Enthusiastic Devotion; Tireless Diligence

By Jheri St. James

There is no twilight in our New Zealand days, but a curious half-hour
when everything appears grotesque—it frightens—as though the savage spirit of the country walked abroad and sneered at what it saw.”
Kathryn Mansfield
“The woman at the Store”

About 80-100 million years ago, New Zealand drifted away from the massive supercontinent of Gondwanaland into the South Pacific. After a time, New Zealand’s indigenous people came from tropical Polynesia more than 1000 years ago. Learning to live in New Zealand shaped their thinking and their beliefs until they became Te Maori, a race clearly distinct from other Polynesian cultures (Tangata Whenua – People of the Land). Maori oral history names Kupe as the first explorer to discover New Zealand. He and his companion, Ngahue captained two seagoing waka (canoes), Matahorua and Tawiri-rangi, and sailed south from Hawaiki to see what lay beyond the horizon. The first sign of a major land mass was a buildup of white cloud in the distance. Kupe’s wife, Hine-te-aparangi, called out “He ao he ao! He aotea! He aotearoa” (“A cloud, a cloud! A white cloud! A long white cloud!), and so the land was named Aotearoa—“Land of the Long White Cloud”. After circumnavigating the North and South Islands of Aotearoa, Kupe and his crew returned to Hawaiki with treasures such as preserved moa flesh and pounamu (greenstone).

The story of Kupe’s remarkable voyage, and other such endeavors, were passed on from one generation to the next through storytelling and song. When disputes and warfare disrupted life in Hawaiki, several groups decided to leave their homeland and travel south to occupy the land discovered by their ancestor Kupe. (A Massey University study of DNA taken from modern Maori confirms this account.)

Today Maori people live throughout New Zealand, and many are actively involved with keeping their culture and language alive. Within any Maori community, the marae provides a focus for social, cultural and spiritual life. The term marae describes a communal plaza area that includes a wharenui (meeting house) and wharekai (dining room). Maori people define themselves by their iwi (tribe), hapu (sub-tribe), maunga (mountain) and awa (river). Whanau is the name given to family—the term embraces immediate family, in-laws and all those connected by blood ties. In recent years, the introduction of Maori language “nests” (kohanga reo) in New Zealand has revived the Maori language. At kohange reo, preschool children are encouraged to speak in Maori. Primary and secondary schools build on this early immersion by including Maori in the curriculum. The tradition of oral history—the telling of ancient stories, myths and legends—continues today. On many marae, elders teach tribal lore, etiquette and genealogy. They also retell the stories that form the basis of Maori beliefs. Traditional carvers also help to keep Maori culture alive by creating intricate works that pay respect to the past. Every piece carved tells a story, which can be read by those who know how. The shape of the heads, position of the body as well as the surface patterns work together to record and remember events.

Admirably, the ancient beliefs of Maori culture are recognized and respected by New Zealand’s leaders today. Recently, a North Island roading project was modified to avoid disturbing a taniwha (water monster). In its original form, the roading project would have encroached on a swamp which is the home of a one-eyed taniwha, Karutahi. The local tribe, Ngati Naho, believes the taniwha spends half the year in the swamp. It has a second home in the Waikato River, to which it swims during floods. To ensure that the swamp is undisturbed, Transit New Zealand has altered its plans so that this historic site is preserved.

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Zeal (zel) n. Enthusiastic devotion to a cause, an ideal, or a goal and tireless diligence in its furtherance. [ME zele < Ofr. zel < LLat. zelus < Gk. zelos.].” The American Heritage College Dictionary, III Edition, 1993 Houghton Mifflin Company.

Zeal [14] Zeal is closely related to jealousy. It comes via late Latin zelus from Greek zelos ‘fervour, jealousy.’ The Medieval Latin derivative zelosus has left English a double legacy: zealous [16] and (via Old French) jealous.” Ayto, John. Dictionary of Word Origins. New York: Arcade Publishing, Inc. 1991.

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Abel Janszoon Tasman, a Dutch navigator, was the first European to sight the islands (1642). Although the Maoris would not let him ashore, the islands were named after the province of Zeeland in The Netherlands (Zee=Sea). The English navigator Captain James Cook claimed the country in 1770, and the first missionaries arrived in 1814. Systematic colonization was begun by the New Zealand Company in 1840, when the Treaty of Waitangi acknowledged British rule by ceding sovereignty to Queen Victoria while retaining territorial rights. Despite harsh land disputes with the Maoris (1845-70), the country was given a constitution providing for self-government in 1853. Social welfare programs began in the 1890’s, and in 1907 Britain made New Zealand a dominion. New Zealanders fought with the Allies in both World Wars and in Vietnam; the country joined the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization (SEATO) in 1954. Nuclear weapons and nuclear-powered ships have been banned from its ports since 1985. In recent years, the government has sought to address longstanding Maori grievances.

There’s a lot of zeal in that paragraph—zeal of the Maoris for their land; zeal of the Dutch and the British to take that land away from the Maoris; zeal of the missionaries to turn the native people into maybe religious zealots, zeal of the soldiers to win World Wars. New Zealand may have been named after a city in The Netherlands, but the word “zeal” should be in its motto, from the beginning until the present day, and New Zealand should be jealous of no other country.

Mother Nature is certainly enthusiastic here in one of the countries of the area called Oceania. Lying some 1,200 miles east of Australia across the Tasman Sea, New Zealand comprises two main islands (the North and the South Islands); Stewart Island; the Chatham Islands, about 400 miles east of the South Island; and various minor islands. The main islands stretch about 1,000 miles from north to south and exhibit scenic contrasts ranging from sandy subtropical beaches and smoking volcanoes to lush pastures, majestic forests, placid lakes, glaciers, and snow-capped Alpine peaks. The North Island is mostly hilly or mountainous. Remarkable thermal springs have been tapped for geothermal power; most of the native Maoris (Polynesians) live in this region. Active volcanoes, such as Mt. Egmont are found in Tongariro National Park. The island has New Zealand’s largest lake, Taupo and longest, most important river, the Waikato. The South Island, separated from the North Island by Cook Strait, is long and narrow. New Zealand’s highest peak, Mt. Cook, lies in its massive mountain backbone, the Southern Alps. The southwest coast is famed for its fjords. Near Milford Sound are the Sutherland Falls, one of the world’s highest waterfalls. Stewart Island is separated from the South Island by Foveaux Strait. The island is rugged and hilly. The minor islands, except Raoul in the Kermadec group, are uninhabited. Overall, the climate is pleasant and moderate, without extremes of heat or cold in the lowlands, and rainfall is sufficient.

You know, if the truth were known I have a perfect passion for the island
where I was born. Well, in the early morning there I always remember
feeling that this little island has dipped back into the dark blue sea during
the night only to rise again at gleam of day, all hung with bright spangles
and glittering drops … I tried to catch that moment … I tried to lift that
mist from my people and let them be seen and then to hide them again.

Kathryn Mansfield “Prelude”

New Zealanders take their plant life seriously. Organizations like the New Zealand Plant Conservation Network’s vision statement reads as follows: “No indigenous species of plant will become extinct nor be placed at risk of extinction as a result of human action or indifference, and that the rich, diverse and unique plant life of New Zealand will be recognized, cherished and restored.” Members of the Network include tirelessly diligent botanists, horticulturalists, botanic gardens, universities, local authorities, central government and community groups. They can be contacted at for more information.


Is the animal life of New Zealand is also worth a bit of zeal? There are several flightless native birds to be considered, including the kakapo parrot (endangered), the kiwi, the takahe (endangered), and the world’s largest bird, the moa (extinct) and the huia (extinct). The takahe was believed to be extinct until it was sensationally rediscovered in 1948 by New Zealand ornithologists; perhaps there is hope that some of others also survive. The kiwi is New Zealand’s national bird, and another flightless species with nostrils on the end of its large beak. Kiwi can be fierce and highly territorial, even though they look cute, and they can be seen at a number of kiwi houses at zoos and wildlife parks, as it is endangered also. Ironically, another interesting species of life in New Zealand is the tuatara, unique relic of the past—the only beak-headed reptile left in the world. Every species of this reptile family except the tuatara died out about 54 million years ago. Tuatara can live for over 100 years, and were once found throughout New Zealand. Now they are only found on protected offshore islands. Marine life is abundant and diverse, with whale watching and swimming with the dolphins two of New Zealand’s most highly recommended tourist experiences. The small Hector’s dolphin is the world’s rarest dolphin and only found in New Zealand waters. Will the zeal meter rise on enthusiastic devotion to and preservation of these special animal life forms?

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But New Zealand is about more than the organic constitution of what grows and breathes on the soil of its islands. It is also a country of vibrant cities, with very cosmopolitan populations enjoying a dazzling array of art and literary venues. Wellington is the capital city and the cultural, administrative and political center of the country with a sprawling harbor and dramatic, hilly terrain. It has some of the best museums, art galleries and restaurants in the country as well as being the storehouse for the nation’s historic, cultural and artistic treasures, all located on historic streets and in well-preserved buildings. Googling “New Zealand Art” brings up 15,300,000 listings. Wellington is the site of an excellent Festival of the Arts every two years; Spring 2006’s festival will feature everything from fiber arts, 1884 Maori photography, and Maori arts and crafts to music of all kinds, many literary events, film, multimedia offerings, ballet and flamenco dance, and people like French photographer Yann Arthus-Bertrand, who will be featuring his “Earth From Above” series, one of which is pictured below:

Mr. Arthus-Bertrand’s images, from spectacular glaciers to a market garden in Timbuktu, capture an incredible variety of landscapes from the air and his exhibition will be on display for the duration of the festival at Waitangi Park. His work also reveals the “human footprints” made in the name of progress. Arthus-Bertrand invites the viewer to think about the changes in the planet: is there a way to answer the needs of the present without compromising the capacity of future generations to answer theirs? Alongside the photos is a large walk-on map to explore, as well as texts that reveal astonishing facts and figures. ( His art is under the patronage of UNESCO and is supported by Fujifilm, Eurocopter and the Institut GéographiqueNational-France. Mr. Arthus-Berrand’s zeal for his work seems fitted to New Zealand, compatible to this journal entry, and resonant to the Common Ground 191 project. Photographing the earth in the way he does, from above, parallels collecting soil in the way that Common Ground 191 is doing; his work visible, ours making the soil visible in a different new way.

Perhaps Katherine Mansfield’s name will come up in Wellington’s art festival as it was the home of New Zealand’s most famous writer, a woman who died at the age of 34 after penning work which revolutionized the 20th century English short story. Her masterpieces are lovingly detailed recreations of a New Zealand childhood. “Her best work shakes itself free of plots and endings and gives story the expansiveness of an interior life, the poetry of feeling, the blurred edges of personality. She is taught worldwide because of her historical importance and her fiction retains its relevance through its open-endedness.” Her short life was dramatic and her words very zealous: “I want much more material; I am tired of my little stories like birds bred in cages.” She left for London in 1908, and died of tuberculosis there. Perhaps that is why she exhibited a frenzied exhortation to live, central to all her writing; the opposition of convention and nature; the terror of falseness, the elevation of the great artist as the model for living and, by extension; art as a means of being “real”; the notion that destiny is a function of desiring—to want something strongly enough is to legitimize the means of getting it and she would find a way of pressing the threads of such a credo into the weave of her fiction. ( Another very important writer from New Zealand was Janet Frame, whose life was made into a movie, “An Angel at My Table”. She too lived a zealous, stormy life, was institutionalized at one point as a schizophrenic and, like Katherine Mansfield, died of tuberculosis.

Other big cities in New Zealand are Christchurch, the largest city on the South Island and Aukland, the City of Sails on the North Island. The Bay of Islands was the site at which the earliest contact between the indigenous population and European settlers took place and the location of the Captain Cook Memorial Museum, the oldest building in the country and the oldest church.


Our soil collector in New Zealand was Amanda Sole who lives on the North Island, Northland. Her collection was made, “on Ruakaka Beach, two kilometers from her beach block in Northlands, which is the site for a future oil refinery, where the main harbor turns to Mangrove clay bottom.” This site seems to present a combination of nature and commerce operating side by side. Ruakaka Kayaking company is located near The Marsden Point Oil Refinery, which boasts “a 130 square-metre scale model, accurate down to the last valve and pump, complete with the added realism of a light and sound show, the best of its kind in Australasia, both entertaining and educational. Downstairs you’ll find a life-like model of the giant Gottwald Crane undertaking the nation’s mightiest construction lift—the massive 760 tonne hydrocracker reactor. And alongside that is a model of the impressive Refinery-to-Auckland Pipeline, which is the fuel lifeline of the city and its airport … There are picnic gardens, facilities and a café . . . top off your visit with a stroll to the nearby beautiful white sand beaches for a safe swim, fishing, or to take in the breathtaking views of Mount Manaia, Bream Head and the offshore islands.” Will this be a replay of the Maori/British struggles in New Zealand? Will the zeal for oil bury the zeal for kayaking? Only time will tell. Thank you, Amanda, for taking the time. We are proud to add soil from New Zealand to our project which has archived nearly 77 collections at this writing.

"... the Woollen Mills, the chocolate factory, the butter factory, the flour mill -- all meaning prosperity and wealth and a fat-filled land; and lastly a photograph of the foreshore with its long sweep of furious and hungry water ... where you cannot bathe without fear of the undertow, and you bathe carefully, as you live, between the flags." Janet Frame.

Gary Simpson’s enthusiastic devotion and tireless diligence to Common Ground 191 will be inherent in the final product: a 50 foot by 50 foot compendium of soil become fresco. “I put the canvas on the floor or on the table, pour the cement aggregate (rock, sand, fresh soil, raw pigments (mostly minerals), plant substances, possibly cow’s urine—the most brilliant Indian yellow, the reds, precious minerals like lapis lazuli) on the substrate. Then I manipulate the medium with trowels and palette knives, keeping it in constant motion for a couple of hours until it begins to set. Then I re-temper and revive the concrete and add other substances (glass, metals, minerals, objects—leaves, feathers, newspaper, etc.), which I either imprint or leave on the canvas. After the medium is cured and set, I push and pull the surface—grinding, sanding, staining, acid-etching, varnishing, using fireworks, torches and burning gasoline to alter the surface.” These are all elements of New Zealand—soil, rock, sand, leaves, feathers—and of all the earth, in all its beauty.

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Very early morning. The sun was not yet risen, and the whole of Crescent Bay was hidden under the white sea-mist. The big bush-covered hills at the back were smothered. You could not see where they ended and the paddocks and bungalows began. The sandy road was gone and the paddocks and bungalows the other side of it; there were no white dunes covered with reddish grass beyond them; there was nothing to mark which was the beach and where was the sea. A heavy dew had fallen. The grass was blue. Big drops hung on the bushes and just did not fall . . .
Kathryn Mansfield, “At the Bay”

Thanks to Michael Witbrock for the photos available online.





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