Monday, December 27, 2010

Dreaming about dendroglyphs

[The verses reproduced below are the successor to last year's Christmas poem, and to Kendrick Smithyman's rather more worthy effort in 2008.

One summer in the late seventies Bruce Hayward tramped methodically over virtually every acre of West Auckland's Waitakere Ranges, discovering and recording archaeological phenomena like cave shelters, middens, burnt-out Victorian farmhouses, burst kauri dams, World War Two Home Guard trails, and an artifical grotto built to house a statuette of the Virgin Mary. Somewhere in the mass of notes which accompanied his maps and grid references, Hayward stated that he had, despite 'extensive searches', failed to locate dendroglyphs on any of the Waitakeres' millions of trees.

Hayward's lack of success should not have come as a surprise. The Chatham Islands are famous for the dendroglyphs created by their tchakat henu, the Moriori, but few tree carvings have been located in other parts of New Zealand. A dendroglyph is supposed to have existed near Patea a century ago, and a few examples persist on the shores of Lake Pencarrow, near the bleak south head of Wellington harbour, but trees in other places seem to have been untouched by carvers. In his wonderful study of the Moriori carvings, Rhys Richards suggests that there is a qualitative difference between the dendroglyphs of the Chathams and the rarer, cruder examples in Te Ika a Maui, and suggests that the latter are hardly worth acknowledging.

Despite Bruce Hayward's fruitless search out west, and the paucity of dendroglyphs in the North Island as a whole, I often feel compelled to inspect the trunks of the karaka trees I encounter in the bush, in case they exhibit the fluidly beautiful markings found on their counterparts on the Chathams. I'll disrupt a relaxed Sunday afternoon walk with friends by excusing myself from the track, charging off through underfoliage to a distant circle of karaka, and flitting breathlessly from tree to tree. I'll return to the track to report the failure of my mission, and to take an extended ribbing.

I think the dendroglyphs of the Chathams fascinate me for the same reason as archaic Maori carvings like the famous Kaitaia lintelpiece displayed at the Auckland museum. With their relative lack of ostentation, their lack of classical Maori motifs like the hei tiki, and their use of ancient motifs like the hocker pose, the tree carvings very obviously hark back to the pan-Eastern Polynesian culture which existed fifteen hundred years ago in places as far apart as the Cooks, the Austral Islands, Pitcairn, and Rapa Nui. Perhaps they hark back even further, to the Polynesian 'homeland region' which included Tonga and Samoa.

Rhys Richards argues that the Moriori people lacked suitable materials with which to build proper meeting houses, and instead used the trunks of kopi (that is, karaka) trees as pou on which to carve ancestors, culture heroes and deities. Looking at these images, Moriori were transported deep into the Polynesian past. Is it too romantic, or too presumptuous, to say that, looking at reproductions of the same extraordinary images today, we too can be transported imaginatively?

I spent Christmas with family, in a house in the foothills of the Waitakeres, close to the secret jungle warfare training base where Kendrick Smithyman spent some unhappy weeks in 1943 and '44. An intermittently noisy creek ran close to the house, along the bottom of a steep ridge; I managed to get away from the turkey and the booze long enough make an expedition across the water, into a zone which combined scruffily regenerating native bush with plantations of doomed pine. I didn't find any dendroglyphs, but I did spot a midden not far from the creek, and I did later have the archaeologically-incorrect dream which this poem describes.

The poem's references to 'unadvertised Gods' might seem melodramatic, but during my two visits to Tonga this year I was struck by the lack of sympathy which many people there seem to feel towards pre-Christian Polynesian religion and mythology. Sites and artefacts associated with the 'old Gods' are often not considered important, and are sometimes even considered as worthy of destruction or desecration. An ancient statue of Hiku'leo, one of the most important deities of pre-Christian Tonga and a relative of the Maori goddess Hine-nui-te-po, sits on a patch of linoleum beside the men's toilets in the arrivals section of the country's international airport. A plaque beside the statue informs visitors that icons like it were destroyed in large numbers by Tupou I, the revered founder of modern Tonga. Pre-Christian religion goes wholly unacknowledged in the Tongan National Museum at Nuku'alofa. Is it possible that only a few palangi archaeologists and historians today feel reverence for the once-mighty Hiku'leo?]

Walking to the Dendroglyphs on Christmas Eve
(a dream)


Jehovah is tired
of advertising himself.
He bounces in the backseat
between fluffy dice,
trickles down candles,
glistens in crypts,
services virgins
and mystics
like a bored stud bull.

Let's give him a break
today. Let's leave the kid
in peace.


We step off the track
and head uphill,
wrongfooting manuka
and stunted pine.
Condoms and beer cans
dangle from branches
like festive decorations.
Split pipi shells stare blindly
from terraced mud.


On the ridgetop karaka
have made a circle
as methodically as druids', as witches'
stones. A bottle has broken and spread itself
like a picnic blanket.


We come closer. We see how
the trunks have been cut.
The cuts are called Tangirau, Te Whiro,
Hiku'leo: Gods that don't often
advertise, at least not on this
empirical island.


We stand and watch, as shadows
link the cuts, fill
the gaps, between elbow
and jaw, spear
and star, long-handled club
and proudly symbolic
bird. You trace a wingspan, hear
a morepork call,
as the light turns grey with age.


At the end of the ridge,
in a carolling farmhouse,
Jehovah is being born,
but this is the grove
of unadvertised Gods,
the place where they went hunting
star and owl,
the place where they come hunting
Somebody has written
beside Hiku'leo's sharp-winged prey.


Blogger Liz said...

Merry Christmas Scott. Great post that was fascinating. I passed the Omeru Reserve yesterday and I thought of Ted standing there on the road in that image you posted.

It's a shame Hayward never found those dendroglyphs in the Waitakeres.
Have a good one.

8:22 pm  
Blogger maps said...

You should let me know when you're coming down that way again, Liz - we could have a beer at the Kaukapakapa Tavern, which isn't too far from where some of my mates live. I'll probably be up that way on Friday to see them, if you happen to be in the vicinity...

8:33 pm  
Anonymous Jono said...

Ian Barber gave an interesting paper at this year's NZAA conference on recent work on the Rekohu dendroglyphs, including the laser scanning thereof and some new thoughts on the meaning of the shell "midden" found around the carvings. The upshot of the latter is that the so-called midden is not food refuse but mulch placed there to keep the sacred groves free from weeds.

At least I think that was the upshot, I arrived late and hangover...Great conference; who knew Westport could be so much fun!

8:42 pm  
Blogger maps said...

I wouldn't need any excuse to go to Westport: it's one of the spots in New Zealand I'd most like to visit for the first time. And what a great idea to hold an academic/scholarly conference a little off the beaten track! I'd be fascinated to get a report on proceedings, Jono. Did you give a paper?

Barber et al are apparently racing against time to preserve images of all the Moriori dendroglyphs, as beetles and the wind take their toll. It's fascinating to hear his discovery about the function of the midden. I suppose the apparent evidence that food was eaten near the carvings was always puzzling, given the belief of most (all?) researchers that the carvings had a ceremonial/sacred function, and the taboos around food in Polynesian society?

10:24 pm  
Anonymous Keri H said...

BUT BUT BUT -food & fire as well as most potent but ephemeral words have always been part of Kai Tahu (and thus, possibly, Rekohu tchacat henu) ritual-

there are carved Southern trees-

11:25 pm  
Anonymous come on punter - apologise said...

I'm Australian and what Ponting did was an embarassment to himself, the Australian team, and cricket in general. The DRS showed him up for being the prat he was in this instance. I only hope he has the decency to apologise for his disgraceful outburst. In past times some (but definitely not all) the criticism of the Australian team has been unjustified, but in this instance the critics are spot on. A really poor example to set the sporting public - way to go Ricky!

11:31 pm  
Anonymous come on punter - apologise said...

PS It was a shame to see such a great player losing the plot so completely. It was clear that Pietersen did not get an edge and even after Aleem Dar (and Pietersen, for that matter) pointed out that the hot spot mark was nowhere near where the ball passed the bat, Ponting persisted with his protests.

I do not believe Ponting is a cheat so he clearly had the wrong end of the stick, but that really cannot excuse such an open display of dissent and disrespect. I fear that his days as a cricketer are numbered and his behaviour shows more than a hint of raging at the dying light.

11:32 pm  
Anonymous come on punter - apologise said...

PS sorry if this is not directly relevant to the post but I feel it very deeply and it may be indirectly relevant

11:33 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Pitcairn settled 1500 years ago?

Did the Bountry get there 1500 years ago????

11:39 pm  
Blogger Liz said...

Sadly Scott I won't be down the old haunt this week. Next I am going down I'll drop you a line definitely. KKK is still a great place. I had a few mates out there myself once. All have moved on. Hope to catch up soon!

9:15 am  
Blogger Chris Trotter said...

What a magnificent poem, Maps!

It puts Robert Graves "Old Gods" to shame.

To say so much, with so few words, is a great gift.

9:49 am  
Blogger maps said...

Thanks for your very kind words Chris. I'd love to hear more about carved trees in the South Island, Keri. I got excited and did a google search when I read your comment last night, but came up empty-handed! Perhaps the locations of these taoka are kept secret, though? It occurred to me that the rock paintings from places like Weka Pass have some stylistic similarities to the dendroglyphs, and to archaic carving in general.

11:40 am  
Blogger Richard said...

Chris is right Scott. You have certainly moved from the SALT days!!

And you have worked out a way of a very strong, but still not too direct, language. Ad there are great images and imaginative phrases. The poem works brilliantly.

I saw something about Dendroglyphs - I think it was in a book by (the late) Dr Neich I had from the library.

12:29 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Historic photo of the Patea dendroglyph:

2:09 am  
Anonymous Edward said...

Interesting post Maps, and great poem. I didn't go to conference this year but from what Jono says it sounded great.

10:18 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm still looking for those dendroglyphs in the Waitaks - one day you never know - but there are not thnat many karaka trees there and all are associated with preEuropean Maori sites.

Cheers Bruce Hayward

9:36 pm  
Anonymous safemeds said...

What a strange poem, where did you get it? is the most stunning stuff! I've ever seen.

6:30 am  

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