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Updated: Jul 9, 2022

When I was a child growing up in Papatoetoe, New Zealand, most of the neighbourhood families had no cars, no televisions. We got where we wanted to go by 'push' bike.

Due to what most other countries would consider a remarkable geographical quirk, living in Papatoetoe meant that only a short bike ride would take me to the sea on the west coast of New Zealand, a slightly longer bike ride to the east coast.

During the long hot days of our summer holidays, my brothers and I would roll up our swimming togs in towels with a bottle of cordial, put them on our carriers and bike off to to the beach.

Our favourite was Buckland's Beach on the east coast. It had blue water, white sand, lots of other families for company, and a dairy to buy ice cream. Unfortunately, it was also quite a long bike ride on a very hot day.


Alternatively, we could bike the shorter journey to Wiri Beach on the west coast. Here we could be almost certain of having the beach to ourselves; there were no dairies for miles. We had to push our bikes across a farmer's paddock and the beach was really a mudflat; at high tide you could swim in the brownish water but as the tide went out it exposed a muddy, smelly, slimy sea floor riddled with crabs and other murky creatures; no white sand, no blue water, no dairies. We had to be desperate for a swim to use this beach.  

In later years the mud flats around Auckland began to disappear in the name of progress. Sometimes if the mud flats were near valuable residential or industrial areas they were filled and `reclaimed'. (Reclaimed from what, I wondered: weren’t they previously untouched preserves of the natural world? And how do we un-reclaim them today?).

In other places they were turned into marinas. Today some which remain are dotted with signs warning; “Pollution - do not take seafood, do not fish, do not bathe.”

It seems to me that some serious 'un-reclaiming' is called for ASAP.  

During my childhood years, most people saw the mud flats as being beaches that never quite made the grade. Then, slowly, environmentalists started to open our eyes to the consequences of this belief. Whilst our attention had been directed to saving the whales and the dolphins that were big, and appealing, and shared many human features that we could relate to, we were actually destroying an environment which was crucial to their very existence.  

Those unappealing mud flats - in what my son's science book told me was the `photic zone'- those mud flats were their larders: the crabs and phytoplankton and seaweed which flourished in the shallow, sunlit areas of the sea shore were the foundation of their food chain, the preservers of the health of their environment.

The mud flats, and the plants which colonised them, absorbed harmful chemicals and excess nutrients, filtered out sediment, and helped purify the rivers and oceans. This photic zone extending 100 metres from the shore is only a small percentage of the total ocean area but supports most of the life; it is only here that plants can grow and photosynthesise in the relative warmth and provide food for animal life.  

Today we are increasingly aware of the changes we are making to our fragile planet.

Previously people had been largely unaware of the place of lowly creatures like eels and whitebait. Today we have community conservation programmes dedicated to the vision of actively engaging schools, tangata whenua and community groups in restoration programmes throughout NZ. These provide support for all participating groups and schools, incorporating cutting edge environmental practices and education. In the process they gain a better understanding of the distribution of species, including pest fish species, and share knowledge about the effects of land-use practices on freshwater ecosystems. These strengthen the relationships between government departments, schools, community groups and tangata whenua.  

Reflecting on the neglect our society has contributed to the natural world parallels for me, the neglect paid to our families, and explains many of our most perplexing social issues like marriage breakdown, family violence, youth suicide, and recourse to chemical stimulants.

We are essentially spiritual beings, experiencing an earthly material existence. Until our materialistic western societies recognise that ‘spiritual’ takes precedence over ‘material’, until we become collectively spiritualised, for so long will these problems continue.  

“Compare the nations of the world to the members of a family. A family is a nation in miniature. Simply enlarge the circle of the household, and you have the nation. Enlarge the circle of nations, and you have all humanity. The conditions surrounding the family surround the nation. The happenings in the family are the happenings in the life of the nation. Would it add to the progress and advancement of a family if dissensions should arise among its members, all fighting, pillaging each other, jealous and revengeful of injury, seeking selfish advantage? Nay, this would be the cause of the effacement of progress and advancement. So it is in the great family of nations, for nations are but an aggregate of families.” - ‘Abdul-Baha

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