South Island, New Zealand

February 19, 2017

Middle Earth (A particularly geeky letter.)

I'm writing to you today happily aboard an airplane, the landscape of New Zealand's South Island doing a slow scroll past my window.

I'm headed South this week, into the fjords that dot the Southwestern coast, to spend a few days kayaking, taking in the silence, and thinking about what's next.

New Zealand has been nothing like I expected.

It's the culture, both Maori and Pakeha, and the ways those two intermix. The subtleties and deeply-ingrained fairness and freedom that underlies life here.

And then there's the landscape.

When I was ten, my reading teacher, sensing I needed more challenges, told me to go read The Lord of the Rings. It hooked me, and in a childhood full of changes and moving and constant adaptation, that narrative world, the languages, and the underlying themes remained my one constant.

I read every book and story Tolkien wrote, even digging into the (super geeky) books collecting his notes and early drafts pulled together by his son after his death.

The thing with Tolkien's works is that the land, the landscape, the trees — they are a central and dynamic character. Tolkien was profoundly affected by the loss of forests in his native England over the course of his life, and that deeply-rooted perspective made its way into every story.

He created Middle Earth as a kind of mythic pre-history for Britain that'd been lost in the Norman invasion, set in a kind of proto-England. An island, but not worn down by the hands of time and water and wind. Real Mountains. Plains. Deep, rich hills.

His descriptions of the landscape are clear and strong - probably the best parts of his writing. And for all of us who grew up reading Tolkien, Middle Earth was a clear and well-defined place. We all knew what it looked like.

And as it happens, it looked exactly like New Zealand.

Out my window right now, the Southern Alps are starting to peek in - pinpricks of white dotting the ranges, and all I can think is “Moria is under there somewhere.” I look past the mountains, and see Rohan - horse country - lingering in the distance. Last week, as I drove around parts of the North Island, I was certain I was in the Shire.

When I've talked to fellow Tolkien geeks here (code word to pick us out: Silmarillion), they've all had the same uncanny experience. It's not the that the landscape from movies is around us - it's the landscapes from the books. A place that had only existed in our minds was now, magically, all around us.

This, too, is my New Zealand. A land where the fantastical seems everyday, and a sense of pinch-me lingers on the edge of every moment.

This is the funny thing, about life imitating art or art imitating life - in the end, they're inseparable. Whether the dreamscapes of imagined lands, or the nightmares of rhetoric and fear, they influence our realities, and become real.

And in weeks like these, I'm so grateful for an amazing fourth grade teacher who built into my growing mind a land with living mountains, talking trees, and whispering rivers. A world I still get to live in, each and every day.

I wonder - what stories hooked you as a kid, and still paint the world you live in today?

Sending you wishes for a great week from here in Middle Earth,

-Steven

p.s. The best thing I read this week was actually about a video game. Or an existential crisis. Or a piece of art. Or actually, all of the above.

p.p.s. Thanks so much to everyone who responded to the State of the Union questions last week! I'm still processing all the responses, but expect updates and learnings soon. :) (If you still want to let me know your thoughts, you're welcome to!)

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