Finding your shrine in the landscape


I have just been re-reading Eleanor Catton's short essay 'The Land of the Long White Cloud', in Tell you what: Great New Zealand nonfiction 2015 (Auckland University Press). I have not read The Luminaries (I suspect I would not have the requisite intellectual stamina), but this essay is very engaging, funny and insightful. She describes growing up in Christchurch with her brothers, and parents that eschewed the normal appendages of modern life such as a car or a TV. The family made regular trips (in a rental car) to Arthur's Pass to go hiking in the area, which Catton describes as her father's 'spiritual touchstone, his chapel and cathedral in the wild'. Of one such trip she recounts:

"When we reached our summit, or whatever spot was deemed by my father to be of adequately punishing distance from the car to deserve lunch, Dad would invariably find he had forgotten his Swiss Army knife (looking back, I begin to doubt he ever had one) and instead would cut cheese into slices with the edge of this credit."

This (the concept of a place of spiritual connection in nature, rather than the act of habitually forgetting one's Swiss Army knife) reminded me of a recent conversation I had with an acquaintance. When I described the land in the Pohangina Valley, Manawatu, on which we are currently building a little holiday house, and where I hope to spend a lot more of my time in the future (including working time), he observed that what I was talking about was 'connection'. (I suspect he deducted this not so much from what I was saying, but how I was saying it.)

In turn, he described how he and his partner bought a small cottage in the Hutt Valley - a home that did not meet any of their predetermined criteria - because of the connection he felt with a grand old oak tree in the back yard of the property. Later, he find out that the house had belonged to his grandfather, but he had been completely unaware of this at the time. Perhaps this was sheer coincidence, or perhaps the instantaneous connection he felt was a product of a subconscious recognition of this place stemming from this ancestral connection.

These personal reflections all serve to illustrate that many of us still yearn for a connection not only with people but with the landscape (Maori would refer to this as whenua (land), which also means placenta after childbirth, which is why many people bury the placentas of their babies in places they have a special connection with.) And I would suggest that the two things (ie, people and land) are often one in the same, in other words, by forming a connection with 'place' we often form more meaningful connections with people.

Photos above: A view down into the gully from our land in the Pohangina Valley. This literally served as our chapel when we were married there several years ago.

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