Thursday, August 03, 2006

Two Coastlines


A peninsula near the city, encircling a deep-blue-sea harbour. Red rock that crumbles under the fingers. That harbour is a caldera: the peninsula a crater. This is a place where the earth’s patience is thin. An early map, drawn before imperialism was yet a foregone conclusion there showed it as an island, but it is not. (It was a delicately coloured map, not yet the bloody hue it assumed in old, battered school atlases remembered from primary school.)

Whether it through possession of one of those early pre-imperial maps, through not being good at map-reading, or simply because those are treacherous waters, at least one ship’s captain missed the entrance to that deep sea harbour, sailed into the bay neighbouring and lost his life giving it a name. Taylor’s Mistake. It already had a name of course. It didn’t need a new one.

I used to go walking out onto the steep hills and along the tops of the cliffs around there on that peninsula. It’s beautiful. I’d give it that. Even bereft of its forest, even open to that bone-bleaching sun. Sheep-skulls in long grass, sometimes with remnants of flesh still clinging to them and a cloudy buzz of blowflies. In summer the grass has the colour of gold: in that part of the country, winter was the green season. That’s changing now. Macrocarpa outlined against a deep blue-gold skyline. There, one could look away from the smog lying on the city. But all of it, bones, tussock, macrocarpa, smog is profoundly unnatural to that place which was forest before empire burned it.

Vestiges remain. In some places there are still stands of kahikatea. Matagouri – which I had always imagined as the inspiration for barbed wire – still grows like a snare on the hillside to bloody the hands of the unwary. Certainly it cut mine on occasion. Now there’s a metaphor for those who like such things: te whenua still resisting the hand of the colonist’s descendents.

Apparently there’s a network of disused tunnels out there: occasionally one would meet someone who claimed to know someone who used to go role-playing out there, clambering about in the cold roots of those hills pretending to be someone else. But as I never met anyone who had done so themselves, I have more than half consigned that tale to legend.

But this I have seen for myself.

A concrete emplacement, set concealed in the hillside, invisible from just a few feet away. It is an ugly thing, long abandoned. The steps one descends to enter it long ago began to crack: its interior stinks of piss and wretchedness. Barely clearing the grass, unable to be skylined, a wall-less stretch surveys a reach of harbour. This emplacement is from World War II, but some date back to 1900 and paranoid fears of Russian invaders.

A few come in pairs, the remnants of a narrow trench running between them. There is the red metal-rusted place where the gun was mounted once. It was removed eventually but they couldn’t be bothered removing the emplacements so they left them, cracking piss-stinking concrete on a marred headland.

It’s been over sixty years now: they are practically historical architecture. And no, this has not been a peaceful place for a long time and even now it lies beneath a shadow. Or so it is rumoured.

Would I even want them removed for that matter? What is better? That the scar, that sordid ugliness should remain – a visible reminder that militaries never do clean up their messes? Or that kahikatea and other trees belonging to that long-since burned forest should put their roots down in place of those emplacements? Could they even live there now on those bare wind-battered headlands?


A coastline on the South-West peninsula of another island.
A path winds around the coast for hundreds of miles, across the cliff-tops, down steep winding ways onto beaches rocky and sandy. Through holiday towns throbbing with a fevered gaiety in summer: quietly desperate in winter. A few years ago I walked on that path for a few days.

It is beautiful. I’d give it that. In summer wildflowers cling to the rock faces and all manner of moths and butterflies are on the move. There is the long curve of the horizon. Closer to hand, perhaps heard rather than seen is the roar of breakers on rocks.

It used to be tin country, until the tin ran out.
Mine shafts dissect these hills: those near the paths are sometimes surrounded by wire fencing. Others, which have become home to bats, have strange-looking chimney-like hats: bat-doors to the bat-caves.

It used to be pilchard country, until the shoals were fished out. Now huge sunfish bask off those coasts, far from what were their usual haunts before the climate changed.

This was wrecking country. Perhaps on this headland bonfires were lit to lure ships onto the rocks. Gotcha. The ultimate practical joke.

Now it is tourist country and perhaps there is an element of the trickster in that too – in the endless pasties, the clotted cream, the boat trips to see seals.

It is a peninsular, but in some of the inland villages there are still people who have never in their lives seen salt water.

There was a steep bare hillside, that day, stripped of everything but grass. The path was grassy, hard to distinguish, and the hillside dropped away steeply: just out of sight began the cliffs.

I had been expecting it: I had looked at the map. But then again, it was not what I was expecting. There was the sign as advertised, warning that the hillside ahead might have unexploded ammunition, mines and things that go bang. It even had little icons of exploding people flying through the air, for extra added emphasis. All the obvious stuff: Don’t pick anything up. Don’t step on anything protruding from the ground.

It also said ‘Keep on the path.’ I looked down: presumably I was now on the path. Of course I had thought I was on the path before, but I’d had to leave it and walk uphill a bit to be able to read the sign. It didn’t seem terribly pathlike but then neither had what I had previously thought was the path. The sign (and the guidebook no less!) also said keep the white markers to landward. I looked around. The only white marker I saw was a painted white pole attached to the end of a fence further down the hillside, nearer to the cliff face, though I could not see where that began. ‘Perhaps’ I thought, ‘the path goes on the other side of that fence, because that’s the only way for there to be any white markers to landward here. And it would sort of make sense to have a fenced off path if there were things that explode. In which case where I am standing is not the path. That's fine: it certainly doesn't look like one.’
So I edged my way slowly down the hillside to the fence and when I got there, I realised that I was actually quite close to the cliff and that such land as was on the seaward side of the fence was undercut enough that nobody was going to walk along that. At least not for long. Realising as I looked along that sweep of cliff that there was every reason to assume I was standing on land that was just as tenuous, I went back up the hill and considered my options. Eventually I picked my way across the hillside.

The sign, the white pole on the fence, and the absence of white markers (and a path for that matter) are things I’ve wondered about occasionally since.

Was it a practical joke to paint that pole white and stick it there? Had the actual markers been removed? Was it one of the ‘gotcha’ moments of that wreckers’ coast? Instead of being luring ships onto the rocks, luring walkers over the cliff? For what were the bonfires but false markers?

Or was it the opposite of falsehood: a truth albeit twisty? After all, imperialism (and certainly imperialism is something which that military has a particularly deep investment in) is about establishing rules that people cannot follow if they want to live and then using their disobedience as the excuse to kill them. How simple and elegant an illustration for domestic consumption then: a sign instructing one to keep to the path with the white markers to landward or risk being exploded, coupled with no path and a white marker placed on the very edge of a cliff.
Follow the impossible rule or else . . .


Blogger DuctapeFatwa said...

It's interesting to read this after reading Manito's latest. Aside from being impressed, as always, with what wonderful word writers you both are, the thing that hits me the hardest is the idea of the earth as our mother, and how shabbily we have treated her. As shabbily as we treat our brothers, her children. Now other people may read both pieces and not get that common thread at all, and say I am a heavily sedated old man who is wont to project his own musings onto the thoughts of others, and that may be, but that is my musing, and especially the last few centuries, it seems that no matter how generous our mother is with us, we seem hell bent on placing those white markers on the edges of cliffs, in our determination to destroy our mother, and ourselves.

8/04/2006 12:07 am  
Blogger dove said...

They make the ground unsafe to walk on: in Angola there was a landmine for every man, woman and child living there for a while. There's been mine-clearance going on there, but it's very slow because just about every type of mine manufactured is found there.

And in the interim, which will be decades if not longer, people must still eat or die, so they farm in the minefields.

It's odd that N.Z. has a reputation for being 'clean and green' and whatnot -- well it's not odd. It's branding. It's true that much of it is still very beautiful, but just as there is no aspect of Maoritanga that imperialism did not disrupt, so too there is no aspect of the environment there that imperialism did not degrade.

8/04/2006 7:44 am  
Blogger DuctapeFatwa said...

Landmines are long-term planning devices. If a larger percentage of a target population are amputees, it will be more difficult for them to commit the terrorist act of firing at the bomber jets when America decides it is time for resource extraction.

They are all over Afghanistan, Lebanon, SE Asia of course, parts of Meso-America, Africa, there have always been whispers that both London and Washington took Princess Diana's anti-landmine activities very seriously, she was extraordinarily popular, even judged by celebrity-popularity standards. And while no celebrity has achieved that level of goddess-like status among the population, neither has any celebrity taken up the anti-landmine cause with quite such intensity, either, since her tragic accident.

8/04/2006 11:49 am  
Blogger spiderleaf said...

Yeah, I tend to believe Dodi's dads opinion of what happened there.

Landmines not only prevent resistance, but they also disconnect the population from the earth. The ability to walk freely and laugh and enjoy the land. Instead you live in fear of what the soil will bring.

The colonialists have always tried to break the ties the native population has with the land, and landmines are such a quick, long lasting and cost effective way to do so.

8/04/2006 4:49 pm  
Blogger dove said...

Re. amputees and alienation-- yes absolutely, plus taking arable land out of production decreases the people's ability to feed themselves (creating resource extraction opportunities for multi-nationals) and the sale of the landmines itself constitutes a kind of resource extraction, inasmuch as these too are bought and sold. (Part of what makes Angola difficult is that that the mines, like the arms dealers, come from all over the place and are of all different makes and models, which is not to say that the same difficulties are not found in other places.)

It's been said so many times, so often that it's a cliche but hey, I'll say it again anyway. It is a myth that war is primarily a process where members of militaries kill members of other militaries. War is a primarily a process where militaries kill civilians. After all, civilians are easier to kill than members of militaries since they are less likely to be armed.

8/04/2006 6:32 pm  
Blogger supersoling said...

Hi Dove,
This post brought a couple thoughts to mind. The second was as a result of the discussion of mines and there impact on civilians, long after the hostilities that caused them to be placed are over. I remember the stories about cluster bombs being dropped in Afghanistan and how many children had been killed by them. Not when they were first dropped, but after, when unexploded cluster bombs were mistaken for food packets. Children would see them, and in their hunger run up and grab them, only to be blown apart, killed, or wounded. This is what a cluster bomb packet, on McKinney's right, looks like, compared to a food packet, that are also dropped from planes. What an utterly cruel circumstance. Or is it intentional? I don't believe in inherant goodness of purpose anymore. There's nothing that I wouldn't put past any entity, soldier or government, in the quest for dominance. No matter the reason,

My first thoughts brought me back to one of my boyhood homes, in Galveston, Texas. Where I lived, on the beach just below the seawall, on the eastern end of the island, was a young explorers paradise. I doubt there are many stones there left unturned from my time there. I could wander of into the lagoon for hours on end, or explore all the spaces between the boulders piled at the foot of the seawall to give it strength against storm surges and hurricanes. One place i found though, had remained mostly a mystery to me until your essay above. One day i found a large concrete building that looked like an old fort to me. It was empty inside and reminded me of a cave. Someone, I can't remember who, told me that it used to house German POWs. I never believed it, or maybe i did. But it was more of a fanciful thought than anything. But I did some googling here and it turns out that I found it. It's a gun emplacement from WWII. I haven't seen it in 33 years. It also turns out that German POWs were kept at the adjoining fort during the war. Besides feeling a little nostalgic, I also have a similar feeling to yours that it's war waste, left behind to litter the landscape and the environment. And in this case, it's been incorporated into a Hotel grounds feature here.

Another place that came to mind is Truk Lagoon in Micronesia, were the seafloor is littered with tens of Japanese warships, tanks, planes, and untold thousands, maybe millions of pieces of ordnance, and shells and bullets. It's one of the world's most famous diving sites, but to me it's an aberration of the uselessness of war and the scars it leaves on the planet and it's human and animal inhabitants.

The cluster bombs though, are especially another example of those little white signs you write of. Beckoning a hungry and frightened child to his or her death. Think of the relief that child might feel at the thought of relieving the hunger she or he feels. Hunger brought about by war to begin with. Then the cruel irony of it. To be murdered in a sick twist of fate like that.....

8/04/2006 8:34 pm  
Blogger dove said...

For my part, I think the resemblance between cluster bomblets and food packages was entirely intentional: a design feature no less. That exact same vibrant shade of yellow coupled with the plausible excuse: 'But they're different shapes!'

And I wonder what the ratio of food to cluster bombs was.

The U.S. design of WWII gun emplacement was evidently more aesthetic pleasing (those elegantly feminine rounded curves) -- the ones on that peninsula were squat and rectangular, almost square. And completely useless: it gets cold up there in winter but even sheep wouldn't shelter in them. Too much sense.

8/04/2006 9:41 pm  
Blogger DuctapeFatwa said...

And on a related note, some huge percentage of the world's food supply is now conveniently controlled by two large corporations, and water is headed in the same direction.

Good native, biscuit.
Bad native, no biscuit.

8/05/2006 3:53 am  
Blogger dove said...

Monsanto and . . .?
(I presume Monsanto is one of the pair)

8/05/2006 6:54 pm  
Blogger Nanette said...

I was thinking about keeping on the path, impossible rules and false markers and the various applications those have (besides the ones mentioned here, of course).

What it sort of brought to mind was spidey mentioning that she was sorry she wasted a year building up bootrib, only to find out it wasn't quite what she thought it was. And the other colleen saying almost the same exact thing about kos.

My point has little to do with either bootrib or dailykos, though, as in reality they are just itsy bitsy blips in a huge ocean. More to do with overall social movements to effect deep level change, or movements to ban landmines or for workers rights and so on, and the false markers set out to obstensibly keep people on the forward going, safe path but which are actually there to lead them over a cliff or onto the rocks.

Or, maybe to make them think that's where they will wind up if they don't use just this certain pathway... land mines this way, cliff faces that way, matagouri in yet another direction - best to stay on the prescribed path, we know better, we'll keep you safe. With, of course, vestiges of wars past still scattered around, either as places of rememberances (see what we've done for you?) or threats (see what we can do to you?).

That's one thing that's bothered me when looking at past social movements... a sort of 'this far and no more' thing (usually do to someone getting made dead, I guess)...

And, um... well, lost my thought, but I think it was about the impossible rules.

8/06/2006 5:48 pm  
Blogger dove said...

I've been musing over this for a couple of days. I think I see a lot of the preoccupation with statist politics -- "give lots of money to your Dems and don't you dare even think about third parties or making serious changes to the two-party system" as an example of that effort to keep people on the straight and narrow.

But I think one also sees it in trade union politics too. Anywhere where power coalesces I think.

Hmmm. The hillside is not safe: neither is the path. It's all ground shifting beneath one's feet. In a way, there's a kind of freedom in that.

Have you found your thought on impossible rules?

8/07/2006 7:05 pm  
Blogger Nanette said...

You know, I think part of the impossible rules thought has to do with doing things as they've always been done. Or maybe that has nothing to do with impossible rules at all, but dunno.

Anyway, I was thinking of the reliance (especially of conservatives, but also others) on old dead guys. And old dead women too, in some cases. Or old dead societies. I have done this too, or rather, would if I knew enough about the old dead societies and people I was interested in to rely on them. And why not? We (in many schools around the world) spend hours learning dead boring facts about wars and what's happened between wars, which societies have grown up, what Athens or Egypt or Rome did, what Britain did, or the US "founding fathers" and so on and so forth.

I think, contrary to good old Santayana, that people remember the past in order to repeat it, not to refrain from it. And that's sort of what I was trying to do, the other day. I was thinking... hmmm, I think society should be like this, and then the thought followed immediately after (well trained, I am!), has any society ever succeeded at being like this? And so I thought, well maybe I could look into this or that non western society (if I could find the history of one that was non romanticized, but also non infantilized)- cuz I already know about many western ones , but then I stopped and wondered... um... why?

That seems to be one of the well accepted impossible rules... in order to convince society to advance and progress, you must first be able to show evidence that society in times past (preferably some big, well known one) advanced and progressed using the same methods that you think are possible now, otherwise you're just shooting for a pie in the sky.

Now, of course I'm not saying we shouldn't learn about all this stuff, and even learn from it, but I think too often the past is held (and held tightly bound in rules and paths and markers) as an indicator and a guide for the future, instead of the future just being itself. And that seems to defeat the entire purpose of evolving ;).

If that makes sense.

8/08/2006 2:35 am  

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