As we bumped across the open field of the campground near our house, en route to our favourite creek, my son leaned out the window and yelled, “Look mama! Grass!!” The New Zealand Department of Conservation, who own this campground and the vast majority of the land on the island, had just come through and neatly mowed the grass we were driving on, leaving piles of clippings behind. By now my son knows how much I love grass clippings. We parked in our usual spot near the water and I pulled two 60 litre (15 gallon) washing tubs from the back of our minivan, then promptly loaded them with fistfuls of clippings until our bare feet and hands were tinged green. “Alright, we got our grass, now let’s go play!” I hollered, and we all ran down to the water for a swim.

As mentioned in a previous post, the first thing we built when we moved here was a 4-foot by 4-foot compost enclosure using scavenged wood pallets. I knew we would need hay or sawdust or other green material for our composting system, which absorbs all our food waste, human waste, and diapers. But I had no idea how much. After using up the grass clippings from our own lawn, I began using the leaves raked up from under our trees, but we still needed more. And that’s how I became a scavenger.


Hunting for seaweed

It’s a bit of a thing on the island, scavenging. It’s so difficult (and expensive) to get things delivered here that most locals are quite resourceful. I never feel embarrassed when neighbours drive past while I’m pulled over on the side of the road busily stuffing grass clippings into a big burlap coffee sack, or when our car smells like seaweed because I’ve hauled loads of it in from our recent beach outings (seaweed is great for the garden).

We went camping this past weekend at a gorgeous spot down the road where ancient pohutukawa trees tower over meadows, and streams meander to an isolated beach. A flock of sheep grazed nearby and the ground was dotted with their manure. “I bet this would be great in the garden,” I said to Isaac, who replied, “Lins, don’t get too carried away.” Regretfully, I didn’t come home with a bucket of manure.

Camping at a glorious spot dotted with manure

The epitome of the scavenging spirit has got to be the recycling centre on the island, located just down the road from the dump (which is on Donald Trump road). The focal point of this busy spot is the “tip shop”, an open-air store that sells the junk other people don’t want anymore. They have a room of books, racks and racks of clothing, wetsuits, dishes, bikes, strollers, old building materials, and a whole room of toys.

Our kids love going there, and we let them pick out whatever they want when we do. One day our son fell in love with the remote for a remote control car (the car itself was long gone). Last week we found some old metal tea pots, which the kids have been playing “tea party” with for days. One person’s trash makes another person’s day.

The beloved "tip shop"

We recently needed a tarp to cover a precious load of timber we just had delivered. We could have bought one and had it delivered to the island for $10, but instead we swung by the “tip shop” on our way home and asked if they had any. The woman working there guided us to the backyard, where a pile of ripped and ruined tents sat in a corner. She handed me a pair of scissors. “Go ahead and cut the bottom off one of these, some of them are quite big.” I snipped the waterproof bottom off a 10-foot square tent and we neatly folded it up. Tarp accomplished! I needed a zipper for a sewing project as well, so I snipped one of those off too. We took it all home for $5.

And that’s how scavenging has become my go-to solution for composting, gardening, keeping my kids entertained with new toys, and acquiring bits and bobs that we need around the house. There's plenty to scavenge on the island to eat, from mussels to mushrooms, but I haven't learned enough about that yet to do it. And if I had more free time, I’d probably get more of my clothes from the secondhand shops as well. Every time I see a woman wearing a cute dress on the island and comment on it, her response is almost always a very proud, “Got it at the top shop!” But with two toddlers constantly in tow, I have yet to find much time to pick through the racks for something for myself. For now though, I’m pretty stoked to get a bucket full of grass once in a while.

In building, the first phase should literally be called “getting off the ground.” It’s slow and muddy, from my limited experience. But once the foundation has been dug and slopped full of concrete, and the tedious work of squaring and attaching bearers and joists is done, the real fun starts. And that’s where we have arrived with our project. With a solid (and square!) foundation beneath us, we insulated, glued, and screwed down a plywood floor, and everything is up from here.

I’ve found joy in many parts of the project so far, but nothing is as enjoyable as framing. The math of putting together a frame is gloriously precise, and the thrill at seeing a wall stood up in its place when we’re done is addictive. I can understand now why owner-builders (people who build their own homes) find themselves working dawn til dusk once a project gets going. I’d do the same if I could. But just as our building project has picked up momentum, so has our life here.

When we first arrived, I frequently forgot what day of the week it was. With everything shut because of Covid restrictions, and without the routine of an office job, the days all ran together for us. If it was sunny, I’d take the kids to the beach; if it wasn’t, we’d get creative indoors. But as things opened back up, our schedule filled with play groups and commitments, and now we’re as busy as we ever want to be. It’s ironic (but typical of the pandemic) that schools, cafes, and even playgrounds were closed for months while there wasn’t a single case of Covid on the island and only a handful in all of New Zealand. Now that there are tens of thousands of cases in the country, things are all open again. And as expected, Covid finally made its way to the island, spreading slowly from family to family. After a week of shock, islanders seem to be going about life as normal for the most part, dropping away from social events for a week or so as they get it, then re-emerging once well. Isaac and I made a decision long ago that we wouldn’t live our lives in fear of Covid – we are vaccinated and are carrying on, crossing our fingers that our children don’t get it but believing that the effect of sheltering them from social interaction is likely to be worse long term. (I know families have varying perspectives on this and I respect all of them.)

There isn’t a preschool or even a daycare on the island, though many families would love there to be and a project has been in the works for two years to launch an early childhood program for 3 - 5 year-olds. In the meantime, most families have a parent who either doesn’t work or does odd hours to juggle care. There are 3 or 4 main babysitters on the island who make nice money via jam-packed schedules looking after the various island kids whose parents need a break. We managed to book some hours into our week with two of them, giving Isaac and I more time to work on the house.

In lieu of professionally managed childcare centres, life for kids here is a mix of parent-assisted activities throughout the week. There’s a nature-based playgroup on Monday mornings, where we play games and run amok in a different outdoor setting each week. There’s a weekly music group in the park, led by one of the babysitters, where kids can bonk drums and rattle instruments for an hour together. And three days a week, the local “Playcentre” opens for families and kids under 5. And all if this is free.


Exploring trails with other families

Playcentre is ubiquitous in New Zealand. It’s based on the Kiwi belief that families and the community ought to be involved in a young child’s learning (maternity leaves here are long, and it’s widely accepted for a parent of young kids to take a career break to be with them). This government-sponsored centre on the island looks like a preschool, albeit a quite liberal one. In addition to the typical bookshelves, art supplies, and dress up area, there is a sprawling play structure with a track for riding scooters and bikes around (usually without helmets or shoes). There is a wood shop filled with drills, saws, screw drivers, hammers, and nails (yes, real ones!) where kids can bang away. There is a garden filled with strawberries and weeds, and water spigots where kids can get as muddy or wet as desired. From 9am to 1pm on “Playcentre days”, kids explore and run wild while parents chat and help set up activities. When kids are hungry, they can head to the “kai”(Maori word for food) table where their lunchboxes are laid out. At the end of the session we all clean up.

The free and unstructured nature of Playcentre was odd to me at first, having been used to more rigid daycare systems back in the US. But once I realized that Playcentre isn’t school, but rather the equivalent of a really cool playdate at an amazing spot filled with toys and activities we don’t have at home, I dug it. And the kids do too. They run to the gate each time we pull up there.

Swimming at our nature playgroup

On top of all this, Tuesdays is a volunteer-run surf school for kids down at the most central beach on the island. Isaac volunteers as one of the main teachers there, and even families with kids too young to surf show up. It’s an unofficial beach party for everyone, and our boys dig in the sand or venture out for a splash with me. While our youngest bobbed in his inner tube beside me in water so clear I could see the sand below us, I imagined my own boys paddling out on foam surfboards someday, standing up and falling into the waves like the bigger kids.

With all these activities to keep track of, we’ve mounted a whiteboard on the wall at home to write up the schedule for the week. Any opening of free time means building and, to be honest, they’re the most looked-forward-to parts of my week.

So much of our kids early education here is about nature.

This morning the rain cleared for a few hours, and I ran to the work site to set up the drop saw. I’d almost finished our first full-height frame, and couldn’t wait to stand it up. As I popped nails into place with the nail gun, then effortlessly cut pieces of framing timber to size, I realized how thrilling it is to have mastered all these new skills. At previous jobs, I loved working out systems for how to do things efficiently and precisely, and building is no different. Only instead of sitting at a desk with tight shoulders and restless legs, I’m moving around and fitting things into place with my hands. It is hundreds of times more enjoyable to me at this stage of my life (even when I make mistakes and have to de-nail a board or rip something apart!).

Because autumn and winter rains are on their way already, our goal is to have the framing done by end of the month, which is in a week. Then it’s rafters, roofing, and cladding (the stuff on the outside of the house). There’s a six month wait on drywall here (jib board as they call it in NZ), so it’s likely the project will stall again once we start working on the interior. But with such a busy life now, who knows – maybe it’ll be nice to have a little break for a while.

Isaac’s grandmother passed away last week, and as he and his parents arranged flights to go for her funeral, we decided I’d stay on the island with the kids, just the three of us. Empowered to do things my way, I took them swimming every afternoon down at the estuary beside the beach and we ate leftovers for dinner out of lunchboxes. We painted big sheets of cardboard on the deck and the boys covered their clothes, and then their bodies, in colours. At bath time I indulged in filling the massive old clawfoot tub all the way up, using up all the hot water we had, and then jumped into it with the kids. “A mama bath!” they shouted. When they were both in bed and all the dishes were done, I sat in the quiet house with light from the quarter moon streaming in and felt at peace.

It was hard for me to imagine what to write about this week, despite the fact that so much has gone on in our little world here since my last post – we’ve finished our deck and the floor for our house, Covid arrived on the island with a sweep of infections, and New Zealand’s borders finally opened to the world. None of these things in our little life here seem that important; I’ve been glued to the news and can’t stop thinking about the people of Ukraine, just like I couldn’t stop thinking about those in Afghanistan a few months ago. The peace and simplicity of our life here seems absurd, even criminal, when so many people in the world are living amid violence and uncertainty. How is it that I get to be so lucky when the world is the way it is?

Despite donating all I could to UNICEF, I was weighted down with these thoughts when Isaac came back, tired from his few days away. He took the kids while I got a couple hours to catch up on projects up on our building site.

I’d collected a huge bucket of seaweed from the beach and wanted to mix it with compost in the future veggie garden we’re building. The clay soil is heavy and dried out, and I’ve read that planting lupins, poppies, and crimson broad beans on it would help get the soil life going. If anything it would at least look prettier and feed some bees while we continue to build the house.

I broke a sweat digging in the seaweed, then carried six bags of compost up the hill one by one. For months now, this heap of topsoil that the digger scraped aside when we excavated our building site had been turning to dust in the sun. Now it was laid out and ready to grow something. I loved imagining green things sprouting from it, new life teeming above and below ground. I was kneeling to bury the seeds when I realized that my fervent gardening was really a reaction to what I was feeling in the world right now. Death and destruction call for new life, and there was a need in me to grow something after reading the news day after day.

Mother Teresa once said, “If you want to change the world, go home and love your family.” In these helpless moments, when I wish there was more I could do to fix things in the great big world out there, I am drawn to nurturing the soil around me and the little lives I share a roof with. That’s all we can do, most of the time. Pour love into our own little patch of this earth and the people we share it with.

Our deck, which we finished this week!

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