Around the Edges
Some cities just keep on spreading out into the surrounding countryside, suburbs becoming newer, less attractive. They never seem to end, or at least, it’s hard to find the edge of them. Not so Te Whanganui-a-Tara, the harbourside city of Wellington. Surrounded by the sea and rugged hill country, Wellington has edges that butt up hard against an often boisterous, rambunctious nature.
Another notable feature is that the people of Wellington like to play in this nature. I get it, it’s hard to ignore. The south coast is wild, a spectacular backdrop to fish’n’chips in the car, but there are also days of glassy calm, when the diving is fabulous, and rich, if kaimoana is your thing. On those days when it’s too rough to dive, there’s surfing, from the beginner’s breaks at Lyall Bay on a quiet day, through to life-threatening offshore reefs on a giant one. The forested hills are veined with walking and biking tracks. Off those tracks, thick bush offers the chance to really do your own thing, stick a pig or something. Something for everyone around Wellington.
On one of the first weekends after I’d moved here, I discovered the Writers Walk along the city waterfront. I came across a line from a Bill Manhire poem, inscribed in stone above the water:
I live at the edge of the universe like everyone else.
I am chuffed by this, and even more so by the nearby Lauris Edmond words:
It’s true you can’t live here by chance, you have to do and be, not simply watch or describe. This is the city of action, the world headquarters of the verb.
I’m struck with the seeming import and coincidence of finding this open celebration of the written word. My moving here to write, suddenly seemed ripe with potential.
Not far along from here, a bronze sculpture of a man leans into the northerly. His eyes are closed, and there is the beginning of a faint smile, a surrender, on his lips.
‘The wind,’ they said before I came up here, ‘it’s the wind that will drive you mad.’ I remember being told that an umbrella was useless here, that it would just blow inside-out. That the wind would drive you to stay inside, that the wind would mean you spend many days rushing between buildings, that it’s windy here even when it’s fine. Like every day: windy.
In truth, I had been looking forward to the challenge of living with it; the wind is just another element, and a good one to know. I used to play in the wind, still do in a sit-in-my-wheelchair-in-the-teeth-of-a-southerly sort of way, dressed in layers of protective clothing. I can let the wind rip through my hair for a bit, feel the drops sting my face as the front approaches, scurry back into the car before getting too cold. Drive you mad? It’s a touch of nature, the breath of the universe. The title of the man-sculpture is: ‘Solace in the wind’. I get it.
Today, I sit in my wheelchair on the foreshore of Evans bay – under the landing jets and along from the wind sculptures. I can see the wind in both these things, in the wobble of their approach from the north, in the angle of their lean. Even more intimate with this particular breeze though, is the woman out in front of me learning how to wing surf.
Wing surfing is the latest iteration of windsurfing, for those who have windsurfed and kite-surfed previously and are now looking for another take on the wind, another way to play with the element that helps define this place and their place in it. I was a windsurfer once; enough to understand the use of a sail anyway, really just a vertical wing. The new wings are different, being a wing designed to fly parallel to the water, but some things are similar. You still have to hang on, tightly by the look of it.
I watch the newcomer. The wing looks twitchy and unstable compared to the simplicity of windsurfing, in which, when the wind fills the sail, you just lean back against it to accelerate, spill a bit if you need to slow. The new wings though, ride on a horizontal flow of air above the rider and can drop and pull unexpectedly, like when you hold the palm of your hand out the window of the car: move it around, feel how it bucks and weaves, and how there is also a sweet spot where it wants to plane smoothly on its cushion of air, to lift.
It’s taking her a while to master it, and even though she obviously has experience with the wind, she is out there today because conditions are ideal for learning. The wind is a southerly – offshore – which means the water in the bay is smooth and there are no waves to complicate matters. Further out there are whitecaps, but it seems unlikely to be carried out there by the wind, because it looks just too tricky to keep the wing up long enough.
The board she is riding has a foil underneath it too, like a wing under the surface; the America’s Cup has spawned much watercraft innovation. When she gets it right, when powered up in a gust, the board rises from the water in a way that I imagine feels almost mystical, more Jesus-like than any other form of propulsion. Perhaps there is a connection with the water that is rooted deep within it, rather than amongst the slap of the surface waves. A sense, perhaps, of riding within the wave while simultaneously gliding above it.
There is always another way to interpret nature – to relate to it – if you want to. On any windy day in Wellington, people are out on the water, flying, gliding, surfing, sailing. It’s not just the wind they’re after. They’re also in the water, feeling the cold seep into their wetsuits and wincing across the gravelled beaches with freezing toes. They get changed behind opened doors in the carpark, drop sand all through their cars, joke about sharks. There are esoteric conversations about conditions over quick cups of coffee from the thermos, and there is a grapevine of other users to keep informed. People are working it out, here on the edge of things.
I see all this from the point of view of one who knows, if not this particular scene, then others like it. I see it, but it isn’t mine anymore. I wonder why I bother watching, whether it is just another form of torture. I think I’ve moved on but still, it makes me consider the worth of my observing, what I get out of it. I feel like I need to keep in touch somehow with my previous life; the question is why. What if hanging onto the old is just holding me back from finding the new? For the first few years post-accident, surrounded by memory, I was unable to move, paralysed by my attachment to the past as much as my injury. I need to be careful not to get stuck. I need to sort the memories I can use from those I can’t. Or do I?
In these acts of observing – something I do so much more of these days – I have become aware of a hierarchy in the way I look at things. Firstly, there is a state of passive observation I sit within, soaking up the ambience of the world around me. I live at the edge of the universe like everyone else. I notice much more than I used to, simply by watching. Who would’ve thought?
Then, there is a more active observation, in which I’m trying to work out how the world around me works – what is really going on. Given enough time, you can work out a lot of stuff … you have to do and be, not simply watch or describe … But some watching is an action in itself.
The third type of observation I indulge in, is the active search for something, looking perhaps for something to love, something to be inspired by. This is new. In the past, I never had to look for inspiration – it was all around me. I don’t doubt that it is all around me now, and by actively looking, I’m hoping it will be revealed. Maybe I’ll come up with some words of my own.
I sit here picking around the periphery, not really in the centre anymore, not part of any particular scene as yet. The knowledge I once had is no longer being translated to a physical form, and it remains on the inside. But there is a joy in being able to work things out. I may not be able to feel the air pull on the wing as I hold it, but I can imagine what those sensations are, and how those muscles feel, even though they’re not mine. Maybe it really is possible to transcend the physical, just by looking, by thinking. The world of imagination is not as sad as I had thought it might be. Perhaps I am coming to some sort of ease with this being on the edge of things.