Rivers have huge spiritual significance for Maori, and in March of 2017 the Whanganui river was given the legal status of a person. This poem celebrates this beautiful river, right from his or her beginning, running down inside a trampers raincoat high up in Tongariro National Park.
River – am I… in winter
like a loose thread from a jersey
slowly unravelling and weaving its helix tickle down a leg
I finger twist a curvaceous cutting
in the rock mud silt
time – I have
I am a skier on a slalom run, easing my knees into each arc,
sculpting with gravity and molecular sweep
I am a navigator swinging a compass
pivoting on an imaginary point as I dance in radial swirls and moons down my mountain.
A child am I, running at my leisure and humming as I trace a stick
In Sses down a windy beach
deep into the outer curves and lightly pulling through the diagonals –
A lilting flute is my voice, tangled in polyphony
with oboe, fiddle and korimako –
My jewellery shall be the sparkle of ice
hanging in ghostly pendants and crystallising out over eddies
like maps of crinkly fiords –
But soon, away from glitter of sun and moon,
far from snowfall and silver alpine grass,
I am digging
peeling away like a gong
deep into shadow –
deep under black boulder and tangled root
Heavy fall of damp leaf and moss
The journey of the pit lies before me –
The cleft gorge so deep that the vein of sky, thousands of meters above
Is always sapphire dark –
I am just a painterly thread, but I know how to wait…
Other voices, songs and melodies will fall in with my theme
Wellsprings of floodwater and ooze,
seeping marshlands and spitting cataract
The spill off dying branches
From layered veils of leaf –
All feed my song
Snowflake and hail, sleet and slurry – all join my liquid road,
sloping down to the great river – The Whanganui
And silty soft and fishy full,
we sing our songs and meander in coils through the folded valley,
through the crushy green of swaily forest,
pouring down brown into the sea itself.
My mountain was an island
on the continental shelf
Water is as impassive as mathematics
And yet – it carries the sound of voices
in wordless melody
Like children’s laughter
echoing from out of another time-
Tiny giggles, squeals and yelps mingle with excited plinks of discovery and clear gurgles of delight.
There! the tuneless hum of a child totally absorbed in some little game-
Deep pools of contented stillness lead to murmurous purring and plotting
Some kind of mischief is hatching!
The tiny fall speaks in conspiratorial lilts and bubbly chuckles
then tussles and teases
as tributaries join arms to eddy in a spinning dance.
Flickering sparkles glint as small fires are lit to cook little fish on sticks,
tickled by practised fingers
We flow on, deepening with satisfied guzzles, sucks and slurps
then spill round into clear lums, like guileless faces
curling together in sweet sleep under a shady bank
Ribbed ripples of light pass through and over like breath
I pause, crouch, drink my fill…
Any long walk undertaken in solitude becomes a pilgrimage, whether or not you intended it to be one.
That which you seek, or do not seek, cannot be named.
Labels are like boxes – they acquire packaging and prejudice, tinsel and hypocrisy,
and immediately sound like self-help columns.
So shush – no names
No gurus or manuals – just go
There will be no ceremony except the sensible packing of jacket, raincoat, hat, mittens, walking pole and food.
No anointing of oil – save careful application of sunscreen.
No hymns or chants are necessary, although you may find yourself whistling old Beatles songs under your breath as you puff along.
And you certainly won’t need holy water because the wild, rain-delivered kind is everywhere
River, tarn, bog, drindle, running clear and cool under the stones wherever you walk.
No incense, unless you count the southerly gusts carrying snow flurries in lilting tumbles.
No miracles can be expected – only rounded rocks like worn bones
or sharp treacherous shards like old swords
Place your feet securely – there is no forgiveness for carelessness.
Wholly arbitrary, this land has no divine commandments
You and the mountain abide only and utterly, by the laws of physics.
There is innocence in this
There is no need to try – in fact it’s probably better not to
what is your aim anyway?
remember – no names
Simply plodding along in a beautiful place for long enough, is sufficient.
Nonetheless softly, like a change in the weather
something like grace steals in, circles,
and settles into nooks and crevices of your soul –
like the delicate blue harebells,
the mountain hebes
Or the ice-white everlasting daisies that nestle in the cracks between boulder and creek
Something – something of quiet – takes root and flowers for a season
Like a snow-laden spur half-lit and numinous through mist
Dimly perceived, like a wild bird that we must only look at sideways
else it will fly off, frightened
Something that is part of you now, even if it fades
as evanescent things do –
and it will leave behind spores and seeds
The same pathways will always be there
like rivers and tarns
ferns and lichens
glowing coral, red, amber, green
Pilgrim, just go
Mist in the mountains is beautiful but you can all too easily get lost in it as any who has tramped in the Tararuas will know. Sometimes I think I spend half my life in a different kind of fog. I’m flying blind, popping out every now and then and being surprised, when I finally see clearly, at where I turn out to be this time.
Morning mist demons are puffing up off the swamp
Colluding with moonfire and tendrils of solar flare – the breath of dragons!
Upwelling from valley trees and river, the helicoidal ghosts are seeing off the last shades of dying night.
Lambent coils coolly levitate into evanescent haze and milky hag-lite spills over layered ridges under a seashell dawn.
I watch as I brush my teeth near an alpine tarn
The earth is a great bird with ruffled feathers.
Eddies of rib and muscle wrinkle into the flow of the hills and dreamy folded wings settle over dewy grasslands
Changing as fast as I change my clothes
The cloud turns sullen, lugubrious –
Mist is a story that can send you topsy turvy and chill
It can spin your compass and flummox your bearings
East might be west or north, south –
Do I wake or sleep? Which way is up?
Fog is a mystery novel with a choice of endings
Schrodinger has lost that damn cat completely this time round
(though I daresay it’s surviving perfectly well…)
And who knows which spur we should take to get to the hut?
When the weather tears open like an old threadbare blanket,
The windrush, inaka and hebe glitter
in orbs of silver and rainbow –
A tiny mountain spider crouches in the centre of it’s beaded windmill web
Is the hillside awash in tears?
or shining with gems beyond price?
It all depends on how warm your jacket is –
Do you like this new world your mist book has opened onto?
Have you finished up where you expected to be?
– Photos by Peter Jenkins
Sunlight glows under mist on primeval forest – a pale dawn gleams on Hauhangatahi
Long lucent ridges lean down like tawny yawning arms,
touched by a scatter of gold dust on tussock and glitter of snow
Brooding clouds crouch in the south
O – that cutting south wind that swirls out of myth and story –
Who are you Hauhangatahi? Unknowable oldest one, with your air of haunted sentience?
You’ve seen it all come along – from charred bits of Taupo eruption
to first people
to puffing steam trains
What do you make of it all?
Your weather is supple as a fish – a spectral fin catches the light and then it’s gone!
The tail pulls in reverberate rain, thrumming like an organ symphony –
timpani and freight trains
the rhythmic folding metre of it!
I hold out my hands, I feel it vibrating in my belly
A lull comes, like a sigh of vast lungs
– dropping deep –
Then it’s all on again,
wind-winger, bell-ringer, tree-singer,
tintinnabulating tarn filler –
The marriage of Earth and Sky is somewhat fractious in these parts.
Boggart, you could be – a great, bog-humped lumpen beast unearthing yourself out of the flax swamp
Pulling free from a million knitted eely roots; out of cold black pools and the cradling earth.
A slouching sulky creature with no care for Bethlehem or any human concern
Just biding your time…
Enduring in muddy obdurate fashion, ringed by a forest of henchmen –
Grey-green old wild folk with licheny whiskers
Waiting out the long siege until we all go away and you can recross the line –
back across the railway,
to reconquer what was your own.
I have trespassed over that line occasionally –
Ventured across with my family, when the fit takes us, when we want to go off and be wilderpeople.
If you find yourself in sympathy with this quest, well then –
squeeze through a cutty grass door
Calendar time has no power here,
(all those little squares)
Only the tug of the moon and the tilted earth against the sun.
Join us in this murky kingdom of drupes, racemes, panicles and involucres.
From here on in, the map is blank;
Here there be monsters
Mournful eyes peer at us as we pass…
Those trees are passing cryptic notes about us.
The only guide for our passage is the occasional dab of paint mostly worn off
Or a flax blade tied in a loop – the work of hunters.
The strange scrub circle on Hauhangatahi hints at aliens landing, and a suspended cup of cloud confirms this feeling –
Run down, run down as the moon
rises over the edge of the world!
Escape, escape, through the scrub
as the darkness deepens
and the sunset dims on distant Taranaki.
The cozy red tent just fits in a dry clearing at the bushline, circled by pahautea and an earthy stream
Dip the billy carefully if you want clean tea.
As we sit quietly, and push the last twigs into the middle of the fire – shivering a little on our old log,
I think that’s kiwi crying, out in the dark…
(Original painting by Nicolette Brodnax)
Bellbirds echo each other from the swamp across the road where the red red flax heads shoot tall and thick.
Slowing down, I become aware of a low hum of flies, and a drone of bees a tone and a half higher. They love rasberry and hebe.
I’m contained and sheltered in my tree-ish circle among the dandelion shoots which sneak up illegally in the bark.
Sparrows slip in stealthily to slip off with bits of vogels crust.
The ti-tree overhead is alive with flying insects – A brass band! Bagpipes! Tinnitus!
A piece of leaf swings on a single long cobweb. My old eyes see it double.
A sparrow lands on an “ancient ruin” recently created by Nicolette from local pumice. Her fat pottery bird, under the real bird, has cracked in the weather.
This is nice enough to be worth bringing out a cup of tea and a cushion.
A small fly drowns in my tea while I’m eating chocolate.
Sunshine between clouds encourages them all to crescendo.
I shut my eyes and I could be in the eye of a hurricane,
a squeezebox of buzz,
a somnolent chainsaw
translating patterns of buzz.