On the island
In one of his best novels, JG Ballard maroons his protagonist on an overgrown traffic island near central London. The hero of Concrete Island accidentally drives down one of the banks that separate the island from the motorway; his vehicle is wrecked and he is injured, but he cannot attract the attention of any of the motorists who continually pass above him. He must learn how to survive in his strange new home.
Ballard’s reinvention of the tale of Robinson Crusoe is a lesson in the peculiar spatial order that late capitalist society has created. Though capitalism has brought humans together in their millions in its cities, it has also increased our isolation from one another. In the West, especially, cities are partitioned into different zones, with differing functions, connected by official lines of transport and communication. Modern city dwellers are adept at travelling between their residences and their workplaces, and into zones of their cities set aside for recreation, but many of them have never set foot in or eyes upon whole regions of the metropolises they call home.
When London’s tube was closed by suicide bombers in 2005, its surviving customers found themselves forced to walk home. They may have committed the famous grid of tube lanes and stations to memory, but many had little knowledge of the suburbs that stood above those lanes and stations. Young men and women who had travelled down the Amazon or across the Himalayas during the annual holidays from their City of London jobs quickly became lost amidst the minarets and pawn shops of Whitechapel and Bethnal Green.
Mutukaroa – its Pakeha name is Hamlins Hill – can be considered a huge traffic island. Every day hundreds of thousands of Aucklanders pass the low bare hill as they travel down the Southern Motorway, the Great South Road, and Sylvia Park Road. Most Aucklanders would recognise Mutukaroa, but very few of them have set foot on the hill, even though it was made into one of their city’s largest parks more than a decade ago. An Auckland Regional Council report suggested that the ‘remoteness’ of Mutukaroa has put many would-be visitors off venturing into the park. Such a judgement is not as foolish as it might seem, if remoteness is defined in terms of accessibility, rather than mere distance, because Mutukaroa is not much more accessible than Ballard’s concrete island. No one willingly stops on the stretch of motorway that washes Mutukaroa’s eastern shore, there is no access to the hill from Sylvia Park Road, and the carpark beside the Great South Road entrance is poorly signposted and tiny. In recent years the World War Two warehouses which stood east of Mutukaroa have been replaced by a mall and a housing estate, but the people who live and shop in the new suburb of Sylvia Park are separated from their local park by the relentless motorway.
Yet it is not only Mutukaroa’s location which gives the hill an uninviting feel. I remember regularly passing the place as a child, on family trips up the southern motorway to Auckland’s city centre, and being perplexed, and perhaps vaguely disturbed, by its bareness. Mutukaroa was surrounded by man-made features – motorway on-ramps, factories, slaughterhouses, offices – and yet it seemed to be completely barren. Of course, there were many open spaces in Auckland – I loved visiting Cornwall Park, and the Domain – but they were normally adorned with trees and playing fields. There no oaks or goalposts on the strange low hill beside the motorway. And though it was a hill, Mutukaroa lacked the earthworks that are typical of Auckland’s higher ground. Where were the shadowy kumara pits and ditches, and the terraces of green earth descending reassuringly from the summit? Mutukaroa was not the sort of place I would have wanted to eat a picnic or kick a ball.
Mutukaroa is a geological and archaeological anomaly, as well as a visual curiousity. The hill sits on the northern edge of the Otahuhu volcanic zone, and offers views of half a dozen volcanoes to the north, west, and east, yet it is not volcanic.
Archaeologists have been persistently interested in Mutukaroa – graduate students at the University of Auckland excavated several spots in the 1970s, there was an aerial survey in the ‘80s, and quarrying and the laying of a pipeline have justified new digs – and signs of prehistoric occupation have been found all over the hill. A whole village, complete with whare, pataka, and earth ovens, was unearthed and then reburied close to the Great South Road entrance to the park. The name Mutukaroa means ‘place of many battles’, and underlines the strategic position the hill once occupied, overlooking as it did the Karetu portage between muddy arms of the Waitemata and Manukau harbours. Mutukaroa’s strategic importance and considerable prehistoric population make the lack of defensive earthworks on its slopes all the more curious.
In more recent times Pakeha ran sheep and cattle on Mutukaroa, after clearing its last native trees. Slaughterhouses used the northern slopes as holding paddocks for sheep, but they did not bother to build proper fences: the traffic that surrounded Mutukaroa imprisoned the doomed creatures as effectively as electric wire.
Arriving at Mutukaroa is a little like landing a dinghy on an island without a good bay or a wharf. You flow north with the current of the Great South Road, then steer sharply to the right and come to a thumping halt on a gravel shelf at the bottom of cliffs. The path from the carpark climbs northeast, past a clay quarry-face that gorse and cutty grass are scaling with their usual fearlessness, and soon reaches the long bare ridge of the hill. Here and there Forest and Bird cadre have laid groves of shrubs and small trees – mostly kanuka, but also manuka, cabbage tree, flax – and dedicated them to abstract nouns like Peace and proper nouns like Shane. Some of the plantations are only a few years old: the wind bends them, and the narrow paths through them have an improvised feel, like the paths that voyeurs and exhibitionists and dope growers make through the backs of inner-city parks.
How can we describe and discuss Mutukaroa, when Mutukaroa seems defined by its lack of presence, its vacancy? One answer to the problem involves treating the place as a blank or almost-blank canvas, and looking forward to what it might one day show. This is the approach of the Forest and Bird Society, which rhapsodises about the paradise the hill might become, and urges supporters to join its planting squads. With enough time and effort, it seems, Mutukaroa will be transformed into a mainland version of Tiritiri Matangi, the little island in the Hauraki Gulf where decades of work have buried almost all signs of human history under trees and native grasses.
Another approach, which might find favour amongst a different breed of romantic, would involve looking backward from the bleak present of the uninhabited island to the mysteries and dramas of prehistory. The images are tempting: a village squatting under the mute fearsome faces of carved pou, kumara swelling in plots of red soil carried from volcanoes to the south, a waka grounded mid-portage as fighters rush to confront each other...
To look backward, to a glorious past, or forward, to the glorious future (even if, in the case of Mutukaroa, the future is a restoration of the deep past): both responses are very common, when New Zealanders think about some of the less attractive parts of the landscape they have created. Historically, Pakeha New Zealanders have found it easy to venerate wilderness – soaring snow-capped mountains and roaring waterfalls are celebrated in every second office calendar in the country – as well as ordered, directed landscapes of patchwork fields, straight hedgerows, and dairy factories. What have proved harder, for our painters and our poets as well as our designers of postcards and calendars, are the marginal, awkward landscapes – exhausted kauri gum swamps, hills of harvested pine, pegged-out subdivisions on the edges of cities – which have the apparent vacancy we encounter on Mutukaroa. Landscapes like these ask us questions we do not always want to answer.
If Kendrick Smithyman can help us to deal with places like Mutukaroa, it is because he was preoccupied with the marginal, awkward parts of his homeland. Smithyman was the poet laurete of the thistled ditch, of the overgrown vacant lot, of the tumbledown hut, of the ‘unimpressive shard carried home from the dig’. His poems seek out and explore parts of New Zealand many of the rest of us ignore.
‘Tomarata’ records one of Smithyman’s adventures in a marginal landscape. After appearing in Smithyman’s 1974 collection The Seal in the Dolphin Pool, the long, dense poem was reprinted in full in Ian Wedde’s 1985 Penguin Anthology of New Zealand Verse, and then reappeared in 1996 as a stylish and expensive Holloway Press chapbook. ‘Tomarata’ has become one of Smithyman’s best-known and most-studied poems, yet it is concerned with a small, obscure dune lake – one critic talked contemptuously of a ‘gumland pond’ – north of Auckland.
Lake Tomarata sits close to Te Arai Point, on the eastern coast of Rodney District. When Smithyman came visiting in 1970, lupins and other unglamorous plants grew on the stabilised sandhills on the lake’s eastern edge. At the launch of the Holloway Press edition of Tomarata, Smithyman scholar Peter Simpson said that the poet travelled to the little lake because he had heard that pines would soon be planted on its eastern shore. Smithyman ‘wanted to have a look at the place before it was altered’. Four decades after Smithyman’s visit, the forest that separates Lake Tomarata from the coast has already been harvested and replanted.
Over the past hundred years, pinus radiata has been used to cover many of New Zealand’s awkward, unprofitable spaces. The poor pumice soils of the central North Island, the barely stabilised dunes of Pouto peninsula, and the denuded coast of the south Kaipara have all been disguised. Smithyman hated pinus radiata. One of his greatest poems, ‘An Ordinary Day Beyond Kaitaia’, contains an unmistakable denunciation of the tree:
On the west course to Tasman’s sea
pine stumps, insignis, broken teeth.
Alien forests, made quick
to accommodate, sicken.
Forests of exotic pine do not grow – they are ‘made’. Instead of allowing us to dwell permanently and securely, they merely ‘accomodate’, in the negative sense that Martin Heidegger, Smithyman’s favourite philosopher, gave to the word.
Smithyman believed that the sandhills and lupins on the eastern shore of Tomarata should be allowed to maintain and develop themselves, despite the lack of utility or scenic appeal they offered to humans. There are passages in ‘Tomarata’ that might read, at first and perhaps even second glance, like the arguments of a deep ecologist:
Tomarata is the name
for which the lake, reserved to
its own logic, has no word. Needs none...
We are not called to value, to judge
or be judged.
A life other than ours goes
on neighbouring, near while not of the pond...
A quality of difference, recognised,
is to be respected...
Yet Smithyman has a vision of the interpenetration of the human and natural worlds which must be distinguished from the inverted industrialism of the deep ecologists who have flocked to Forest and Bird. Smithyman does not regret the interaction of humans and nature – in ‘Tomarata’ he pays as much attention to prehistoric archaeological sites as to lupins and dunes. Like Heidegger, Smithyman believes that human consiousnessness can provide a ‘clearing’ in which the richness of the world can manifest itself, if only human beings remain alert to their surroundings:
We left responsibilities behind,
locked up in a car. We bring with us
a camera, a set of lenses, a book on botany
and the manner of our lives which is open
to be judged. Or, at least, tested
by a discrete, particular silence.
There is a silence on the ridge of Mutukaroa: the motorway is distant, and birds are still mostly absent. Forest and Bird hope that kanuka will bring them back. Kanuka are the vanguard of regenerating bush: first they reconnoitre the landscape, establishing strongholds in easily defendable positions like gullies and tomo, then they spread in careful clusters across more level ground, blossoming to attract the birds who shit the seeds that will grow the big trees – puriri, and tanekaha, and totara - which will eventually force the vanguard away, to another frontier. On the other side of a broken-legged fenceline, the pastureland is almost empty of stock. A cow stares wonderingly at human intruders: where has its herd gone? Has one of the derelict slaughterhouses of Otahuhu been pressed back into service?
There is a temptation to look away from Mutukaroa, to the landscapes that surround the low hill. In the west, the twin humps of Mount Mangere rise over the grey sprawl of Otahuhu warehouse rooves and the Manukau’s outgoing tide. To the east the half-eaten cone of Maungarei blocks a view of the Waitemata. Is this place boring, in comparison to the views it offers? Heidegger liked to talk about the way that a certain type of boredom can allow us to contemplate with a special intensity objects and relationships which we normally take for granted. The unspectacular landscape of Mutukaroa, or of the eastern shore of Lake Tomarata in 1970, might concentrate the attention of visitors in the way that soaring mountains or waterfalls could not manage. Wandering beside the ‘severe quartz-brown puritan face’ of Lake Tomarata, Smithyman refused to adorn the scene he found with fancies borrowed from other times and places:
The tallest lupin is shoulder-high.
Little that grows – mingimingi, patotara,
sand daphne – has any age, any stature.
The track becomes merely a trail, then no trail.
Just as a monk learns to appreciate the small details of his cell – the dry river running down the wall beside his door, the dusty spider spinning a thin web on the rusted upper hinge of the door, the piss stain on the stone floor – so Smithyman begins to apprehend his environment with an hallucinatory clarity:
A dune is building. Bared,
by water cutting at the weather side
and by what westerly winds accomplish,
is old haggard disorder, signifying
a sometime liveliness, less sombre
in temper than the base – canyon,
basin, inept gully system –
by wind and water exposed.
Only natives are being planted on Motukaroa, in line with the policy of indigenisation maintained by the Forest and Bird Society and the rest of the conservation movement in New Zealand. Sometimes indigenisation is taken to violent extremes – a decade ago, for instance, a Department of Conservation team landed on the Auckland Islands to track down a herd of cattle whose ancestors were dropped off by nineteenth century explorers. The cattle had learned to eat seaweed, and had developed other interesting quirks that helped them survive their subantarctic environment. After convincing themselves of the non-indigenity of the Auckland Islands cattle, the DOC squad slaughtered the beasts.
On Mutukaroa certain exoticisms are being tolerated, if not encouraged. The remnants of hawthorn hedges that nineteenth century European farmers planted are being preserved, or at least saved from demolition, on the grounds of their ‘historical significance’. On the eastern flanks of Mutukaroa, the ancient hedges have been engulfed by an unusually robust section of regenerating bush. Puriri saplings and twelve foot tall kanuka mix their roots and blossoms with those of the hawthorn. The plant which Georgian poets took as an exemplar of Englishness seems itself to be becoming indigenised.
The hawthorn hedges were complemented by a network of scoria walls which ran in confident straight lines up the eastern side of Mutukaroa. After being over-run by kanuka, the walls have collapsed into ragged semi-circles, so that they resemble the Maori stone gardens that lie to the southwest, on the shores of the Manukau harbour.
We can imagine Smithyman’s judgement: botany and fencing are forms of history. The history of New Zealand, with all its contradictions and contests, is being reproduced symbolically, on the side of this obscure hill. We only need to look patiently to find detail and significance here.
Official paths have been laid across this part of Mutukaroa. They converge on a clearing where a hawthorn tree drops its blossoms into a rusty water tank. A tui calls out over the oceanic murmur of the distant motorway. Further downhill, past the gate that divides regenerating bush from unregenerate pasture, a gravel track winds toward the grey shore of the motorway. If you turn your back on the blurred traffic, the view of Mutukaroa is disconcerting: the kanuka and hawthorn and birds have vanished into the folds of the hill, and the slope in front of you is bare. Like Smithyman’s Tomarata, this island is a place which does not divulge its details readily.