The information booth:
Down at the Coastlands mall M2PP, the Alliance formed to build the Kāpiti Expressway, has installed an information booth containing, among other things, five very tasteful light-stained wooden boxes, each just larger than a shoe box, and with a clear plastic lid. The first box contains peat, the layer you find when you take off the cover of grass and scrub. The second box contains Holocene sand, the third Pleistocene sand, the fourth Pleistocene gravel and the fifth Rakaia Terrane greywacke. I think you are supposed to read the five boxes from left to right like a book. As you move towards the right, you head down towards the centre of the earth and also backwards in time.
Peat is dark brown and full of sticks and lumps of rotting vegetation. In the café this morning I overheard two locals discussing whether it is better to live in a house built on peat or a house built on sand. It all hinged on what happens when a train goes past which, I agree, is a stern test of any house. When a train goes past the ‘peat’ house, the whole house rises and falls, vases fall down, and objects the size of a flower pot jump across the room, the owner said. She keeps her planter pots on the ground and heavily weighted. The ‘sand’ house, on the other hand, rolls lazily from side to side, ornaments rattle a bit but nothing falls over, its owner said with a hint of smugness. With the confidence of small-business women, and in response to a successful demarcation of pecking order, they nodded gently at each other and agreed that the woman who owns the ‘sand’ house is better off.
Holocene dune sand:
The Holocene dune sand box is my favourite because each time I visit the information booth there are droplets of water on the underside of the plastic lid of the box. This makes me think the sand in the box is alive, that it breathed in 11,700 years ago, and is breathing out this week. Apart from being alive, the Holocene dune sand in the wooden box is completely unremarkable; grey, with a hint of black, just like the sand I wash off my salad leaves all summer. The pattern of these warm exhaled droplets is not always the same. Yesterday there was a messy elongated circle of small droplets, a bit like the tail of a comet, with an inner circle of larger fuller droplets, all shining in the white mall light like big round diamonds. Yesterday was the first time I had seen droplets of two different sizes. So, if droplets of water like big round diamonds condense on the lid of the box, is that water old too or is this rain water from earlier this winter, just before they dug up the sand and put it in the box? Geologists please?
Unless it is disturbed, Pleistocene sand lies cool and still, between ten and thirty metres under the grass. The Pleistocene sand in this box must be alive, because there is always a little scatter of tiny droplets of water on the lid of its box, but it is not as warmly alive as the Holocene dune sand because it breathes out a smaller quantity of water in finer drops. Maybe the deeper you go, the colder it is down there – like the sea? Maybe what changes as we go down is the quantity and residual presence of other life, the sticks and leaves and light bones of birds? This is my second favourite box because of its still-discernable life but other visitors have their own preferences. Some go straight to the maps and I notice that the loop of film showing the Minister and the Alliance chief executives being interviewed about the road catches the attention of first time visitors.
I am the weird information booth stalker, fiddling with my camera and exchanging soliciting glances with more normal visitors to the booth. (I am the one who phones the named spokesperson for the project to tell her that the touch-screen display is not working and, instead of showing photographs of the road, today it offers a doorway to internet shopping.) I would like to photograph Pleistocene gravel so that I can remember exactly what it looks like in case I meet it somewhere else, but my camera is full of hundreds of pictures of the road being built and it refuses to add even one more image. I have to content myself with a promise to the Pleistocene gravel that I will come back when I have emptied my mind of other images. Noone talks to me in the information booth.
Rakaia Terrane greywacke:
To all intents and purposes Rakaia Terrane greywacke looks like rock. You could continue to think that it was rock if it stayed down at sixty metres under the grassy surface. But a couple of weeks ago, while walking down a steep track in Whareroa Farm Park, I reached out to grab a clump of rock to keep me steady and it immediately came away in my hand. That is Rakaia Terrane greywacke. It may be some way along the way to becoming rock, but right now it is compacted sand and cannot be trusted at all.