Read as part of The Rising Gale, GNS Science, Sunday 29 February, Common Ground Public Art Festival
An extract from a longer work by Gem Wilder that examines the idea of “claiming” a river. It is reproduced with the kind permission of the author. Image: Dionne Ward.
My first memories of Te Awa Kairangi smell like rubbish. It’ll be a weekend, any weekend. Dad’s home and there are jobs to do. The lawns are mowed, the catcher on the mower emptied over and over onto an old stained drop cloth. Two stroke and grass clippings stain his hands and invade our nostrils. The seats are folded up in the van and it is filled with the clippings and other garden waste, rubbish, broken toys, punctured tennis balls, furniture that is beyond repair, magazines, newspapers. We climb on top of the pile for the ride to the tip, and then explore the mountains of other people’s rubbish when we get there, tiny treasure hunters. Dad empties the van, and we pile back in with whatever we’ve salvaged, after he gives it the okay. And we drive down the hill, heading for the river. We fling all the doors and windows open, pile out again, making a beeline for the water. Water and children are magnetic forces. While Dad sweeps out the van and gives it a good airing, we paddle in the shallows, throwing stones, sometimes going in ourselves if the sun is out. Dad is one of those ‘If a job is worth doing it’s worth doing right’ kinda guys, and this is how you finish a trip to the tip – with a well-swept and aired car, leaving no sign of the load that it’s just carried. We never go to the tip without going to the river afterwards. The two places are indelibly linked in my memory.
I am six, and my cousins are visiting from Brisbane. The afternoon they arrive, our Dads take us to the river to kill time before dinner. They stand on the shore, catching up, while we giggle in the dappled shade of the willow trees, ignoring our skinny ankles turning numb in the icy water. Zara, who is 10 days older than me and therefore my extra special cousin, sings a new song that hasn’t made it New Zealand yet, “I can call you Betty! And you can caaaallll meeee Al……” My Uncle joins in. “Don’t you know that song?” they ask, incredulous. Weeks later it will be all over the radio, but not yet. We have to wait, anticipating it’s arrival like an expectanct mother, knowing it will arrive eventually, but not able to pinpoint exactly when.
Zara and I need to wee. “Go in the river” my uncle tells us. More giggling. Zara doesn’t hesitate, but I’m shy, unsure. Do they really mean do wees right here, in front of everybody? But I do really have to go. And so that is how I learn about Paul Simon: ankle deep in freezing water, the tiny pink hand-me-down hot pants with maroon piping pulled down around my grazed knees, bare bum sat on a cold rock, pissing into the currents of Te Awa Kairangi.
One weekend when my mother is at work, Dad drives us up to the Silverstream rail bridge. It’s us four youngest kids. My oldest sisters are teens, and do their own thing on weekends, which is avoiding being round the house where they could be called on to babysit. Dad produces a large black inner tube and the four of us eagerly clamber aboard. He pushes us out into the current, calling out that he’ll meet us downriver. It is exhilirating, this adventure. Where did Dad even get an inner tube from? How is it that we find ourselves so carefree and wild? Does Mum even know this is happening? I don’t know how long we are on the river for that day, but it feels like an age. We are pioneers in untravelled territory, boldly navigating rapids. My entire body is buzzing with excitement and adrenaline. There are shallow sections where we have to get out and lug the massive tube back to deeper water. There are deep stretches too, and inevitably we capsize. I find myself underwater, paddling urgently to the surface, expecting my head to clear the water only to come up against the underside of the inner tube. I can’t reach fresh air and I’m starting to panic when a skinny arm reaches under and drags me up, up, until I’m once again perched atop the black rubber vessel. My brothers have got this. They are in charge, and take their responsibility seriously.
Years later when we talk of the great inner tube outing, my sister says she was the one who fell in and got trapped, that she was the one who had to be saved. I wonder if I stole her story. But I remember gasping under the cold, the feel of my head hitting the rubber as I search for the surface, the resigned panic, the rescue. Perhaps we were both under there. Two little sisters struggling, two big brothers keeping us safe. And at the end of it all, Dad, downriver, waiting to collect us.
At my primary school,someone’s mum comes in to teach us te reo Māori. She writes our school song to be performed at pōwhiri and assemblies, to the tune of Rod Stewart’s I Am Sailing. “Tēnā koutou, tēnā koutou, tēnā koutou…katoa…” The first verse welcomes guests to our school, the second verse tells where we’re all from, the third verse names our marae, Hato Mikaere, the church. And then “Ko te awa,” we lower our arms. “Te Awa Kairangi,” and we move them back and forth, mimicking the movements of the water, the current.
We know this river. If we have bikes, we ride them here after school. Those who don’t have bikes still gravitate here on foot. Sunny weekends see half the community at Taita Rock, the local swimming hole. On the far side of the river is the titular rock that you can jump off, and kids spend their summers here, perfecting their bombs. This is the landmark of our neighbourhood, moreso than the alien monolith of the Avalon TV studios, a little further downriver.
We walk to the river one lunchtime before school camp, to practice making fires, which we cook our lunch on. Sausages, mostly, and Lisa brings pineapple rings because she’s decided she’s a vegetarian. We stack up river stones and find willow branches to build our fires. We eat our cheese sizzlers, then fan out over the stones, exploring. We’ve brought our togs, but the spring water is too cold for us. Not for Iritana though. Iritana is in form two, a year older than me, but the gap between us feels cavernous. She is tall, smart, good at everything in a quiet way. She’s not shy. She’s already comfortable with herself at thirteen years old. Humble, but not ignorant of her skills. Iritana takes to the water, swims confidently over to Taita Rock, and sits, bathed in sunlight. She tilts her head back to the warmth, eyes closed, and laps it up, as if she is completely unaware there is an entire class standing knee deep on the far shore, each one wishing they were as brave as her. Even the way she sits is grown up – no crossed legs, just knees together, feet tucked to one side. The Pania of Taita Rock.
Gem Wilder grew up in Avalon and attended schools in Taita and Lower Hutt.