Talking to NZSA one evening

It’s about a Sense of Place

Peter Hooper wrote the following line from, Fragments III; Earth Marriage

You know, I don’t think anybody has recorded, either in paint or in words,, the quality of light here on the Coast. It means a great deal to me. When I come back to the Coast through one of the four great gateways which lead into this land: over the Haast from the barrenness of Central Otago, through that most dramatic gateway the Otira Gorge, or by the easier but nonetheless sharply-dividing gateway of Lewis Pass, or through the deep chasm of the Buller – from the moment of entry, I experience a different world. There’s a change in the quality of light, which means a change in the quality of one’s own responses, of one’s own mind, I think there’s an immediate lowering of a threshold. One feels that one has stepped down into a shaded room, and for a matter of hours, perhaps a day, there’s this sense of having come back to a half-empty house, cloud-roofed and forest-walled.

And then the roots that one has put down are found to be living and whole, and it’s the land beyond the mountains that dims, as one finds here again in the soft and gentle light, subtleties which those dazzled by glare can’t see. The seasons here have their own special nuances of light. It’s what I call earth-light.

I could have chosen poetry, essays, or prose fiction, from all through Peter’s writing to express his sense of place just as clearly as the above passage. Yet, when peter Hooper left the town milk farm on which he grew up, to attend Teachers’ College in 1938, the thought that he may spend the rest of his life on the Coast was enough to make him physically ill. Yet return he did, at the age of twenty-five, after service in the Pacific war at Guadacanal. By 1986 he could say:

“Increasingly, I’m inclined to think the life I’ve had is not the one

I would have chosen and therefore very possibly, I needed it.”

The life Peter did have is what concerns me, and is why I am at Randell Cottage.

Our lives crossed paths a number of times … he taught me for a few weeks in 1958. I was in the 3rd form at Greymouth High School.

I farmed on the place where he grew up, when I left teaching in 1965 and turned to dairy farming as a way of working outside.

He published a book of my fourth book of poetry in 1985. From 1970 when I was librarian at Hokitika, and he was Deputy Principal at Westland High School until his death in 1991 we corresponded.

Peter won the National Fiction award for the second volume of his trilogy Time and the Forest. The first book of the trilogy earlier won the best First Book of Prose award. He published volumes of poetry, a selected short stories, and the trilogy. In addition he published Our Forest Ourselves, an extended essay, and sundry other smaller works. So, why does he warrant a biographical work?

He is an example of fortitude, tenacity, and love through humility, in a world that often enough needs reminding of the how valuable those things are. His writing world is informed by – the death of his brother Tony, admiration for H D Thoreau (author of Walden and an essay  On Civil Disobedience), a long friendship from 1973 with Brian Turner – who as editor of McIndoes Press was responsible for seeing the trilogy, the selected poems and short stories, all into print.

Why am I writing the memoir/biography? In 2005, never having studied full time, I undertook a Diploma of Fine Arts at Massey. Liked it, so continued with an MFA – my exegesis dealt with ‘A Sense of Place’. The writing component really interested me, so I continued with an MA at Victoria, last year. The resulting writing is due to be published by Victoria University Press in November – titled ‘How the Land Lies’.

The sense of place, the biographical essays last year, seemed as much as anything, to clear a pathway to thinking about where I grew up, and the place where Peter also grew up. So here I am at Randell Cottage halfway through a draft of a manuscript about Peter Hooper. I am structuring the writing around three things; his life, where our lives intersect, and the West Coast – without which Peter Hooper’s vision would not have ripened into complete works.

I will now read a couple of paragraphs from How the Land lies, and one poem.

While we were carrying out exercises in the foothills of the Southern Alps, during army training forty years ago, two or three of us got separated from our platoon. We were by a stream that looked likely for trout, with its shingle bottom, clear water and high banks. Sure enough I did see a trout, browsing beside an old tree trunk which was half in, half out of the water. Lying along the log as quietly as possible, I placed my hand in the water, loose and relaxed, a little behind the fish. Christ that water was cold. Slowly, I edged my fingers forward, until I felt the belly of the fish. Gently now, take your time, I talked my hand forward gently stroking the belly of the fish … closer to the gills … closer. I turned thumb and forefinger to be either side of the body moving with the water –

But, on this bank, I had no urge to hunt these speckled fellows that fed on the hatching willow bug. Here I was audience to a ritual dance, a ballet of grace, power, and sustained beauty. The music of the natural world provided the score if one wanted to listen. Late summer was a lazy choreographer, and the laying on of fat to help trout survive the winter, a prosaic storyline. There would be another day to cast my line, to create mayhem hooking a fish in some other pool. Leaving the bank as quietly as I had arrived, the slant of the sun told me it was time to go home. Catherine would be expecting me for dinner.

There was a deeper reason to be wary of weapons. A reason that I didn’t care to admit most of my adult life – a memory of grownups’ manipulative games, overflowing with malice and threat. Of my father sitting in the living room with no lights on, cleaning and oiling his rifle for a couple of hours on end after an argument with Mum. It happened more than a time or two – just  as more than once my mother told me during my teenage years, ‘go and hide the gun before your father gets home’. If Dad was late arriving home from work and she knew staff from head office had arrived in town, he was likely to be away ‘having a few’ with them at the pub. Mum disliked beer and whiskey, and intensely disliked weapons. She would not contain her irritation with his late arrival, often playing ‘no speaks’. And when my father sat in that room with a gun lying across his knees, us boys knew to draw absolutely no attention to ourselves as we crept round the house.

I have inherited my father’s diaries. From that time, round 1960, aside from brief entries of trout fishing and gardening or the weather perhaps, are the telling words, ‘had a few’.                  

 

 

Where night is long

just at the point of darkness, but

upon which day you are no longer

certain, you will learn that making

poems is only one of the many things

just as each dog runs its own gait

– tail held for balance – so

and the trout face s upstream

gills opening, closing, opening; it is

the job of the current to supply food

just as it is the hawk’s task to soar and the mouse

to enter the house because the hawk’s shadow

has hovered over the path, a momentary dark

or the coming winter to test strength, try the will

of the aged to breathe another, another –

just as the stars are out there

giving their show for free, maybe

after the equinox and you can’t sleep

because of the wind’s tantrum performance

for the third day, when the dead are willing

to lie undisturbed leaving scattered leaves to rise

just for a moment you may even be

happy enough to be no more than you are

to let other creatures function as they might

your poem can let go, just one more firefly firelit story

up in smoke, another breath to breathe in sleep

against the odds, an offer arrives

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