Sport 43: 2015
Ingrid Horrocks — A Small Town Event
A Small Town Event
my children will grow up with the memory of this house in their bones
Lauris Edmond, An Autobiography
Near the turn-off to Rangiriri above an ochre hill of turned clay the orange arm of a digger rose, then dropped to scoop at the sunlit earth. Ahead a black-and-white steer reared its head impatiently above the rim of a stock truck, for an instant sending a single hoof skyward.
The day before, I’d flown from Wellington to Auckland ostensibly to attend a book launch, but really so I could drive back home down the North Island via Ōhakune. Over the past months I’d been reading Martin Edmond’s essays and his other nonfiction. He writes about art, film, literature, geography, history, Pacific exploration, his family and himself. There are books on Philip Clairmont, Colin McCahon, his own father, and most recently a dual biography of Australian painters Rex Battarbee and Albert Namatjira. Yet he has his obsessions too. Ōhakune, where he was born in 1952 to a secondary school teacher and a mother who was then only secretly a poet, is one of them.
I was meant to be writing an academic article on ‘voice’ in Edmond’s biographical work, but what I had become increasingly preoccupied with was why some writers, even now, seem to need a place around which all their writing circles. And about why so many of us, writers or not, in this globalised, digital moment, still lean toward particular locales. Place, with its saturation of memory upon memory, is part of what has absorbed me—in both my reading and in my life—since I returned from overseas seven years ago. Edmond’s family left Ōhakune when he was ten and hepage 197 has lived in Sydney since 1981, but across two decades a return to Ōhakune provides the fulcrum around which his writing turns. The unlikely activity of visiting Ōhakune had come to seem like a natural way of thinking both about Edmond’s work and about how it is that we imagine the places in which we’ve lived.
After lunch in Pirongia and driving on through the burnt, drought stripped hills around Ötorohanga and Te Kuiti, I reached Taumarunui and went down to where the Whanganui and Ongarua Rivers meet. It was a relief to be out of the car, to where the waters wouldn’t let my eyes stay still, taking me down with them then back up and down again. Although I’d rather have been walking or swimming, and although it now seems strange, I had Edmond’s books with me so I sat down on the river boulders and looked again at his many returns to Ōhakune, starting with his first prose work, The Autobiography of My Father (1992).
Like most of his books it’s made up of sections that come at his subject from different angles, connecting and pushing up against one another. Here there are kinds of love letters from son to father, addressed directly to you, in an effort to say the things I did not find words for while you lived; there’s found material, from a transcript of an oral history interview to notes his father wrote after a breakdown; and one part that begins simply This is how you lived. The book invites a kind of intimacy and an attention to lived experience. If, as one Christchurch writer put it, The essay is the right genre for thoughts on tenuous ground, for Edmond all ground is tenuous, and the best way to test its fragilities and find its pressure points is to evoke the experience of moving through it—and of seeking places to stand and look.
One of the sections is called ‘Ōhakune’. It recounts a drive Edmond himself took from Auckland to Wellington after his father’s death, and the first stop he narrates on his drive is Rangiriri, the angry sky, where the road cuts straight through what was once the main pä site. We read of how he drives on from this troubled, layered location to Ōhakune, where he has a drink at the pub and walks the town streets experiencing that tangle of emotion thatpage 198 rises up when you traverse the country of your earliest memories. Then, in a scene set in his hotel room, he writes an early gesture toward a connection to the place, invoking the familiarity of the sound of the river and of the train coming south from the mountain which textured every night of the first ten years of his life. In such moments ‘Ōhakune’ becomes a land of lost content, a land of memory more than any particular place in the present. The remembered space of childhood to which we return and yearn, but which is always, ineluctably, lost.
As I sat there reading, children’s shouts from the playing fields nearby punctuated the constant sound of the water flow. Soon six kids joined me down at the river, one inexplicably dressed in a full-body dragon suit with tiny wings. The six of them walked down to the Whanganui branch of the river and I couldn’t help noticing that all four boys threw rocks into the river as they walked along, while the girls simply walked. But then I saw I was wrong, as a girl in a baggy yellow singlet and black shorts heaved a stone out to join the current.
Watching these kids made me think of my own childhood waterways on the farm north of Masterton, and how we used to go down to the Kiriwhakapapa stream after school, or sometimes to swim in the bigger Ruamahanga when one of our parents was willing to drive us. I began to wonder if I should be heading there rather than to Ōhakune. Later a friend would point out how odd it was even to try to map my way back through books and other people’s places, as though my compass was all out of whack. But I don’t think I was looking for someone to orientate me or translate the country; I was looking for company. When the kids left I took my shoes off and stood in the water, coolness moving up my body, shimmering like the light lattice work on its running surface.
I made one further brief stop, at the Raurimu spiral lookout where a platform marks the spot where in 1898 R.W. James solved a formal engineering problem, designing a track that would loop back on itself and climb upward through a spiral system of bridges and tunnels. There’s now no place from which to see the completedpage 199 design, which has grown over with dense trees; you can only experience the route when actually onboard the Northern Explorer.
Approaching Ōhakune through Tongariro National Park, I wondered if Edmond continues to write about this particular place even in his absence because no one really lives here, but as soon as I reached Ōhakune this seemed like an old error—not just my own. What persisted was an embodied intimation of the town’s location on the edge of New Zealand’s first national park, gifted to the nation in 1887 by Te Heuheu Tükino and others in a politicised move to resist further settlement and protect the tapu of the mountain. But while the existence of something still partially unclaimed and beyond explanation feels essential to Edmond’s ‘Ōhakune’, his writing and re-writing is never just a claim on ‘Päkehä türangawaewae’ through a feeling for Nature, never a claim on what Alex Calder calls that problematic ‘sort of belonging you have when you don’t have türangawaewae’. It seems to me it’s neither that simple, nor that nationalistic.
There was still plenty of day left and a mist had descended on the mountain, so I drove through town and out the other side in the direction of the Rotokura Lakes at Kariori. Edmond’s book-length autobiographical work Chronicle of the Unsung (2004), ends with an image of these lakes. The book is really four long essays that take different approaches to the question of how we make our selves, or rather, can never make them. I’d kept coming back to the final essay, ‘Home’, which tells of Edmond’s return to attend his primary-school reunion. Here Edmond reflects directly on his relationship to a place of origin and on his many attempts to write about Ōhakune, in particular in his poetry. His moves are multiple, working by juxtaposition and layering, by leaps of emotion and imagery rather than clear narrative or argumentative progression; I follow them the way I would the shifts of a person’s mind, which can itself never fully grasp the flux of what it is feeling and thinking—or the life it is living. At the same time I knowpage 200 this is a performance of spontaneity rather than a spontaneous performance. In his essay Ghost Who Writes (2004), Edmond talks with a kind of wonder of having found a voice in Chronicle of the Unsung that would at once tell and doubt the story it told. This is much of what moves me about his work, I think, and why I have ended up on this odd kind of footsteps journey. His writing acknowledges and explores the emotional desire to hold on to some meaning attached to particular places, while also questioning that desire. It speaks to the complexity of the ways we feel and talk about locations where we’ve lived.
In Chronicle of the Unsung the nostalgia for the space of childhood has been replaced by deep melancholy, as though Ōhakune itself always already evoked a paradise lost or about to be lost. As Edmond’s narrator again lies awake in a rented room in what was once his hometown he wonders if his now dead sister’s ghostly presence in the school photos is the cause of his aching sorrow. But then again, is his sorrow caused by the sadness of the place, by Ōhakune itself, where the ancient forest was destroyed in a paroxysm of rage or greed and, by the 1950s, what was left behind was not some bright shining brave new world but a dump, a sadness, a dereliction? Could we read New Zealand here? He also talks of his father’s belief that the town’s haphazard settlement contributed to its current economic and social issues; an understanding that links origins to current character—and not just Edmond’s own. How are we to live with our individual and collective pasts, the son seems to ask, with both their loss and their continuing capacity to haunt?
But Edmond is not happy to sit with the somewhat melodramatic causal relationship he evokes here, admitting that perhaps it is absurd to seek the sources of personal melancholy in a sense of place. About Ōhakune, he writes in Chronicle of the Unsung, he had repeatedly failed to write the poetry he wanted. Was the failure of his own poems to evoke successfully either a self or a place, he asks, because a where can no longer answer the question who? At some point he made a decision to stop writing poetrypage 201 altogether—to a wilful stilling of his own poetic voice. He made a decision to renounce this kind of neo-romantic writing of both self and place—or more specifically self through place. Edmond locates such attempts in his mother Lauris Edmond’s poetry as well as his own, and by implication in much of our poetic canon. I could include much of my own poetry here, and there’s not actually been much of it since I left New Zealand and returned, becoming uncertain of what where I would want to write about or from.
In the final move of ‘Home’, and so of Chronicle of the Unsung, Edmond writes that when he thinks of Ōhakune now he thinks of the two lakes at Kariori, Dry Lake and Mirror Lake. When I reached the carpark at the road end, the sign had a hole shot through it, leaving nothing but a fractured name. My approach to the first, Dry Lake, lifted paradise shelducks into flight and sound, but I saw none of the black shags Edmond described. The lake was dense with shrunken trees and raupö grasses.
A short walk beyond, the deeper waters of the Mirror Lake, Rotokura, formed a smooth surface below a layer of mist. The path around the western side of the lake was over-grown, kahikatea and beech trees fallen across the path, the bush, growing and rotting in green, barky tangles. I found out later this was part of an accommodation between the Department of Conversation and the local Ngäti Rangi people to only partially clear the path in respect to the lake, which is tapu like the mountain it reflects. I was only partly allowed to be there. As I walked on through the hushed afternoon with a head full of words and a somewhat random collection of stories, the constant presence of the misted water and of close, wet bush made it feel as though my walk had just begun, and might be endless.
Rotokura is small, though, and as the mist thinned I was soon back where I began. As I rounded a final bend the mountain was suddenly there, now set perfectly behind the water, although the light wasn’t right that day for a reflection. Edmond writes of memories of swimming here in the mountain’s thin image, but Chronicle of the Unsung ends with this mirror transformed topage 202 mirage. In the end, what makes these lakes important for Edmond at the close of this book is the fact of not visiting them, of not finding any single place or set of imagined origins in which to house and reflect the self.
But the last phrase of the description of the lakes and so of the book, home, finally, for all the others, stayed with me as I moved on. It echoed back and forth in its doubleness as I walked back to the car park. Why, if the search for self through place is over, does Edmond (like so many of us) still keep coming back to a particular ‘Ōhakune’? Is there some sense in which a specific place (any specific place?) might still be a home for all our others? Over the course of the day I’d realised that I was inevitably going to end up driving back through the Wairarapa via one of my own home places. But first there was the night in Ōhakune, where my uncle was expecting me, and the next day the drive up the mountain.
Back in town my uncle had an hour of his shift to go at the gas station and he persuaded me to head up to his house on Mangahouhou Road to see the mountain from a distance rather than following my plan of trying to drive up it in the fading light. I stopped at the supermarket for wine and a few minutes later his flatmate, Dave, and two enormous Rhodesian Ridgebacks were coming out to meet me as I turned in off the gravel road to their rented home, a turn-of-the century villa with trimmed roses out the front. The house glowed creamy white in the evening sun as the dogs bounded toward me. The click of the car door sounded loud in the sudden quiet.
Dave had been friends with my uncle for thirty years. He got me a beer and took me out to what they called the Vista Bar to watch the dark settle in. It was a re-purposed shed with one side opened out to the view and a bar formed across the front from a single, oiled plank of wood. They’d set up two matching lounge seats with old mattresses for themselves and cubbies with blankets underneath for the dogs. We lay back and talked about the difference of the sky each day—like the sea, I added—and about a painter friend of theirs who moved here simply for this view. Dave also told me I’d missedpage 203 McCahon’s house between Taumarunui and Ōhakune, but later I found I could locate no trace of such a place. Around us the light formed itself into layers of deep blue above pink while Ruapehu, a perfect mountain shape in the window of the Vista Bar’s open side, stretched its foothills out across the central plateau, gradually turning an extravagant purple and darkening to silhouette.
Later Dave drove down the hill to pick up my uncle and we all moved inside where the old woodstove thickened the air with smoke. They were both new residents there; my uncle arrived four years ago, Dave only one, and they’d both come from other kinds of lives. They showed me the dozen motorbikes in the garage and as we ate spaghetti bolognaise told me about their rides in a 200 kilometre radius around Ōhakune. Stories from other places erupted—disputes in the music industry, riots in Kathmandu, bike dealerships, a wife and children left behind, the black dog of depression—but for now, in their mid-fifties, they seemed to have found a kind of shared consolation in this place, some kind of temporary terrace amidst the liquefaction of their lives. And it wasn’t just the landscape. My uncle called this his next phase, describing working in the gas station as a kind of theatre: everyone comes through the place, from the 09ers (Aucklanders) who always fill the tank, to those who never have enough for more than five or ten bucks of gas. He also talked about how he really used to fuck his Australian ex-wife off by telling her New Zealand was the great love affair of his life. And still later, as Dave did the dishes and my uncle and I stepped outside into the cool night so he could smoke, he said, with a kind of sweetness that was new, that he was surprised by who he now seemed to be becoming. Life, he said, turns out to be a small town event. As I tried to tell him why I was doing this drive, and of my newly-formed plans to visit my family’s old farm, it seemed inevitable to be making this new move back through the contours of known territory.
In the morning I drove up the mountain, something I don’t remember ever having done before out of the winter months. Ipage 204 drive up the mountain is repeated so often at crucial moments in Edmond’s accounts of his returns to Ōhakune that by Dark Night: Walking with McCahon (2011) he’s describing the drive as a stage of my pilgrimage or ritual path. Like McCahon’s black tau cross in his King Country series, a load-bearing structure. I pass a sign to Martin Pl, No Exit, on my way to the Junction, then drive through a landscape I’ve been reading inscribed with only slight variation across three books and a number of essays, with its huge trees, tawai, rimu and matai, which shrink, change, thin out, until I pass through a bonsai forest of tiny, perfectly formed tawai—beech—trees. That day I could hardly even see it outside the rhythms of Edmond’s lines.
Above the tree line, and then when I got out of the car at the trig and walked toward the beginners slope, I realised I’d never seen the mountain like this; with the snow gone all smoothness and illusion of softness melts. Instead rock mounts upon rock, the mountain’s whole exoskeleton an eruption of and from the earth.
In The Autobiography of My Father Edmond describes it this way:
This is such an awesome landscape, so desolate and bleak and grand, that I didn’t know what I was doing there [. . .] This was my mountain but I didn’t belong here. I didn’t want to climb to the top. I didn’t want to ski down it. I just wanted to come close enough to feel the majesty and terror of it, then come away again. [. . .] It looked like a human outpost of an alien planet [. . .] It looked like nowhere you would ever want to stay.
In Walking with McCahon Edmond displaces this generic sense of awe and incomprehension into the spoken words of a travelling companion visiting for the first time: It isn’t beautiful, she said slowly, It’s like a force of nature. You have to respect it. She’s a kind of Dorothy to his Wordsworth, although Edmond’s sensibility has now shifted far from the Romanticism of a ‘Tintern Abbey’. Even so, an embodied sense of recognition persists even as the mountain becomes a more nuanced symbol in his writing, aspage 205 does its association with a world beyond what we can ever fully apprehend or claim, resonant equally with terror and wonder.
As the mirage of Mirror Lake makes the final image of Chronicle of the Unsung, the mountain becomes the destination in the final section of Walking with McCahon. This is perhaps the strangest of the many strange books Edmond has written. Edmond writes elsewhere of W.G. Sebald, His chosen voice is the first-person singular, but that voice is typically speaking of another individual [. . .]: as if memory is not a solitary accomplishment, but requires contributions from us all. This is never more true of Edmond’s own writing than in this book. And my experience at my uncle’s was in turn, I realised, saturated in my recent absorption in Edmond’s work.
On 11 and 12 April 1984, Colin McCahon went to Sydney for the opening of I Will Need Words, the first major international exhibition of his paintings. The next morning, in what Justin Paton calls ‘one of the oddest and saddest moments in New Zealand art history, a black hole in the cultural record’, McCahon disappeared and when he was found by police 28 hours later in Centennial Park could not even tell them his name. After years of heavy drinking, he was suffering from a form of rapid-onset dementia and had wandered off after going to the toilet. Edmond sets out to reimagine McCahon’s lost hours, to try to accompany him some way into the darkness of his end. Edmond’s father, too, had been a long-term alcoholic. In following McCahon, Edmond takes us deep into a contemporary shadow world—the world of street people, of the homeless and the bereft, of the abandoned. His walks in the world of the dispossessed take place in darkness where the twenty-first-century city becomes a kind of tragic stage, with homeless men quietly preparing beds for the night outside art galleries, shut up churches, and new luxury apartments. In this parallel night world, evoked in realist detail but mapped on a mythic scale through the Stations of the Cross, Edmond imagines McCahon (and so himself) bereft of identity and self-consciousness, as a kind of everyman, as King Lear’s bare, forked animal [. . .] divested of all that we use topage 206 make our fragile identities.
Walking with McCahon tunnels deep into Sydney cityscapes so it’s startling to arrive back in Ōhakune in the fourth and final section of the book, as though this move is necessary and inevitable. Except it’s not so strange, as McCahon is a painter of New Zealand and the King Country is the subject of some of his last great series, including Truth from the King Country: Load Bearing Structures. What startles, I think, is Edmond’s juxtaposition of a landscape and its paintings that we think are familiar, with the itinerants of our haunted contemporary cities.
In a similar way, Edmond’s first ‘Ōhakune’ writing, too, is part of a longer segment of The Autobiography of My Father that also contains his father’s terrible, stunted notes-to-self following his breakdown. These notes resemble nothing so much as posts from a human outpost of an alien planet, at once incapable of articulating the desolate and bleak and grand of what is inside a human being, and in their very pain gesturing toward what we all have, still, so little language to express. The whole section is named ‘The Mountain’.
Yet the mountain movement of Walking with McCahon is itself called, with a startling note of joy, ‘Beatitude’. Twenty years on, Edmond seems to have found a seam of joy amidst sorrow from seeking to evoke what it is impossible to describe—not as a reflection of the self, or as part of the forging of identity, but simply as itself (merely to acknowledge is in some sense to embrace). His return to Ōhakune is this time (mostly) free of nostalgia for the space of childhood, free of that actual tug of the heart, that sense of paradise lost, that used to trouble and beguile me so, and free, too, of the crippling melancholy and familial haunting of return in Chronicle of the Unsung. Perhaps, Edmond suggests, this is because of the death of his parents, perhaps the birth of his children, or perhaps changes in the small town itself, now unrecognisably altered. Now he can write simply, It’s the silence I love; the high clear air in which distant sounds are amplified to auditory strangeness.
In place of a generic sense of wonder and awe at ‘the mountain’,page 207 Edmond now writes of the precise tint of ochre light, swirled with black that McCahon’s paintings make imaginable; he suggests that standing before those turbulent ochre skies it becomes possible to see the iconography of McCahon’s tau crosses as something far more intrinsic—as the great trees that once stood here. No matter how minimal and stripped down, he suggests, McCahon’s late paintings show us things that you also see out there in the world—the ineffable and entirely real that Edmond’s mountain, of course, has always been. And which is equally embodied in the troubled and troubling lives of urban streets and our small town lives. Perhaps this recognition of something beyond, however we conceive of that, can only fully open out in each of us for moments and in particular locales.
Meanwhile I love the black: all colour is in it. The black of a King Country night, for instance, profound, silent, in which sleep descends with the all-embracing comfort of a familiar tartan blanket on a childhood bed under a dark window. In this darkness, if you leave your bed and stumble through the unfamiliar house and out the sliding door on to the lawn leading down to the lily ponds, you are likely to look up at a blaze of silver, almost solid at the core of the Milky Way—where, astronomers say, there is a black hole—and in the illumination of that silver see the humped shape of shed or tree or sheep not as angel and not as wound but as simple blackness shining in the night in the land of the sky people.
If you are lucky you will also see the outline of Ruapehu, a large subtraction of darkness, on the skyline.
I drove on for a long time with the mountain in my rear-vision mirror. There had been hardly a car on each of the smaller roads I’d driven: now I entered the different quiet of rural backroads.
We moved from the Hibiscus Coast north of Auckland to a farm near Masterton when I was eleven. We’d already moved three times by this point, so I have no land of lost content, except perhaps a house by the sea in Devonport lived in for a short time but remembered often by my mother. But we’d never moved thispage 208 far. For the next decade, before the next move on, we drove up and down these roads to holiday and visit family. We travelled this road going north the morning after I’d first been kissed, in the lunch line in the school dining hall. On this road, too, one night as we drove south we all fell asleep and on a sharp corner our car smashed through a wooden fence. My father, who was driving, would later jokingly blame the greasy fish and chips at Taihape, but at the time we scrambled out miraculously unharmed and stared into the darkness of the valley below.
Just beyond Rewa, where we used to drop in on cousins on our trips back and forth, and near where one cousin now lives with his wife and his own five small children, I rounded the corner on a school group. There were about sixty of them, teenagers pushed up against the sheer cliff on the side of the road in orange visibility vests. Spray-painted numbers demarcated sections in the face of the fifty-foot cutting, and a group clustered around each. I slowed down and as I drove by wondered what they were learning. About the layers of earth in the landscape? The instability of the cliff? Were they seeking the past or its possible futures? There was something moving about this image of looking—about this effort to read, and so understand, the earth.
Not far on, I realised I was anticipating the lookout at Stormy Point, although I don’t remember it having that name. There’s an information panel now that explains the area has one of the best preserved sequences of river terraces in the world—the landscape shows us periods of time. Terraces formed from the river cutting into deposits of greywacke gravel during warm periods separated by millions of years. As the land continued to rise, each of the older terraces lifted above the level at which it could be buried when the next terrace formed. What I remembered, and what I saw anew, is the layered land, distinct flats at different heights in patchworked shades of green and brown stepping up and up from the Rangitikei River below, and then finally opening outwards and upwards to the mountain in the distance.
Later I turned off early towards Ashhurst, enticed by a signpage 209 saying Sheep Racing, 2 km, whatever that might mean. No racing eventuated. As I reached Ashhurst and dipped down into its valley, the giant arms of windmills turned against a now stormy grey-black sky. I’d never seen windmills en masse so close, or realised they were so big. A friend and colleague, one of two I work with who have made new homes for themselves in Ashhurst, wrote a poem, Audabe, which weaves the windmills churning early air on the hills through the morning grief of a man and woman in a white weatherboard house. Having driven from McCahon country, I couldn’t help seeing the windmills in part as new crosses in our landscape, as new bones in our hillsides, signs of warning or of hope as we enter the new geological age of the Anthropocene. 1.65 megawatts per windmill, / enough to power 700 homes. But also as beautiful in themselves. They must be part of every day here, their heavy arms reaching down to us, and lifting up again and again with the weight of air. Your wife was trying to say something to you. / Forty decibels. The windmills whip and whip. You haven’t heard a thing.
The windmills continue right into the Manawatū Gorge, their arms gradually sinking down behind tree darkened hills. Belatedly, I wished I’d stepped out of the car and heard the whoosh of the blades up close, but quickly I was through and being told to Enjoy Tararua Country. Each town heralded its arrival with directions to the local golf course: Woodville, Pahïatua, Eketāhuna. I remembered this is macrocarpa country, the spreading green branches dark against the light green grass of paddocks. Macrocarpa, brought to New Zealand in the 1860s to be planted in the newly stripped landscape. I also remembered that visiting a friend in Eketāhuna at fourteen I walked in on her parents naked together on a pink towel on the living-room floor. They were both teachers at our school. I never visited again, but I also never told anyone until years later, sensing a need to protect my friend as well as her parents from the exposure of their most secret lives.
Soon I was crossing the bridge over the Ruamahanga and turning up our road, Kiriwhakapapa. When I rounded the hillpage 210 and saw our valley stretching out right up to the Tararua Ranges I remembered my father saying how lucky we were to round this corner every day, but also my mother telling me more recently how closed in and isolated it felt to her some days. The grey sky was dull by the time I reached the farm itself, Te Mara, and the sight of Mt Misery at its centre, with its bare, steep, shingly sides studded with thistles only filled me with sadness and confusion at the distance that comes between one part of our lives and another. It looked like nowhere you would ever want to stay.
Is this that tangle of emotion that rises up when you traverse the country of your memories? What about my brothers and friends and I whirling down this road on our bikes with the dogs barking behind and then spinning off across the paddocks to the swimming hole in the turn of the stream? I thought that’s why I’d decided to revisit this place I left twenty years ago.
At the house, though, which was still painted all the same creams and greens as when we left, I knocked on the door, introduced myself, and asked if it was all right if I went for a walk along the river flats, and those years came rushing in. As I opened the gate under the macrocarpa where our treehouse still perches, I remembered the south face of Mt Misery was always bleak. The north side, which faces inwards toward the farm and the river and the sun is gentler and trees we planted grow lush and pale green now in former slips.
Above all this there’s that sky I can’t describe but want to, with its layer of bruised blue along the far eastern horizon rising into swirls of grey and white. To the west, behind the green hills of farmland rises the darker green of the Tararuas now almost black as night approaches, the highest peaks bare. The bleating of sheep, the crick of cicadas, the occasional quardle of magpies underscores the still air, and once I get deep into the farm and near a dam the plaintive ghostly cries of paradise shelducks. When I stop walking it’s as though I’m alone at the centre of a globe, the sky curving round to encompass all that’s here. It always felt this way to me, I think, walking into the main valley of Te Mara. As my breathingpage 211 quietens, I turn slowly around and around in the landscape, until at last a slight breeze rises, sending dozens of dandelion fairies flying away above the yellow grass.
By the time I got back to the house, it was almost dark. A girl of about eleven in a vibrant pink shirt darted out into the lit area outside the washhouse. A small dog followed and danced around her feet. The girl disappeared inside again and reappeared with her mother who invited me in past the familiar lines of gumboots and shoes at the back door. Her brother took me down to what used to be my elder brother’s bedroom to show me the measurements marked on the inside of the closet door, my two brothers’ heights always spanning my own: 1987–1994. Back in the living room, I stood to chat briefly with the family while in the background the TV issued warnings from the latest climate change report. They told me they all mustered North Face that morning, just as we used to, the children chasing sheep that dipped out of sight of parents and dogs. Then we talked about the dam proposed as part of a massive irrigation project which may put this whole valley under water. Just as I was about to leave, the father showed me a copy of today’s Wairarapa Times-Age, in which, under the caption Old Times, there was a photo of two men dipping sheep in the yards behind the farm woolshed, circa 1900.
Later, before heading out to Masterton’s Queen Street to find something to eat, in my hotel room in the Colonial Cottage which advertised superfast connection speeds, I followed the link below the newspaper image. The photo was taken by Kemble Welch, the eldest son of George Welch, the first owner of Te Mara. Only reading these names did I remember that George Welch left his farm diaries in the roof of the house and that my own father made poems out of some of them. Perhaps I needed to forget that to be able to look and see myself.
On the website, which I would keep returning to over the following weeks, there are other photos of work on the farm. In one, George Welch and another man, both with prominent handlebarpage 212 moustaches, stand in silhouette with hammer and fencing wire, the exposed spine of a familiar hill behind still fresh with the white trunks of felled and burnt trees. The land belonged to the Ngāti Hāmua hapū of Rangitāne and was taken as part of the late nineteenth-century annexation of Forty Mile Bush, or Tapere nui a Whatonga, the Great Domain of Whatonga. In 1900, the men in the photos are already second-generation settlers and the cutting is in full swing; hardly the shadow of an original tree would be left standing on Te Mara. I stumbled on another photo of George Welch in a rugby team made up entirely of Welch men for which the caption from the time read, they were of the genuine material needed for the subduing of rough country. Perhaps. But there was also what Masterton archivist Gareth Winter described in an email to me as a ‘strain of sadness’ in the family. George’s wife, Annie Kemble, died from burns after her clothes caught fire; fourteen years later George climbed a lit bonfire on a cleared slope near what would become our house and shot himself. As children we knew the bones of this story. George and Annie’s son, Claude, also killed himself after his son died of hydatid disease caught from the farm dogs. My father would shout at us if we let the dogs lick our faces.
These could be stories from Edmond’s anthologies of lost men as much as from our myths of men alone or from Miles Fairburn’s atomised society, founded on isolation and loneliness. Edmond’s writing would perhaps persuade us to pause, though, on the photo in which one man gives another an outdoor haircut. I can see Edmond focusing on how the men lean into each other, like the men on the city streets whom he, with overt and unapologetic sentimentality, hopes against hope might have invited McCahon to join too, Come on, mate, you can go with me, I’m lost too but if we stick together we can hold each other up for a while. ...Behind the domestic scene in the photograph is the still open destiny of a valley of uncut trees.
The photos I continue to be drawn to, though, are of the next generation, even as I’m uncomfortable with the erasure of a Māori presence these images inevitably re-invoke. There’s a photographpage 213 of the eldest daughter entitled ‘Kathleen at Te Mara’. It’s dated 1910–1920, putting her somewhere between her mid-twenties and mid-thirties. She balances on a huge tree trunk fallen across a gully, her hanging feet level with the top fronds of punga trees. The image has a fantastical air to it and at first I want to substitute this daughter alone in the landscape for all those men. But the narrative it suggests is far from unambiguous. With her pulled back pre-Raphaelite hair she sits stiffly, posed, as though afraid of what will happen when she moves. The bush undergrowth is still thick beneath her, still singing with the clamour of birds, possibly even the whistle of huia. A woman poised perfectly in the centre of the frame; huge roots of a tree stretching up in the background like the arms of a falling dancer; and on her lap, a coiled cat.
The photo I rest with, finally, is of a group sitting on the doorstep of the original white weatherboard farmhouse. Kathleen went to England as a nurse during World War I (there are dashing photos of her heading off) and she doesn’t look like a young woman in this photograph, making me imagine the scene taking place after her return. There’s something both enquiring and unworried about her pose and there’s an easy sociability to the scene. Her brother, Kemble, is no longer behind the camera but sits near her, leaning over a book his wife Ruby is reading. Inside, perhaps, Kemble and Ruby’s baby daughter is just waking and beginning her yawning, insistent cry.
Early the next morning I dropped in at my old secondary school, getting out of the car to take a brief walk around the grounds with their English oaks burning orange red and their English roses and the Latin motto over the school hall, Ad Astra per Aspera, to the stars through endeavour. As a few boarders came out from between the pillars of the boarding house I hoped their education was more connected to this place in which they live than the one I received.
The week before the school had celebrated its Centennial to which I’d agonised about coming but hadn’t. The organisation ofpage 214 the event evoked too much of that school, with its inclusions and exclusions, its chapel services, cocktail parties, and formal balls. But when I saw the photos on Facebook, most of people I hardly recognised, I found them unexpectedly poignant. I peered into the faces and bodies in each of them, trying to see both these people’s pasts and their presents. At the swimming pool the following day with my children I’d found myself watching the parents around me, thinking about how my school friends’ bodies, too, must have changed. And becoming newly aware of changes in my own.
Standing there in the school grounds, I wondered about my refusal to return to the communal, especially now that I was making this strange, seemingly solitary return. Was I scared of becoming again that teenager, forced to shape herself to fit the way probably every teenager does? Or was it my feeling of a very particular community still intact in this place of which I am irrevocably not a part, perhaps never was, and have no desire to be? Edmond writes of attending his school’s Centennial in Ōhakune: What was it we expected from our shared past, if not the intelligence that our futures had taken us away from each other? Yet we also want to meet those who would say, Yes, I remember you, you’re . . . and then would I know any better who I was.
A friend recently commented that we don’t need reunions in the age of Facebook, where we can already check out what’s become of old friends, who got fat, or married, or had children, or ended up in jail, and just possibly people to say Yes, I remember you, you’re . . . . We can do this from anywhere. Even so, now I partly wish I had come and tried to ask how life has been for them, how what they think has changed—is changing. Perhaps this writing is me trying, ever so indirectly, to evoke how it has been for me. But more than this, I realised a reunion can be a return to a physical place from our pasts, a return which may, if only momentarily, open the mind of memory to the flux of time.
At Greytown I stopped for breakfast at the Main Street Café and forgot altogether about visiting 39 Main Street, where Edmond’s father lived and which had been at the centre of my original plan.page 215 The Sunday Star-Times had a full-page feature on McCahon and I left town with my head full of his 1953 description of his new home in Titirangi as a lovely place . . . Not mock English or Scottish but becoming New Zealand and possibly what one would call Pacific. I was thinking, too, of his famous letter about coming home from Australia that year, in which he wrote, here I know what I’m on about I don’t have to wonder where I belong & a problem is solved right away [. . .] I’m too young yet to leave it. For the rest of us, the problem of where we belong is far from solved, and may not even be the right question.
I wonder if writing a dual biography about two Australian artists is a gesture that Edmond is finally old enough to leave his ‘Ōhakune’. Or does that never happen? He recently wrote of his movements between Australia and New Zealand that he has stopped trying to work out which country is home: now I know the only place any of us can really be at home is in the world. Nonetheless, his argument for closer relations between the arts in both countries is based on an exploration of difference and of appreciation of the specific richness of each place and culture. If the task of art is to increase our collective consciousness on this earth, in this universe. Consciousness, that is, of who we are, where we come from, where we are going; and, no less important, consciousness of those other entities that exist with or alongside of us. Then such a task is in essence co-operative. He starts with and offers what he knows, no matter how partial, no matter how dark, and always with a seam of wonder.
Stopping at the top of the Rimutakas I thought of my uncle’s comment that life turns out to be a small town event. To the north, Ruapehu had faded into distance and the Wairarapa folded itself over into green and brown layers of flats and hills, the sky cobalt above. And to the south, Wellington, where I’ve now spent the longest of any place in my life, was nearly visible across the deep green hills. I yearned towards home and the sea now—towards the wind swept land fragments of Wellington, where the magnolias in Roy Street bloomed on the day we drove our daughters home frompage 216 the hospital, still too small for this world and screaming at the brightness of the light. And where the next morning from Lyall Bay I would see dolphins leaping just above the surface of the water. I left my own small town event before I even started to know it, exported like so many of us. Perhaps it’s odd to have gone back to the aesthetics of landfall country and to a sense of place to try to find my way back. But so be it: I’m a slow arrival. We don’t always choose our routes, but we may come to make them.
Note on Sources
- Quotations from Martin Edmond are taken from, The Autobiography of My Father (1992), 174, 100, 120, 127; Chronicle of the Unsung (2004), 186–87, 195, 206–7, 194–5, 188; Ghost Who Writes, Montana Estates Essay Series (2004); Waimarino County: And Other Excursions (2007), 255, 8–9, 249; Dark Night: Walking with McCahon (2011), 180-83, 25, 29, 72–73, 30, 174, 178, 185–6; and ‘The Village’, Journal of the Association for the Study of Australian Literature [Online], 13 10 Nov 2013. Edmond’s new memoir, Barefoot Years (2014), which returns again to the familiar territory of Ōhakune was not yet out when I took my journey.
- The following additional sources are also cited or referred to directly: Lauris Edmond, An Autobiography (1994), 226; Philip Armstrong (the Christchurch writer), ‘On Tenuous Ground’, Landfall 222 (2011); Alex Calder, The Settler’s Plot: How Stories Take Place in New Zealand (2011), 112; 5; Justin Paton, ‘Review of Dark Night: Walking with McCcahon, by Martin Edmond’, New Zealand Listener (Online), 20 Aug 2011; Bryan Walpert (the colleague), ‘Audabe’, 2013 Montreal International Poetry Prize Longlist, ed. Mary Dalton et al (2013), 20–21; ‘Old Times’, Wairarapa Times Age 29 March 2014: 12; Miles Fairburn, The Ideal Society and Its Enemies: The Foundations of Modern New Zealand Society, 1850–1900 (1989); ‘“Lost” McCahon Comes Home’, Sunday Star Times 30 March 2014: A7; ‘Colin McCahon to Kees Hos’, 15 December 1978, The Penguin Book of New Zealand Letters, ed. Louise Lawrence (2003), 342. The online photographs discussed were accessed through Picture Wairarapa and additional material on the Welch family sourced from the genealogical pages at http://www.ajlassociates.biz/ and with the assistance of Gareth Wither, District Archivist, Wairarapa Archive (including George Welch’s obituary).
- The following have also been helpful as stepping off points for my approach to narratives of place: Geoff Park, Theatre Country: Essays on Landscape and Whenua (2006); Lydia Wevers, Reading on the Farm: Victorian Fiction and the Colonial World (2010); and Tony Ballantyne, Webs of Empire: Locating New Zealand’s Colonial Past (2012). Thanks, too, to Tim Corballis, Cherie Lacey and Tina Makereti for giving me comments on drafts of this piece, and, for institutional support, to Massey University and to the Stout Research Centre for New Zealand Studies at Victoria.