As I begin this long goodbye to New Zealand I am focused on the ocean passage ahead. Yet, in these final weeks ashore, I am also inexorably drawn back to the terra firma of this lovely country.
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New Zealand’s ferns are an iconic symbol of this country. To Pākehā (New Zealanders of non-Māori descent), the fern symbolizes a sense of attachment to their homeland. It represents the national identity of this country. The symbol was first used in the 19th Century by New Zealand troops fighting in South Africa and it continued to be used to identify New Zealand units during both world wars and subsequent conflicts. All Commonwealth war graves of fallen New Zealand soldiers have the silver fern engraved on their tombstones.
To Māori, the elegant shape of the fronds stands for strength, stubborn resistance, and enduring power. There are hundreds of varieties of ferns in New Zealand. Ferns were used by Māori for their medicinal properties. The mouki and parako were used for skin rash, kiwakiwa was chewed to alleviate a sore mouth or tongue, the root of rahurahu was used to prevent seasickness. The silver frond of the ponga has long been used for marking tracks in the bush, springy leaves of waewaekoukou form a good bush mattress, and stems were used by Māori as a binding twine for making eel traps.
The magnificent silver fern is a variety of tree fern found only in New Zealand. It grows to over 10 meters high in the verdant forests on both islands. Māori hunters and warriors used the silver underside of the fern leaves to find their way home. When bent over, the fronds would catch the moonlight and illuminate a path through the forest.
According to Māori legend, the silver fern once lived in the sea until the plant with its sacred power entered the forest to help guide the Māori people on their travels.
At the navigation station aboard Flying Fish, I have placed a silver fern leaf next to the compass. It is a talisman that I hope will also help guide me on the long journey home.
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Text and Photography © Jeffrey Cardenas 2019
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