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

A voice calling

Tiny Takū can teach the West about perseverance and the potency of utterance

Richard Moyle with Takū friends and a pet red-footed booby

Today E-Tangata publishes a story about ethnomusicologist Richard Moyle’s work on Takū, an atoll near Bougainville, said to be the last location where traditional Polynesian religion continues as an integral part of daily life.

The story draws on a conversation I had with Richard several weeks ago at his home on the Coromandel Peninsula, and also my reading of his most recent book, Ritual and Belief on Takū, and an earlier book, Songs From the Second Float.

Takū’s story is a fascinating one—a story of great hardship and remarkable perseverance. After surviving an epidemic in the 1890s that reduced the population to 11, the beleaguered islanders unwittingly sold their atoll to a foreign woman, a copra grower, who exercised a virtual dictatorship over their lives. She shifted the entire population from the main island, Takū, to a small islet, Kapeiatu. She merged the five island clans, abolished the privileges of clan elders and deprived them of a marae. They were denied access to traditional forms of food gathering and could not perform ritual activities.

As Richard writes, “A generation of children grew to adulthood, married and had children of their own while on Kapeiatu without participating in, or even witnessing, the exercise of traditional authority by clan elders through the complexities of religious ritual.” By 1930 the people had been stripped of much the cultural agency that bound them together as a functioning society.

Despite this huge disruption to their cultural life, the Takū islanders held to their traditions, and continue to do so, using ritual “to manage and neutralise their isolated atoll’s many vulnerabilities, contacting the spirit world through invocations, dreams, trance, singing and gifting to marshall their benign counterforces to work for private benefit and public good.”

This ritual life is not just a matter of pride of heritage and identity, but something much deeper. Without their beliefs and practices, the Takū believe they could not continue to physically exist. Without the presence and support of ancestral spirits, life would not just be pointless, but impossible.

Fundamental to their culture is the power of the spoken word. I think it is difficult, perhaps impossible, for us in cultures that prioritise the written word—as I am engaged in at this moment—to truly grasp what it is like to live in an oral culture, where utterance and invocation dominate.

Reading about Takū, I found myself thinking of something I read in the book Oceanian Journeys and Sojourns by Australian ethnogeographer Eric Waddell about the centrality of the spoken word in the Pacific. The right to speak, he writes, “belongs to all and to none at the same time. It comes from a long, a very long way away. It moves through people and generations; it changes shape, rhythm and speed, and accelerates or pauses, a little like a river flowing to the sea. It is suffused with rituals, lies on flowers, floats on the wind, hesitates a moment again, perching or alighting on the mouth of a human being. It changes and becomes the beating of drums, chants, sermons, conversations between panpipes. Both secret and shared, the ‘word’ stiffens and dries as soon as it is set down on paper, dying in footnotes, because it cannot survive as a fossilised body.”

In Takū, I hear a voice calling.

Whitman @ 200

Out of loneliness, rhapsody

Meteor storm, 1833 / Elsevier/M. Littmann

A friend has just reminded me that today is the 200th anniversary of the birth of Walt Whitman. I can’t let that pass unacknowledged. Twenty-five years ago, National Geographic published a wonderful tribute to Whitman through the photography of Maria Stenzel. She had carried Whitman’s verse in her mind and heart, making images that reflected his words. I found her work striking then, and still do today. You can see the published images here.

Here’s one of them:

Mary Oliver was also a great lover of Whitman. Here is what she wrote about his importance to her as a young poet, in her essay collection Upstream: “In those years truth was elusive—as was my own faith that I could recognise and contain it. Whitman kept me from the swamps of a worse uncertainty, and I lived many hours within the lit circle of his certainty, and his bravado. . . And there was the passion which he invested in the poems. The metaphysical curiosity! The oracular tenderness with which he viewed the world—its roughness, its differences, the stars, the spider—nothing was outside the range of his interest. But first and foremost, I learned from Whitman that the poem is a temple—or a green field—a place to enter, and in which to feel. Only in a secondary way is it an intellectual thing—an artefact, a moment of seemly and robust wordiness—wonderful as that part of it is.”

And now, hear from the man himself:

When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer

When I heard the learn’d astronomer,
When the proofs, the figures, were ranged in columns before me,
When I was shown the charts and diagrams, to add, divide, and measure them,
When I sitting heard the astronomer where he lectured with much applause in the lecture-room,
How soon unaccountable I became tired and sick,
Till rising and gliding out I wander’d off by myself,
In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time,
Look’d up in perfect silence at the stars.

– Walt Whitman

At the end of the Geographic story, author Joel Swerdlow recommended that, like the poet himself, we should “Go outside and read aloud. Adventure awaits. You may also find a piece of yourself you didn’t know was missing.”

On welcoming autumn

May absence make this heart grow fonder?

“The changes of heaven and earth are the seeds of poetry,” wrote the great haiku master Matsuo Bashō.

I’m sure he’s right, but it is not always easy to welcome those changes. I find autumn difficult. Yes, it is Keats’ season of “mists and mellow fruitfulness,” but its portents of winter to come are like a cold stare from an unwelcome visitor. And it is a season that coincides all too accurately with aging, when memories loom larger than promises.

Tennyson catches something of the wistfulness:

In looking on the happy Autumn-fields,
And thinking of the days that are no more.

This autumn season I have found helpful the words of David Hinton, a scholar of ancient Chinese poetry. In Hunger Mountain, he speaks of the seasonal cycle as mirroring the cyclic nature of Taoist thought. That cosmology centres on two elements: Absence and Presence. Presence is the empirical universe—the “ten thousand things” we see and inhabit. Absence is the generative void from which all Presence emerges.

In the seasons, writes Hinton, we see “the pregnant emptiness of Absence in winter, Presence’s burgeoning forth in spring, the fullness of its flourishing in summer, and its dying back into Absence in autumn.”

I find it easier to embrace the dying back when I contemplate the essential nature of absence—a concept which is equally strong in Māori cosmology. Te kore, the void, is the necessary precursor of all that comes into existence. There is no presence without an antecedent absence.

Thus, like Hinton, I find that “To hear autumn rain falling on Hunger Mountain is to long for autumn rain falling on Hunger Mountain.” Seeing the whole quickens my spirit to the part—even if that part consists of shorter days, cooler winds, leafless trees and the tincture of loss.

In The Divine Comedy, Dante writes of a vision in which he glimpsed the entire spiritual ecology of the universe—the interconnectedness of everything.

Within its deep infinity I saw gathered in one volume, bound by love, the scattered leaves of the universe; substance and accident, and their relations, fused after such fashion that all which I tell is one simple flame. The universal form of this complex whole I think that I saw, because as I say this I feel my joy increasing.

As do I.