I have spent the last three months in New Zealand, immersed in a world very different from the one that defines my usual daily life. I have had the luxury of time-to-think, something that, even though I became an academic for it, is rarer by the day. I have also had the opportunity to start learning about the history and culture of Aotearoa, a tradition so rich it left me ashamed for having engaged with it so late, and grateful for having done so at all. Sealed within our own disciplines and preferred ways of thinking, we fail to grasp just how much richness still remains in a world so otherwise flattened by hegemonic development.
Ideas are conventionally described as being thought by a mind, or a thinker. Often though experience teaches that it is the other way around: ideas think you, find you and take you along to show you worlds that remained, without the light of the idea, obscured by darkness. They make you. One idea that has pursued me throughout my time in New Zealand could be called the meaning of place. It isn’t original or unique, just powerful to me and important in that it restructures, as ideas do, what I see in the world. Its outline is roughly this: places, any place really, is a living archive. As such, places hold powers that dictate, to a large extent, how they are to be approached and treated. The more we learn about the archival material places are built of, the more we can read the landscape and find ourselves transformed, like in reading good literature. Being in a place that reveals its archive is very much akin to reading a novel: one is able to inhabit possible worlds, see their light and smell their scents, and one is able to feel the sadness of loss and the gratitude of endurance. Just like with literature, one can infinitely re-read, and each time it is different, the archive inexhaustible.
Returning to Auckland from having visited Waitangi, the place where the Treaty of Waitangi, the foundational document of New Zealand, was debated and signed in 1840, I stopped to visit Tāne Mahuta, a kauri tree in Waipoua forest that is believed to be the largest tree in the country. A representative of Te Roroa, the local iwi (Maori tribe), stood nearby and chatted with curious travellers. He always spoke of the tree using either the personal pronoun, or one of his twelve names, given to Tāne Mahuta for good deeds he had done for local people throughout his life. It is estimated that he is around 2000 years old, which means that he was already very old when the first Polynesian navigators arrived in Aotearoa. Back then, when Tāne was only 1000 years old, there was no Waipoua forest, but a continuous subtropical kauri forest that the newcomers slowly learned to live with, and within. Today, he stands as testimony to what has disappeared, felled by the saws of settlers in pursuit of timber and pastures. The representative of Te Roroa, contemplating the kauri that his ancestors named twelve different times, is testimony to the enduring significance of these beings, the uncanny survival of an embodied demigod that had, for a very brief period in history, become just timber.
For Maori each place has a force of its own, and human conduct has to take this into account. Geoff Park explains it thus: “Before contact with the missionaries of the 19th century Maori believed their physical health and wellbeing were achieved in two principal ways. One was by maintaining the mauri of their places – the life force by which their natural elements cohere. The other was by lifelong observance of the laws of tapu [sacredness, forbidden, taboo]. Rites and rituals broke down the barriers between people and other species, allowed people to flow spiritually into nature and for nature’s rhythms to permeate their own being. A host of daily tasks depended on conscious connection, both to benefit nature and limit human excesses”. This way of being in the world meant that one observed the specific sacredness of particular places, like ones where giant trees grew (kauri is but one of many different giants in New Zealand). Rituals ensured that everyone respected the specificity of places. The early missionaries, in acquiring land and converting Maori to Christianity, had to physically destroy the tapu, the sacredness, of a place. Park recounts how, in the Mōkau region, missionaries would perform rituals around sacred trees in order to drive their spirit out. The rituals were concluded by setting the tree ablaze, in what must have been a spectacular show of force on the side of the Christian God.
We tend to forget just how much work has gone into desacralizing the world. We pass through strip malls and highways littered with industrial debris – the sacrificial zones of global capital – without realizing the effort that went into the sacrifice, and the repeated nature of the assault, from priests burning trees to loggers felling the remainder to ranchers grazing pasture to developers and bulldozers and cement. The placeless world that global consumer societies create and promote, the uniformity of shops, production, storage, transportation, requires an enormous amount of work against the special significance of so many places. Each iteration works to drive out the spirit that people recognize in a place, the Christian priest driving out tapu as much as the developer driving out the significance of the pastoral landscape. The flat world we have been busy creating over the past several hundred years is rooted in the specific agenda of neutralizing the inherent importance that people discover in natural environments. In so doing, it also neutralizes the people that are part of a place’s archive, the people that cannot think themselves outside of an intimate relationship to their place. In this sense, the world of global capital is inimical to the possibility of humans living in a rich and significant natural environment. Under the conditions of global capital, we can only hope for nature conservation, predicated on the artificial exclusion of people from a world teeming with networks of significance.
The ways in which people have inhabited places, all over the world, is infinitely varied yet retains a commonality in the deep relationship between human groups and natural environments. Geoff Park describes, as one among may possible examples, the Mōkau river in 1852, on the cusp of its most momentous transformation, as “an ecological mosaic. Supporting cultivations and community forests, both rich in useful species, it contrasted dramatically with the European idea of conservation which was to set aside large wilderness free of human interference, or keep remnant patches in a monocultural expanse of crops and plantations. Little of the Mōkau was left unexploited. Its people didn’t act with any particular ecological nobility: they did whatever they had to do to feed themselves and their families. […] And as the river landscape filled with history, it filled with emotion”. The emotion that past habitation has left behind is still legible in the landscape, inasmuch as the markers of legibility are left standing.
Tāne Mahuta has witnessed, and recorded within his fibrous flesh, the events of natural history that make up a landscape. Today, he and his peers are fighting kauri dieback disease, a deadly disease spread through soil moved about by the hiking boots of well-meaning travellers. To protect him, and the forest, from the disease, wooden trails have been built that literally separate human feet from the forest floor. The planks used in their construction likely come from some logging plantation that long ago replaced rich forest. One can no longer touch the kauri or walk up to them. The landscape is adding another layer to its archive, one telling the story of a globalised species carrying around disease, as it has done for thousands of years, and continuing to separate itself from the landscape, as it has done for thousands of years. Reading the landscape, in Tāne’s shadow, filled me with sadness at the tremendous loss of history, and gratitude for the resilience of life. A young representative of Te Roroa is learning, from his elders and in their language, Tāne Mahuta’s twelve names. Generations from now, he might have received a thirteenth name, or he might have been lost forever, as the majority of his peers before him.
We like to think that what is added to the archive of a landscape is to a large extent up to us. We tell ourselves that, knowing what we know, we must ensure that kauri forests survive, that iwi survive to relate to them, that we reinvent ways of emotionally connecting to place. It is true that history is to a large extent determined by us, but that does not mean that it is up to us, as a matter of free choice. Kauri dieback disease is a case in point. I might have carried the deadly bacterium closer to Tāne Mahuta, while at the same time reflecting on the Waipoua forest in ways that commit me to its preservation. This is the tragedy of modernity: individuals are helping flatten the world while committing themselves, and in many ways managing, to enrich it. The movements of history take as much as they give, and in this fragile hour we must do more than possible to give back a portion of the enormous amount we have already taken. One place to start is in learning to read landscapes, re-sacralizing and insisting on adding to their archive without destroying it, leaving the signs of legibility for the readers of tomorrow to be transformed, humbled, re-situated, by the story of this place.