Walls closing in? Consider Jonah (and Gepetto)

Advice for those with no stomach for isolation

Gepetto makes the best of his situation in Disney’s ‘Pinocchio’

None of us is having a whale of a time. But Dan Albergotti has some suggestions for those who are feeling especially down in the mouth.

Things to Do in the Belly of the Whale

Measure the walls. Count the ribs. Notch the long days.
Look up for blue sky through the spout. Make small fires
with the broken hulls of fishing boats. Practice smoke signals.
Call old friends, and listen for echoes of distant voices.
Organize your calendar. Dream of the beach. Look each way
for the dim glow of light. Work on your reports. Review
each of your life’s ten million choices. Endure moments
of self-loathing. Find the evidence of those before you.
Destroy it. Try to be very quiet, and listen for the sound
of gears and moving water. Listen for the sound of your heart.
Be thankful that you are here, swallowed with all hope,
where you can rest and wait. Be nostalgic. Think of all
the things you did and could have done. Remember
treading water in the center of the still night sea, your toes
pointing again and again down, down into the black depths.

– Dan Albergotti

About kindness

‘The tender gravity of kindness’

Footpath exhortation, Avondale / Kennedy Warne

In January I was thinking about angels. Lately I have been thinking about kindness. Most of us have, I suppose. It’s in the air, contagious in a good way, an antidote to fear. I commented on the kindness of strangers in my recent chat with Kathryn Ryan on Radio NZ, talking about the walks I make beside my local creek:

One of the things that is so noticeable now is kindness. At Oakley Creek the path is only a metre wide. As people approach each other they step to the left and to the right. We smile and raise a hand and say a greeting. Bridges that were two-lane at a squeeze are now one-way. I wait for two young people to cross. One runs the last few steps and we laugh together. This is the decency of strangers. In Albert Camus’ book La Peste, or The Plague (so popular right now that it has sold out on Amazon) the heroic Dr Rieux says: “The only way to fight the plague is with decency.” That’s what seems to be happening with this current plague. Perhaps it will be one of the abiding memories of this time. He waka eke noa. We’re all in this together.

Here are three poems on the subject of kindness. Perhaps, as Naomi Shihab Nye writes in the first poem, kindness is the only thing that makes sense any more.

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The vocation of angels

‘This storm is what we call progress’

The broken angel of Church Road, Kangaroo Island / Kennedy Warne

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 / Kennedy Warne

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’ / Kennedy Warne

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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