A Long Prayer for New Zealand

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2016 FALL TRAVEL WRITING CONTEST FINALIST

Moriori, dysmenorrhoea, mindscreens, Te Anau, spelunking, missed turns, Doubtful Sound, glowworms, cannibalism, constellations, glacial wake, polytheism, the Remarkables & rascals in paradise.


Auckland, NZ (GMT+12, 18 February 2007)—Or is it…

Boston, USA (GMT-5, February 17, 2007)—Or is it…

Monday and summer? Winter and Sunday? A day vanishes and I materialize in tomorrow, where the sun floods Auckland Harbor in my body’s tonight.

Time twists, a Mobius trip.

I fly for a day to spend three weeks with my daughter and son-in-law, themselves on a six-month journey that originated in Brooklyn, now stuck in the past on the far side of the international dateline. Before children, before houses, before the planet is so paralyzed that obtaining a passport entails a security clearance, these young intrepids are wandering free.

Which “internations” sat at the table when the vote was taken to mark the longitude where each new day acquires its date? How did Greenwich, London, come to own Time Zero?

I agonize more about time as my sixtieth birthday approaches, 108 days, or 2,592 hours, from now. Every keystroke draws me closer, and now I have gone farther nearly than ever before, but truly, is New Zealand more removed from Boston than Kathmandu or Tokyo?

This journey begins with my calculating, distance from home, time to the future.

Compass Rose

Te Anau, South Island, NZ (22 February 2007)—Now I am as southerly as I’ve ever been, the 45th parallel. How many parallels are there, anyway? I know nothing: until this evening, I knew not of the moa, the two-story animal, or was it a bird, yes, a bird, according to the young woman engaging our time until our tour begins, extinct, of course, because of the Māori, the Polynesians who settled New Zealand at least a millennium ago. I have not been doing my homework, so I’m not certain how many centuries ago, but until this evening I thought the Māori were the first people here; I’d missed a whole other people, the Moriori, and possible feedstock for the Māori, who burned the bush to drive out the moa, then caught the Moriori and ate them too, says the storyteller with a condescending snarl that causes me to question her veracity. Later I discover the Moriori inhabit the remote Chatham islands, an archipelago east of New Zealand; the idea that they were the original, and exterminated, inhabitants of the mainland turns out to be a racist myth aimed at the Māori dreamed up by nineteenth-century ethnologists. (I also find that fourteen of every one hundred people here descend from these canoe voyagers; one-third of their children live in extreme poverty.)

The guide’s next fact, recited in every natural-history monologue and pamphlet and on each museum wall plaque, I believe: no mammals existed on these islands at all, not even mice or rats or the current scourge of this country, possums, until people arrived. Why precisely did they bring mammals? Unknown, at least to me.

Among the stats: With only four million inhabitants (but barely a thousand claiming Moriori descent, more fact-finding reveals), New Zealand entertains half that many tourists each year, we, three of them, snapping photos, touring caves and springing across suspension bridges.

And ten times as many sheep. Today we saw a muster, sheepdogs circling, shepherd holding the right boundary, and a fuzzy heap of white creeping up the mountain.

Here, on the South Island, steep ranges plunge into valleys sheltering azure lakes, boatless because there are so few people; the Remarkables, the only range in the world other than the Rockies that runs plumb north and south by the compass, whisper to thin clouds that stripe their peaks.


I’d missed a whole other people, the Moriori, pygmies, perhaps, and possible feedstock for the Māori, who burned the bush to drive out the moa, then caught the Moriori and ate them too, says the storyteller with a condescending snarl that causes me to question her veracity.


Today we tramp eleven miles along the Routeburn Track, so named for the river it follows, through brush and fern and moss and lichens, terrain where you’d expect to find hobbits, or could have not too long ago, for here the films were made. Peter, our unlikely guide with a notorious past (once bodyguard for Duran Duran, once speared with an eight-inch bread knife at a London club, once hitchhiker through India), stops us on a bouncing bridge and points to something I should recognize, if only I were a hobbitophile as was my hobbsband, who kept these books among his greatest treasures. “Isengard,” I believe Peter says. (The closest I have ever come to Hobbitiana was a lecture by Tolkien’s son at Oxford.)

When I bought my blue suede gloves in Torino nine years ago, I never imagined they would someday warm my fingers in a cave lit by glowworms. But that is precisely where they make me cozy tonight, here in Te Anau, in this precious nowhere. A thirty-minute boat ride to an island where, yes, the Māori first took shelter, today’s guide says, and now where a tourist operation with the hubris to call itself “Real Journeys” charges too much to guide suckers like us into caves, along steel planks, hunched over for thirty or forty feet, then upright, then walking again, hunching once more, through cathedrals arcing high over falling waters, darker, farther into cavedom, until in near pitch black we board a tippy rowboat that the barefoot and coatless chaperone creeps forward by pulling along an overhead wire deeper into the mountain, where suddenly a celestial canopy of lights glimmers above. Glowworms digesting their prey, cannibals too, excreting the radiance of midnight on the ceiling of the cave. Mystical, this grotto: a mirror of the night sky, hidden in the belly of a mountain at the bottom of the earth.

Compass Rose

Milford Sound (23 February 2007)—“The finest works in stone are not copper or steel tools, but the gentle touches of air and water working at their leisure with a liberal allowance of time.”—David Henry Thoreau [sic]

Mr. Thoreau has preceded me to The Chasm, the waterfall along the road from Te Anau to Milford Sound that has scooped the innards of granite one hundred feet deep. Struggling in the spray to record the quote, my slick fingers drop the pen from Boston (home of the pencil maker “David Henry”) into the canyon.

Twenty glaciers ripped through New Zealand’s two main islands in the past two million years, the most recent only fourteen thousand years ago, and they have left pure glory in their wake: chiseled rock, cliffs that slice the sky, valleys, lakes, inlets and sounds unreachable by road and barely by boat.

By any normal reckoning, I am here on vacation, but there are signs everywhere that this is a writing excursion. Time now for Book Two of the trilogy I tell myself I’m writing. I knew I would pick up tiny parcels for the next volume, but I did not know until I arrived that New Zealand was the first country in the world to have passed women’s suffrage, the first with a woman governor; that this country’s prime minister, Helen Clark, stood up to the Bellicose B’s (Bush and Blair) and refused to join the Iraq War. She asked the electorate whether they could tolerate the possible economic ramifications, principally that America and Great Britain might refuse trade. And so spake the people: Let them. New Zealand’s southernmost point may be only twelve hundred miles from the Antarctic, but the good sense of these people resides in the center of the universe.

Milford Sound. So concealed from the Tasman Sea that Captain Cook passed its entrance twice without detecting the harbor hidden inside the cliffs. The water table was one hundred meters higher before the last glacier, three hundred feet in the air where today’s rock is swallowed by cloud and pounded by rain two of every three days of the year, pouring falls into the sea, so fresh that the salt sinks and the top twenty feet are potable. This is the only body of water on Earth for which this is true. Miracle Sound.

Compass Rose

Doubtful Sound (24 February 2007)—New Zealand makes me think about God. I don’t believe in God per se, if one can even say “per se” and “God” in the same sentence without being charged with blasphemy or having a fatwa set against her. My god (or God or G-d) is a pastiche, likely another referent that could march me to the stake. I am a spiritual omnivore with reverence for Yahweh, bows toward the forgiving Jesus, admiration for the pacifism of Mohammed, the habit of taking a long toke of Tara, awe at the beauty of Gaia, an irregular practice of sitting with the Buddha and more than a little thanks for the living deity, Mr. Tenzin Gyatso, His Holiness, the Dalai Lama.

For most in my generation born of Jewish full-bloods, this is pure heresy, but not my parents. Until he and my mother left New York in their late thirties, my father attended Christmas Eve mass at Saint Patrick’s Cathedral; after they moved to rural Pennsylvania, my mother trudged to the grange (where the 4-H also met) on Sundays to join with the Unitarians; they sent me to a Quaker school. They gave me this polytheism—my parents, not the sixties.

But neither of them ever made it to New Zealand, where this amalgam of deities has me weeping at the land, unending, green, depopulated; the sea, lapis, emerald, sapphire; the sky of the long white cloud.

I may harbor no organized religion, but I do believe in a chaotic symphony that sings arias from the heaven we call mountains, trilling five hundred varieties of moss across bare schist, thrumming trees down its sheer, their roots so tightly knit that their avalanche yanks whole forests into the sea.

There is certainly a higher order of intelligence here, in the civilization where sheep outnumber people.

Today we drive to Pearl Harbour near Te Anau and board a boat to cross Lake Manapouri, where we transfer to a bus that carries us over Wilmot Pass to Deep Cove, population: 1. As we pass the only dwelling, the driver slows the coach, winds open the door and tosses a newspaper to the sole inhabitant. At a second dock, we board the Patea Explorer for a cruise toward the Tasman Sea, through the fjord named (and first spelled) “Doubtfull Harbour” by Captain Cook, who questioned whether enough wind could ever come up to sail a ship back out of this haven of sea crags.

According to the Māori, the magical adze of Tu-te-raki-whanoa, whose persona I should add to my constellation of deities, cut Doubtful Sound, along with the other coastal sluices, from the great New Zealand rock.


Glowworms digesting their prey, cannibals too, excreting the radiance of midnight on the ceiling of the cave. Mystical, this grotto: a mirror of the night sky, hidden in the belly of a mountain at the bottom of the earth.


Our voyage takes us past an islet community of fur seals, waddling up and down the rocks; two very rare yellow-crested penguins (only twenty-five hundred survive sur cette planète), bobbing for fish; and a plenteous pod of bottlenose dolphins, who play around the boat, diving like synchronized swimmers, noses up, torsos arched, fins flared, then plunging, snouts first.

We motor for more than two hours over the whitecaps, the ship’s nature guide softly calling the sights, wireless mic in hand. He reminds us about this World Heritage Site’s eternal protection from the encroachments of civilization as he moves through the cabin, cleaning up the detritus of coffee and tea served in ceramic mugs, folding and stacking paper lunch boxes for recycling, scooping up the trash of those who ignored his request that we clean up our own messes.

Gliding toward shore, the boat takes an unexpected turn into another cove. “I’d like to ask you to cooperate in an experiment,” the guide says. “I know not everyone on the boat speaks English, so perhaps you can explain. For a few moments, I want you to put away the cameras, not move, not speak, and we can experience the fjord the way the Māori did centuries ago: in silence.”

Engines killed, the boat at rest, 150 people soundless in the fjord with only the calls of the kea high on the cliffs.

A long prayer, a sheltered moment with the heavenly concept of Earth as Art.

Compass Rose

Fox Glacier (27 February 2007)—Advice to writers: Avoid indulging your addiction while circumnavigating New Zealand’s lakes by foot in early light.

The guidebooks, which have documented nearly every pebble on these aloof islands, command readers to behold Mount Cook mirrored in the glass of Lake Matheson at daybreak.

I have woken much earlier than dawn. Somnus wrestles with women. At menarche, teenagers do not sleep because of their empty cramping wombs; one daughter threw up each month—no soporific, that. Women with newborns doze when their infants do, if they can, which is not often when the rest of their world is in bed. My friends and I joked that we should meet for coffee at three in the morning when our babies sprang awake, ready for play. We say the same now only for different reasons: we’ve traded the monthlies for exhaustion; no longer distressed by what my mother described as “dysmenorrhoea” in my school absence notes, or by stained sheets, or by the figuring of tampons in the budget, we menopausals rarely sleep through. I have no memory of the last time I had eight hours of uninterrupted rest—or seven or even six.

I am up and dressed when Jay and Miranda—both older now than I was when I gave birth to her—ask if I am ready.

A primeval grey falls from low clouds as we leave to witness the silhouette of the country’s highest peak in tranquil water.


Twenty glaciers ripped through New Zealand’s two main islands in the past two million years, the most recent only fourteen thousand years ago, and they have left pure glory in their wake: chiseled rock, cliffs that slice the sky, valleys, lakes, inlets and sounds unreachable by road and barely by boat.


It is dawn-quiet as we meander to the lake. New Zealand’s Department of Conservation should charge a fee for walking its trails; indeed, in some places, it does. Meticulously cut through mossy woodland, the paths are a bricolage of black macadam, bare earth, small stones, planks veneered with chicken wire to prevent slippage on the damp forest floor, short footbridges spanning streambeds, and lengthy swing bridges, sometimes no more than a meter wide, that flex with each step and dare one’s equipoise.

A perfect, peaceful, relaxing moment—except for the schedule. This is our day to heli-hike, the class of torture I normally avoid. I am brave in a few ways—in choice of profession, for example, most artists can claim this—but, except for fearless headstands, I have little physical courage. Skydiving? I don’t even like water diving; offered the couloirs of the Alps, I skied the bunny slopes; if subjected to bungee jumping at a team-building event, I would be off the squad. Against all my instincts, I have consented to climb into a helicopter, fly too close to the peaks and descend onto a glacier for a three-hour hike. I agree because of the plight of the glaciers; it’s my duty to pay homage to them firsthand.

We’ve chosen the forty-minute return route to the lake. Unfortunately, clouds haze the reflection, but the water, as immobile as the mountain, is a color I’ve never seen—greyblue, as Keri Hulme, the New Zealand writer who elides colors, might put it.

We dawdle long enough on the banks of the lake that when we start back, my organized daughter, always with one foot in the future, suggests that she run ahead to pick up some breakfast. “Good idea,” I say, and suggest that Jay accompany her. After all, we are only about five or ten minutes from the parking lot, the path is clearly marked and I can take my time. I’m thinking about something.

I’m an early morning writer. Many are, plucking words from the cloudless first light of mind. And so I pick up my mental pen to defy the advice of my revered fiction teacher, installed on his own marble pedestal in my god gallery. “Forget about your novel for a while,” he said. “It will be good for you.” But telling a writer to forget about her unfinished work is akin to commanding a mother to not think about her children. As my human progeny disappears up the path, a new prologue to the book takes form, first as a phrase, which I just as quickly delete, followed by a different one, which I like no better, then a whole sentence. I shift that word string to the rear, page through my mental thesaurus for a synonym that packs a bit more surprise. I cut and paste, and as I do, my original opening for the book types itself across my mindscreen again, which in turn rekindles an argument with my teacher, who is emphatic about deleting it. Yet here, halfway round the globe, two years after that moment when the words first came to me in a Swedish art gallery, they blaze again in forty-eight-point type. The writing gods have traveled to New Zealand too.

On I walk, speaking certain phrases aloud, then catching myself lest I frighten the oncoming horde of German tourists. An American woman alone and in conversation with herself in the woods is certainly a danger. Up the path, around the bend, past a bench, writing and walking, walking and writing, pleading with my teacher to agree with me, then reprimanding myself for listening to him too much, traipsing on. I glance at my watch. Surely I should have reached the parking lot by now, if not a good fifteen minutes ago. I must have miscalculated, I think, and on I trudge.


I may harbor no organized religion, but I do believe in a chaotic symphony that sings arias from the heaven we call mountains, trilling five hundred varieties of moss across bare schist, thrumming trees down its sheer, their roots so tightly knit that their avalanche yanks whole forests into the sea.


Now the path sparks no memory trace at all. What is wrong with me? Why don’t I pay more attention, stay present, in the moment? A single wrong turn and I am questioning my competence. Jay has been teasing that I am not at my best in the morning—deeply troubling to the daybreak writer. It’s quarter past eight and I’ve just descended a narrow switchback—and then the sign: “View of Views,” the prime perch for the mountain’s reflection. “Car Park—35 minutes” and an arrow pointed in the direction from which I’ve just come.

Without even a look-see in the mountain’s mirror, I spin and sprint up the switchback, run across the flat, bounce foot to foot down a steep trail as fast as I can without losing balance, then, ouch, a torque of the ankle, just enough to slow me, a reminder that I am only late, not injured, that though the children are likely worried, their concern will end in less than an hour, that the chief consequence of my mindlessness will be cold coffee—and perhaps the relief of missing the chopper. I summon psychic powers to beam messages: I’m all right, only a flake. I run and gasp and run again.

In twenty minutes, not thirty-five, there is Jay rushing toward me. “Slow down,” my son-in-law comforts me, hand gripping my arm, “slow down.” And then Miranda, running behind him, grasping as she did when she was little, arms clutched around my back, and she is sobbing: “Oh, Mom, oh, Mom, oh, Mom, what happened? We were so worried.”

My writing, my passion, my distraction.

When we arrive at the heli-hike departure, we learn that our flight has been cancelled due to cloudy conditions.

Compass Rose

Nelson (4 March 2007)—I have welts on my arms the size of beehives, or so they feel, itching so intense that I want to skin myself—but then, of course, I would be plagued by phantom itching.

An evil host at one of our lodgings assures us that once we reach the east coast of the South Island we will be free of the horrid creatures that have feasted on us since we arrived. Promises, promises. On the last few days of this holiday, they find their ways to unmentionable parts of our bodies.

Miranda, our encyclopedia, is silent at dinner. Instead of explaining details that neither Jay nor I notice—like the crayfish are upward of NZ$70 because the season is almost over and the allowable allotment has almost been reached, or there’s a driftwood beach and a rare collection of kauri along the winding path that reaches it, or the “five-inch green mussels” are probably not as good as the ones we had the day before, because the town we’re in is not mentioned in their name—she says nothing.

“What are you going to have, honey?” I ask the same question at every meal.

“I can’t speak. My feet.” She closes her eyes. “If I speak, they will itch even more.”

But her feet are not still and the great activity in the domain of ankles, evident in the rustling of her napkin on her lap, instantly ignites my ankles—and my forearm and my temple and the small hillock that has risen behind my knee and my crotch—and I want only to scratch.


Meticulously cut through mossy woodland, the paths are a bricolage of black macadam, bare earth, small stones, planks veneered with chicken wire to prevent slippage on the damp forest floor, short footbridges spanning streambeds, and lengthy swing bridges, sometimes no more than a meter wide, that flex with each step and dare one’s equipoise.


I’ve been itchified to this extent before—in 1969, in Chelem, just outside Mérida in Yucatán, when I bested three other young women I was travelling with in the competition: I had 106 mosquito bites.

And again on the morning six years later, when different companions and I docked at Andros Island, just southeast of Bimini. From the sea, the landfall appeared idyllic after seven days a-sail, most of which I’d spent with my head in a bucket. We sighted a small paradise onshore—low stucco buildings glittering in the Bahamian sun, a dock with ample room to tie up, a trellis of vines that lent a five-star air.

Good sailors know never to judge a port from the sea.

Closer, the dock was missing two posts; another was broken beneath the surface of the clear water.

The frangipani vines were shriveled creepers, leafless and splintered.

The doors of the alluring “hotel” were off their hinges, windows shattered, shards of windowpanes littering cracked walkways.

Then the welcoming committee swarmed us: battalions of winged six-legged torpedoes. The stinging, biting, ouching, and my father-in-law, for whom “hard to port” is lengthy banter, yelped and repeated three words that illustrate a special class of experience well: rascals in paradise.

Chickcharnies in the Bahamas, black flies in northern New England, sand flies on the South Island of New Zealand. With the days until departure numbering many fewer than those we have already spent here, I long for the Boston cold that harbors no such scoundrels.

Compass Rose

The South Star (5 March 2007)—The full Pisces moon, Orion overhead, the Southern Cross to the east, Pleiades falling from view in the west, so much light in the sky that the constellations Virgo (Miranda’s) and Taurus (Jay’s) and Castor and Pollux (mine) are faint, if visible at all. The Milky Way is a smudge of smoke.

It’s nearly ten at night by the time we reach the farm high on a hill outside Kaikoura, far from the light of the small village on the east coast of the South Island. Our final guide has surrounded a large telescope with small folding stools, one for each person on the Kaikoura Night Sky Tour, and brought along a thermos of hot tea (“Anyone take milk?” he asks). A horse behind the fence in the field whinnies as Hussein, the self-trained astronomer, streaks his laser pointer across the sky, educating us aliens from the Northern Hemisphere in the fine light of these heavens. I’ve seen the southern sky only once before, on the night the astronauts first landed on the moon, but while I remember clearly the handsome Mexican boy entertaining me, I have no recollection of the Southern Cross.

Hussein looks as much like the person his name conjures as I resemble him: a tall, blond Adonis with a British accent. I don’t have the nerve (though certainly the urge is strong) to investigate his background. I’m rarely afraid to ask the stupid question, which the children remind me of rather frequently. When Hussein says, “You all know why the tidal swell fluctuates, yes?” others nod, but I, the village idiot, hazard a guess or two: heat? Gravity? I see my kids, both well schooled in astronomy, raise their hands to their brows as Hussein politely explains the force of gravity to me. He’s not the first to try.

“Would anyone like to see Saturn?”

Hussein has trained the telescope on the planet near the edge of the solar system. This much I know—oh, heavens, this can’t be right—what about Uranus or Jupiter or sadly exiled Pluto (“Never Forget,” says the T-shirt Miranda gave her father)?

The night sky makes me tremble. We stood on frozen Lake Winnipesaukee the first time my star-aware then-boyfriend (later and until his death, my husband) toured me through the heavens, me shaking, wanting only to run back inside the cottage. No numerical system accounts for billions of universes, googles of galaxies and the infinitesimally speckish significance such suggest to our own lives. Quarkishness, leptrons, string theory all throw their hats in the ring to explain, but none really helps. The reality of the nanoscale on which our lives parade is only to feel, not to describe. My mind floods with a memory from sixth-grade science, when the teacher suggested that our entire universe may be only a molecule in the leg of a small chair in another world, which has worried me ever since: What if the chair leg breaks—or, worse, someone throws it in the fire?


Good sailors know never to judge a port from the sea.


I am ready for Saturn: I put my face to the eyepiece and there is the spheroid with its icy rings, a tiny cartoon in the telescope. I can’t control my oh-my-god’s and the children’s hands are at their brows again.

And then la luna, Earth’s only natural satellite, tonight fully full, with its blemishes from eons of wallops by cosmic debris: the Sea of Tranquility, the pocks. “Look at the edge,” Jay says. He too could be a cosmic guide: the rim of the moon as if it has been pared or sculpted or peeled, rippled against the black of space. As I have voyaged to New Zealand, my descendants will travel there and beyond, I think, to unknown mysteries, to civilizations of nameless people-oids, to the edge of the indefinite.

The Dalai Lama says there is no present, that it’s all perspective. “If I say ‘today,’” he explains, “then yesterday is the past and tomorrow is the future. But if I say ‘this week,’ then yesterday and tomorrow are present, last week is the past and next is the future. But if I say, ‘this month…’”

Three weeks have slipped from the present to the past, but in this lifetime I shall be forever in tomorrow, in New Zealand, where I was, before I was sixty.


Jessica Lipnack, author of six books about networks, is currently working on Woman in the Twenty-First Century, a novel-trilogy about the return of the nineteenth-century phenom Margaret Fuller. She also co-chairs the board of the Buckminster Fuller Institute. NB: Margaret Fuller was the great-aunt of Bucky Fuller, who’s also a character in the trilogy.

Lead photo: Tobias Tullius

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