Postcard from New Zealand: 'Lord of the Rings' and well-run nature trails

This peaceful, orderly country stands in contrast to the frontier spirit of neighboring Australia, much like Canada compares to the U.S.
Crosscut archive image.

Fiordland National Park's Lake Gun

This peaceful, orderly country stands in contrast to the frontier spirit of neighboring Australia, much like Canada compares to the U.S.

In response to my recent piece on Australia, Crosscut readers quite correctly pointed out the role of natural resources and their extraction in the strength of the Australian economy. That is a major factor that I didn't note. Coal mining for the Chinese market is huge. Still, the more conservative bent of banking here (and in Canada) has been a hedge against inflation. And the more robust public sector has balanced excessive recourse to privatization.

Now I'm in my second week in small New Zealand, which affords opportunities for some comparison to its huge neighbor, Australia. In some respects, New Zealand is to Australia as Canada is to the United States. Australia, like the U.S., has the larger population and the dominant economy, tending to overshadow its neighbor culturally as well as economically.

But the analogy goes further. Coded into the national DNA of the United States is "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness." The parallel genetic code in Canada's founding documents is a different one: "peace, order and good government." The U.S. DNA tilts toward individual freedom: Don't tread on me, and let's try it. The Canadian inclination is toward social order, restraint and limits. As with all such things, each has its up and downsides.

Australia does seem to New Zealand a bit as the U.S. is to Canada, in both their cultural markers and characteristics. Australia, famously peopled with convicts, has a frontier feel and a good bit of the scofflaw. For example, littering is a matter of course in Australia, where it seems almost non-existent in New Zealand (or at least the South Island, where I've been).

That smaller example of littering can be extrapolated. In Australia the extraction of natural resources proceeds with limited environmental controls or concern. In New Zealand the use of natural resources and stewardship of the land is tightly managed.

This week, my daughter and I spent several days in the majestic, 3-million-acre Fiordland National Park in the southwest part of the South Island. The New Zealand Department of Conservation manages the awesome Fiordland very carefully. You get in either on tours or with permits. Access is limited. Hikers (trampers) are limited in number on the well-maintained major trails (or tracks, as they call them here).

In Australia, people told us that Australians probably are drawn culturally more to the U.S. and identify more with Americans. I can now see why. They are closer to us in the individualistic, frontier spirit. New Zealanders on the other hand seem closer to Canadians in their bent toward order and restraint.

There's good historical reason for all this. While the U.S. was born out of a revolution and Canada was not, Australia's European origins as a penal colony were not likely to create a sense of deep bonds to the homeland. Instead the feeling was probably more one of, "We don't need you!" In Australia you run into a kind of bawdy pride in the convict past, as in the Sydney brew-pub that had named its various brews after different famous convicts.

New Zealand was the site of the filming of "Lord of the Rings," and you can certainly see why it was the perfect choice for director Peter Jackson. The towering, glacier-carved mountains with vast, flat river valleys at their bases, combined with dark rainforests filled with evergreens that look like oaks (the Rimu tree, I'm told) give the forests a feel of mystery and depth.

You can sign up here for Lord of the Rings guided tours, led by movie extras who take devotees to various sites. You can pay $300 for a day of LOR pilgrimage. My daughter and I have contented ourselves with reading aloud a bit from the triology to add to the experience.

All such attempts to understand and describe national character and culture have to be taken with many grains of salt. Nevertheless, it's fascinating to compare these two neighboring nations here Down Under.


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About the Authors & Contributors

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Anthony B. Robinson

Anthony B. Robinson was the Senior Minister of Plymouth Church in downtown Seattle from 1990 to 2004. He was also a member of the Plymouth Housing Group Board. After living for many years in southeast Seattle, he moved recently to Ballard.