by Hayden Maskell
I might be
is what it takes.
to stop rutting goats,
it takes guns and steel
and a keen eye.
What it takes is to
stare down the tides,
to be like seaward cliffs
and jut my flint chin
into the onslaught.
It takes standing guard
while she drapes herself
in capes of dull emeralds
and downy browns
I sneak a peek
(I am only human)
but I am patient.
Soon I may ask her
if she is ready for me
and hope she answers:
‘I might be’.
Island, Kāpiti Island, New Zealand. Writer, Hayden Maskell. Artist, Rachel Walker.
Why did a grumpy military man like Captain Ernest Valentine ‘Val’ Sanderson spend half his life fighting to protect forests and birds?
By all accounts, Captain Sanderson was fearsome. He served in the South African War and First World War before turning his keen eye and flinty chin to conservation. Horrified at Kāpiti’s decimation by unfenced ungulates on his 1921 visit, he took it upon himself to fight a war on three fronts. Armed with guns and steel wire he set about eradicating goats, possums and deer from the island. Armed with a fearsome reputation and complete disinterest in making friends, he took on the government. And, armed with battle-hardened organisational skills, he set up what became the New Zealand Forest and Bird Society.
I also think he may have been armed with rosy glasses. In writing this piece, I thought about the idea that Sanderson’s sense of duty cloaked an eye attuned to beauty. He felt the island’s nature reserve had been abused, mistreated and neglected. He was pained by the lack of birdsong. He wanted Kāpiti to be beautiful. To be herself.
There is something else I couldn’t quite put into words, though: unease, maybe. Protecting nature often requires balancing preservation with exhibitionism. Conservation efforts are usually sparked by a desire to restore some beauty that has been eroded. People want to see what they’re saving. We like befores and afters. We want to protect nature, but we also really want to look at it at its most beautiful.
That’s not to devalue conservation work. Being seduced by nature’s beauty is no bad thing. Despite our most industrious efforts, we’re a product of nature. Sometimes we need a reminder, and sometimes that reminder is a walk and gawk in the bush.
I think of our narrator, a proxy for Sanderson and for us all, as nervous and clumsy. He is on a date with an enigmatic and exotic creature. Gentlemanly to a fault, he is patient, protective and respectful. But he’s also a bundle of nerves. Even his hope – that she might be ready – is tentative.
But his adoration is not motivated by expectation. He’s motivated by duty, and by hope. He believes that a selfless dedication to Kāpiti, nurturing nature, giving her privacy and sanctuary, might be his best hope for their relationship.
When Rachel agreed to work on this project with me, I couldn’t quite believe it. I held little hope that my favourite watercolour artist of all time would work with a hack like me.
But Rachel was also the only choice: I know of nobody else who can create magic from paper and pigment. The painting is alive, I know it, because I see something new every time I look at it. Thank you, Rachel.
I will unplug for one day a week and become a quiet guest in nature’s household. Shoes off, watch where I step, and listen in earnest.