The Landscapes of Our Lives

I believe that the landscape where we are born and live and grow shapes us. That it also lives and grows within us: our outer landscape becoming a landscape of our souls.

Or perhaps it is the landscape of our ancestors that lives within us? That causes us to have that bone-deep sense of recognition in places where our bodies have never yet been? A familiarity of blood and soul that resonates in our DNA.

Or perhaps it is something else again… Some other soul mechanism that interacts with the world around us… Who can be truly sure?

Yet I am certain that my outer landscape connects somehow with my deep inner soul. And I do not need to understand the hows and whys to feel it in my bones.

Old photos of remembered landscapes

The house I grew up in had a gully with a stream in the back: a tributary for the Avon, the river that is the lifeblood of the city of Christchurch, New Zealand. In summer, we wore gumboots and sloshed in the water. In winter, we wore gumboots and stomped on the ice. And we fed bread to the ducks who also called it home (though not warm bread in winter after the time it sank through the snow).

On the weekends, we would drive over my beloved Waimakariri River to visit my Nana (my Grandad was there, too — watching the boxing, tending his veges, working in the massive garage/shed that smelt of sawdust and oil and magic — but his presence fades besides my Nana, and he died when I was six). Driving over the Waimakariri felt like crossing a border. My sister and I called the streetlights on the motorway “the Dragon’s Mouth” and dozed in the car on the way home.

The landscape of memory is a curious thing: inhabited with half-remembered people, and with trees and buildings that seemed much taller and bigger then. Some say you can never return home. And perhaps they are right. The home that is remembered may well be different from the home that was and is now. Just like you can never cross the same river twice, the rapids of memory flow swiftly through what actually was, bashing objective truth (if there is such a thing) to pieces on the rocks of emotions.

When I was seven, we moved our lives north. The need for a job for my dad took us to the outskirts of Auckland; to the industrial area of the eastern suburbs; to a place where we didn’t yet need to write Auckland on our address. My parents built a house with a view over the sea to the islands of the Hauraki Gulf and, on a good day, to the Coromandel ranges. I loved the view and the sea, but never felt quite fully at home.

This idea of ‘home’ is another curious thing: what is a home — really? We can have shelter, and people, and all we need, and still not feel ‘at home’. Yet we can find home in the small things: a flower from memory, a hug from a friend, the scent of warm bread…

I had not felt fully at home… until I came to university in Wellington: arriving off the overnight train with a full load of suitcases, one and a half hours sleep, and a miscommunication with the aunt I was to stay with. But we found each other in the end. And I slept that night in my new city with the pattern of railway tracks flowing before my eyes.

So much of life is journey: train tracks, buses, car rides, and gentle strolls in the rain… When we can’t journey outside, we can journey within: diving deep into memories and journals and books of far-off lands… All provide food for our eyes and time for our souls (if we let them). And bit by bit, piece by piece, our landscape grows. Sometimes it fills up with the familiar and nearby; sometimes with places we may never physically visit (yet I hope that one day I will stand in Samarkand). Pieces from here and there amassing together into our inner world: the landscape of memory and soul; the landscape within.

The landscape of Wellington had impressed itself upon me on my brief visits as a child (usually on the way to somewhere else; my aunt’s house a handy stopping place before the ferry south). I loved the steep hills and rocky sea we drove beside as we worked our work down through the Ps (Paraparaumu, Paekakariki, Pukerua Bay, Plimmerton, Porirua). And I loved the feeling of driving down through the steep gorse-lined (now tree-lined) slopes of the Ngauranga Gorge.

Sometimes the path to home feels like an endless journey… until one day, we find ourselves there. It may be somewhere we’ve never been before, but we know it. Oh, we know it! We know it so well. The path curving invitingly in front of us leading us, well, home… Home to ourselves.

Coming to Wellington felt like coming home.

I fell in love with the city: with the harbour, with the rickety train ride through a million little tunnels from Johnsonville, with the views of the harbour and the bushy town belt as I walked up to my classes at the University.

I have visited other places since: places of great beauty and history; places with amazing food; places that have sung to me; places that have known me and my bones; places that draw me back; yet I always return here.

28 years on and I am still here.

Still living in the northern suburbs where I first found home.

Still in love with the harbour and the bush clad hills (there’s less gorse and more trees now).

And still aware of the shape of the landscape within me — which has more hills and gorges than that childhood me raised on flat-ish plains might believe possible. Though maybe that gully in the back garden was a clue…

This landscape within is a felt thing; not a rational thing that can be weighed, measured, and prodded at. Which is not the same as saying it doesn’t matter…

At the heart of my landscape within is a river. THE river. The river of my soul — and perhaps, too, of the spiralling strands of my DNA. Generations of ancestors tumbling over rocks, flowing through caverns and down hillsides until I find myself here and now.

My inner river always did, still does, and no doubt will continue to run deep: cutting through stone over time; creating sometimes unexpected pathways; diving through caverns; rushing to the light; and always, always running home to the sea of my soul.