Walking with Rocks, Dreaming with Rivers: My year in the Waikato by Richard von Sturmer (Titus Books, 2023), 150pp, $38
The islands that would become Aotearoa New Zealand were the last habitable land masses to be settled by humans. And this newness of land remains palpable. In coastal Waikato you can almost feel the birth pangs squeezing the roiling damp life out of the earth as the reclaiming ocean seethes nearby. It is almost unbearably intense.
Inland are the towns Richard von Sturmer visited over the course of a year, and that he writes about in his travelogue Walking With Rocks, Dreaming With Rivers—Beeville, Morrinsville, Kihikihi, Taupiri, Putaruru, Kakepuku, Tokanui, Maniapoto, Tokahaere, Te Kūiti, Huntly and more.
What’s in a name? Essaying the origins of these town names would be an arresting exercise in onomastics, one which would shake loose much accreted history to sift and weigh. Von Sturmer, however, assumes the guise of an observer and so he writes accordingly, less a delving historian than a visitor noting down impressions. He stays in various iterations of the only hotel in town, puzzles at local esoterica, and encounters curious characters of various stripes. He threads it all together with a diaristic account of his comings and goings, which in turn are interspersed with pocket histories and frequent koan-like verses. Photographs, many arresting, illustrate the text. Taken in sum, it adds up to a postmodern Zen pilgrim’s progress.
Steve Braunias provides airy self-advertorial in lieu of an actually useful Introduction. Von Sturmer, by contrast, is all self-effacement and disinterestedness. He frequently seems invisible, as if materialising in places by fiat. This ghostly von Sturmer appears to wander into thresholds between the ‘natural’ world and ‘civilisation’. He muses on the fraying boundary between the bush and farmland, or else a park in desuetude. But this is not quite the feeling of seeing either a rusting trampoline nested in an unmown front lawn or a new housing development consisting of cul-de-sacs and pegged-out sections on a city’s edge. Take the sprawling Tokanui Psychiatric Hospital, with its ‘boarded-up buildings, many of which contain asbestos’, which does not conform to the ‘desolate, haunted landscape’ von Sturmer had expected. Rather he is ‘struck [by] the beauty of the tree lined-streets’, and he marvels as: ‘Brambles and vines … spread across walls and verandahs, lichen patterns the windowpanes, emerald and yellow moss covers the footpaths.’
Von Sturmer speculates that the planners had ‘in the back of their minds the Garden of Eden’ when designing the facilities. Personally, I doubt Ministry of Works functionaries entertained any such utopian visions. The hospital is condemned—this time by von Sturmer—for having pursued ‘treatment and medication’ rather than ‘healing’, which seems like a barn-door bullseye. After an institutionalised ‘flock of pigeons bursts out from under a rooftop’ while ‘cries of pheasants can be heard in the background’, von Sturmer notes the hospital is literally marked for demolition, but not before each building has been ‘given a blessing’ by local iwi. Von Sturmer finishes this sketch with his own paradisical vision: ‘I imagine the sealed-up doors opening onto a green and mysterious landscape, a landscape that is already present, vivid, filled with possibilities’—so, an unpeopled landscape, saturated being, undifferentiated nowness: ripeness is all.
Where does one thing end and another begin? Von Sturmer often gently probes this question, turning it into a moral matter, or a matter of nominative determinism. I think he’s saying it is a corruption born from Adamic acquisitiveness: pretending one has taken residence in the Garden and can name all things as one sees fit—like a town, a mountain, or a lake—and that naming them gives one right of possession. But then we blink—and mould is on the walls, rot has set in, tree roots rise to crack the asphalt.
Often I got the sense that von Sturmer is detachedly poking the borax at the dairy magnates to whom successive governments kowtow and from whom we undoubtedly derive much of our relative national prosperity, along with the paradisical image that lures wealthy tourists here from the northern hemisphere. This is something he rubbishes—in a literal sense, too, given the refuse and wastage he dutiful notes in imagistic sidebars. He provides a succession of rustic mise-en-scènes to convey his sense of provincial dilapidation and neglect.
Money, if there is any, naturally concentrates in the dairy stations beyond the townships, whose stubborn residents look on the townsfolk—a cast of shop owners, local historians, eccentrics and publicans —as if from the bottom of a beer glass, with a slightly sour mixture of obeisance, resignation and resentment. As previously mentioned, von Sturmer, as a character in the book, is at best glimpsed and more often invisible. His encounters are one-sided. The cast of secondary characters respond as if to an off-stage prompter. What is it, I often asked myself, about this person that makes those people react in these ways to him? I cannot say because he does not tell me.
And the writing? In November, Huntly—which symptomatically can’t be mentioned without namedropping the Topp Twins, too neatly summarised as ‘folksingers, activists, and lesbians’, which hardly adds to our stock of available reality— takes its indicative turn. The chapter begins with von Sturmer looking down at the Waikato River from the Huntly rail bridge, when his eye is drawn by sunlight glinting off an upturned shopping cart on the riverbank, as per the book’s usual ‘natural’ versus ‘man-made’ juxtaposition. A mural on a takeaway shop wall then occasions the following historical exposition:
The mural is a reference to ancestral times when the area’s two large lakes—Lake Wāhi (west of the river) and Lake Hakanoa (east of the river) were populated with eels. Tribes on both sides were overfishing the lakes, so a tohunga imposed a prohibition (rāhui) on the catching of eels by planting his staff (pōkeka) in the ground. Only when the staff was removed could the fishing of eels resume. Rahui Pokeka is the Māori name for Huntly.
The mural is not ‘a reference’ and with ‘ancestral times’ the whole phrase is at once odd and lazy. Then there are the passive constructions that enervate much of the prose. Von Sturmer’s historical expository paragraphs are almost always like this one: misshapen and seemingly unplanned and under-edited, as if getting the gist over was enough, putting across an almost frustrated-sounding tone of impatience to get the relevant information down. They seem to serve only to fill in background on which the contemporary is rendered in more acutely observed detail.
The book’s playing off of Heraclitan mutability and perennialism climaxes in a scene at the mouth of the Waikato River: ‘For now there is / a black plastic bag / attached to a pole / and flapping in the wind. // For now there is / the skeleton of a fish at midday / its mouth wide open. // For now there is / the wandering line / of my footprints / each one / filled with sunlight.’ Skipping over the bathetic triteness of footsteps in the sand, readers and writer meet the roaring surf:
And then, over the last of the dunes, just as the people aboard the Tainui canoe on their way to Kawhia would have seen it, the blue-brown of the Waikato River merges with the blue-green of the Tasman Sea.
This crescendo presents, as if in a nutshell, the book’s shortcomings. We are confronted with the cliché of the river running to the sea, itself a curious, albeit likely unintended motif of assimilationist rhetoric, of tributaries ‘merging’ into the destined ocean, the great ‘green’ —green, of course, the Edenic tint of von Sturmer’s numinous fantasy at the abandoned psychiatric hospital—Tasman Sea, named for an expansionist Europe swallowing up the ‘brown’ (a dulling colour marking rot and ruination throughout the book) Waikato (and surely there are better—more accurate—descriptors than ‘blue-brown’ and ‘blue-green’). And does von Sturmer really see them ‘just as’ the Tainui ‘would have’ seen them? He is on the beach but they were at sea and likely some way from shore, two very different perspectives. The name Tasman as yet meant nothing to them as they navigated Te Moana-tāpokopoko-a-Tāwhaki or Te Tai-o-Rehua probably sometime in the thirteenth or fourteenth centuries.
Walking with Rocks, Dreaming With Rivers attempts to articulate genuine curiosity, compassion and benevolence towards a small part of the world. If readers find sensibility sufficient reward, they will be satisfied with this book. What they will not get is the drama of language clashing against experience and making sparks enough to illuminate the world. Despite the book’s constant hymning of the mercurial, its want of drama speaks to the fixity of its characters. They do not or cannot change, including its spectral protagonist. He ends it as he began it: wry, easily wondered, witty and wise, but also at once a prompter from the wings and the leading man at centre stage with his back to the audience. In place of the writer, I would always much prefer a style; but that is also not to be found. The writing is regrettably neither limpid nor musical; it is instead job-like, often neglectfully unguarded against cliché and clotting, notwithstanding those occasions it does rise to meet the uncompromising summons of place and time, sometimes as surprisingly as flames in a thornbush.
And I think it is unlikely this book will make its readers want to go to the Waikato. This saddens me because New Zealanders should go there: it is where systematic violence and wanton illegalities wrenched us into the sorry state of our present contortions. We should go there, not to imagine what might have been, but to see what has been lost, mark how little we can know of it, and register the ultimately unsustainable and self-defeating Swiftian kingdom of fenceposts and cows scaffolded up in its place, a realm on which we so guiltily rely for fattening the national coffers. But why so serious? After all, I know this is a charming book. Yes, I am being too hard—I know I am: there are more enjoyable ways to read something than the way I’ve twice read Walking with Rocks, Dreaming With Rivers. Even so, there are other reasons we should read someone else’s words as if our lives depended on them.
ROBERT McLEAN is a poet, critic, editor, and doctoral student at Massey University. His collected poems were published in 2020 by Cold Hub Press. He lives in Lyttelton and works in Wellington for the New Zealand government.