Published in the Addison Independent
Editor's note: Jeff Inglis, a 1995 Middlebury College graduate and a reporter at The Addison Independent when not traveling, was in New Zealand for seven months of 1999 exploring life in small communities as part of a graduate degree program in journalism. He files this report on the struggles of a few small New Zealand communities (not unlike some in New England) to retain their cultural heritage in the face of growth and change, along with some commentary on the meaning of community.
Of all the signs, notices and posted messages I saw in seven months in New Zealand, only two truly demanded my attention.
The first was one the road leading into Waihi, a Maori village, home to some of New Zealand's indigenous people. It read, "Private village. Do not enter." The second was on the fence outside the home of prominent New Zealand author Keri Hulme: "If I don't know you, or you haven't already contacted me, please do not come in."
These signs, attempts to screen the outside world from community and personal refuges, intrigued me. The world is often described as "shrinking" as a result of invasions of technology into private lives. Furthermore, the space between the shrinking world and the expanding individual mind is lessening, leaving many people in modern societies - especially in smaller, more isolated communities - with a feeling that the world is encroaching on their lives, fracturing the cultural heritage, and causing what some call "the loss of community."
It often results in complaints over coffee or around the house. But I wondered why it had reached such a level of frustration that a physical "keep out" notice to the world was the next logical step?
Known for openness
New Zealand is a country mostly wide open to outsiders. It has an extensive network of hotels, backpackers' hostels, bed-and-breakfast places and campgrounds, all of which serve an international clientele year-round. These are spread throughout the country, as much in small towns as in the few big cities.
Free speech and a free press are as much priorities in New Zealand as in the United States. World hunger, the World Bank, and United Nations peacekeeping policies are topics on which everyone has an opinion. But it is New Zealand's "small-town feel" that New Zealanders perceive as most under threat.
As singer Christy Moore once said about a village in Ireland, "Everyone knew everyone, and everybody else as well."
But in New Zealand's small communities, as in little towns all over the world, change is slowly coming. Some things are constants, though, and are carefully guarded.
Neighborly trust is important, and often implicit. Growth is a concern. Weather is more than just a topic of idle conversation, but instead has dollar amounts hidden just below the surface. Too cold, and somebody's losing money. Too warm, and the neighbors are hurting.
Discussions of the inexorable change are cloaked in the language of war: The town's residents "defend" their territory (physical, emotional and intellectual) against "invading" ideas and people from elsewhere.
In Albert Town, Central Otago, in the South Island, the year-round residents were engaged in a series of interrelated disputes with the town's seasonal tourist population. In an inversion of the stereotypical conflict, the residents wanted paved roads and a tavern and shop to be built in a now-vacant lot. It was the visitors who didn't want these "extraneous amenities, incursions of modernization, to change their beloved vacation spot.
But nobody in Albert Town was suggesting they just cut themselves off from the outside the way Waihi and Hulme have tried to do. They had accepted that change would come and were trying to control it in what ways they could.
At a time when several of the town's residents were grandchildren of the town's founders, the plans for Albert Town in the 21st century were being laid.
Alison and Bruce Hebbard, the brother-and-sister team who were planning to build the Albert Town tavern and shop, saw their work as helping preserve the community. If they didn't bring business to Albert Town, Bruce Hebbard said, "It'll all go to Wanaka," the larger town nearby.
But the debate in Albert Town was very different from a similar discussion in Parihaka, an all-Maori village.
The Maori are New Zealand's native people. Albert Town is populated almost entirely by people of European descent, who tend to use decision-making processes involving bureaucratic-style mechanisms, like committees and councils, as is done in the United States.
But the Maori ideas about community are ones most Westerners would consider progressive. The Maori, and even "urban Maori" who have fled to cities, consider all family friends to be actual members of the family. One 9-year-old told me, "I have four fathers and five mums." She hadn't learned to count high enough for all of her aunts and uncles.
An increasing number of Maori are returning from the cities to the more rural villages where their parents and grandparents grew up, putting pressure on the available living and meeting areas.
I met a community architect from the University of Auckland who was helping Parihaka plan a little better. The architect and his students surveyed the village and helped the community choose locations which could host new houses or increased community meeting space.
The Parihaka "planning commission" was composed of every resident in town, including the children. These meetings would go on for entire days, broken only by eating, sleeping and prayer. Even the infants were present, though they - like many of the adults - would doze off for a time as conversation continued. The goal? Unanimity. Which did not mean everyone was happy at the end, but that everyone was only a little bit unhappy.
Parihaka's efforts, like Albert Town's, were aimed at keeping the village's heritage and traditions intact in the face of change they recognized as impossible to resist.
The Maori residents of Waihi, though, were reluctant to talk about their closed village. Nata, the village's spokesman, told me, "We don't tell people any more about the village than we have to."
The land itself, because of the vagaries of New Zealand land law regarding Maori ownership, is, in fact, private. The residents, like most Maori, live in regular houses like most people in the U.S., have running water and electricity, and speak English as a first language. But in Waihi, they value their privacy so much they use their special landowner status to protect their land and its culturally significant buildings and open spaces from any uninvited disturbance.
Keri Hulme's sign may be evidence of a reclusive author seeking to avoid public attention, but the effect, which cannot be ignored and certainly was not unintended, is to keep all outsiders away. She uses her own private land as a buffer against a world that might encroach on her existence.
As the far corners of the world get closer to small communities everywhere, the Waihi reaction may become more common. But it is not entirely a good idea.
Albert Town has accepted that change will come. The residents there are working to choose which parts of their town's character they are most concerned about protecting. In that process, they are also selecting those elements which they are less worried about losing.
Moira Fleming, secretary of the Albert Town Community Association, said they were effectively bargaining with their town's heritage. What they keep will be all the more valuable for the lost parts it represents. But they would rather lose some of it, Fleming said, than risk everything. It is a sad concept, but one which, the residents hope, will ensure Albert Town's participation in the wider community of New Zealand.
Waihi, on the other hand, has taken the extremist approach of "all or nothing." They may survive as a community, but one which risks being increasingly out of touch with the rest of the world, and, therefore, less able to share their wisdom with the rest of us. Their learning will be lost to the world, as long as it remains behind the sign outside the village.
That is the real loss of community.