Dreaming about dendroglyphs
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
Jehovah is tired
of advertising himself.
He bounces in the backseat
between fluffy dice,
trickles down candles,
glistens in crypts,
like a bored stud bull.
Let's give him a break
today. Let's leave the kid
We step off the track
and head uphill,
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
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
WESTSIDE 4 EVA
beside Hiku'leo's sharp-winged prey.