Friday, December 28, 2007

New Year's Resolutions

Last year my resolution was to review my very obsolete knowledge of Shakespeare. Through the year, I read several plays, watched recordings, saw one live performance, and read some history and criticism. I summarized much of my reading on this blog. Today: one more play, Much Ado About Nothing, which we watched in the 1993 version by Kenneth Branagh. It's highly enjoyable. Sometimes I think Shakespeare liked to try out the same ideas as both comedy and tragedy. All the tragic-leaning events here are so easily corrected.

So far, I plan a completely different resolution this year: to try to use less packaging; that is, bring my own shopping bags and whatever else I can think of to reduce waste. This seems a little too unambitious, but it's all I have thought of so far.

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Video of the Gulls

The gull colony we saw on Kapiti Island (near Wellington, New Zealand) was incredibly noisy as the gulls really wanted us to go away!

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Katherine Mansfield

Katherine Mansfield was born in this house on October 14, 1888. Location: 25 Tinakori Road, Thorndon, Wellington, New Zealand.

Two or three siblings, her grandmother, parents, and an aunt all lived in approximately 8 rooms: 4 bedrooms, a "night nursery," a parlor, a living room, another sitting room, a kitchen, and a bath that was sort of a lean-to. Several servants seem to also have been there, if not actually living there. I think all restored Victorian homes make one realize how very much space we expect for modern living!

Like many author's homes, this one is privately owned, and was rescued from a decayed state and restored by a group of dedicated volunteers just in time to avoid total destruction. Many furnishings are typical of the era -- rather than specific to the family. Scraps of original wallpaper, discovered behind paneling or heavy layers of other wall coverings, allowed restoration of some rooms by use of reproductions.

The family soon moved to another house nearby. It was grander -- but in the 1960s, was torn down to make a motorway, which runs past the otherwise peaceful back garden here.

I think the story "The Garden Party" takes place in that home, and that the poor and run-down neighborhood nearby was perhaps in the ravine where the motorway now runs. But maybe not. Real experts probably have mapped the entire opus onto Wellington and nearby towns where the family spent time at the seaside (and thus where other stories are set). In reading one book of stories during the trip, I was quite intrigued at the parallels to today's city and the memories taking place almost exactly a century ago.

Why is this interesting? Well, quite a few of Katherine Mansfield's stories deal with her childhood memories. Obviously, relevant quotations from the stories are available to anyone touring the house, supplied on laminated pages that you carry along on your self-guided tour. You can't help becoming interested!

Family photos on display in virtually every room in the house show the way the family members all looked during the time they lived in the house. A photo shows the grandmother holding a baby who had just died -- a long quote describes Katherine Mansfield's childhood memory of the sad event -- including the arrival of the photographer. Certainly this underscores how times have changed in a century.

One famous Mansfield story is called "The Doll's House." It begins as the children of the family are looking over this new plaything. Of course the management had to have a dolls' house on display. The one they have is designed to match the words in the story. However, it's entirely modern -- in my own doll house I have exactly the same living room furniture. Victorian style furniture is probably the most popular choice for recent collectors. Nevertheless, it's an enjoyable thing to see.

Here is how Mansfield wrote about the children of the family opening the house:
"The hook at the side was stuck fast. Pat pried it open with his pen- knife, and the whole house-front swung back, and-there you were, gazing at one and the same moment into the drawing-room and dining-room, the kitchen and two bedrooms. That is the way for a house to open! Why don't all houses open like that? How much more exciting than peering through the slit of a door into a mean little hall with a hat-stand and two umbrellas! That is-isn't it? -- what you long to know about a house when you put your hand on the knocker. Perhaps it is the way God opens houses at dead of night when He is taking a quiet turn with an angel. . ."

Somehow, seeing Katherine Mansfield's birthplace has a strange similarity to looking into the all-revealing doll house. You know so much more than you would if you really visited a real, living family.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

More Spirals

I've mentioned that the Maori found the spiral form of the opening fern -- called the koru -- to be a powerful image, which they used in many forms in their art. And that it has become a kind of national image for New Zealand. Since my earlier post, I've been seeing more and more of these images. Near the Botanic Garden one was embedded in the sidewalk:
This is a particularly old wood carving from pre-European-contact Maori art:

Monday, December 17, 2007


Today is December 18 in New Zealand -- it's still yesterday in Michigan. It's our last day here, and we spent several hours in Te Papa, the national museum. We especially liked a wonderful exhibit on whales. The museum includes material on natural history, the history of both Maori and English settlement of the land, and on the art and culture of Maori people, Europeans, and the people of Oceania. The whale exhibit included materials on all of these subjects.

The natural history part of the whale exhibit displayed whale skeletons and fossils. Whale family trees explained relationships among the large number of families and species of whales -- large and small. Some whales eat small things by sifting the ocean through their baleen, and some gulp deep-water fish and squids, eating them whole. Research into whale behavior, whale songs, and whale capabilities (such as diving deep) are ongoing, and scientists have much to learn, it appears. Because New Zealand presents a long coastline and is alone in the uninterrupted ocean, many many whales have always beached here -- currently, this provides a large research opportunity. When beached whales die, scientists can study them.

The Maori people have legends about the whale rider, Paikea. Whales did his bidding. He was the first of his people to arrive in New Zealand because he could ride a whale, while the others had only canoes, says the story. While Maori people did not hunt whales, they used the beached whales for food. Great carvers, they made beautiful artifacts from whalebone and teeth. Now, the Maori are involved in efforts to rescue beached whales which still have a chance to return to the ocean. When the whales die, the Maori people give the whale a name before the scientists take it away; some of the whale teeth and bones also go to modern Maori carvers. Non-Maori New Zealanders also participate in efforts to rescue beached whales.

After initial contact between Europeans and Maori by Abel Tasman and Captain Cook, the main European presence for quite a while was the whalers -- ships from Europe and New England. This contact was also documented in the exhibit. Sailors sometimes came onshore for a while -- or totally deserted ship and made a life with the Maori or the few European agricultural settlements. Some Maori people today can trace their family back to sailors who intermarried into the local population.

New Zealand was thus a whaling country for over a century. Now they are totally committed to saving whales and opposing whaling. They are against hunting or harming other whale species such as dolphins. They promote the whale-watching and dolphin-watching offerings in Kaikoura, where we visited a few days ago.

No photos were allowed in the exhibit.

The Weka

The weka doesn't know that it is an extremely unusual bird, so it walks around on the ground right in front of the tourists. One weka has its territory on the front porch of the hostel where we had lunch. John, the host, has to keep a barrier in front of his sliding glass doors to keep the weka from coming into the living room. These birds are about the size of a barnyard hen.

A Gull Colony on Kapiti Island

We saw a number of native birds besides these gulls, including the large, flightless (and rather clueless) weka, the bellbird, the NZ robin, the tui, spoonbills, wood pigeons, another pukeko, whitehead, and others.

A little about Middle Earth

First, here is our guide Todd Rippon, of our tour company: Flat Earth New Zealand Experiences. Todd said we could use this image from his website. We admit, he didn't do the tour in costume. In fact, no one is allowed to use the costumes from the films, and all the sites that we visited have substantially been restored to their original condition. As a result you realize the vision that Peter Jackson had when he realized that a city park could be the scary site of the dark riders, an ordinary riverbed could be transformed to Rivendell, a gravel quarry could turn into Helm's Deep, site of a major battle between Orcs and good guys, and so on. (Note: today's guide to the wildlife refuge was a good guy in that battle.)

Here are a few images.

Frodo and the other hobbits hid near these trees in a city park overlooking a quiet Wellington neighborhood. The neighbors called the fire department when smoke and bright lights from the filming alarmed them.
This bridge on a quiet historic English-style estate became the magical bridge to Galandriel's magic land. Embellished with bentwood decorations, it was the site of her farewell to Frodo. Later, the same pond was used to film the scene where Smeagol (later Gollum) kills his cousin to get the ring that was on the bottom of the river.

Gandalf and Saruman walked on this very spot with their staffs.

Saturday, December 15, 2007

More of Len's Dolphins

The Pukeko

The pukeko is a rail-like New Zealand bird, which we saw on our tour of the Martinborough area last Wednesday. Despite all the imported predators, it seems remarkable how many native birds are still common and just wandering about the fields and woodlands here.

Karori Wildlife Sanctuary

This afternoon at the wildlife sanctuary we were pleased to see the Kaka -- New Zealand parrot. We actually saw several of them quite close up, because we arrived at feeding time. Other birds we saw included the fantail, the NZ robin, the tui, and a NZ scaup on the reservoir. Non-natives included a chaffinch and a California quail family, including chicks.

We also took a very long walk along paths where we hadn't walked before, as well as the same paths we had seen on our evening tour. We managed to spot two tuatara and several weta.

"Tuatara are the only living members of an ancient order of reptiles that evolved around 220 million years ago. These reptiles died out everywhere except in New Zealand." says the wildlife website. See Fact about the tuatara.

By releasing them and protecting them, the sanctuary is helping reestablish this species, which was harmed by imported predators. Each one wears a little beaded collar, color coded to identify the individual. Though they are carefully watched and protected, these rare animals are still considered to be living and breeding in the wild.

The weta is a very large insect. They live in various parts of the sanctuary, most impressively within an abandoned gold mining shaft that dates from an unsuccessful gold rush in 19th century Wellington. Lenny photographed one on the fence that separates the various kinds of wildlife from endangering one another.

Native Wildlife: South Island

We saw this albatross from the dolphin watching boat. We saw huge numbers of dolphins all around the boat, and loved watching them jump and dive.

The paradise duck and the shag (cormorant) are two other birds we enjoyed seeing. I'll add more. We saw but didn't photograph a little blue penguin, and also saw shearwaters, petrels, and many others.

Lenny took all the above photos with his new SLR camera. I took this one of a NZ fur seal on a beach near Kaikoura.

Friday, December 14, 2007

Little Airplanes

Thursday and Friday we took small planes, a scenic train, a boat, and many car transfers on a trip from Wellington (last photo) to Kaikoura on the south island here in New Zealand. We stopped for a while at Picton (in middle photo). Later, I'll post some photos of the dolphins and sea birds we saw from the boat. Unfortunately, we were not able to see whales because the cloud cover was so low that our smallest airplane had to turn back.

Here is one thing I discovered, but could not photograph: the enormous tree ferns that are an important part of the forest here are very noticeable from the air. They look like bright green stars.

Monday, December 10, 2007

Wildlife Sanctuary

Sunday night we heard the call of the Little-spotted Kiwi -- very exotic. We heard the tui bird -- a mimic with many cries As darkness fell, the daytime birds grew quiet, and we heard an owl that says "mo pork" and also the kiwis. We didn't hear the native frogs, as it turns out that they have no voice boxes; however, we were told by our guide that many frogs are in the sanctuary.

We also didn't hear the numerous extinct birds that once populated this very strange land. The huge birds like the moa and the adze bill are only remembered in reconstructions in the display cases of the museum.

We saw a weta-- a cricket like insect, and a white cormorant on a nest in the reservoir in the center of the sanctuary. Most amazing were the blue glow-worms in the hillsides and banks of the streams. The intense light from these creatures, though very tiny, creates the illusion that the landscape is covered with points of light. Because the trails are very steep, the glow worms were both beside us and deep below us.

The sanctuary where we saw all this is inside a huge fenced area that prevents predators ( i.e. mammals) from eating the rare native birds that have been reintroduced here. The fence is a tour de force of engineering and animal behavior research. The developers studied how mice could climb past many types of barrier, how opossums (the worst enemy of native birds) could give one another rides to the top, and get over a variety of barriers, and how vigilant the 400 volunteers need to be to ensure that there are no gaps. The photo shows the fence. Unfortunately, we didn't have time to figure out what we would need to do to photograph the glow worms, or if that's even possible.

We learned a lot on our 2 hour hike -- all in a penetrating rain. The only mammals originally native to NZ were a few species of bat; all the other niches were filled by birds of extreme types, most extreme being the moa and adze bill I think. Introduced mammals have destroyed large numbers of species here, and the sanctuary is reintroducing some that have only bred on islands since the arrival of the Europeans.

Our guide looked exactly like Pipi Longstocking: two red curls sticking out perpendicular to her head, and a turned up nose. And a total NZ accent -- she calls it a fince, not a fence. The other guide, Tony, could imitate all the bird cries in an uncanny way. Tony hates possums more than anyone I can imagine. He seemed appalled when we said they live in our back yard. The managers of the sanctuary hate possums so much they have a possum graveyard where we walked on the burial area of hundreds of them, and I think the guides hoped we would dance on it.

New Zealand Government Center

The architecture of the parliament building in Wellington presents some serious contrasts. The earliest parliament building is now the law school of Victoria University. (It's near the site of this photo, but not pictured here.)

The next building to be built is a Victorian wedding-cake type building, all pink with flourishes. (At right.) Next to it is a serious and heavy building from the early 20th century, with classical columns and gravitas.

When the existing buildings became too small, in the late 60s, a very independent-minded architecture minister planned and then built "the beehive." Today, cabinet ministers and high executives have offices in it -- the top floor is the offices of the Prime Minister. The ensemble is startling, to say the least. When the design styles of the 60s and 70s become more classic, the beehive will probably look better: right now, I'd say it's rather dated.

Across the street from Parliament -- and on the direct route which leads from our hotel to almost everywhere else -- is a pub called The Backbencher: The House with No Peers. I'm hoping to have a beer there before we leave, as I am a lover of puns, myself.

Beer, incidentally, is very popular here. A brewery called Mac's, down on the waterfront, attracted quite a crowd on Saturday -- several conference attendees arranged a meeting place there. So I guess it's also "in" with the parliamentarians.


The spiral of an opening fern was one of the Maori people's favorite visual images, and it occurs throughout their art, I learned. Modern New Zealand has adopted it in many logos and national images as well. I've been watching for it as I walk around.
We saw lots of ferns in the Botanical Garden, including the tree ferns that are very primitive and native to this area. On the manhole covers everywhere in the streets, I saw a modern interpretation, and in tattooing designs and carved native images, I noticed spirals everywhere too.

Wellington, N.Z.

Wellington is a very up-and-down city, so of course it has a cable car. On Sunday, I took the cable car with three wives from the conference. Lori is in the middle, seated to the right, looking at the camera. Her husband is the conference organizer, and she took the other three of us around town, explaining her area of expertise, New Zealand government. I now know tons about their governmental system.

At the top of the cable car route is a cable car museum, a special-events restaurant (later the site of the conference dinner), and the top of the Botanical Garden. All around the top are homes from which people use the cable car for commuting down into the city -- the other end of the cable is in the middle of the combined shopping and government district. Unlike any other national capital I've seen, the commercial district is totally intermixed around the house of parliament, the ministries buildings, and some university buildings (site of the conference).

The cable car museum is very amusing, especially the video about houses that are built on such inaccessibly steep lots that the people have private cable cars. The video included several interviews where people explained their need to build a private cable car, and how they used them. Three out of four claimed that they had determined the need at the point when their dog could no longer make it up and down the steep path or immense stairway from the road to the house. They showed how the dogs jumped into the car, and even one dog who rode down all alone when it was time to go to doggie daycare. I don't know what to think of this.

Here is a photo from our walk in the Botanical Garden. It's a very beautiful garden, just in full blossom, as it's early summer here. The department store displays are nevertheless about Frosty the Snowman. I was amused to hear the song "It's beginning to feel a lot like Christmas." It's about as un-Christmas-feeling as you can get. Roses!

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

New Zealand

Tomorrow morning we leave for a trip to New Zealand. It will be a very long trip: Detroit-LA-Aukland-Wellington. At this point, our reservations appear to be in order. We will remember the family travel motto: You are never there till you're there.

During the trip, I hope for at least occasional internet access and ability to put up a few blog posts. If I can't post from there, I'll catch up when I return.

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Sunday, December 02, 2007

Beautiful Baby!!

Here is Maria (from my book club) with her new baby Isaac. He has beautiful hair and adorable features. What a treat to get to see him at only three weeks. Maria's very organized sister-in-law scheduled dinners for the new parents.

To see what I cooked for them (and us) today, check the food blog: Cooking.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007