‘How many years does it take to become a Waihekean?’ has always been a wistful question frequently asked by relative newcomers. It’s unanswerable but I can say now – in the security of having carved a house and regenerated bush from a neglected farm block in the late 1970s – that you either get the island and its relatively unique forces or you don’t. Time doesn’t come into it.
Usually this shows up in your first winter, after which you will either want to stay forever, or you leave, frumiously blaming the omnipresent clay and a personal loss of dress sense.
Since this is usually about a 50-50 split, it can damage households and run very deep, especially if there has been a change in demographic and a significant influx of new residents.
On an island drawn tight by the sea and proscribed by ferry timetables, you’re going to meet all sorts, learn to appreciate the differences and find common cause with all of it. Or you’ll leave.
There are none so punitive as new householders who find themselves in what appears to be a very badly run suburb. Poor streetlights, too many cars, shoddy roads, monopoly ferries, a dearth of concrete, too many trees and odd people who can confound first impressions, not infrequently turning out to be significant players on the world stage.
It’s true that we take ourselves with us and those who want their world all neat and in an approved pattern are going to struggle.
But for those who stay, the networks can be wide and deep, addressing the biggest issues facing civilisation itself. If you dislike conformity and like to slow down to see what life brings in a cheerful synchronicity, there can meaningful solutions towards zero waste, homelessness, minimising plastic, finding a personal inner balance or replanting a raw gully on Sunday working bees.
Among this eclectic demographic are many well-travelled people who have often been islanders elsewhere – a significant pattern.
It’s not a tepid life. We wince to see setnets on the beaches where our migrating godwits and endangered dotterel feed.
Last time I counted, there were something like 150 caring organisations on Waiheke in a community of not much over 8000. People champion global causes and donate to have feral cats rehomed. Abandon dignity for a trolley derby and raise significant fortunes to save the island from inappropriate development.
It’s easy to like ourselves. During the year, inaugural Auckland Council CEO Doug McKay inadvertently said Waiheke was “full of lunatics and activists” in a meeting, calling Gulf News later in dismay to say his comments were regrettable.
The following weeks were sidesplittingly funny as long-time islanders sorted themselves into one category or the other over coffee in the pavement cafés. Yet another sapient theatre revue will undoubtedly follow.
This despite the fact that we can hardly have been unaware that the comments reflected the still-irritated culture of a supercity put together during Mr McKay’s watch, overtly for greater centralisation and a pennypinching managerial administration that has never delivered well for Waiheke.
All this makes Waiheke what it is and the island community a richly rewarding but also challenging place where one can take the arrival of unexpected kindnesses, skills and self-sufficiencies for granted.
From the vantage point of this small and essentially closeknit offshore island community at the far end of the earth, I had high hopes of 2020 as a designated tipping point in our evolution.
However, this time last year it was not looking very promising for all the reasons that this year of Covid 19 has shown up so starkly.
In nature, species loss alone was enough to turn your stomach. Globally, centralisation and a narrative of faux austerity was fracturing and displacing tens of thousands of communities that had evolved over millennia in all the cradles of civilisation. Not to mention recklessly destroying citizens’ faith in governments or any moral certainties that civilisation had retained from a benevolent, stable planet’s democracy, religion and sense of the common good.
As with any war, the Covid year amplified our personal experiences and choices, for good or bad.
Our own version of housing crisis is ravaging the schools and robbing businesses of staff who can afford to live here. Summer workers are living precariously in cars and only the most extravagant dwellings have been built in recent years, more modest housing out of the question due to prohibitive planning charges.
There will be threats and opportunities in the New Year. And no doubt the Waiheke community will nut them out in its usual fashion. Enjoy. • Liz Waters