Ultima Thule

ultima Thule: a place beyond the border of the known world

This is a story about Waikawa, Southland between 1887 and 1893.

When you start writing about a place and a time far removed it’s tempting to be distracted by incidents: by shipwrecks, and sawmills; local dances and balls; court proceedings, or the body of a man found washed up on the flats.  But it’s not those things which are crucial to understanding: it’s something else.  Something earlier.

What really comes to define a place in a colonised country is that time when someone came to that area with some paper, and a pen and the equipment required to complete a surveyor’s map.

With that person came the impulses and skills of a particular culture.  Out of that map of Waikawa would come plots of land for sale, and then countless short reports in local newspapers about the transfer, for cash, of the newly divided plots of land from one party to another.  It’s that map that explains shipwrecks, and sawmills; local dances and balls; court proceedings, and the body of a man found washed up on the flats.  As with most things in history, what shapes the architecture of our lives is hidden in plain sight in the most drab news items and documents.

This week’s Provincial Government Gazette contains a proclamation by His Honour the Superintendent, setting apart certain lands at Catlin’s River and Waikawa River “as a site for a settlement for colonisation.” [1]

No such straight lines exist [2]
Surveyor’s maps are a great violence to nature, and to all un-industrialised minds.  They put straight lines across a world where no such lines exist and call it order.  Which is what makes them pleasing to the industrialised mind. To that mind they give a sense of control over what has been uncontrollable.  That type of mind takes the chaotic turn of a river – which is not chaotic but obeys another law – and grids it off.  Having demarcated the land as a resource it can have materials extracted from it, planted on it.  Jetty, road, railway: they can follow.  Shops.  Schools.  Churches and halls.

This type of order, this kind of marking, and calculation – we must remember – is not the definition of the word ‘order’ but merely an example.  Order, defined, is “the arrangement or disposition of people or things in relation to each other according to a particular sequence, pattern, or method.”

Think of it this way: the universe is a chicken.  To serve the chicken we can ‘order’ it with our blade in different ways.  We can cut it in the way of an Asian, or in the way of a European.  With a cleaver or a knife.  Including the bone or avoiding it.  Suddenly seeing the world as a survey map is like being shown the way the British carve a roast after years of chopping like the Chinese.  Everything seems to be going the wrong way; but there are only ways and they are neither right nor wrong.  And, of course, there is the chicken itself which does not understand itself as food.

The rules that underpin the complex but comprehensible systems of nature make another kind of sense of Waikawa; are another way to order things.  Yet an imaginary line through a creek, across a hill, bisecting a tree can unleash in the minds of men who believe in those lines hot words, fists, and lead.  Lines that the bird, the fish, and the wind do not accept.

…and God said unto them, Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth.

Genesis 1: 28

Or we could see Papatūānuku as the Māori saw it.  As nodes of seasonal resources governed by the moon and connected to groups of people.  As groups of people connected to land and each other by relationships and history.  Like a net thrown loosely across the land and the sea; bunched in some places, spread in others, with – in areas – the layers of other nets underneath and above.

The coloniser’s history of a place begins with the map.  That is not wrong.  It is a place to start.  One of many.  It may be fairer to existence though to start the history of an area in multiple arbitrary places, and follow the network of the events that constitute different stories.  There are three suggestions above for how to proceed: the story of the people of the map, the story of the people of Papatūānuku, and the story of world they both inhabit.



[1] Chart: Map of Otata, Waikawa & parts of Toetoes & Tautuku survey district, drawn by W. Deverell, April 1899.

[ 2] News of the Week.  Otago Witness, Issue 1052, 27 January 1872, p.14.

The eternal struggle of why with how (5/5)

Because I am not a religious person and because it is a fairly simple idea I do not find Darwin’s theory on the origin of species through natural selection particularly hard to accept.  Mostly I prefer scientific explanations to other kinds of explanations when it comes to my concrete understanding of how things work.  Of course that’s not the problem.  Eleanor did not ask me how my father died, she asked me why.  And so we are back to why, and here things remain uncertain.

It has been noticeable that once they stop their fascinating analyses of how and begin to formulate answers to why, the scientists seem every bit as clumsy as the most amateurish theologians

A.N.Wilson, God’s Funeral

To me it seems that religion is helpful around why, and unhelpful around how we happen to be here.  Science has it the other way round.

Watching Richard Dawkins gambol among the religious in his documentary series on Darwin I was struck in particular by a conversation he had with a priest in Kenya.  The reverend listened patiently and incredulously to Richard’s long explanation of how evolution worked and then asked, “but what is the point of all of that?”  Dawkins said, “there is no point.”

That is what is so alien about evolution to those who prefer a religious explanation of life.  When two religions clash they clash over who has it right about the point of life, and the right actions to undertake to serve that point.  Evolution on the other hand is pointless, and doesn’t tell you how to live.  If you are looking for a more meaningful answer to the meaning of life than “to pass on our DNA” you had better not become a scientist.

To pass on our DNA.

Looking at your existence this way life would be pretty f**king awful and depressing.  We had better think of something else.

The something else probably leads us back to Eleanor’s question: “Why do people die and why do people suffer?” Darwin and Dawkins have an explanation.  Suffering’s use to us as a species is that it generates sympathy in the human heart, the desire to put a gentle hand on the shoulder of another, and sympathy is one of the cornerstones of community – something that binds people together.  Community is important for humans because it makes us smarter, we learn to communicate and share ideas, and our chances of survival go up.  Of course an ancient, instinctual source of sympathy (other than feeling bad for your mate when he gets eaten by a sabre tooth tiger) comes from the need of a parent to nurture their helpless child.

So now we have something like this:

  • There is no point to life from a scientific view beyond reproduction, however
  • Suffering, sympathy and community have given humans consciousness, and
  • In these conscious communties we are able to rise above the simple imperative to reproduce and make other meanings for our lives (but we should probably remember more often that sympathy is one of the foundations of good community)

Which brings me up to date, because today was the first day back at school for 2010 and I am a Social Studies teacher – a teacher who tries to start people on the journey of thinking about their community.  (I wrote most of this post last month – Man of Errors.)

Here is my Dad standing with his class a long, long time ago.  They look like a lively bunch of kids.  Half of them are grinning with teeth too big for their mouths, and they seem barely able to contain their joy somehow.  The little character clutching the sign has cow lick hair, and his mate to the right is sitting up very proud and serious.  Who knows where life took them.  One or two might remember their teacher that year, but I suppose it’s unlikely.

Teaching didn’t work out for my Dad. 

A few years ago my Dad’s sister told me something that surprised me.  She said that my father had always thought when he was a teacher that you should treat children with love, and that he couldn’t adjust himself to the idea of corporal punishment.  I suspect this may have been at odds with the prevailing attitude in Otago in the 1950s.

It made me quite sad to hear this.  Sad because I would have liked to ask him about it.  I suppose that sadness was a kind of suffering.  Not the kind that is worth much notice in a world of enormous pain; just the fleeting, small bump of regret that passes through the human heart sometimes.  If it serves any purpose it might be to bind me a little closer to my mother, my wife and my child.  It reminds me that I must introduce Eleanor to my Dad, and tell her about him as she gets older, because he would have liked to know her, and it reminds me again about the importance of love in a life, and in the interactions of people.

So I come back again to the words of Robert Kennedy on the death of Martin Luther King.  These words are not much consolation for loss, but they are something.  They are something to hold up against the question why, and something to teach my classes at school.

But we can perhaps remember – even if only for a time – that those who live with us are our brothers, that they share with us the same short movement of life, that they seek – as we do – nothing but the chance to live out their lives in purpose and happiness, winning what satisfaction and fulfillment they can.

Surely this bond of common faith, this bond of common goal, can begin to teach us something. Surely we can learn, at least, to look at those around us as fellow men and surely we can begin to work a little harder to bind up the wounds among us and to become in our hearts brothers and countrymen once again.