When you first start exploring beyond your home ground, you tend to see everything in relation to where you live: what’s different, what’s similar, what’s unheard of and what’s exactly the same. I suppose it’s our way of getting a grip on new surroundings and beginning to have them make sense. And so it was for me when I traveled to New Zealand.
I assumed that going to New Zealand would be a good choice for one of my first forays far away from my home state of Wisconsin; pictures of the place showed green meadows and lots of cows and sheep. At first glance, the country looked a lot like the Midwest—with the addition of mountains and an ocean. And, I thought thankfully, at least there they speak the same language I do.
But I began to think I was mistaken the minute I landed on the South Island. Fresh off the plane and going through customs, communications began to break down. The man at the desk asked me if I had a “tint.”
“S’cuse me?” I replied in my best, nasalized, American Midwestern accent.
“Do you have a tint?” he repeated in a louder voice. My only understanding of his sentence was that he had to be asking me about my hair, which I thought was rather bold of him. Then I thought: That can’t be right, can it? So, I asked one more time if he would restate his question.
“DO YOU HAVE A TINT?” he almost yelled. Seeing that I was only succeeding in making him more frustrated, I finally just shook my head “no” and then quickly left his station.
It wasn’t until the next day when I met two travelers from Michigan that I received some illumination on my bizarre, first human encounter in this new land. My fellow Midwesterners were able to interpret for me because they had had a similar experience shortly after they arrived in New Zealand. At their hotel, the concierge gave them cryptic directions to their room. They were told to walk down the hall, look for the “nine geese” and turn left. They thought that meant they would pass a painting or a wall mural with nine geese in it. It wasn’t until several hours later that they realized they were supposed to pass the “main desk.”
As foreign seeds and pests often hide on Velcro and in pockets of camping and sporting equipment, these items are inspected at entry points to protect native wildlife, horticulture and agriculture. We surmised my customs official was asking me if I had a tent.
Despite this initial language barrier, the New Zealand forests spoke to me in a way I could comprehend. Dripping green and spongy, they reminded me of Wisconsin’s Northwoods after a rainstorm. Yet there was one big difference: there is nothing in New Zealand’s forests that can hurt you. No megafauna, no predators, no poisonous snakes or spiders. Because I come from the United States, I suppose, I kept missing a danger in the woods, the wild heartbeat of a nation. The wolf. The bear.
But what New Zealand lacks in woodland creatures it makes up for in its birdlife. The country is rich with avian songs, and I wondered what the poets of New Zealand had to say about their tuneful land. I looked for their works in bookstores, but I couldn’t find any. Then I met an actual poet, a 90-year-old sheep rancher—known as a musterer in New Zealand—named Donald.
Our travel group met with Donald’s family on the ranch where they had lived in the Hector Mountains for 125 years. Donald consented to take a short ride with us in our van, and I was privileged to accompany him up into the foothills surrounding his land so that we could get a sweeping look at his holdings and hear his stories about a life spent sheepherding.
Up and up on a narrow, gravel road we went, as Donald talked of his grandfather who came to New Zealand from Scotland.
“Mustering was good work as long as you had good dogs,” he stated, as if it were a long-remembered, natural law.
Higher and higher we climbed. At 5,000 feet, Donald said, “This has always been and always will be a young man’s country. I would have to get in a chopper to see all this land now. Mostly, I just stand down below and look up.”
A chill ran down my spine and I shuddered. Here, on this mountain in New Zealand, positioned next to a sheep rancher almost as old as the modern nation itself, I heard the wistfulness that comes to speak to us all eventually—a common language that spreads across oceans, across countries and across human minds and spirits.
On the drive back down the mountain, Donald talked about the region’s history. As we pulled into his driveway, he noted quietly, “As William Cullen Bryant said, ‘It is the spot I came to seek. My father’s ancient burial place.’”
After a picnic lunch on the ranch, we were treated to a demonstration of the skills of the family’s sheep dogs. I watched as these four-footed herders expertly drove the sheep in all directions and even around in circles. The dogs could stop a group of sheep on a dime and did so right in front of me. It was an amazing feat they performed.
It occurred to me then that the wild heartbeat of New Zealand that I thought was missing was right here in front of me, in the beating chests of those smart, little dogs and in the language of an old musterer who still stops to look up.
Here’s to finding your true places and natural habitats,