Not quite utopia but it beats city stress

A corner of Quarantine Island looking down to the sail-like chapel, the ''married quarters'' from...
A corner of Quarantine Island looking down to the sail-like chapel, the ''married quarters'' from quarantine days and across the water to Otago Peninsula and the University of Otago aquarium and marine science building. Photo by Shona Somerville.
Every city needs an island, Peter Matheson believes. The ring of water distances one from the normal urgencies of suburban or inner-city life, he writes.

Back Beach, Port Chalmers, on a windy morning. Twenty-five students pile out of cars, vans, even a taxi, some laden with packs; Canadians, Vietnamese, Italians, a Korean, a German, a group from the Czech Republic, several from the United States, a Dane.

A group of older Kiwis, too, from the Otago Sculpture Trust. We wait for our ferryman, John. Some of the girls, especially those from Vietnam, begin to shiver. Most are from the language school; when Sonja, their teacher, suggested visiting Quarantine Island, they jumped at the chance.

Relief when the boat slides in. Once over on the island, though, we're in the lee of the wind, and as we clamber up the ladder, no big deal on this fullish tide, almost at once there's the sense of leaving wind, worries and everything else behind.

They straggle down the jetty to the carved archway where Anna, one of the island keepers, welcomes them, pointing out its symbolism, the enfolding albatross, the outline of the harbour, tiny footprints reminding us of those who came here to be quarantined. Heritage, Maori and Pakeha.

We wander up the winding track to the lodge. The sun is breaking through the clouds now. For more than 50 years, the St Martin Island community has been welcoming such visitors. We form a loose circle of some 40 people on the grass and give folk a chance to say who they are, where they are from.

One of our older visitors speaks movingly about the sense of peacefulness he has already picked up. Anna outlines the plan for the day: watering the recent plantings of native trees by hand (everything is very dry) and freeing them up from weeds. We down a cuppa and soon three groups head for different locations on the island, armed with shears and water bottles, low-tech stuff.

A colourful line heads to the top of the island; they could be medieval pilgrims. Soon there's a to and fro of folk refilling bottles from the trough. Planting trees is one thing; ongoing care is their key to survival. When the Community began in the 1950s, apart from the remnant bush near the harbour channel, the island was virtually naked of vegetation, just grass and scrub.

Now, with the support of Forest and Bird, the Conservation Department, and hosts of volunteers over the years, all the vulnerable slopes have been planted; bird-song is heard again. A monoculture of rye-grass has become a rich and varied environment. On an island you can change things for the better, and see the results.

By lunch, magicked up out of

myriad contributions, it's really warm. We gather to bless the food and sprawl out on the grass. Islands nudge folk closer to one another, closer to the soil. For some of the students, coming from cities, or megacities, it's a new experience to have chooks clucking around one, sheep rubbing themselves against the macrocarpas; they've already bonded with one another, and are impressively proficient in English, but relish the chance to meet a local community, and to make their own contribution to its work.

At home, for some of them, manicured parks offer no chance to do something for the community. Work, as Hannah Arendt has said, is partly physical; partly creative - bringing something new into being; partly socially significant action. All these are involved here.

''Every city needs an island.''

Islands remind one of the elemental realities of tides, winds, sun, and rain, of vulnerability and security. They give us a different perspective on things. The ring of water distances one from the normal urgencies of suburban or inner-city life.

''Great,'' says a visitor from Broad Bay, ''to sense that life can be richer and humaner.''

There is a different rhythm here, you muck in with the community of volunteers, the old buildings remind one of days gone by.

''Keep this place simple and unpretentious,'' one guy pleads. After lunch some go for a wander, explore the bush, the cave; some, including the keeper's 5-year-old son are in swimming or sunbathing or kayaking.

The beauty of the harbour is good therapy. Others wander over to the gleaming, sail-shaped chapel, designed by Bob Oakley; it gazes out on Aramoana; sitting on the rough benches, carpentered from old jetty timbers by a German conscientious objector, they listen to a waiata and to a poignant Vietnamese song, and reflect on the day; one student compares the bicultural nature of this country with the marginalisation of Native Americans back home; another has found a new closeness to the soil; in her land there was no conscious care for the environment.

Here, soil, community, and spirituality are all interwoven. No utopia here, but a hint of hopefulness.

It's been a privilege to host this vibrant group of young people; as we wave goodbye, we know some will be coming again.

Peter Matheson is president of the St Martin (Quarantine) Island Community.

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