A constant reminder

Rangitoto Island; Auckland’s newest and largest volcano. image: Su Leslie 2019

It’s just over 24 hours since the sudden volcanic eruption of Whakaari/White Island off New Zealand’s east coast left at least five people dead, 31 injured and eight more missing.

Volcanic activity is weirdly compelling to watch. Visitors have flocked to geologically active places since tourism began, and despite frequent eruptions and a perpetual, slightly toxic, steam cloud, Whakaari/White Island had become a major tourist attraction.

As I walk on a beach studded with the jagged remains of old lava flows, beneath one volcanic cone and within sight of several others, I’m conscious of how much of New Zealand’s topography has been (and continues to be) formed by volcanic activity.

Some volcanic fields, like that on which Auckland lies, tend to have single eruptions on specific sites within the field. Others, like Whakaari and the mountains of the central North Island are polygenetic, erupting multiple times with varying frequency and intensity.

No matter how much our rational brains understand this, yesterday’s tragedy is a somber reminder of how thin the crust we walk on really is.

All the colours of the rainbow

It seems hard to believe that an entirely natural “optical and meteorological phenomenon caused by reflection, refraction and dispersion of light in water droplets resulting in a spectrum of light appearing in the sky” (thank you Wikipedia) could carry with it such enduring and significant cultural significance.

To quote Wikipedia again:

In Norse mythology, the rainbow bridge Bifröst connects the world of men (Midgard) and the realm of the gods (Asgard). The Irish leprechaun’s secret hiding place for his pot of gold is usually said to be at the end of the rainbow. … Rainbow flags have been used as a symbol of hope or social change for centuries, featuring as a symbol of the Cooperative movement in the German Peasants’ War in the 16th century, as a symbol of peace in Italy, and as a symbol of gay pride and LGBT social movements since the 1970s. In 1994, Archbishop Desmond Tutu and President Nelson Mandela described newly democratic post-apartheid South Africa as the rainbow nation.

Right now, it feels as though the world desperately needs rainbows.

My news feed is full of stories about misery and hatred; about racial, gender and religious intolerance, ignorance, selfishness and greed (1), (2), (3). As the impoverished and displaced of the world take ever more desperate measures to find a better life, the governments of countries grown rich on exploitation find ever-more brutal ways to keep them out. While we can celebrate the recent Irish referendum that made it the 19th country to legalise same-sex marriage (4), LGBTI persecution continues unabated in many other parts of the world.

Even in my little South Pacific paradise (a place we used to call “Godzone”), there is little reason to rejoice. Too many children go to school hungry each day (5) and die of preventable diseases in cold, damp houses (6). New Zealand is not a poor country; but we are in danger of becoming an emotionally and socially impoverished one. A country where the function of government becomes to help the rich get richer and to hell with the poor. Where compassion and social awareness are replaced by consumerism and escapist entertainment.

But sometimes there are rainbows. When same-sex marriage legislation was being debated in the New Zealand in 2013, one of the MPs from our ruling, neo-liberal National Party made a speech in support of the legislation. Funny and passionate, Maurice Williamson’s “Big Gay Rainbow” speech became briefly famous  in New Zealand and around the world. A small rebuttal of prejudice and a plea for tolerance; a little rainbow.

This post was written for the Daily Post Weekly Photo Challenge.

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(1) Charleston shootings: NRA blames victims as reactions echo Newtown: The Guardian, June 19, 2015)

(2) Did Australia pay people-smugglers to turn back asylum seekers?: The Guardian, June 17, 2015

(3) Hungary closes border with Serbia and starts building fence to bar migrants: The Guardian, June 17, 2015.

(4) Ireland becomes first country to legalise same-sex marriage by popular vote, The Guardian, May 23, 2015

(5) Child hunger still a thorny political problem, Stuff, May 24, 2015.

(6) Government must act on unhealthy houses, Stuff, June 17, 2015.