Monday, October 21, 2019
We feature each fortnight Nicholas Reid's reviews and comments on new and recent books.
“ALWAYS SONG IN THE WATER” by Gregory O’Brien (Auckland University Press, $NZ 45); “SINGING THE TRAIL” by John McCrystal (Allen and Unwin, $NZ59:99)
The subtitle of Gregory O’Brien’s diverse, informative and very engaging book Always Song in the Water is “An Oceanic Sketchbook”. This seems to me far too modest a description.
Always Song in the Water is a large, handsome book [over 250 pages] of art works and essays. The art works (drawings, sketches, paintings and photographs) are by a number of credited artists, including O’Brien himself, who is artist, essayist and curator as much as poet. The text is all by O’Brien. The topic is essentially New Zealand’s connection with, and isolation in, the Pacific Ocean, with many reflections upon this condition. But much of the text digs deeply into O’Brien’s background and influences as both artist and poet. So inevitably much of it is highly autobiographical. Explained very late in book, the title Always Song in the Water refers to the songs of our mammalian cousins, whales, which at some point become a measure of our identity with the ocean that enfolds us.
Because “sketchbook” implies something done on the run, faits divers rather than a structured whole, and Always Song in the Water does have a definite structure and backbone. The term “bricolage” – a single work of art made out of many and varied things - has sometimes been applied to O’Brien’s work, and it is certainly applicable here. Always Song in the Water runs through many anecdotes and many topics, but O’Brien is not bundling them together at random. They move in a certain direction and add up to a coherent whole. I’d propose substituting as subtitle “An Oceanic Bricolage”.
In his Introduction, O’Brien admits that he is not a great seaman, although clearly he has made a number of voyages. But his concept of New Zealand and its relationship with the ocean altered for him in his 2011 trip to the Kermadecs. O’Brien has responded to this trip before (see Beauties of the Octagonal Pool, his poetry collection reviewed on this blog in 2012). In 2011, he was one of nine visual artists who, together with the minister of conservation, conservation workers and one broadcaster, were passengers on HMNZS Otago in a sponsored trip to Raoul Island, one of the five Kermadec islands which used to be called Sunday Island. New Zealand territory, the Kermadecs are the uplifted parts of a submarine volcanic ridge stretching from New Zealand to Tonga. O’Brien was forcefully reminded that New Zealand ranges far beyond Cape Reinga – indeed, New Zealand’s territorial waters extend 200 nautical miles north of Raoul Island. This fired in O’Brien’s mind an expanded sense of the oceanic nature of New Zealand as a fluid, moving continent. In the early sections of Always Song in the Water, O’Brien uses the overgrown dinghy in his front yard as a symbol of New Zealand, movable but anchored in sea.
Always Song in the Water divides into two parts.
Part One is billed as “Coasting – a Northland Road Trip”. In 2014, O’Brien drove north from Auckland to Whangarei with his artist friend, the non-driving Noel McKenna, who remarked, correctly, that it’s better to be the passenger on such journeys as you have the leisure to look around rather than having your eyes fixed on the road. They meet an ex-Trappist friend of O’Brien’s and visit his meditation room. In Dargaville, O’Brien recalls that he began his career as a journalist on the town’s daily Northland Times, where he first took an interest in typefaces. He recalls his own youthful experiences of surfing and renders surfies as metaphors for poets. The rituals of drinking tea are discussed. There are encounters with abandoned cars and topiary work and all the unleashed dogs in Northland and the sighting an (imaginary?) wolf. Caravans as places of residence are discussed and there are a couple of bizarre tales, one about the nursing career of O’Brien’s mother and the other about riding pillion on a motorbike while gripping the oars of the dinghy.
All this might indeed sound like random observations until you see how the emphasis on literature and (more expansively) art builds up. O’Brien remarks: “Periodically, my family criticises me for my inabiity to drive anywhere in New Zealand without continually citing not only McCahon, but also Baxter and Frame.” (p.105) When he encounters a second-hand bookstall in the middle of nowhere, he is surprised to find among the dross some classy books (Coleridge, Heraclitus etc.). Dargaville, with its muddy river and second-hand shops, calls to mind Jane Mander and her piano on the riverbank, which in turn segues into the idea of New Zealand literature and art being adaptations of European norms, such as pianos. There is much reference to Clare Cavanagh’s concept of playing “Schubert on a barrel organ”, which seems a rather contorted way of referring to New Zealand writers and artists playing variations on European-sourced models.
Ultimately the visual artists get more space than the writers, though. We are told that Colin McCahon fled north to re-find himself and later he wept when he saw Ahipara. O’Brien discusses the influence of a Michael Smither sketch he was given by his parents; and Ralph Hotere’s collaboration with Bill Manhire in an art-and-text publication. The surreal films of Florian Habicht are referenced a number of times, because in O’Brien’s interpretation they give a psychic survey of what we are… and later Habicht is found to have been influenced by Friedensreich Hundertwasser, another denizen of Northland.
What Part One has revealed gradually then, is not reminiscence so much as, through writers and artists, the imaginative interpretation of Northland. And more important, this first half of the book is heading northwards like a long run up to the long-jump. The long-jump is Part Two where O’Brien launches into the sea itself. Running on Ninety Mile Beach leads him to say “the real northernmost tundra of Aotearoa New Zealand is the Pacific Ocean itself, at once inviting and inhospitable, bracing and mind-boggling.” (p.99)
So we are in the ocean in Part Two, billed as “We Went Ashore One Morning”. This begins with the 2011 voyage to Raoul Island “the remotest part of New Zealand, an active volcano located on an earthquake fault line, it has the air of an island that wants to be left alone.” (p.131) The shaky island has been rendered pest-free, so it teems with birds and indigenous wildlife, as well as flourishing foliage. O’Brien and his companions are there for 48 hours and it is endearing to learn that he reads the poetry of Edith Sitwell while on Raoul Island “because here nature itself seems eccentric, excessive and at times implausible”. (p.136) Here is the key to the whole book, when O’Brien says that after leaving the island its image stayed with him and it altered his sense of the shape of New Zealand: “A different profile of the nation came to assert itself – an archipelagic concept which has been, and continues to be, an invigorating and creatively sustaining proposition…” (p.140) It also heightened his awareness of New Zealand as “a gyrating, quivering nation-machine… a nation that is geologically and seismically in a state of ongoing upheaval and adjustment.” (p.142).
Once again, some sections of Part Two could seem random observations or simply interesting anecdotes, as when O’Brien decribes the traditional tying of ropes by the naval crew or traditional naval slang or the crew’s traditional over-the-side swim, in mid-ocean, when they cross the Tropic of Capricorn. But ultimately artistic interpretation is what dominates and the ocean is related to artistic endeavour. Off the Wellington coast, the ashes of the artist John Drawbridge are dispersed into the sea. The South Pacific, we are told, might better be called Oceania, in line with Pasifika writers such as Epeli Hau’ofa, who interpret the ocean as their whole world. Repeatedly O’Brien reflects on artists who have imagined submarine seascapes and there are reveries about the sinking of the SS Mikhail Lermontov in Marlborough Sounds in 1986.
Alongside this, there is inevitably a strong conservationist tone. In somewhat opaque prose, the section titled “The Questioning Sea” gives a mystic view of sea as nurturer. But fouling this are the huge numbers of containers now floating in the seas and the dangers they create, such as sinking ships or washing toxically ashore. Elsewhere O’Brien notes the great, slow migrations of crayfish across the seabed when careless human beings have over-harvested them in one area – and he also notes the anxiety with which surveys of whales are now conducted. Of the very many images reproduced in this book, one of the most arresting is O’Brien’s own rendering of a whale survey conducted at Raoul Island. Near book’s end, there is a plea for the revival of the Kermadec Ocean Sanctuary Bill, which stalled after being introduced in 2016 and has yet to be written into law.
So, anecdotes and asides and light moments and all, this book creeps up on you, with copious images and with two long poems by O’Brien, “For Rebecca Priestley in Antarctica” and “Ode to the Kermadec Trench.” For all the pieces of which it is composed, it makes a strong central impression. Not bric-a-brac but excellent bricolage.
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Totally different in purpose and structure, there is another new publication that helps us see New Zealand in a new light. If Gregory O’Brien’s Always Song in the Water makes us consider New Zealand as an oceanic continent, John McCrystal’s carefully-researched Singing the Trail shows us how New Zealand came to be mapped in the first place, and how we gained what is now our indelible mental image of these islands. Subtitled “The Story of Mapping Aotearoa New Zealand”, Singing the Trail is a sturdy hardback of over 250 wide pages, showing us the most significant maps of New Zealand and of the Pacific since, a bit over 400 years ago, Europeans first began to guess what might be in this part of the ocean. There was so much pure guessing and speculation that “the first European maps of Aotearoa were works of science fiction” says McCrystal. (p.8)
McCrystal provides a very detailed introduction to each section of the book, as well as substantial notes on each of the many maps that are reproduced. Text talks to image.
In his general Introduction, McCrystal tells us that his own fascination with maps began with his “boatie” father, who knew how to read maritime charts and navigate by them, as well as recognising and steering by landmarks. McCrystal picked up the mapping bug. But he adds that some form of mapping is inherent in us, as it is in some other animals such as birds, bees and dogs. They have mental systems enabling them to remember routes, hence they can travel to desired destinations. As for earlier human beings in oral cultures, their first “maps” were spoken stories, designed to help voyagers remember what to look out for on a particular route. McCrystal explains that the first real, non-speculative maps of New Zealand made by Europeans were obviously confined to the coast and focused on finding safe harbours and anchorages. Then came maps pointing out places where exploitable resources could be found (seals, flax, timber). Then maps related to Pakeha settlements. Then military maps during wars between Maori and Pakeha (ordinance maps, military routes, plans of pas and redoubts); then the latest survey maps using technologies unknown to the earliest explorers. In his choice of maps to go along with his text, McCrystal admits that he has chosen ones that are “aesthetically pleasing”, as well as telling a story.
The text is divided into three long sections.
Part One, called “Coast”, is about first discoveries and the first mapping of the shape of New Zealand. This section deals in detail with Polynesian navigation and the use of ancestral stories of gods and perils as mnemonics guiding voyagers to landmarks in the vast ocean. The European system of drawing a chart, and the Polynesian system of memorising a route, met in the person of Tupaia. He was taken on board by James Cook, and questioned about islands in the Pacific. English cartographers made a drawing of what he explained. Fittingly, a rendering of Tupaia’s conception of the Pacific is the first map in the book. As McCrystal explains, there are fantastical theories that peoples before the Maori first “discovered” Aotearoa – or even that Europeans other than the Dutchman Abel Tasman were the first to see New Zealand. These theories (which usually imply racist ideologies) are easily disproven on archaeological grounds, and also by the nature of European maps before Tasman. The text moves on to European maps made after Tasman’s 1642 voyage, with much guesswork still on display; maps made after Cook’s voyages in the 1770s, and maps made by French explorers. Many an early map is an itinerarium (concerned with getting from A to B) rather than scientific cartography. This is particularly true of maps prepared by whalers and sealers in search of prey. The last map in this section was printed in 1858, by which stage the (coastal) shape of New Zealand was (almost) fully known.
Part Two, called “Inland”, deals with 19th century maps as Pakeha now began to explore the interior of the country and lay out areas for settlement. It is interesting to note that just before the Treaty of Waitangi, and just before mass Pakeha settlement began, Europeans were still ignorant of much that lay between the coasts. Wyld’s chart of 1839 gets the shape of New Zealand more or less right (with a few gross mistakes) but is entirely ignorant of the existence of Lake Taupo and has only the vaguest notion of where mountain ranges lie. After 1840, there are maps of localities prepared by missionary societies or by Wakefield’s New Zealand Company. There are neat grids of roads laid out for Wanganui, Wellington, Dunedin and other major settlements, including Felton Matthew’s conception of what Auckland should be, with its impossible concentric ring roads. Later, during the wars of the 1860s, there come the ordinance maps and military routes and – on an even more melancholy note – maps showing lands that had been confiscated from iwi by the New Zealand government after the wars were over.
Part Three, called “Changing Views”, contains maps from the late nineteenth century to the early 21st century. They are mainly specialised maps, made after accurate renderings of the shape and topographical features of New Zealand had been determined. Each is interested in some particular aspect of New Zealand. Thus, from the early twentieth century, there is a map showing New Zealand’s place in the British Empire, and there are maps showing places overseas where New Zealanders fought and died in the First World War (Gallipoli and the Dardanelles in 1915; Le Quesnoy in 1917; and grids of military cemeteries). Maps show New Zealand’s dependencies in the Pacific and in Antarctica, and New Zealand’s economic fishing zones. And so on to maps giving the locations of New Zealand’s lighthouses; maps indicating where most shipwrecks have occurred; guide maps of railway, steamer and coach routes; and promotional material aimed at tourists. These include a colourful rendition of the Raurimu Spiral prepared in 1929 for New Zealand Railways; and a “fun” map made in 1960 for New Zealand’s old domestic airline NAC, giving a cartoonish version of the country’s major tourist attractions. From Hochstetter in the nineteenth century to the satellite image of New Zealand that ends the book, one constant is the way techniques of topographical survey improved.
In my tiresome bibliographical way, I have told you accurately what this book contains. McCrystal’s text is accessible and very readable – my only reservation is that occasionally his style can get a little facetious, with strained puns. (Does a section on the mapping of New Zealand’s rich natural resources really have to be called “Scrutiny on the Bounty”?). What I have not made clear, however, is the sheer fascination of the maps themselves. After all the real and informative material this book delivers, and after all the explanations of individual maps, Singing the Trail is in the end a great site for wool-gathering. As we look at the earlier maps made by Europeans, we may at first smirk at how wrong they got things. But then we realise what an exacting – and often dangerous – thing it was to make a chart of a newly-discovered country, and we understand what an extraordinary thing it is that we have maps at all.