I have been privileged enough to stand inside and outside this particular cathedral twice in my life. It is a mind-fumblingly incredible experience – the grandeur, the history, the craftsmanship, the creativity of humankind. And this is just one example. I have had similar thrills in castles in Scotland, exploring the Roman Forum and Colosseum in Rome … and standing outside Notre Dame de Paris.
Over a billion dollars raised for the rebuild after the Notre Dame fire in just two days … I am floored. What does this say about how we place value as a collective? Is it because a rebuild like this is in our control? We can clearly see where the money will go, assured of the outcome?
My creativity is sparked by Nature. I want Nature, my muse, to stay around for many, many generations to come. Intrinsically valuable and infinitely inspiring just because it is.
I think my concern for the natural world is shared by many other humans including the likes of Sir David Attenborough, Leonardo DiCaprio, Dr Jane Goodall and the delightful Greta Thunberg. It seems even with this calibre of activist we cannot raise $1 billion in two days to put towards restoring Earth?
Very introspective at the moment…. a middle age thing perhaps? Today I have been thinking about the label “conservationist”. I have thought of myself as a wildlife conservationist since I was probably 10 or 11 years old.
At 3 maybe 4 years old, sitting on the back steps by the kitchen door looking out over this part of the Highveld that would one day soon be taken over by the southern suburbs of Johannesburg. Our house was one of the first in the new subdivision, still surrounded by the grassland and mixed acacia bushveld typical of this area.
It’s May on the Highveld and everything is tinder dry. A black patchwork shows where the veld fires have been this season in the Klipriviersberg Nature Reserve just across the road from our house. Walking through one of these patches bits of burnt grass crackling underfoot. Then the dull thud of footsteps on dry, baked red earth. But always life – the titter of a group of red-faced mousebirds in the acacia, the screech of the fiscal shrike, the various species of dove cooing, the flash of red from the black collared barbet darting by, a rustle in the grass maybe a snake or the flash of a tail as a mongoose disappears deeper into the bush and, of course, the black-shouldered kite sitting on the powerline surveying all.
As I got older we ventured further afield, driving during family holidays to protected spaces to witness this life, to immerse ourselves in it temporarily. The most natural thing in the world, where else would you want to just BE? Kruger National Park, the Soutpansberg, the Drakensberg, Umfolozi, Mkuze, Karoo National Park, Tsitsikama National Park to name a few.
By the time I was a teenager being back at home in the big smoggy city felt strained. I felt cut off from the natural world where I belonged. Even in a city like Johannesburg where the wildness of Africa still finds its way in to the urban space, I still felt uneasy. And so I came to understand the fragmentation of wild spaces and how I would want to spend the rest of my life speaking for the voiceless.
What a strange journey it has been and continues to be… my conservationist journey. It certainly hasn’t been a linear career path and there have been many times when I thought I had lost my way completely. Thinking how could where I am and what I am doing right now possibly be about following my passion. But what I have realised recently is that every apparent detour I have had along the way has equipped me with a rather unique world view.
It quickly became clear that my work was not going to be that of the traditional conservation ecologist. I have had to come to terms with the educator within. To work through the discomfort I feel as an introvert to relate to people of all ages and stages in the course of sharing one all important message – wild lives and wild spaces matter.
The upshot of all this is that the model of conservation I was immersed in as a child is no longer valid, if it ever was. We cannot hope to make a difference for wildlife and wild spaces by putting fences up and keeping human communities out of the picture. Wildlife conservation should be an everyday practice for all of us wherever we find ourselves on this planet. We need to learn to live in harmony with the other living beings we share this planet with.
Sometimes in my more selfish moments I think over the incredible moments I have had in wild spaces and those magical close encounters with elephant, hippo, leopard, and cheetah – wild ones in wild habitat. Not ones that I had to pay an awful lot of money for in a contrived 5 star luxury safari setting.
But more often I want people to have these sorts of magical encounters with wildlife in their own backyards so to speak. Let it be a normal, everyday occurrence – reconnecting humanity back with nature.
These days my original passion for wildlife conservation feels closer, my course more true…. My journey as a conservationist continues…
I have always loved this word – Ubuntu – the philosophy and the worldview behind it.
Here is a little reflection one month out from my upcoming African adventure.
I am not sure of a lot of things but one thing I am definitely sure of is that we are all connected. We impact each other every day for good or ill.
What I find particularly profound about Ubuntu is there is still room for individuality within this human story. To me this means that my actions count. Who I am and what I do makes a difference and is significant in the greater scheme of things. How empowering! This gives me hope in the face of all the tragedy and heart ache I see every day.
Taking this idea one step further I like to think of “we” as all the other living beings we share the planet with. I believe we are connected also. And while some groups of humans have not figured this out yet, I can be a voice for the voiceless. That tends to be what gets me out of bed in the morning, heading to work to teach conservation education to the next generation. A very urbanised, disconnected next generation.
And so I have been led to connect with people like Carla Geyser, founder of the Blue Sky Society Trust and organiser of the Journey with Purpose expedition I am embarking on in a month’s time. Here is woman who by her actions and what she has chosen to do believes in the power of Ubuntu. Definitely a kindred spirit!
Due to the ongoing effects of Cyclone Idai in Mozambique, our itinerary has had to change. We will head further south. The original collaring project in Gile National Reserve will hopefully go ahead later in the year.
I also follow Dr Michelle Henley on social media through the work she does with Elephants Alive. Here is another individual dedicated to wildlife conservation but not leaving humanity out of the picture.
Obviously much of the focus in my news feed will be about my beloved corner of Mama Africa and the amazing individuals dedicating their lives to helping wildlife as well as communities of humans in this part of the world.
But I also work with passionate conservationists everyday. Check out this link to an amazing wildlife experience in Sumatra. The incredible woman who put this together is also a wife, mom, team leader, field conservationist and all round inspirational human being!
And I could go on and on with examples of humans who work everyday on the assumption of Ubuntu… our individual actions bringing us together, uniting us in our efforts to make the world a better place.
What I love about this is that conservation of wildlife and wild places can no longer be seen to separate humanity from the picture. We have to take this journey together, learn to live in harmony not just with each other but with all the species we share the planet with. It is a huge responsibility and we cannot see the kindness and compassion it takes as a weakness.
I will finish off with a mention that the fundraising efforts continue, even though the itinerary has changed. And again, I do know that we are all saturated with requests for money for a million different good causes… but maybe this one speaks to you? A bit of Ubuntu
Today we lost my Uncle Leslie to cancer. Thankfully he passed peacefully in his sleep with his loving, steadfast wife by his side.
He’s my dad’s younger brother, only 62 when he passed.
Mom, Dad, my sister and I have had the rare opportunity to pause from life’s business and spend the day together. A few tears, a few laughs and lots of remembering. Remembering a time when we got to be together as extended family, living close by to each other and sharing the every day stuff. We all took that for granted. But how could we know that life’s journey would separate our family, putting oceans and thousands of miles between us.
This is not the first time we have had to grieve from afar. Feeling so helpless. Not able to be practical support and physical comfort for loved ones “on the ground” dealing with all the logistics that go with a fellow human passing on.
So today I am reminded again of just how blessed I am to have such an incredible family made up of strong, loyal, resilient and wonderfully loving individuals. Even though the miles have separated us for 20 years or so now, I have a wealth of rich, warm memories to draw on. Time spent in magical places with these humans I get to call family…. so utterly grateful.
Leslie was not a father and he was sometimes an awkward uncle – not sure what to make of his older brother’s crazy daughters! But he was always kind. I saw him as a good husband to his wife and a doting son to my grandmother. He had that Gill generosity, grit and determination – always willing to help, lending practical support in any way he could. A little rough around the edges maybe but pretty marshmallow on the inside.
Rest in peace, Uncle Les… you are missed.
The last 10 days – what is happening?! As a lovely new friend said to me ” the world is on its head”…. I couldn’t agree more and I am not sure my heart can take much more. And I am not even directly affected by what’s been going on! Well, I suppose calling off the May adventure to radio collar elephants in Mozambique based on the catastrophic event that was Cyclone Idai would be a direct effect… more like an inconvenience compared to the level of trauma for those affected by the flooding. But I have been absolutely consumed by what this level of natural disaster has meant for the people in Mozambique, Zimbabwe and Malawi. The helplessness has set in…
(For those of you following my preparations for May’s Journey with Purpose, I will have more specific detail soon of whether we will postpone our journey till later in the year?)
While people were dying in southern Africa from the worst tropical cyclone on record, people were dying in mosques in Christchurch at the hands of a mad man… and I am sure that other people have died in other places around the world in the last 10 days…. I recently read murder statistics out of South Africa – about 65 people a day? I am not sure where I am going with this as it all seems so overwhelming and hopeless.
But maybe that is what I am trying say here…. there is hope. There is always hope even in the seemingly small actions of individuals…. a wise, old friend just posted something along those lines on Facebook. And I thinks its true…. don’t give in to the despair from the pain you see around you. Just love. Love is an action and we can show it in many, many seemingly insignificant ways. I think even sending love out into the universe will help. Perhaps if you can’t donate money to a relief effort or the stuff of every day means you aren’t able to physically make it a scheduled vigil just send out those loving vibes. Right?! I hope it is so.
One thing I have been hit round the heart with over the last week is the place of gratitude. While I am not able to be a direct help to those in desperate need… waiting in the tops of trees for days to be rescued…. I am able to be very mindful of all that I have been given. I am able to be thankful for waking up in a warm bed in a dry home. To shower with hot water, use a flush toilet in my bathroom before a healthy breakfast, a decent cup of coffee then into the car that takes me to a good job. This job makes me able to pay for the upkeep on the car and that decent cup of coffee. And so on and so on…. I have the luxury of time to read, write and plan my next travel adventure. Yes, some of this came from hard work but really mostly just grace from being born into the place, time and family I was. Maybe if I am grateful, so grateful and know in my heart that the privilege I experience is not my entitlement… maybe that can make a little difference in the world?
And so I made apple pie… to share with my incredible Mom and Dad… another privilege I have is a loving, close family. Dad prepped the apples and whipped the cream. Mom looked over my shoulder while I had a go at Granny Barbara’s pastry recipe (haven’t had enough practice with this one yet). I tried to be in each moment of this process so utterly thankful for each part of this particular Sunday morning in Auckland. Not to make light or gloss over what has happened in the last 10 days but choosing to appreciate each moment of my NOW.
I remember my first period really clearly. I was 11 years old and it was awful. Even though I knew what was coming, understood its reason biologically – my mother is very pragmatic and we had already had “the talk” – it was still awful. I had fairly scientific leanings even then and while my rational mind could make sense of the biological function of it all, this pretty early blooming, relatively speaking, made me feel quite defective. As an introvert I was already struggling with how to be more invisible but somehow this experience made me feel like I had a big, scarlet “P” on my forehead – “she’s a woman now!” – which completely freaked me out. Quite bizarre thinking back on it.
Unfortunately getting my period also signaled the beginning of a 30 year struggle with my body and its hormone functions – a legacy of “woman’s issues” in my family. Every doctor, naturopath, acupuncturist, chiropractor, endocrinologist visit under the sun. Countless hours reading everything about women’s’ health and I won’t even hazard a guess at the amount of money spent on these visits, procedures, tests and medication. Who would want to be a woman?
But I am not sharing any of this really personal stuff to solicit sympathy. No, I am about to utter words of absolute gratitude. Never once have I had to wonder how I would afford my next pad or tampon or even pairs of underwear ruined by flooding. Never once have I had to say I will just live with all this pain and agony around that time of the month – there was always a new doctor to try, a new treatment within reach. Never once did I have to sit in shame, alone thinking I was dirty or unclean. Never once did I have to face any of the medical stuff alone or keep all this to myself for fear of shaming my family. Never once did I have to face as a child making the decision not to go to school because of my period or later in life postpone happy travelling adventures because of my period.
I have just watched “Period. End of Sentence” – a 26 minute Netflix doco that brought me to tears. One thing I know for sure from talking to all sorts of women over the years is there is nothing straight forward about periods. The documentary highlights what is going on for women in rural India with regard to their periods. They can’t even talk about it, don’t understand why its happening, have no access to even basic sanitary products never mind trying to navigate pain, complications, disease, hormone imbalance and all the other complexities that often arise around our monthly bleed. My heart is broken. And then all I could think was these are disposable pads they’re making! What about the waste, what about the planet! These women have only just found some empowerment, access to a basic need. Just in time for others to probably tell they are clogging up landfills with their waste! My heart is broken again.
In my little bubble of a world the new conversation is all about waste-free managing-your-period alternatives like moon cups, period underwear or reusable cloth pads. Most of these options come with a hefty price tag. You would have to approach this with an investment in the future mentality. While trying to find an option to suit me I came across a New Zealand start up – I am Eva. Brilliant! I invested and I am sold – great product!
But no sooner had I started congratulating myself for another little waste free win than I read something that shocked me. Period poverty is thing. Right here. Right in my backyard. Young girls in New Zealand are missing chunks of school every month because they cannot afford sanitary products! Even older women working minimum wage jobs are sometimes missing work for the same reason. This is insane to me in a country like New Zealand. Thankfully there are amazing things happening out there to try and solve this. I am Eva is one example – you can buy period underwear on behalf of women and girls who cannot afford this basic need. Australia has just taken sales tax off sanitary products… perhaps we should be doing the same?
In May I am adventure bound once more – an elephant conservation project in Mozambique. Part of our plan is to visit village schools along the way with environmental education materials but also reusable cloth pads for girls. The importance of girls staying in school cannot be overstated, not to mention a little dignity with a side of empowerment. I am humbled to be a part of this Journey with Purpose and to help in a small way support the work of armswideopen.org.
If after reading this you feel inspired to give, I am asking for donations in support of my expedition in May – for more info click on the link – https://www.givengain.com/ap/a-bit-of-ubuntu/
In my early 40s now I have finally learned to stop fighting my body. I have learned to find stillness and listen to the sacred rhythms of womanhood. This may sound weird or airy fairy but it is truth. Seriously. And I wouldn’t even consider myself a feminist. All I can speak to is what I have learned about life from tapping into the wisdom of what makes me feminine – our periods are so much more than biology. My wish is for us to find a way to lift taboo and allow all girls to tap into their sacred feminine too. And we can’t even consider that if most girls don’t have access to basic sanitary products.
Being the geographer I am I know that female life expectancy in NZ is 81.46 years. That makes me officially middle aged as of Thursday. I am having a really hard time getting my head around this!
I have always been quite excited about birthdays and finding ways to celebrate. This was the first one I really just ignored until it arrived. My darling family were bugging me right up to the last minute about what and how we were going to acknowledge my number day.
This whole situation has resulted in some serious reflection time. So here are a few of my musings…
What are you supposed to have achieved by middle age? A happy marriage. Nope. A kid or two. Nope. That house with the accompanying mortage. Nope. A successful career. Hmm, debatable. I LOVE my work environment but it took me a step backwards and a serious pay cut to get there.
I have also had a very non-linear employment journey. In my mind I think this means I could give practically anything a go. Unfortunately it has held me back as many prospective employers are not too sure what to do with me. My current team leader would be the exception. She took a chance on me and her support has been invaluable. She definitely gives me space to play to my strengths and for that I will be eternally grateful… And there it is, the first blessing to count.
But what about the rest…
Well, for the girl so passionate about her birth place Africa – its red earth in my DNA – I sure have a lot of stamps in passports. So reluctant to leave. Yet that first travel experience in 1994 literally opened a world of possibility.
And so I can tell you what it feels like to wander the streets of London, Paris, New York, Philadelphia, Washington DC, Rome, Florence, Pisa, Nice, Genoa, Glasgow, Edinburgh, Wellington, Melbourne, Bath, Bristol, Cape Town, Johannesburg, Pretoria, Durban, Maputo, Harare, Gabarone, Montpellier, Volterra, San Gimignano, Lucca, Windsor, Aylesbury, Waikiki, Hilo and Auckland.
I have watched the countryside roll by from the windows of cars, buses, trains in Pennsylvania, New York, Baltimore, Maryland, England, Scotland, France, Tuscany, the Lake District, the North and South Islands of NZ, Botwana, Zimbabwe, and all around South Africa.
I have had more breathtaking moments than I can count in nature – that is where my soul really sings. Standing on the edge of Lake Wanaka or catching my breath at the top of Mt Tongariro. Breathing in the silence in the Kgalagadi red dunes. Drinking in the view from the top of the Drakensberg escarpment looking over Mpumalanga. Watching the seasonal waters arrive in the heart of the Okavango Delta. The itchy heat of a summer day in the north of Kruger Park. The numb on my face of standing in the snow at Glencoe or sailing with the wind in my face on Loch Ness, letting the sand ooze between my toes at Waimea Bay, north shore of Oahu or standing on the edge of the world at Kilauea Crater, Hawaii.. and so so so many more. What an immense privilege!
I got to call some interesting places “home”. My two little places in Maun, Botswana come to mind. Or avoiding the hippos and the sleeping elephants on my walk back to my little house in the heart of the Delta each evening. My quirky shipping container house in Blikkiesdorp, Twee Rivieren, Kgalagadi.
As I recall these places and times I am also reminded of the incredible people I have met and shared life with even if just for a short time.
Seeing life in this way has so often taken me out of myself. What I mean is that so much of life today is taken up with just getting through the day for all of us. It can be quite an insular experience especially for an introvert like me. Yes, I need the time by myself to reflect, mediate and recharge but too much time alone is never good. We are wired for connection. Travelling and moving around has been the best way for me to get out of my comfort zone and connect with people. Again, what an immense privilege!
And so yes, I am now middle aged. No, I have not achieved any of the milestones usually associated with life at this point. But no regrets, only oodles of gratitude for a life rich in experiences. May I do this richness justice by using what I have learned along the way to live more carefully on this planet and show more compassion for you, my fellow travellers in the second half of my life.
And I think I will continue to wear candy striped sneakers – the ones my amazing sister got me for my birthday because the style name is the same as mine. I will still love the Harry Potter books and movies and anything by JRR Tolkien and even teen movies from the 80s like The Breakfast Club…. and I will still believe in magic…
With that I am adventure bound once more – leaving for Edinburgh on Thursday. Some time on a job experience programme at Edinburgh Zoo and then to England for time with special family…. can’t wait!
Ending off with two of my most favourite quotes, more like mantras these days…
“Not all those who wander are lost” JRR Tolkien
“Have courage and be kind” Cinderella
The baubles and tinsel have been carefully packed away for another year. The pantry is clear of all those little indulgences. Boxing Day sales have been and gone. Even the fireworks and the countdowns and the resolutions have been ticked off.
Now the balmy days of summer stretch ahead. This time of year toys with me. Do I give into moments soaking up the sun, afternoon naps, sipping cool drinks while curled up with a good book and totally relish no responsibilities, deadlines, timetables, etc.? Or do I allow the New Year’s rejuvenation to reinvigorate and work, plan, list, do for the coming months? This year I opted for ticking off a to do list and relishing in a sense of productiveness.
But right this moment I pause to reflect on yet another festive season gone by. What does is all mean really? What is the point?
I pause in gratitude for the safe, beautiful place I live. A place where a festive season held no loss, no tragedy, no hate, no violence. For me it held family, belonging, blessings, love and the gift of hope for our futures.
I so appreciate being able to get wrapped up in the Christmas “hype” but still not allowing it to be in a superficial way. But rather in a way that celebrates the blessings me and my family have been gracefully given.
Here are a couple of blessings – one for Christmas and one for the New Year – that speak to me about the truth of this season:
Even though we are 16 days into 2015, I wish all humanity a blessed year ahead.