Introduction

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Hi there,

Welcome to my blog, and thank you for visiting :-). I’m not sure how this will go as while I enjoy keeping personal records I’ve never done it in such a public way. I’ve created this blog with the aim of sharing and exploring adventures, experiences and passions close to my heart. I’m hoping it will give any readers something they can take away for themselves whether it be inspiration, ideas, awareness, new perspective, or simply just enjoyment from reading the posts.

Firstly, my name is Samantha. I’m 26 years old and living Auckland, New Zealand. I was born and raised here, and I know New Zealand will always be home no matter where I may find myself. Since I can remember I have enjoyed the company of critters great and small. I have a Bachelor’s degree in Applied Science (Wildlife Management and Animal Welfare), and I have always strived to work in some animal field or other from shelters to zoos to rehabilitation centres to veterinary hospitals.

When it comes to ‘To Do’ lists of experiences, I have two or three. There is the bucket list of things to do in my lifetime – things like visit Antarctica, go on a hot air balloon ride in Europe, see a soccer match in an English stadium – and then there is the list of things I want to achieve sooner rather than later. The latter is a list that came into fruition not too long ago and focuses mainly on exploring the things I am most passionate about – wildlife and their conservation and welfare.

Since I was little, non-human animals have been my fascination and main interest. I grew up in a house backing onto a reserve in the suburbs, and we’d always be out feeding the ducks and other birds. One thing I learnt more and more as I grew up is that animals cannot speak for themselves. Like human babies, they are dependent upon others to stand up for their welfare when it is in question. Animals have all levels of intelligence and a lot of the time I think it is forgotten how sentient they really are. We all have complex nervous systems, different methods of reproduction, brains of various sizes and function, and unique designs that give us the ability to fit into certain ecosystems. Different species work into different niches and through all these connections thus life on earth progresses. We are all important to each other in some way.

As species have niches in different ecosystems, another thing I have learnt ‘growing up’ is that as individuals we are encouraged to find our own personal niche too. I think this can be a struggle in different ways for different people – there is so much to be passionate about, but sometimes people are unable to follow their passions, or they spend their life without one. I find myself drawn to people who care about what happens to the world and who strive to personally contribute something positive. I talk about it often with a friend of mine who views the earth as doomed/a ticking time bomb. She gets exasperated because she sees there is just so much to do; human rights, individual and species health, ecosystem wellbeing, the environment in general – these are examples of things I care about too, and it is easy to feel overwhelmed by it all. But I’ve decided that the best thing to do is stick with the things you feel most strongly about. There is so much I want to do, but sometimes you just have to take it one step at a time, and prioritise and plan where need be. With our individuality and uniqueness we thus have individual and unique passions, and I really do feel that if each person contributed something to an issue they felt strongly about, the world would be better off.

So I suppose that is why I have set up this blog; to be able to recount and set up journeys of contributing to and exploring things that matter to me. I’m grateful to anyone who takes the time to read it, and hope it encourages others to share and think about their own journeys and adventures. My latest expedition was in Thailand where I volunteered at an elephant rescue centre for some time, and I am currently in the USA working with the arctic wolves I did an internship a few years ago – keep an eye on the blog for updates!

Sam.

Note: All the photographs used in this blog are my own unless otherwise stated. If you would like to use them please be polite and contact me for permission. :)

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White wolf free spirit

America – Wolves: 2010

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Thailand - Elephants: 2013

Thailand – Elephants: 2013

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Articles and my writing have been published with permission at:
– Foundation, for the Adoption, Sponsorship and Defence of Animals: Responsible Tourism blog; see article here.

Donations

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I am currently fundraising for next year’s trip to the Sepilok Orang-utan Rehabilitation Centre in the forests of Borneo where I will be spending several months caring for resident rescued animals – mainly orphaned orang-utans, but the Centre also cares for other primates, bears, rhinoceros and the occasional elephant. Most animals at the Centre have been brought in after being affected by illegal logging, deforestation, the black market and wildlife pet trade. Countless animals lose their habitats and quality of life due to these industries, and I aim to make a difference to those that I can. Many rescue establishments such as SORC require donations to ensure they are bringing truly passionate people on board – this is also one of the only ways they receive funding. As part of my excursion there next year I have been asked to pay a donation, which will go directly towards the health and welfare of the animals in SORC’s care, but also to my food and accommodation during my months in the forest. If you would like to help support my journey I would greatly appreciate it – it is a wonderful way to support a worthy cause. You can visit www.orangutan-appeal.org.uk/about-us/sepilok-rehabilitation-centre for more information on the Centre.

To donate, please see my Givealittle page:
www.givealittle.co.nz/cause/orangutanconservation

Donation thank you’s for current and past fundraising efforts are including in the comments section of this post. Thank you also to all those who support me and my work by visiting and reading this blog!!

Sam.

America – Wolves: An introduction to the rancher vs. wolves controversey

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When I was younger and developing this obscure passion for creatures I had never even seen with my own eyes, I began to recognise that wolves certainly were a hated species by many. To this day they get some extremely bad press – just look at the resent film ‘The Grey‘. Despite any good exposure wolves may get, the bad always seems to outweigh it. Fairy-tales like Three Little Pigs, Little Red Ridinghood and Peter and the Wolf portray the ‘bad’ character as a big, scary, intimidating wolf. Tuck your children into their beds tightly, or else the scheming, evil wolf will come to gobble them up in the dead of night.
The reality? Wolves aren’t man-hunting, merciless killers. They don’t catch the scent of a human and track him for mile and miles, psychologically terrorizing him as they do so. They are naturally shy, cautious creatures. Aggressive? No. Not unless you corner one and take away its preferred option of ‘flight’ as opposed to ‘fight’. I can guarantee most stories you hear about a “wolf attack” will actually be based on a wolf-dog hybrid (which have far less ‘fear’ of humans than pure wild wolves do), a captive animal, or a diseased, starving or threatened wild animal – not a healthy, unprovoked wild wolf. The only recorded cases of wild wolves killing a human in North America were in 2005 (Saskatchewan, Canada) and 2010 (Alaska, USA), and I will add more information to the blog about these events at a later date.

So, you see, all of this fuss about the “big, bad wolf” is actually misguided urban legend. And yet, when most unfamiliar people think of wolves, they automatically associate the creatures with something aggressive and to be feared. Shouldn’t we be over this by now? There is more than enough information to liken the wolf to a cautious, shy traveler who takes only what he needs, yet we still insist on portraying them as ruthless, terrifying, greedy monsters.
One group of people who generally see themselves as ‘against’ wolves, so to speak, are ranchers. In many states of the USA, agriculture is a high-grossing industry. Where I’m from (New Zealand) our agricultural industries are a huge part of our national economy, and we are the world’s largest dairy and sheep meat exporter. Our ecosystems, however, are very different to those of places such as the United States. We have no native large mammalian land carnivores, thus our livestock is generally free to graze without the pressures of such (although domestic dogs and the like – introduced species, of course – have been known to injure and even kill livestock occasionally).
One of the things I find most fascinating about the USA is it’s incredibly diverse wildlife. While New Zealand’s only native land mammals are bats (the long-tailed bat and the short-tailed bat), the United States has countless. These species range from tiny, hibernating herbivores to large apex predators. The wolf is one such native predator, and their populations were surviving until humans declared war on all wolves in the lower 48 states (“the lower 48″ refers to the continental states of the USA excluding Alaska). They were very successful, and brought indigenous wolf numbers down from a potential +400,000 pre-European settlement, to less than about 500 animals in the whole of the lower 48 states in the 1960’s. Years later, legislation changed and wolves were listen on the 1973 Endangered Species Act, and were slowly reintroduced to certain areas with incredibly ecosystem-beneficial results (I will go into this in more depth in further posts). You may have heard of documentaries such as How Wolves Change Rivers’ – information like this is now being shared in the mainstream population, and is helping the general Joe Bloggs to start understanding the principle that indigenous species are all important to their natural habitats in some way.

“Livestock”, as defined by the United States Department of Agriculture, can be “Any cattle, sheep, goats, swine, poultry, equine animals used for food or in the production of food, fiber, feed, or other agricultural-based consumer products; wild or domesticated game” – meaning ‘livestock’ does not only refer to cattle, but can also refer to sheep, poultry and game such as deer. In the USA, livestock is grazed on 155 million acres of public land annually – this comes from a total of 245 million acres of public land in the whole of the United States. (Note that neither of these figures reflect privately-owned land.) Public land, of course, is land that is not owned by any one private entity, and encompasses thousands and thousands of different ecosystems. These ecosystems are home to innumerable species, and many do of course act as natural habitats for predators. Predators aren’t just generically big ‘ol scary beasties, but include animals like the Bald Eagle and Trapdoor Spider; creatures that are more or less only a danger to smaller species. The big ‘Rancher vs. Wolf’ controversy has historically come from livestock owners believing that their financially-viable animals get killed off by wild wolves. They would prefer wolves to be nowhere near grazing sites – that is if they have to be kept around at all. It’s a tricky situation. Economics make the western world go round, and any threat to economics is one that tends to be disposed of swiftly.
Wolves are natural-born carnivores, who spend much of their time sourcing meals. But it isn’t an easy picnic in the park for them; wolves only make successful kills an estimated 10-20% of the time, and commonly get injured in the process. The hunt is often a long, tasking process that requires the involvement of multiple pack members. The wolf’s diet consists of 100% fresh prey, but they can also digest plant material if need be (i.e. in times of prey scarcity). They have also been known to survive for months entirely on human leftovers and trash when they are desperate – but is this the best diet for them? Absolutely not! Fresh prey is their #1 choice. Interestingly enough, when given the option between wild prey such as elk or deer, and domestic prey such as livestock, studies have shown that they tend to select the wild option when they can. We, as humans, are of course encroaching further and further into natural animal habitat. Grazing livestock through public land is an example of this – livestock has even been grazed through known wolf denning sites. Some US states have Wolf Depredation Compensation Programs, where livestock owners will be reimbursed for livestock losses due to wolves. In 2005 the USDA National Wildlife Research Center and Utah State University published an article reporting that of all annual losses of cattle and calves due to predation in the USA in 2000, less than 1.1% of kills could be attributed to wolves. Most livestock attacks are actually carried out by coyotes and domestic dogs. And yet, in this ‘Lines of Defense: Coping with Predators in the Rocky Mountain Range’ article, much of the publication was focused on deterring wolves. It absolutely blows my mind that despite accurately reported statistical facts and figures showing wolves aren’t as much of a threat as they are made out to be, they are still incredibly persecuted. I have heard the term “shoot, shovel and shut up” on more than one occasion, where people just can’t be bothered going through the appropriate legal avenues and decide to take matters into their own hands.
As I said, New Zealand doesn’t have such an issue with livestock predation as is seen in many other countries, but turning wolves into a scapegoat just isn’t valid. In fact, so much counter-evidence exists to show that not only are wolves less of a threat than they are made out to be, but they also actually positively benefit their natural ecosystems, shouldn’t we by now be carrying out actions with this education in mind? I think for some people on both sides of the ‘Rancher vs. Wolf’ debate it has just become overly emotional and is almost impossible to cease. This is incredibly unfortunate because the result is one extremely ecologically-important animal that is constantly prosecuted, and its populations do not have secure time to be stable. Someone said to me the other day that it is “Survival of the fittest”. Does that mean we have the right to kill off every species on our planet unless it economically benefits us? I know where I stand on this thought, and I suppose a lot of it comes down to personal belief and ethical view. There are many non-lethal predator control methods, which I shall explore here at a later date, but for many ranchers it is more convenient to do as they have done in the past instead of attempting to co-exist with natural, native predators.

Sam.

PS – Ironically enough, as Lois (White Wolf Sanctuary director) points out, this rescue center goes through hundreds of dollars worth of meat for the wolves a week – she jokes that we’re one of agriculture’s biggest customers!

America – The Wolves of WWS: Archidamus and Tamahawk

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Archidamus timber wolf White Wolf Sanctuary blameitonmywildheartblog

Archidamus: Timber Wolf, male, 2.5 years

Tamahawk arctic wolf White Wolf Sanctuary blameitonmywildheartblog

Tamahawk: Arctic Wolf, female, 7.5 years

I first met Tamahawk in the summer of 2010. She was the smallest arctic wolf I had seen, and to this day she remains the most petite arctic wolf that Lois (WWS director) has ever encountered. When I first arrived at the White Wolf Sanctuary, Tamahawk had only been there for three months. She had been paired with a big old guy, Odot, and despite their age difference she really asserted herself. Odot sadly pssed away in 2013, and this left Tamahawk without a mate.
Tamahawk had a very rough start to life. She had been kept as a ‘pet’ by some people in another state, chained up in their backyard. One thing Lois learnt early on is that neighbours can see the end of a place that houses wild animals – Tamahaw’s previous ‘owners’ were also forced to realise this. When their little wolf would howl, as is natural for the species, they would receive complaints from the neighbours. So what did they do? You can probably think of a hundred and one more ethical solutions – but they decided to tape her muzzle shut.
Having a taped muzzle, of course, means normal, imperative things such as eating, drinking and breathing become extremely difficult. This is very likely why Tamahawk is so small; she was physically unable to take in all of her body’s requirements.
Tamahawk wolf short tail White Wolf Sanctuary blameitonmywildheartblogFinally, she was shipped off to a captive establishment in Idaho where, unfortunately, she was not given ample introductory time with the resident wolves, and on being thrown in with strangers she was severely injured. This girl only has half a tail – the other torn-up half had to be amputated after this incident. Luckily, Lois was contacted, and four years ago Tamahawk found her way to a far happier life at the White Wolf Sanctuary.
Despite all of this, Tamahawk is by no means a humble creature. She gallops around, bowling over her habitat-mate and smiling mischievously as she does so. When she urinates, she does not do so as a dainty female of her kind might; she lifts her leg high like an alpha. At feeding time it is not uncommon for her to hog all of poor Archidamus’ food, and I have fond memories of her taking the biggest, heaviest bone she could find and parading it around triumphantly for all to see. She is affectionately known by staff as the “Party Girl”; at about 3pm every afternoon, even on the hottest, laziest of days, you can be certain that Tamahawk will attempt to rouse everyone with a long, loud chorus of howls.

Archidamus keeps up with her sprightly nature well. They make a real pair. I was incredibly surprised to find out that Lois had taken a timber wolf on – for years and years she had been adamant that WWS would strictly house arctics only. It is truly due to extremely unique circumstance that Lois took him in – it makes quite a contrast seeing him and arctic Tamahawk together, which in itself has been great for educational purposes in regards to tour groups being given the opportunity to appreciate the diversity between the two.
Archidamus is not like the others when it comes to friendliness towards strangers. He has been at the Sanctuary for about a year, and as with any rescue animal it is hard to ascertain what exactly life was like before his arrival here. Archidamus had, like Tamahawk, been held in someone’s backyard, and he kept breaking his tether to escape to a nearby property. Who knows how he was treated during this first portion of his life, but he certainly does not have the trusting nature of some of the other wolves at WWS.
Unfortunately, I have to be very careful around Archidamus now. On the final night of my first week back, Lois and I were out at dusk to feed the wolves. Feeding must be done just before dark to avoid ravens scavenging the food, but while it is still light enough to see. With the other wolves, Lois can go in to their habitats to place food around while a second person ‘spots’ – basically watches outside for signs of trouble (usually “trouble” means a wolf potentially overpowering Lois with affectionate kisses). Tamahawk, however, can be tricky to deal with at meal times; she is very dominant and food-possessive, which could lead to a potentially dangerous situation.
On this particular evening, Tamahawk and Archidamus were not in the most suitable habitat for feeding. It was a fairly high-stress situation, and having food involved can always make things a bit more tricky. Long story short, Archidamus got spooked when I was opening the gate through to their food, and I had to swiftly move away. He stalked me from his habitat as I walked back to the visitor’s cabin.
Admittedly, I went home in tears. One simple action can change a wolf’s behaviour and personality forever, and I was indescribably mortified that I might have been a part of such a situation for Archidamus. Because the whole purpose of WWS is to give the wolves a burden-free, happy life, I was irrationally considering not coming back. If he was going to be nervous or stressed in my presence, I did not think I should be here.
Archidamus is, however, a “funny guy” (as Lois describes). He is cautious with several people – unfortunately now I just happen to be on that list. We have been taking things carefully with him and me; I gave him a few days where I would not go near his habitat at all, and since then we make sure I am around someone he really trusts if I am going in his direction to fill water bowls etc. I haven’t forced anything, and he is definitely better around me now, which is great. I have learnt that it isn’t unlike him to be wary with people, and Lois kept telling me not to take it personally. “They’re wild animals. It could happen to anyone – it just happened to be you.”

I do know that I let myself fall into an area of trust with the wolves. When I was working with the elephants in Thailand last year, I was somewhat sad to find that they were very different when I compared them to the wolves; while I remembered the wolves as being quite forgiving despite possible past mistreatment, the elephants seemed to harbour more bitterness. After I accepted this, I no longer took it personally if an elephant shoved or charged me. With the wolves, however, I think I was convinced I could befriend them all, and didn’t consider a less-than-positive outcome for too long. It has been a good lesson, though; it brings you back down to earth, in a way. A lot of people want to work with animals for the “cute and cuddly” time – that’s not what it’s about, though. It’s about doing what is best for them. I admire people who do work that doesn’t necessarily generate gratitude or recognition. That truly is selfless.
Tamahawk arctic wolf White Wolf Sanctuary blameitonmywildheartblog
Sam.

www.whitewolfsanctuary.com

America – Wolves: First Greetings

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Written on Monday 8th September

It definitely felt a little intimidating coming back to the White Wolf Sanctuary after several years – the more I got in touch with the centre the more I realised several different people were replying to my emails and phone calls; new names and voices. In the earlier stages of planning this trip I remember trying to figure out how many staff members were now involved in WWS – back when I first visited in 2010 there were a few of us, but I was really the only full-timer there for the three months of my internship.
The day after I flew in to Eugene, Oregon and got settled into my abode at Waldport, I bought a $5.00 ‘burner’ cellphone and called the Sanctuary asking what time they would like me there the following morning to start. Lois (Sanctuary director) wasn’t near the phone so I spoke to a girl name Elle who has been working and living here full time for the last few months. She said that they had so many people coming in the next day I wasn’t really needed. This was, of course, bittersweet for me – in that I was really excited for the Sanctuary having so many helpers, but of course I was wanting to come and greet everyone as soon as possible. The day off, however, ended up being greatly appreciated, and I caught up on a bit of work I needed to get done for my day job back in New Zealand, plus I managed to explore some of the local area.

Finally, Friday morning I headed back out to Tidewater through the Siuslaw National Forest. I turned in to the private driveway of the Sanctuary, somehow remembered how to open the forestry gate, and headed up the mountainside.

It was just as I remembered. You head up a dusty, gravelled dirt road that winds its way around a mountain for two miles. The forest utterly surrounds you, aside from the bare, dry patches of land where clear-cutting has occurred. Back when I was up here in 2010 there had been a particularly steep portion of road that would see many cars sliding backwards, so I was a little worried about how my rental vehicle would manage it, but the road has been improved since and the car made it up just fine.

You have no idea of the very many emotions that were bubbling through my little body as I drove up the forestry road. Nostalgia hit me in full force when I passed through a second gate which still has “NO HUNTING” signs plastered all over it and an American flag hanging high above. In front of me was the green cabin that Lois’ mother had lived in before Lois arranged for a pre-built house to be brought up the mountain in three ginormous pieces. The little cabin is now fondly known as the “Howliday Inn”, and functions as accommodation for staff and/or volunteers who do not live in the immediate area. Unfortunately when I had organised to come back to the Sanctuary the Inn was already full, but there have since been some staffing changes so I may be able to stay there after all.
The house that had been brought up in three massive pieces four years ago now sits comfortably up the top of the mountain overlooking what has come to be known as the Visitor’s Cabin (which served as Lois’ place of residence before the new house was built). As I came closer and closer to the house, wolf-proof fences ran alongside me and I drew in my breath as I spotted two fluffy white bodies trotting through the trees. There was a small line of cars near the new house, so I parked alongside the others and wandered over to Lois’ door. She opened it before I got there, and greeted me with a big hug. It was simply surreal being back.

In the last four years, five of the ten wolves I grew to know have passed away, and five new creatures have been lucky enough to be placed at WWS. The first fellow I met this time around was a strapping Tundra wolf named Goliath. He is ten years old and his habitat-mate is a beautiful 15-year-old lass named Hope. As soon as I had gotten out of my car Goliath raced down to the fence to “check me out”, according to Lois, and while Hope is generally reserved she also came down to greet me and even planted delicate elderly wolfie kisses all over my face. It was such a delight. I know that it was nowhere near as intimidating as the first time I ever, ever met a wolf, but I still had the ‘Are they going to like me?’ worry.

The real ‘test’, however, came at the end of the day after the jobs were done and the wolves had had a long rest in the shade. The whole point of working with the Sanctuary is to give the wolves the best life possible, so, for example, if the animals are sleeping we do not go and wake them up unless it is absolutely necessary. Friday had been a very hot day up the mountain – not a cloud in the sky – and the wolves were completely stretched out in deep resting mode. I had worked around them, doing chores and cleaning enclosures and such, but because they had been sleeping I hadn’t yet had a chance to say hello to Tamahawk, Nike, Sakarri, Modoc or Tehalin – the five wolves that I had bonded with during my 2010 internship.

Lois long ago said that once wolves get your scent they will remember you forever. I was so very nervous that having me come back after four years would throw this theory out of the window. I have told you about the precious, quiet moments I used to have with Tehalin in particular; how we could sit for hours in each other’s company – I feared that despite all the strong memories I myself have of those times, he would treat me like a stranger.
Sakarri and Modoc were the first to say hello – on this day they were in the habitat closest to the Visitor’s Cabin where I had spent a lot of the day. Elle went along with me to see how the greetings went. Sakarri’s name means “Sweet” in Inuit, and there isn’t a better description for her; she scampered up to the fence all smiles as I approached, and lifted a little paw in the air – an indication of her excitement. Modoc – often shy – also ambled over to greet me. It was just lovely, as if there had hardly been any time between now and when I last saw them.
After Elle and I gave Sakarri and Modoc some cuddles through the fence, we then headed down the driveway to finally see Nike and Tehalin. You can’t, of course, take anything animal-related personally, but I found myself fearing Tehalin’s rejection! It was odd knowing I had thought about and missed this creature every single day, but I may have to start all over again with him.

However, my worries were for naught.

Nike and Tehalin were pacing back and forwards along their fenceline excitedly, whimpering loudly with their eyes on Elle and me as we approached. You must be sure in your actions when you approach the wolves; being too slow and cautious can make it seem as though you are stalking them, and of course running over to them would scare or overexcite them, so I tried to compose myself as much as possible even though my heart felt as though it was beating out of my chest. Nike’s beautiful, lean white body was just as I had remembered, and Tehalin gazed at me with those incredible eyes of his, framed with yellow-tinged fluffy arctic fur.

Darling Tehalin

Tehalin

I got to their fence, and knelt down. It was such a gorgeous reunion – the pair smothered my face in slobbery kisses, whimpering excitedly, pressing themselves against the fence to be scratched. It took a long while for them to calm down – this was no ordinary greeting, as they would behave with a stranger. Who can say what they were thinking, but it was so good to know that they at least recognised something familiar about me.

Greeting Tamahawk was a little bit different – she has always been a sprightly wee thing, and now has this incredibly stunning habitat-mate named Archidamus. Archidamus is actually a timber wolf, not an arctic wolf, but I will share his story with you another time. Tamahawk is now seven years old, and Archidamus is only two, so you may think he would have her on the run sometimes – but this is certainly not the case! Tamahawk didn’t greet me as a stranger, but her mind is always working at a million miles an hour so she was quite happy to run off and play after a shorter get-together.

In summary? Wolves do remember, and it feels like home to be back again.

Sam.
www.whitewolfsanctuary.com

America – Wolves: The Journey Here

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I am finally back.

It has taken four years, but I found my way back to beautiful coastal Oregon and those incredible white wolves. I have just spent my first couple of days up at the Sanctuary, and I can’t describe how wonderful it has been to see those gorgeous, feisty, playful, regal creatures again. I met new, ruffled faces and greeted old friends – I was nervous at first, of course, because I had no idea if the wolves I bonded with last time would remember me or not… but it certainly seemed that they knew. Darling Sakarri smothered my face in kisses, as did Modoc, Nike and finally Tehalin as I greeted them one by one. With Nike and Tehalin it just felt like old times; she ran around being her crazy self, and Tehalin carefully sat down next to the fence, lifted one big beautiful paw and gazed at me sideways as I gave him a cuddle.

As always, the flight from Auckland was a long one – and I had a fellow sitting next to me who kept throwing up in his chair yet simply refused to go to the bathroom. That definitely put me off my food. Just an airplane etiquette note: if you are sick on a lengthy flight, better to get people out of their seats so you can go to the restroom as opposed to making them also want to be sick by staying where you are! Thankfully on the other side of me was a friendly American chap who kept me distracted for most of the flight – I think I even managed to explain LARPing without completely scaring him away from the idea of it!
I had a few hours at the San Francisco airport where I thought I would get rather bored waiting for the next plane, but the Immigration/Customs line was so incredibly huge that it took over two hours for me to clear it. I only had enough time to get my bag, check it on to the connecting flight, wolf down some food and get myself through the security check to locate the correct gate I’d be heading through next.
The flight from San Francisco to Eugene was nice and short – about an hour or so – and by the time I reached Oregon it was roughly 6pm Tuesday (local time). I had left Auckland at about 7pm Tuesday (New Zealand time), so the odd jump back-in-time just blew my mind! Time-zones never fail to confuse me! My plan was to meet up with a friend I had met the last time I was in the United States. Back in 2010 I had been staying in a beautiful seaside motel called Ocean Haven. Ocean Haven sits between the towns of Florence and Yachats on the Oregon coast, and once a week at least for this summer internship I would head into a restaurant called the Drift Inn for dinner – it soon became one of my favourite places to visit; it was bright and vibrant, with delicious food, super friendly staff and regular live local music. I met the daughter of the current owner of the place, and while we didn’t hang out a lot back then she actually ended up coming to flat with me for a few months when she visited New Zealand not too long ago. She incredibly kindly offered her place to me as a temporary home for this little stint of WWS work, and so after my flight to Eugene a few nights ago I picked up my rental car from the airport, and made my way to Yachats to see her.

Or so I had hoped. I was actually making my way to everything opposite the direction of Yachats. The rental car kiosk at Eugene Airport hadn’t had any maps for sale, and hiring a GPS every day for a month was absolutely impossible for my already limited funds, so I tried to convince myself I would be fine if I followed the large road signs along the highway. It worked for about twenty minutes until I realised I had taken a wrong turn somewhere and had to stop for directions and retrace my steps.
I knew I had finally made it when I pulled into the town of Florence, a place I had spent a little bit of time in during my last few weeks of that 2010 internship. By this time it was dark – after 8:30pm – and I didn’t recognise most of the buildings, but as I drove along every now and then a sign would pop up that made me realise “I’m here.” The dunes… Sutton Lake…  the Seal Lion Caves… Heceta Head Lighthouse… Ocean Haven… Soon I arrived at Yachats – I was so tired having left Auckland almost 20 hours earlier, and I’d encountered all sorts of random situations that kept my anxiety levels pumping, but I had made it!
I almost fell into the Drift Inn, and was elated to see the cute and quirky trinkets for sale, mermaid murals on the walls and upside-down parasols still there to behold as they had been for the duration of my last visit those four years ago. My friend greeted me with a warm, welcoming hug in between serving customers, she made sure I got some dinner into me (by this stage the off-putting events from that first flight were not offending my appetite any more), and then I followed her back to her house near the Alsea River.

The next two days I had free before going to work at the White Wolf Sanctuary on Friday. I spent these free days exploring, re-familiarising myself with beloved spots up and down the coast, and spending time with new and old friends. That first night in the Drift Inn my girlfriend and I met a couple of lovely lads from Kansas who were visiting Yachats for a family reunion.  We caught up with them the next few nights until they went home on Friday, and had a real blast while they were here. They told us all about their quaint agricultural town back in Kansas, taught us line dancing (so much fun!), showed us photos of their farm and dogs, and listened to strange New Zealand phrases without laughing at my accent. The night before last my girlfriend took a small group of us to a beautiful, almost secret waterhole up the Alsea River. It was almost 9pm by the time we got there, and I was very apprehensive at the thought of swimming being the lean little thing that I am. We manoeuvred down a thin dirt track strewn across rocks and winding between black trees, and found ourselves at a sandy bank. I couldn’t see well in the dark, but a white tarpaulin shone in the moonlight with a bucket of water next to it – a waterslide into the river!
I can only describe it as a magical night – aside from the sobering cold of the river that is, which was apparently relatively warm (I’m simply a wuss)! The five of us swam to the other side of the river where we then had a beautiful view of the bright, glowing moon. A cradle of whispering trees surrounded us, which I knew stretched all over mountains in every direction. It was peaceful, and quiet. One of the other lads in the group, another of the Drift Inn staff, told us that if we stood still enough the fish would come to nibble at debris on our feet. We thoughtfully sat in the river, pointing out star constellations and simply admiring the beauty of the landscape around us. I hadn’t started back with the wolves at this point yet, but I realised that I had already found the Silence I have been waiting for.

It has only been a few days but I already know that this will be a completely different experience to when I was last on the Oregon coast. In 2010 I had felt very alone, secluded and anxious. I’m not sure if it is the fact that I know more people this time around, or that I feel more confidence in myself, or a combination of both that has put me more at ease already. And I feel far less personal pressure – for my first internship it was like I had convinced myself my life had to change because of that trip, and if it didn’t then things were destined to be mundane and uninspiring (that had probably been depression talking, I just hadn’t known it yet). It is funny how it took me years of being back in New Zealand, not years of travel, to help me finally understand that happiness, balance, serenity and peace can be found in every moment.

Wolf Sanctuary update to come soon. For now, it’s time for bed on the Oregon coast.

Sam.Oregon Coast

More dress-ups

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Three more sleeps, three more sleeps… If there hadn’t been some confusion with flights I would be leaving for the USA tonight. In a way I’m rather glad I have a few more days to prepare myself and pack. The last LARP weekend I went to was great for catching up with people I wouldn’t normally see on a regular basis, and I’ve tried to meet up with friends where possible before heading away. The next few nights I’ll be spending time with family, and Tuesday will see me flying away from the Land of the Long White Cloud. I had my last day at the office yesterday (and my final shift at the veterinary clinic today), and people kept asking me if I’m excited. Am I excited? I know deep down I’m incrediblycrazilysuperduper excited, but I don’t think I’m letting myself feel it yet – not until I step off that plane in Oregon.
I have never enjoyed the logistical side of travel. The running to catch planes, the hoping your luggage turns up when it’s meant to, the waiting, the lack of sleep… Not something I look forward to. This journey to my destination is going to be quite an adventure. If things go to plan I am due to land in Oregon on Tuesday evening (after going back in time from New Zealand), I then have to pick up my rental car and then somehow find my way to my friend’s house which is over two hours away from the airport. I am familiar with the Oregonian roads around the wolf sanctuary I’ll be working at, but I have never driven out to the airport before. One thing I am so looking forward to is coming past the Heceta Head Lighthouse – utterly one of my favourite night-time haunts. It is going to be magical. I can’t wait to tell you all about it :-)

So until I finally land (and probably until I actually successfully reach my friend’s house where I will be staying for the next month) I will most likely be a bit of a frazzled mess – a reason why I’ve been trying to use “Stillness” as a mantra.

“Stillness” is a concept that popped up on my Twitter feed recently, and I didn’t really understand what the person who posted it was talking about. But the word has, for some reason, stayed in the back of my mind of late, and I’ve begun to find that to me it translates to a state of calmly being. A state of calm… quiet… peace… breathing… self-awareness… being still.
Stillness isn’t encouraged where I’m from. We zoom around, rush like busy bees at work, have loud coffee dates with friends, integrate with society as is required, ruthlessly consume; purchase; own. Stillness can be sanity-saving in the midst of all of this. As I said in my last post; I love the quiet of the rural countryside. This is a place where stillness is accepted. An early walk through the paddocks, a picnic in the trees, coming home to a night-time greeting from the horses grazing by the house.

I am lucky enough to, every now and then, get involved in a creative venture of the photography variety. I once wrote about a rather high-end project I took part in that endeavored to raise funds for the Child Cancer Foundation in New Zealand. This had been a large, structured project, where photographers had been briefed on what sorts of images the director had wanted, and stylists and makeup artists had also been instructed to create a certain ‘look’ on models. While I relished the shoots,  I probably more enjoy ‘intimate’ settings where there are less photographers and I can also have some creative input.
Not too long ago I was invited to do a shoot with Brett Walters of Creative Photography. I met Brett a while ago at a Graham Meadows Photography Workshop that I was acting as ‘subject’ for. Graham Meadows is one of my biggest mentors, and is the reason this shy, hunched-over girl ever got in front of a camera in the first place. Brett was taking part in the workshop to learn some portrait photography techniques, and we kept in touch afterwards. I hadn’t seen him again until this last shoot, but I always like to keep up-to-date with the creations of various photographers I have worked with.
Thus I recently headed over to Brett’s St Heliers-based studio, where he was chatting with two budding photographers he would be teaching that day. I like the casual atmosphere of shoots like this, where techniques are being explored and experimentation is encouraged. You don’t feel like just an empty body to be posed and shot, but a person with a creative mind recommended to express it. We had a lot of fun playing in the studio, and then went out to make mischief in the forest. The trio even trusted me with a working bow-and-arrow – I’m glad I didn’t accidentally hurt anyone!!! (Believe me, with my lack of grace and control, there was a high potential for it!)
Brett does gorgeous work. Here is one of the shots from the studio:

Creative Photography Ltd

Creative Photography Ltd

Sometimes I ask permission to play around with images myself – it depends on who I am working with. I love the opportunity to completely change and distort a picture; add an entirely different mood to it, or create a story. My desktop background is a constant rolling slideshow of fantastical images – as you may know by now I am a big fan of escapism and anything that inspires adventurous thoughts, and at home I’ve got a stack of paintings and posters that achieve this. After looking at some of the fantastical backgrounds on my computer, I wondered to myself if I could create some of my own. Brett gave me the OK to have a play around with some images, and below are a few examples. I was working on these when I was still bouncing back for a bit of a rough patch. “Stillness” also fits when I feel disconnected from other people and/or western reality. So while the below pictures don’t portray physical stillness as such, different elements fuse together to give me that Stillness theory feeling – e.g. being turned away from the camera, the use of a mask, being transformed to a fantasy setting, etc.
Please note that I do not own the false background layers included in some of these images.

wildatheartblogCreative Photography fairy wildatheartblogwildatheartblogHere is one of my favourites in general from the shoot:

Female archer Creative Photography cosplayI had wanted to post this before I left on the next overseas adventure. After somewhat feeling like I had completely lost myself a few months ago, it has been things like this that have kept me bouncing along; Stillness, exploring creativity, focusing on something positive and fun. Dress-ups, LARPing; exciting hobbies. Wonderful friends and family. Everyone who has contributed to my life positively in whatever capacity. Smiles, warmth, joy. All those good things! It helped me remember my passion when I was close to forgetting.

Next time you hear from me, fingers crossed, I’ll be in Oregon with those great white fluffy creatures!

Sam.

Special thanks to Brett
from Creative Photography Ltd

Stillness.

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Stillness.

 

Silence.

 

Honestly, this year has been anything but. Less rollercoaster ride, more ‘I’m-a-chew-toy-being-flung-from-side-to-side-in-a-dog’s-mouth.’ That’s life, though, isn’t it. There have been points where I’ve literally said to myself, ‘This just isn’t worth it.’ There have been points where I’ve looked at others in my life and felt in complete disbelief that they can still continue on. My Mum. My Dad. My friends. People in my life that I care about. I have tried not taking anti-depressants for a little while of late, and I’m wondering if I’m recognising more darkness in the world around me because of this. But in saying that, there have also been points in recent times where I have felt like the luckiest, most blessed girl in the world. Must say, though, the whole “do the drugs really affect me, or can I stop taking them?” is doing my head in right now.

Today a work colleague was talking with me about the view out of my office window. There are paddocks, trees, the Sky Tower, the ocean off in the distance, and the motorway.
“I like seeing the movement,” she told me, “The cars passing. But I suppose I am a city girl.”
Could say I’m a city girl, too. Well, a born-and-raised suburbs girl, anyway. And yet I can’t think of anything I’d rather return home to more than the stillness of the countryside. On the weekend, after a nursing shift at the veterinary clinic, I was at the mall fetching a few things in preparation for the wolf trip (I leave next week – too good to be true!!!), and I remember noting how absolutely abysmal the traffic was. I couldn’t wait to get back out on the country road – yes, you must look out for rabbits and possums and tractors, and you’re a fair way from any main shopping centre, but I love it. Guaranteed I will see at least one horse rider on my way home from work – they always smile and wave when you slow down to carefully pass them. I can’t wait for the summer when I’ll finally be out riding some of the horses my landlady owns.

Stillness can be difficult for one to achieve. One who is like me, I should say. When there has been a bit too much emotion in one day, it comes out as pressure against my head, and that makes it hard to breathe calmly and rid myself of busy feelings. Meditation would be beneficial, but I have never been very good at it. The closest thing I get to, at the moment, is in the studio where I take ‘circus’ classes. The tutor of these classes is an incredible woman with a fierce, glowing heart, and the studio is adorned with images of Buddha, Japanese cherry blossoms, twinkling fairy lights, and always smells deliciously of incense. For one to two hours I am painfully twirling myself up in circus ribbons hanging from the ceiling, trying to perfect poses that I can’t quite achieve yet with my very limited (read: nonexistent) upper body strength. Everything else just disappears.

White wolf Tehalin free spirit

With Tehalin

The greatest time I have ever felt stillness was when I was sitting opposite darling Tehalin, the most incredible wolf spirit I have ever met. I have mentioned before how we would spend time together at the top of the mountain at the White Wolf Sanctuary – he would gently reach out one massive paw for me to pat or groom, and stare right into my eyes. Some days I would tell him everything I could think of, other days there would be silence. For hours (unless his sister came running and bowled him over to fight for my attention). To think, I will be back with them in a week, all going well. It is said they remember you forever – we will find out if this is true.

Preparations for the upcoming trip haven’t helped maintain a calm mindset, as is to be expected of travel planning. I have so far had flight ticket mix-ups, extra money to pay for date changes, not to mention completely unnecessary stress caused for family members in regards to some horrible challenges they are facing. I suppose, as said above, this is life. There are always little disruptions, and unfortunately there are also major, life-changing obstacles and ordeals – experiences we always have to prove that we can get through. Since that wonderful, incredible, childhood inspiration of mine – Robin Williams – unbelievably passed away recently, there seems to have been a cascade of other, similar tragic events. Of course I don’t know his real story – all I know is that it broke my heart knowing someone so many people cared about was not aware of how much he meant to so many. I suppose it only takes one moment to forget how much the people in your world need you; one moment that can lead to utter hell for the people who love you. The last few days a few people I know have lost loved ones; family members and dear friends. These people in my heart are the types of people I look at, and I think to myself, “How on earth do they carry on?” I don’t have the answer, but I am incredibly glad that carry on they do, however they manage it.

Right now is not a good time for me to be leaving certain people here in New Zealand. But I know if I tell them this, they will simply be their selfless selves and say, “Sam, there is never a perfect time – life always brings some hurdle to get over.” But I still feel guilty. How do you choose where to dedicate yourself? The romantic, stubborn, dreamer’s part of me likes to think that one person’s heart can save the world. But it is utterly impossible to end the suffering of every single person, creature and environment on this planet. I guess just do what you can, when you can, even if there is no perfect time for it. I’m going back to the arctic wolves, to greet old fluffy friends and to meet and learn the stories of new ones. We all face hardships, and life will always bring challenges, but if you decide to do something good with what is inside of you despite all that’s going on, I can guarantee you will be more fulfilled – and the world around you will be better for it.

Sam.

A different ‘D’ word

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Time flies when you’re having fun.
It also seems to fly when you are under pressure, stressed about something, or anticipating some sort of impending event that is racing straight towards you. A few weeks ago I was sitting here contemplating how it seemed I had all the time in the world to prepare for my next journey, and all of a sudden it is right in front of me, a mere number of days away! Am I prepared? Not in the slightest! Or I don’t feel so, anyway.

When I was growing up, Dad used to ask me what my ‘career‘ would be. ‘Career‘ was a word I heard a lot at school, coming from the mouths of teachers or guidance counsellors or friends’ parents. “But you can’t make a career out of that,” they would say. “And when you’ve done that, what will your career be?” There is so much pressure on us to find a ‘suitable career’ that a lot of the time I think we completely miss the point.
And what is “the point,” exactly? Well, I’m not sure if I’m talking about life in general or what – I just know that the point is happiness, or that is at least what I feel it to be. If you can’t say there is happiness in your life, then there truly is no point.
Back when I was a lot younger – before the time any sort of darkness began to pry its way into my life – ‘happiness’ wasn’t a word I would ever stop to think about. It was simply a guarantee; a fact of being alive. If I thought about the future, I knew I would go to university and grow up and become an adult, and I would be happy all that time. I would have a house and get married and have kids, and I would be happy. I would grow old, and be happy. It’s just what people did. Happiness was a given. Those were my innocent, naive, unaware thoughts.
Now if you ask me what happiness is, I wouldn’t be able to define it for you. At this moment I’m currently reading a definition that says to be happy is “to be in a state of cheerfulness” – but that doesn’t quite describe the word, does it. If someone says to me now, “Are you happy?” I have to really think about it. A million and one thoughts roll into my head; Am I where I want to be in life right at this moment; Is money worrying me; Are my personal relationships doing well; Is my job secure; Is my home environment comfortable and safe? I don’t believe happiness is a constant state. It’s not something you can work towards and reach like a finish line and say “I’m here, I made it, I win!” It changes. It may ebb and flow. Rise and fall. You can wake up feeling wonderful, and by the evening have experienced something that turns your world temporarily on its head. Likewise, you can have a horrible morning, but encounter something fantastic during the day that reminds you life is great and that you’re enjoying it.
I have been trying, recently, to practice the theory that things only affect you if you allow them to. I’m a sucker for letting things get to me more than they need to. Perhaps it’s part and parcel of being predisposed to anxiety, but I do have a tendency to worry, I do stress about things out of my control, and I am affected by what others say to or about me. A few particular people in my life (I could perhaps describe them as more ‘level-headed’ than myself) are often trying to convince me that I do not need to be affected by certain things so much, so I am working on it. After a lifetime of practicing this apparent flustered need to ‘fix’ things, though, it can be difficult to just breathe and let go. Yes, it can be difficult – but not impossible.

As well as accepting that you don’t have to be bothered by every little daily grump, surrounding yourself with things that make you smile – even temporarily – can be life saving. And this is where “a different ‘D’ word” comes in: dress-ups!

I love dressing up. Well, I love escapism, and to me dressing up is a form of escapism. I have lots of childhood memories of utilising that wonderful, magical thing called imagination, whether it be in games with my friends, my sister, or just myself while I ran around being a ridiculous little kid. I still consider myself a ‘dreamer’ in several senses; I have strong, passionate dreams that I am determined to follow, but I also like to slip away into daydream-realm – whether it be with books, music, movies, literature – where the pressures of today aren’t such a reality. This world (our planet; our only home) has so much going on, and I thrive on the ferocity I am imbued with when I’m living what I’m passionate about. But I also relish the few quiet times I have where I can lose myself in the pages of a book, or throw some painted swirls onto a canvas.

A few years ago I was sitting at my Dad’s house in the country (a quiet place I used to relish), watching a movie with a friend. It was a silly movie with plenty of immature humour; I didn’t have high hopes for it, but sometimes it’s good to just blob out to something mindlessly ridiculous. Anyway, one of the characters in this film – a young lad who would typically be described as ‘geeky’ – introduced some of the other characters to one of his favourite past-times. It was called LARPing: Live Action Roleplay. The fellow dressed himself up in a medieval-themed costume, and proceeded to take part in a rather intense make-believe battle with other larpers, some of whom seemed to take it way too seriously. My friend was almost crying with laughter, and I was having a giggle too – the concept was pretty novel to me. Yet deep down there was a little spark inside me that I couldn’t ignore: it was saying, “That looks like something you could enjoy, Sam…” Unbeknown to my friend, as soon as I had a moment to myself after the movie ended I somewhat hesitantly Googled “LARPing in New Zealand”. I didn’t really think such a thing would exist in our relatively small community – but I was to be surprised!
Not only were there listings for LARP in New Zealand in general, but Auckland seemed to be a pretty good place for it! As I flicked through a few different web pages – some of which were quite out of date – I stumbled across one that announced a ‘Campaign’ about to be held in only a few weeks’ time. I had no idea what was meant by a ‘Campaign’, but I dove right in and emailed my interest to the organisers. To my joy they came back to me very quickly, telling me I was welcome to join this campaign known as “Teonn“. From what I understood there were two options: to ‘Play’, or to ‘Crew’. Playing required you to create a character with a back-story, maybe some goals and other character connections. As I was utterly, completely, totally ignorant to the whole LARP thing, I figured Playing might be a bit too much for my first time. I decided to offer myself as a Crew member – Crew were like the extras of a movie, or the NPCs (non-player characters) of a video game; the barmaids, the farmers, the quest-givers, the monsters, the bandits, the helpless villagers, the damsels in distress. I thought it would be the perfect place to start.

The first night of this three-day game arrived, and I had bundled a couple of pillows, a sleeping bag, and plenty of old clothes into my car. I was so nervous. Turning up to a camp out in the middle of a completely unfamiliar area, where I would literally not know a single person, was quite a big step for this anxiety-ridden girl. But somehow I had faith that I would find myself feeling comfortable within the larping community fairly quickly.
Game preparations were in full swing as I pulled into the carpark. There were people rushing around in all directions, carrying bundles of what I could only assume were props and larp-safe weapons. I bumped into a lady who pointed me in the direction of the Crew Room, and I nervously wandered through the dark to find some indication of what I was meant to be doing. I happened upon one of the GMs – Game Masters – who told me to find myself a mattress in the sleeping quarters upstairs, leave my belongings there, and get into my first costume.
The Crew Room was a crazy rabble of people getting geared up in armor, painting their faces with weird and wonderful patterns, items of clothing being flung across the room as costumes were changed, and the GMs calling out what they needed: Gypsies, villagers, knights, wenches, spies, tavern staff… I joined a small group of ladies who were getting themselves into delicate medieval dresses, and discovered that we would be playing courtesans. Not quite what I was expecting for my first role, but it certainly was a good opportunity to get out and meet some of the Players.
Thankfully, being in a group meant I was able to follow the lead of the others – I had no idea what to expect, and as we exited the Crew Room all prettied up, I decided to simply watch and learn. We wandered down the street of the town known in-game as Cormere, and in the dim light of the buildings I could see groups of people in elaborate outfits milling about. The leader of our little band of coquettes approached one of the Players, and proceeded to have a discussion with him about some ongoing battles that were obviously tied in to the Teonn story, and chatted to him about how we were there to bring some smiles to the town.
I found it difficult at first to speak to the Players with confidence; I was pretty overwhelmed and quite intimidated to be honest! But as I got into the swing of the game I realised this was definitely something I would enjoy. Crewing was great; if you wanted to play a more combat-oriented role then you could speak to the GMs and they would send you out as a bandit or assassin. There were all sorts of little side-plots going on, and people were constantly needed to flesh everything out. I was having fun waltzing around the evening playing this courtesan who, when trouble arose, could hide behind the front line and watch any fighting from a safe distance. Since I had never handled a larp-safe weapon in my life I had no idea how to fight accordingly.
Inevitably, though, I did have to gear up for a battle – in the dead of that first night, a raging orc horde arrived in the forest near Cormere – and who else would play this massive horde of blood-thirsty orcs but the Crew.

First night larping

First night larping

I believe I failed dismally as a big scary orc, but dozens of us banded together, banging drums and screeching into the night would have intimidated anyone I’d say. Swinging axes and swords in the dark of the forest was definitely one of the things I had expected about this larp business, and it really does get your adrenaline going!

Teonn was a campaign that was scheduled to run for several years, with two big weekend games each year, and several shorter day-games scattered throughout. It was a different thing altogether to wake up on my first morning at the larp and actually see in the daylight all the beautiful Player costumes – simply incredible; it took my breath away. The world of Teonn encompassed a number of different races, religions and factions – my favourite were the colourful ‘Elementals'; mysterious individuals who had some affiliation with one of the elements (earth, air, water or fire). How could you not be immersed in this fantasy world when you were surrounded by such meticulously planned characters and costumes?

Photography by Reality Dysfunction

Photography by Reality Dysfunction

 

 

 

 

 

 

Photo set by Reality Dysfunction

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I continued to crew in Teonn for a number of games, while I learnt the ropes of campaign larping. Being cast as some kind of orc became common, though I didn’t get any better with the fighting – hopefully the green face paint and huge weapon was convincing enough. Other than that, in a typical game I learnt you’d be sure to find:

 

These types of heroic guys,

Some magical object puzzle we had to solve,

Giant monsters,
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Helpful pointers in case you got lost,
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Human-eating orcs,

Elf-eating orcs,

Epic battles,

Epic deaths,
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Grieving over epic deaths.

Photo set by Reality Dysfunction.

Photo set by Reality Dysfunction.

For the last two big Teonn games I was involved in, I finally decided to take the plunge and try my hand at Playing. Thus, Y’vaine was created, a shy, naive, probably rather annoying Elemental of the earth variety. After all my dealings with dressing up as orcs it was decided that Y’vaine was utterly terrified of those more primitive green beasties, yet I still got covered in bodypaint.

A few snaps of Y’vaine:

Sam

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Sam3 Sam5

 

Sam7

Unfortunately I wasn’t able to make the final game, which sounds as though it was incredibly emotionally intense. It is near impossible to not get attached to a recurring character you play throughout a campaign that runs for years, and I don’t quite know how I’d deal with the loss of one of my own that I had put so much work into. I also liken the finale of a campaign to reaching the end of a book series you are completely immersed in – you can’t wait to find out the ending, but when it’s all over you feel some sense of emptiness; or at least I do. However, the wonderful fascination of the games is absolutely worth any “larp-over”, and I can say my life isn’t the same now that I have the occasional magical larping escape, not to mention the family-like community I hold so dear. This weird and wonderful discovery has definitely helped put more frequent smiles on my face.

Sam.

Orc attempt #2

Orc attempt #2

Photos by Scott of Reality Dysfunction (check them out for more pictures) and one of my favourite orc friends, David.
(And a couple from my tacky cellphone.)

http://www.nzlarps.org/

Understanding and Depression

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I want to add on to what I wrote about last time – which, admittedly, was fairly off-topic in regards to what I had initially started this blog for. But I now know it is important for many people who have come across it, so it has been entirely worth it, and I’m putting it in the category of “things I care deeply about.”
It has been over a month since I wrote that last entry, and I have had some good time to think about it all. I still have battles with myself over whether I take the last post down or not, but it has lasted so far. When I had written it, and actually published it, I sat at my computer desk in a state of suspense for many long moments afterwards. I realised I cared a lot about being judged, so to me the act of publishing this piece of written thought was emotionally brave (and terrifying). I was worried people would see it as a form of attention-seeking, which it was not. I was worried people would look at me differently, and treat me differently; even those who have known me all my life as the person that I am. For the most part, though, I figured there would be two main outcomes: those who did read it wouldn’t mention it, or they would tell me to “toughen up” or give me some equally supportive suggestion.
To be honest, I would have been very surprised if anyone even read a portion of it. But after I posted the ramblings of this strange, airy-fairy girl, someone on my personal Facebook page clicked the “Like” button for it. ‘That’s nice,’ I had thought to myself. ‘My friends are so supportive.’ I figured that this person was just letting me know they acknowledged I had written something. I truly didn’t expect anyone to read through it all.
Very soon, though, as I still sat there at my desk with blurry eyes from uncovering certain memories I had buried unthinkably deep down, there came beautiful messages, comments, texts and emails. Some were from people I hadn’t spoken to in years. Some were from people I hadn’t even spoken to at all. It brought me to tears realising the amount of people in my immediate life who could relate to what I spoke about – it was incredible, and tragic. And yet there we were, chatting away to each other, recognising something in each other, and realising we weren’t alone.
It goes without saying that you are never alone in what you are feeling – someone, somewhere, is feeling the exact same thing, and countless people before that time have also gone through it. And even though I always knew that, it was something else to suddenly be connected to so many people who could relate to my written words. Perhaps even more amazing was the amount of people who couldn’t exactly relate to it, but still reached out to demonstrate that they care. People right there help restore some of my faith in the human spirit.

That’s what I want to talk about in this post – understanding, and depression. Not understanding depression, because I really don’t think you ever can! When you have it, it is different for everyone of course, but I liken it to a cloud of black smog with suffocating tendrils that seems to know exactly what to do to smother you down to a low point. And if you have never felt this depression thing, or anything like it, then how can you possibly be expected to understand what it’s like? You can’t. You also can’t expect someone with it to explain it to you so that you will understand what it’s all about and what it feels like. If we accept this, it can take a lot of frustration out of some situations.

If there is someone in your life who you suspect may be haunted by a nasty depression demon or similar, the first thing to remember is that you do not need to understand it. If you have never gone through something like this, then it will probably be impossible for you to understand no matter how hard you try. And that is absolutely okay. It is absolutely okay to have no idea what this person is feeling, or why. Equally, it is not okay to tell them that what they are feeling is made up, ridiculous or insignificant. It is not okay to tell them to “harden up”, to “build a bridge and get over it”, or to “snap out of it”. If you have someone close to you who is dealing with something unexplainable like this, please know that in order to support them you do not have to understand – you need only be there for them. That’s all. If they need to be held, then hold them. If they need to talk it out, then let them talk – you don’t have to understand the ins and outs of what they’re saying, and you probably won’t, but simply being there and letting them know that they aren’t alone in this can lift the darkness significantly for someone struggling. And remember to look after yourself, as well; it can take an emotional toll on you to be there for someone who is going through a situation you are totally unfamiliar with, so do what you need to do to take care of yourself. If you need a break from it, you should not feel guilty to do so – just like you are supporting this person close to you, they should also recognise that you may need some time here and there, and not make you feel bad for it. It’s all about wanting the right things for each other.

This is one example of why my Mum is such an incredible, strong woman. A few weeks ago, when the reason for me writing the last blog post was in full-force of knocking me about emotionally, it would be my evening routine to head to Mum’s, plonk myself down on her couch, and talk or cry or just sit there in numb silence while she gave me a big caring hug. We would eat food and watch movies, she’d drink wine and I’d have an ice-cream – she knew she couldn’t make the darkness go away, but she was just there for me regardless of anything else. She would give me advice if I asked for it, or she would let me ramble when she knew I needed to get it off my chest. At the time, when you are being choked by those vicious black tendrils, it can be hard to recognise the good around you – so if you are supporting someone and you feel like it is all for nothing, please know that while they may not be able to see how much you are doing for them right at the time, I can guarantee they will thank you later on, when they have the ability to appreciate again. At the time, I had been so focused on how horrible I was feeling, I couldn’t quite vocalise my appreciation to Mum for being there for me – but we both know it made things so much better.

Once upon a time, when things with my parents were teaching me that some things in life really wouldn’t go as smoothly as I had once thought was guaranteed, I wasn’t there for my Mum as I should have been. This was one of those stages where I literally can’t remember the events of days, or even weeks. I blocked it all out without realising that I had. And I don’t think it was emotional trauma that made me block this time of my life out – I think it was guilt.
I had figured that because I couldn’t fix the problems going on, I was useless. I thought I was in danger if I even tried to be there as a supportive daughter, because I wouldn’t do a good job of it, and I would crash and burn. I was already tormented by things I hadn’t dealt with and hadn’t told my parents about – and if that did happen and I burnt myself out, then who would look after me? I couldn’t burden people with my own failures; they had enough to deal with.
I knew I couldn’t understand the issues that were going on with my parents, or make it better. So I ran away from it all. If I did come home and see my Mum or sister upset, I would feel a frustration grow within me – I pushed them away, instead of being part of the support system, because I knew I couldn’t make it right.
I see now that I didn’t have to make it right, nor was I expected to. But I could have been there, as a listening ear or an open pair of arms or a shoulder to cry on. That’s all. Instead I decided I was of no use, and that’s how I acted.

Now I can recognise the huge impact one can make by just being there, even if they don’t understand. I know people who have gone through incredibly tough times, and their partners have left them to fend for themselves because they were too scared to even try and help. When I started on the medication, I knew my then partner was just as scared to offer himself as a support – it’s as if he was worried he might ‘catch’ what I had if we talked about the “D” word. So we wouldn’t talk about it, and I felt alone. I also felt like a lesser person every time he turned away when I took my medication. It became something I felt like I had to hide. If I had a dark day I would have to take myself away, rather than ask for comfort. It became a very inward, personal battle – not only did it rot me from the inside, but being in a relationship where I felt like I couldn’t talk about things meant that the relationship was rotten, too.

My point reiterated: you don’t have to understand what someone is going through. But do recognise that whoever this individual is, whatever they struggle with does not make them a lesser person – mental and emotional health is significant. You don’t have to be scared about not being able to fix it, or feel like that’s your job to do – just simply be there for them. Watch silly movies with them. Let them talk if they need to. Let them cry and give them a hug; you don’t have to do anything else. If they are going to a doctor, offer to go with them – you may not understand a word of what’s being said at the appointment, but at least they are supported in that room and aren’t alone. I’m not sure if it’s even about compassion – I know I still contained compassion even when I was afraid to be there for my family when my parents were splitting up. It’s about understanding and accepting that you don’t have to understand, but you can still be a positive force in someone’s life, and that can make the world of difference.

Sam

That taboo ‘D’ word

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I’m talking about depression.

Depression. That word sends a million and one thoughts and feelings coursing through me when I type it out and read it. Thoughts and feelings like:

Shame.

Darkness.

Anxiety.

Fear.

Weakness.

Loneliness.

Abnormality.

Pain.

Helplessness.

Worthlessness.

Shame is the biggest one, right now, for me. And ‘abnormality’. Maybe if this blog was anonymous I wouldn’t be questioning whether or not I actually write this up. To be honest with you, I am afraid to write about it. Because I’m afraid of how it might make me feel. And I’m afraid of how everyone reading this will perceive it.
I once mentioned that ‘clinical depression’ has been a part of my life. It feels so strange to say that. I want to whisper it to you with my eyes closed, so that I can’t see your reaction. We’re all just people, right? There are things about each of us that others wouldn’t ever understand. But I feel like if I open up to someone and say that I’m on medication, it gives me this automatic stigma and means every ‘normal’ person will want to back away slowly. But for goodness sake, we are all people. And the real, shameful dark truth is that, for me, on the inside it sometimes feels like a struggle to maintain a state of happiness – or to even just not feel like I’m going to break down, wide-eyed with tears dripping down my face.

Look, I’m a scientist (here we go, trying to rationalise things). I have studied a wide range of biology topics, chemicals in the brain and neurological function being some of them. I understand that this horrid darkness isn’t my fault. When I came to know and accept that, I felt so relieved. It took a lot of pressure off. It meant I wasn’t doing anything wrong, I wasn’t failing at life – it meant I could accept things, and just go forward doing what I could to work on it. For me, working on it meant trying therapy first (and we’re talking a good decade ago) – but when I realised I wasn’t really structuring action plans for myself, and the sessions weren’t helping a great deal, I decided to change tactic. Three things really impact my quality of life; friends and family, a comfortable living environment, and work conditions. I have always had a wonderful group of close, select family and friends, so that is one huge blessing that I have always been able to count on. As to living arrangements, well, when I started flatting it wasn’t so good for me, so I changed things. Now I live out in the country in a self-contained little place that is absolutely peaceful, free and relaxing (not to mention surrounded by animals). And I am finally in a job I enjoy, one that doesn’t leave me feeling mentally and physically exhausted at the end of each day. My employer allows me to trek off overseas for my passionate volunteer excursions, they support me furthering my education, and I can see a career with them. So getting these three things lined up together has done a great deal for my quality of life.

For me, depression has never been about self-worth. I look at the person I am, and I adore her. I adore this slightly nutty, wild-hearted, free-spirited tangle of brunette hair and long limbs who is full of passion and constantly dreaming about the next adventure. My warm heart and ability to see things through feeling and compassionate eyes are possibly the features I am most proud of in myself. So no, self worth isn’t the issue for me anymore. I think one main ingredient in the bubbling-hot concoction of my personal depression is how others perceive me. Or how I believe others perceive me. And what I believe is based on how these people treat me.

I was a late bloomer. In school I didn’t get asked on dates like my friends. Nobody wanted to dance with me at socials. People wouldn’t invite me to parties because they thought I would be boring. I was this skinny shell of a girl, a meek, quiet thing who was usually too shy to raise her hand in class to ask a question. I remember vowing to myself that if, by some incredible miracle, a boy ever wanted to go out with me, I had best marry that man! Luckily I changed my mind.
The first guy I felt seriously about completely changed me. When it comes to matters of the heart I utterly dedicate myself. So when we got together, I dedicated myself without a second thought. It was scary, and terrifying, but wonderful at the same time – this whole, new, ‘relationship’ thing. Having someone to go to the movies with. To text randomly throughout the day. To hold hands with. To chat on the phone with in between study and dinner. And I didn’t think about it going badly. I mean, it happened to other people, but they weren’t me, and they didn’t have this special thing I had. It was real. In my mind, life was set. I mean, I was this nice, smiley, free-spirited young thing who would drop anything if I was told I was needed by this person – there was no reason for him to do me wrong. I didn’t enjoy the company of my family or friends as much, but that’s okay, because I was in a proper, grown-up relationship that was important to me and not seeing friends much was just a normal side effect, right?
I didn’t realise that over time I was being manipulated. It is hard to remember, because I realise now that I blocked a lot of it out. The manipulation – the abuse – started out as mental. Emotional. Soon it incorporated verbal violence. Then it came to objects flying across the room. The neighbours banging on the door to ask what the hell was going on. Threats. The flatmates hiding themselves from it, leaving me to fend for myself. Being held down, helpless.
I didn’t tell my parents. I didn’t tell my friends. I thought that it was normal. I believed, by this point, that I deserved it all. I was a crazy, ugly, inadequate, worthless girl. Nobody else would put up with me. I was lucky. I needed to stop complaining, I needed to stop being so difficult and selfish. And unbelievably, when he said he didn’t want me anymore, I was destroyed. I didn’t eat, so I lost weight that I couldn’t afford to lose. I couldn’t sleep. I remember lying on the roof at night in the rain in nothing but pyjamas, in winter, hoping I would die there. I cried all the time. That’s all I really remember.

Eventually, you begin to process things. I finally realised that abuse wasn’t normal, and I tried to convince myself I didn’t deserve it (even though I did believe that I was an ugly, crazy, difficult girl – this had been utterly drilled into me, and it took a bloody long time for me to see differently). And teenage Samsam just could not comprehend the fact that someone was capable of doing that sort of thing. Honest question – how is it possible that a person can do that to someone they apparently ‘love’? Teenage Samsam would have understood it more if she had been a nasty, mean, equally manipulative and abusive person – but that just wasn’t the way things were. She was a quiet, shy girl, not demanding or material-item obsessed. She wasn’t a bully, nor did she take pleasure in seeing others suffer even in the slightest. One of the hardest things to deal with was the fact that she had to go on living without having any of her questions answered. Without any honesty or truth. No closure, no satisfaction. Always wondering, ‘why?’

Anxiety secured itself firmly after that. A loud voice. A raised hand. Someone punching another person on TV. Boys in fast cars heckling me as they drove past. People yelling at each other. Anyone touching my neck. These sorts of things would cue the onset of a panic attack. Sometimes to the point where I would black out. Soon I realised I couldn’t go outside my room without feeling anxiety. And when I was inside my room, well, I was surrounded by a black cloud, suffocated, and terrified that I was going to break down. Depression had been in my life before that, but that whole experience built on it. Now I was just terrified of everyone. They say whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. I have to disagree. Someone may physically survive a particular event, but never properly recover. Even as I think back to that time, nearly ten years ago, my little heart is racing, and my chest is constricted. And again I wonder: who the hell has the right to treat another person like that?
I managed to restrain the anxiety. But the depression itself was always evident. A usual day for me would mean waking up, trying not to think too much; trying not to let that dark cloud settle. I would go to Uni, or work, and feel inadequate in the eyes of others, but I would try to ignore it. Coming home I would continue to try and ignore the pressing darkness. It was like there was a rotten, sagging ceiling over my head that threatened to crash down on me at any moment, and suffocate me in that blackness. A normal day for me would mean just trying to carry on without being crushed. Because I didn’t know if I would ever be able to get up again if that rotten ceiling did finally cave in on me.

A few years ago I hit a very sudden, unexpected low point. Something that would usually be viewed as trivial affected me so much, so strongly, that I found myself pulled over in my car with a knife to one wrist. It was the first time I had even gotten close to physically harming myself that way, and I was terrified because I couldn’t actually remember getting that knife out. It happened so damn fast. I knew I needed more help.
Thus, the meds started. From what I hear about other peoples’ experiences with medication, I was lucky. I didn’t turn into a monster. I didn’t have horrible dreams, or feel unbalanced emotionally. Over time they made me feel, well, nothing – I just realised I felt like myself again. Occasionally that dark cloud would come back. Occasionally I’d feel lonely, or low. Every now and then a certain experience would bring me back down, despite medication, despite the wonderful support system I now realised I had, despite the tricks you learn to change your thought patterns and keep you from giving in to dark suffocation. But I can say that I’m still proud of my achievements; proud of my passions and the way that despite being hurt I haven’t gone on to become another abusive individual who takes their pain out on others. I was making plans and living life, and it was good. I could see that it was good.

I was spurred on to write this post a couple of weeks ago. My blog was designed to be a record of adventures, the worlds I thrust myself into in the name of “doing something good”. I’m damn passionate about conservation, the environment and animal rights – but lately I’ve also become more expressive about how I feel in regards to the ways people treat each other. I have always believed in honesty, compassion, treating others the way you want to be treated, etc. etc. I realise that I am still extremely naive. Innocence is very rare in our society nowadays, and I never used to see it as a weakness, but as something that others should nurture and cherish. In the perfect world innocence and trust would be positive qualities, but I’m sure we can all agree that this is not a perfect world, and in our society naivety and trust are excessively exploited.
Recently I put my trust in someone that I shouldn’t have. I was probably told a hundred and one times not to trust this person. And I didn’t at first. But I have this ridiculous, fatal flaw where I strive to see the best in anyone – absolutely anyone – close to me. Still, I was very vocal about the fact that I had no room in my life for lies, mind games, dishonesty, or anything but being honest and truthful. I was clear and concise in my beliefs, and I lived the way I talked – meaning I didn’t say one thing and then do another. And this person told me, non-stop, about how these qualities of mine were so good – and not just these qualities, but my passionate wanderlust, my spontaneity, my ridiculous sense of humour, my childish silliness… aspects of myself that I thought would be difficult to warm to. I remember thinking, ‘Wow. This person – this genuine person – sees me as I am, and actually admires the parts of me that I love the most.’ And slowly, I began to trust. You might say that I was groomed – over months of being told “you are safe,” “you can be vulnerable with me,” I began to believe it.

Edge of darknessWhen you live with fear of being exploited by other people, it can be a challenge to let someone in. It feels as though you are standing on the edge of anxiety’s cliff, atop a mass of waves that threaten to suck you in and drown you if you fall (by making the wrong decision). And you expect to be pushed by anyone in your near vicinity, so you stand there with your walls up, pretending you can’t see the black waves below you; pretending that you’re okay and everything is fine.
Now, when you are standing there on the edge of the cliff, trying not to freak out and pretending everything is fine, and someone gently takes the time to come over to you, put out their hand, look into your eyes and tell you it’s alright to come away from the cliff; that they aren’t going to push you, that you are safe… It’s like suddenly being wrapped up in a heavenly warm, beautiful blanket of protection, and you are led away from that cliff in safe arms and taken to a place where you can see the sunlight, and smile. And relax. It’s like being able to breathe after years of being strangled.

So, imagine what it’s like, after months of being told you are safe to trust, safe to let your walls down, safe to be vulnerable – and then suddenly and violently be pushed off that f**king cliff.

That’s how it felt. I knew I had been pushed, but I didn’t even feel myself fall. I told you what bearable days are like, when I would ‘fake it to make it’ in order to keep that rotten ceiling from caving in. Well, let me tell you, this time a few weeks ago that ceiling fell on me. It crushed me. It flattened me, pushed me all the way down to the bottom of that dark, raging sea. And I couldn’t get up. I don’t know if I would have gotten up if someone hadn’t intervened and picked me up off my bedroom floor.

So, once again I am left sitting here wondering. Asking myself “Why?” It could be a lover, a brother, a father, a mother, a best friend, an employer, a teacher, an idol – anyone you respect and put your trust in… To have it broken can be devastating. It can disrupt your world, and make you forget what is truly important. It is hard being faced with these feelings. Right now that darkness is clawing at my stomach, tightening the knot I’ve had in there for weeks. Slowly, slowly (because it always takes time with me) I know I will build myself up again. I’ll get out of the water and claw my way up the side of that cliff. But this is me telling you that I am terrified of that journey. I have made that climb before, and it takes a lot to clamber up the side of that cliff – especially when you know you may reach the top only to be pushed again, or to fall on the way. But talking helps. People who genuinely listen help. People who will sit with you in silence if need be because they care help. So anyone out there who is going through something that may feel unbearable – talk about it (even blab to me, I’m always up for hearing from those I have things in common with). It’s not forever. It may feel like it will be forever, but it’s not. And don’t forget what is really important in life. I give myself moments (in this case, weeks) to feel what I need to feel, but don’t abandon your passions, or the parts of your life that deserve your attention. Remembering that you care about something can be a great motivator. Right now I have two little tortoiseshell cats curled up on my lap – these fragile bundles of innocence help me remember that despite the horrid, nasty things that happen out there, the world is also full of goodness. Choose to be a part of that goodness.
One thing you can do straight away is make the conscious decision to not be one of those people who carry the cycle of pain out. “Hurt people hurt people.” Being hurt yourself does not give you the right to then go and hurt someone else. Shut that cycle down. Concentrate on yourself. Concentrate on peace, positivity, passion. Do things that make you smile. Watch a stupid movie. Congratulate yourself on little victories, like realising you’re laughing, or getting through another hour. Let others take care of you, you aren’t alone.

So as much as I would like justice, and closure, I have to shake that loose (not easy to do when there are SO many things I’d like to say…!) I have to forgive myself for tripping up and getting pushed again. I have to stop calling myself ‘fool’, and instead call myself ‘wonderful’, ‘caring’, ‘deserving of good things.’ So, over the next few posts as we gear up to another trip to those howling wolves countless miles away, I’ll probably show you a few things I’ve been getting involved with that make me smile.

If you’ve read through this essay, you get a huge high five for bearing with it!

Sam

Original image captured by Creative Photography Ltd

Jane Goodall in Auckland – a public presentation

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Last night I headed out to the heart of Auckland City to see Jane Goodall speak to a sold-out crowd. Where to begin. I have a good 30 minute drive home from the city (plus the time it takes for me to un-lose myself and find the motorway away from all those bustling streets), and the best word to describe how I felt driving home was, well: Good. I felt good after hearing Dr Goodall speak. I also wanted to cry – she talked about many topics that I care deeply about. And you know what? Wanting to cry also made me feel Good: because I do, very obviously, care about those things.

The two strongest words I took out of her presentation were ‘magic’ and ‘hope’. Jane is full of hope for the future, despite how bleak the world looks at times. And she is still able to describe so many of her experiences as ‘magical’. Really, she is a prime example of an incredible spirit; she has done so much good in her life, and has seen some horrific things, and yet she still smiles on and lives with hope. That’s the best way I can describe what I took out of the evening: Hope.

Jane has been travelling the last few days up New Zealand, speaking firstly in Dunedin, then Wellington and last night Auckland where I live. Each evening has sold out, and she has spoken publicly to over 6,000 New Zealanders while she has been here in the mere space of a few days. It has been her first ever public talk here – hopefully not her last, as there were so many more who wanted to come and see her.

Dame Jane Goodall is, of course, a pioneer of sorts – not only for science, but also for women. She is extremely well known for discovering much of what we know about chimpanzees today, and for her environmental/conservation/animal welfare work in general. As she stepped up to the microphone after carefully walking across the stage in front of 2,500 people, she greeted us in a way she knows best.
“This is me, this is Jane, I’m announcing myself.”
But she said it in chimpanzee.

(Sample, from another talk, below.)

Jane started life as any typical animal-lover would; totally intrigued with all critters and crawlies. She said one thing that really set the path ahead for her, though, was the support of her mother. She recalled a time when she was about a-year-and-a-half old, and her mother found her with a pile of earthworms in her bed! Jane said she had been staring at the little worms with a look of wonder on her face, as if she was thinking “How do these things walk without legs!?” Most mothers would probably be quite deterred, but instead of scolding her baby, Jane’s mother scooped the earthworms and Jane up in her arms, took them all outside, and returned the worms to the ground. She explained to little Jane that the worms wouldn’t survive in a bed; they needed the earth to live.

A few years later Jane got to visit a farm with her mother, and being face-to-face with all these incredible animals just intrigued her. She told us last night that she had been given the job of collecting the chicken eggs – and just how a big egg came out of a chicken had utterly perplexed her. That was surely impossible, she thought! She looked at the chickens, and couldn’t see any hole so big that an egg that size could come out, so she decided to solve the mystery herself by following a chicken to see if it would lay something.
The first chicken she watched went into a coop, and four-year-old Jane crept in after it. Of course, laying hens can be very timid creatures, and with many loud squawks and a fractious flapping of wings the chicken fled the coop after seeing this wide-eyed child stalking it. So, little Jane decided to change tactic. She found an empty coop, and sat inside and waited. And waited. And waited some more. She waited for four hours, until finally a chicken came inside, and Jane witnessed the laying of an egg. She solved the mystery for herself. It was after dark that she returned to her mother, who was of course extremely worried about little Jane going missing for so long. However, instead of berating her daughter for running off, she sat and listened to this delighted child’s wondrous tale of how a chicken lays an egg.

Jane’s mother encouraged her to read books from an early age, and one of the first she ever bought herself was Tarzan of the Apes by Edgar Rice Burroughs. Jane said she read this book cover to cover, and of course “fell passionately in love” with this great man of the jungle. Sadly, though, he broke her heart. “What did he go and do!? He married the wrong Jane!” (This really made me giggle.)

Jane’s curiosity, intrigue and sense of adventure was obvious even from a young age, and is something so many of us can relate to. To be honest with you I didn’t know a lot about Jane’s background until I went to her talk last night. I knew she was a learned woman, but I had no idea that when she first arrived in Africa she didn’t have any kind of degree under her belt at all. She told us that when she was in her early 20s, a friend of hers invited her to Kenya. Perhaps it was that brave, rugged man-of-the-jungle’s story that fueled her fascination with all things African, but it was an invitation she just couldn’t pass up. She worked as hard as she could to afford a return boat passage to Africa, and waved her mother goodbye at the age of 23.
As Jane pointed out last night, it is not uncommon for much younger women to head off across the world on adventures nowadays – but back then it was practically unheard of. Thus not only was Jane a pioneer in the field of biological science and conservation, but also for the independent, traveling woman. She described her journey to Africa as “total magic”; watching the grey waters surrounding England turn to blue, the smells of Africa in the air, flying fish and other new creatures right in front of her. She ended up getting a job with Louis Leakey, renowned paleoanthropologist. She impressed him with her knowledge of Africa’s nature despite never being there before or having a graduate education. He eventually secured six months of funding for an observational program, and sent her on her way to what is now known as Gombe Stream National Park, a part of Tanzania only accessible by boat that was home to indigenous chimpanzees. Jane wasn’t the only non-African to lead this excursion, though; once again, her mother lent amazing support and actually came along for four months of the journey! In Jane’s presentation last night, she thanked her mother countless times, recognising that without her curiosity, dreams and wild inspirations being nurtured, she would never have turned out the way she has.
Jane spent four months on Gombe without observing too much that she would consider as ‘ground-breaking’. Her mother tried to convince Jane that the young pioneer had done amazing work; she had been getting glimpses of the way these animals live; their social structure, their territorial behaviour, the way they care for one another. But Jane said the most breakthrough observation happened just after her mother left Gombe and returned home, four months after the excursion began. ‘David Greybeard’ was a male chimp that Jane had named for the grey colour of his beard. He was the chimpanzee Jane first grew closest to, and she believes he helped the other chimps trust in her as they learnt she wouldn’t hurt them. One day, Jane was watching David Greybeard as he sat near a termite mound. He picked a long blade of grass out of the ground, and stuck it in the termite mound. The chimpanzee pulled the blade of grass out of the termite mound, which was now covered in termites, and Jane watched in awe as he picked the termites off the grass with his lips and crunched them in his mouth. He then repeated this action of dipping the blade of grass into the termite mound to collect insects before sticking them in his mouth to eat them. This was ground breaking, because this was what is known as tool use.
Not only did Jane discover that the chimpanzees knew how to use tools, but they would also do things such as strip a twig of its leaves and go fishing for termites. This is called tool modification, and it is the beginning of tool making. Back then, scientists believed humans were the only species intelligent enough to make tools. When Jane reported her findings, her mentor told her that it was incredible. “We will either have to redefine ‘man’, redefine ‘tool’, or accept chimpanzees as humans!”

Thus Jane completely changed what humans then thought they knew about non-human intelligence.

Something else Jane said last night really stuck in my mind. She said that through watching the chimpanzees, she came to see they were far more like us than we ever realised. They had evolved to use touch, posture, and gestures as forms of communication – like we have. She proved that certain knowledge was passed down in different communities from generation to generation – this is known as ‘culture’ in human terms. She showed they have incredible social bonds. She also said, however, that “tragically, like us, they have a dark side.”

A dark side. But their dark side, and our dark side, are on extremely different levels in my opinion.

Jane learnt that the chimpanzees can be very aggressive. Groups of neighbouring territories fight, and some individuals – sometimes many individuals – die from their wounds. To establish hierarchy inside a group there are always physical tests of strength, fights and arguments. To get to the top, a male chimpanzee has to beat the current highest-ranking male. Jane learnt that different chimpanzees would use different strategies to do so. A chimpanzee she named Goliath was quite fond of throwing rocks. He was overthrown by Mike, a male who wasn’t the strongest or biggest chimpanzee in the Gombe group Jane was watching, but “he had brains”. Mike learnt that he could use empty kerosene bottles from Jane’s camp as tactical weapons, throwing and kicking them at opponents during challenging displays. Mike ended up reigning for six years. He was eventually overthrown by a chimp named Humphrey, who didn’t have brains but possessed a lot of brawn and would only challenge Mike when his brother was around – the two of them would team up against Mike. Humphrey was at the top of the hierarchy for a year-and-a-half, before losing out to another male. And so on and on it went.
“But they also have a good side – like us. They show compassion. They show altruism.” Of course, in the science world you can’t claim that a non-human animal is ‘compassionate’, or ‘caring’, or ‘kind’. Or even ‘happy’ or ‘sad’. Jane witnessed countless examples of times where the chimps expressed a quality we had only ever used for ourselves. For example, it is common for a young chimpanzee to be adopted by an older brother or sister if it loses its mother, but Jane witnessed an unrelated male adopt a young baby in need – he ensured it was fed, he kept it safe, tucked it against himself when he slept; he saved its life despite social and survival rules dictating otherwise.
After Jane’s initial six months of research, the National Geographic offered to fund the program for another six to seven years. Louis Leakey did want Jane to have more credibility, though, and made sure she did a PhD. For someone with so much knowledge and experience as Jane, she said she felt terrible when her professors constantly told her she was “wrong”. She was trying to explain that chimpanzees are capable of thinking, and emotions, but in the world of scholars this is not allowed. You have to be very careful about your wording if you are to be taken seriously in science. Jane told us last night that if anyone had a dog growing up, or lived caring for a cat or cow or rabbit we would know animals have personalities, minds and feelings – but she could not communicate this the way she wanted in her higher education. A friend of hers came up with a suggestion, a loophole for this if you will. Instead of saying, “the young chimpanzee behaved that way because it was jealous,” she simply would say (and here’s a tip for all you biologists out there!) “The young chimpanzee behaved in such a way that if she was a human child, we would say she was jealous.” Clever!

Jane said she never meant to get into the “sanctuary business”. It is a huge commitment to take on a chimpanzee for the rest of its life. It is expensive, and requires resources. She said it is the most difficult thing to fundraise for. But Jane was walking through a marketplace one day and saw a little chimp, chained, in a cage, surrounded by tall local men laughing and shouting loudly. The little thing looked at her, as if to say ‘Won’t anyone help me?’
The bush meat trade is still going strong. Roads carved through natural habitat for foreign logging and mining operations (etc.) have created an easy access way for poachers to travel along and shoot whatever they come across – elephants, gorillas, chimpanzees, birds, bats; anything they want. I have talked about the use of wild animals as photo props – and Jane reiterated last night that the only way to get a young wild-born primate is to kill its family. Mothers and family groups are slaughtered for the bush meat trade, while tiny youngsters are taken in and sold illegally. Hotels buy them because it attracts tourists. Sometimes ignorant (and often non-ignorant) foreigners purchase them. It is all funding the same killing. Jane called the authorities in regards to the little fellow she found in the marketplace, and he became her first rescue chimpanzee.
Now Jane is involved with dozens of sanctuaries in different areas. Rescuing a chimp, to her, is a pledge that it will be safe for the rest of its life. It will be physically cared for, its intelligence will be nurtured and it will be kept mentally stimulated. It will be free from harm and distress. Chimpanzees can be difficult to look after; they are strong, potentially dangerous (I definitely know this after working with dear old solitary chimp Janie at the zoo!), and they do require a lot to keep them busy. They can live for over 60 years. It is no small commitment. “Is it worth it?” Jane asked out loud last night. “Every single chimpanzee is worth it.” She said it is also worth it when people come through one of the sanctuaries, realise they relate more to chimps than they could have ever imagined, and walk away saying something like ‘I’ll never eat chimpanzee again.’ That is a small but important victory.

Jane spurred biological science on to accept that chimpanzees (and, consequently, other animals) are extremely intelligent. They not only use tools, but actually modify and make tools. They have families; they care for each other even if it is not beneficial for themselves as individuals. They learn from each other. They pass knowledge down through generations. They mourn for lost group members. They are extremely intelligent. “But,” as Jane points out, “what is this in comparison to we who build rockets? Make robots that walk on Mars? Send a man to the moon?” It just doesn’t compare. So then how is it possible that us, a species so intelligent, is utterly destroying its one and only home?

“Where have we gone wrong?” Jane asked us, pausing to look around the theatre. I know I couldn’t answer.

Jane went on to say that she believes we lost our wisdom along the way. We have experienced this explosive spurt of intellect, but now we are making decisions without thinking about how it will affect our descendants and the future. We base decisions on the next political campaign, on the next paycheck, on “what I want right now.” I think of it in the sense that humankind is in its teenage phase: going around doing whatever it wants without thought of the consequences. Unfortunately, there is nobody wiser around to make us stop. We will be left to learn from our mistakes all by ourselves – but what happens if it is too late to learn? What if the mistakes are so drastic we can’t ever fix them?

“Earth provides enough to satisfy every man’s need, not every man’s greed.”
Mahatma Gandhi

Jane has seen a lot in her time. She now spends 300 days out of every year in some foreign place, dedicated to spreading awareness and supporting conservation. She said she hasn’t stayed more than three weeks in the same place in a very long time. You would think, with so much happening in the world, that she would become as so many people do – weighed down, hopeless, helpless. But she is filled with more hope than I have seen in a lot of people. Last night she noted that she meets a lot of ‘young people’ who are depressed, desperate, and even angry about what goes on. They do not think anything will ever change, and they have almost given up. Jane disagrees. She believes we have a “window of hope” – a very short time in which we can change what goes on. She set up her Roots & Shoots program, which gets people to take part in three projects: 1) people (e.g. volunteering with a woman’s refuge), 2) animals (e.g. fostering an animal in need), and 3) the environment (e.g. clearing rubbish). Roots & Shoots started with twelve students, and has spread across to 136 countries with thousands of active groups. Jane says it encourages people to go back to “watching plants grow and playing in the dirt,” the thought of which I absolutely love.

Dame Jane Goodall has hope. One of her favourite trees is a giant English oak – a ginormous tree that starts from a mere, tiny seed. “How can something so small become so big? There is a magic in the seed – a life force.” I love how she uses the word ‘magic’ to describe so many things that many of us take for granted. The magical life force in that tiny seed allows it to slowly, slowly but surely reach down into the ground for nutrients and shoot up from the dirt for sunlight. And eventually, the huge oak tree can break bricks and crack houses in two. This is the power Jane sees in young people. She has hope because of the people who haven’t given up yet, who see the time ahead of them as an opportunity to contribute something good. She has hope because of the human brain – there are people doing and creating amazing things to help change the way we are abusing the world. And Jane has hope because of the resilience of nature. She used the story of the Black robin in New Zealand as an example of this resilience:
The Black robin as a species got down to only seven individuals. Only two of those individuals were female. One was infertile, and the final remaining female (affectionately named “Blue” for the blue band on her leg) had an infertile mate. These birds supposedly mate for life, but the very last fertile female Black robin in the entire world decided to find herself a new mate, and with a little help from some very dedicated conservationists, there are now over 200 Black robins.

“Don’t give up,” urges Jane. “We possess an indomitable spirit. Live with love and compassion.” Nurture fresh curiosity. Be a conscious consumer. Support good things. Have a look at Jane’s Roots & Shoots program – if every person in the world started out by doing three small, good deeds, how different would life be?
When someone asks “So what do you do?” don’t give the standard, “Oh, I work in retail” answer. Be able to tell them what you actually do – what is important, not for money, but for our home, for our descendants, for the innocents out there who don’t deserve mistreatment.

If you read through this whole thing and it resonates with you, that’s a damn good start, and like Jane you give me hope.

Sam

- http://www.janegoodall.org/
- http://rootsandshoots.org/

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