It was Christmas Day in Sumner, New Zealand, where I was spending the holidays with Tom and his family. Stuffed from an impressive morning spread, many members of our group decided to take a walk on a nearby trail that edges the spectacular Port Hills as they roll themselves steeply into the Pacific Ocean. The purpose of the walk was mostly just to enjoy the sunshine and prepare our slowing metabolisms for a second feast, but there was a secondary goal in mind: sighting a certain flightless bird native to this southern section of the world.
The day before we had been visited by neighbors known locally as experts on the outdoor recreational opportunities of the area. While I had been blown away by my last visit to New Zealand, there had been one sight on my list I had not been able to catch. On this second trip to the southern hemisphere, I was hopeful to see my first penguin in the wild.
I can’t remember who first brought up the topic of penguins with the friendly neighbors, but it came up, and they told us excitedly about a colony nearby. We could see the bay where they lived from the living room in which we gathered. With a pointed finger they explained to us that the fence and ladder placed on the side of the trail – a fence and ladder we had walked past many times before – would take us straight to the colony. They said they had visited the flightless birds just the weekend before, that there were chicks, that it was amazing. Of course we wanted to visit them ourselves.
So when we spotted the fence and ladder just off the trail on Christmas day, we thought we might as well check it out.
Look, I’m not a rule breaker. And when it comes to public lands, I’m especially obedient. After 4 years of working as a Ranger for the National Park Service, I understand the good reasons behind conservation efforts and the restrictions that sometimes need to be put in place. I always respect boundaries. I took my job as a steward of the land seriously, and as I carry on exploring this beautiful planet, I continue to see myself in that capacity – as a steward. I want to see and learn, yes, but I would never place that desire ahead of my authentic wish to protect and preserve. I would never knowingly do anything to harm a special place I’m visiting – especially as a guest to the country, as I was in this situation.
I say all of this so that you, single reader, understand, that I did think twice when I saw the tall, predator-proof fence. I considered it carefully. Later after some research I discovered the fence was placed there to keep out the penguins’ main predator: ferrets. But I considered its use as a safety barrier on that steep cliff as well, and, upon discovering that the door in the fence was unlocked, saw it just as much an access point as a deterrent. I looked carefully for signs before I passed through the open door. I promise you single reader: on this day, there were none.
In several of the National Parks I have worked in there have been sites and areas both open and closed to the public, and it has been my job to facilitate both those openings and closures. However, I also knew often of grey-area sites – classified as too fragile for frequent public visitation but not technically a prohibited area. These sites were usually unmarked so that the common visitor would not stumble upon them. But should a person do his research and inquire as to the specific location of the site, we Rangers were instructed to direct them. It occurred to me as I made my way down the steep stairs that this might be a place much like that.
There were no penguins along the rocky shoreline, and while we did stumble upon many numbered, man-made nesting sites, we found them all empty. At one point I saw a woman waving from a cliff above. I waved back.
A few minutes later a member of our party who had decided to stay behind after feeling uncomfortable with the steepness of the steps waved up to us. “You guys better get back here,” she called. We didn’t know what was up, but we were on our way back anyways, so we complied and hastened our ascent.
At the fence we found a middle-aged couple talking loudly at our companion who had stayed behind. I couldn’t immediately hear what they were saying but their postures and tone were clear enough: they were not friendly.
Almost immediately upon emerging through the (again, unlocked) door, the man of the duo accosted us loudly.
“So who’s the American then?” he said.
Apparently in her efforts to defuse the situation, our companion had told the couple the story of why we were here: they had a guest who came all the way from the U.S. and wanted to see penguins. They had heard we could see them here and so here we were. Somehow, according to these guys, that made this my fault.
When I identified myself the couple’s rage shifted immediately to me and only me, despite the fact that I had been led here by locals and that three other people had gone through the (ahem, unlocked) fence with me. They spent the next few minutes berating me for disrespecting local land and doing whatever I wanted since I wasn’t from here (ironic since later my companions shared that their accents identified the couple also as foreigners, though in the heat of the moment I did not pick up on that). They took pictures of me and asked what I thought the Doc would think about all of this.
“Do you even know who the Doc is?” the woman jeered meanly. I of course assumed that due to her use of the pronoun ‘who’, that the ‘Doc’ was in fact a doctor, and though I thought it was unfair that I was supposed to know who THE Doc was without an identifiable surname, I didn’t tell her that. I just told her that sorry, I didn’t know who the Doc was.
“THE DEPARTMENT OF CONSERVATION” she yelled. She got me on that one. Good one, I thought to myself, very mature. I’d like to say that I mentioned to her that I didn’t realize she had been speaking in acronyms, and while I’m quite sure I had that thought, I honestly don’t remember much of what I said to them except that I made a strained effort to do it all with a smile. That’s a trick I learned with unwieldy visitors in the park service – killing them with kindness usually worked.
We did point out to them that there were no signs and that the door was unlocked. They pointed out to us the height of the predator-proof fence. The conversation was going nowhere, so we left.
“Merry Christmas,” I told them, “Thank you for the warm welcome!”
I doubted myself the whole way back. Was I as horrible a person as they said I was? I knew their placement of the blame on me was unfair, and I’m used to meeting people hostile to Americans abroad. It’s funny, really, that those who hold so tightly to the idea that all Americans are ego-centric, ignorant, disrespectful morons make themselves seem pretty ego-centric, ignorant, disrespectful and moronic when they make that assertion. And hey, I’ve met a lot of Americans who are real assholes – so it’s not like there is no truth in what they’re saying. But my travels have taught me that assholes exist everywhere. And anyways, you tend to get what you put into the world, so if you treat someone like they’re an asshole, they’re probably going to react by playing the part.
But I did wonder if I had done harm to the site by poking around. I hadn’t touched a thing down on those rocks, but what if these strangers were right, and my visit to the other side of the fence did do some sort of damage – reversible or not, I would be horrified if that were the case.
On the other hand, if the site was so fragile, why build an access point and then leave the door open? Padlocks are not expensive. Why not, at the very least, put up a single sign?
No, I decided, I couldn’t find the wrong here.
As I cooled down, I reflected on the hostile couple. Hopefully, they meant well. It’s possible that they were on some sort of strange power kick and found enjoyment in making others feel small, or upset, or whatever they were going for. But maybe they just cared deeply for the animals we had gone to see, and got too caught up in their emotions to articulate themselves maturely. We’ve all had moments like that, right?
It occurred to me how differently that contact could have gone if they had approached us gently. I wondered what kind of knowledge we could have exchanged. If we were truly in the wrong, I would have felt awful, and would have happily followed any of their recommendations to correct my fault.
But really, the best thing they could have done if they truly cared for that special space would have been to start a campaign to get in touch with their good friend the Doc, and get a sign and a lock installed on that fence. A couple of signatures and a letter would have gone much further to solving the problem than screaming at a smiling foreigner.
I know all too well how infuriating it can be to watch someone disrespect a place you consider special. But attitudes don’t change with aggression. I can’t count the number of interactions I had with visitors who were violating closures, carving names into trees or rocks, or committing even worse acts of disrespect. But as I wrote years ago, when I approached them authoritatively with anger I got anger in response. When someone treats you rudely it’s easy to dismiss their point of view. Assuming the best of someone – even if they might not deserve it – tends to hold people way more accountable. I have found that the best way to be an effective steward of the land is with kindness.
So in an attempt to be a good steward, I will not disclose the location of the penguin colony we found empty that day. A quick google search revealed that there usually are penguins there – placed in that spot by a researcher some years ago, hence the man-made nesting boxes – and attempts are being made to place more colonies on that coast and to eventually set up viewing points for educational purposes. I found information about the access point on many websites – including the New Zealand Department of Conservation – which supports my original notion that our visit down the steps was probably pretty legal. In any case, I agree with our hostile pursuers in that it is a small site and probably couldn’t survive frequent tourist visits directly. And so I’ll leave it to be found only by those who want to visit badly enough to do their own research.