“If there are no mangroves, then the sea will have no meaning.
It is like having a tree without roots, for the mangroves are the roots of the sea…”
-Words of a Thai fisher from the Andaman Coast
Water has its own personality, its own character, its own mauri, or essence.
Actually it has many personalities, as many, in fact, as there are stars fixed to the underside of the night. And the water of Hokianga is a particular coat of many colours.
For a year I have crossed the harbour each day (when I am in the area), from one side to the other, trying to get to know it and hoping to strike up a friendship. At other times I have emerged from my gallery, walked the four paces across the asphalt to the edge of the water, and stood there on the roadside, listening to its passage north, before it turns left and moves west onto the motorway the sea. I have tried to decipher what it is saying. It hasn’t worked. At times the harbour is like a radio broadcasting its message. I try to tune the channel, to come closer to its operating frequency, until I can hear what it is saying. I focus and try to reach through the static of my ignorance, but until now I haven’t quite got there. At other times I try to sneak up on it, pretending I am not really interested and, while I am listening out of the corner of my heart, hoping it will let its guard down, and allow something to slip past its blank expression.
It hasn’t worked so far.
However, it is rather like getting to know somebody new. And so far, I am judging the book by its cover. The harbour can be dour and tough. Its slap against the piles of the shops opposite me, or as it scours the sand beneath the road is one of leather and liniment. If I quiet myself and retreat into the dark closet of my imagination, I can hear horses moving through a mediaeval forest, snuffling and snorting in indignation as their riders compel them against their will. I can hear wet leather rubbing against tree bark and sodden boots slapping the flaps of their saddles. A cavalry is passing in the night, and all will be well as long as I remain under cover and hidden out of sight.
At other times, Tawhirimatea, the god of the winds, will come along and irritate it, or rile it to the point where it loses its temper and lashes out. The first sign will be small flecks of spittle on its normally-calm surface, hints that it is out of sorts, and not happy. Then the waves will come, as it really loses the plot and looks for someone or something to punish. They will wrench at the wharf piles and throw unsuspecting driftwood onto the beach. And afterwards, perhaps a day or two later, when it is over its tantrum, the litter of its spite will lie up on the road by the public toilets behind the village, making it difficult for anyone seeking relief to get there quickly.
Most days, I like to walk the 20 metres across the road from my gallery to the local café, and order my latte, the one I allow myself each day. The café’s bright red corrugated-iron cheeks jut stubbornly out over the water, held up by grey wooden piles driven into the bottom of the harbour, each one collared and encrusted in black molluscs. I have photographed the café many times, looking for a new angle or approach, and finally realising that there are only so many ways to photograph some things, and later losing interest, to the point where I have slid into a visual torpor, contenting myself with going on autopilot and recycling a memory of it instead of renewing it each day.
I was waiting outside for a friend to finish ordering coffee, when I saw the mangrove. It twisted out from under the building, like a mechanic who pushes his creeper out from under your car and sits up to talk to you. The mangrove sat up, holding its crown out of the water and shaking its leathery tresses in my direction. Where did you come from? I asked it. No reply. Did you drift down the Waima(the river that flows beneath the piles and scours the water’s edge clean)? It looked back at me and said nothing. It had suddenly appeared. It wasn’t giving anything away.
My friend emerged from the café, holding a latte carefully in his right hand. The white pattern lying spread-eagled on the top reminded me suspiciously of a mangrove leaf. He observed me staring at the mangrove peering out from under the café. So what are you looking at? He asked, as he took a generous pull on the coffee. A white foam ta moko coated his upper lip.
That mangrove. I waved a finger in its direction. How long has that been there?
He looked at me suspiciously. He was wondering if I was OK (shortcode for firing on all cylinders).
It’s always been there.
I couldn’t remember it. I couldn’t re-member it. It just. Didn’t. Appear. I rattled through a year of memories of the café, flipping through my visual Rolodex, and there was no record of the mangrove. I had lots of images of mangroves in my head. Mangroves fascinated me, so I should have seen it instantly. Mangroves are not the prettiest of plants, not like a pohutukawa or a rata or a kauri, but they are one of the toughest. The mangrove defines the word survival. It lives in the littoral zone, between sea and land, at the mercy of wind and tide. It is a green staple, pinning the two together, and yet keeping both apart, the peacemaker with both arms holding the schoolyard combatants at arm’s length, making sure there were no black eyes to cause complaints from incensed mothers the next day. I had watched them on my daily commute. I saw how they had muted the fury of the recent storm that had thrashed the harbour and torn strips off it, along with making a mockery of the ferry and its four giant German diesels, pinning it against a wharf, shredding two of the motors and pinning me on one side of the harbour for a week. I saw how in all the places where mangroves weren’t, the water had run amok and sucked away bits of the land but in the places where they grew, the mangroves had calmed down the irate waters and guided them gently to the shore. I had read that the Indian government had begun planting countless millions of them along the Bay of Bengal, to avoid a repeat of the damage caused by tsunamis from the Boxing Day earthquakes. I knew that mangroves had medicinal uses and even how to prepare them to be so. I loved mangroves.
And yet, somehow, one solitary mangrove had managed to hide itself in my blind spot, to hide for a year. Perhaps it had concealed itself directly over my optic nerve, where there are no photoreceptors and the brain is forced to interpolate and invent data. Perhaps it had hidden in plain sight all this time.
Are you sure? I asked.
He looked at me out of the corner of his disbelief.
The manawa has really shallow roots, he said, and yet it reaches to the heart of Papatuanuku.
I sensed a tohu, a sign of some sort. There was a Significance here. After a year the mangrove had declared itself. However, the meaning wasn’t coming to me on a plate.
A phrase suddenly raised its shaggy, leonine head above the grasses of my confusion and a voice spoke in my left ear.
That which has been kept secret will become known and seen.
I looked around, but there was no one there except my friend, who was eying me with dubious interest.
I repeated the phrase and his look became harder.
And the water, as if catching up on the joke, laughed its dry, leathery laugh and slapped itself on the thigh.