Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Be A Tidy Kiwi

Okay, What Kind?
Okay, What Kind?
Originally uploaded by toastfloats.
As we clean up the breakfast dishes, my youngest admonishes me, "Be a tidy Kiwi, Mum."

First off… Mum? Second, what am I doing wrong now?

Aaron points at the pile of detritus from our meal making -- packaging plastic and paper, bits of vegetable ends. Rather than scooping them all into the rubbish bin, she shows me how to separate the bits into their appropriate recycling bins outside the campground kitchen.

I like to think of our family as environmentally aware. We are conscientious and do what we can to reduce our foot print on this planet. However, we are learning important lessons from New Zealand. This is a country in the grip of a recycling rage. A parallel -- and I believe largely unrelated -- movement involves removing every scrap of litter from every surface in every outdoor space throughout both islands. For these tasks, the Kiwis enlist an army of school children who are indoctrinated from birth to carefully sort their trash and are organized into brigades on a weekly basis to clean town, park, playground, street, and highway. After years of seeing the casually discarded and ubiquitous trash which mars every corner of Mexico, the absence of even so much as cigarette butts and bottle tops on the verge of highways is somewhat disconcerting.

Paradoxically to outsiders, the New Zealand opinion of its own environmental record appears highly critical… and perhaps with good reason. When the Pakehas came to this country, they found a land covered by dense forests of totara, kauri, and fern beneath which lay some of the most fertile ground in the world. So like good, white colonists on every continent, they leveled the place. It is very hard to find any of the original, native forests anywhere. As I said, this pattern is not so unusual. Look at the East coast of the United States, for example. I think what makes it harder for New Zealanders, however, is that this happened so recently. Pennsylvanians and New Yorkers can at least pretend it's not their fault -- those forests were largely gone before we hit the Civil War. We can't be responsible for something that happened 200 years ago… can we? But we on the Western coast of the United States can be more sympathetic to Pakehas who have pictures of their grandparents cutting down giant 3,000 year old kauri trees. There just isn't enough distance between the destruction of our old growth forests and our modern, environmental sensitivity. Short of planting out every cattle range and sheep grazing hill, there appears little to be done to recapture the islands as they existed 100 years ago, let alone 1,000 years ago before the fairly destructive arrival of the Maori wane.

Instead, it feels as though New Zealand is channeling its not inconsiderable energy into keeping everything very clean. This country has, without any exception or qualification, the cleanest toilets in the world. Okay, maybe the Japanese are cleaner… though maybe not. I find the signs on Japanese toilets so baffling I'm never sure I'm using them correctly. In parks, there are special dog-shaped trash cans into which you are instructed to put dog poo. One the of the most highly touted tourist attractions and number 86 on the Kiwi's Must See 101 list is the Hundertwasser public toilets in Kawakawa. The towns and countryside are littered with the high-tech and fancy toilets which Seattle debated for years. Every toilet we've visited is antiseptically clean with no graffiti other than a confetti of government signs encouraging hand washing, counter wiping, and self-policing of rubbish.

My tidy Kiwi kids are already infected with this passion for cleanliness… for the most part. Jaime's bed area still looks like a tornado hit it, and the girls routinely drape wet towels, stinky socks, and dubiously clean clothing on every surface of the house unless I yell at them. Repeatedly. Constantly. Repetitively. Redundantly. Again and again. So they haven't completely adopted the New Zealand passion for cleanliness inside, but they have absorbed the message for the outside world. Slowly but surely, they are transforming the overgrown lawn and beds of Chicken House, replacing the weeds with edible landscaping in the form of winter greens, beans, and clover.

They are also starting to sound strange. "Do I really need this lecture from you, girls?"

*snort* "Wut eh vuh, mum..."

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