Where I live on the Kapiti Coast in New Zealand, towns are the filling in a very beautiful sandwich. One slice of bread is the turquoise Tasman sea, which is garnished with Kapiti Island, a bush-clad native bird sanctuary and reserve 5km off shore. The other slice is the perpetually green slopes of the Waikanae hills, unfurling 500m into the vast sky.
We have a slice of the hills visible from our kitchen window. From here, the ridgeline of the hills is a smooth, wavy line, looking very like a row of joined up lowercase ns in a child’s handwriting exercise. The sweeping flanks of the hills are dark green from the ranks of pine trees marching up them. But let your eye sweep northwards along the ridge and you’ll see where the pines revert to native bush – lush, green slopes of kohekohe trees and giant ferns sprawling up to the sky.
Hidden beneath 330 hectares of this dense canopy is Hemi Matenga scenic reserve. The reserve, one of the largest remaining patches of native kohekohe forest in the Wellington area, is home to tui and kereru and ruru. When we still lived in the centre of Waikanae we’d often hear the ruru’s mournful hoot floating on the still, night air as we were falling asleep at night.
A couple of walking tracks wind through the cool shadows of the bush, and a steep, sometimes muddy, 514 metre climb leads from the reservoir at the entrance on Tui Street up to the grassy lookout at the summit of Hemi Matenga. From up there, spread out below are spectacular views across Waikanae, out to Kapiti Island and across the sea to the South Island.
And if you are below, at a particular point of a particular road, lift your eyes to the ridgeline of Hemi Matenga and you will see…
Yep, a giraffe. But you have to be fast – drive a few metres further and the giraffe disappears, wearing a pretty cunning camouflage of tree. Oh, alright, it IS a tree – but it does make a convincing looking giraffe. And if you squint a bit, you might spot a slightly distorted looking ostrich several paces away staring down at the giraffe.
Our grand-daughter calls it the Dr Seuss ostrich.
When I was teaching, I used to drive past the giraffe-spotting spot every day on the way home from school. I always looked out for the giraffe and his ostrichy friend. I’ve seen them in all weathers – light rain, grey skies, bright sunshine, moonrise, even freckled with a thin, lacy coat of snow – and snow down to 500 metres around here is hens teeth kind of event. Sometimes cloud cover was down to where the bush on Hemi Matenga gave way to houses, and giraffe and ostrich were as hidden in the cloud as the birds under the canopy.
Now we live in the next town and I’m not teaching any more, we don’t often view the ridge from the right animal-spotting angle. Yet the habit is well-ingrained and by chance last week I was in Waikanae twice. The first time was a clear, sunny day, and the giraffe looked strong and sturdy standing against the blue sky chatting with his ostrich pal. The second it was a grey, mizzly kind of day, and mist swirled around the slopes of Hemi Matenga. No creatures to be seen.
Seeing and not-seeing them again reminded me of Contours, a poem I’d written some time ago about seen and not-seen things.
As I said at the beginning, one slice of our sandwich home is the ocean and Kapiti Island, sitting a few km out to sea. The island is an iconic symbol of local identity dominating the watery horizon. 40-odd km over its shoulder, depending on weather and light-quality New Zealand’s South Island advances and recedes, appears and disappears daily.
These changing views of the South Island were the focus of Contours. That, and loss. But I didn’t like the title, and there was something missing, some connection that changing the original title and tweaking and trimming some of the lines didn’t do quite enough to convey what I wanted.
So I’d done what I usually do, and left the poem to marinate. Sometimes all that is needed is to step back for a while – a few days, several weeks, maybe six months – and take your mind off it. The solution will often present itself when you’re busy looking the other way.
PRO TIP – keep a pen and pad beside your bed in case the solution strolls along in the middle of the night. The notepad function on cellphones is useful too, or texting yourself. These days I always keep something to hand where I can record ideas – I’ve lost too many to the ether by trusting my memory to hold on to them until morning!
In this case, it was my two, long-time-no-see trees masquerading as wild animals that presented the solution. They seem to capture some giraffey, ostrichy character and emotion that makes them look as if they could trot off into the moonrise wing in hoof together. I realised it was exactly that sense of character and emotion that was missing in my poem.
After that, all it took to fix my poem was one hour, two lines coaxed into sunshine, and three lines banished into mist.
Now all it needs is to be read.
The Language of Maps
Waves roll a turquoise silk swatch
from this coiled wire of road
to Kapiti Island.
Beyond Kapiti’s sharp, green pleats,
silk sea still unfolds, spreading
to another piece of this jigsaw land,
the last interruption before Antarctica.
The South Island is so clear today
I think I should see red flares flower
on pohutukawa trees,
and your yellow, wet-suited arms
wheel through white splashes of waves,
while blue flashes of tui wings
guide you to harbour.
A ribbon of dust streams silver glitter
through my fingers. My view blurs.
Some days, the South Island
is just an indigo suggestion, a smudge
blurring sea and sky,
or a soft tumble of clouds
gathered on a distant hem of water
below snaggletooth mountains.
Other days, its shape is so sharp I think
the continental plates shifted miles closer.
Under a star-sequinned shadecloth
of night, I know where it lies,
from spasmodic scythes of silver light –
maybe a lighthouse signal
in the Marlborough Sounds.
But on days clouds draw heavy drapes
across the sky, or rain falls in grey stripes,
my only sight of the South Island
is when I open the glovebox
and unfold a neat rectangle of map
you put there before you left.
You taught me the language of maps,
a fluent lexicon of contours and coordinates.
You said all paths can be traced with a map
and compass; all landmarks found.
Because of maps,
I know some things are not lost
just because they are hidden from view.