Pepeha - Places of Reference for the Soul

“The most beautiful clothing I can wear is the river.”
Those words have lingered in my mind after our waka voyage on the Whanganui River last Friday. Spoken by Hemi our barrel-chested young Maori guide as he welcomed us to “our river”.

The voyage began at the Putiki boat ramp, a couple of kilometres up from the mouth of the Whanganui River. We were welcomed with karakia and hongi to keep us safe, give thanks and bring us together as one.

Paddling down a river seemed an unlikely way to begin a symposium on digital arts and no mention was made about the connection – just a brief lesson on waka paddling and we were off…

water
wind
rustling trees
Hemi’s shouts
birds
paddle stroke
paddle stroke
salt water splashing,
salt on lips,
stretching muscles,
paddle stroke
paddle stroke
paddling together
coming into unison.

The day was windy and the water rough. We had to work hard against the tide and wind. I could feel the blood flowing through my body, my muscles working. To our right we crept past an industrial region – factories, concrete, trucks. Ahead of us a pink cement mixer passed over the motorway bridge, one way, then back again.

paddle stroke
paddle stroke
against the wind and tide
the scene slowly transforming

Finally we passed underneath the bridge into a calm stretch of water sheltered by a little island in the river. We came to rest by the bank - three wakas huddled together under a  tree… listening to stories of the river from our three Maori guides.

Michael, a longhaired Maori man with calm demeanour and laughing eyes, asked us to put our hands in the water as we listened. He spoke about “our river” and “our mountain”, pointing up the valley to Mount Ruapehu covered in snow. He used the Maori word, pepeha to describe these “places of reference for the soul”. He asked us to think of our places of reference – it could be an actual place, a far away friend or family; places or people that give our lives meaning, that we belong to and navigate by.

Hanna spoke about the ecology of the river, describing species of fish, crayfish, fresh water muscles, birds, native plants. As she spoke the scene around us came to life – an intricate network of relationships and personalities. The river is sick, she explained. See how cloudy it is? That’s soil. It runs off from farmland into the river and prevents fish from seeing and breathing. The water is so warm this year that fish are dying. It heats up in streams running over bare farmland. Hemi pointed out a white residue on the side of our waka. “You can thank the meat factory down the river for that,” he said. “They dump their waste from fatty meat patties straight in the river.” A dairy factory wanted to dump their waste in the river too. They figured it was already dirty so it wouldn’t make much difference. They presented statistics and economic arguments but forgot about the real significance and importance of the river.

Sitting there in the waka, with the river flowing through my fingers, I thought about my pepeha; my points of reference for the soul – Island Bay, the south coast of Wellington; how I used to stare out of the back window of the car when I was little, till the last peep of ocean disappeared behind the hill; how my heart came to rest when I arrived home and settled on that same coast after three years in London. The feeling of standing on Traverse pass in the Nelson lakes listening to the ancient mountain quiet all around; sitting by a fire at Makara beach watching the sun go down.

These are the reasons I came back to New Zealand. These are places I feel most myself – creative and connected. Space, land, sea, quiet reverence. Through this journey I wanted to discover the magic of Aotearoa. But as I sat in the waka I realised that I’ve spent most of my journey staring at a computer screen. I’ve been hooking into social networks, reading blogs, tweets, connecting with people and ideas, taking more in, producing less and doing less physical activity. I have been viewing New Zealand from the fixed perspective of the seat in front of my computer – my little portal on the world.

This sense of contradiction was bubbling into a feeling crisis. Social networking is connecting me with inspiring new worlds of people and ideas but it’s pushing me to spend more and more time at my computer, less time face to face and less time in the environments that inspire my own creativity and groundedness. I realised I haven’t been happy sitting at my desk all day. I’ve felt overwhelmed by this techno-social virtual world.

In the waka everything is real. The point where the paddles meet the water – that’s real. Physical transformation of energy from chemical potential in our muscles to kinetic energy and heat. The splash of the oar. The connection is real.  The scenery is three dimensional. The smells are real. The taste of salt is real. The connection with the people around me is real.

The experience was transformative for the whole group. After the waka journey the atmosphere had completely changed…

One participant reflected on how her dominant self had less extra energy in the waka.
“There’s a power shift,” she said, “from the self to the collective.”
“We’ve been reclothed. It’s a very tender reclothing that happens on the river – Collective reclothing. There’s a like-mindedness that comes from that.”

“How do we hold that space?” she asked.

In the afternoon we retreated to a gallery in town to discuss our experience. Immediately the atmosphere shifted to an intellectual and analyticial realm.

John Hopkins, the American artist facilitating the workshop, spoke about changing our point of view to focus on energy and flows rather than objects. Could we centre our identity on the flows and interactions with the people and environment around us, rather than our personal selves?

He suggested that encounters with other people are one of the central purposes of life and that technology emerges as soon as you have an encounter with ‘the other’.

“Language,” he suggested, “was one of the first technologies.”

Like all technologies it allows for both communication and misunderstanding.

“You always lose some energy across the gap when you dialogue with the other,” he asserted.

He spoke about how, over the last 150 years, the techno-social system has become more and more layered, complicated and global; how technology intervenes in almost all our encounters. Now, to engage with each other, we have to spend time and energy on computers and cell phones, in planes and cars. He suggested that the more complex the techno-social system, the more energy and resources it needs to keep it going - that means more oil, coal and minerals – more extractive industries that upset local environmental systems and flows.

“If you want to depower that system you take your life energy and time away from those things,” he suggests.

By sheer contrast our experience on the river had exposed the quality of our daily lives, our unconscious habits and lack of groundedness. It posed a deep sense of questioning in the room: What are we using technology for?  How can we find more balance and groundedness in our work? How do we reconcile the burdens of technology with the benefits of communication and connection?

It seemed a bizarre way to begin a symposium on digital arts at first but in retrospect it was perfect. Our experience on the river had given us a fresh perspective – a new space in which to meet and view our work, our technology and our selves.
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