Cartography of a Country

New Zealand is routinely cut off the right hand edge of maps of the world, cast adrift in the space outside the frame that is usually home to Antarctica, occasionally Tasmania, and not much else. Sure, it irks, but it’s not only illustrators in faraway countries that make such erasures. To see why, we need only look a little closer to home.

Ask the average New Zealander on the street how many islands New Zealand is made up of and they’re likely to say two – North and South. Press a little further, and Stewart Island might just nudge in as the third, depending on how much attention the person paid to school geography lessons, and whether or not they have ever actually travelled south of the Bombay hills. And yet, there is so much more to our shores than just the big three (or big two-and-a-half – sorry Rakiura).

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Take the Chatham Islands, for instance. Marooned 800km to the east of mainland New Zealand, they are mostly spared a thought only at the end of the national weather forecast (and, of course, the forecast is almost invariably for rain). They may be in their own timezone 45 minutes ahead of the rest of us, but they support the All Blacks just as fervently. Then there are the many sub-Antarctic islands to the south that are home to a host of Southern Ocean wildlife and not much else. Still, their frigid peaks and windswept shores belong on our maps, even if they do account for less than 1% of New Zealand’s total area and most commonly appear as obstacles on maritime charts.

Many mid Cantabrians are familiar with maps of another sort, namely the topographical variety that are routinely packed for hunting and hiking trips up into the hills. That’s another side of the country that is often overlooked – quite literally, in the case of international travellers flying out of Christchurch. The deep valleys and towering peaks, the glacier faces and steep slopes of scree all gather neatly to order beneath the orange lines and ordered type of a Mercator Projection rendering. How many other people will summit that mountain or camp out beneath that ridge? The further into the backcountry you get, the more select the numbers become. For those who make the effort, it’s something pretty special.

Originally Published in The Ashburton Guardian

Human experiences, narratives and histories are what make a place, but our selective cropping also makes certain places invisible. Next time you’re considering an overseas holiday because you’ve “seen it all” back home, it might pay to think twice. That, and buy a more detailed map.

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At Cass

The greens are different up here. Not as toxicly bright, but older and wiser, like wrinkled skin that remembers more than its wearer would like it to. The stones are smaller, massed in packs so they flow like iron filings to a magnet, drawn toward the valley floor where they splay out like toes testing their footprint in damp sand. Grain by grain they are ‘ making land’.

The greens are tired, but it is all a matter of comparison. Just as the most spritely pensioner at bingo is ‘the young one’, set against the lino cut mountains these hues are life, undisputedly. The green is the child in the valley, the quiet one who has ‘been on this planet before’, you can tell by the eyes. Here the mountains guard, protective, like parents with children on the cusp of adolescence. They hover, pretending to be otherwise occupied, tending to their mantles of snow that allow them to go incognito against the pensive sky.

We come here to this valley and palette and bring our own stories, want to know where, why, how? Does the grass know what it feels like to be greener? Do the pebbles ever yearn for their perch way up close to the sky? Made of incredibly squashed and incredibly dead algae carcasses, the castle rock sandstones are in fact a massive sea floor graveyard. Do they remember the sound of the waves?

Why is it that the very first urge I had was to personify the landscape? No shaking of hands, no presenting a particular side of oneself to another. This was a one sided introduction. Much as the words signify elements in the surroundings, they are mirrors and an introduction to the writer, the personifier. The one who wonders about wrinkled skin will develop crowsfeet, will paddle in many oceans, may even play bingo one day if she makes it that far. She will meet ‘old souls’, wear a cloak of her own.

And the grass? It will keep growing, oblivious to its pigment and the deficiencies perceived through other-eyes.