Sunday, March 06, 2011

Tom's New Zealand: Atlantis

The earthquake filled our house with dust. As soon as the first jolt struck, rooms were filled by walls as old cinderblocks shed their mortar and shifted atop one another. The outside came rushing in. Sunshine first peeked then glared through holes in the walls and roof: piled bricks, poor and arbitrary boundaries.

An aunt was at work at the chemists' in Redcliffs, glass shelves hurling last season's perfumes across the room: unbridled Obsession, dangerous Euphoria. She doesn't remember being knocked off her feet: only that one second she was standing; the next, sprawled over the counter. A portly regular hurled himself atop her as a shield from the onslaught of expired Eternity and unwelcome Escape.

The hip-for-the-kidz facade of my little brother's school leapt from the building's cold and sullen hulk in an undisguised attempt on his life. Joe was too fast for the depredations of this unmasked engine of obliteration, and that instant became a microcosm of his young life: peak experience wrung from another moment escaping smiling-faced and lethal education's attempts at a Saturnine morning tea.

A neighbor was working in an office block overlooking the Square before the jolt threw him toward the Cathedral, plate-glass all that kept him from falling five stories, allowing him the spectacle of the Cathedral's spire spiraling down into the quadrangle. He rushed from the building and started running.

My girlfriend Hilary was thrown from a treadmill at the University's rec center. All the lights went out and she was herded from the pitch-black building. Ushered into clear daylight and a free-standing campus, she was presented by no sign that this was anything more than a slightly larger aftershock. She quickly became annoyed at the center's refusal to allow her back into the building to get her things. “Are you alright?” I asked from within her phone from within her locker from within the evacuated center.

The Port Hills were doing jumping jacks, leaping two feet in the air and spraying geologic dandruff. A boulder the size of a van effortlessly bisected one building on the section and careened down the hill demanding shelter in another. Cast out and sent onto the watercourse that forms the main artery through the property, the mighty stone would be unable to find satisfaction: seeking to end its journey in our spa pool, the huge rock instead upended the entire tub and came to a stop just short of the deck. Hard to avoid some measure of sympathy for even so destructive and burdensome a beast.

“I'll protect you!” yelled the fat man atop my aunt. “I've been wanting to do this for years!” She felt his hot breath on her neck as boulders rolled down the suburb's eponymous crags, disparate rocks becoming One and Free.

“I can't find my father,” our friend Ashley told Joe, “but there's too many people hurt. I can't leave to look for him.” He spent the afternoon pulling bodies living and dead from the wreckage of the Colombo Run: by his estimate, he retrieved two corpses for every survivor.

Our neighbor ran until he reached Hagley Park. There oblivious strollers, seeing his suit, took him for a visiting businessman and urged him to be calm, that a little shake was normal here in Christchurch. “You don't understand,” he told them, “I've just seen the Cathedral come down.”

“I've seen a lot of dead people,” Joe told me as he walked up the driveway. He walked past a bus crumpled by falling masonry, dimly registering crushed human forms inside. He saw an old man being tended to by emergency services; the man's face had been half knocked from his head. Walking down Colombo Street and through Sydenham, Joe saw streets lined with the body-bags and hastily blanketed corpses that, mere weeks earlier, Ngapuhi kaumatua Gray Theodore had prophesied for Wellington.

The fat man got off my aunt. They haven't spoken since.

Ashley found his father.

Hilary still doesn't have her phone.

Joe, fed up with living in so notoriously seismic a city, took advantage of compassionate airfares and booked a holiday in San Francisco.

Christchurch, never again a solid physical place, now becomes forever alive and frozen at the moment of destruction: the immaterial arena surrounded (as a friend beautifully reminds us) by Baxter's “mountains crouch[ing] like tigers.”

A place where shyster priest Arthur Worthington once pointed through the glass of a shattered lamp toward true reality; where boulders rain like dark karakea onto the beach at Tuawera, onto which a vengeful magician once conjured a poison whale against his enemies. A place of narratives and experiences, of memories and quake moments, streets forever trod by those who'll never tell their stories.

Tom's New Zealand: A Conversation with a Lion

“There is no reason that can make sense of this event. No words that can spare our pain. We are witnessing the havoc caused by a violent and ruthless act of nature.
I am a proud son of Christchurch. I was raised there. I got my first job there. My sister lived there. My mother died there. I know what a wonderful place it is. But my connection to Christchurch is no rare thing. All New Zealanders have a piece of our heart in Christchurch.
Christchurch, today is the day your great comeback begins. Though your buildings are broken, your streets awash, and your hearts are aching, your great spirit will overcome. While nature has taken much from you, it cannot take your survivor's spirit.”

- John Key, 23 February 2011

“If a lion could talk, we could not understand him.”

- Ludwig Wittgenstein

To personify a location (as your current author is as guilty as anyone else of doing) is as tempting as it is impossible. “Christchurch” only exists because we say it does; the place itself, tight shingle and steadfast rock, doesn't think of itself as Christchurch or as Canterbury or as anyone's home. The earth didn't shake because of anything we did upon its surface: it just moved because that's what the earth does. Not to spite us but in spite of us.

Druidic architects once stirred human blood into their foundational cement; more recent builders laid Bibles or other objects of human significance into the cornerstones of their constructions. Reminders of a universal principle of building: that when we lay down foundations – whether for a shack, highrise or city itself – we extend our own human meaning down into the earth, idea and narrative mixing awkwardly with clay and loam.

It was easy enough to incorporate September's shiverings into the Christchurch narrative. Seismic trembles rocketed up through the strata even as primal sparks rang out through sleeping brains, touching off reptilian fight-or-flight synapse patterns. Following immediately were early-mammal poetic-conscious nodes, rushing to make sense of the event, fit it into a narrative: tight faux-English grid and village-green suburbs tested by a dormant strain of Antipodean rim-of-fire wildness. Earth's Fury. Why didn't They warn us?

City and story alike were cracked but repairable. Look back or move forward? Either seemed feasible options for a populace never averse to a bit of hard work.

But this time, it's clear the graft hasn't taken. Blood and Bible alike sit dead in the soil, neither swallowed nor spat back. The land doesn't want to reject or revise our story. It simply doesn't care.

No longer can we feel we've sunken our awareness of place and community into the earth: the only place Christchurch truly exists, it's become clear, is in our minds (or hearts, if you prefer). We might all agree upon what Christchurch is or isn't (or better yet, we might disagree passionately); if nothing else, we all agree that it's there. But there's one party that reserves judgement on even that most basic fact, and that's the location in question.

The earth doesn't move out of malice or covetousness. The earth simply moves. Any attempts to ascribe human meaning would be like trying to have a conversation with a lion.

Tom's New Zealand: The Terrible Distar

“To All The Famlies of The Loved One's

Lost and injured in this terrible distar

of The BIG Earth Quake that hit


Our Love, Thoughts & Prayer are with

you all

M & T.P.”

We found this message, written with golden ink inside a card depicting a cherub: blue butterfly wings on a field of grey clouds. The card had been slipped into a ziplock bag and taped to a beautiful bouquet of bright flowers, and the whole bundle had been left at the foot of Ashburton's East Street Fountain.

Ashburton sits an hour south of Christchurch down State Highway One. Often referred to as “Ash Vegas” for its overabundance of pokie machines and gambling pubs, the town's known for its elderly and farming populations. Until recently, the town sign read: “Welcome to Ashburton. Blessed is the Nation whose GOD is the LORD.” Even motoring works differently here: a place where many older drivers will drive around the block rather than negotiate a right-hand turn.

Ashburton is packed. The town's McDonald's, which offers not just familiar tastes but the elusive and essential wi-fi, has been close to standing room only since Tuesday. Across the road, a chemist tells me they've been flat out for the past few days. I ask if she's noticed an influx of city slickers around town and she gives me a sly wink.

Like sidewalk gawkers from an old movie, TV screens in restaurants, bars and electronics stores in Ashburton convey the latest earthquake news to gathered throngs. Even when there's no new information, there's a sense that it would be disrespectful not to watch. Many have family or friends in Christchurch; many more, ostensibly, live there themselves. Christchurch, once the place that you went when you outgrew Ashburton, has become the place you run from when it shows every sign of not wanting you there any more.