The Unstoppable Force Known as Dawne

McGee Catlett

Operator of the Whanganui Bird Rescue, Dawne Morton is one of the coolest people I have ever met. She has devoted her entire life to helping birds and educating the public, and if that’s not my life goal I don’t know what is. The Whanganui bird rescue is a small property with about 18 different aviaries in rotation. Dawne runs the place on her own with some assistance from volunteers, including Jacob Honn, Caroline Wolf-Merritt, and myself for about six weeks. We would arrive at 9am, and Dawne would let us know she’d been up for 4 hours already, preparing food and feeding the native owls, the ruru. Ruru, or morepork, are a species of owl that get fed at the bird rescue twice a night. Interestingly, they like to cache their food in hidden alcoves in their aviaries, so sometimes you just walk under a pile of dead chicks.

We would start our morning feeding our respective birds. By the third or so week, we got a rhythm going of who fed which birds. My job was always to feed the biggest birds on site, the native pigeon known as the kereru. The kereru eat mostly fruit and live in the forests. They are one of the most important seed dispersers in modern New Zealand. Dawne usually has a lot of kereru. At peak in our time there she had 14 of them, and has had more. The pleasure of working with these birds was learning just how much variation there was between birds. Each individual had a different kind of food they liked best, would behave differently when I entered their space, and would use their perches and waters differently too. Even though they all look so similar, there was such huge differences could be observed.

Ziggy, the Australian Magpie (photo by me)

Whenever anyone visits the bird rescue, they get an “affectionate” hello from Ziggy. Ziggy is an Australian Magpie, meaning he’s territorial. Very territorial. Whenever you approach his aviary, he’ll jump up to the bars and try to peck at your arms (see photo). This is because he has been imprinted, which means he thinks of Dawne as his “mate”. Thus, he wants anyone other than his mate to stay as far away as possible. Ziggy also had a lot of words he liked to say, including “go away!”, and “hello there”. He had some partners in crime, named Jeffery and Maggie. Because people don’t know how to sex magpies, Jeffery was a female, and Maggie was a male. The three of them were once pets, and now stay at the bird rescue because if they were released into the wild, they would not find a new mate, and would either attack all other magpies or would be attacked by other magpies.

I cannot mention all the birds, so I will finish up with one of the most well-known New Zealand birds: the kiwi. As I’m sure you know, dear reader, the kiwi is the symbol of New Zealand. Honestly, though, it’s less of a bird and more of a “mammal” in the role it plays in its environment. The kiwi, like many mammals, is nocturnal, has poor eyesight, relies on smell to find prey, can’t fly, and has very fur-like feathers. Every time I have seen a kiwi, they have successfully made me cry from sheer joy. I can’t really explain why, but seeing these rare, nocturnal birds is an experience like no other. There’s no comparable creature, and they can only be seen here.

The kiwi at the bird rescue (photo by Caroline Wolfe-Merritt)

The image here is of the kiwi at the bird rescue. Her beak is bent in such a way that she cannot feed in the wild, which happened after she was hit by a car. She has been raised from less than a year old at the bird rescue, and is now 12 years old. Kiwi can live to be 50 or 60 years old, and thus this kiwi is in her teenage years. She has reached an age where she has become more territorial, and her aviary is her territory. Thus, we aren’t allowed (by Dawne) to venture any further into the aviary than right inside the door. Luckily for us, Dawne can feed the kiwi right by the door, meaning we had a chance to meet this lovely lady in person.

Dawne’s devotion and dedication to the bird rescue is one of the most inspiring things I have ever seen. She puts her all into the bird rescue every day, lives on site, and stops her day to teach anyone who wants to learn. Above all, she loves working there, and loves all of her birds. We were so inspired by working with Dawne that we returned to the bird rescue twice outside of our internship period. On our first return visit, we brought out our fellow classmates so they could see what all the fuss was about. The second return, we spent the day with Dawne, working on odd jobs and talking about our independent projects. She helped us out so much by providing personal experience, expert contacts, and resources. Dawne’s given me an idea of something I’d love to do with my life. I’ll truly never forget my time at the Whanganui bird rescue.

If you want to know more about the bird rescue, you can visit their website at

Tuatara Time

Finn Maloney

With heavy hearts and high hopes, we stepped from block 2 to block 3 by saying goodbye to our internships and host families in Whanganui and setting out for Wellington. It’s odd coming into such a large city after the homeyness and familiarity of a smaller town like Whanganui, but we’re greeted with a feast of opportunity, bustling main streets, the seaside museum Te Papa Tongarewa, the horseshoe-harbour with cruise ships drifting with surprising finesse to-and-fro. Wellington has much more to offer than sightseeing though, as we quickly learned at Victoria University, which sits atop a series of hills overlooking the city centre.

Here we had the immense honor of hearing from Dr. Nicola Nelson about her research with tuatara regarding their conservation and life history. Not only were we treated to an eye-opening lecture in which we learned about the effects climate change will and have had on tuatara populations, plus we actually met some of the tuatara that Dr. Nelson works with! But what exactly are tuatara? Tuatara are lizard-like reptiles, famous for their parietal “third eye” and almost dinosaurian appearance! They’re an ancient lineage of reptiles whose last living representatives can be found only throughout New Zealand, but they’re under threat from introduced predators and climate change alike.

Prior to the introduction of mammals such as rats and stoats, tuatara needed only to fear predatory birds, which posed threats to tuatara across the North and South islands as well as their offshore populations. Today, however, relationship is disturbed by the various mammals humans have spread throughout the islands. Now, tuatara remain primarily in predator-fenced wildlife reserves such as Zealandia in Wellington or on offshore islands where mammalian predators have not yet been introduced. It’s particularly the young, snack-sized tuatara who are in danger because adults can grow to a sizeable two and a half feet long! Plenty large enough to fend off smaller mustelids- weasels and stoats- but it can take quite a while to reach this safe size. With a lifespan as extensive as tuatara’s, they can afford to take it slow. It may take up to 20 years for individuals to reach sexual maturity at which point they are faced with another human-caused threat.

Tuatara’s sex is not determined in a binary fashion by their chromosomal combination as it is in humans, but rather by the temperature of their nest as they incubate within their eggs. This is a trait called temperature-dependent sex determination, or TSD for short, and is widely employed among fish and reptiles. While this has its benefits in a naturally oscillating climatic system, the unprecedented shift of global temperatures presents a unique problem for these TSD tuatara. Warmer incubation (above 22 Celsius) tends to produce males and vice versa. This presents an issue for tuatara populations because more and more males are born as temperatures continue to rise. Unstable sex ratios will eventually lead to imbalanced and unproductive populations, so understanding the interactions between these animals and climate change can aid not only in their conservation, but of all similar animals as well. Even though human interference is responsible for the tuatara’s troubles, it may also be their only hope. As populations are unable to adjust to changing temperatures, artificial incubation may become the primary method of conserving these fossil fellows.

. Our time with Dr. Nelson was eye-opening in the multifaceted and complex ways climate change affects the earth and its organisms, but it also gave us a deeper appreciation for the uniqueness of all things, especially the wonderful and weird creatures here on New Zealand.

Here, Dr. Nelson shows us Spike, a male tuatara that lives in a terrarium at Victoria University. You may notice his beak-like mouth, from which the family name Rhynchocephalia comes from, or his spiny back, from which his Maori name is given.

Additional reading on tuatara!

More about TSD!

Tramping the Hump Ridge Track

Ethan Thompson

After returning from our stay doing research on Stewart Island, we took on one of the biggest hikes of our program: The Hump Ridge trek. Hump Ridge is a three day walk with lodges to stay in after the first and second days, ending up back at the trail head by the end of the third. Each day was around 21 kilometers of hiking, with incredible changes in altitude on our first and second day. Soon after we got into the bush on our first day, we were walking along the sea using the beach as our trail. While the beach was mostly hard, wet sand it was littered with large pebbles of large grained granite, some of which even had veins and crystals of nephrite jade, known as pounamu or greenstone in New Zealand. These rocks would have cooled from lava deep underground, with greenstone forming from rocks squished by tectonics at least 10 km under the surface! The immense tectonic activity in New Zealand had brought these rocks up from the depths they formed at to the beach we were walking along, as the ranges we were setting out to climb were raised up. By the end of the day we had reached Okaka lodge above the tree-line, going from sea level to alpine in a little over nine hours. It was amazing to see the transformation this had on the foliage as we walked, starting out in forests lush with understory vegetation keeping us warm even in the rain, moving into a beech canopy with only a thick carpet of ferns below. Eventually even these ferns gave way to dripping mosses, the only thing that could survive alongside the beach trees at this elevation. This also allowed us to see more of the rocks that made up the mountain face and as we climbed we moved into sandstones and conglomerates of granite pebbles that would have been ancient versions of the beach we had started our hike on! Pebbles and sand grains would have washed down to the sea from ancient mountains eroding away, where they were able to settle and be buried, cementing them into rocks. After being cemented together these rocks had been pushed up to the top of the Hump Ridge mountains by the force of New Zealand’s tectonic plates colliding together, carrying those ancient pebbles back up to the top of a mountain again.

Our second day hiking gave us a look at more recent history as we hiked through the remains of a large logging operation in the area around 1915. Two brothers, John and James Craig, inspired by America’s redwood logging on the west coast and armed with their massive stream engines for pulling the logs, set out cutting tram tracks through the forest to provide access to New Zealand’s old-growth podocarps: rimu, matai, and totara. They brought massive timbers from Australia to construct viaducts over the steep ravines, since none of the local trees were large enough. This lack of sizeable timber ultimately ended this ambitious operation, along with the deaths of both brothers. Luckily, this saved the forest from further logging and much of it is now preserved as a World Heritage Site. We followed the old tramway for most of the afternoon, carefully stepping between wooden ties (called sleepers) to avoid the remaining railroad spikes. Much of this track was cut into the ground to keep the trams level, and it was easy to see where the three years of work with picks and wheelbarrows went into. It reminded me of the Rails to Trails program I grew up with in Indiana that created the Monon and the B-line, paved biking and walking tracks for the public where old railroads had been. In a similar way of recycling old infrastructure this logging track is now letting people get out into the bush and appreciate it. That night we stayed at Port Craig lodge, named after the two logging brothers, overlooking the bay where their ships would have exported timber from. The next day we headed out for the trailhead, following a little sign that said, “Parking Lot, 7 hours.”

After finishing Hump Ridge, we were driven to our hotel in Tuatapere, one of the founding buildings of the town. That night did feel like just another place we were staying, a small town with friendly people and not much going on. However, in the morning one of our hosts, Marg, shared with us the struggles their town was facing with their awa, the Waiau River. Like most rivers in New Zealand, the Waiau originates from high in the mountains, starting with outflow from Lake Te Anau flowing into Lake Manapouri and then down to the sea past Tuatapere. However, not all of it makes the journey that it has always made. Meridian Energy built a dam on the outflow of Manapouri in the 60’s, using the retained water in the lake to power hydroelectric turbines. Protests at the time gathered enough support to reduce the amount Meridian hoped to raise the lakes water level by, but the water flow leaving the lake has slowly been further and further reduced with more dam additions, now something like fourteen percent what it originally was. This is incredibly environmentally disruptive as the plant sent the wastewater to Doubtful Sound, dumping freshwater that should be in the river into a saltwater ecosystem and affecting the sea life there. Meanwhile, Waiau has so little water its natural systems are unable to support themselves, and toxic algae blooms have stated appearing in the anoxic environment. These can cause serious health problems for animals that ingest them and can even harm humans that come into skin contact with them. This threatens the towns ability to have a tourist industry, go fishing, and even have fresh water. Marg told us about how the legendary waka that first brought Maori people up the river from the sea would never be able to travel on so little water, how this dam upstream threatens people’s connection to the sea that they’ve always had. She also said there have been areas where people must buy bottled water, pointing out that something like that shouldn’t be happening in a ‘developed’ country like New Zealand. The power generated by the Manapouri station is sold to an aluminum smelting plant and is not used by the town. Meridian is aware of the toxic algae and has stated that power generation has not been affected by the alerts, that it always ‘ensures the minimum flow to maintain river health.’

Marg however was refreshingly hopeful that things would be made right, as the community was raising money and support together to take Meridian to court over restricting water. The cause has brought the town together, maybe on the precedent of the Whanganui River Settlement we have learned about on the North Island. It has definitely given us a lot to think about, another example of NZ’s Clean and Green initiative not being all that it appears on the surface and a good lesion that every little town we pass could be home to an environmental battle its people are fighting for survival of their livelihood.

The view over Okaka Lodge, from the mountain top to the ocean.
Crossing the Percy Burn Viaduct, originally built for the logging tram track.
Our group getting ready to depart from Port Craig Lodge for our last day of hiking.

More on Manapouri Dam:

From Tidepooling to Science: Marine Ecology on Stewart Island

Caroline Wolfe-Merritt

Hearing over winter break that I would be studying abroad in New Zealand, my grandparents — avid birders — immediately wanted to know if I would have the chance to visit Stewart Island. At the time I was unsure since no previous Earlham group had ventured so far south, and I planned to relegate it to independent travel time. My grandparents told me it would be well-worth my time as the island offered fabulous hiking and numerous chances to observe wildlife, including the South Island brown kiwi. Needless to say, when we found out at the beginning of Block 3 that our schedule included a whole week on Stewart Island (Rakiura in Maori), I was thrilled.

What we found was that the five days on the island, bookended by two very different ferry rides — the arrival calm and cloaked in fog, and the departure on clear and through an ocean filled with swells — would mean far more to us than just another visit to a wildlife reserve (as insightful as those experiences have been). On Stewart Island we would have the chance to come up with our own marine ecology studies, guided by researchers Tommaso Alestra and Shawn Gerrity from University of Canterbury. Although all of us are science majors, the research project held something new for each of us. To begin with, it was field research in marine ecology, allowing those of us who love ‘tidepooling’ to dive in to a new level and learn from experts in the field, and for people whose field of study includes exclusively indoor labs to try something completely new. Further, the projects were to be completed in only three and a half days, an intense pace for all of us. Finally, as someone reflected later, it was like venturing to someone else’s lab; we were absorbed into the rigor and high expectations of two researchers that we had only just met.

Our first full day on Stewart Island, Shawn and Tommaso led a brief introduction to field methods and intertidal zonation. The rocky shoreline along much of New Zealand’s coast has distinct communities living at different heights on the rocks, and these communities are defined by how sensitive organisms are to disturbance and exposure which occurs between high and low tide. Typically, as one moves from the low to middle to high zones the species composition changes (Smith, 2013). On this first day, we explored three different rocky reefs, making note of and observing interesting species or relationships that we might want to study. Encountering so much biodiversity — anemones and seaweed, kelp and brittle stars, nudibranchs and corals, mussels and crabs — overflowing from the nooks and crannies of the tidepools was exhilarating.

Chris finds a brittle star on our first day exploring Stewart Island’s rocky reefs with Shawn and Tommaso. (Photo
from Mai).

After selecting groups and topics we planned our studies and were ready for field work the following two days. One group would study the responses of paua (abalone) that were exposed to predators. Others would document the distribution of mussels in the different tidal zones or the invertebrate biodiversity under different types of kelp canopies. My group wanted to explore how different species of anemones which live in different environments react to being touched in three different areas of their bodies. Since anemones feed using nematocysts (stinging harpoon-like structures) in their tentacles and are eaten by a variety of predators depending on the species, we expected that poking them in different places would elicit different responses, and that there would be a different response across species based on their life history.

Field work: One group catches a predatory starfish to expose to the paua (left; photo from Caroline), and our group collects data about anemone reactions to touch (right; photo from Shawn Gerrity).

As each group got time in the field, our projects evolved, as did our thought processes. Sampling became more efficient in some groups whereas others realized they needed to change their methodology. Our mornings of field work were balanced with afternoon excursions to Ulva Island Reserve and to learn about carving pounamu (New Zealand jade) and its role in Maori culture. Thus, we had to manage our time to get all the sampling done and ready for analysis in only two mornings. Data analysis also happened over the course of a single day, and our group decided to divide and conquer — some of us running statistics, while others worked on our final presentation.

On the last evening, we rounded out our projects with presentations of our research to the larger group, opening ourselves to feedback from Shawn, Tommaso, Heather, Rachel, and our peers. Here we were surrounded by constructive criticism, offering us valuable perspectives both on the strengths and weaknesses of our studies and on the different environment found at large research institutions as opposed to teaching colleges like Earlham. For me this whole week was an important window into a different career path for a biology major than we are typically exposed to. In my experience at Earlham the biologists I most often see are professors, whereas Shawn and Tommaso spend all their professional time doing research. I will be graduating next year, so working with Shawn and Tommaso was insightful as I consider which next steps are right for me; graduate school, research, applied biology in the field, or something else. Although each of us got something different out of course, visiting Stewart Island gave us the chance to broaden our knowledge of New Zealand’s marine ecology through a very experiential medium. Our future tidepooling will surely be a richer experience for the time we spent on the island, and the experiential aspect of the course made it much more than just a chance to view wildlife.



Smith, D. (2013). Ecology of the New Zealand rocky shore community: A resource for NCEA level 2 biology. Dunedin: New Zealand Marine Studies Center, University of Otago.


Further Information – Official tourist website for Stewart Island – A guide to some of the wildlife found along southern New Zealand’s rocky shoreline – An introduction to sea anemones


Weekend Hiking Excursions and the Maintenance of a Positive State of Non-Expectancy

Jacob Honn

We all joined join abroad program for various reasons. We were attracted to any combination of subjects including the sustainability, the insight into new cultures, the wealth of biology, the geology, or the outdoor education aspects of the trip. Regardless of our reasons, I don’t believe that any one of us truly understood what to expect. We knew that we were going to a beautiful country and that we would have experiences that would enhance knowledge base and leave us with memories to last a lifetime. Shortly after arrival we were introduced to the phrase, “a positive state of non-expectancy.” This mindset is important in all daily life especially when acclimating to living in a new country, but it takes practice to be able to lean into the unknown with a positive attitude. Unlike most academic environments, the New Zealand program allows us the opportunity to learn how to develop and maintain this optimistic outlook by utilizing time outside of the classroom for excursions.

Our weekdays consist of internships, classes, and a lot of school work. Then on Saturday we jump in a van, way too early in the morning, and drive to some breathtaking location. An amazing amount of work is done behind the scenes to plan for and execute these trips but from our perspective we often go in with only necessary knowledge, a little background, and instructions. Our job is to go along and maintain that adaptability and positivity.

We began this weekend’s adventure in a similar fashion as many. We arrived at the Quaker settlement at 6:45 am, jumped in a van, and south. Our hike for that Saturday was a place near Wellington called the Putangirua Pinnacles. The pinnacles get their name for the dusty spires that stick out from the ground. According to a quick presentation by our own Ethan Thompson, we learned that the pinnacles are composed of layered sediment which has been slowly eroded away. Areas with a dense heaver top layer weren’t worn away while areas composed of easily moved sediment were, thus forming these stunning formations.

1: The view from the parking lot at the base of day hike

This was the view just from the parking lot. It lacks those classic solo spikes emerging from the ground but was nevertheless an impressive foreshadowing to what we had in store for us. I feel the need to point out that these exposed pinnacles are mainly composed of just grey rocks and as a result the photographs from the day do a poor job at representing depth and distance. From the vans we began our trek up a stream bed which slowly turned into a hill. The ground was covered in small greyish rocks which had fallen from the cliffs and ranged from the size of quarters to baseballs. As we walked, the ground beneath our feet slid back, making walking up hill much more exhausting than expected. As we walked up, the shrubs that lined the path were quickly replaced by intimidating bare cliffs as well as these massive spikes and pillars that reached up from the ground. There is always a point in the day when we start to experience the drain. Even if we eat right and hydrate, we start to get exhausted by the work were putting into an experience which we may not know much about. However, that drain is then replaced as we start to get that payoff. We’ve now experience that transition on every journey we’ve been on and our ability to maintain that important sense of optimism is what allows us to push though those tough moments to reach the reward.

2: the view from the top of the day hike

This was the view we earned when we had reached what we decided would be the top.

3: Chris climbing up the steep path through the pinnacles

In the image above you can see how the path has transformed from an easily followed line of gravel into a hard to navigate grey world. We had no idea what this hike would be like and we had no idea when it would end. We didn’t really reach any real conclusion to the hike, instead walking until we could no longer go on. We would then turn around and take in the view we had earned. This was often the type payoff to maintaining that positive state. We didn’t know what we were getting in to, but we trusted that there would be a payoff. We leaned into the not knowing and ended up with a unique experience.

The rest of our weekend was much more of an exercise in practicing and maintaining that positive state of non-expectancy. Our plan was to hike a loop at Holdsworth. It was a two-day tramp in which we would spend the first day trekking up the mountain, then sleep in a shelter at the top. We would then complete the loop and return to our vans at the base of the hike the following day. Early that morning the rain began. We took off into the wet weather equipped with heavy packs and rain gear. The hike was slow and careful as we watched our path transform into a small creek. The rain seemed to disregard our rain layers, thoroughly soaking every one of us. We arrived at our first rest stop and immediately stripped out of our wet layers and into dryer clothes. It was at this point that our challenge to uphold that positive state of non-expectancy was really put into action, as we had a minor medical emergency. Everyone was fine since the situation was dealt with quickly and skillfully. However, sitting in that shelter we had to make the judgement call to turn around and head back down the mountain. We had to adapt, change our plans and make sure everyone got off that mountain safely. The rest of our day acted as a test in our groups ability to problem solve, adapt, and maintain positivity even in a crisis. While dangerous situations like that are stressful and to be avoided if possible, we came out of the trip with a deeper group cohesion and a better ability to adapt at a moment’s notice. Growth such as that can only be earned in experimental settings where we have to push ourselves out of our comfort zones and into more of a proximal zone of development.

I’ve gone over just two days of our trip. On the first day we went in knowing little of what was to come but still pushed through and got that reward and sense of accomplishment. On day two, we embraced the unknowing and began a tough hike but instead to pushing through to an expected reward we faced adversity and had to make hard decisions. We had to adapt and even during those hard times we had to still maintain that sense of optimism. From the outside this may seem like a fun set of adventures, but the goal of such trips is to offer students growth that may be hard to find in a class room. While we spend half our time taking classes, we still dedicate our weekends to challenging and testing our ability to maintain that positive state of non-expectancy which is resulting in unique personal growth for all of us.


Homestays, independent living, and internships

Ricardo J. Aguilar

He aha te mea nui o te ao
What is the most important thing in the world?
He tangata, he tangata, he tangata
It is the people, it is the people, it is the people
Maori proverb

It has been a month and a week since we arrived in Aotearoa (New Zealand) and we are currently on the second block of our program. Our journeys have converged several times for learning, cooking, trips like the Tongariro crossing and going down the Whanganui awa (river). We have transitioned from living in the Quaker settlement (a communal space) to our individual homestays. Now, our journeys will diverge slightly from each other because residing in different environments will shape our experiences in different ways. We all have different host families, and the dynamics vary, for example, I am currently staying with a German family that owns a hostel and my experience will not be the same as someone who lives only with host parents in a smaller house. I transitioned from living in a community with a known group of friends to live in a communal space with strangers, but at the beginning of the program, the Quaker settlement had the same transition. This new experience will help us understand the place we are in and get a more nuanced idea of what this country is for different groups of people. We have to make sure to pay attention to the people that are sharing their views with us. Because as the Maori proverb says, the most important thing in the world is the people. I have experienced this in my homestay. As a hostel, there is a constant flux of people. This influx of people is what makes this place different.  The possibility to share and listen to experiences from new people every day, made me realize that indeed the actions and adventures we experience make us the most important thing in the world. One of the main goals of being in a study abroad program is to learn from the place you are in, but most importantly to learn from each other. This learning will not happen automatically. You will get as much out of this experience as the effort you put in.


One of the challenges that this block has is the independent living component. It is hard to rewire your brain into thinking that this is not a vacation. This block opens up more time and freedom to make your own decisions on how your day is going to look like. This might be a challenge as it requires planning to balance school assignments, exploring the town, and getting as much as you can from your homestay. We also need to be flexible with our schedules because plans might change at any moment, thus, adding an extra challenge to the mix. We should be in a positive state of non-expectancy. In that way, the changes that might happen can be welcomed as a positive experience rather than a challenge, or if things do not end up working out, we can see this as an opportunity to branch out and do something else. I feel like living independently is a part of our personal growth, and it enhances the experience of studying abroad. Being independent and having more time opens new spaces to explore your interests or discover new things. If we stayed on our phones and the internet, we would not be able to understand and enjoy our surroundings fully. We could be missing those small details that make a conversation or a place an awesome experience. It is also important not to take over a conversation; we are always keen on sharing our experiences, but, we have to make sure that we allow space to hear others. It is hard to embrace this change in living conditions. It is also hard to cope with challenges that come along the way like homesickness. However, I am sure that later on we will experience that in retrospective and we will be New Zealand homesick.

With more time you can take the long scenic route home.
Whanganui river

At the beginning of this block, we started our internship placements as a way of emerging ourselves into experiential learning. Before coming to Aotearoa. we filled a questionnaire with our interests, and in that way, we could align ourselves with a specific path. Internships or field placements have become an essential part of the college experience as an entry to career development or to explore new interests. Weaving together the idea of career and personal development with a foreign component makes this a gratifying and enriching experience. Having this handed to us by just having to fill out a questionnaire was disruptive to the idea of competitiveness that is associated with applying to internships. One of the reasons that this program has been going on for more than a decade is because of the relationships that people have built over time and internships are not different. We may not see it, but, there is a precedent that allows us to have these opportunities. The importance that these relationships have should encourage us to do our best not only for our personal development but as it also ensures and opens a space for the generations of Earlham students to come. I found myself thinking this after having experienced Maori culture and their interest in the preservation of their culture, traditions, and environment for their future generations. This way of thinking encourages us to do our best and not put our interests first in a way that would affect future generations.

Emma and Richi at their internship placement at WSP-OPUS engineering

This block is about facing and embracing the unexpected with a little more structure. Opportunities like the ones this program offers are rare, thus, we need to make the most out of it and explore the boundaries of our comfort zone.

tēnā koutou tēnā koutou tēnā koutou katoa


Kāpiti Island and the End of Block 1

Kaydra Barbre

As we come to the end of Block 1, we look back on the numerous different adventures we’ve had over the past three and a half weeks. From the Tongariro Crossing to the Whanganui river trip and our most recent excursion to Kāpiti Island, all of us have grown and experienced new things that most people, even those living in New Zealand, will never experience in their lifetimes. Our trip to Kāpiti Island holds a special place in each of our hearts. About a ten minute ferry ride from the mainland, Kāpiti is home to several endemic bird species, some of which only live in a couple of other places in the world. Less than ten minutes after arriving on the shore, we saw a weka, a chicken-sized flightless bird who passed by a large group of people as if they weren’t there.

A weka we encountered during our journey to the summit. Another name for this bird is the ‘bush chicken.’ This particular photo was taken a few minutes before we met the kaka that terrorized us during lunch. The kaka and weka often work together in order to steal food from curious hikers.

Our hike to the summit and back down revealed so many more wonderful birds, such as the takahē, hihi, kererū, tui, and obnoxious kaka that stole a gummy worm out of one of the Lerner children’s mouths during our lunch break. He survived with minimal injuries. Our adventures with the native birds continued into the night when we went out into the dark to search for kiwis. Everyone in our group was fortunate enough to spot one just as we were finishing up an hour of silently walking in the night. A few cried, all of us were overjoyed to see this oddity of nature. Our host that night was right: millions of years spent trying not to be a bird and it succeeded.

Possibly one of the most remarkable things about these birds was the total lack of fear they had for us. Wekas in the forest would walk right up to us and across the road without a care. Both they and the kaka worked deviously together in order to steal food from the group. Even the tiny toutouwai were willing to come within a few feet of us, something birds in other countries would not dare do. It goes to show the evolutionary differences between the birds of New Zealand and birds in other parts of the world. Existing for thousands and millions of years without predators has made absent the fear of large potential predators like humans and bigger mammals. Even the short time humans have existed in their territory has not seemed to deter them from living as they normally would. Humans will never truly know what it was like for animals living in an environment devoid of people. Humans by their nature are an invasive species, impacting the plant and animal life through agriculture and farming within a short time of arriving to a new environment. When we think of paradise, humans are often left out of the equation. We don’t see ourselves as compatible with the beautiful settings explorers first laid eyes on. But after humans come in and establish themselves, the landscape is forever changed. Even Kāpiti, with the bird population increasing and forests developing after agriculture, won’t be an exact representation of this supposed ‘paradise,’ so long as humans continue to come through.

I am still thinking over how amazing it is that we were able to go on this trip. As our host told us, the amount of visitors who come to the island is tightly regulated. Because of Kāpiti’s more delicate ecosystem, few people are allowed on the island each year. Those who do apply pay considerable admission fees in order to visit. The very fact we had the chance to visit such a wonderful place as a large group and see amazing wildlife up close is truly humbling.

Kāpiti Island was an incredible experience and one sure to stay with us for years to come. I am so fortunate to be a part of this program and encounter new places and wonderful people. As we end Block One and move onto our homestays, we look forward to the new excursions planned for the rest of the semester, and the memories we will make along the way.

A view from partway up the climb to the summit of Kāpiti Island. It was close to this point where the forest became foggy from the cloud cover that day. Emma W. and I likened it to walking through Mirkwood Forest from The Hobbit. Thankfully, the spiders there were of normal size.

On the second day of our visit, we were given free time to explore the northern section of the island, where the forest was les developed compared to the remaining area. Our group temporarily went down the wrong trail, taking us closer to the coast and seagull nesting grounds. Needless to say, the seagulls weren’t happy to see us there. Even so, it was a beautiful sight for an amazing two days.

Descriptions of birds on Kāpiti Island:

Brief background information on Kāpiti Island:

River Trip

Emma Wilkins

This week we had our river trip where we spent four days paddling down the Whanganui River all the way from Whakahoro to Pipiriki with stops at Mangapāpapa and Tieke Kāinga. We learned a lot from our amazing guides and going down the river with them was a privilege and honor. We saw goats, birds, cows, sheep, and even a photometeor called cloud iridescence while we were on our journey. During breaks we swam in the river, ate some fantastic food, and listened to incredible lectures by the spokesman of the river, Turama Hawira, more officially known as the Te Pou Tupua of Te Awa Tupua.

Day one of our trip was spent paddling from Whakahoro to Mangapāpapa. Many of us learned how to paddle and all of us learned the different commands to follow. We spent some time together on the water by holding onto each other’s canoes while Uncle George’s motorboat pulled us all along. When we finally landed for the night we were treated to some good food and we were all happy to fall into our tents for a good night’s rest. Day two was shorter than day one in terms of paddling and we were all much better paddlers after spending the previous day learning or re-learning how to work in a six-man canoe. After we landed at Tieke Kāinga and were welcomed in, we took the time to relax and have a swim or play games or fall asleep in the shade of the trees. Day three was a lecture day for us with no paddling involved. We spent the day happily listening to Turama’s stories and lectures. His words flowed seamlessly together and rushed past us just like the river we traveled down. Those of us that dared to bring paper on a river trip wrote down as much as we could, trying desperately to cement his words in paper. Day three may have been a physically restful day, but it stirred our minds enough to make up for it. Day four was the shortest day and the most challenging, however, we successfully made it through all five rapids and arrived safely and (not very) drily to Pipiriki. We are proud to say that we are the second Earlham group to go through the River Trip without anyone capsizing (however we all got thoroughly drenched at one point or another). We were all sad to see the sun set on our time with the river and our guides but even after we parted ways, we came back together for dinner at the settlement.

During the course of our journey we were told that the river was a place of healing. I know a couple of us took this to heart, but I must confess I resisted. It was tempting, after spending a couple of days on the river, to go down to the banks to reflect and cry over old scars and new wounds. I regret not going down to tell the river my tale and my grievances – to let it be a much-needed open ear. I resisted. I did not want to look like a fool that spoke to a river that could not hear me, I did not want to appear weak for crying over a hurt that should have healed long before this trip, and I realize now that by resisting I had already proven myself to be a fool and a coward. I was willing to listen to the river, but I was unwilling to let it reciprocate. It made sense, in my mind, that the Maori spoke to the river, but not I. To me they were not foolish for speaking to their river anymore than my family is when they speak to God. Why then, was it foolish for me to talk to the river? Our Maori guides and friends grew up with the river, to me it was little more than a stranger. I had only known it for three days and I worried what everyone back home, who had not had the honor of meeting the river, would think of me talking to the river. I worried what my group, who knew the river just as much as I did if not more, would think of me crying by the river.

I’ve learned a lot from the trip about the Maori, the river, and myself. I’ve learned how to see the river the way the Maori do and how to respect it, I’ve learned more about the Maori than most Kiwis, and I’ve learned that being weak takes a certain kind of strength and being foolish is one of the smartest things you can do.

We are all different people because of our trip with the river. Even with all the words in the English language, I could never really tell you what it was like. I can tell you it was powerful, emotional, beautiful, incredible, nurturing, and so much more.

We are so honored to have been able to do this trip and we are so grateful to our guides and the river for allowing us this experience. It was a journey none of us will ever forget. There are some things you just can’t learn in the classroom.

Figure 1 The start of every journey begins with a water bottle

Figure 2 The Punga Fern is placed at the front of the canoe as a show of peace

Figure 3 What a great trip to go on together!

To learn more about the Whanganui River Claims Settlement Act, check out the full document here: or, for an easier read, check out these articles:


Tongariro Crossing

Emma Patterson

This week we hiked the Tongariro Alpine Crossing, a 19.4km trek past Mt Ngauruhoe, or Mt Doom for the Lord of the Rings fans. We climbed the “Devil’s Staircase,” which took us up the side of the mountain and yielded some really amazing views. At each break we took, I could see the spots where we had taken previous breaks, and really take in just how far we’d come. The flow of people in front of and behind us seemed to just keep going, showing how popular this hike really is. The geology of the crossing was really remarkable to see, especially the recent lava flows from the volcano, the most recent being 1975. The trail of the hot magma was very evident, and when we reached the peak we could see where it fanned out at the base and eventually cooled. Walking through the path of the lava was very exciting, because less than a century ago, there would have been steaming hot molten rock right on that spot. But now there’s a well maintained trail that hundreds of people walk through every day.

The plants were beginning to come in where the lava had destroyed, and it was interesting to see the succession of life after destruction. There was evidence of several landslides along the cliffs, which makes sense with the intense pressure of a volcanic area. Even a slight bit of shaking could cause failure, so a volcanic area where tectonic activity is common makes sense for a high landslide risk. These were far from the trail, so it was easy to see the whole situation instead of just a portion.

Once we got to the peak, there was red crater, which was an incredible vivid maroon color. Red crater formed over 3000 years ago, and last erupted in 1850. It is technically still volcanically active. That was really the peak of the hike for me. It was so shocking and awe inspiring to push myself through the last bit of uphill on that section and then see a bright red crater right there. I think I audibly yelled “Oh wow!” when I saw it.

Red Crater

The sulfur pools we passed were interesting, they were totally different shades of aqua, maybe because of different bacteria. Some other hikers were dipping their feet in, which was a poor choice because Tahi, our guide, said it’s fairly acidic and will cause skin irritation later on.

Tahi was wonderful. He told us Maori legends of how the mountains formed and performed a haka for us at the sulfur springs. The about the sulfur springs was that an ancestor from Hawai’i came to the area and encountered snow for the very first time. He feared he would die from the cold, so he sent out a call to his sisters back in Hawai’i, and they sent him baskets of fire. They missed him the first four times, causing other landforms in the area. On the final basket they found him, saving his life and creating the sulfur springs. Ketatahi, the name of the area, means literally “final basket.” The springs had bubbling pools and sprayed us all a few times with hot sulfury steam.

Sulfur Springs

It was so touching that Tahi did a haka for us. He was alone, so that took some serious guts. It was so powerful to watch. He mentioned that we were his first private tour group, and the track we went on was actually closed to the public. It was so kind of him to take us somewhere special that we would never have gotten to see otherwise. The spot is very sacred to the local Maori, since some of the caves on the mountain were used as tombs until 1910. He mentioned that his great great great great great grandfather was the last person to be buried there. Since this was towards the end of the hike, I believe we were all pretty exhausted and ready to leave but getting to be in such an intimate setting and having the privilege of witnessing such a sacred place and performance really moved me and made me feel incredibly lucky to be here.

Overall, the hike was incredibly challenging and took a lot out of us, by the end all I wanted was some cold water and a burger, but it was such a rewarding experience, and working together and supporting each other made it a magical day. Despite our different abilities and experiences with hiking and other outdoor activities, we managed to reunite along the way and provide encouragement. I am so proud of us, and I look forward to our next excursions.


Lilly Hartman

“When your burden is too much, bring it to the trees, and she will take some of the weight from you.”

This is what Tania told us her Maori grandmother used to say. Tania is a resident of the Quaker Settlement in Whanganui, where we have been welcomed into a community of about 30 people, a flock of sheep, a handful of chickens, and a whole bunch of fruit trees.

Madeline and Libby pose with a beautiful head of cabbage at the Settlement. Picture taken by Lilly Hartman.

While at the Settlement, we have been taking classes in Maori language and culture from a man named Ash, who has worked with Earlham groups since he was a teenager. Last week, he guided us through the process of entering his family’s marae (a Maori home or village) and engaging in a powhiri, a formal welcoming ceremony. Before entering the marae, the women in our group slid on long black skirts. Traditionally, Maori women wore skirts that were slightly longer than the skirts that men wore. This is because the reproductive organs of a woman are viewed as tapu, or sacred, and must be protected.

We entered the marae in a procession with women and children in the front, and men in the back, to demonstrate that we came in peace. Many of the gendered ceremonial traditions we learned from Ash had to do with the protection of women as carriers of the hapū, or family group. Once we were seated, a member of our group named Richi stood to act as our speaker, and introduced us to Ash’s Auntie Dorine, Uncle Jeff, and cousin, Rerekohu.

Ash had explained to us previously that it would be appropriate for us to choose a male speaker. As he put it, “Males do the talking because they are expendable.” It is customary to keep women protected and seated among the group, because of their value. Which is, I take to mean, their value as child bearers.

This is something I am still grappling with. I am of the mindset that “when men dominate the earth for fertility and women for fecundity, oppression is rooted in biological otherness and subsequent dehumanization” (Merchant, 1994, p. 26). After reflecting with the group I have come to understand that my Western feminist perspective is irrelevant here. It would be a step backwards in the decolonization process to assume otherwise. I’m still working on recognizing that what makes me feel free is not what will make any Maori woman feel free.

These have been difficult dynamics to wrap my head around, and I am still trying to process and ask questions. What if a Maori woman isn’t interested in being a mother? What does inclusion of LGBTQ+ folks look like? How is fluidity along the spectrum of gender performance talked about? And in a culture where reproductive processes are seen as sacred as opposed to shameful, how do these ideas of dehumanization change?

In Maori culture, the land is the mother of all things, and her name is Papatūānuku. This mindset seems to percolate into everyday life. For example, the word for land, whenua, also means placenta (Carter, 2018, p. 19), and Maori women are said to carry the essence of Rongo, the god of cultivated food and the peace that comes with full bellies. This is very unlike in my culture, where even if we call Papatūānuku “Mother Nature,” we boil her down to her economic value in the end.

After the powhiri, we feasted on fish tacos, planted the native saplings we brought as a koha (like the bottle of wine you bring to a dinner party), and met the cows and pigs. Before bed, we discussed personal origins, decolonization, and connection to land and family.

The front gate of the marae, with harikeke plants on either side. Picture taken by Madeline Chomentowski.

The next morning, Auntie Dorine showed incredible generosity to us by leading a raranga (weaving) workshop, using harikeke (flax). Raranga is traditionally a female task in Maori culture, but everyone was invited to try. Auntie Dorine made it look easy. It was not easy.


Auntie Dorine helps Richi form the corner of a basket. Her much more complex baskets can be seen on the bench in the background. Picture taken by Madeline Chomentowski.
The view out the back door of the whare (meeting house), including the Whanganui River and two bulls. A first-attempt at harikeke weaving sits on the deck. Picture taken by Madeline Chomentowski.

Hapū leaders, or Rangatira, are named for their ability to weave people together (notice the same root word, ranga). “Rangatira” can refer to a chief or to someone with chief-like behavior. While Maori chiefs have historically been mostly male, I think of weaving people together as a feminine form of leadership. In mainstream American culture, masculine leadership often has to do with having the loudest voice, being the “boss,” and having everyone do what you say.

On the contrary, a rangatira is renowned for their ability to welcome people, tell stories, and make people feel comfortable, the way Uncle Jeff and Auntie Dorine did for us. Uncle Jeff’s favorite line, when insisting that we should help ourselves to anything in the kitchen should we need midnight snacks, was, “There is no excuse to be hungry here.”


Literature Cited

Carter, L. (2018). Indigenous Pacific Approaches to Climate Change: Aotearoa/New Zealand. Springer.

Merchant, C. (1994). Ecology: Key concepts in critical theory. Atlantic Highlands, NJ: Humanities Press.