The Tragedy of the Commons


The Black Tern is a wise creature, even if Uki’s uncle didn’t think so. Average taste and of little other consequence he would say. Uki disagreed. He would spend endless thoughtful hours at the shore watching flocks of the bird swirl above the abyss of blue that surrounded all he knew. How could it not be wise? Anything that had knowledge of what lay beyond the horizon must carry wisdom with it on the wind; messages from the Gods.

The statues constructed by Uki’s ancestors did not care for wisdom it would seem. Their broad volcanic backs were turned against the expanse of the ocean while their grim faces cared only for the barren island on which Uki’s tribe toiled and argued. They shunned the possibilities of that expanse, like ignoring time itself. They were concerned only for those who worshipped them and those who might hurt them.

However much Uki could not understand these stone guardians, he was devoted to them all the same. As inevitable as the black rocks and the whispers from the grassland beneath the mountain that demanded reverence from all, their presence was infinite from his perspective; a thing of nature.

Just like the others, he would join in the dancing when fires were lit at their feet, and would wonder whether his ancestors did the same. Just like the others, he would hope for favourable harvests born of the land they cared for so meticulously. And just like the others, he would experience pride in his tribe and any success that they experienced.

On one such evening, Uki gathered with others not far from the tight rows of farmland, planted in the dry dirt and shielded from the elements by great stone plinths that were larger than anything else in view. While the elders talked over the fire, Uki looked up to see vast swathes of speckled light smeared across the darkening sky; the eyes of his ancestors perhaps. His grandfather always said they were the birds that used to live on the island, flown off after they grew tired of this diminished world. If so, they were still flying and Uki wondered when they would reach their destination.

The hollow chops of his mother’s obsidian knife going through sweet potato and tarot onto the wooden board across her lap sedated him as low voices ebbed and flowed around the light of the crackling flames. The dancing was done for the night and their chieftain was reflecting on the hard winter ahead.

‘Tomorrow, Maku, you will go to the groves and take a tree.’

Uki noticed the look of disapproval on his cousin Tua’s face. The chief noticed also.

Tua, your face is as the sky on a rainy day. Do you wish to challenge me?’

Uki’s uncle bristled and laid a hand on his son’s shoulder. ‘Tua, quiet.’

Uki was much younger than his cousin but if anyone was wise, it was Tua.

My chief,’ said Tua, brushing his father’s hand away, ‘we can burn herbs and grasses to keep warm. There is no need of the wood you speak of.’

‘We keep warm by staying alive Tua. We keep warm by knowing our numbers swell and by knowing we have power over our territory. We keep warm by maintaining our dignity in the face of the others. That is how we keep warm.

He dismissed Tua with a wave of the hand. ‘Besides, we need more shelter in which to house our children and shelter them from the rains. These children then will help us farm the land and defend it. They will honour our Gods and one day, we will make more Moai, just as our ancestors did. Do not speak unless you know what you speak of. That is for me as your chief.’

‘But we struggle as it is. If there are more of us…’

‘If we do not do this, we will be overrun but the others. Our way of life will be over. Even now, the Majuriki eye our lands and our sugarcane. They deface our idols more and more even though once they were our friends. What would you have me do? You would seek to disadvantage us?’ He sniffed. ‘This would only hasten our demise. You are enlightened in some ways Tua but you have much to learn. Until that time, you will learn to respect this tribe with me at its head.’

Though Tua remained silent, he did not look placated, even with some of the disapproving glances from around the fire.

The next morning, Uki approached Tua as he inspected the crops. Uki asked about what Tua had meant the night before. Tua seemed pleased that someone would listen.

We revere our ancestors Uki, but I sometimes wonder whether they deserve our devotion. Their legacies are the idols that we so triumphantly protect. But I have come to realise that these idols do nothing but judge us.

Mother says they protect us,’ offered Uki, confused.

From what? Our past? Ourselves. What protected our mighty ancestors Uki? Where are the wonders they tell of in the stories? Where are the vessels they took to sea and the vast creatures they brought back? Where are the forests filled with happiness and plenty?

‘In the stories?’ replied Uki. Tua had lost him and the older boy realised it.

Tua looked up to the barren slopes of the mountain and the bitter whip of the salt air squeezed his eyes tight. ‘The chief is right. Without these things, we will be at the mercy of the Majuriki. The problem is that no one sees the real problem at the heart of it all.’

‘What’s that?’ asked Uki quietly, not expecting to understand the answer.

‘No one is happy with what they already have. That is the problem Uki. Maybe one day you’ll understand. I’m not sure that will change anything though.’

Uki was desperate to help his cousin, who seemed sad. All he could think was that the black terns might hold the answer – after all, they were as wise as Tua was, no matter what his uncle might think. Uki looked out over the beach to find them and it was then that he saw it. Upon the line of cerulean blue that marked the boundary of his existence was something new. Balancing like the brightest white feathers were three fluttering beacons, all in a line and hazy in the morning sun.


Years later, when recalling the events of that time, Uki would tell his own children stories of his cousin Tua. ‘He taught me a lot but I think my greatest lesson is something I realised for myself,’ Uki would say. They would sit at his feet, staring with wide but unknowing eyes as he spoke. Our wisdom is not determined by those few most gifted in that respect but it is instead limited to that of the lowest ebb of our society where human nature triumphs above all.’ Still the children stared. ‘I’m not sure that will change anything though,’ he whispered.


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