Dance of the Autochthons
As Skyler and I, our bemused celebrant, and a collection of our family and friends looked on, Rosey and Janine emerged from a grove of totara trees near the river and crept slowly towards us, across grass that had been mown and sprinkled with petals. The two dancers wore white clothes, and had pale clay smeared through their hair and across their exposed skin. As they came closer to us, we saw that each of them was cradling an object in her arms. ‘Are they carrying children?’, I heard someone ask. ‘Rabbits, perhaps?’
When they reached the centre of the area of mown grass, Rosey and Janine placed two large stones on the ground with almost torturous care. They might have been handling live explosives, or new-born babies. After disposing of their cargo, the two began to dance wildly about, as strange music fizzed and crackled from a strategically placed speaker. After several minutes they disappeared behind large sun umbrellas which seemed to have materialised out of thin air. It is relatively easy to describe the look of Spirits of the Stone, but harder to interpret the work. What meaning can we justifiably take from Rosey and Janine’s strange, urgent, wordless rite? Later in the evening, after she had washed off the white clay and stepped into more conventional attire, Rosey talked to me about the dance. She explained that it had been inspired in part by my essay ‘The Discovery of Limestone Country’. In this text, which was mailed out everyone invited to the civil union, I talked about what an extraordinary and disorienting region Limestone Country is, with its juxtapositions of ancient bush and eroding sheep farms, its massive, weirdly-shaped rock formations and its deep, sudden tomos, its abandoned coal pits and lime quarries, and the wild empty beaches on its western margin. I had suggested that Limestone Country was a liminal, mysterious place, the kind of place that inspires visionary experiences, and Rosey said that Spirits of the Stone was an attempt to convey a visionary experience of the region. ‘We were supposed to be stone people, stone spirits, emerging from and celebrating the landscape’, she explained. Rosey’s discussion of her extraordinary dance got me thinking about the words I’d thrown around in my essay. What exactly did I mean by ‘visionary’, for instance? Pakeha cultural tradition is replete with visionary responses to the New Zealand landscape, but not all of these responses have been healthy. Often Pakeha artists have seen their local landscape as an undifferentiated, ahistorical place, a place which both needs and invites the visionary imagination. Colin McCahon’s crucifixions, angels and miracles, Charles Brasch’s famous poem about ‘empty hills crying for meaning’, and Brent Wong’s hallucinatory foreign buildings floating over empty local landscapes are all examples of the tendency to see New Zealand as an historically and culturally barren land ripe for myth-making.
Despite their beauty and obvious emotional authenticity, the paintings of McCahon and the poems of Brasch implicitly ignore the real history of New Zealand. Hadn’t people lived in these islands for many hundreds of years before McCahon picked up a brush and Brasch sat down at his typewriter? Did they not have ways of inhabiting their landscape - ways of ‘being at home’, to paraphrase Brasch - which were worth taking into account? Did they really need melancholic Pakeha intellectuals to teach them how to see their homeland?
The poet Kendrick Smithyman asked questions like those decades ago. In his book A Way of Saying, Smithyman attacked Brasch and his co-thinkers for using myths prefabricated in the Old World to avoid the reality of New Zealand life in all its richness and diversity. Smithyman found Brasch’s talk about hills crying for meaning hard to swallow – having grown up in rural Northland, he thought of pa sites and ancient gardens whenever he looked at hills. Smithyman had similar problems with Brasch’s poem ‘Rangitoto’, which presented Aucklanders’ favourite island as a brooding, malignly magical place devoid of any real connection to human history. Smithyman believed that Brasch’s vision of Rangitoto was based on a failure to appreciate the history of human uses of the island, and the role that the island continued to play in the life of the people who lived around and on it.
Smithyman’s remarks about Brasch’s poetry can be taken as a rebuke to a whole range of expressions of what we can fairly call mystical Pakeha nationalism. Although Brasch’s poems are unfashionable today, the vision of New Zealand they express is still popular in some quarters. Perhaps the most crazed present-day manifestation of mystical Pakeha nationalism is the Celtic New Zealand ‘movement’, a collection of far right political activists, conspiracy theorists, and amateur archaeologists united by the belief that these islands were settled thousands of years ago by technologically advanced, peaceful white people who were eventually wiped out by the ‘savage’ Polynesian ancestors of the Maori. It is allegedly Celts, not Polynesians, who are responsible for the hei tiki, the carved meeting house, and epic voyages across the Pacific.
Like Brasch and McCahon, the members of the Celtic New Zealand movement are desperate to construct a myth which gives them a sense of identity and a connection with the landscape around them. Victims of the Celtic New Zealand ideology wander the backblocks of this country, hallucinating. They encounter piles of stones left by ancient Maori clearing the land for gardens, and believe they have discovered the remains of Druidic temples. They decide that Maori pa are actually the remains of ancient Celtic observatories.
One of the most popular habitats of Celtic New Zealand ‘researchers’ is Limestone Country. An ancient Celtic ‘stone village’ supposedly existed into historical times at the mouth of the Waikaretu River, and an extinct tribe of white ‘tall ones’ have allegedly left ten foot long skeletons in caves south of Port Waikato. The Celtic New Zealand movement perhaps confirms, then, that Limestone Country is indeed a ‘liminal’ place, which inspires fantastic imaginative gambits. Is it possible, though, for us to make another, healthier, imaginative response to our landscape? Is there a way that a place like Limestone Country can inspire our imagination, without having its real history diminished or displaced by our imaginings?
Once again, Kendrick Smithyman can help answer our questions. Smithyman’s best poems have a visionary quality which is developed out of rather than counterposed to the reality and history of New Zealand. In his famous poem ‘Hitching’, for instance, Smithyman drives through the Desert Road area of the central North Island, where he encounters Te Kooti, the legendary nineteenth century guerilla fighter and prophet, disguised as a horny hippy hitchhiker. Smithyman’s hallucination may be fantastic, but it is connected to the real history of the place he is travelling through. Te Kooti did once roam the central North Island, and the wild ponies Smithyman can see from his car are descendants of the creatures the prophet’s ragtag army brought to the area. Smithyman’s vision is inspired and confirmed by the landscape around him. It enriches rather than abolishes reality.
Another writer who combines an openness to visionary experience with a respect for reality is Martin Edmond, whose books move disconcertingly but credibly between autobiography, history, and hallucination. In his 2004 volume Chronicles of the Unsung, for instance, Edmond drops acid on Kawau Island, where he has gone to research the life of Governor George Grey, and experiences a terrifying vision of Te Whiro, the Maori God associated with sickness and decay. Edmond’s vision is not an interruption so much as a heightening of reality. It flows from his profound understanding of the darkness in the heart of Governor Grey – the bigoted imperialist who started the Waikato War in 1863 – and some of his more narrow-minded descendants.
Like Smithyman and Edmond, Rosey Feltham and Janine Parks are able to combine a visionary apprehension of the New Zealand landscape with respect for the history that shaped that landscape. Spirits of the Stone may be a fantasy, but it is no mere work of whimsy. The ‘spirits’ in the dance are at once corporeal and ethereal – their white costumes and smeared skins make them look like ghosts, but they can also be associated with the boulders and spurs of Limestone Country.
Because it is so soft, limestone is easily caved by water and wind, and the area between Waikaretu and Port Waikato is studded with hundreds of openings and tunnels of various sizes. Many caves contain the bones of ancestors of the various Tainui peoples who are the region’s tangata whenua. To the annoyance of speleolgists and the fury of Celtic New Zealand ‘researchers’, a number of huge caves near Port Waikato have been declared tapu, and made off-limits to non-Maori. Yet the cave can be a place associated with life, as well as death – a number of Maori oral traditions speak of autochthonous ancestors who emerged from caves onto the surface of Aotearoa. In Rosey and Janine’s dance, stones are brought and laid before the audience with a care and respect worthy of either the bones of the dead or the bodies of the newborn.
In their direct emergence from the land, the ‘stone spirits’ allude not only to an element of Maori oral tradition but to long-held Pakeha dreams of indigenity. As we have already noted, the desire to cast off the status of settlers or ‘second people’ and become autochtonous is a theme that runs through much Pakeha art and literature. In the poetry of Brasch, in the paintings of McCahon, and in the pseudo-scholarship of the Celtic New Zealand movement, the desire leads to the construction of myths which deny the real history of these islands. In Spirits of the Stone, though, the yearning for a direct connection with the land is presented less negatively. Rosey Feltham whakapapas back to Te Arawa as well as Pakeha ancestors, and the intricate manoeuvres of the second part of Spirits of the Stone allude to both Maori and European dance traditions. At times the spirits move with the grace of ballet dancers; at other moments they make stiff, awkward motions that recall the innovations of contemporary dance; at still other points they discover some of the powerful rhythms of traditional Maori dance. The mixture of grace, awkwardness, and power is appropriate to beings that are at once physical and supernatural.
The syncretism of Spirits of the Stone is well-suited to the dance’s setting. Unlike many other parts of the Waikato region, where divisions created by the wars and land confiscations of the nineteenth century linger on, the countryside around Waikaretu has seen the growth of a hybrid Maori-Pakeha culture. Maori and Pakeha families have regularly intermarried, many Maori words have entered the lexicon of local Pakeha, and marae are often used as meeting places for the entire community.
It was an honour to receive Spirits of the Stone as a civil union gift. The dance is both visually impressive and thought-provoking, and my comments here have only hinted at its richness. I hope Rosey and Janine will perform it again.