Winter in NYC

There is a moment when you become more settled into a new place, where it starts to feel a little bit more like home. The novelty has disappeared, and the camera certainly comes out less. For me, it is realising that I tend to take a trip into Manhattan for a particularly shop to visit or food to try, not just because the city is there to explore.

As you settle in, you forget about the little things – like updating your blog of the adventures you do have, and remembering to photograph the beautiful moments along the way. So as a brief update, and as the last was of Autumnal colours, a few photographs of a winter wonderland seemed fitting. More updates will come, I promise (and my darling Mum keeps gently reminding me to get on to it). I am currently on the job hunt after my work authorisation finally came through, and anticipating the arrival of my little brother for a visit in a couple of weeks.

Politically, 2017 has started a little painfully. I move between attempting to avoid and becoming increasingly infuriated by the situations that present themselves. It has been heartening to see people across the political spectrum stand firmly in opposition to attempts to erode legal rights, and my faith in the American system of government has been given a little boost. Ultimately, as the wise Jon Stewart stated just the other day, if America gets through the next four years relatively intact and with the constitution relatively unscathed, then it can be argued that American greatness has been proven. Till such time, well it is a game of wait and see.

For something lighter in tone, I leave you with the beauty of American commercialism at its finest. Valentine’s Day is coming up, and my local Target has spewed pink in this corner…

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This corner changes with each holiday, so it has been busy with Halloween, Thanksgiving and Christmas. Having not visited since the festive season, I am unsure how long it has been pink, but I am intrigued as to what comes next. Perhaps they go all green for St Patty’s? Then next it must Easter. I guess there is always a reason for themed chocolates!

 

 

It is time to do all the good you can. My reflection on a turning point in American politics.

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What else could I use other than a photo with Lady Liberty herself?

I need to preface this with clarifying that I am a cryer. If you have met my husband, you can only imagine how that would confound his analytical, rational brain. Whilst he confronts a problem head on and carefully weighs his response, I am far more likely to lose the plot, cry and occasionally throw a spoon… I cry when there is a cute ad on television, or a happy story about a puppy, I cry when I am angry, sad, or happy.

So with that noted, I do not think it takes much imagination to guess how election night played out in our house. Oh, did I rage, throw a spoon, make grandiose statements, and then cry. The next day, I cried a bit more and even today I got close to shedding a few more tears. On the flip side, Ashby represented a calmer reaction. I do not think he will mind me saying that he did not vote for either Trump or Clinton (on a policy basis rather than any personality aspects), and he is calmly waiting to see what happens before making judgement. I am less pragmatic.

The reaction in our house I think plays out some of the themes that are seen in the bigger picture of America’s reaction to the election. The divide between those who are (probably quite sensibly) waiting to see how this plays out, and those of us who are concerned about the sky falling tomorrow. This includes swing voters who have given Trump the benefit of the doubt. I live in a massive urban centre, that predominantly voted Democrat. For the most part, I engage with media outlets that see the world the same way, have interacted with people who share my views, and whilst I have tried to understand the other side, I have not been able to shake my anger enough to truly say I see where they are coming from. All of these aspects led into the tears I have shed for the future of this country and reflect the problems that have led to the split in American political discourse.

Honestly, my life here is pretty insular (a result of not being able to work while I wait for my immigration stuff to be sorted, and an introverted nature which sees me more likely to get lost in the fictional world than reality sometimes), and I have actually actively avoided political discussions with strangers. The reasons for this are multiple, but predominantly it is because I have very strong feelings but I do not feel it is my place to argue with Americans about how they feel regarding the state of the nation. I have struggled to separate rational discussion with a desire to shake people who I think are misguided. As a visitor, who has observed this country from some distance for many years, I still feel I need more time here to really get to the heart of the issues. To tell someone I think they are wrong, when I have yet to walk in their shoes, does not sit well with me and yet I cannot separate my contempt for what I hear with a rational appreciation for why it is being said. Perhaps this is a poor reflection on me, but I believe that in knowing one’s own weaknesses you gain strength over time. Try as I might, I cannot yet truly get into the headspace of someone who would vote Trump and as such I stand back. For me, this has been an ongoing internal battle, and thus I have removed myself from political debate for the time being.

However, while I choose not to debate I have been an active observer. My husband loves little more than a nitty gritty political discussion, and has a skill in getting to the heart of the issue. It is that rational, thoughtful brain of his. This has led to meeting some interesting characters as we crossed the US earlier this year. I have not argued, but I have listened to the views of people who I know will have voted for Trump. From a woman in Colorado Springs who was so angry about how easy it is to immigrate to America (she has clearly never seen the process first hand about how complicated it is, even when you are married to an American), to a man in Dallas who wanted a change from the horrors he believed the Obama administration had inflicted on his America. These were people on the ground, who would never have voted for a continuation of the status quo. In contrast, we chatted to a man when we visited the Arkansas State Capitol. He was a Republican who had worked with Mike Huckabee and was certain there was no chance that Trump would win. Even within a broader Republican base, the differences between those within the political system and those on the ground were stark.

That is where the pundits got it wrong ultimately. It is where I got it wrong. I have been convinced for many years that Hillary Clinton would be the next president. This was before she announced her run, and certainly before we saw who the Republicans would put up against her. I was confident on election night that I had called it correctly and the early data supported that. Her policies resonated with me, her fighting temperament and her commitment to doing good in the world meant a lot to me, and I believed that the time was right for a woman to take on the job. The polls were close, but the path for a Trump victory was so narrow I believed that the Clinton camp would succeed.

When the early results came in, I remained optimistic. From previous election nights, I knew the advantage usually went to the Republicans and then as urban centres came on board the Democrats came back into play. But the swing did not come. The anxiety started creeping up till I realised that it was done. This was not going to be our night.

Instead, it was the night of a large number of people in this country who feel overlooked. Their feelings are as real as mine. They are looking at a life where they feel they are worse off than their parents were. Where their country does not look like it used to. Politicians are easy to blame and in many cases it is a fair response. I believe Obama has been a great president, and I do think history will look at his administration as a good one. However, my beliefs are shaped as a left leaning New Zealander. We will see what future generations say, but maybe I am wrong.

Trump won for a host of reasons, he tapped into a part of America that feels they have been left behind. A vote for him was, for the most part, a vote against the status quo. I would argue that given his vagueness and sweeping statements, few could have truly voted for him. They are voting for their projections of what they hope an outsider can do (just as I am reacting based on my projections on what I fear he may do). It remains to be seen how his administration will play out. In most likelihood it will result in him either being impeached for something, or he will end up being a shadow of the man he was as he campaigned. His sweeping ideas are for the most part unrealistic and certainly unconstitutional. I suspect in two years the Democrats will take back congress and the government will stall again. It just remains to be seen what will happen in the next two years.

In the meantime I feel it is more prudent for me to take heart from the message of the Clinton campaign. This is not about conciliation, because I believe that what has happened is wrong and a move in a dangerous direction. I think that, whilst there is fairness in giving Trump the benefit of the doubt, the Democrats who are responsible for working as the opposition must now buckle down and fight harder than ever to make their voices heard. I often heard Clinton speak the words of her mother: “Do all the good you can, for all the people you can, in all the ways you can, as long as you can.” So for me, that is my new guiding light. In a time where fear had a victory, I want to fight back on the side of hope.

I miss NZ tonight

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I never really appreciated how wonderful it was to live on a tiny island so far from the rest of the world. Now I live on a tiny island in the heart of the world and it’s rather terrifying. I am working on a more thoughtful response to tonight, but for now I am just going to take a moment to think about how glad I am that I will always have a NZ passport in my pocket.

Journeys in America: The Grand Canyon, the mountain lion and wildlife corridors

It is impossible to grasp the scale of the Grand Canyon as you stand at one of the vantage points looking out. At about 433km long, and on average 18km wide, it is visible from space. But the Canyon itself is only one part of the National Park that surrounds it. The vast majority of the 4930 km² park is home to an array of wildlife. This includes the mountain lion.

One of the impressive aspects of America’s National Park Service is the emphasis placed on education. There are a range of programmes available for children, offering them a chance to learn about the environment that surrounds them. For the adults, there are talks on a variety of topics. When we visited the Grand Canyon, we went along to listen to an excellent talk: ‘God of Hunters: The Mountain Lion’ which was presented by one of the rangers at the park. The expectation was to learn more about the animal, yet this went well beyond that. From understanding the interaction of humans and nature, through to appreciating the beauty that is the mountain lion, I walked away feeling both informed and excited to learn more about the merging of nature and civilisation.

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First, some quick facts. The mountain lion is known by a multitude of names. You have heard of pumas, cougars and panthers as well? They are all the same animal: Puma concolor. The San Diego zoo website has a good summary about the mountain lion which is well worth a read. Perhaps most striking is its jumping stats. They can jump 5.5m from the ground into a tree, and they can jump 6.1m up or down a hillside. Yep, 6.1m – the height of many two story buildings.

The mountain lion is a striking predator, but the risk to humans is actually pretty minimal. For the most part, they simply stay away from humans where possible. Where the natural habitat has been impacted, there can be more interaction with people and their livestock. Unfortunately, there are fatal attacks on humans – normally children or lone adults – but the numbers are minimal. In a study of mountain lions in the Grand Canyon, they found that there was little evidence of the mountain lions venturing into the areas where humans were most prevalent. Instead, the cats stayed in the shadows and hunted elsewhere in the expansive park. Learning how to share the space is important; whilst there was a drive to eradicate the mountain lion, it is now understood that they play a crucial role in the North American ecosystem.

Two biologists from Oregon State University, William Ripple and Robert Beschta, study the impact of predators on the ecosystem. One of the intriguing aspects of their research for me is the demonstration of how removing predators can have unforeseen consequences lower down the food chain. In a study of Zion and Yosemite national parks, they found that the scarcity of predators (in this case the mountain lion) led to an increase in deer population. The consequence: a substantial decrease in biodiversity. This can be seen in the case of Zion Canyon, where the biologists report that:

Increases in human visitors in Zion Canyon apparently reduced cougar (Puma concolor) densities, which subsequently led to higher mule deer (Odocoileus hemionus) densities, higher browsing intensities and reduced recruitment of riparian cottonwood trees (Populus fremon- tii), increased bank erosion, and reductions in both terrestrial and aquatic species abundance.

That is, ecological change comes not only from changes at the bottom (where humans impact natural food sources etc), but can also be a result of altering the top of the food chain. Predators, such as the mountain lion in America, play an important role in maintaining ecological balance. Through continuing to understand them, we can learn how to live side by side with them.

So, the question looms over how to work with the mountain lion so that they can continue their role in ecosystem, whilst also reducing the fatal encounters with humans. One of the intriguing ideas presented at the ranger talk we attended was the concept of wildlife corridors. A big challenge for wild animals is the human alteration of the environment. When humans encroach into what has been a hunting ground for centuries, the consequences can be dire for the animals who called that home, and ultimately humans as well. Finding a middle ground allows for conserved space for the likes of the mountain lion to call home. There are large swaths of land that has been deemed public space in the United States and, as a result, conservation efforts have been able to reestablish populations of animals who were once struggling to maintain numbers. The mountain lion is not considered to be a threatened species, a result of a change of human ideas around the cat – from pest to an important part of the ecological system. (Also of note, mountain lions are a self regulating species – they are a cannibalistic animal, with older males in particular committing acts of infanticide. Their preference for isolation and large spaces means that they will control the population spread effectively.) However, there is still work to be done in ensuring their continued place within the ever-changing landscape.

The next stage is supporting the migratory patterns of animals throughout the American continent. Borrowing from ideas successfully implemented in Europe and Canada, there is a move towards implementing wildlife corridors. These allow for the safe passage of animals across major highways – which benefits both animals and humans through a reduction in collisions.

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A wildlife overpass on the Trans-Canada Highway in Banff National Park, British Columbia. The Park is a leader in highway mitigation, part of a 30-year-old initiative that has installed 44 crossing structures. Credit, Adam Ford, Highwaywilding.org

On our drive east, we were lucky enough to see a newly established wildlife crossing in action in Colorado. A long length of fence has been installed along both sides of the roadside, helping to corral animals into tunnels and over bridges – avoiding cars along a notorious stretch of road. It’s working too, within days the animals were safely crossing over or under the road.

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Wildlife crossing (credit: Colorado Parks & Wildlife)

One of the big disadvantages of this approach is the cost. Someone needs to be able to pay for these, and in a country with an awful lot of roads it is going to be astronomical to attempt to instigate wholesale change overnight. However, with ongoing discussion about the importance of improving the American infrastructure, there is surely space to consider the environmental impact alongside upgrades. Allowing space for American wildlife alongside the development of the American infrastructure will ultimately benefit everyone.

If you are interested, you can donate to the program (I’m not sure how this works outside of the US) to support these beautiful animals in the Grand Canyon. Details here.

The disappearing Lake Mead

 

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Lake Mead – note the waterline

There is nothing quite like driving through the desert to reinforce the importance of water to our understanding of civilisation. While nature has adapted ways of survival with minimal water, we have been driven by ways to control the environment so as to maintain our sense of civilisation. Not only do we need enough to drink to stay alive, we also have a host of other uses that quickly suck it up. We grow crops, shower daily, mop our floors and wash our dishes. Civilisation needs water, even in the desert.

As you drive through the desert there is an appreciation of how the spread of settlers across the American continent, and into the Wild West, meant there was a need to adapt their surroundings if civilisation was to be established. Over time, grand solutions have been found which allow humans to make their homes in the desert of the American southwest. However, this method can utilise, redirect or store the water that flows down – but it does not create it. For that, we need Mother Nature.

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Lake Mead in 1983 following record rainfall (By Bureau of Reclamation photographer)

I make no claim to be anything resembling a climate change expert. What I do know, is that travelling through California there was a lot of discussion around the drought conditions there. Visiting Lake Mead in Nevada highlighted to me how attempts to control water can only extend to manipulating its flow. The lake is manmade, formed by the Hoover Dam. The water in Lake Mead comes from the Rocky Mountains – snow falls, melts and then flows down the Colorado River. When the conditions change and less water flows down, then the water level at Lake Mead reduces. Since the year 2000, a persistent drought has hit the Colorado River, so the water level at Lake Mead continues to drop. This has impacted the electricity output from Hoover Dam. The impact of this is significant, and I thought this video offered an interesting insight into this.

Visually, the impact of dropping water levels is significant. This challenge is one for which a solution will need to be found if humans are going to continue to live in the desert of the American southwest.