A Balance of Environment and Psyche

While in New Zealand Alex Page '06 gains perspective on life and why we need to change our ways.

A cloud of sawdust descends upon my head as I find myself supporting a ladder where my friend Patrick is precariously perched with a running chainsaw five meters in the air.

How did I go from a small liberal arts college to hopping from farm-to-farm doing manual labor for room and board in New Zealand? Some may say that a BA will do little more than make you a hit at parties, but for the young wayward soul it does heaps more. As Pitzer graduates we journey out in the world to change it for the better. We are encouraged to make a difference in society.

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Alex Page '06, Patrick Leue '06 and Chris Prochnow '06 wear dust masks for bone carving to protect themselves from breathing in bone fragments. Maori and other Pacific Islanders have a long history with bone carving and the three have been learning the craft.

Many people are familiar with the program dubbed WWOOF, the acronym being pronounced like a dog barking stands for Willing Workers on Organic Farms. It is through this host network that Patrick Leue '06, Chris Prochnow '06 and myself have found ourselves lending helpful hands to a variety of environmentally friendly New Zealanders. The WWOOF network is designed as an organic farm exchange. WWOOFers give a half-day of labor in whatever capacity the host needs and in return receive room and board—in many ways it's a skills as well as cultural exchange. The benefits are endless, as your experience depends entirely upon your interaction with the family.

In our experiences, work may last anywhere between two and six hours. Sometimes you work until the job is done, and other times you spend the entire morning listening to a lonely farmer share his thoughts about hot houses and organic certification. More blessing than burden, the work often adds something new to your repertoire, perhaps a crash course in construction skills or feigning knowledge of proper pruning techniques. Whether family farm or large scale, most hosts operate as organic. Maintaining the environment is important here as well, and thus the term “sustainable” is often discussed.

I do not intend to rub fellow environmentalists the wrong way, but the term sustainability is oftentimes misunderstood these days. Sure, we would all like to be able to maintain our natural resources, but it seems no matter what we try to do, Mother Nature still suffers. Efforts to utilize our natural gifts for progress will almost always destroy ecological stability, yet it is our duty to minimize our impact.

Aha! This is why I'm here. I'm sick of reading about theory, debating amongst naturalists and arriving at dead-end conclusions. I came here to stand at the front lines of what should be a global fight to retain the few resources that remain. Well-known environmental educator David Orr derived two contrasting theories, technological and ecological sustainability, as necessary for a ecologically minded society to preserve and support its natural gifts. The technological approach seeks to use experts and agreements to slow our destruction of the environment, whereas the ecological slant explores alternatives to our current catastrophic course.

It is this second ideology that drew me to WWOOF in New Zealand. My desire to see alternative practices and harmonious living has proven fruitful. Learning the importance of gumboots and drying time for cement were our first lessons, but contributing to the lifestyles of people living with nature instead of against it has been the most important lesson. The hands-on ecological approach to simple living can be found everywhere in New Zealand. It seems that most New Zealanders recognize the environmental threat and are actively involved to stop the destruction of the planet. It has been this host network that has opened up our eyes to a more important way of living.

Our first hosts were based on an off-the- grid cooperative in the north of Coromandel. No power lines invaded the 700 acres of the sanctuary and all homes were romantically lit at night by solar power. Untreated water from a fresh spring and tea heated over wood stoves at night kept our bodies hydrated. In the glory days of the co-op, we were told a garden flourished upon the hillside. As an increasing number of people settled the land, however, they began to take more pride in their own gardens and focused communal energy on native bush rehabilitation. Today little community is found because it is just too difficult to find work out in the country.

When we traveled southeast to Opotiki, a family of three welcomed us to their home. The husband was a small-scale organic farmer and proponent of organic certification for those practicing, but not able to afford it. They maintained a healthy lifestyle with nature both in business and at home. It was stunning how much he reused; all his produce was shipped in boxes otherwise destined for waste bins.

The farm where I write this doubles as a spa for wealthy wine lovers in the area. Here in Marlborough, where the October winds could tip a cow, we see the unfortunate impact of aesthetics on our local environment. Linda claims to be organic, but uses Round-Up on her driveway. She maintains that a certain level of aesthetics is needed on her farm for clientele, and though there are other methods to remove weeds, this is one thing that Linda refuses to sacrifice. I know, it seems contradictory, but quandaries like this persist. How can someone be environmentally conscious, but still use dangerous weed controllers? This is a balance each of us must achieve.

After weeks of hard labor (and many more to come), I have come to regard New Zealand more like the latter host. They strive for a healthy relationship with nature, but struggle to rethink practices like farmed pine forests and flocks of sheep that will destroy the land. Yet there are pockets of alternative methods that exist here, just like in the U.S., in which people think green and live accordingly.

Buying locally, designing with nature, reviving native flora and fauna, and conserving water are some major examples of what many pride themselves upon these days. But during the past few weeks I've focused less on my interest in environmentalism and more on the purpose of living. It has boiled down to one simple outlook and Patrick put it best on this quest: People are too concerned with how they live, and not why.

We need to ask ourselves why we are living. The environment is not a separate entity, but a part of our being-it nurtures us from birth and provides us with everything we need to survive. Many Americans, however, are consumed merely with how they live and are not willing to sacrifice certain luxuries. Yet, living a sustainable life should not be about loss, it should be about discovering how empowering it is to have an impact upon the world. We must achieve a balance with our environment and psyche. We must step back from our lives, prioritize our values and live in a way that appeases our conscience, both socially and individually.

—Alex Page '06

ALEX PAGE '06, an English and World Literature major, was awarded a 2006 Fulbright teaching fellowship to South Korea. While at Pitzer, Page taught outdoor education to fifth- and sixth-graders as part of Pitzer’s Leadership in Environmental Education Partnership (LEEP) program.