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Learning teacheth more in one year, than experience
in twentie . . .
                        Roger Ascham
Open as experience, this day, this
high-flying island coast, opened
a mile beyond the top of noon’s arc
a mile further east than a gumland pond,
severe quartz-brown puritan face
not figured by duck or swan, not by swamp
hen or bittern
                      an indrawn quiet, stiff
as doctrine revised or contracted to
the essential. Maps call it a lake.
Shoreline, regardless of being defined
by reeds, is uncertain. The same maps will
contest its scope. Only
the name is constant, or perhaps what
ever (you might say) was the heart of it
if talking thus were not plainly
alien, to an event in terrain
which may know about physical reason,
nothing readily about feeling.
Tomarata is the name
for which the lake, reserved to
its own logic, has no word. Needs none.
We are not called to value, to judge
or be judged.
                     A life other than ours goes
on neighbouring, near while not of the pond.
Like mating and nesting of magpies,
like a single black shag crossing
south to north. East, larks went up
above lupins crouched over drifted sand,
the warm mazy scent of lupins flowering.
In which we waded, after a track of sorts
that intended to get to the fishing grounds
through a domain of rabbits overborne
by a harrier coursing slowly, solitary.
The tallest lupin is shoulder-high.
Little that grows – mingimingi, patotara,
sand daphne – has any age, any stature.
The track becomes merely a trail, then no trail.
You strike patches where sand is missing,
scurfy clay flakings. Begin to see
movement of change, marking
that formerly swamp was underfoot.
Look against the dune line seaward:
outcroppings from sand’s elegant curves,
counterfeit mesas and buttes
where earlier compressed sandstone rots,
eroding to likeness of russet sponges.
Aerial survey shots show you,
ten years ago here was wholly sandhills.
Since then, they have opened. They may
close again, as the plants take over.
A dune is building. Bared,
by water cutting at the weather side
and by what southwesterly winds accomplish,
is old haggard disorder, signifying
a sometime liveliness, less sombre
in temper than the base – canyon,
basin, inept gully system –
by wind and water exposed.
We blunder to it,
entering into contriving,
work of total theatre, inordinately
involving. We left responsibilities behind,
locked up in the car. We bring with us
a camera, a set of lenses, a book on botany
and the manner of our lives which is open
to be judged. Or, at least, tested
by a discrete, particular silence.
Try to read the text of it, dithering
from one to another shape in experience
where any shape discovers itself,
accidental, substantial; removed from
pity or terror. Seeing into.
Looking up to, and down from.
The datum line is sea’s work,
out of hearing, on which built
sandstone dykes. The tops of these,
latest of them, collapse. There have
been others. You read inconstancy.
Some other time, this was forest.
From the lowest open water-channel
I took pieces of fossilized gum.
The stain of soil, difference of textures, told
what became of the tree, where it lay.
Eight feet or so above, different in texture,
a moulding still recognizably humus,
area of stain, plotted
another forest level. After the fall
sand covered the woods, blending itself to some.
Iron grains oxidized; now they show, sculptings
pointlessly carried out in what seem
beggarly rusty skins of oil-drums.
Followed a phase of bog or swamp.
This is the level of moa crop stones,
pebbles of jasper mostly, foreign
to that terrace. They are of two characters.
Mainly they lie clustered, keeping
themselves to themselves.
They are mute, gleam slightly. Nearby,
oven shales still in place, with old shell
which breaks easily or crumbles
almost plastically.
No bones can be seen, no artefacts.
The oven stones, transient cooking sites,
ovens still packed together, and shale spills,
they occur from sandstone base to the tops
of the weathered knolls. One midden,
unusual, Sruthiolaria dominate.
Otherwise the middens are what you’d expect,
in accord with shell of the beaches.
Stratification is probably all to hell;
too much movement. Anyway, I wouldn’t know,
not a professional, frivolously puttering
for whom everything is mystery
and error permissible, Doctor Watson.
The puzzle was why the dog did not bark.
Which, resolutely, the dog did not. The hawk refused
to stoop, offering to explain
why, with so many oven stones, so little
shell remains. I turn that over,
turn it again, fingering absence
to have that silence speak, before
the sand comes back again before
the plants take over. Stabilized,
but not open.
No, Doctor. That thought occurred,
that the middens dribbled down and were
washed elsewhere. They would seem,
all these cooking sites, to predicate,
the different levels of them too,
so much waste that there should be
obvious scatter or deposits banked
like dykes. Or causeways.
They elude me. Did that happen
long since: the shells were collected, used,
discarded, congregated, exposed, dispersed,
and weather-worn? They are under the dune, then;
they are part of the dune, its calcium
carbonate fraction? I do not need
you, Watson. The matter is more
for Thomas Norton.
Open, to experience that satisfying
feeling of what goes unexplained.
Also, of continuity. True is when
whatever was hidden is revealed.
(Our language will not cope well
with reflexives.) It reveals itself
as in the dales earliest in spring
when the grass began to come away
the land spoke out again,
lynchet lines, Celt field marks,
the older presence. In Langstrothdale Chase,
headwater where the Wharfe, over shallow
terracings, prepares transparently
to take on civil properties,
you read a farmhouse back through building,
rebuilding, to the Norse steading
downstream a little from hut circles.
Downstream a little, culturally, is
Tomarata, its sandhills, its questions
which put themselves obliquely.
Partly, one invokes questions of scale,
in perspective, sensible of the proportions
which one tries to keep,
to temper experience.
as something, so to speak, true.
Like happiness, which you do not
understand, or need to. Compound
wonder, awe, exaltation even
can be admitted. No protesting
or remedying action is called for.
Simply passive response would
not suit, but the getting of insight
may be self-defining, self-sufficient
and justifying. Reserved to its logic,
you have only to stand open to it.
Conceded, correlates may fail to find
themselves objective; communicate,
before understood.
Even here. Not wholly incongruous, then,
to remember the first time I went into
York Minster, just after the excavators
uncovered Roman brickwork
which had not been suspected. You looked up
where scaffolding went, watching
men at work in the church, building;
down, through medieval, through Saxon,
to the Roman, speculating
what water-goddess’ site lay further.
All continuous, at once
present. Less than total insight
defines itself uniquely, briefly.
A long haul downstream, to fervid
afternoon in the gumland sandhills.
A quality of difference, recognized,
is to be respected, before
the plants – toetoe, tauhinu, dune
coprosma – take over, usefully.
                                                    23 - 28. 10. 70
Editor's note
Tomarata : first published in The Seal in the Dolphin Pool; also in Selected Poems : Tomarata : locality near Warkworth, north of Auckland; Roger Ascham : 1515-68, English humanist and scholar, tutor to Elizabeth I; the epigraph is from his book The Scholemaster (1570); mingimingi, patotara, sand daphne : dune plants; struthiolaria : struthiolaria papulosa : sea shell, also known as ostrich foot; Thomas Norton : 1532- 84, English poet and playwright, translator of John Calvin; Doctor Watson : sidekick of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes; Langstrothdale Chase : moor in Yorkshire, headwaters of the Wharfe River: York Minster : cathedral in York, U.K.
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