Map for the Heart: Ida Valley essays by Jillian Sullivan (Otago University Press, 2020), 280pp., $35
The last time I visited the Ida Valley in Central Otago I stopped on the road beside the Idaburn, the river that cuts diagonally across the plains between mountain ranges. The sun was slung low in the sky and the moon was already rising, as if caught in some cosmic game of chase across the heavens. It would soon be dark, and I still had an hour’s drive to where I wanted to be.
I watched a hawk slice the thick evening air as water flowed over river-smooth stones, its dark shape flicking over sheep scattered across brown grass. Magpies sat upright in trees, turning their backs to the sun to catch the last of the warmth. As I looked at these creatures that had made a home here, among the tussock and in the shadows of hills, I had the sudden desire to stay just where I was. There was something there in that limitless landscape that beckoned me to put down roots.
That is exactly what Jillian Sullivan did. The end of her marriage led to a new start in Central Otago, and her latest book of essays, Map for the Heart, chronicles her pursuit of place and belonging in a landscape where humans are often at odds with nature. An award-winning writer whose work spans non-fiction, short stories and poetry, Sullivan set out to build a straw-bale house using natural materials, something that brought her closer to the earth and gave her an awareness of the elements and their effects on plants and animals and people.
Some of the essays in Map for the Heart tackle the reasons for building her house with straw, while others examine the difference between living on the land and living with the land. Sullivan explores the meaning of personal space and habitat, and demonstrates how constructing a house automatically creates detachment from nature and cuts us off from the environment.
Everything about the Ida Valley is big. The mountains that rise ever skywards, the clouds that move steadily to wherever it is clouds go. It is big country, big sky. But speckled across this immensity are the inevitable signs of humans. The hawk, as it turns high in a thermal, sees squares of paddocks patchworked below. Lines of trees and straight roads. Lush circles inscribed by sweeping irrigators, which stare upwards like wide green eyes. The abnormal decline of the river as water is syphoned off for human use.
This human management forms the spine of Map for the Heart. The book traverses memoir and poetry, history and ecology, and Sullivan’s writing illuminates her subjects like the golden light that catches the hills in the evening. It takes you to a place, and puts you in your place:
The kōwhai trees are thriving. Sheltered from snow and scorching winds they’ve grown inches, their branches spidery with dainty leaves. There are no wild pigs here, none of the cattle who made these tunnels. I follow the dark pathways through the broom past kōwhai after kōwhai shining in my torchlight: hidden and secret and alive.
At the heart of the book is an account of Sullivan’s seven-day walk along the Manuherekia River with a group of ecologists, scientists and environmentalists and her neighbour, former Poet Laureate Brian Turner. The walk, primarily to measure water flow to assess the effects of farming and irrigation, revealed the complexities of the river and all those who use it. In the past, water surveys had been carried out by helicopter, with hydrologists zipping in and out to take readings but never hearing the true song of the river. By walking, Sullivan and her companions were able to feel their steps and to learn how we really tread on the planet:
I walk towards the mouth of the Manuherekia, one foot after the other in the shallow edge of the river. Beside me, the water deepens. There is so much silt from last week’s heavy rain, packed between the stones I walk on, each footfall cushioned by mud. The river is deep, quiet, mysterious. It holds the soil washed down from the tributaries and from the fields newly ploughed for winter brassica crops. It holds whatever has been put in that soil.
Sullivan explores the rights of the river, how our thinking has become focused only on what we need. That water and land and mountains exist for themselves, not for humans.
The theme of ownership is woven through the essays of Map for the Heart, and provides cartography for the soul by asking who exactly decides a mountain’s worth and how much respect it is due. A river has no knowledge of where it is going, no memory of snow or rain. Leave a river alone long enough and it will carve its place in the land, a channel for its home. Leave a mountain long enough and it will still be there next time you look. Can something that was here before and will be here long after ever really be owned?
I think it is not enough to gaze at a mountain or hill, nor desire to climb it, without bringing awareness of what the land is in itself. Meeting it there. Not wondering what it can give you—rosehips, grass, elderflowers, the view—but meeting it in the way I came to learn from the river: as its own being with the right to thrive.
Every essay cuts a braided artery across our intimacy with land and water, and through the corner of Sullivan’s eye we catch a glimpse of ourselves in the ghosts of those who walked this landscape before. The moa hunters, the goldminers, the farmers, the poets—they have all made a stand in the place she now calls home. But the pages are not just filled with echoes of the past; they are haunted by spectres of the future who will look back and ask: What did you do?
The writing is bold, broad in scope, with healthy dollops of activism thrown in to remind us that we have to work to make a difference. Handfuls of life are scooped from the ridges and plains and transported to the page. A few of the essays in Map for the Heart have appeared in other publications, such as North & South and Headland. ‘In the Midst of my True Life’ won the 2018 Elyne Mitchell Writing Award for Non-Fiction.
Map for the Heart also gives us insight into the mind of Brian Turner, with a scattering of his poems found throughout the book. It is fascinating to see one of our literary giants through the eyes of someone who knows him well. Witnessing the poet at home, on his bike and walking the ever-present mountains helps elucidate his writing process, giving us a backstage pass to his thought patterns. ‘What I hope, when I’m up in wild places like this,’ Brian says, ‘is that I’ll return home with my perspective altered … to be more respectful. And more at peace, too.’ Many of the characters featured in the essays are locals whom we have also encountered in Brian Turner’s 2015 book, Boundaries.
Sullivan’s writing deals substantially with change. We see transformations from a tectonic scale right down to shifts in attitudes, such as when we witness Sullivan as she joins thirty-five protesters at the Petroleum Conference in Queenstown. Her dynamic prose lets us march with her as she wraps ‘climate emergency’ tape around the hotel where the delegates are staying, and we stand beside her as motorists swear and abuse the demonstrators.
Sullivan’s sign at the protest reads ‘What will YOU do to protect our EARTH?’ That question flows in and out of the essays, hiding in the corners and sometimes flashing like a shoal of fish.
Changes in season and their effects on people and landscapes in the valley are illustrated by a stunning essay that follows Sullivan on a series of bike rides with her friend Bartali over twelve months. Here we feel her writing at its compelling best. The many threads of the terrain—mountain, river, sky—are explored and gathered as we learn about friendship and guardianship. The effects of the river in flood are slowly erased as frost, snow, sun and wind each have their say. Fields of lucerne grow, are harvested, grow again and are grazed. Sullivan is buffeted, frozen, boiled and bombarded with the constant weather, and slowly realises that to truly come to terms with the dominance of nature, we must first accept that we are part of it. As she says:
I remember now that when I’m not biking the presence of place recedes … On the bike I know the lift of the land, the power of the wind. I know the crescendo of lungs, heart, breath. It is our bodies that move us through our days, and let us experience topography and our place in it.
In Map for the Heart, Jillian Sullivan shows us that change is perpetual, continual and eventually leads to where we are supposed to be. The essays brim with caution and hope. There are contours here for the heart to follow, tributaries that lead through the light and shadow of love and loss. The book is a map steeped in people and land, farmers and dogs, poets and environmentalists. And beyond them the crumpled mountains, the river and the hawk as it fades into the evening mist.
TIM SAUNDERS farms sheep and beef near Palmerston North in New Zealand. He has had poetry and short stories published in Turbine|Kapohau, takahē, Landfall, Poetry NZ Yearbook and Flash Frontier. He won the 2018 Mindfood Magazine Short Story Competition and placed third in the 2019 and 2020 New Zealand National Flash Fiction Day Awards. His book, This Farming Life, was published by Allen & Unwin in August 2020.