Saturday, January 24, 2009

Dance of the Autochthons

One of the many highlights of our recent civil union was the performance of a piece of contemporary dance called Spirits of the Stone by two members of the acclaimed BackLit Poductions troupe, Rosey Feltham and Janine Parks. The performance unfolded on the edge of the Waikaretu River, at the foot of a steep, boulder-strewn hill, in the heart of the triangle of land between Huntly, Onewhero and Port Waikato called Limestone Country.

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.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

I don't get it. Are you pro- or anti-limestone?

11:32 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The link to 'Hitching' reveals that Smithyman (or Peter Simpson, his editor?) changed the last line of the poem from

'We carry on, between fables'

to 'We carry on, between folk tales'

sometime after the publication of the poem in thebook Dwarf with a Billiard Cue.

I find this disturbing.


11:47 am  
Blogger Richard said...

In the after word to Robin Hyde's "Nor the Years Condemn" Phillida Bunkle and others make similar points re Brasch and other (male) writers of that time. Hyde felt that Brasch was "wrong" in that respect. (It's possible though that he has been misunderstood.)

Reading that book and "Wednesday's Children" - in many ways related but quite a strange and different book - (and I hope to read more of her work) has given me a great sense of NZ in all its aspects - and perhaps a greater depth in some dimensions of her realisation of NZ and in her imagination working - especially given the time - given the times she lived in and her youth she was very much ahead of her time in understanding the need to look toward NZ as well as to "modernism" and so on.
In the after word to "Nor the Years Condemn" the editors have made an astute essay on Hyde and NZ literature in itself and the situation of (often working men and women), men, women, returned soldiers, English immigrants, and Maori and so on at the time it was written - much is covered.

But I feel you misinterpret or misrepresent McCahon. There is a tendency to canonise him - but his work is powerful creative and original - and such artists struggle to add meaning or layers of meaning to the land - add their vision to the world. And Smithyman - Smithyman has his darkness and his complex struggle with meanings. He plays with words, he hallucinates, he philosophises and evokes Stevens and Heidegger (I can hear him now as my English tutor in 1968 quoting Heidegger and talking of his Buller's Book of Birds)...He is half in love, if not with death, with mystery and the arcane. He is grounded in the gritty reality of NZ - he engages with Te Kooti or tries to and with Moriori...he does great stuff. He also looks to the European tradition - he also imagines (like Williams Carlos Williams). "No ideas but in things" ... but then Williams talks of the imagination - and, remember, the mind,or the imagined or interpreted land, is also a thing. Smithyman follows in the footsteps of WCWs and Wallace Stevens, Dylan Thomas, Bishop, and even Stein and Marianne Moore.

But there are some good points here. I was once in that limestone area on a tramp and it is quite beautiful in its own way - contorted, even dark, even desolate, but beautiful.

The Celtic "extremists" are simply bizarre - but there is a middle region - (the Celtic Twilight, Liberal Nationalism, Irish revival, gnosticism, strange astrological gyres and Vico's eccentric world view, automatic writing etc);
inhabited by Yeats and Synge (of whom Joyce - quite opposite - admired - alhto Synge he admired later on in his life) and from that "weirdness" much great work - and Robin Hyde also in the mix of the 'real' and the near surreal in Wednesday's Children and her "realism' and her poetry in her other well as Smithyman we should perhaps look to such writers.

I think you assume too much about Brent Wong (I met him once by chance) and McCahon - or you overlook that you have already commented that the European-Maori "vision" - imposed or not on the land (Smithyman perhaps saw the land in some ways as a map of the human mind); are valid in their own ways.

The general (implied) point there are too many writers who look almost obsessively to Europe or the US for approval and or inspiration is accepted - and this lack of inner conviction is not good - we have a great depth of history and culture here in NZ. And McCahon is a part of that as much as te Kooti or the miners who went on strike at Waihi.

11:04 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

If the dancers/interpreters would like to come south
this midyear to my brother& sister-in-law's place at The Rocks. when their house is being warmed, I would be grateful & honoured.
"The Rocks"is ultimate limestone country, has a huge Maori resonance, and dance/music is the best gift I can think of giving to my very couth sibling and very couth wife (and their kids.)
Contact me please.

1:46 am  
Blogger Giovanni Tiso said...

What a great post... very inspiring, thank you Sir.

10:57 am  
Blogger stephen said...

Congratulations on being civilly united.

I would be curious to know what you make of Nigel Cox' The Cowboy Dog, which projects Western movies on to the central plateau in a bizarre (but to me very satisfying) way.

12:13 pm  
Blogger Nathaniel said...

Richard Taylor:

Although there's weirdness abounding in the "Celtic extremists" of lands with a long indigenous Celtic history, I would assume maps is referring mainly to the ones concocting histories of New Zealand, not people like Yeats and Synge. Also, I think that though they are complicated by being part of a long-time settler class, they were attempting to encounter and interpret the actual folklore of Ireland, not importing stuff to cement over the indigenous traditions. I assume the above is implied in your comment, and that you are writing more about a process, approach and school that can be used, however problematically, to approach New Zealand's landscape, even as a non-Maori, through engagement with the Maori traditions in a similar way to the engagement with Irish tradition in Ireland.

1:45 pm  
Blogger Richard said...

"Nathaniel" Yes -I was more in agreement with Maps than not - I take issue with his crit of McCahon however - and perhaps the subtle way he skews Smithyman somewhat to his politics - which is o.k. - there is probably no non political writing per se...

The writing (plays) of Synge is very beautiful; some lit people have said he didn't understand the "people" as Joyce did but when Joyce met him he was not too complementary but later came to admire his work - according to Ellmann's biography. While he was more "fervent for Ireland" than Joyce was, on the surface at least, Synge, whose Playboy of the Western World sparked a full scale riot had his own understanding - from his own contact with the Irish peasantry who Joyce by and large wasn't interested in - as Yeats was.

But ideas such as those of Yeats can "morph" - so we are seeing degrees of "idealism" - Yeats flirted with eugenics, but although Pound was his secretary for a while and influenced his writings,I don't think that much of Pound's fascism rubbed off - or not enough to influence him too badly.

I am also suggesting a more complex picture of NZ culture. Included is the point that the alternative of seeing Robyn Hyde as a major and perceptive writer for those times could counter the views, rather dismissive of Maori cultural achievements, of the Fairburn, Curnow, Brasch dominated years. She placed more emphasis on Maori culture; and thought that there WAS already "meaning" even in 1920s when when wrote most of her work.

Smithyman wrote great work called "Te Atua Wera" which deals extensively with NZ history, pakeha and Maori.
But I feel that McCahon also creates a valid vision also.

7:33 pm  
Blogger Richard said...

But Maps does a great job of bringing literature, dance and other culture, and politics together so that different aspects of the questions of NZ society can be understood or assessed.

I have learnt a lot about NZ history by reading this Blog.

The idea that the Celts (or anyone else) came here before the Maori, and taught them, etc, is of course massively imbecilic. Maori had developed on their own their own viable and very advanced society with a rich culture.

7:59 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Most disaster victims don’t vote for an earthquake

9:35 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

How do the Celtic New Zealand people explain this?

Pacific people spread from Taiwan
23 January 2009

New research into language evolution suggests most Pacific populations originated in Taiwan around 5,200 years ago.

Scientists at The University of Auckland have used sophisticated computer analyses on vocabulary from 400 Austronesian languages to uncover how the Pacific was settled.

“The Austronesian language family is one of the largest in the world, with 1200 languages spread across the Pacific,” says Professor Russell Gray of the Department of Psychology. “The settlement of the Pacific is one of the most remarkable prehistoric human population expansions. By studying the basic vocabulary from these languages, such as words for animals, simple verbs, colours and numbers, we can trace how these languages evolved. The relationships between these languages give us a detailed history of Pacific settlement.”

“Our results use cutting-edge computational methods derived from evolutionary biology on a large database of language data,” says Dr Alexei Drummond of the Department of Computer Science. “By combining biological methods and linguistic data we are able to investigate big-picture questions about human origins”.

The results, published in the latest issue of the prestigious journal Science, show how the settlement of the Pacific proceeded in a series of expansion pulses and settlement pauses. The Austronesians arose in Taiwan around 5,200 years ago. Before entering the Philippines, they paused for around a thousand years, and then spread rapidly across the 7,000km from the Philippines to Polynesia in less than one thousand years. After settling Fiji, Samoa and Tonga, the Austronesians paused again for another thousand years, before finally spreading further into Polynesia eventually reaching as far as New Zealand, Hawaii and Easter Island.

“We can link these expansion pulses to the development of new technology, such as better canoes and social techniques to deal with the great distances between islands in Polynesia,” says Research Fellow Simon Greenhill. “Using these new technologies the Austronesians and Polynesians were able to rapidly spread through the Pacific in one of the greatest human migrations ever. This suggests that technological advances have played a major role in the spread of people throughout the world.”

The research was funded by the New Zealand Royal Society Marsden fund. The database of Austronesian basic vocabulary can be accessed at:

10:30 am  
Blogger maps said...

Lots of interesting comments here -thanks. I take Richard's point in defence of McCahon. I never meant to excommunicate him, only to qualify him. Keri, I'll pass that message on to Rosey - I'm sure she'll be excited by your idea.

5:00 pm  
Blogger maps said...

PS for the record, I am pro-limestone.

5:01 pm  
Blogger Richard said...

This debate - ranging form poetry to science to art to religion to politics and war (all these things are interlinked in some way) at least is stimulating - whether any of us is "right". Questions of right and wrong are always problematic.

I myself certainly support the scientific evidence of Professor Russell Gray and the information of Dr Alexei Drummond as quoted by Anonymous.

I found more information on that rogue Catholic Bishop - certainly he sounds like a bad egg.

9:51 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

This article mentions caves that Pakeha cannot enter because of Tapu. Bollocks, many are right beside the road if you know where to look. Tameana and Hienana are within 50 metres of the road and you can gain permission to yet another three large caves and I have found a few 'lost' ones already, along with a few burial caves.
But Celts? Nah, they were inhabitants here since before the time of Christ. There are some very tall skeletons in at least three locations. Two are extremely hard to find. One not so hard.

9:27 pm  

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