Who Tells Your Story?

Why I Write Nonfiction About Animals

Hamilton poster

I just saw Hamilton (and it really is all that)! One of its themes is “who tells the story”—who gets to write history and determine others’ legacies. At the end, long after Hamilton has died, the cast sings a song about this, leaving the audience kind of undone, unable to get up and leave the theater.

In case you don’t listen to it (but you should!), George Washington opens with:

Let me tell you what I wish I’d known/
when I was young and dreamed of glory/
you have no control/
who lives, who dies, who tells your story.

I’m painfully aware of the “no control who lives, who dies” part, but the song helped me name the fire in my belly. It’s the need to tell the stories of vulnerable and threatened animals, the creatures without voices. (“Will they tell your story?” Eliza sings to Alexander after he’s gone.)

In college, I wanted to be a journalist, but soon learned I wasn’t exactly a crackerjack investigative reporter. I never could have imagined that, decades later, my favorite project would involve listening to those who don’t actually use human language.

I’ve learned the stories of so many cats, dogs, wombats, koalas, kangaroos, bats, wallabies, and wallaroos. If I have my way this year, I’ll take in more stories from seals, sea lions, anteaters, and kinkajous. These stories are all nonfiction, but may have elements of comedies, melodramas, farces, parables, mysteries, or tearjerkers. Like all good stories, they have characters you invest in, strong narrative arcs, unique voices, and intriguing settings and details. And, sometimes, on a good day…a happy ending.


The topic of my essay is how water impacts the planet and our daily lives. Just kidding. But really, today water ruled in many ways.

There was the rain that threatened to make the famous Tongariro Crossing impossible (it ultimately succeeded, so I could not “summit”—I love using that as a verb, as if I’m at base camp on Everest). I was secretly relieved to not have to hike seven hours, even though it’s supposed to be one of the best “tramps” on the planet.

Instead I went to these low-key, Maori-operated thermal baths. For $10 I had a private room with a super-hot bath and heated floor. It felt like a Maori mikvah:

Small mineral bath

And just in case you think it’s all thermal meditation and kawakawa lollipops over here, there actually are things to worry about, and I did manage to worry well:


Then I went to the public part of the thermal complex:

Big thermal pool

Once well-coated in magic mineral water, I hiked nearby and saw mud insistently bubbling up from Middle Earth (aren’t you glad this will be my only Lord of the Rings reference?):

Mud bubbling out of the ground

And there were these scalding hot pools:


A short drive later I was back on the mountain, where the rain had let up at lower elevations and I could hike a bit more. I saw this wet web:


And this rusty (in a good, natural way) river:

Rust stream

And these trippy silica flats:

sulfur flats

And this:


I walked along this path and thought deep thoughts:

Tree path

I came back to the cabin and went out for dinner: kumara pizza. I’m going to miss kumara badly:

Kumara pizza

Now it’s morning and it’s pouring and I’m on my little porch with coffee, yay. Tonight is my last night in New Zealand and I’m headed to Raglan, a small beach town near Auckland. Signing off with mad props to the god of water, who always has his way:

sea god

Let’s Call This One “Untitled”

I did a “Maori tour” a few days ago on the South Island but it took me this long to metabolize it enough to write about. Words are still failing me but here goes.

I’ve been wanting to learn about Maori culture but there are only limited opportunities for this, like if you know someone and get an inside view. The alternative seems to be going to these horrible Disney-fied evening “traditional shows” which make you uncomfortable in ways you never knew possible (I attended one last time). The political history of the Maori and the British in New Zealand is multi-layered; here’s a brief summary.

So a van pulled up to my hostel and a middle-aged Maori woman got out and introduced herself as Rebecca. Inside the van was a British couple, Lorraine and Gerard; we would be the only ones on the tour (yay). The driver of the van, a stoic Maori man in his 60’s, was introduced to us as “Uncle.” Rebecca explained that he was a tribal elder (and, in fact, her uncle). They are members of the Ngai Tahu tribe, which has 52,000 members and 18 subtribes in this region of the South Island.

Rebecca handed us laminated pages with a Maori song her sister had written and said by the end of the day we would all know the song (we practiced between van stops). It was called “Stand in the Heart of the Day.” The Maori alphabet has 16 letters and has only been a written language for several generations:

Maori song

Our first stop was the former site of the pa (a fortified village in which Maori lived during wars). Rebecca sang us an invitational welcome into the pa. Then Uncle spoke very seriously in Maori, telling us first where he was from, then the kind of canoe he traveled in, then his family name, then his first name.

Then Rebecca gave us all Maori names. She said she would tell us at the end why she had chosen each name. I was called Wha, which is pronounced “Fa.” It is short for Whanaungatanga (fa-nong-a-TOO-ah-ga). We were instructed to introduce ourselves using the same formula Uncle had: I’m from the land of the skyscrapers. I move by subway. My family name is Einhorn. My given name is Kama. My Maori name is Wha.

Then Rebecca did the hangi—the Maori greeting, but really more of an embrace—for each of us. She pressed her nose and forehead against mine, keeping her eyes open. We were greeted three times once for each part of ourselves—physical, mental and spiritual. It felt quite intimate.

On a walk through a forest Rebecca showed us native trees and plants and explained their medicinal uses. There were these enormous trees called tortara, which live for 1000 years. Uncle stayed at the van. When we returned, he asked us if we’d seen tortara. Yes, we said. Not many big trees left,
he said.

Rebecca taught us how to make a flower from a flax leaf. I was much better at it than I was at kayaking and had no meltdown whatsoever. It was like Maori origami:

Maori flower

Then we visited the home of her brother and sister-in-law, Heather (they own the company; Heather is a white New Zealander who married into this Maori family):

Heather Rebecca

We sat in the living room and were offered snacks: egg salad sandwiches, apricot squared, hummus and vegetables, and tiny pancakes with jam and cream. It felt kind of British, everything presented very daintily, but the tea was kawa-kawa tea. Kawa-kawa is a plant with a long list of health benefits. Here are the leaves:

Kawa kawa

We went to the backyard to see Rebecca’s brother’s traditional carving:


When Rebecca’s brother wanted to start the tour company, he had to go to the tribal elders to permission since he would be speaking for the tribe. The elders said yes, under the condition that the company operate according to nine Maori values and that all the guests know about them, so at the end we were each given this card:


It turned out that Rebecca had taken our names from this list, and mine (Wha) means “building and encouraging relationships”!

For the Love of Lavender

I spent last night at Lavendyl, which is—get this—a lavender farm. A woman named Corry and her husband Jan run the farm, its distillery, and two guest cottages.

Lavendyl lavender farm

Even though most of their 40 varieties of lavender weren’t in bloom, I felt like a wide-eyed character in a fairy tale (possible title: “The Lovely Lavender Fairy”). Upon arrival in this enchanted land, I was offered lavender shortbread and lavender tea. Then Corry showed me how the lavender is distilled into essential oil:


In the next chapter of what was fast becoming my most well-loved fairy tale, I wandered the different lavender fields.


Of course, I encountered a lavender scarecrow:


Back in the cottage I made dinner in my little kitchenette. I had random food in the car—kumara (which is like sweet potato, but better), asiago cheese, shallots, and zucchini. Corry gave me a tomato and invited me to pick rosemary and thyme in the herb garden. It all somehow came together into a very tasty meal, as you’d expect it to in fairyland. Then I took bath in my private outdoor tub (I poured in this whole bottle of lavender water):

lavender bath

Here’s my little cottage (such a treat after a string of nights in hostels):


There was a lavender sachet on my pillow. It was kind of like being on a honeymoon with myself. In the morning, I put on my fluffy robe and stepped onto my porch. In a little wooden mailbox-type thing under a fig tree was a fresh loaf of warm whole-grain bread. I toasted some and slathered it in lavender jam (as one does). I also made eggs that had come from the hens on the farm next door. As one does.

In the morning I tore myself away from the land of lavender and forced myself to go on an almost two-hour hike. I almost didn’t make it past the trailhead because these two girls were guarding it:

cow guard

I crossed a swinging footbridge (always a nice way to punctuate a hike in NZ):


And of course I encountered a waterfall.


Then, on my way out, these two let me witness this:

calf nursing

When I returned to the cottage I had time for another lavender bath! And so ends my South Island experience. I’m now on the ferry back to the North Island. Lots of seasick passengers. Too bad seasickness isn’t on the long list of things lavender is used for (anxiety, depression, insomnia, cramps, bites and stings, sunburn, scarring, acne), otherwise I had a huge stash I could offer them.