“Be still with yourself until the object of your attention affirms your presence.” – Minor White
When you focus on your subject, and really begin to listen to it, then you will begin to hear the song it wants to sing to you. Sometimes it requires a forced inaction and continuous proximity to it before this becomes possible. Sometimes it requires the heavy hand of your subjects’ insistence before you begin to give it full attention.
A storm had passed through some days before, cleaning and cleansing the land and the waterways, but its remnants clung to the margins of the land and the edges of the river, lurking in the corners and in the sinewy, slithering shadows between the wharf pilings.
The remnant of a tropical cyclone, which had suddenly changed its mind and direction and turned on its heel with malicious intent, had blown through the area, trailing its rainskirts across the waterways. It passed in a couple of days and headed east, in search of further mischief and misery.
As the sky cleared and blue holes like worn denims reappeared in the sky, the light found its way back down to the land and water and began to bring form and definition back to it. My spirits began to lift, and I could venture outside further than the awning sheltering the doorway of my gallery and walk along the road. Indeed, I could now resume my first-thing stroll along the edge of the river in the early morning, when the night had exhaled and the day was taking a new breath, when the first drifts of subtle, whispering light were skating across the slick surface of the water. I could stop and observe. I could stop and inhale the wairua of the water, integrate myself into its essence, and listen to its incessant murmurings. I could return to my morning ritual of a walk as far as the mangroves and back, and wade out into the water by the boat ramp, where they had created an artificial beach some years ago, and then stand there up to my knees, feeling the song of the current and the whisper of time at once passing by, at once remaining still. I would wade out through the sludge of stripped vegetation lying in discarded green ribbons along the edge of the water until my feet found a place where they could connect to Papatuanuku, and my toes were able to dig themselves deep down into the warm bed of the river and find connection with the earth. Then I would recite my karakia and, once done, be with the water until it was time to leave.
It was fascinating to observe how the patina of the water had changed. A slippery translucence lay above the deeper green of the salt water. There were two rivers on the move; the slow majesty of the salt rhythm beneath, and the bustling insistence of fresh water eager to be expelled from the harbour. Slithering along the surface. Bubbles clung to the film in random belches, and a greasy film like discarded hair oil slurped and slithered across it in sinuous lines. I had a strong sense of the old, of the past giving up its dark secrets and washing them away in a bustle of business.
As the rains came and the feeder rivers rose, the surface turned brown. The freshwater shimmering of the surface became frenetic. Gone were the lazy spirals drawn in the surface by the current and the delicate sate of balance it would reach twice a day. Now everything was moving out to the ocean, a line of city traffic heading home at the end of a day, with a common purpose, lemmings swimming west to oblivion.
I watched the tide rise and fall, breathing in and out, and I watched logs sailing like stately galleons down the Waima river. I watched stripped vegetation like shredded lettuce slumping slowly past, hopes borne away.
And then, the following morning, as I returned from my early morning walk to the pontoon at the end of the wharf, where I could move up and down in time with the river’s breathing, I stopped by the village store, itself hanging out over the river, and I stared down into the armpit formed by the slipway and the shop pilings. There the current was forced to a frustrated standstill, and nothing much happened. Detritus, bits of decaying foliage and random murmurings of rubbish found themselves trapped there and only the slow sucking of the tide cleared it away.
The water had an oily feel to it, a whispering of things left over and forgotten, of the passing of life and perhaps hopes. Time trapped in the corner of a city bar, of lives lived, cursed, and beyond redemption. A subtle film curved lazily in around and back on itself. Small jewels of air were embedded in the greasy glaze. Depending upon the angle at which I viewed it, it either receded into invisibility or projected itself upwards into strong relief.
What was I seeing here? It certainly didn’t conform to any nominal notion of beauty. It was the translucent corpse of Time, Death without the scythe. It was a backwater of memory. It was the other side of the Coin of Life. It was a reminder that death and Life depend upon each other for their relevance and meaning, that each relied upon the other. Like Siamese twins, they were joined at the heart and hip, perennially obliged to face each other until the end of time.
And it was a reminder.
It was a reminder that beauty is a state of the heart, and that decay has its own beauty, is its own beauty.