Sunday, March 06, 2011

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.

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