Perhaps it’s that you can’t go back in time, but you can return to the scenes of a love, of a crime, of happiness, and of a fatal decision; the places are what remain, are what you can possess, are what is immortal. They become the tangible landscape of memory, the places that made you, and in some way you too become them. They are what you can possess and what in the end possesses you.
-Rebecca Solnit, A Field Guide to Getting Lost
- The girl with the babies/The lizard
Otago skinks are made for stealth. Black, white, a flash of yellow, a hint of ultramarine, a glimmer of icy green. You sense the movement, a shimmer in the corner of your vision, but then they’re gone, melted like quicksilver into the fractures and cracks in the rocks that protect them. They are liquid made flesh, their bodies a single fluid motion that blends with the world around them.
They’ve watched since before they had a name, since before humans arrived to categorise and commandeer. They watched as their green-skinned landscape – angular explosions of schist and quartz erupting through manuka and matagouri – was ripped raw and exposed by flame. They watched and died as they came under attack from fur and teeth and claws – rats, possums, stoats, cats, dogs – a parade of invaders that used their noses rather than their eyes to find their prey. They watched life leached from the land as people – the desperate, the risk-taking and the dodgy – sought to make their fortunes from the traces and trails of gold hidden within the scarred rock.
They watched my great-great-grandmother arrive. They saw the first time she came to this harsh and tempestuous landscape, the first time she breathed in the arid summer air. It would have seemed so familiar to her – scrub-covered hills, gullies steep and layered with fallen and fractured rock, mountains blue in the distance, the dry heat that scorches the back of your nose and sharpens your vision. A world, a language, a culture away from home, but a landscape mirroring her Middle Eastern home.
Otago skinks wear the colours of their world etched into their skin, camouflaged amongst the lichen and moss-speckled boulders. There was no camouflage for my great-great-grandmother – small, dark and veiled, no languages in common with the people around her. I try to see her but she flickers at the edge of my vision, too far away in time and experience for me to capture. I know she flourished, making and sending money back home, enough to pay passage for her sons, who came and settled and in turn went home to marry.
I have a photo of her daughter-in-law, my great-grandmother, a wife purchased and brought back from halfway around the world. It’s 1907. She sits on a dry, tussock-covered bank somewhere in Central Otago, a cooking fire in front. A grubby toddler sits next to her, her lace cap echoing her mother’s white, tasselled veil. A smaller child, still a baby, is in her arms, feeding from a metal cup. She’s seventeen, a mother twice-over, and unlike her husband’s mother, isn’t here by choice.
I wonder if she ever saw an Otago skink sunning itself on the boulders biting through the hills, and marvel at its ability to be so bold yet so invisible. Did she ever laugh out loud as a field of silvery-grey flowers exploded into flight, not blossoms but southern blue butterflies, wheeling and looping in a pack? I imagine her catching one in her hand, turning it this way and that to see its iridescent scales switch from blue to tarnished silver to blue again, so like the ones she’d have known from her childhood.
Or could she not wait to escape the extremes of heat and cold, the languages not her own, a life of following her husband’s odd jobs and make-do and travel?
The Clutha guided my great-grandmother away from Central Otago and back towards the coast. It turns south at Beaumont, just shy of the ruined landscape of Gabriel’s Gully and Lawrence, the terrain stripped, tortured, and abandoned once the gold ran out. I see her, babies and belongings in tow, picking her way through the ruins in relief, knowing that every step was one step closer to Dunedin, and a community that shared her language and history.
I remember her – just – in flashes. Whispers in languages I didn’t know to aunties I couldn’t tell apart. A long black and white Bakelite cigarette holder. The musty smell of a fur coat too long in storage. Her skin powdery, too pale, some of it coming off onto my fingers when I touched her face.
- The girls with the horse/The butterflies
The Clutha marks the northern boundary of the Catlins. It’s a different creature now, churning and boiling and so fast it ruptures in two before bundling itself into the sea.
There’s a particular kind of air on the south Otago coast, thick and moist. The hills here are different, too, smooth and rounded, the green so rich it’s almost blue. It slows you down, this rolling green world, makes your breath come slower and your thoughts drift away. It’s a place where every side road, every unsealed track, leads to wildness just out of sight. But it’s a suspicious kind of calm and I don’t quite trust it. I’ve never been sure whether we’ve beaten the wildness, forcing it to cower away in the folds and curves of the hills, or whether it’s watching, biding its time, waiting for the day it will erupt, spilling out and down and smothering everything in its path.
There are two versions of the Catlins. One seeks out those wild places and untamed edges. It scrambles through dense bush – ferns, beech, podocarps, kiekie – to dramatic waterfalls and hidden streams. It stops to watch butterflies, red admirals regally sailing through, occasionally deigning to flutter their wings. Tiny coppers, the colour of morning sun, flickering in the forest edges and grassland. Both found throughout the country, but in this intensely green world, they are explosions of colour and light, fireworks. This version of the Catlins leans into the wind at the top of dramatic cliffs and imagines the horror of the shipwrecks littered along the coast. It explores a coastline rumbling with wildlife – fur seals, sea lions, elephant seals, penguins – and marks the tides and seasons to visit the caves and blowholes and petrified forest, remnants of life 170 million years ago.
The other Catlins is a place for the pragmatic. It’s a place of digging in, of hard work, of getting the job done with no more words than you need. Where farmers wrest control of the landscape, where the fences run straight regardless of incline, and so do the people. A place where the only wildlife that matters comes in shades of cream and brown. The good – sheep and cows, chooks and horses. Dogs, of course. The bad – rabbits and rats, possums and stoats. The white butterflies – their flight angular, corrupted, jerking from one direction into another – that I adored but my aunt would grab and crush between her palms. I’ve kept the rabbits out of my cabbages, and there’s no way I’ll let these little buggers take them. Gumboots by the door, lambs in the laundry, Norsewood socks and Canterbury shorts and Roslyn woollen blankets on the beds. This is my Catlins.
A photo of me this time, a copy of one cut from the local newspaper, the original crumbled away to dust. I’m three or four and up high on one of the horses, my bare legs sticking out under a checkered raincoat. My cousin is older than me, thirteen or so, and we have the same face, the same cheekbones. I don’t remember that day, but I remember many like it – damp trudges back to the farmhouse where there were always jobs that needed doing, chooks to pen, cows to milk, the garden to weed.
I remember fragments of the first time I met the other Catlins. Barr’s Falls, our road named after them though I’d never been beyond the bend. A spiderweb between two trees, glistening across the path above our heads. Watching the damp air turn to droplets on my arm. My first red admiral, a shock of crimson in flight. Reaching out to pop a kōtukutuku flower bud. Sliding off the horse, the distance to the ground further than I expected, trying not to cry. The surprising silkiness of fallen leaves melting into mud. I don’t remember the falls.
- The kids by the fire/The cicadas
Wanaka, the head of the Clutha, where every summer suburban Dunedin escapes the restraints of school and work for life under canvas. And at Cromwell, where the Clutha splits from the Kawarau to reveal its crystalline, shining self, so do I. I shed my cold, dark, coastal skin and become one of the barefoot, baked and blistered Glendhu kids. We build worlds.
We mark the height of summer not just by the crackling heat that never seems to drop but by the rising crescendo of cicadas. The whirr, zip and click of a solo singer endearing, but in their thousands, deafening. Their Māori name, wāwā, a roar like heavy rain. They get inside our tents, our sleeping bags, the seams of clothes drying on guy-ropes and slung over trees. Their colours a revelation, from the bright green of a granny smith apple, to tarnished gold, to an explosion of black and green and yellow. Wings translucent, rimmed in scarlet. Males a case study in compromise, their reproduction and digestive organs reduced to make way for chambers that amplify and echo their staccato calls.
The ice-cold Matukituki, where we graze our hands, shins and pride trying and failing to emulate the teenage cliff jumpers with their longer limbs and heightened bravery. Where we lie on hot stones, scratched and tingling from gorse and matagouri, duck itch and jandal rash.
The Glendhu stream that chills the milk and beer, full of cockabullies and dams and dug-out swimming spots, our friend until the night it rose in silence and tried to drown us all in our sleep.
The secret tunnel that only we know how to find, creeping under the road from the baked and exposed yellow of the camping ground to the cool, dark swampland that we call Paradise, all papery kanuka and twisting supplejack. Rumours of the monsters that wait in the brackish, slow-moving creek – last summer someone got zapped by an electric eel! There’s yabbies in there that can bite your toe right off, my dad said.
The lake itself, sometimes blue, sometimes green, sometimes as opaque as quartz. It overwhelms us, the smells of dry heat and hot canvas, boat exhausts and barbecues, the noise of outboard motors, ghetto blasters and transistor-tinny cricket commentary. We turn our backs on the lakefront crowds of campers and make the rivers our territory.
This time the photo is burnished bronze, grainy, rounded at the edges. It is dark, a fire throwing liquid light onto limbs and faces, our tent behind us. I remember the feel of the sand beneath my toes, so different than the pebbled lake edge. I remember the reddened blisters that erupted on the leaves of the willows, breaking them open with a thumbnail to look at the tiny larvae of the willow redgall sawfly wriggling within. I remember sunburn so bad we lay awake at night, our skins too hot and tight to move, delirious in half-dreams of ice and fire. I am one of these glossy children, I know – but I can’t find myself amongst the pack.
At summer’s end, we return to the coast. The plains of Central Otago funnel into the harsh gullies of the old goldmining territory, stone shanties still visible on the hillsides. The river is no longer alone, its clear turquoise subsumed once more by the Kawarau’s silt-laden waters. As the Clutha dulls, so do I. I strap myself back into my coastal armour, locking away my golden summer self for another year.
- The boy under glass/The marks
5000 years and half a world away, a young man, tall and red-haired, was struck from behind. The copper blade his assailant carried – an inch wide, four inches long – entered with such force it shattered his ribs and punctured his lung. He was laid to rest in foetal position, his knees drawn up, his face resting on his left hand, surrounded by offerings of food, fabric, tools for the afterlife. Buried in a shallow grave in the harsh Egyptian environment, time leached all moisture from his flesh, darkening and drying his skin onto his bones. A natural mummy, created centuries before his countrymen began preserving the dead by embalming, wrapping, and entombing their cherished dead.
Today, archaeologists and anthropologists scan and analyse his body, renamed Gebelein Man for the place he was found, searching for insights into his culture, his civilisation, his life and death. And find them they do – fifty centuries after his untimely death and a full century since he was found and put on display, infrared technology has revealed something new. He has tattoos etched into his skin, the marks still visible millenia after thin needles punctured his skin, a sooty paste rubbed into the delicate wounds.
They are animals, a barbery sheep and a wild bull, perhaps. They overlap, one body in outline, one shaded, both horned. Were they a mark of leadership or spirituality, representing family or social class? Did they mark his transition from child to adult? I imagine him breathing deep through the pain, adrenaline mixing with blood and pigment, calling on the strength of the bull.
Nobody knows how long we have been inscribing each others’ skins with symbols and stories. Tattooing is global and untraceably ancient, part of cultural practices on all continents, in all cultures. Tattoos are a mark of permanence, of memory, of connection or of separation. They can be symbolic, imbued with ritual and significance, or decorative. They may be performative, an intentional challenge, or private, a measure of intimacy given.They tell a story, sometimes literal, sometimes metaphorical.
Figurines dating back 40,000 years have been found with lines and patterns covering torso and limbs. The tools of tattooing – small multi-pointed chisels, needles made of bronze or bone – have been found across the world. In some cultures a sign of bravery or achievement, in other times and other places a mark of shame, tattoos were known by names both remembered and lost. While tools and inks may have varied, the principle was the same; a puncture with intent, a needled pattern on the skin, ink or soot or dye rubbed into each tiny open wound.
The very name, carried back both in word and on flesh from Cook’s explorations of the Pacific, colonising in reverse the many names for ink on skin into one – tattoo. And as the world became smaller, its edges measured, its reaches reached, marks on skin became exotic, primitive, foreign, the Other.
- The river/The permanent record
I don’t really know my culture. I know we’re mongrels, a mix of this and that, rumours and cryptic stories and occasionally leaving town when things get awkward. We’re a family of invisibility, of distance, of intentional forgetting. We don’t get too attached. We blend. A handful of photos with faces I recognise but many more that I don’t.
Yet I live in a country where my friends can recite their genealogies back to the gods, their histories carved into their skin to be read like a book. They know where they are from, they know their people and their people know them. Their tā moko is both their shelter and their strength.
That history is not mine to claim, so like Gebelein Man I, too, have animals etched into my skin. Just as I have questions for him, people have questions for me. Sometimes I lie because it’s easier. I just like critters, or who doesn’t like bugs, or ha, it just got away from me.
But I wear my story in my skin. The Clutha wraps and holds me in shades of blue and turquoise. It carries ghosts – towns that once were, stories and histories dammed, drowned, washed away – but it is there, constant. The concrete geometry of the bridges, dams and roads that frame and bisect its banks. The gold and red of summer, sunrise and sunset. The creatures of its passage from Tititea/Mt Aspiring to the expanse of Molyneux Bay and the Pacific Ocean.
A red admiral rests in my inner elbow, wings outstretched, basking. A southern blue, a shimmering mix of grey, silver and mauve, takes off above him. A common copper, a tiger’s face, so much more striking than its name. A cicada, poised and ready to sing. A yellow admiral, tawny gold, stretches across my shoulder. And through the middle, sinuous, his curves reflected in the meandering river, an Otago skink, as always, watching.
The Clutha is what made me, and now I carry it with me, more permanent than paper or people. It is what I can possess and what in the end possesses me.