Photograph by Nina Berman
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Trump supporters break through security barriers and press toward the Capitol before they stormed the seat of the country's representative democracy. Around the world, friends of America watched the news with dismay.

Photograph by Nina Berman
American Insurrection

From afar, a longtime fan of America looks at the country in dismay

Like an earthquake, the 2016 election triggered four years of aftershocks. A writer from New Zealand hopes the upheaval and divisiveness will subside.

The bus grew quiet. American travelers on a National Geographic expedition were returning to their hotel after a day observing wildlife on an island sanctuary near Auckland, the city where I was born. I was their guide.

It was not tiredness which hushed the group. People were following the 2016 election results on their cellphones. One of them muttered in alarm: “What are you doing, America?” I shared his dismay. I am one who has loved the United States from afar—as a bluegrass fiddle player, a devotee of American travel and nature writing, a devourer of American poetry, a fan of baseball and barbeque, and a writer for 20 years now for National Geographic. I saw in the faces of my guests the consternation that I, too, felt.

“I think the arc of the moral universe just got longer,” I remarked later. And so it has seemed these last four years.

I write now on what is being called a day of infamy, when the cumulative crisis of an aberrant presidency is producing a last convulsive spasm. I write not because I am qualified to comment on American politics, or have any special insight to offer. I write in the same way that one visits with a suffering friend, simply to be present, to say “I see you.”

I live in a faraway island nation of five million. I sometimes sign my emails to National Geographic editors, “Yours from the antipodes,” because that’s how it feels to be so distant from the centers of American and European influence. Henry Kissinger is said to have once described New Zealand as having the geopolitical significance of “a dagger pointed at the heart of Antarctica.” Over the course of 2020, we Kiwis have had cause to be thankful for our small size and isolation. Also, for our ability to muster a degree of unity during the pandemic emergency. Our government—much praised since Jacinda Ardern was elected prime minister in 2017—took to addressing the country as a “team of five million.” It was a useful phrase to sweeten the severe restrictions imposed during the Covid shutdown, but there’s a fundamental truth to it. Kiwis have traditionally come together in trying times, and the virus triggered that national sentiment of solidarity. (New Zealand ‘effectively eliminated’ coronavirus. Here’s what they did right.)

Now, with Covid eliminated here and most personal freedoms restored, we know how lucky we are. It could have been different. The winds of partisanship and extremism blow here, as they do around the world, but entrenched, paralyzing division nourished by government-sanctioned promotion of conspiracy and falsehood is not a reality, thank God.

A few days after my expedition group experienced that political earthquake in November 2016, we were caught in a real one, the largest the country had experienced since the deadly Canterbury earthquakes of 2010 and 2011. The tremors began soon after midnight, jolting us awake with bouts of shaking and lurching that had us cowering in doorways and praying for the thing to be over. The morning revealed shattered glass, toppled chimneys, and cordoned-off streets. The road we were to have taken lay under millions of cubic feet of fallen rock. That highway, the South Island’s main traffic route, would stay closed for a year.

According to seismologists, more than 20,000 aftershocks followed November’s geological rupture. For many of my American friends, the past four years have been a similarly debilitating succession of political aftershocks, a destabilization that has wearied them to exhaustion. This is how people in a literal earthquake zone feel, I wrote at the time: “A life lived on tenterhooks, ruled by uncertainty, knowing what’s coming but never when. A life of permanent impermanence.”

Today I add my hope to that of millions that such a state of affairs will soon be attenuated, that the shaking will ease, the upheaval subside.

It is midsummer in my hemisphere. This morning I harvested peaches and plums, and thought of the American writer Barry Lopez, a National Geographic contributing author and fellow of the Explorer’s Club, who died two weeks ago, on Christmas Day. Lopez wrote about orchards with tenderness and insight, the way he did about a great many subjects. Common fruit trees, he wrote, were “transcendent, living in a time and on a plane inaccessible to me.”

Lopez was interested in transcendence. He traveled to the uttermost parts of the Earth, seeking wisdom from indigenous cultures about what it means to be fully human. In his final book, Horizon, published the year before he died, he mused that mystery, not certainty, may be the real condition in which we live.

It may seem strange to praise mystery at a time when there is deep longing for a return to objective reality. But for Lopez, as precise and informed as any writer I know, it was the world that lies beyond human understanding and control that holds the key to survival. It was an urgent matter for him. “What is going to happen to all of us now, in a time of militant factions, of daily violence?” he asks in Horizon. “What is our fate if we do not learn to speak with each other over our cultural divides?”

Answering these questions, finding a way out of the culture of divisiveness, is surely our task now, in the antipodes and beyond.