In October of 1970, as an anthem for the very first Earth Day, American singer-songwriter Tom Paxton wrote a haunting song painting a picture of the planet as it might one day be… devoid of the wonders of the natural world.
“Whose garden was this? It must have been lovely… Did it have flowers? I’ve seen pictures of flowers, and I’d love to have smelled one… Tell me again, I need to know… The forest had trees, the meadows were green, the oceans were blue, and birds really flew… Can you swear that it’s true?”
For the past 13 years of my life, I have been privileged to spend a good part of every year in a place of magnificent natural beauty. In the year 2000, when I was 19, I was on my way out of New Zealand to see what else there was. Thankfully, a series of what seemed to be chance encounters led me to make one last stop. Just days before my departure, I took a trip to the Far North of the North Island to see Gentle World’s vegan sanctuary. I had no way of knowing then that the series of events I was in the middle of would end up proving to be a pivotal point in my life, as this haven I would come to know as Shangri-La was soon to become, miraculously, my home.
New Zealand’s natural environment is impressive, and I had been in some special places, but I had never seen anything like this… Shangri-La’s hillsides are covered with regenerating forest that meets right up with the native reserve – a park that is home to trees that have stood for hundreds of years. Hidden from the rest of the world by these verdant valley walls is a magnificent expanse of open land, carved into a stunning living sculpture by two pristine rivers flowing in from the mountainside.
I didn’t realize it at first, but at the time of my visit, the fields and rivers had only recently been liberated from shackles of barbedwire fencing. This was a reminder of the land’s former life as witness to an (albeit bucolic) animal slavery operation, and it had all been lovingly removed, one post at a time, and the barbed wire banished in a gigantic burial.
I was beginning to learn that this inspired band of dedicated and hard-working individuals was deeply committed to the vegan ideal of nonviolence. I was told that along with the (literally miles of) barbed wire, they had also made it a top priority to dismantle the structures left over from the land’s animal harming past. By the time I had the chance to lay my eyes on the sites where they once stood, ‘The Wool Shed’ and ‘The Not-OK Corral’ had been transformed into orderly piles of re-useable lumber; scraps of life-as-it-once-was that might one day be used to help build life-as-it-should-be. Some of the finest pieces had been used for a beautiful fireplace mantle in the communal house – a fitting symbol of the hope to be found in somehow exorcising the terrible history of these materials by using them at the center of something so new and promising…