Kerry Donovan Brown: Writer/Ranger/Druid
Hi, it’s Jackson. I recently returned home to New Zealand after a year in the USA. Since I’ve been back, I’ve been looking for work, unsuccessfully. I’ve become a bit obsessed over jobs and how different people make money. I even signed up to LinkedIn (please add and endorse me). So naturally, I decided to start interviewing writers about their non-writing jobs, and I decided to call the series Side Hustles.
The first person I talked to was Kerry Donovan Brown, an award winning New Zealand novelist, skilled nature photographer, and just a lovely person to be around:
You work at Zealandia. Can you explain what Zealandia is and what your job is there?
Zealandia’s a sanctuary, a forestland contained within a valley, surrounded by a big fence. Inside there’re the beginnings of a working ecosystem, with all kinds of animals and plants interacting together. In broad strokes, all of these species should be native to Te Whanganui-a-Tara (kiwi pukupuku, tīeke, tuatara, kōtukutuku) but there’re exceptions. I’m on the education team, but I see my role as being an enabler of connectedness, introducing people from different experiences and backgrounds to a place that speaks about our relationships with Aotearoa.
As part of the education team, what sort of groups are you working with and what are you trying to get across to them?
We work with a range of young people, from a diversity of experiences. As an education provider to schools, we’re addressing curriculum. As employees of the Karori Sanctuary Trust, and as representatives of the people who have dedicated their time and energy to the project, we’re telling the story of the vision, of the ongoing work, of the outcomes. On a personal level, I think the coolest, most valuable thing we demonstrate to rangatahi is that we’re all intimately connected to the world around us. And that we’re capable of impacting incredible changes in our surroundings. I feel really strongly that rangatahi should feel that, wherever there skills or passions lie, they can have access to those feelings of connectedness.
How did you get started working at Zealandia? Did you have previous interest or experience with wildlife?
I started working at the visitors’ centre selling tickets after I finished my MA at the IIML, and in not too long applied for a role in education. Raewyn Empson and Darren van Hoof went out on a limb employing me. I didn’t have qualifications in education or ecology, but I had had experience working with young people, and the connection I feel with the non-human world must’ve shone through at the time.
Can you describe that connection with the non-human world? Is it something you’ve always felt?
Yeah, I’ve always felt it. I think my nature lends itself to getting close to animals, but I don’t claim any special powers, other than being non-threatening. My mum and I were having a conversation recently. She told me, that when she was a child, she sought out natural places when she wanted to ask for help from God. I’ve been wondering if she impressed that on me as her child, the intuition to search for contentment and understanding in wild places. As a kid I was always dreaming of being in the skin of non-human things, like hyenas, mermaids, mobile plants, beautiful snakes, but as an adult, I can appreciate how dynamic and incessant the lives of animals are. I think if I could choose a non-human form today it would be a regular non-mobile plant, like a hollow tree, or a submarine stalk of rimurapa.
What impact has working at Zealandia had on your writing?
You know, I think I’m yet to see the full extent of that. I wrote a good part of my thesis at the sanctuary, before I started working there. I think, in general, my personal connection with nature shows through in the pace of my writing, the watchful, meandering, ploddingness of it. But, yeah, the work I’ve done at the sanctuary hasn’t expressed itself fully in my writing yet. When it does I reckon what will be informing my writing most of all will be the people I’ve connected with, rather than the place. I’ve had experiences there I’ll never forget, learning to handle tuatara, uncovering giant wētā, translocating mokomoko, but what’s really gotten into my blood are the human relationships.
That’s cool that you used to write at the sanctuary before you began working there. What drew you to start writing there and how did being in that space effect your process?
My boyfriend at the time gave me a year’s membership to the sanctuary for my birthday. We lived on Orangi-Kaupapa so the sanctuary was as far a walk away as the university was. I’d head up to the cafe, write for a bit, then have decompression breaks in the forest. When I walk I think lots, turning over ideas in my head, giving them some sun. I actually dropped my MacBook on Lake Road on one of those decompression walks, denting a whole corner, but it still turned out Lamplighter, and it’s still mostly going strong.
Why do you think people get so excited about the photos from Zealandia that you share on social media?
Hmm. On one hand, I think people like seeing their friends succeeding in what they’re doing. That’s a nice thing for me about social media, jumping online and releasing a little flotilla of ‘Go you!’s. Also, I think many people count their own connection with the non-human world as a defining marker, so hitting a ‘like’ on an image of tuatara or mayfly or whatever is a little reinforcement of that, a little ‘Me too!’
What’s your favourite thing about Zealandia?
A couple of nights ago I guided a group of rangatahi through the valley. We stopped at the gates and one of the young guys began karakia, and was joined by the voices of his group. We had seven kiwi pukupuku sightings, saw tuna kaiwharwharu, banks of titiwai. It was a beautiful night. Afterwards the group invited Anne (my fellow education ranger) and I to eat and talk with them. I think that’s my favourite thing, seeing through these experiences. Being with people who are reaching for feelings of connectedness with the land, with their communities, and each other. It’s incredible.
Before working at Zealandia, what other jobs had you had? And how do they compare to what you’re doing now?
Nothing compares to the belonging I’ve experienced at the sanctuary, but I’ve worked some really neat jobs. For a time leading up to my MA year I was a relief teacher at an early childhood centre in Newtown. From the teachers and parents I met there I learned a lot about how I wanted to be around children. Another job that left an impression on me was when I worked as a night porter at a hotel in Ōtautahi not long after I left high school. It could be dynamic, strange lonely, and was quite often extremely demoralising. My (male) managers were some of the worst people I’ve ever met. Once, when a crew of Singapore Airlines air hostesses were checking in I went into the back office to, I don’t know, grab a key or something, and the Guest Relations Manager, the Front Desk Manager, and the assistant general manager (all adult men) were in a circle jerk-esque huddle sniggering, leering. I’ll never forget, one of them said: “I wonder if they have slanty clits?” Another occasion, the night auditor opened the bar for these gross, drunk plasterers from Nelson, and left me there with them. The old man plasterer told me to lay my head on the bar so he could “suck the blood from my neck” and, if I did, he’d let me to go to bed with his wife. I was a teenager. I moved to Wellington, but I went back to the hotel the next summer and worked in the underground laundry, which was hard work, very hot, but much nicer. The building was eventually destroyed following the earthquakes.
Working at Zealandia seems pretty ideal for you, but if you had to have a different job what sort of thing would you like to do?
I was talking to a person at a party last night. They create artificial teeth! I’d like to do something like that. I’d like to have a job where I build useful and beautiful things, like teeth.