Conservationism in New Zealand and the United States

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I have a bit of an obsession with kiwi birds.  Ever since arriving in New Zealand, I have had to stop myself from buying anything with a kiwi on it.  They are just so misshapen and I love how they awkwardly move about.  I find them to be the cutest animals.  They are a flightless bird that has somehow become the name of New Zealanders themselves.  New Zealand does a wonderful job working toward habitat restoration and conservation of kiwis and other endemic species.  New Zealand has no natural predators towards flightless birds, however over time people have brought many threats to the island- mainly stoaks, rats, mice, cats, hedgehogs, possums, dogs, and rabbits.  Why would someone coming from England arrive and think, “New Zealand is really beautiful and all, but it could definitely use some ferrets.”  Unfortunately, these mammals have decimated the native bird population in New Zealand.  On Dave’s last night in New Zealand we went to Zealandia, which is the world’s first mainland island sanctuary in an urban environment.   Zealandia has created a predator proof fence, which allows threatened and endangered species in New Zealand a space to restore.  Kiwi, tui, tuatara (a three-eyed lizard from age of dinosaurs), and takahe are some of the species protected there.  That evening, we were lucky enough to see two kiwi roaming around the park.   Kiwis have awful eyesight and use their beaks to sense vibrations and move about.  Often you hear them tapping away before seeing them.  I was told of a Maori legend that describes kiwi as old men using their canes to get home after a night of too much drinking.  Sure enough, Dave and I heard the tapping of the beak before seeing the kiwi emerge from the forest.

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New Zealand does so much work around conservation.  One of New Zealand’s goals is to be predator free by 2050.  Its been really inspiring to witness an entire nation supporting the protection and restoration of native species.  I have spent some time reflecting about my own relationship to the environment and where I am from.   I grew up on a small tributary of the Detroit River.  As a child, I remember doing a school project with a friend where we took photos of the creek and thought they were similar to Ansel Adam’s photos.  Our photos of the Ecorse Creek were beautiful, but definitely not in the same vein of Ansel Adams, but we believed that the Ecorse Creek was just as beautiful as Yosemite.  Gwen Frostic, a linoleum block carving artist, lived on the same street I grew up.  Her work is a celebration of nature and native Michigan species.  Despite the natural beauty of the area, it has been routinely polluted by local factories.   The block I grew up on is one of the only federal superfund sites in the state of Michigan due to arsenic and cyanide in the soil, leftover from when the land was a dump site.  Five miles from the house I grew up in, is the most polluted zip code in the United States (48217- whose toxicity score is more than 45 times the statewide average).  Steel plants, oil refineries, and abandon factories are peppered throughout our cityscape.  Its a place of contradictions; beautiful rivers and tributaries to our Great Lakes, large wetlands and coastal marshes with their unique flora and fauna, native species living among factory ruins, smoke stacks looming over neighborhoods, and bald eagles returning to the area for the first time since the 1960s only to nest in the power plant.  If you squint your eyes just enough, its beautiful.

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Conservation has nothing to do with my project or the work I do in schools.  The students I work with, however, are disproportionately impacted by pollution and the awful air quality of the area I grew up, live in, and teach in.  The area has some of the highest rate of youth respiratory problems in the United States, incredibly high rates of cancer, and a local parks have become dumping grounds for hazardous chemicals.  People refer to 48217 as a sacrifice zone.  I refuse to believe that my community, or any community, is a sacrifice zone, but I wonder where do we go with protecting and preserving the natural environment, when we are so far gone?  I look forward to returning home and finding ways to support environmental work being done in my area, which will manifest itself in my teaching as well.  I am thinking of adding a more in-depth environmental studies focus to my Transcendentalism unit and concluding it with a student led inquiry project about their own local environment.  My Fulbright experience has inspired me in many ways to become a better, more well rounded teacher.   Living in New Zealand has inspired me to become a better, more active citizen, particularly in regards to environmental conservation and justice.

For those of you reading in Michigan, what are your thoughts on the state of conservation?  Teachers, do you incorporate environmentalism into your curriculum?  If so, how?

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