Hiria Dunning

Love in the Time of Te Rāhuinui

Ko wai ka kite i te hua o te kuaka? / Who has ever held a godwit's egg? [1]

Not I. And I never will, I expect.

This whakataukī about having faith in unseen forces has become a bitter pill for me to swallow. The godwits lay their eggs in Alaska, then summer in Aotearoa from September to March every year. And in the time of Te Rāhuinui, also known as the Global Ecological Restrictions, we flightless birds are constrained, never to see Alaska, or Morocco, or anywhere else.

I shouldn't be watching Casablanca tonight. It's fouling my mood, despite today being the start of my doctoral research term at the Kuaka Coastal Recovery Centre. Even in a film about struggling to escape a place amidst a terrible war, the people on the screen had more freedom to move then than we do now. We must curtail frivolous luxuries for the good of Earth's systems, I know. Yet I cannot avoid the twin pangs of want and guilt when I see the pamphlets on screen: Free France.

Not too long ago, I was walking through Rangipuke Park by the uni (Dad still calls it Albert Park by accident). Someone shoved pamphlets under my nose: Free Aotearoa! End the Unjust Rāhui!Despite part of me wanting to explore the idea of a legal challenge to open the world up, there was something about the woman holding the pamphlet. It was in her eyes, a rabidness that turned me off. I scurried away before I got drawn in. When I walked past the park later, wardens were chastising the pamphleteers for wasting resources.

“My dear Rick, when will you realise that in this world today isolationism is no longer a practical policy?” Preach, Signor Ferrari.

Teagan, fellow doctoral candidate, enters our shared bedroom, immediately scoffing. "That's right. They warned me: 'Ingrid watches the same damn films all the time.'"

"So? Watch. You never know, you might enjoy it."

She does so, hunched beside me on my bed so she can see the tiny screen of my laptop better. But after a while, something stirs her from her seat. “Sorry, ‘Grid. I can’t do it. I can’t watch things from that long ago. It always makes me wonder… didn’t they see this coming? Doesn't it make you mad?"

"I'm allowed to like what I like. My Dad's an old film buff. It rubbed off."

"Fair enough." She slips over to her bunk and chooses a heavy tome from her bedside nook. For all she mocks me, her taste in books seems equally continental and twentieth century. Tonight, she’s reading something called Love in the Time of Cholera. Pleasant.

Much like having to put up with Te Rāhuinui, I'm going to have to put up with Teagan for the next six months. That's a sacrifice I'm willing to make, to be with the creatures I've devoted my doctorate to: the Eastern bar-tailed godwit, or kuaka.

 

SEPTEMBER

 

They arrive with tired, heavy grace, in a huge formless mass like static on an old TV screen (something Dad explained to me, when it happened in an old movie, because I had no idea what the fuzzy black and white meant). With their wings spread in the air, their shape makes sense: the darkness on the wings balancing the white underbelly, the spread of wing-to-tail-to-beak an elegant, pointed geometry.

Then they land, and it is all comedy. 

Wings drooping on the ground, they sweep around the shore like dowagers and old maids entering a ball, the excitement of their arrival all gone. We workers are the suited-up gentlemen awaiting these feathered dames, excitement coursing through us as they land. We can only watch, for now. Later, the real work will begin, treading gently in the dance. 

It is my job, once the new arrivals have settled in for the night, to walk around following the quiet ping of my sensor. There is an old saying that the kuaka carry a stone in their mouth which helps them find their way back here every year. I don’t know about that, but some of them do carry a secret. Certain birds have data pegs tucked away in their tags, replete with communications from the teams in China, Japan and Alaska. The files on the pegs can be gathered from two metres away. Once all the pings on the sensor have vanished, I've collected all there is to collect, and I head in for the night.

In the morning, I analyse the data collected. Plenty of it has been sent over the academic web already, backed up on the pegs to ensure the message comes through correctly; this hen was injured by illegal fishing nets in the Huang Hai Sea, but made a full recovery; that male has an aggressive streak, proceed with caution; records of diseases and injuries; breeding statistics; nicknames, even, for individual birds.

Then something unexpected catches my attention. A video file labelled Hello from Alaska. I open it up to see a tanned and freckled face under a shock of red-brown hair. The man breaks into a smile that transforms his whole face from boyish to bright. When he speaks, his voice is loud, with an accent I've only heard in old movies.

"Hey there! I have no idea who this message is going to reach, but I don't know, I just feel kinda compelled to reach out across the world and say Hi from the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta in Alaska. My name's Noah, I'm twenty-six, and I'm a biologist—well I mean, that's obvious, probably, to my audience, whoever you are. Hopefully you speak English, because I highly doubt my message will find a Yup’ik speaker across the world... But anyway, I wanted to reach out across the GER, say Hi, get to know someone who lives different from me, because life is awful protracted around here. Anyway, what to say... uh... 

He shifts in his seat, uncomfortable, and I'm nodding along as if to give him a positive social cue, keep going.

“To be more specific, I’m a Research Team Lead here in the Yukon Delta Reserve. Because of the protected status of the teguteguaq—the godwit, that is, in my indigenous language, Yup’ik—because of that I’m one of a very small bunch of people allowed to live in this place on the Delta. I winter nearby too, living on reclaimed tribal land.”

He shares some photos of the birds in situ. The images are a window into another world, where the grey birds are transformed. When breeding season hits, they turn reddy-brown. It’s funny to think how the same birds we both care about are so different in the two places.

"So, I love birds, obviously. Godwits are just... like, do you get what I mean when I say I love how stupid they look sometimes? That way they drag their wings after landing... It's enough to make my eyes water, trying to keep myself from giggling in front of my colleagues. It’s like they’ve got big sweeping skirts on, don’t you think? 

He's looking off past the camera, his eyes bright, his smile wide again. I'm nodding along and laughing. I do think they look like big sweeping skirts!

"Anyway, what else to say... I play guitar—not well, but I enjoy it. I love old music. I mean like, stuff that’s coming up on its second centenary. Don’t judge me. But ooh, let’s see, can I recommend anything, in case you’re interested. Well, all right, let’s start really 101 beginners here, some classic Rat Pack, and say… Frank Sinatra. If you can get your hands on some of his music, I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised.

“So, uh, yeah… if you find this, whoever you are, why don’t you consider saying Hi from your side of the world? I’d love to get to meet someone I'd never meet otherwise. So, piuraa! Which means goodbye, or ‘stay as you are’.”

 

MARCH

 

"Hi Noah, kia ora. It's nice to meet you. My name's Ingrid Rawiri, and I'm twenty-four. I come from Tāmaki Makaurau, Aotearoa, but while I'm doing my doctorate, I summer with the godwits down the coast.”

I’ve watched Noah's message again and again, all three minutes and fifty-six seconds of it, who knows how many times since that day, over the weeks and months intervening.

I agonised over months about what to say to him. Would it be too weird if I went all out? Too late. I’m going all out.

“So, this is labelled video #1, even though I’m recording this just before the godwits take off. After I saw your message in September, I started collecting stuff to show you. It’s all numbered chronologically, but you can ignore that if you want and just browse.”

There was no rush to respond in September, no way to rush anyway. He'd sent it over the data pegs, without backing it up on the web. He hadn't attached an email address or any other way to get in contact. Nor should he have, given the academic nature of such an address. We are supposed to conserve international web resources for essential things. Random pen pal relationships are not included in that. So that meant I’d have to rely on Air Godwit to deliver my response to this contraband message of Noah's.

With all that time between, I collected images and short videos of the godwits, of our work, the land, even our parties. I curated an interesting package to send across the world. I even had all my colleagues wish him a Happy New Year on video.

“I managed to find some Frank Sinatra.” Dad had complained about the hassle of hunting in old music archives and mailing the data peg to me through the university’s internal system. “Actually, it became a whole rabbit hole for me, chasing down the whakapapa—the ancestral lines—of the different songs of his, because it seems like those guys back then were always covering each other’s music. I ended up falling in love with Bing Crosby’s version of I’ll be Home for Christmas. You should check that out.

“Anyway, would love some more music recommendations if you’ve got any. As for me, I’m an old film buff, so I’d like to recommend some classic cinema if you’ve got the time for it. Bear in mind, please, some of these are very ‘of their time’. But I would have to recommend Casablanca, definitely—I was named after Ingrid Bergman—and I suppose Singing in the Rain, Wizard of Oz and Seventh Seal are big favourites of mine too.” 

I worked the intervening months between September and March, caring for any ailments of the godwits, tracking their numbers, health, growth, and various other important stats we want kept. And I took lots of photos.

"We call the GER Te Rāhuinui here. I wonder how tough you find living under it? I wish I could travel the world, like our feathered friends. Still, in the absence of that option, I guess I'm going to make sure they can keep on keeping on!"

“Oh, and by the way, we have something like ‘piuraa’ for goodbye down here too. It’s ‘E noho rā’ which means goodbye, but also like… ‘you keep sitting there’.” I’m laughing at myself. I have to turn this damn camera off.

The godwits are already exhibiting pre-flight behaviours. For a few days now they’ve been fluffing up their feathers, calling to each other in that certain way that means, “Oi, let’s get on with it.” I leg it down the dunes, my sensor tuned to find the bird that carried Noah's message before.

There she is, with a mate, stocking up on rich pipi under the sand. Not that I can see past where her beak is dug in, searching. I stand as close as I dare, hoping not to spook her, sending my video sailing invisibly onto her data peg.

They take flight the next morning. I stand amongst my own human flock, blending in, my secret message hidden so well I can't even tell which one of those hundreds of birds bears it. After the party that night, and the clean-up the next morning, we board our transit and hover back to the university. I’ll spend the next six months doing the other half of my duties for my doctorate in kaitiakitanga, including education and promotion of the kuaka and protective measures.

 

SEPTEMBER

 

Half a year later, I watch the arrival again with more experienced eyes. The numbers in the flock are growing. Our work here and across the globe is making its mark.

I’m so caught up in the energy of the arrival that it’s not until the next day I notice the package on the data peg of a bird nicknamed “Ginny”. Hello again from Alaska. It’s big, a compressed file filled with a whole series of videos. I open #1. 

A year on, not much has changed about Noah. His hair is longer, his freckles a bit darker this time. "Hi, uh... Ingrid. I gotta tell you, I almost forgot I even sent that message a year ago, so to get a response… and damn, the effort you went to, all those photos and videos? I’m totally grateful. Really nice to meet you.”

There is something different about him knowing my name this time. This isn’t just some random greeting across the world. This is him, talking to me.

“So, I watched the films you recommended. Singing in the Rain was pretty good, and Wizard of Oz, like… wow! But my favourite is definitely Casablanca. It’s shot up pretty high in my personal movie rankings. Thanks for introducing me to it."

I'm smiling, and I'm clutching my elbows, and my heart is doing a flip in my chest. This is silly. I’m silly.

“And uh… maybe you get the joke, about what I named our bird. Ginny. Do you get it?” He pauses for effect, and I blink back, blank. “Out of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world..." His laughter is music to my ears. “Get it? Ginny, gin joint..." He sighs, his embarrassment at himself leaking through the screen.

No, go on Noah. I get it. I get you.

"I sure wish we could meet in real life." He sighs, and my heart sighs along with him.

This video is a long one. I listen to his descriptions of what the GER is like up in Alaska. It turns out there are extra layers of difficulty in North America. The attempts to find a path to co-governance were harder there. Even between well-meaning parties, everything got to be a bit of a bureaucratic tangle, and that’s before the Republic of Calvary rose up and threatened everyone else with their extreme demands for a return to “liberty”. I would laugh, if not for how serious Noah is about it. To me, this all sounds like the politics of decades ago, but to him it’s still so real, so close to home.

He’s kept a whole string of video logs and photos. I’m treated to greetings from most of his colleagues; long panoramas of the huge delta mudflats stretching far to either horizon with cinnamon-plumed godwits busy raising the next generation; and little slices of Noah’s life. He fills me in on his year since his first message and regales me with tales of his favourite godwits. I note the names down to track them later.

In one of the videos he starts a rivalry with me, calling the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta the godwits’ “real home”. "Excuse me," I say in a cheeky video back to him, "but the godwits summer in Aotearoa for a longer period of time than they spend in Alaska, I will have you know." But I already know what he’ll say back next year: they make their babies in Alaska, so that makes it really home, their birthplace. Fair enough.

I hunt down his music recommendations. In return I recommend another run of old cinema, bringing the focus back to Aotearoa by suggesting the works of Taika Waititi and others.

The video file which gets the most replay is his final video. Instead of a simple goodbye, he grabs an acoustic guitar from off-screen. He starts to sing in this clear tenor, so different from the deeper drawl of his speaking voice. "You must remember this... a kiss is still a kiss... a smile is just a smile... The fundamental things apply, as time goes by..."

I can't help it. By the time he finishes the song and bids me goodbye—"Here's looking at you, kid"—I'm smiling, laughing, and there are tears in my eyes.

 

MARCH.

 

I may have annoyed Teagan by playing all this old-fashioned music recommended by Noah. For Kirihimete, she gave me headphones. 

"So... what are you sending back to gorgeous Noah, hmm?" I ignore Teagan, but this is a mistake. "He could be a deep fake, you know. You might not be talking to some cute Alaskan. He could be some filthy old guy.”

“Teagan…”

“Shouldn't send nudes, in case Ginny gets intercepted—"

"Auē, Teagan. Will you shut up!"

Teagan cracks up, and rolls over, eyes still trained on her book. "Oh, I'm sorry, after being subjected to hearing his music all season, I'm not allowed to comment? Putting up with you mooning over this unattainable guy for the last six months—"

"I’m not mooning—”

Oh no. I really have been, haven’t I?

She can see from my face that she's touched a sensitive spot. "'S´all good, ’Grid. Forget I said anything."

I wait until she's gone to record my message to Noah, too raw to speak in front of her. I've got a bit of a script, some bullet points I want to hit in response to his last message. I don't trust my memory, especially not after what Teagan has made me face. I tell him all about my year, give him a little rundown of the other files on the peg. I don't have a talent to share with him, nothing to make his heart soar like mine did at that song.

"If only we lived in another time, huh? Maybe we could have met in person." My cheeks are burning, and I'm laughing at myself. I hope this comes across as normal, not creepy. "Pity about being half a world away from each other. But I just wanted to say, I really look forward to your messages, so... please keep sending them. Ka kite anō."

 

SEPTEMBER

 

Six months of burning with embarrassment and frustration and ennui, and here I am again, stalking the dunes for Ginny—1 new packet.

 

The computer room is blessedly empty. No one to hear me come crashing in, shoving the sensor's connectors into the first computer by the door, breath hot and heavy from running in the brisk night air by torch- and moonlight. I've forgotten to turn the lights on. With just my torch and the screen to show me the way, I click down the path that leads to the face I want to see. 

For Ingrid is the title this time. As if to tell all others with access to the data peg to stay out of this.

His face is not smiling as brightly this time, his eyes furtive. "Ingrid... hi. Well, I hope this is Ingrid, anyway, because I'll be mighty embarrassed if this makes it into someone else's hands...

"Listen, Ingrid... would you consider... maybe trying... to come up to Alaska? I don't know how you'd manage it, obviously. I looked into options for me to come down to Aotearoa—" I wince at the way he wraps his American mouth around the unfamiliar syllables "—but movement here is really restricted. I wasn't able to find out much about the travel options from your country, but... well, what I'm trying to say is that, in the world before this one, I would have tried to meet you, to see if this thing I feel going on between us is something that could... you know... Because really, in-person chemistry is where it's at, but I feel a connection to you already... Anyway. Sorry, maybe this is all just a one-sided thing for me, in which case, just forget I asked."

No, Noah. I want to see you too.

He continues in a lighter, smilier vein, telling me all about his year. He’s trying to ignore the heavy weight he just dropped. It’s not until the end that he even dares to hint at anything else, when he signs off: “Well... here's looking at you, kid."

What he asks is impossible.

 

MARCH

 

No matter how many photos I take, videos I share, moments in my life I give to him, I feel as if it all hinges around that one little sentence. I try to brush it off, contain it in just a few seconds amongst many other minutes of happy times, so it doesn’t linger or taint the rest of this package I’ve put so much care into.

“Hey, I’m sorry Noah, but I can’t leave Aotearoa.”

That’s it.

Te Rāhuinui rankles. And time... time goes by.

 

SEPTEMBER

 

I stare at the sensor with dead eyes.

Ginny—no new packets.

 

MARCH

 

The reason why he didn’t send anything is not the one I first thought. It's worse.

There's a war on. The Republic of Calvary sent their army and navy up to Alaska in their latest bid for North American reunification. Of course Noah can't send me a message back. Maybe he never even got my message, though in the news that I can scrape off the academic web, the war didn't start until February.

I research, I fill in applications, and after that flurry of activity, I have to sit down and ask myself—because I share these thoughts with no one—do I even want to go to Alaska? 

My maunga, my awa, my whānau is here. Kuaka Coastal Recovery is here, my university is here. Everything that I have learned about kaitiakitanga is specific to here. And I would be a fool to leave. Aotearoa has it so much better than so many other places in the world, thanks to our geographical isolation. Not to mention there’s a war!

I mull over these doubts as I tend to our birds, maintain their environs, monitor pest defences, and wait for word to come from the Ministry of Transport.

I watch Casablanca. “With the whole world crumbling, we picked this time to fall in love.” Yes, thanks for the reminder, Humphrey Bogart. My favourite film has me in tears now. Great.

I wish I was with Noah. I'm glad I'm not. To assuage my guilt and worry, I send as much of my paycheck as I can to Alaska to support their defence. I even rally others at the Centre, and in the surrounding towns, to do the same.

I get told off. Either because I was annoying people, or because I was wasting work time and resources. The centre manager warns me that I might not be invited back next year unless I clean my act up.

Instead of getting bitter about it, I pull my weight. I get all my work done on time, I contribute to the social life and the cleaning around the Centre. I make my apologies to anyone I have offended. Whenever my feelings get the better of me, there is Teagan to talk it through with me. By the end of season, I'm astounded to be rewarded for my efforts with a permanent position. No having to beg next year. I'll be back to see if Noah messages, if he's still alive.

I hold off on filming, waiting for my letter to arrive from the Ministry. When it arrives, the birds are already well fattened up and ready to take to the air.

“Kia Ora Ingrid,

Thank you for waiting for the results of your application to travel to Yukon Delta National Wildlife Refuge, Alaska. Our office is busy, and we apologise for any distress the long wait may have caused.

Your request has been marked as Personal, Non-Urgent. The Ministry would also like to make you aware that the region of the world you wish to travel to is currently considered dangerous for civilians due to military actions. This does not mean you have been refused, but due to the nature of your request, you will be subject to a wait time convenient to the Ministry. This could be up to twelve months under current wait list conditions.”

All right, so they haven't refused me. Free Aotearoa are wrong: the government does let people move, but it is heavily regulated travel. Our rights have not been completely shut down. The scientist in me was trying to say this all along: the government isn’t fascist; they are just asking us to make sacrifices to save the vulnerable species and environs around us.

This is fine, right? So why is there a pit growing in my gut?

“For your information, here is the estimated cost to the environment of your Personal, Non-Urgent trip:

  • Enough fuel to heat an urban school for six months
  • Significant risk to seals around Aotearoa and the Northern Pacific Rim (estimated death count: three adult seals)
  • Risk to migratory birds (estimated death count: at least one bird, e.g. one toroa or one kuaka)

If you decide to confirm your trip and join the waiting list, please—"

I can't see through my tears anymore.

The Ministry’s letter is on the desk before me as I try to hold it together in front of the camera and not cry about this man who might not even be alive to see this message.

“I’ve been trying really hard not to regret not coming when you invited me. Especially with the war. Sometimes I wonder, should I just go? Find out if you’re alive or dead? Can I live without knowing that?”

I can barely see the blip of Ginny on the sensor when I'm searching for her to tag the video to her data peg.

I can't go. Not at that cost. Not even one godwit.

Not even with the famous line from Casablanca ringing in my head: "... you'll regret it. Maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, but soon, and for the rest of your life."

 

SEPTEMBER

 

Te Rāhuinui continues. 

It will continue for the rest of my life. I will never get to enjoy the freedoms I am working so hard to realise.

The godwits arrive, cresting over the grey bulk of the dykes protecting the Hauraki plains from the encroaching sea. Ginny bears no news for me at all.

I make a decision. I won’t be such a wreck this year. To quote my favourite movie, “It doesn't take much to see that the problems of three little people don't amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world.” I will stay strong and make a happy home for these birds who fly halfway across the world twice a year.

The godwits, and every other creature on this planet, had to put up with a couple of centuries of us utterly ruining their world. Now it's our chance to experience some fairly reasonable deprivations. I will let that be the love we send each other, from across the world. I'll show my aroha for Noah in making sure these little guys get through the Antipodean summer. I hope if he's alive, he’ll do the same up in the Arctic. For now, I guess that’s going to have to be enough.

 

DECEMBER

 

He kuaka māranganga, kotahi manu e tau ki te tāhuna, tau atu, tau atu, tau atu. / The flock of godwits have swooped up into the air, one lands on the sandbank and the others follow[2]

They say that the godwits could have been integral in leading the people who became Māori to find Aotearoa. The continuity of the flock has become my guiding star. Part of my whakapapa, my purpose in life. Doing everything I can for them takes the edge off. 

I’m listening to my Kirihimete playlist when Sinatra’s smooth tones jump out at me. “…I’ll be home for Christmas / if only in my dreams…”

This is prime tear-jerker territory. Maybe I need to take this one off the list.

Teagan comes crashing into my room—my single occupancy room, now that we’re no longer students—and drags me out to the canteen. Everyone there stares at me as I enter. What have I done now?

She has the screen paused, ready for me to see the news item. She hits play, watches my face.

The images of a snowy war-torn place blink by without my comprehension, then footage from a refugee boat. There is a man in a huge puffer coat, handing out food to his fellow passengers. A shock of red-brown hair. Smiling despite it all.

 

I have not held a godwit’s egg. 

 

But I know. That’s enough. For most of human history, that’s all any of us get. For the kuaka, summer here, summer and eggs there: that’s all they ask.

Where the godwit lands, let the others follow.

 

[1] Traditional Māori whakataukī (proverb)

[2] Whakataukī attributed to Tūmatahina of Te Aupouri





Hiria Dunning

Hiria Dunning is a storyteller, mother of a human + a cat + two rabbits, a spouse, a musician, non-binary, Māori and Pakeha, an indie game developer, a software tester, a teacher, a thespian, a published playwright, a gamer, an animal enthusiast, an aspiring novelist, a fantasy and sci-fi nerd, among many other hats. www.hiriadunning.com