Thomas J. Watson Fellowship Year

Prerequisites to Inisight

One fourth of my Watson year is over and out of all the lessons I have learned so far, the most resounding truth is “negative experiences are often prerequisites to insight.” This phrase can be found on the ‘Getting it right’ card that the Watson committee supplied me with and that I’ve held onto while I ventured into this big year of traveling into the unknown. There were times I repeated this phrase to myself, especially while sitting in the interrogation office for New Zealand Immigration.

In late October, I flew into Christchurch where my good intentions of declaring my hiking boots for their risk of carrying fungal spores gave way to conversation about my intentions for visiting New Zealand. Friends of my family, Anne and Alan Brydon had offered for me to stay at their home in Lincoln. They have a small garden and out of courtesy, I anticipated weeding some and helping around the house in exchange for them hosting me. This was my mistake. I entered New Zealand on a traveler’s 3-month visa with the intention of staying only 20 days (Oct. 25th-Nov.14th). Any form of volunteering including what I was offering to the Brydon’s was illegal under the visa I had applied for.

After two days of travelling with no room for sleep in between and leaving all the close friends I had made over the past 3 months, I found myself in front of an immigration officer who was skeptical of everything I said. They questioned the fellowship I was on, and tried to get at my ‘true intentions’ for travelling. By the end of four hours I was assessed as a “high risk for volunteering” and forcibly had to change my plans to stay at a hostel named the Jailhouse as it was the remodeled historic jail in Christchurch. So within the first day of visiting New Zealand, I had been reduced to tears and forced to go to ‘Jail.’

The historic ‘Jailhouse’ of Christchurch that I stayed in.

While questioning some of my life choices and doubting my own capabilities of travelling independently for a year, I started journaling. I tried to focus on what I was learning because “negative experiences are often prerequisites to insight.” So far I had been extraordinarily lucky in my travels with the friends I had made and opportunities I got to work with insects (so much so that I’ve struggled to keep up with blogging about them). By this point, I was changing countries to shift my focus away from university research with insects and onto a more local scale with gardening. Organic gardening requires growers to have a lot of knowledge about insects and I was curious as to how that might predispose growers to appreciate or hate insects. A taste of this perspective was given when I interviewed Macadamia nut farmers, but I needed to start smaller and what better place than the fragile island habitat of New Zealand as it came into spring? My contacts there had been excellent and overall my intuition to travel there felt right. But those plans were all uprooted in the immigration office and I was having to restart.

Forcibly being put on holiday by the government was not something I should ever complain about. Given all of my positive experiences and previous successes, I was bound to meet a negative wall like the one that the immigration office faced me with. Of all the negative things that could’ve happened, I should welcome this low severity experience.

With that mindset, I started to calm myself then was released to enter New Zealand. In the small arrivals terminal of the Christchurch airport, I found Anne, my host mom knitting a hat. She had persisted in her wait even as immigration refused to pass messages between the two of us and upon meeting her she welcomed me into a big hug. What a way to meet!

Lottie sporting the hat that Anne knitted while I was being interrogated.

There after she took me home for a lovely dinner cooked by her husband Alan and they listened to my story attentively. Their warm home, the good food, and their sweet cat Lottie were the second impression of New Zealand that I had and it melted my heart. After dinner, Anne gave me ride to my hostel and made sure I was settled in well, caring for me as though I was her daughter. It was the unconditional care and help that she gave me which made me start remembering how much kindness is still in the world.

To make everything even better, I made several friends at the hostel. I shared my story, then hugs were offered within the few minutes that we had met. Those friends turned into travel companions as we explored the botanical gardens of Christchurch, then I ventured further by renting a car to roadtrip around the South Island. From the glow worms of Te Anau caves to the snowy peaks and glacier lakes of Mt. Cook, this trip showed me wildlife and landscapes that made my heart weep with joy. I was afforded a new freedom of driving again and exploring these large expanses of land where I could sporadically hike or take a different turn off from the highway. All because my original plans were foiled.

My chariot for exploring the South Island of New Zealand. What freedom a car grants you!
The unfair beauty of Queenstown.
Glacier lake at the end of the Hooker Valley trail at Aoraki/Mt. Cook. The center right iceburg broke in half while I visited and we heard several avalanches echoing through the valley.
Hooker Valley trail at Aoraki/Mount Cook. The Moari name, Aoraki means ‘cloud piercer,’ and in the short time I visited I only once saw the high peak of the mountain (edge of it is seen on the left).
Lake Pukaki’s mystical blue waters.
My friend, Jeff enjoying the views. We often had to pull over to avoid running off the road, our surroundings were too beautiful to watch the pavement ahead of us.
Possum roadkill. These mammals are invasive to New Zealand and it’s a civilian duty to run them over when you can. Their populations have displaced several bird species.


Seals found at Shag Point. The male partner of this female was watching me quite closely, but I was sure to keep my distance.
Tree climbing in Glenorchy.

These lessons on the kindness that others can afford you and how to interpret negative experiences were carried with me as I experienced the natural wonders of the South Island. From albatrosses and blue penguins to seals and red billed gulls, I was astonished by the wildlife of New Zealand. More importantly, in each place I ventured there were botanic gardens, public parks, and wildlife reserves full of insects! Natives and invasives thrived in each of these areas and my short visits left me longing to sample the diversity. While the insects themselves might not be valuable to the public, these green spaces are and that is enough to sustain some of New Zealand’s natural insect diversity, I suspect.

Bumbebees (Bombus spp.) were introduced from Europe in the 1880s  to pollinate a variety of crops, but now thrive in the wild. This also helps the introduced European plant species survive in the NZ bush.
Hoverflies (Syrphidae) are excellent pollinators as well and many look very similar to the European honeybees. New Zealand has native and introduced hoverflies from farmers who needed biological control agents (hoverfly larvae) to control herbivorous insect pests (aphids, mealy bugs, and some caterpillars).
Ichneumonid wasp female hunting for prey to lay her eggs in on a tree. Several parasitoids could be found in the bountiful Glenfalloch gardens in Dunedin. I believe this species was the native Lemon tree borer parasite (Xanthocryptus novozealandicus) based on its behavior.
German wasp (Vespula germanica) collecting wood to build a paper nest. These girls are invasive to New Zealand and highly problematic for bee keepers as they prey upon bees.

Shortly after returning to Christchurch, the US Election was underway and the results of the votes had started to pour in. I mailed in my absentee ballot weeks before and had high hopes for Hilary Clinton’s victory. But the results of the election shocked me. I wept for the loss of the country I thought the United States was.  I cried for all the oncoming hate crimes and discrimination I knew would play out. But most of all I worried about how I had not seen this coming.

Donald Trump’s election as President of the United States tells me that racism, sexism, and religious discrimination is still very much alive. It shows me that all the progress we have made has been lost on several people. There is a divide within our country and we can no longer ignore the people who do not share the same beliefs as us. This election calls for communication between these two parties because overall, Trump’s election is out of frustration with the establishment. I fear for the future of my country, but I also need to acknowledge the dark reality of it. By addressing these issues we can then start to challenge them.

This election has also revealed the resilience of Barack Obama, Hilary Clinton, Bernie Sanders, and several other major politicians in their dedication to the people’s choice and their own moral standards. My friends and other members from my community have also displayed hope in the form of peaceful protesting, fundraising for organisations like Planned Parenthood and local women’s shelters, and simple offerings of kindness and support to their peers.

Negative experiences are prerequisites to insight and this election will hopefully bring the change we need in America and around the world to first acknowledge that these issues including racism and sexism still exist and then deal with them individually. We cannot assume that those we place in power will solve each of these issues nor should we fear that those same individuals will have the power to diminish the progress we have made already. Power exists within our communities and in our ability to see the lessons that negative events hold.


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