April 10, 2011

They Really Need Some Mega-Fauna Here

Near Lake Pukaki en route from Mt. Cook National Park
 I struggle a little bit with reading retension at times.  If I'm not careful and deliberate, all the reading that I do just doesn't stick in my brain. This can be a problem for a PhD student.  So I have all sorts of tricks. I highlight, take notes in the margins, type up notes, and periodically summarize readings on a particular topic. It's incredibly time-consuming; but I seem to get there in the end. After a bit of internet research several months ago, I added a few new tricks to my routine. When approaching a new reading, I write down 5 terms I know will be in the reading. I read the title, all subtitles and then the conclusion first. Prior to reading the article, I write 3 sentences reflecting what I already know on this topic.

This last one is based on the idea that, as humans, we remember and make sense of new information by comparing it or adjoining it to something we already know. We all do this all the time. But, migrants in particular, vigorously engage in this process, especially in the early months or years in a new country. We've all done it and certainly heard others do it - for example, chipping in to a conversation with the phrase, "Well, where I come from, it's common to..."  Migrant research shows that a continual, subtle comparison between 2 places lasts for an immigrant's entire life. It's how migrants create continuity - across oceans, over time and between what would otherwise feel like disparate lives and selves.

View from tent, Mt Cook campground

Kelly and I were perfect examples of this phenomenon this weekend. We took a trip, just the two of us, to Aoraki Mt. Cook National Park.  (Side note: the benefits of ditching our husbands for the weekend include, but are not limited to, 1-preparing delicious food and eating it slowly and luxuriously instead of sticking to the cheap stuff and shoveling it in before the boys eat it all, 2-taking 5 hours to do a 3 hour walk including a nap by a river, 3-feeling safe with each other's mellow driving instead of the testosterone-induced need to tailgate, pass other vehicles and not slow down around corners, 4-an unspoken and equal sharing of all chores, 5-reminding ourselves that we do, in fact, know how to read topo maps and operate the camp stove perfectly and 6 - realizing that a sense of urgency and break-neck speed is not an inherent part of the process of setting up the tent.)

Gourmet hiking lunch.

As two friends able to compare 'here' and 'there' easily, not even necessarily reaslizing we do it, we walked along the Hooker Valley in Mt. Cook, New Zealand, saying things like: "Doesn't this remind you of Perserverance Trail?"  "That looks like the same buttercup as the ones up on Mt. Roberts!" and of course so many "Remember when" tidbits - like "Remember when we got lost on Thunder Mountain?"

On another walk the next day, we climbed steeply above Mt. Cook village and the expansive valley it rests within. We know this kind of territory. The broad u-shaped valleys tell of glaciers past, just as they do in SE Alaska. We recognized the lateral and terminal moraines and glacial erratics left behind by these receding icey giants. Even the feel of impending rain and a cold wind were familiar on our skin. And the rush of water falling down the mountains gulleys under last winter's left-over snow makes the same sound here as in SE Alaska. We observed these Mt. Cook surroundings with comfort and familiarity. This place isn't ours yet, but it's like meeting the cousin of a dear friend who you hope will become your friend too.

Soaking up the sights and sounds from the top of the small mountain, we talked in intermittent whispers.  "They just really need some mega-fauna here," I said wistfully.  An odd thing to say.  Kelly knew exactly what I meant.  Her reply, just a small nod, was a knowing, understated agreement. We missed the sight of a moving black or brown dot in the distance - a meandering or foraging bear. The absence of the potential sighting of a bear or mountain goat rendered our habitual scanning on the hillsides somewhat arbitrary. No need to attune our ears for a marmot's whistle either. I must admit, the landscape here feels just a little empty without these creatures, even if sleeping with your food in the tent is convenient. Kelly and I noted where we expected these animals would be, were they here at all. The goats would be on the grey cliffs, the marmots in the open, high meadows turning yellow with autumn temperatures, and the bears cruising through the bushes or along the streams.

Being able to draw comparisons between 'here' and 'there' with a friend who knew me 'then' and knows me 'now' connects this new place with one I already knew.  It's exactly the same as writing 3 sentences on what I already know about a given topic before reading a new article - it helps to integrate and retain the new information. These on-going little comparisons make this new land more relevent and reminds me that I am the same person standing here within it.  And so this is how reflecting on where I come from helps form a connection to the place I've ended up.  

Looking down along the Hooker Valley, Mt. Cook National Park


  1. Fun weekend for you both! One year ago we all went on the trip to Admiralty...

  2. Hi Molly and James,

    I hope you don't mind me getting in touch. I found your details on your blog and I hope you might be able to help me with my strange request…

    I am a Producer working on a television show called House Hunters International which follows English speaking expats in their quest to purchase a house abroad. I wonder if you or any of your expat contacts might be interested in getting involved?! Please find a little blurb about the show below:

    House Hunters International is a half-hour program currently airing on the Home and Garden Television Network (HGTV) in America.
    The series is designed to de-mystify the international home-buying process by going behind the scenes of a house hunt where buyers and their real estate agents tour 3 homes.

    At its core, House Hunters International is a travel show concentrating on the idiosyncrasies of the locales and what makes them special and different.

    You can watch some examples of the show here:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kh0Q6DYe3QM - London from South Africa (1600 series) http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fLmhKEzm5kg - Dubai from Illinois (2000 series)

    Please get in touch if you have any more questions about the show. I look forward to hearing from you!

    Best wishes and many thanks,


    Michelle James
    1-3 St Peter's Street, London N1 8JD - +44 20 7704 3300