I’ve started pulling together my paper for the Losing Ground – Gaining Ground session at the RGS Conference in Exeter in September, where I’ll be presenting on what it means to belong in the valley in which I live.
Part of this involves sorting [Edit: casual (iPhone)] photos I’ve taken of the plants, animals and elements around us, and thinking about how I’ve learned the differences between native and endemic, abundant and protected, introduced and invasive species.
I started by choosing a set of representative images I’ve taken since moving here in mid-September last year. I didn’t select them to represent a linear progression of time, but sorted them by type of animal–cat, sheep, bird, insect, other–and selected my favourite ones.
Below are the photos and my notes.
But first, a very brief introduction to NZ animals.
The only land mammals native to NZ are bats (Māori: pekapeka) and marine mammals including seals, dolphins, and whales. The islands’ relative isolation instead created a “land of fungi and insects,” although native birds, reptiles and frogs, freshwater fish, and marine fish and reptiles are also prolific. All other animals–including almost every mammal–have been introduced by people. [Edit: For those in the northern hemisphere: imagine no foxes or wolves, no cougars or bears. The only predators are dogs, cats, rats, possums and mustelids.]
He kuku tangai nui he kaka kai honihoni / A pigeon bolts its food, a parrot eats it bit by bit.
Tenei ano a mutu, kei roto i tona whare-pungawerewere / So evil intentions are hidden as a spider in his web.
Me he manu motu i te mahanga / Like a bird escaped from a snare; a fugitive who escapes from a lost battle or an ambuscade.
Waikato taniwha rau. He piko he taniwha, he piko he taniwha / Waikato of many water-monsters, i.e., chiefs. At every bend of the river, a chief.
Enid Coleslaw is my cat and best nonhuman animal friend, by which I mean that we belong to, and with, each other. (I’m also pretty sure Enid agrees with me on this.)
Cats are an introduced species in NZ and, as one of few predators on the islands today, considered invasive pests. Feral cats are amongst the animals most dangerous to native wildlife, and even pet cats are the subject of much local controversy and discussion.
When Enid moved to the valley at the age of 9 years, she had spent her entire life until then as an indoor cat. Convinced that she would finally be safe from cars and predators, we made the decision to introduce Enid to the outdoors. I had no idea how she would react, but nine months later all I know is that I can’t imagine her never going outside again. [Edit: After killing an introduced blackbird and a thrush, she has adapted to] occasionally bring home and eat fantail (pīwakawaka) or silvereye–both native, easier to catch, and thankfully abundant–and very rarely a mouse or baby rat. (I’ve killed any animal that she has injured beyond repair, and freed any that could still live.) If the weather is good she enjoys being outside, but if it’s cold outdoors you will inevitably find her in the living room sleeping on a cushion in front of the wood stove.
Our relationship has also changed since moving here. Enid demands less attention now, and I occasionally miss her even when she’s nearby. Enid’s body has changed too: she’s much more muscular and quick, even as she shows the first signs of age-related arthritis. I think she’s the most beautiful and vital she’s ever been. And since this is where she has been most alive, I find it comforting that this is also where she will die and be buried.
The last photo above was taken the day I brought the sheep home, and she was so curious about them she climbed the paddock fence to get a better look. [Edit: To this day they chase her away anytime she comes near. She then sits on the other side of the fence and cries if I choose to stay with the sheep instead of go with her.]
I have four sheep as companions: a ewe, Ursula, and her triplets, Grace, Mercy and Emmaline. My plan is to buy a ram next year, and breed them for meat. (I will never eat these four.) The ladies, as I call them and which they most definitely do not resemble, are rare breed and feral sheep–mixed Arapawa and Pitt Island–and I would argue that they are amongst New Zealand’s “new native” animals. Although sheep were indeed introduced species, these sheep have evolved as unique breeds found nowhere else on the planet. I feel an obligation to ensure their continued survival, and suspect that will only be possible if we start breeding them for food. [Edit: (In my first year in NZ, a Pākehā colleague jokingly told me that kiwi birds wouldn’t be threatened today if Māori had domesticated them for food. This is not untrue, but of course more complicated than that.)]
Over the summer I spent as much time in the paddock with them as I could, including just sitting on a deck chair I dragged back and forth between paddocks, and reading. Those have become some of my favourite memories, the sheep quietly grazing around me, [Edit: Ursula and Grace nuzzling my neck if I happen to be lying down instead]. I also love that they come running and leaping and bleating every time I come near the fence. Of course they, just like the cat, live in perpetual hope of being given food. But I’m also pretty sure that they’re glad to see me in particular. I used to think that Ursula knew her name, but I’m no longer sure. Grace and Mercy both turn to look, and [Edit: sometimes] come, when you call them, but Emmaline has never given any indication she knows her name.
The lambs continued to grow through the long summer grasses and subsequent drought. I look at them now that winter has come and am awed by how much they’ve grown! Em is still the smallest, Grace looks a lot like Ursula now, and Mercy’s different fleece makes her look the roundest of all. [Edit: Mercy is also the craftiest–she puts her front hooves on her sisters so can can reach rimu branches to eat.]
They cut paths between tree shelters, through the grass and never straight because as prey animals they habitually look over their shoulders. [Edit: They instantly flee at the sight of a dog or sound of nearby barking, although Ursula once very aggressively chased the neighbour’s dog in one direction as the lambs ran off in the opposite direction. I understand this can be a feral breed trait, but I don’t know how you would move large numbers of them without dogs.]
Despite looking rather noble, I think, Ursula remains the loudest and pushiest–a bit bolshy even! Em is quiet, and Mercy is always considered the prettiest. Grace is my favourite. [Edit: When she was younger we lovingly called her Fatty-Fatty-Fat-Fat (because she was fat) and she’s soft and gentle and sweet, and also pretty relaxed or maybe a wee bit lazy. She’ll eat fistfuls of fresh parsley that I bring from the garden and she loves nibbling on my fingers. I find her impossible not to adore.]
They’ve all become surprisingly enjoyable companions, and endlessly fascinating to get to know. The lambs will be sheared for the first time in September, and a dear friend has offered to spin their fleeces and knit something special. I sometimes think that Mercy’s fleece would make a lovely rug, but I hope she’s really old when she dies and her fleece no longer pretty enough to take her hide. [Edit: Mercy is also the most “flawed”–her legs are splayed, her hooves are a bit soft, and she’s the most susceptible to worms. I once dreamt that I culled her for these reasons (which I would never do) and woke relieved that she may yet become a strong mother and produce strong lambs.]
I also think about building them a shelter, but since they have access to trees this is considered unnecessary (or worse, overly-precious) by my neighbours–and I don’t want to be that woman who treats her sheep like people. But because I’ve never kept sheep before, I live in almost constant fear that they’ll get sick and die of something I could have prevented. Being feral, the breed is footrot and flystrike resistant, but I check almost every day just in case. I can’t think of anything more horrifying than being eaten alive by maggots, and I do want to be that woman who takes good care of her sheep.
[Edit: Most people in the valley raise sheep as food animals, but pet sheep are not unknown. I think my attachment to my sheep has rendered them pets in others’ eyes, but breeding them would challenge that–even if I never eat them.]
Springtime in the valley produces a dawn chorus that is impossible to sleep through. I’ve never in my life heard so many birds, and although I have an audio-recording somewhere, I have very few photos. My favourite native birds are the kereru, or wood pigeon–a large bird that makes branches dip low when it lands and sounds like a slow helicopter when it takes off. The native fantails are gorgeous because they are the complete opposite, like tiny dancers that delicately flit about and follow both people and sheep. [Edit: And it’s impossible to tire of listening to the tui sing.]
Shelducks are the chattiest birds I’ve ever encountered and I often wonder what their never-ending conversation is about. One brought her ducklings through the garden in our first days here, before Enid had been let outdoors. (Next spring I will have to watch out for them.) I’ve seen falcons circle, and was shocked to catch one pick up a small rabbit from the back paddock. (I stopped cutting Enid’s claws after that so she could better defend herself.) We also have a large window into which birds occasionally fly and knock themselves out. (I always protect them from Enid until they have recovered enough to fly.)
Introduced birds are also plentiful: we have blackbirds and sparrows and starlings and thrushes and swallows. [Edit: And I think we may be one of a very small handful of people in the valley who don’t raise chooks or ducks for eggs. I’d like to get some Buff Orpington ducks.]
INSECTS & INVERTEBRATES
It seems we are surrounded by harmless spiders year-round, either indoors or outdoors depending on the season, and the summer brought an almost unbearable amount of flies. [Edit: We are, after all, surrounded by animal shit. This also doesn’t seem to help with sandflies, whose bites itch like nothing I’ve ever experienced and dotted my feet and ankles all summer.]
The deck was covered in beautiful but dying puriri moths (pepe-tuna) for a few nights in Spring as part of their natural lifecycle, and before we put screens on the windows, huhu beetles would fly in at dusk or wake us during the middle of the night by bumping into our faces. Stick insects occasionally make it indoors during summer as well, and will die where you find them unless you put them back outside.
The clay-heavy and poorly drained soil is also full of earthworms, although I suspect not the most beneficial ones. I’ve also seen parasitic nematodes in the sheep’s poo, and I had to treat them despite much concern about drench-resistance.
I’ve seen several rats, one possum and a few hedgehogs. All are considered pest animals but I leave them alone. Still, we once killed a hedgehog that we found dying in the garden, mostly because I didn’t want Enid to eat it alive. There are also eels and crayfish in the streams and river nearby. It creeps me out that they get stuck in the hoses that bring our drinking water down from the spring.
[Edit: And last, but not least, the hills and bush around us are full of feral pigs, goats and deer (originally introduced as livestock or game)–but I’ve only seen them through binoculars. And although our new neighbours kindly brought us fresh eggs and other treats when we moved in, I have to admit that I was most impressed when a young guy came down from the bush above our back paddock carrying a 50kg wild pig on his back–and returned the next day with a massive frozen shoulder as a gift. It was some of the best meat I’ve ever eaten!]
It’s hard to believe that we don’t all belong here simply by virtue of all being here together. I mean, if it weren’t for people, there would be no mammals at all [Edit: and they are my closest companions]. And although birds would be plentiful, there would also be fewer of them since many are introduced species.
But I also know that we’re not all considered equal in our belonging. It’s been challenging but fascinating to learn which animals are appropriate to love–and in which ways. I’ve observed my own notions about these things change, and I’ve developed [Edit: new] relationships with familiar and [Edit: unfamiliar] animals.
And yet sometimes I wonder if it’s me that struggles the most to belong, not because I don’t feel like I do but because I fear others might think I don’t.
Next: Pt II, Companion plants