The vocation of angels

‘This storm is what we call progress’

The broken angel of Church Road, Kangaroo Island

I have been thinking about angels.

When I was in Kangaroo Island recently to report on the Australian bushfires for National Geographic, I stood in the ruins of a home gutted by the fires and spotted an angel with broken wings. She had a plaintive, wistful look which seemed in keeping with the tragedy that has consumed Australia this fire season, and which has directly affected more than half the population.

That angel reminded me of one of the most famous angels in modern art: Paul Klee’s Angelus Novus, which the Swiss-German artist made in 1920. It was famously discussed by philosopher Walter Benjamin, who bought Klee’s print in 1921. Here’s what Benjamin wrote:

A Klee painting named Angelus Novus shows an angel looking as though he is about to move away from something he is fixedly contemplating. His eyes are staring, his mouth is open, his wings are spread. This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. The storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress.
Paul Klee

A recent op-ed in The New York Times entitled “The darkness where the future should be” made me think that if Benjamin were writing today he might reconsider where the angel is looking. Perhaps his face is turned not to the past but the future. Perhaps the horror on the angel’s face arises not from what has been but from what is coming.

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Fair dinkum in spades

A walk in the Takitimu Mountains

Venerable grocery items in food cupboard at Upper Wairaki Hut, Takitimu Mountains

New Zealand Geographic has just published my story on the hut restoration movement in New Zealand. Lack of space prevented the inclusion of an episode in which I visited several tramping huts in the Takitumu Mountains with former Federated Mountain Clubs president and current author of Moir’s Guide South Robin McNeill. We were reflecting on the fact that huts are the museums of the hills, preserving the memories of many lives over many years, both in the written entries (and occasional poems and sketches) that trampers leave in hut books and in the ephemera that is left behind in a hut after the visit.

We stepped in to Aparima Hut in February to find on the table a fresh kiwifruit, a thriller, a book of Hindu mantras and a bag of scroggin. This hut is on the Te Araroa trail, so receives regular visits—a stream of SOBOs (south-bounds) and a few contrarian NOBOs (north-bound). The hut book showed that 180 “TAs” had passed through since November.

The next hut on our route—Spence—had deer bones on the mantelpiece, a collection of metalworker’s files and a copy of Reading Lolita in Tehran on the bookshelf.

The jackpot was our overnight destination: Upper Wairaki Hut. When something is commendably genuine, McNeill likes to call it “fair dinkum,” and Upper Wairaki Hut was fair dinkum in spades. In the food cupboard I found tins of decades-old golden syrup and milk powder, three kilogram-sized canisters of Sifta salt (deer cullers must have liked their condiments), a giant tea caddy and a vintage box of Edmonds custard powder that evoked memories of childhood steamed puddings.

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Morgan lives!

Environment minister invokes “grandeur,” “awe” in declining a hydro proposal

Morgan Gorge’s wild splendour is preserved—for now / Kennedy Warne

The Minister for the Environment announced today that he has declined Westpower’s proposal to install a run-of-river hydro station on the unmodified Waitaha River, on the South Island’s West Coast.

This decision has been a long time coming. I wrote about the issue in January 2017.

At the end of that story, I wrote:

Māori use the words ihi and wehi to describe the psychic force and awestruck response of an encounter with nature’s raw essence. Morgan Gorge has those qualities in full measure. Is this, then, a place to be exploited or revered?
The recreational community, in particular, argues that just knowing that such places remain intact in this country affirms something fundamental in our cultural identity, and that they should not easily be set aside.

It seems that minister David Parker agrees. His decision is important—indeed, remarkable—for two reasons. First, it gives significant weight to the interests of the recreational community, especially kayakers. In many land-use conflicts, recreational users feel their interests receive less consideration than, say, economic prospects or biodiversity values. Here, recreational values are front and centre of the decision—particularly for the elite kayakers who paddle Morgan Gorge (see photo above).

Parker writes: “I have found that the effects on intrinsic values, which are experienced by those using the area . . . for recreation are, in my view, significant.” Speaking of the dewatering of the Morgan Gorge by the proposed hydro generation scheme, he writes: “It appears incontrovertible that the Waitaha River is the apex of whitewater kayaking in New Zealand. This recreational pinnacle is to be changed from its free-flowing state by reducing its flow throughout the abstraction reach [Morgan Gorge].”

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Being the snake

“I do not cherish the beasts, I enter their flesh.”

Kennedy Warne
I do not want to understand the snake. I want to be the snake. And by this desire, perhaps even this act, I do not want to cease to be. I cling to my ego. I simply want to glide like a boat on the water into this other organism because I know that we share a common life and yet have different cultures. They are not like me but we are like each other.

I listen and I hear the beasts and plants must be cherished because they may be of some utility to humans. I listen and I hear they must be cherished because they are part of a web of life and this web is the safety net for humans. I cannot abide this talk.

It is blood for me.

I do not cherish the beasts, I enter their flesh. I do not guard the forest, I vanish into the deep wood. . . .

The snake’s state of grace is not a performance but a life. We struggle for style, they are born a style . . . I do not think snakes make art. I think they live art. . . . It is impossible to think of neurosis in a snake. They live in a great amphitheatre of sensations, we live in a stale closet of concerns.

– Charles Bowden, Some of the Dead Are Still Breathing: Living in the Future

A bird in the hand

Toni Morrison and the question of responsibility

Banding rock wrens in Fiordland. Tiny bird, uncertain future / Kennedy Warne

The novelist Toni Morrison passed away last week, and great has been the outpouring of tribute to a woman of literary power and political force. “Her gift was to make black people feel seen,” wrote one fellow novelist.

Morrison won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1993. I few days ago I listened to her acceptance speech—a thrilling exemplar of the storyteller’s art. She began, appropriately, with a story—a story with what she called “the first sentence of our childhood: ‘Once upon a time . . .’”

“Once upon a time there was an old woman. Blind but wise.” Or was it an old man? A guru, perhaps. Or a griot soothing restless children. I have heard this story, or one exactly like it, in the lore of several cultures.

“Once upon a time there was an old woman. Blind. Wise.”

In the version I know the woman is the daughter of slaves, black, American, and lives alone in a small house outside of town. Her reputation for wisdom is without peer and without question. Among her people she is both the law and its transgression. The honor she is paid and the awe in which she is held reach beyond her neighborhood to places far away; to the city where the intelligence of rural prophets is the source of much amusement.

One day the woman is visited by some young people who seem to be bent on disproving her clairvoyance and showing her up for the fraud they believe she is. Their plan is simple: they enter her house and ask the one question the answer to which rides solely on her difference from them, a difference they regard as a profound disability: her blindness. They stand before her, and one of them says, “Old woman, I hold in my hand a bird. Tell me whether it is living or dead.”
She does not answer, and the question is repeated. “Is the bird I am holding living or dead?”

Still she doesn’t answer. She is blind and cannot see her visitors, let alone what is in their hands. She does not know their color, gender or homeland. She only knows their motive.

The old woman’s silence is so long, the young people have trouble holding their laughter.

Finally she speaks and her voice is soft but stern. “I don’t know”, she says. “I don’t know whether the bird you are holding is dead or alive, but what I do know is that it is in your hands. It is in your hands.”

Her answer can be taken to mean: if it is dead, you have either found it that way or you have killed it. If it is alive, you can still kill it. Whether it is to stay alive, it is your decision. Whatever the case, it is your responsibility.

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In search of the Māori Jesus

Fifty years ago, James K. Baxter headed to Jerusalem . . .

‘I must become a Māori in my heart’

Today E-Tangata has published my reflection on James K. Baxter’s Jerusalem years. They were years of mental, emotional and spiritual turmoil for the poet. “I am lost in God’s mountains. Pray for this poor dead man,” he wrote to the Catholic Bishops of New Zealand, explaining his reasons for wanting to create “a paradise for the poor” on the banks of the Whanganui River.

As I write in the reflection, Baxter believed he was being called to encounter the Māori face of God—a face he hoped to find in the people at Hiruhārama/Jerusalem and in the lives of the young people who joined him. Did he find what he was looking for? It is hard to know, but many of the poems from this short-lived sojourn (less than three years) show the poet moving determinedly towards the tuakana, the spiritual and cultural “older brother” who had been denigrated and mangled by Pākehā society.

A poem Baxter wrote three years before moving to Jerusalem shows the direction his life was taking. Called “The Maori Jesus,” you can find the opening lines written in concrete and lapped by the tides on Wellington’s waterfront (photo above). The setting is appropriate. Baxter grew up within sight of the sea. He wrote: “The sadness of the sea carried me always on its breast like a floating bundle of kelp.”

The words at the water’s edge are these:

I saw the Maori Jesus
Walking on Wellington Harbour.
He wore blue dungarees,
His beard and hair were long.
His breath smelled of mussels and paraoa.
When he smiled it looked like the dawn.

‘Hast seen the White Whale?’

A bicentenary birthday toast

“Though I wrote the Gospels in this century, I should die in the gutter,” lamented Herman Melville in 1851, the year Moby-Dick was published.

He had good reason to be gloomy. Reviewers either ignored or panned the book. One asked of its author, “Who is this madman?”

For his own part, Melville far from backed himself. “[A]ll my books are botches,” he wrote. “Dollars damn me; and the malicious Devil is forever grinning upon me, holding the door ajar.”

It wasn’t until after the centenary of Melville’s birth that people starting seeing Moby-Dick differently. “His book commands a stillness in the soul, an awe,” wrote D. H. Lawrence in 1927. “A labyrinth, and that labyrinth is the universe,” wrote Lewis Mumford. William Faulkner said simply that he wished he had written it.

And now here we are at the 200th anniversary of Melville’s birth, and the brow of the white whale looms in front of our eyes still, and Melville demands of us, “Read it if you can.”

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‘A landscape with too few lovers’

Following McCahon to the Far North

‘It’s there that this land starts’

Colin McCahon had an abiding love of the Far North.

“Up there is like standing on a moon,” he wrote. “[It] is unlike any other part of the land. I can’t talk about it, I love it too much.”

He may not have been able to talk about it, but he could paint it—in ways that are as evocative today as they are when he painted them half a century ago. He got under the skin of the land, as the land clearly got under his skin. He wanted to feel its pulse: “to make a painting beat like, and with, a human heart.”

In 1958, he made one of those paintings, artistically speaking, in a heartbeat. McCahon had just returned to Auckland after a long, intensive tour of the United States. He had been inspired by meeting the work of contemporary giants such as Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko and Willem De Kooning. Back home, feeling confined in bushclad Titirangi, “cold and dripping and shut in,” he “fled north in memory,” as he put it, “bursting for the wide open spaces,” and in a single afternoon produced a series of eight paintings he called the Northland Panels, painted with enamel house paint on the recycled canvases of other unfinished works.

The panels are said to have marked a turning point in McCahon’s approach, delving more deeply and abstractly into the land and its meanings. And the Far North, he wrote, “all sculpted by wind and rain” is somewhere to “bury your heart, and as it goes deeper into the land you can only follow.”

As the 100th anniversary of McCahon’s birth approaches, I wanted to follow him to the Far North, to try to see the landscape through his eyes, to bury my heart and follow.

In my mind I carried a line McCahon had scrawled in thickly brushed letters on one of the panels: “A landscape with too few lovers.”

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Making the invisible visible

Closing the gap between human and nonhuman

“There is a world alongside ours,” writes Richard Powers in the opening pages of his latest book, The Overstory. “Vast, slow, interconnected, resourceful, magnificently inventive, and almost invisible to us. This is the story of a handful of people who learn how to see that world and who are drawn up into its unfolding catastrophe.”

This world is no construct of the imagination, no occult matrix, rather something so familiar as to be—as Powers suggests—invisible. It is the forest. It is any one of the 900-odd varieties of forest that have been classified by humans, covering four billion hectares of the planet. From the tropics almost to the poles, forests are, says Powers, “Earth’s chief way of being.”

The genius of The Overstory is that the story itself is a forest. Everything is connected, everything signals to other entities, human and nonhuman, in the narrative terrain. The whole thing breathes, and breathes life.

Powers has said that it took him two years and hundreds of books to learn what he needed to know about the trees and forests he casts as characters in the book. And they are such surprising characters. “No strangeness stranger than the strangeness of living things,” writes Powers—and he populates the pages of The Overstory with a gorgeous trove of wonders.

Consider the Arbre du Ténéré, a solitary acacia in Niger what was the only tree for 400 km in any direction in the sands of Niger. So sacred was this tree that all Touarag camel caravaniers gathered around the tree before crossing the desert. In 1973, this “living lighthouse” was struck down by a drunk truck driver.

Consider Hura crepitans, the dynamite tree, which launches seeds from its exploding fruit at 260 km/h.

Consider the clonal aspens of Fishlake National Forest—47,000 trees that constitute a single genetic individual that occupies 43 ha of land in Utah, is estimated to weigh 6000 tonnes and may be a million years old. This extraordinary organism stopped growing 30 years ago due to human encroachment and interference.

Or reflect on the Achuar—the people of the palm tree—who “sing to their gardens and forests, but secretly, in their heads, so only the souls of the plants can hear. Trees are their kin, with hopes, fears, and social codes, and their goal as people has always been to charm and inveigle green things, to win them in symbolic marriage.”

Such is the strangeness and wonder of forests that when Daniel Rolander, one of Carl Linnaeus’s young apostles of the new system of classifying life, attempted an inventory of the forests of Suriname, the scale of the biodiversity he encountered drove him mad. One could almost go divinely mad devouring the crystalline detail in The Overstory—or perhaps come to one’s senses.

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In beauty, in beauty

US appoints first Native American poet laureate

Wolfgang Weber

Amidst a lot of bleak news coming out of the United States, something to celebrate: the appointment of Joy Harjo as poet laureate—the first Native American to be hold that post. Oklahoma born, she is of the Muscogee Creek Nation, and much of her writing addresses the social invisibility of America’s first people.

“My poems are about confronting the kind of society that would diminish Native people, disappear us from the story of this country,” she says.

Of the role of poetry in times of crisis, she says: “We’re at a very crucial time in American history and in planetary history. Poetry is a way to bridge, to make bridges from one country to another, one person to another, one time to another.”

Here is one of her poems to lift the spirit and inspire the reader to “take the utmost care and kindness in all things.”

Eagle poem

To pray you open your whole self
To sky, to earth, to sun, to moon
To one whole voice that is you.
And know there is more
That you can’t see, can’t hear;
Can’t know except in moments
Steadily growing, and in languages
That aren’t always sound but other
Circles of motion.
Like eagle that Sunday morning
Over Salt River. Circled in blue sky
In wind, swept our hearts clean
With sacred wings.
We see you, see ourselves and know
That we must take the utmost care
And kindness in all things.
Breathe in, knowing we are made of
All this, and breathe, knowing
We are truly blessed because we
Were born, and die soon within a
True circle of motion,
Like eagle rounding out the morning
Inside us.
We pray that it will be done
In beauty.
In beauty.

– Joy Harjo