Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Feeding the eyes


About halfway through the fractured, half-finished, infuriating, and inexhaustibly rich novel known as 1984, Winston Smith gets his hands on a copy of the book supposedly written by Goldstein, the semi-mythical leader of the semi-mythical resistance to the practitioners of Ingsoc. In one of the moments of private pleasure-taking that punctuate 1984, Smith opens the book at random and savours a passage, secure in the assumption that he will have time to read the whole volume again and again.

Unlike poor Winston, I don't have Big Brother peering over my shoulder 23 hours a day. I don't think one has to live in a police state, though, to understand the pleasure he got out of opening a book he had long wanted to read and picking out a passage at random to savour. I've been doing the same thing to Geoff Park's Theatre Country: Essays on landscape and whenua since I got hold of a copy of it a few weeks ago. Theatre Country is the sequel to Nga Uruora: the Groves of Life, the book which recorded Park's journeys around the sites of New Zealand's (mostly extinct) lowland forests, and the parts of it I've sampled feature the mesmerising mixture of history, poetry, and ecological polemic that won Park's debut a wide audience. (I wrote about Nga Uruora here.)

Here is a passage to savour from Theatre Country, taken from the start of Park's essay about Colin McCahon's Urewera Mural:

Driving east from Murupara you can watch the landscape suddenly slip from the grip of the great colonial project. Pastoral plain and pine plantation yield to the primordial, as abruptly as tasrseal becomes loose gravel. Up against the wild forcefield of Te Urewera, Britain of the South just gives up.

It is different here, and Colin McCahon knew it. The West's cataclysm of change has been through Te Whaiti, Ngaputahi, Ruatahuna, and Maungapohatu, as it has every Pacific village. But dispossession here, as with the empire's potentials for obliteration, has had but a shadow of its success elsewhere in Aotearoa. Te Urewera's land lies without the gangs of Pakeha farms that now inevitably surround it in other New Zealands, and remains unfazed by their urgent economics. It is as though Tuhoe's history, their mountain fortress's inaccessibility, has given them a strength that still sustains. While what now saturates the rest of the country may circle Te Urewera on all sides, it can't enter. It is as though the land's life-force is still Maori.

Yet somehow the possibility is betrayed by the way the Maori clearings seem to shrink from what encircles them. The driver too feels diminished by the wild life outside, compared with passage through a domesticated landscape. Road maps confirm what the view hints. This is the South Pacific, not England. A dark, elemental, forever forest, not to be entered unless you know precisely what you're doing. Primordial, Gondwanan, shrieking with birds, but unhaunted by the human history that brings time - or landscape - into being. Pacific Gods - Papatuanuku, Tane - have a stronger stake in it than Christianity's one, but the distinction is trivial. This has long been its own place. Brutal news for those who like to call the landscape theirs. A raw land - scary stuff, as Colin McCahon knew.

Te Urewera is not country to be driven through and ignored. Whether captivated by its wildness or by the 'despair of ever getting into open country again', most people, in my experience, can't keep their eyes off it. Entering it always reminds me of a Tongan friend with whom, one wet Sunday in Fiji, I coaxed a wounded car up out of sugar-caned plains into rain-forested hills - hills that Siosefa, who had never ventured beyond Tongatapu's flatness before, had not imagined. 'Today', he said, 'we feed the eyes'.


Feed your eyes - read Theatre Country and Nga Uruora.

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