I see the glint of their eyes down the barrel of a wave.
In Māori mythology, water is considered the foundation of all life. Tangaroa, atua of the sea, rivers and lakes and controller of the tides is the bridge and son of Ranginui (the sky) and Papatuanuku (the earth). Unlike the Western conception of gods, Tangaroa is more of an energy. He oscillates between the calm and destructive. As a Pakeha (non-Māori) New Zealander, I have a complex relationship with the land of Aotearoa, New Zealand. The water led my ancestors onto these shores and they shamefully abused Tangaroa’s passage.
Growing up within walking distance of the ocean, Berlin is the first place I have lived without his presence. He visits me in my dreams and only in his absence have I understood my deep connection to the water and land of Aotearoa. I noticed the waves first, a loss of rhythm in my step. The repetition of a wave breaking in and around where the beat should lay. A pounding drum or pulse that had kept my pace, followed my breath, and held me in my sleep.
Seldom do drummers play exactly on the beat, we play with it, move around it while still keeping in time. People are drawn to live music for its humanness—its expressive nature and often, emotion. A good drummer is not a drum machine or a metronome, they are a dancer and Tangaroa taught me to dance.
I was only a toddler when I had my first waltz with water. It is unclear how much of my memory has been reconstructed from my parents’ retelling, but I remember it clearly. We were visiting my mother’s friend, Amber, who lived deep in the native forest of the Waitakere Ranges. There was a large pond at the bottom of her property covered with reeds and algae. I was playing outside when my ball rolled out of my hands and sat perfectly on what looked like a mossy stretch of green. Naturally, I assumed play and stepped forward to collect my ball,
into the water.
It was dark down there,
the algae had blocked
the sun from
I don’t remember drowning,
gasping for breath.
But I do remember, down in that dark world, knowing that
I was not alone.
My next memory is sitting by the fire wrapped in as many blankets as my mother could find. It had taken minutes before my father saw a glint of my body in the water, he pulled me out blue and gave me mouth to mouth.
I was eight when I felt it again. On weekends, my family would often drive out to Muriwai, a beautiful, expansive landscape with notoriously wild surf. I swam out a little further than usual that day, in a fearless attempt to body surf back into shore. I watched as the relentless waves rolled over, diving underneath them before they broke. There is an art to picking the correct wave and I waited in anticipation for the right one. A huge mountain of water rose above me blocking my view of the rest of the set. Its colossal body hovered above, paralysing me for a moment until I dived under its mass. Just as I came up for breath, another wave hidden by its antecedent crashed into my body propelling me into the water. Everything dissolved
I was churned and chewed in every direction. My nose and mouth filled with salt water as I tumbled through endless white. Just as I would get my senses, another wave would crash, thrusting me into the ground. In a final attempt, I pushed myself towards the surface. Swimming up, I reached my hands out desperate for a breath only to be met with a cold, hard wall of sand. My heart sunk defeated, I had swum the wrong way. Everything seemed to stop when I gave in, I was tired in this sea of white. Eventually Tangaroa spat me out. My only recollection is the eerie feeling of this presence once more at my moment of submission.
Submission had not come easy for me, even to submit to sleep. As a child I suffered from severe insomnia. My mother was dubious of Western medicine, so I was paraded through a series of experiments for the sake of sleep. From Magnesium, warm milk and hot water bottles to botanist healers with flower mixtures and Chinese acupuncture. It was only ever bad on nights that were still. Tangaroa slept and the water sat motionless, my bedroom window unable to pick up the small sound of water lapping onto the sand. I had lost my rhythm. My mother figured it out and just like a child counting sheep, she would get me to pull my breath in like the ocean and slowly release it like a wave crashing to shore. Within minutes of the simulation I would fall deep into the hands of my unconscious.
I am not a religious person, nor am I very spiritual. Yet, I have found myself searching in the narratives of Aotearoa, New Zealand to understand my connection to the ocean and rivers of this land.
Tangaroa is just one of many Māori atuas, ancestors and creatures of the water. Maui, the demi-god who is said to have fished up the North Island, was thrown by his mother as a premature baby into the ocean. Tangaroa took him in and the waves nourished and formed him into a demi-god, washing him back to shore where he was found by his grandfather. Maui is most famously known for his shape-shifting abilities. One of the many draws I have to water is its ability to take any form.
Like Maui, the Taniwha is also known for its ability to shape-shift. They were portrayed as deceptive and often predatory creatures, protecting the land or people in their area. In myths, carvings, and art they are depicted as lizard-like or resembling a dragon. But there are countless accounts of water creatures such as fish, eels, sharks, and whales believed to be Taniwhas. In 2002, a Taniwha came to media attention after a local iwi (tribe) halted the construction of a state highway, in order to protect its dwelling. Allegedly, the Meremere area housed a Taniwha that took the form of a large white eel. Ngāti Naho (the local iwi) argued that the continuation of the highway would disrupt the Taniwha and invite unnecessary trouble. The highway was ultimately rerouted in favour of the Taniwha. They say on a good day you can see the glint of his long white body in the sun gliding through the Waikato River.
I was 13 when I first went down that same river. I was kayaking with my cousin whose family farm led straight onto the riverside. She was a couple of years older than me and knew the route well, but the rapids were strong and I was an amateur. After a badly judged turn, I capsized the kayak. As I plunged into the cold river, my life jacket snagged on a tree branch that was nestled deep into the river bed. Water gushed past me with such force that my sensorium completely shut down. My eyes were barred tight from the pressure and my hearing was filled with the white noise of water, relentlessly gushing into my ears. The world around me ceased to exist. There was only the branch, my jacket, the river and I.
I was suspended
The water had such might that moving my arms in an attempt to free myself took significant strength. I tugged hard at the life jacket, knowing that If I were to unzip it completely the river would take me and not give me back. It wouldn’t budge. It was then that this familiar presence visited me once more. I felt held, I ceased fighting and leaned into my suspended state, feeling the river flow into me. I opened my eyes and watched as a hand punctured through the water, grabbing my chest and pulling me out from their hold.
I will never forget how the river held me that day. Like a mother and child, washing away my fear. Māori mythology has taught me to listen for Tane in the forest, Rangi in the sky, Papa on the earth and Tangaroa in the water. Their mythology is not nested in truly believing in its reality, but rather respecting and submitting to the energy and beauty of our land. In 2012, the government took one of the first steps in recognising this powerful energy, when the Whanganui River was entitled a legal identity. Under the eyes of law, the river was alive, not only was it granted the legal rights, duties and liabilities of any other person in Aotearoa, but the pure act of recognising this force as human and not object was a monumental step towards decolonisation—a step away from dominance.
With small quantities of water, we are able to maintain our role as dominant. We manipulate its form, control its temperature, direct its flow, consume it. But as soon as there is a large body of water, the roles are reversed. We lose control. The ocean has shown me no grace in its clutch, the rhythm haunts and holds me through the pounding of its drum or its absolute absence.
Whether I am inside him, near him or not at all by him, I am at the helm of his energy. Water is the only thing you can perceive both externally as an object and then internally as an experience: full immersion. There is no inside and there is no outside. The Māori believe we evolved from creatures of the sea rather than apes. That water truly is the foundation of our life. There is no outside water – we are water, both sign and index of our watery beginnings.