Sunday, November 11, 2018

Abolishing, or extending, New Zealand

Image result for zealandia
I'm chuffed to get a mention in Dan Kelly's piece for The Pantograph Punch about the recently discovered continent of Zealandia. Kelly discusses the musician Dudley Benson, who was inspired by the discovery to make an album that reimagines New Zealand as a set of islands connected with, rather than isolated from, the wider Pacific.

There are obvious parallels between Benson and Kelly's use of Zealandia as a bridge between New Zealand and its neighbours and Epeli Hau'ofa's famous notion of Oceania as a liquid continent, or 'sea of islands', bound together by thousands of years of journeys. I was honoured to be a reader for Lana Lopesi's new Bridget Williams book False Divides, which tries to extend Hau'ofa's metaphor into the twenty-first century and the suburbs of Auckland.

Is the conceptual isolation of New Zealand, which was the work, I have argued, of Allen Curnow and his nationalist mates in the '30s and '40s, finally being broken? I certainly hope so.

A lesson in technology

I'm giving a weekly lesson at my son's school. The teacher asked me to deal with technology, which is a term theme, so today I discussed the Moriori waka korari, or wash-through raft. 

The Moriori were Polynesian, but the bleak Chatham Islands that they discovered & settled lacked the tall trees that could be made into ocean-going vaka. Moriori improvised, & made the waka korari from from kelp & reeds. 

The boat appeared flimsy, but early European visitors noticed the way that it remained stable, in the cold swells of the Southern Ocean, because it floated slightly under the water. Moriori could steer the waka korari to isolated, bird-rich rocks dozens of kilometres from their main islands; Europeans who tried to follow them in whaleboats and skiffs often found themselves capsized. 

As far as I'm concerned, Bill Gates & Steve Jobs had nothing on the Moriori.

Wednesday, October 24, 2018

Looking for a river

Some notes and photos from a recent expedition
11.10 am Today we are going upstream. We are abandoning the plains of Franklin, where the Mangatawhiri, the old border of the Waikato Kingdom, has been reduced to a series of drainage ditches, & driving into the Hunua Ranges. We are looking for the old river, for the clear running water of history.
11.14 am The Waikato War was a hydraulic as well as a human conflict. Swamps & tributaries were drained & redirected by imperial engineers, who worked as ferociously as the soldiers storming Rangiriri, Orakau pa. After the war the Mangatawhiri was bridged, embanked, civilised. A journey in space can be a journey in time. Perhaps in the Hunuas, an old refuge for Kingite guerrilla bands & shell-shocked veterans, the upper stretches of the Mangatawhiri retain the blue sheen & shoals of kokupu that distinguished the old border of Tawhiao's kingdom? Perhaps time might flow backwards there, all the way to 1863?
11.34 am A photograph has lured us: an old image, chromogenic, that shows four & a half figures, trampers, Pakeha, with tanned slacks or tanned legs, on the edge of a broad & swift stream. It was taken, the archivist said, sometime in the early '60s, on the upper Mangatawhiri. The river shines like a golden fleece. 

11.36 am At what point, Ken Smithyman asks, in one of his greatest poems, does a 'shallow creek running over stone/ start to think it's a river?' Perhaps the Mangatawhiri became an awa in 1862, when Wiremu Tamihana, kingmaker, decreed it the southern boundary of the British Empire.
11.45 am Mastery over water: the credo of tyrants, tyrants' engineers. A slogan of the Khmer Rouge, whose cadres drained Phnom Penh, put taxi drivers & hairdressers to work on earth dams, canals, aqueducts. The credo of the colonial engineers who flooded the Hunuas in the '60s.
11.47 am History rhymes. A century after the bridging of the lower Mangatawhiri by imperial forces, Auckland engineers & thousands of coolies created an earth dam, a monument of pharaonic proportions, on the upper river, in a Hunua valley where Kingite guerrillas once camped.

11.54 am Now we climb a gravel-voiced road, an old Home Guard trail, into the Ranges. I see a few scraps of low cloud, imagine the campfires of a Kingite raiding party. A hermit camped outside the park gates has unfurled a spray painted banner: BEWAR 1080 POISON BOMBS. The war is continuous.
11.59 am We park, & walk thru a glade bulldozed from bush, towards the Mangatawhiri, which runs fast & clear, like the border in 1863. A dead eel lies in a pool; my oldest son imagines its silver belly is the shaft of an ancient hero's sword. The dam is a green wall in the distance.

12.13 pm The river is clear, & seems to run freely, but its flow is regulated by the gate keepers of the vast dam further up this valley, & below the valley, on the plains, it will become a drain. What we see is an indulgence, a simulacrum, five kilometres of artificial wilderness.
12.26 pm The dam lake discharges metaphors, as well as water. 'My people are a river' Rangihiroa Panoho said in 1998. 'We were walled up by colonialism, our history backed up, became confused, but now we are flowing through the wall, now we are continuing our journey.' 

Friday, October 12, 2018

Creating like a god

Who needs Banksy when they can have Ezekiel, Tonga's legendary street artist & political polemicist? At EyeContact I've written about how, with Tonga under siege from Chinese imperialism, Ezekiel has returned to the walls of Nuku'alofa.

Tuesday, October 09, 2018

Photos from a road trip

As we drove south, into the continental vastness of Te Ika a Maui, I talked compulsively with my Tongan companions about the tiny islands of their homeland: about rising seas, sinking reefs, endangered civilisations. Then, in a logging town a safe distance inland, we discovered Atlantis. 
There was something excessive, almost decadent about the volume of spring snow on Ruapehu. It was like a heap of cocaine poured on a coffee table at a posh party.

As a kid I watched the giant steel robots stride in single file beside the Desert Road. The jeeps and trucks of the New Zealand army, buzzing up the road to their Waiouru Base, looked like noisy toys beside the great grey machines. Decades later, the robots were still on the march. 
Te Papa's Marquesan warrior looked at us with pity. It is your world, he seemed to say, that is tiny, quaint, fragile. Why do you not break this glass, & step into my valley, with its stone gods shouting through the warm air, its breadfruit groves rising triumphally? 

We found Everest Indian Takeaways in Bulls. The establishment's moniker seemed doubly impudent. The name robbed the great mountain from its custodians, Nepal & Tibet, transferring it to the superpower in the south. It also raised a challenge to the hypnotically flat Manawatu countryside around Bulls.

Thursday, September 27, 2018

Banned and local

It’s marvellous to see that Auckland's libraries are joining similar institutions in other parts of the world in marking Banned Books Week. Here in Ranui library this morning I’ve looked over a nicely presented table, which features books in blank brown wrapping and helpful explanatory notes. 
I’ve learned, to my amazement and sadness, that Harry Potter has been booted from many US school libraries, on account of his alleged Satanism, and that Anne Frank’s diary is banned from Lebanon, on the grounds that it might create sympathy for Jews. There are several books banned in the former Soviet Union on the table too. Visitors to the library and invited to remove the brown wrappers from the books, and read them.
I am disappointed, though, that the display doesn’t feature any of the numerous books that have been banned in New Zealand over the years. A famous example of our own banned literature is Jean Devanny’s The Butcher Shop, an alternately coruscating and titillating depiction of life and lust on a New Zealand farm that was removed from shelves in the ’20s on account of its author’s communist views, and her characters’ enjoyment of extramarital sex.
Censorship is not just something that happens in distant, benighted lands. 

Tuesday, September 18, 2018

Before Norfolk

The Haunui, a sailing ship built using traditional Polynesian principles and materials, is about to set out from Auckland to Norfolk Island. The vaka's journey should reminds us that Polynesians discovered, settled, and abandoned the island we today call, in place of its original, lost name, Norfolk, leaving behind shards of obsidian from Aotearoa and the Kermadecs.

Where did the discoverers of Norfolk go? Is it possible that they sailed west, and encountered an island of incomprehensible size, with an ancient civilisation? Scholars have discovered a lot of evidence for Polynesian visits to the Americas in recent years, but they have perhaps neglected Australia.

Ninety years ago an ethnologist from Sydney museum visited an uninhabited section of the New South Wales coast. He was looking for Aboriginal artefacts; he found a Polynesian adze. WW Thorpe's report has been forgotten for too long.

Thursday, September 13, 2018

Notes from Manukapua

Recently I went to a place some New Zealanders have referred to as Atlantis. I brought back these notes and photos.

1:16 pm
The road to Atlantis begins at Wellsford service station, where we watch shoals of SUVs & VWs heading northeast, towards the beaches & golf courses of Tutakana, the Bay of Islands. They roll past with the self-assurance common to migratory creatures. We will turn west, aiming ourselves at Taporapora, the great sunken motu of the Kaipara.

1:28 pm
The rivers that extend towards the Kaipara harbour are tubercular throats, clotted with phlegm-green islets, sandbar-cysts. We wait for the road to change, listen for its gravel voice.

1:29 pm
On the map, Taporapora peninsula resembles an old fashioned teacher's wagging pedantic finger. The isthmus is named for the broad flat land, adorned with kainga, plantations, & a whare wananga, that once extended beyond it, all the way to the mouth of the Kaipara harbour. A sliver of sand & toitoi remains: this relict island is known as Manukapua.

1:31 pm
'Only the ship of fools' WH Auden wrote, 'is making the voyage to Atlantis this year'. Our party fills two ships: a Honda Odyssey, which my wife drives suspiciously over the worsening, winding road, & her brother's white van, where his kids & ours bounce like fluffy dice.

1:34 pm
The lost land of Taporapora survives in the mouths of Te Uri o Hau, & other fractions of the great iwi of Ngati Whatua. The Mahuhu waka, storytellers say, threaded the harbour heads, & disgorged the chief Rongomai at the island. He married a local, planted crops from his tropical homeland of Hawai'iki.

1:37 pm
Archaeologists may cite Wairau Bar, that vault of artefacts & bones, as the first site of human settlement in Aotearoa, but there is reason to favour Taporapora. In a chant to Io transcribed in the 19th century, the island is named as the first work of the god. Iwi that are today scattered across Te Ika a Maui remember ancestors who tilled the island's soil, and who now lie under Kaipara mud.

1:41 pm
Rongomai, the story says, went fishing one day in a waka tiwai, & was swallowed by the jaws of the harbour. His brothers took a nihilistic revenge: they cast spells that stirred the sea, until its waves ate Taporapora. If Rongomai had to die, so did his fellow islanders. Drowning became a habit, for the peoples of the Kaipara: in the nineteenth century, scores of Pakeha ships were interred in the sandbars of the harbour; just last year, half a dozen men drowned when a chartered fishing boat flipped at the heads.

1:44 pm
By the twentieth century those most unreliable ethnographers, the editors of Pakeha newspapers, had discovered the tragedy of Taporapora. The island was, the Pukekohe & Waiuku Times told its readers in 1921, a 'Maori Atlantis', and a 'cheap edition' of Plato's tale.

1:46 pm
We pass Port Albert, the utopian city that became, a few years after its founding by three thousand radical Christian settlers in 1862, a utopian hamlet. The city's founding sects split as regularly as bacterial cells; chapels spread along its ridges instead of houses & fences.

1:54 pm
This is a weekend drive, an adventure for the kids, & also a reconnaissance mission undertaken on behalf of the most ferociously original artist in the tropical Pacific, Visesio Siasau. Siasau and I have dreamed of making the lost island in the Kaipara a bridge back to his homeland of Ha'apai.
I have tried to convince Siasau that Taporapora may have been a tropical Polynesian fragment of ancient Aotearoa, a Mangaia or Pukapuka afloat on the temperate waters of the Kaipara. Stories say hiapo were grown & tapa was made on the island; archaeologists and fishermen have found tapa beaters in harbour mud. The tools are very rare elsewhere in Aotearoa.
1:57 pm
We pause, as the road dawdles along a ridge. Pinus radiate rise beside the gravel, stop our eyes washing themselves in the harbour. 'Those are rockets' my fur year-old says. 'Those are rockets, and they are ready to fire. If we want them to, they can go all the way to Mars.'

2:06 pm
The ridge concedes the road to the flat end of the peninsula, where a hamlet of baches - mean things, the size of duckshooters' hides, whose tenants, I have been warned, shoot fentanyl into their feet & 22s out their windows - has grown like a moustache above a creek-mouth. The paper mulberry plantations may have drowned, but exotic crops still burgeon in the Kaipara's microclimates. Near the turnoff to Manukapua, we pass avocado orchards insulated against sea winds by bamboo.

2:07 pm
Should we be speak of Lemuria, rather than Atlantis? Clement Wragge, a meteorologist, theosophist, & pioneering Pakeha pseudo-historian, used that name for a sunken continent that had these islands as its remnants. In 1910 newspapers reported Wragge's discovery of Lemurian megaliths, huge stone temples, in the Bay of Islands. Nobody else has seen these monuments.

2:09 pm
It was not only theosophists like Wragge who thought Aotearoa a relic of a sunken continent. Hare Hongi, the first scholar to work at both a whare wananga tohunga & Pakeha universities, insisted Polynesia's motu, from Hawai'i to Tonga to Rapa Nui, were fragments of an ancient continent, a primordial superpower. For Hongi, who spent his life trying protect indigenous culture from both neglect & appropriation, an ancient super-continent of Polynesia was a source of mana, even if it put vaka of his ancestors into drydocks. We turn down a road of dirty sand, sniffing for the sea.

2:13 pm
My brother-in-law belongs to a fraternity of off-road drivers. They wink wistfully when they spot each other through rain and jammed traffic on Auckland's Monday morning motorways. Each knows the other is dreaming of a route like this one: sandy, rutted, circuitous, empty.

2:14 pm
Sitting under a heaven of coconuts & bats on Lifuka, an atoll sinking slowly into the same sea that ate Taporapora, Siasau & I discussed expeditions, technologies. We imagined piloting a submarine whose stainless steel crab-pincers could dig through Kaipara mud, & reveal koloa, taonga: pearl shell lures from Mangaia, obsidian adzes from the sheer volcano of Kao, war clubs cut from the forests of 'Eua, a necklace made with the hair of coconuts, a necklace holding a gold coin salvaged from a Spanish galleon that sailed over the edge of history.

2:16 pm
The road becomes a track, then a trail, as the sharp fire of spring gorse spreads. We abandon the Odyssey for the van, which wallows comfortably in each rut & pothole, confident in its four wheel drive. The nearing sea makes the sound of wind in the gorse.
2:19 pm
The kids are first out, first into the shallow channel that separates us from the surging dunes of Manukapua, last remnant of Taporapora, Atlantis, Lemuria. Aneirin stops, turns, adopts the shocked expression of a scout who steps on a mine in a bad war film. A crab has his toe.

2:20 pm
In 1936 a new railcar was unloaded in New Zealand. It had been painted a brilliant red, the colour the head dresses of Polynesian chiefs, & boasted a stained glass window. An article in the in-transit magazine of our rail network explained that the new vehicle was named Mahuhu, after the waka Rongomai brought to Taporapora. Wood had become steel.

2:21 pm
In the mellow late afternoon light, the gently curving dunes on the edge of the island resemble the walls of some art deco castle. A small sandstorm, a swarm of irascible insects, rises somewhere inland.

2:24 pm
To travel in space is to travel in time. The Kaipara exists mostly in the past: it was a Maori heartland, where a dozen iwi contested rivers & hills, before Hongi Hika brought his terrible peace from the north. Pakeha flourished then foundered on abandoned gardens, forests. In an article for Te Ao Hou in 1962, Colleen Sheffield made the sands of the Kapiara into a metaphor for futility. Cook, she noted, called the Kaipara 'the desert coast'; dunes drowned Depression relief work camps of pine planters as surely as the sea covered Taporapora. The sands of the Kaipara are as merciless as the desert that drowned Ozymandias' works.

2:28 pm
I think about the name Manukapua. I can see manuka sheltering in sand gullies; pua means to bloom. Are these pygmy trees the remnant of some ancient forest, or the vanguard of a new one? No birds adorn their frail boughs; no blossoms whiten them. 'Imagine' Siasau said, 'if the island had survived. They might have had kava & tapa in Aotearoa, but without the rules, the restrictions on drinking & painting, that chiefs created in Tonga. They might have been able to plant & harvest their crops, without having to offer them as tribute to a god-king. Perhaps it could have become a utopia.' I can hear his voice now, through the static of a cold harbour wind.

2:57 pm
In the centre of the motu I find a small lake, surrounded by drying mud. Is it the remnant of some ancient lagoon, and did the dunes beyond the mud bury plots of kava, hiapo? This landscape is less real the past that bequeathed it. I follow a procession of wireless iron fenceposts until they disappear into the dunes, like a party of Victorian explorers lost in the Sahara or the Australian Outback.

3:13 pm
On the windward coast, waves that have passed straight through the harbour mouth deliver trophies from dead ships. Lui picks up a fishing float: it is round & black, like one of the bombs the airforce drops a short flight away, on Muriwai beach.

3:37 pm
Near the lagoon-pond, I notice a row of slim & gnarled trunks rising like dead men. They might be the palisade of some pa or kolo stormed by sand, by water, by history.

4:24 pm
It is late afternoon. It is time to leave. The steep dunes on the leeward coast glow darkly, like the pyramids of an alien civilisation.