LANDSCAPE AND MEMORY
In 1990 I began writing a story called ‘Resistance’.
‘In summer’… the story opens… ‘we drove south from the city, down Lincoln Road, through Halswell, towards Banks Peninsula where our trimmed and tidied bach with its plastic fly-strips and saucers of rat poison sat waiting in a north-eastern bay…
This was very early in my writing life and I was doing it almost entirely by instinct. I clung to a few fanaticisms, like all fevered beginners – the shape and music of the sentence, the story available between the sentences, and – particularly - the primacy of place. As much as anything I wanted to see my place on the page, its contours, its weather, its proper nouns. In a real way, the nascent stories rose directly out of specific landscapes or streets or houses. Anything I wanted to say, however elusive its essence, would be, I sensed, only available via place.
Hence the beginning of that story, where in the first sentence I managed three site-specific proper nouns, Lincoln Road, Halswell, Banks Peninsula. Those words carried a mythic freight for me – they still do; they had their own alluring music, and in this story they were the opening notes in a kind of secular litany: the chant of the holiday journey. When I looked at the story recently it seemed to me as much as anything an insistent, almost hectic, listing of the signposts on the way from Christchurch to Akaroa: Addington, Tai Tapu, Motukarara, Birdlings Flat, Lake Forsyth, Little River, Le Bons Bay, Barry’s Bay, Duvauchelle… I was spelling out Canterbury.
I was, also, by way of this geomorphic alphabet, mining the story of my mother’s family, a big, voluble clan, who had, for three generations, been more or less resident in wider Canterbury, and mostly in Christchurch. Through my mother, who was a gifted story-teller, and her mother – the two of them had a seductive double act – I had all my life, heard over and over the broad brush and detail of that family story, the official family version and the side bars – so that a name like Tai Tapu suggested not just the lovely rural township, the gateway to Banks Peninsula lined with birches and poplars, but the site of Great-Uncle Curly’s disgrace in the 1940s; Halswell Road, the road where, slowly, imperceptibly, our city life was shed and we entered imaginatively our rural idyll via paddocks, creeks, scatterings of cattle and the hills bellying out to our left… Halswell Road had St John of God, too, a former convent sunk deep amongst willows and oaks, where my mother and her sisters, precocious child-musicians, had played piano trios for bat-winged nuns during their orphaned summer holidays. And Little River, Duvauchelle and the road to Le Bons, tracing Canterbury’s volcanic history, also somehow traced the history of our step-grandfather, a choleric man with a fascinating devotion to our grandmother; through thirty years and her first marriage he had paid court and finally won her widow’s hand.
I had neither the understanding nor language then to anatomise this complicated meshing of family mythology and landscape, but I was groping towards some sense of it in this early story when I described – in thinly disguised fiction – the family car travelling to the Summit of Bank’s Peninsula:
‘We began to climb. We wound upwards and upwards, through pine and gum and macrocapa, winding into the hard belly of the hill and out again to look down on the expanding valley. The carpet of pine needles, the smooth purple bark of the gums, the shrouded houses, the sun and leaf shadows dappling the road, these things settled over Rose and plucked at her memory…’I remember this road before the War,’ she would say….
I see now that this was how my story-telling urge was born. The stuff of family history, relayed in rich vernacular and ritualized through constant repetition, became fused with very specific landscapes, their colour compositions and natural architecture, their particular smells and sounds. It was a kind of cognitive footprint whose dimensions came vividly into view once I began trying to write. So, the stories in my first book are littered – overloaded probably – with Canterbury’s defining geographic symbols, its flora and weather: the singed Port hills, the Alps, the manicured Plains, elms and horse chestnuts and willows and birches, the good tempered rivers, the great pale spread of nor’west sky. That landscape literally gave up the stories to me.
It has been pretty much that way ever since, though I’ve become progressively less concerned with the act of naming. Or, at least with names being slavishly attached to the place they denote in reality. Somehow the lexicon of Canterbury and Christchurch has slipped free of its geographic moorings and now offers a kind of independent, but no less powerfully allusive, music. Nor is the landscape any less powerful a matrix for story; but in my imaginative world, actual Christchurch and Canterbury have somehow receded. Or perhaps it is more accurate to say they have become essentialised in some way, more metaphoric: the crater rim, the marshlands, the looping river, the grid-patterned city, these offer subject matter tilting at instability, secrecy, derangement, the urge toward order, rather than physical places where characters hang out. The landscape is still a backdrop, I guess, but nothing is purely representational any more.
No bad development you could say since the place my imaginative life is so implacably wedded to has, in the last eighteen months, been so comprehensively altered. But perhaps another way of looking at it – and what writers come to know – is that place and landscape are never immutable anyway. Even for the most determined realist place emerges on the page subtly transformed - translated; it is always being reconstituted in the imaginative mouli. All the same, I am oddly grateful that the novel I was working on, when the February 22nd earthquake occurred, is set in the re-constituted Christchurch of 1978.
But Canterbury has a fraternal twin, a less cultivated, less well-behaved, less obviously presentable sibling. The eastwards journey our family took to Banks Peninsula every year was preceded by a mirror journey, westward, to our father’s family, over the Alps to the Other Place. I’m talking about Westland, of course, though we – and, here, I mean Cantabrians – have always called it The Coast, (a title that indicates its significance for the east-siders, suggesting as it does that the remaining thousand kilometres of New Zealand’s coastline barely registers). If Canterbury is my primary imaginative landscape then The Coast has always occupied a crucial secondary space in my head.
Historically the two provinces are deeply interconnected but they have, for me, always represented utterly different states of mind. There are several reasons for this, but the contrasting landscapes are the obvious place to begin. It is as if each derives its emotional potency by way of its comparison with the other. One so green and moistly lush and hunched up against the sea, the other spacious and sere, stark even; one wild, the other tamed…and pretty quickly we’re in cliché-land. But childhood doesn’t really know cliché and my relationship with these two seminal landscapes took off very early within those counter-posed states.
Partly this was because of the drawn-out journey from one province to the other, a series of such grand and beautiful vistas, experienced so ritualistically and so often that their glamour has driven deep into my unconscious. It was always high summer across the plains, the heat palpable on the highway: over Porters Pass and staring down at the braided Waimakariri, through long stretches of tussock grassland, through the startling limestone of Castle Hill, through the sub-alpine beech forest of Craigieburn, where – the anticipation almost painful - came the long moment of passing from one world to another, felt somehow in double or slowed down time.
Arthur’s Pass is the official portal to the Coast, but there was – is - is a kind of world between the worlds: the Otira Gorge with its steep scree covered mountain-sides, vertiginous drops, the muddy red of rata, a high narrow road threatened always by landslide, rock falls and washouts…(I am talking of the days before the Viaduct)…It was a hazardous but longed-for time tunnel that opened out finally into the Otira and Taramakau Valleys. Here, for my sisters and me, was the proper beginning of the Coast and everything it represented.
I say time tunnel to emphasise that it was not just geographic change but a sense of shifting from one reality to another. Perhaps it is always this way with those ritualized summer trips – the journey across country to another branch of family, to nostalgically-loaded places, to relationships that have a peculiar intensity because they are experienced less often but in closer proximity. This shift between modes, underscored by a much changed landscape, and the time outside of real time that is the summer holiday and the experiment with a different self - all this is a deeply familiar story for most New Zealanders, and our literature is peppered with versions of it: lost Eden, re-discovered Eden, Eden delivering a shaft, etc…
For myself, the passing over into Eden-as-the-West Coast and the absorbing of that landscape is heavily inflected with the experience of my grandparents, my Italian grandparents, Giovanni and Domenica, in whose small house in Blaketown, Greymouth we always stayed.
If volubility and compulsive gregariousness characterised the Canterbury side of our family, as well as a kind of showy confidence born out of several generations in one place, then my De Goldi grandparents were at the reserved end of the sociability spectrum. Quiet – even silence – marked much of our time with them. This was partly because they spoke a very broken English. I can still recall, driving into Greymouth, my rising excitement competing with a gathering anxiety at the thought of not being able immediately to understand my grandparents. It was an annual nervousness. Much like one’s intermittent experiences of Shakespearean vocabulary and syntax it took some time to get the ear in, as it were, to become accustomed to Nana’s heavy accent, her limited English, and to Granddad’s total lack of teeth, which seemed to complicate things still further.
Language barriers aside, our grandparents were people who largely kept to themselves, or kept themselves to a small community of neighbours – mostly Italian – and their own family. This was down to personality, I suppose, but maybe, too, a consequence of immigration and the absolute focus on carving out a life and a living, a future for their five children.
But this quiet, their reserve, didn’t mean we felt less than completely welcome in their small house and their simple world. There was, on the contrary, an unspoken solicitude about their company. We felt loved, even petted. We slipped into their routines, we played alongside them. We were a little enchanted by their habits, their comparative rustication: Granddad’s toothless whistle, Nana’s row of licked date pits on the windowsill in the sun, her phonetic shopping lists for Granddad (honey spelt ‘ony’), their steady combined labour, their afternoon naps. We became comfortable with their oddities, their clear difference from us and the family on the other side. They smiled at us a good deal and stroked our hands.
Nevertheless, my Italian - my West Coast – grandparents though deeply loved - even hallowed within our immediate family mythology - have in their essence remained elusive to me in - a way that my maternal grandmother has never been. Perhaps it is because their story never yielded itself in detail. We knew its broad shape and its signal moments, and these were the stuff of family reverence: how intrepid they were, how self-denying, how hardworking, how constant. Perhaps it is because, as I grew older and the true properties of that story – the heavy losses implicit – at last impinged on me, it was then too late to ask the right questions.
Somewhere in here is a vague remorse that my callow self didn’t – or couldn’t – meet these grandparents on the same terms I did my other grandmother, pay them the service I did her – a complete embrace, a sense of connection from the inside out. Language was the devil, I tell myself. Or, maybe I’m just being greedy: wasn’t it enough to simply be, and be with them, rub up against their very solid selves, to remember them in those summers - our wordless parallel play - without going inwards, endlessly plumbing their past selves, scouring for some illumination.
Whatever the answer, something interesting – recognizable to many, I’m sure – has occurred over time. As my grandparents have faded - caught somehow in a kind of occluded memory-amber - the West Coast landscape has become a kind of replacement – an embodiment maybe – of them both, and those eighteen summers. This is hardly surprising since alongside our indoors existence with Nana and Granddad we had a heaving imaginative life down at the Blaketown beach – a blasted seascape if ever there was one - and at the Tiphead, where we watched the vicious swell of the Grey River meeting the Tasman, and we climbed the quarried stone. We lay beside the lagoon often, staring up at the Twelve Apostles, the bushy range behind Greymouth. At the Memorial playground we sat in the strange spongy grass sniffing in the coal smoke, the salt layers, the stagnant water.
Nana and Granddad didn’t go out much into the Greymouth world, but we constantly brought it to them: seaweed, ice plants, shells, buckets of beach stones which we watered over and over in Nana’s wash house so we could keep on seeing the glitter of mica – children’s gold. It was a shabby and rather bereft Paradise in many ways, but I had no sense of this until one day in my mid twenties I showed it to a boyfriend, bestowing on him the astonishing gift of Reid Street, Blaketown, the rusting machinery around the lagoon, the treeless front yards, the sandy sloping footpaths, the deafening cicadas, the Twelve Apostles glowering against a clear blue sky.
He was baffled. Years later, another more expressive friend said, when presented with the Tiphead and surrounds: ‘This must be the arsehole of the universe.’ Certainly some of my Greymouth cousins have ambivalence about their home town and are puzzled by my and my sisters continued romance with the Coast, our half-serious on and off flirtation with the idea of eventually living there.
How to say, without sounding sentimental or puerile, that Blaketown’s sandy garden soil, the smell of marram grass, the inhospitable Tasman, the endless rain on corrugated iron, the very stones on West Coast beaches, all contain somehow, or call up, a series of parallel images: a stout old lady leaning on her stick as she pulls onions from her vegetable garden; an old man singing Santa Lucia creakily as he sweeps the kitchen; the old lady weeping soundlessly, mourning her two dead daughters; the old man kneeling beside his bed saying his Rosary. Both of them sitting on the verandah in the fading sun, Nana in her cane chair, Granddad on his apple box – ready and waiting, though they never knew what time we would arrive. And there they are on the veranda again as we leave. They wave slowly as the car pulls away, and they continue sitting, not talking, content in each other’s company. It is as if they sit there for the whole of the coming year, waiting until we come back to them.
That back and forth between Canterbury and the Coast, home and almost home, is the ur-journey of my life. Those twin landscapes are planted so deep they have become template places, against which every other place is understood and taken on – or not. I have found myself over the years saying again and again when considering a new landscape, ‘this reminds me of…’ and inevitably the reminder will be of some Canterbury or West Coast scene. It is as if I can only take in a new place when I have aligned it somehow with those other places, in order to feel at home.
So, for instance, the emotional rupture consequent on moving to Wellington fourteen years ago was mended quite quickly because so much of Wellington reminds me of the Coast – the steamy bush, the pohutukawa, the beachside suburbs, living hostage to the weather. There is even a drive over a mountainous divide to a twin landscape that very conveniently looks incredibly like Canterbury.
This way of entering new experiences through such rigid referencing may be the sign of a limited personality. But, perhaps it is simply the sign of limited experience. I was thirty-seven before I left New Zealand and forty-four before I visited Europe. Those first trips were to Australia, and, though I was consistently excited and enchanted by Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane, the Sunshine Coast, it wasn’t until I drove through the Queensland hinterland that I could finally say…’this (sort of) reminds me of the Coast’…and feel peculiarly happy. I have done much the same thing throughout England – where almost everything looks a little like Canterbury. I’m not being parochial in these moments: it’s just that different landscapes are like a series of languages and I seem always to be having to translate, to find the matching word, as it were, in the new landscape, in order to fully understand.
In the last fifteen years, since I experiencing places outside of New Zealand, I have thought constantly of my grandparents. Each time I have gone away and come home – and felt that strange twist around the heart so familiar to New Zealanders flying over their big back yard - each time I re-live the sensations of coming home, of settling my body and mind back into those landscapes that fit me so well, I remember again that after Giovanni and Domenica left Italy, in 1909 and 1921 respectively, they never were able to ‘come home’.
There is nothing unique about this, of course. It’s the story of Pakeha New Zealand up until the post-War period. Most immigrants had neither time nor resources to visit Home. Most, by necessity, somehow performed the emotional trick of making the new country home. My grandparents were economic migrants. It was push rather than pull that brought them here. And the push was so considerable that, at age thirty, my grandmother accepted the marriage proposal of a cousin she had only ever met twice, more than a decade before, and who, in those intervening years, had been cutting flax and laying railway lines in a country she’d barely heard of.
She left everyone she loved. She left a region in Lombardy that has had written history since 300AD. The shrine of Tirano, where she prayed for guidance about her departure, has been receiving pilgrims since 1503. She left a landscape that had formed and made her, that had a grip on her heart as firm as any.
What was it like? I have often longed to ask. How did it really feel? How sad that you never spoke to your beloved sisters again. Was it terrible that you were never again able to see your home, your real home? And, why The Coast? The Wet Coast as our Canterbury family liked to jib us. Since my notions of Italy were for many years filtered almost entirely through Florence, the Renaissance, and films set in Tuscany, I often worried that my grandparents felt they had accidentally left civilization and landed up in the arsehole of the world.
I don’t know how my grandmother would have answered those questions. But, over time, I have better understood a few things. I know she and Granddad were happily married for fifty-six years; she had five children and was much sustained by family life and the pleasure of seeing her children and grandchildren as New Zealanders. I know they came to the West Coast because there was work and a strong community of Italians. I know that she and Giovanni recreated in Greymouth the simple and devout life that had prevailed back in the Valtellina Valley.
I know, especially, that when their eldest daughter, Anna Maria, married and went to live in the Taramakau Valley in a century old homestead in front of Mount Turiwhati – where four generations of the Treacy family had lived together communally – my grandmother, Domenica, said often that Turiwhati, indeed the whole Taramakau Valley, was the place she loved most on the Coast, where she felt truly at home.
The Taramakau is a wide river valley; the river, big, braided, stony, comes swiftly from Otira to the sea. It floods catastrophically at times and is often treacherous. The valley has pastureland, hard wrought, and steep, bush covered hills; it has a challenging climate: by turns paradisal – hard blue skies, burning sun, bush a polished green – and dour – weeks of rain and mist and lowering skies. It is ravishingly beautiful in the summer, hard going in the winter, a landscape and lifestyle that commands fierce love and commitment from its residents, many of whose families have been there now for five generations.
I have always been intrigued by my grandmother’s devotion to the Taramakau Valley, to the Turiwhati part of our family story. I have always been pleased that she loved a particular landscape in her new country; it seemed to mitigate the life of buried longing and loss that I privately imagined. I knew Domenica enjoyed the inter-generational communality of the family at Turiwhati, the relative venerability of the house, the fact that there was a small wooden Catholic church on the property, built by the Treacy family, a place where her daughter, my Aunty Anna, could regularly pray and receive the sacraments.
But I understood something more profound about her connection to the Taramakau Valley when last November I travelled with my sister, Clare, to our grandparents’ hometowns in the Valtellina Valley. We were welcomed to Lombardy by our cousin Luciano and his wife, Anna, and so very kindly squired around all the family sites over five days, the kind of pilgrimage that is familiar to so many New Zealanders. There was much that was wonderful - family dinners, exquisite churches, the constant feeling that we were walking, riding, existing in the landscape our grandparents had loved and lived in.
But, above all, was the sense that somehow, inexplicably, we recognised the Valtellina. Perhaps it was being with Anna and Luciano and their children, with whom we occasionally sat in benign silence. This was familiar. The language gaps dictated it, but we were very comfortable with it. Or, perhaps, while in the Valtellina we simply projected onto the place our burnished Nana and Granddad stories, visualized for decades by our minds’ eyes, and now given their proper setting.
But it was suddenly clear to us both on the day we visited the cemeteries in Sondrio (Giovanni’s town) and Tresenda, just down the hill, where Domenica was born. Sondrio was a fortress town for a thousand years; it is high on the east side of the Valtellina Valley, from where invaders could be seen early and defended against. Its celebrated food is pizzocheri, a buckwheat pasta made with cabbage, three cheeses, sage and melted butter. This is mountain food for people who do hard physical work and need to keep warm.
The Sondrio cemetery is comprised of vaults for the wealthier families and smaller, humbler graves; as a consequence of landslides many of the older graves have been moved over the last thirty years and are now represented by names and photos on long stone walls. We were looking for our great-grandparents, Maria Maffiscioni and Bortolo De Goldi and never found them, so we wandered the cemetery, and then rested at the wire fence, looking out over the Valley.
The Valtellina is a wide river valley; the Ada and Mallero rivers flow from the Swiss Alps; they are not braided but they are swift and deep and occasionally treacherous. The Valley has heavily worked pastureland, steep, terraced hillsides covered in grape vines and vegetable patches. There is an extreme climate – it is snow-covered in winter, but hot in summer. Stone houses dot the landscape; there are churches, little and large, and bell towers every few kilometers. It is ravishingly beautiful but subject to harsh weather events: landslide and floods. Most of the families have lived there since time immemorial.
You see what I am saying. Somehow, by some mysterious, instinctual process that I don’t begin to understand, my grandmother and grandfather, forced to leave, found their way to an almost - a second- true home on the West Coast of New Zealand. They were mountain people and the snow sometimes on Mt Turawhati, and always on the Southern Alps, pleased them greatly. So did the stony Taramakau, and the stones on Blaketown beach; also the steep hills and icy sky. And the little wooden church at Turawhati. And the legions of grandchildren cleaving to the West Coast - theirs now, a lasting home.
I am not sure what all this tells me – if anything. The Valtellina is not the West Coast – the differences between the two are probably more numerous than the similarities. And I am sure that much of my grandmother’s story is constituted of loss and longing. Yet she did find contentment, and in a landscape that in some real way she brought to me and my sisters and my cousins. I like that. I like too that I am named after her – Domenica – only, interestingly, it is the name she used once she came to New Zealand. It is, if you like, her West Coast name.
A few years ago my cousin Maria, while visiting the Valtellina, was given some old letters written by my grandmother to her sister Caterina in the 1920s and 30s. Maria translated the letters and sent copies out to all the family. In this way we discovered that Nana was known in the Valley by her other name, Celeste. Celeste remained in the Valley, in the small stone house in Tresenda. Domenica left on the boat out of Genoa and pitched up in Blaketown.
I will finish with some extracts from those letters.
Melbourne, January 3, 1922
My dear sister, Firstly, I’ll announce that I’m in good health and I’m hoping to find that all of you are also well. And is Caterina completely cured? What is little Martino doing? Is he growing big? And dear Rita, when I return I will bring her a hairclip. That is if she’s still a child when I return though.
Dear sister, after a small voyage of 36 days at sea we finally arrived on Christmas Eve at the port where we disembarked. It’s a beautiful city, but we are not staying…
This 29th December, I got married, in a beautiful Catholic church [St Patrick’s Cathedral in Melbourne], by a priest who spoke Italian well. We confessed, had Holy Communion and were married just as if we were in Tresenda…soon we will go to our destination.
Dear sister, as soon as we get to our new place I will write again, but for now I am just writing to say that I had a good trip, I didn’t suffer at all, and I am content…
Greymouth, July 15, 1923
My adored sister and family
After I left I wrote only about the voyage and not much more, not because I’ve forgotten you my dear, but only because of carelessness in taking a pen in hand, and always I say I will write tomorrow, and tomorrow passes without writing. I’ve been here almost two years and it seems like one day, the months pass me by like days, and I don’t wish I was in Tresenda any more. By the side of my husband who I love, time flies…
I have this news, that on 12 May, I gave light to a baby, and I gave her the name Anna Maria. I am really well and so is the baby, she is always lively and happy, and may God keep her always healthy….
Blaketown, September 12, 1937
My dear sister
Always with the intention of writing my dear but it seems that time passes without notice, but I tell you that not one day passes where I don’t seem to see you and talk to you…
Please write to me and excuse me for not having written earlier. Let me know how many of your children are married, and how is Caterina. Say hello for me.
Here at the moment we are all well and the children all go to school. Anna is in her last year. Every now and then I think of going for a journey and going to visit all those dear to me but it is almost impossible. I am too far away, so I have put aside the thoughts of seeing Tresenda…I can’t complain about here, we are all okay as long as we can make ends meet. Giovanni works on the railways. I have my house and my children to look after and I have a lovely garden by the house and we have vegetables all year and potatoes for six months. I keep 12 hens but I have to buy my milk. The children attend the convent school.
Now we are in spring and you others are in autumn. Here we are by the sea and we don’t even see the snow in winter. It is always green but the climate changes a lot, one day is hot and the next seems like winter. But now I am used to it. For this time I will finish my dear and I promise I will write to you often. Send me the address of Caterina, I want to write to her too.
And from me a world of kisses, always, always, your faithful sister, Celeste.
Kate De Goldi, 2012