Thinking about waves

FROM MY RESEARCH journal, August 2011: Our sea is made up of certain blues. Sometimes, just before the weather changes, our sea is so pale it fades into the sky. At these times, the sea is almost silent. Sometimes our sea is bluer than a cornflower. These blues are inside us, enshrined beyond anything conscious, alongside the smell of hot sand and the sound of waves arriving from thousands of miles away.

By the time news from the rest of the world arrives here its voice is faint and barely audible above the noise of these waves.

September 4, 2013: This morning I went to an exhibition called Refugee. The heart of the exhibition, the reason for its existence, according to a reviewer, was a montage of hundreds of photographs of unnamed Afghani people, mostly in family groups. Murdoch Stephens, a young man from New Zealand, found the photographs several years ago on the floor in an abandoned refugee camp in Iran.

Visitors to the exhibition are invited to write their views on New Zealand’s refugee policy on one of two white boards. The board on the left is for people who want New Zealand to do more for refugees and the one on the right for people who want things to stay the way they are. On the right-hand board, on the day of my first visit, someone had written that we have people here who need help, and we should look after our own people first. On the left-hand board someone had written that we should share what we have in New Zealand.

September 5, 2013: I went back to Refugee today. This time I noticed that some of the men in the photographs from the Iranian desert camp had a rough cross in felt pen, drawn above or next to their heads. I am at a loss to explain how I could have spent time yesterday in the company of these photographs, understood the peoples’ expressions as messages of grief and hunger and fear, but missed these crosses.

From the summer of 2011: People who live right beside the sea, as I do, think about waves. You might dream of a never-ending surge that lifts houses from their foundations and floats them out to sea. Or you might find you can imagine a single wave, thirteen storeys high, arriving as thunder that never stops. You ponder which fate you would prefer. You compare the odds of the giant wave with the odds of being hit by a bus while crossing Lambton Quay. You find reassurance in the fact that your house has stood in its seaside location for fifty years. You try to convince yourself that you accept your fate, that you are ready. As far as I know, everyone thinks about giant waves in these ways but I don’t know anyone who has done anything practical as a result of those thoughts.

If a wave the height of my fence came and I did not have insurance on my house, a radio, a torch and enough medication, canned food and water for three days stored in the garage, prudent people would be shocked and disapproving. A wave the size of a fence is not only a known risk, it is an imaginable risk.

The lexicon of risk is mostly mathematical.

Statistical probabilities: Consequences:
Almost certain Negligible
Likely Minor
Possible Moderate
Unlikely Severe
Rare Ruinous


Your eye hardly stops as you take in the normal curve of probabilities. But then you get to ‘ruinous’.

And this, from July 29, 2013: Over two days this winter, waves broke up and took away all the pieces of a fifty-year-old concrete boat ramp across the road from my house. Not that this process is really new. Beside the boat ramp, in the 1970s, there used to be a surf club and a house. And a few kilometres south, where, in 1942 the US Marines practised landings for the Pacific campaign, I am told the sea has taken three rows of dunes.

When I saw the damage to the boat ramp I was surprised that it had happened so quickly but did not really think about it much more until a few weeks later when I received a letter from the Kāpiti District Council forecasting changes in the coastline over the next hundred years. A diagram of ‘Coastal Erosion Prediction Lines’ showed the sea lapping, or clawing, at my letterbox in fifty years. By then the sea will have taken a hundred metres of sand dunes, a row of several hundred houses, gas and water pipes, electrical cables and a tar-sealed road.

The thinking all seems very scientific:

Coastal erosion prediction lines = LT + ST + SLR + DS + CU, where
LT= longer term historic shoreline change
ST= shorter term shoreline fluctuation
SLR= shoreline retreat associated with sea-level rise
DS= dune stability, and
CU= combined uncertainty.

Combined Uncertainty is scientific too, in its own way.

There continues to be much discussion among residents about whether this coastal erosion line is a likely scenario or only a possible scenario, this difference seen to have great significance for resale values.

When I read the council’s letter, I remembered a man I used to work with in the insurance business, back in 2007. This man had spent the years since the Boxing Day tsunami in 2004 making mathematical models of the likely effects of tsunami of different sizes on Wellington’s business district. When he talked at team meetings about his predictions, I used to picture us, leaning out the windows of our thirteenth floor offices, watching with interest as Hokusai’s great blue and white wave rolled in from the harbour and up Featherston Street. Thirteen storeys, I thought, would be well above anything messy that might be happening at street level. From the vantage point of today, I have probably been wrong to worry about the threat of a single catastrophic wave. But, as it turns out, thousands of noisy brown waves, each just a little larger than they used to be, seem as though they might matter a lot.

January 18, 2012: Kāpiti Island, after which the Kāpiti Coast is named, is a Nature Reserve administered by the Department of Conservation. The island’s regenerating native bush is a place for reintroduced native birds to breed, but these processes can only happen if the island is free of introduced pests and predators. After decades of hunting and trapping, there are no more cats or possums on Kāpiti Island but rats and stoats are still a worry. Rats climb into visitors’ bags and travel to the island by ferry. Stoats do that too, and maybe they even swim across from the mainland. No one is quite sure exactly how they keep getting over there, but they do. Once rats or stoats are ashore, they breed furiously. That is the problem.

Official documents describe Kāpiti Island as five kilometres away from the mainland, but in fact, it moves towards the mainland and away, according to its own laws and designs. It may, if displeased, pull away and make the journey to the mainland impossible, as it did for a week last winter, trapping a young woman who had an abscessed tooth. Or it may decide to come close, as it does in spring, because of its sympathy for young birds.

In the dying hours of a nor’wester which had turned the sea brown and made waves as high as a fence, I crossed to the island with twenty other people, including a woman from Mexico who works as an environmental advisor to a German company trying to set up a coal mine on the West Coast, her mother who spoke only Spanish, a Māori chef from Otaki and two beautiful Japanese women who were on a summer holiday. Looking back from the island towards the mainland through binoculars mounted on a stand, we saw two men in a fishing dinghy in the distance, putting out crayfish pots.

Writing in a diary she kept between 1924 and 1942, Amy Wilkinson, wife of the custodian of what was then the Kapiti Island Bird Sanctuary, speaks of seeing smoke from summer fires on the mainland; bush clearances were a well-understood seasonal event in those years. I appreciate knowing that Amy Wilkinson witnessed all that burning. But, although I know this is unreasonable, I want more from her diary of these years than the date of sightings of the Shining Cuckoo and the Long-Tailed Cuckoo. I want to know if she saw a morepork in her kitchen on Kristallnacht or thought she heard the voices of women and girls singing, or anything else I could read as an omen. And what the sky looked like on 27 November, 1935, the night the first Labour government of New Zealand was elected. My father, aged nine, attended a party on that night, collecting signatures of men who would soon be cabinet ministers. ‘Labour: the hope of the working man,’ wrote one of these men.

ON KĀPITI ISLAND we had a guide who said that she could talk about animals or plants or history, whichever we requested. I chose history, which was a minority choice, so most of the time, as we walked around the north end of the island, she pointed to trees, named them, and helped us to spot birds in the branches, and skinks, which live inside boxes used to trap stoats, apparently undisturbed by blocks of blue poison several times larger than their bodies.

We walked downhill along a path into denser bush with a dark canopy overhead. It was a little like walking into a tunnel. As I entered this place, I felt something which I can only describe as a separate darkness. I walked on, saying nothing about this feeling.

A little further on the guide stopped and told us this story:

At dawn one day, spotters on the Island saw hundreds of canoes leave from Waikanae and Otaki and paddle towards them. The water was dark with canoes so they knew a battle was coming.

There had been warnings before this day came. The first was given by a party from Kāpiti fishing for hāpuku from canoes. Seeing another group on the water and mistaking this for a war party, they rushed back to Kāpiti to warn of an attack. After several days had passed, another food-gathering party crossed from Kāpiti to Paekakariki to gather shellfish and karaka berries. At night, while they were collecting mussels, a war party surprised them and killed three people before the survivors could escape back to Kāpiti. This killing was the second warning.

A week or two passed. One night two children climbed a tall tree, looked out towards the mainland and saw hundreds of flickering campfires. Those fires were the third warning. It is said that later that same night a man from the war party crossed to Kāpiti and told the people on the island when and how the attack would be launched. That was the fourth warning. That man crossed back and joined the canoes in their early morning attack.

Both the guide on the island in January 2012 and Wakahuia Carkeek, writing in 1967, say that Te Rauparaha and his men defeated this army of perhaps two thousand men on flat land near the lagoon at the northern end of the island. One by one, captured men of the Ngāti Apa tribe were duly consigned to the ovens, Carkeek says, making it clear that no other end was imaginable.

Undated – early in 2011: This morning I found, somewhat to my surprise, that I was talking with a woman of my own age, from my own country, but whom I don’t know very well, about the Holocaust. Any conversation about the Holocaust is a bit uncomfortable. Sometimes silences occur in these conversations which no one knows how to end. One of these silences grew between me and a German friend in 2002 and it has not been broken yet. Increasingly these days I try to avoid these conversations, finding that my views on the topic are too Jewish for non-Jewish company but not Jewish enough for my Jewish friends.

This particular conversation started when the woman asked me about my upcoming trip to visit museums in Australia and New Zealand which have Holocaust exhibits, as background for my latest writing project. The conversation went quickly to a bus tour this woman had been on which included Auschwitz as part of the package. After a few minutes of descriptions of heritage sites and monuments, she stopped talking and looked away, downwards and to the right. After just a minute, the woman raised her eyes, looked at me again and told me how shocked and surprised she had been when, in the 1970s, she met two middle aged people in Lower Hutt who had been in the camps.

Around the same time as the conversation about monuments, a Jewish friend, who speaks five languages and reads several more, told me it would not be possible to write about the Holocaust from New Zealand. There’s so little to say here, she said. You should go to Europe.

But this is where I am, I said. That is the problem. This is where I am from, this is who I am, and this is where I am.

MY GREAT-GRANDFATHER arrived in New Zealand in 1878, probably from what is now Poland or Russia. He said different things about where he was from, according to the audience. We do not know the names of his relatives in Europe or the villages they lived in – there is no one left now who knows these things.

On arrival in Wellington, an official wrote ‘Cardiff’ for his departure point and ‘Hebrew’ for his religion, and that was enough to get him off the docks and into town. We know he started his new life in New Zealand quickly, marrying a Jewish woman from the same ship, and making a large family. For whatever reasons, Isaac (that was his English name) did not apply for New Zealand citizenship, which meant that in the 1930s, when Jews everywhere worried about their safety, he was not a New Zealand citizen. Bed-ridden, Isaac banged his walking stick on the wooden floor of his upstairs bedroom to call attention to his needs. This noise terrorised his children and was still spoken of during my childhood.

I sometimes imagine Isaac listening to the radio in his living room in Aro Valley, hearing about Kristallnacht or the Nuremberg laws. Once I went as far as to imagine him receiving a letter, in Yiddish, from a sister, telling him how and when his parents died, where they are buried, and asking for him to sponsor her son and his family to come to New Zealand. She doesn’t care about herself, his sister says, but he should help the children if he can. He rages and cries and bangs his walking stick on the wooden floor and tells no one about the letter, not his children and not his wife. Perhaps he is ashamed of not having money to help them, or perhaps he is angry because he thought he had left them all far enough behind that no claims could ever be made. In my teens, when I was first starting to learn about the Holocaust, I remember being preoccupied with the problem of how I would know when it was time to leave New Zealand. I would read about people whose lives were deeply rooted in a certain place in Europe – more deeply rooted than mine felt here in New Zealand. I saw pictures taken of these people in 1932 or 1936, as they walked in pairs along a street they knew well. This is Before.

I looked and looked at Before photographs of Jewish people, trying to see if they knew it was time to leave. I thought there would be something obvious, a darkening in people’s faces, or perhaps a solemnity that said they knew it was already too late. But there wasn’t. Or maybe there was, but I didn’t recognise their expression. ‘Backshadowing’, or reading the past backwards, is one word for what I was doing.

As far as I can see, nothing answers the question of how Jews were supposed to know when it was time to leave Europe. I think this unanswerable question is the reason that I have inherited a sensitivity, common among Jewish people, to suitcases.

November 2011: I visited four museum exhibits related to the Holocaust, two in Australia, two in New Zealand. On my return, my sceptical friend asks gently whether my visit was satisfying. I think for a while and then I say yes. She asks me what exactly I saw. I tell her that I met six people who had survived the Holocaust, and that until then no survivors had ever looked me straight in the eye and told me their story. She looks at me for a moment without speaking.

I tell her that they all said I could ask questions. One man said ‘you can ask me any questions’.

Why do you do this? I asked. ‘To warn everyone’, the man replied. His answer has a different quality from the rest of what he says. It is very direct. His voice is in a low register.

‘What do you think Australia should do about the boatloads of illegal immigrants arriving every week?’ I ask.

He says it is a difficult matter. He has great sympathy for them, coming with their families and risking their lives. His eyes water as he says this. But the state has to do what it needs to, he says. If the government did nothing, millions of immigrants would come from Asia. The government should do what is necessary he says, but they shouldn’t be cruel. That is the important thing.

September 10, 2013: Waves keep arriving. No need to say any more about that.

The sound of waves is like the sound inside a shell – meaningless, and strangely consoling. I learned that from six years of walking by the sea.

Through the sound of the waves, you can hear voices. I thought that was the case but now I am sure.

Books, museums, art galleries and taxis help us detect faint signals. Think of a trumpet, narrow at your ear, and opening wide towards the world.

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