having this slow time to witness the spectacle, the dizzying unfolding of this rich, festive garden is such an honor. Time is unspooling, our ongoing delight tinged with a solemn quality, because: the awesomeness of the place, the autumn light, the rain.  And we are some humans who have been sent to our room to think about we’ve done. As we step into the river again and again, we’re grounded.

April 6, 2020

On March 17, we arrived early to our second art residency, at Wharepuke Sculpture Garden. We started our personal lockdown that day, a week ahead of the whole country. We learned on Friday, April 3 that New Zealand Immigration extended our visa to September 2020, so we may be in country, this land of new zeal, for a while.  I feel enormous gratitude for our blundering good luck to be tucked in a cottage in this magnificent subtropical food forest in Kerikeri, Northlands, NZ. 

Words feel like blunt objects: clunky, lumbering. Even without the words, I want to reach out and share – I’m thinking of you, my friends and let you know:  I’m fine, we’re fine, thriving, even. I hope you are well and even thriving. Yes, we blundered into a garden of exceptional beauty and fertility and I hope you feel that way about your location. 

Rather than more words, I’m going to throw up a big mess of images of the many delights of this botanical wonder. I’d love to hear from you, Jess

Bromeliad flower
A Dr. Seuss tree
Bromeliad flower
A flower on a vine
Moon flower tree behind my studio
Another splendid bromeliad
Red pineapple

Update – Tuesday 24 March

So, on Thursday, March 19, Pompeo announces ‘get home or stay out indefinitely’. Then we discover, randomly, that our April 21 Air New Zealand flight is cancelled, without notification. At the same time, Drask is wrangling a clunky, uninformative immigration website, to apply for a 6 month visa extension in case we can’t get out. We are thrown into confusion. Shall we get out before flights are suspended or stay with a ticking visa?

On Monday, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern announced that the entire country of New Zealand would be “locked down” starting Wednesday morning for a period of at least four weeks. This means no non-essential travel. Grocery stores and medical services will remain open, but that is about it. We still have not been contacted by the airline and can’t arrange travel back on such short notice, so it seems we will be weathering the lockdown here in paradise.

Our cottage front porch

So, tell me — how is it going in your gene pool, how are you coping with our fragile shared world, shrinking and expanding at the same time?  Are you thriving? anyone?

My best coping practice is to get my hands in the dirt. We were wwoofing in Matapouri Bay before now, and I can go on, raving about the soil there- loamy, deep, rich, with an herb layer of nasturtiums, arugula, lambs quarters, lots of ribbed plantain. Thankfully, I have permission to garden here, too.

Perhaps ironically, I’ve been working on a long term art project, a words-and-pictures publication around interconnectedness, like food webs, like flowers and pollinators, like coevolution. Our current moment adds unimaginable depth to the theme. What are your thoughts on interconnectedness? Please share.

Now, I wonder, on return from the lovely, quiet Kerikeri farmers market- how about money? The insides of pockets? Can corona live on hair?

Kitchen in a bamboo grove, another dream come true


Here’s a note I sent to some folks on Tuesday, March 17

Greetings dear folks, Jess here, checking in today to share that Drask and I are feeling very sheltered and cozy at our second artist residency, in a cottage tucked into a magnificent subtropical garden, remote feeling and yet a ten minute walk from a supermarket. We feel very safe here in this art garden haven. The two hectare property has 5 rental cottages, a few artist studios, Tania and Mark’s house and a small restaurant. It is very easy to stay 6 feet away from others- there is hardly anyone around. The cottage next to us is occupied with a 30-something couple and Brian, their food-obsessed pug. I think they return to Auckland today.

We are booked here at Wharepuke (House – Hill) until April 10, at this point. To pronounce, try ‘Far-ah-pook-eh’.  

On Sunday, March 10, we cancelled a bunch of travel to cities for talks that Drask was scheduled to present to tech groups. Instead, he built a presentation on a YouTube live format and yesterday, at the scheduled Wellington meeting time, talked to 8 folks through a ‘google hangout’. So it went great.

For days, I’ve been thinking ‘oh I’ll write tomorrow, when we’ll be more settled’. Today, that kind of thinking seems so naive, so January 2020. Every day the lens shifts.  Our scheduled departure on New Zealand Air flight #NZ10  is scheduled for April 21, Auckland to Honolulu. We are looking at our options- leaving early, getting a visa extension to shelter in place. Drask is waiting for a callback from Auckland Immigration. We will stay in touch. Thanks so much for your caring thoughts, love, Jess

Wherein we take a left turn and blunder into paradise, wwoofing

After meeting at the Whangarei bus station on Friday afternoon and riding north for 1/2 hour, in her burgundy Toyota Hilux, Cushla, in uniform, said ‘you’re part of the family now’ when we arrived at her place. So now I have the security officer – Maori sister I’ve always wanted.

There are some mysteries to our assignment. First, there’s not much gardening to do at Cushla’s big compound.  

On our first morning, Cushla’s brother came from his nearby farm to dowse the septic drain field with a piece of wire he bent into a fork. Watching John walk the field, the wire turning magically, was mysterious and awesome. Cushla wants people to stop driving over the septic field and for us to develop a barrier. Because we are wwoofing. There’s a bit of bamboo on the place, loppers and a machete, so: a trellis. 

The Northlands coast line, a two hour drive north of Auckland, is really spectacular landscape. Another mysterious happening here is with Maori sacred sites and mermaids, on which I hope to report further. The coastline itself is very complex here, lots of inlets, dunes, bays, watery places, outcroppings, coves, forested mounds on the land-sea edge.

Matapouri Bay
The path to whale beach

We wake in our outfitted garage, called a ‘bach’, pronounced batch, to the sounds of shore and land birds, and the surf-pounding-sand sound. A funny-looking bird with a shriek call, the pukeko, is a native and lives in abundance in the mangrove behind us. Lots of seagulls cawing and chasing each other.

Pukeko in the mangrove

Given the audio theme of our stay, I’d be remiss not to mention our resident teething toddler. We share a kitchen/ common space with a wonderful Swiss German family. Tina and Simon have repeated themselves with Ella, 4-ish and Len, nearly 2. Tina has a dream job offer, in Whangarei, in her specialization: urology nurse, and is studying for an English equivalency test. It’s a pleasure to observe Simon as lead kid watch, even as Len is loud and labile, needy with teething pain. Ella teaches me to count in German and we all paint, draw and collage together.

Julian and Hannah gave us a heads up from their Asian trip that the song ‘Almost Heaven West Virginia’ is widely covered in the Pacific Rim. When asked us where we’re from, we reference the song, and voila! – complete and super positive recognition. People smile warmly, as they look up and to the left, accessing memory. The song is like a cultural universal solvent here – it works for Kiwis, Maori people, Europeans, Asians. Fascinating.

Also mysterious – as I fell asleep, I heard, I think- a Maori chant, a loud bunch of deep voices rising rhythmically like a train gathering speed, for 20 seconds, then trailing off into laughter.

Notes from a day on the bus – Palmerston North to Hamilton

As we board the bus in the 9 am hour, at Palmerston North, I think of clever, wise Mark Twain, ‘if I had more time, I’d have written a shorter note’. Because we’re in for an all day ride, to Hamilton at 5 pm, this entry could be miniscule. We are going to Hamilton for a tech conference.

Also very aware of the woman with the quite croupy cough two rows ahead. When we stop in 20 minutes, I’ll see if the emergency exit row seats have more leg room, or just the illusion of, plus- 6 more buffer rows from croupy cough woman. Speaking of illusory: my sense of agency around COVID19. Yikes, she isn’t stopping with the cough.

Yesterday and today we drive through some rough landscape, definitely not the sexy part of the country, clearly overlogged and under re-planted. Rural and not very populated- it’s the more-sheep-than-people part of New Zealand.

We drove our tall bus through an installation of wind turbines, next to the highway and on both sides, so imposingly giant I felt I should bow down on blended knee and worship them. A few people have talked to me about how NZ has abundant sustainable energy resources: hydro, geothermal, so I was surprised to see these monoliths, while technically sustainable energy sources, seem like a big drain on precious habitat.

It makes me sad to see this apparent casual disregard for a magnificent place of natural beauty, but hey, welcome to our world. Maybe: every where was so beautiful, we still have to eat, etc…..Maybe it wasn’t casual at all, but our survival instinct that nuded the hills of their botany. Perhaps the botany seemed infinite. Perhaps it is- Earth abides. As they say in New Zealand, “she’ll be right”, as in ‘alright’. Of course, once disturbed, you never get a native forest back.

What is heartening is that Michael and Gaye, our art residency hosts,  started planting trees twenty five years ago on their 16 acres and have now a haven of biodiverse life forms, full of abundant fruit, herbs, shade, water and wild eels that will eat from your hand. Literally, Michael pets Frank, the twenty year old eel who lives under a foot bridge in the stream behind the house. His hand around her girth, Michael pulls her out of the water for us all to ooh and ahh at her beauty and the man-fish rapport. Frank will leave one day to embark on her breeding journey, swim thousands of miles to a deep ocean trench near, it is believed, Tonga.

Interesting to me is what is not known about eel reproduction. No one has observed it. The tracker devices scientists place on eels end up bobbing in the chop. Eel breeding can not be replicated in captivity, although the Japanese have spent millions of yen trying. Each eel gets one round trip ticket. From near Tonga, they float, as little jelly beans, thousands of miles to New Zealand, to swim in to the clear streams, rivers, lakes and races to live their long watery lives. At a mature age, twenty-eight years or even eighty, they return, en masse, to breed and then die nearby. Another thing scientists don’t know- what triggers an eel to gather and embark that particular year, on their long journey, purging before, fasting for their 100 day marathon swim.

Update, from the emergency exit row – there is more legroom! And the coughing people in this zone don’t sound nearly as croupy. I have my cone of ventilation system air directed at my belly button, as advised by a directive from the New York Times continuous COVID19 update system.  Another upgrade- I’m now a few rows further from the Indian man cheerfully shouting in Urdu into a handheld device that I presume is a phone, although he seems to be the only one talking. All the talking in the world. 

We are stopped at Whanganui, and replenish our supply of croupy coughers. Someone seems to be playing a recording of a crying baby over and over. This simulation is quite realistic and gives us a real opportunity to imagine what it would be like to be on a bus all day with a crying baby.