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Sunday, April 24, 2011

New Zealand Odyssey: Week 37, Sharing the Experience

Marylesa and Kaleb Howard.

As I've said in previous journal entries, the times we've shared with the visitors we've had have proven to be among the most rewarding of our NZ odyssey.
One of the primary examples of this is the time we've shared with my PhD student Marylesa and her husband Kaleb. They came to Dunedin in early February and are leaving for home tomorrow, after nearly three months. During that time, we've shared several outings and dinners and count them as friends.
Marylesa is entering the final year of her PhD studies this coming fall. She's been, and continues to be, a great student, and I've really enjoyed having her here to work with over the past few months. I'll miss peaking into her office to talk research.
Marylesa and Kaleb found a great little apartment near the city center, bought an inexpensive car, and travelled extensively around the South Island. They were married just this past summer, so their NZ odyssey was a honeymoon of sorts. It was great to witness their experience, and to share some of ours with them.
Some of my colleagues cautioned me against inviting a student to visit me on sabbatical, but I'm really glad that I did.
And here they are at the highest pont on the Rail Trail.

Friday, April 15, 2011

New Zealand Odyssey: Week 36, Full Circle

Karen on Lake Te Anau
Karen in Queenstown.
This past week was marked by two new visitors. First was Jen's mom Karen.  Karen arrived on a Friday, and two days later she and Jen took off on a tour of the southern South Island: Te Anau, Milford Sound, and Queenstown. They did the glow worm tour in Te Anau, a boat cruise in Milford Sound, and a jet boat tour on the Dart River in Queenstown. They had some (though not all) fantastic weather, and more importantly, had a great time (see Jen's blog for more details). It's really nice having Karen here. She's an easy guest. And as our time here comes to a close, it's particularly nice to have a family member stay with us.
The day after Karen flew in, my Finnish research colleague Heikki Haario arrived. Heikki was my host when I spent the year in Finland in 2006-07, and by now he feels like an old friend. Moreover, our working relationship has become quite productive; in the short week that he was here, we sowed seeds for several new projects. He also took advantage of some of the best weather we've had in all our time here, with several bike rides and a hike up Mount Carghill.
I was sad to see Heikki leave, but am glad to still have Karen here for another 10 days. We leave tomorrow for Golden Bay, in the far north of the South Island.
Heikki on top of Mt. Carghill.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

New Zealand Odyssey: Week 35, The Silver Peaks

On Pulpit Rock
Having spent most of my life in Montana, I've come to appreciate the 'backyard wilderness'. Growing up in Butte, we had the Highlands, the Humbug Spires, and the Pintler Wilderness; at school in Bozeman the Gallatin, Madison, and Bridger Ranges loomed large, both in sight and spirit; and nowadays in Missoula both the Rattlesnake and Bitterroot Wilderness hold a place in my consciousness. And then there's all the lesser known places whose names are known by few. What I like about backyard wilderness is that it's where the locals play, and that it's easier to feel such places are your own.
We're greatly blessed in the western United States with vast tracts of public land, so that a wilderness experience is more or less easily obtained by anyone willing to do the work to get outside. New Zealand is more like the eastern United States or Europe in the sense that, excluding the national parks, most of the land is privately owned.
Nonetheless, Dunedin does have a backyard wilderness, known as the Silver Peaks. Although I'm unsure of the details, the fact that it's too rugged to be utilized by farmers must be what saved it.
Some hiking in the Silver Peaks had been on my to-do list from early in our stay, but it was only last weekend that I finally got a chance to visit. I went with Alden Wright, who is another UM professor in Dunedin on sabbatical. Alden and I are similar in that we are both gluttons for physical punishment. So no surprise, our choice of hikes was a brutal one: into ABC caves and back again for a total of 8 hours, 17 miles, and 6000 feet of elevation gain. It was an epic hike, with great views (especially west into Central Otago), awesome trail, pristine pockets of native New Zealand bush, ..., the list goes on. And it had the feel of a backyard wilderness: 40 minute drive to the trailhead, plenty of locals out on the trail, and slightly toned down, but still beautiful, scenery.
Heading down Devil's Staircase

And up again to ABC Cave.
And then at the top of Devils Staircase looking toward Central Otago on the way out.

Saturday, April 2, 2011

New Zealand Odyssey: Week 34, Happiness

Harris Saddle, Routeburn, New Zealand

We've all heard it too many times to count: Happiness is not a product of money, of success, or of other things outside ourselves. It's true that some level of comfort and security is necessary, but beyond that, happiness seems to be determined more by the tone of our inner lives, which we cultivate by our thoughts.
There's a saying by Emerson, "Be careful what you set your heart upon, for you shall surely have it." Like any good piece of wisdom, this can be taken many ways. From my current perch, I realize that if you set your sites on accomplishing outward goals (even noble ones) and leave your inward garden untended, you will find yourself outwardly blessed, but also inwardly vulnerable and eventually impoverished.
Thus attention to our inner life must also be given. Along these lines, I'd add to Emerson's saying: "And be careful what you set your thoughts upon, for they determine your inward life." The power of thought is one of The Buddha's favorite topics, who would go a step further and say that your thoughts determine your reality, period. Either way, your thoughts deserve attention.
I am not a philosopher or theologian, so my knowledge of human thought along these lines is shallow, but it seems to me that it's this juxtaposition that defines 'the human condition': on the one hand, we are driven toward outward achievement through our hard-wired, evolutionary, competitive drive; while on the other hand, we are a unique species in that we have a separate and distinct inner life whose state at any given moment determines our happiness. In observing both myself and others, it seems clear that we ignore either at our peril.
For me, one thing that has characterized the last seven years is achievement, establishing myself, and a comfortable life for my family. And although it has not been complete, I have neglected my inner life. And this bent of mind is something I brought with me to New Zealand, where my focus has been on getting out and doing as much as I can. I don't regret this, because we've had some great experiences, but it's become clear that my inner garden requires attention.

Let the gardening begin.