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"Legends" By Dhiraja McBryde

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  • inspiration_letters
    For forty hours each week I sit, bleary of eye and blank faced, before two twenty-four-inch computer screens – my Intel, 3.06 GHz, dual core iMac. The
    Message 1 of 2 , Apr 21, 2013
      For forty hours each week I sit, bleary of eye and blank faced, before two twenty-four-inch computer screens – my Intel, 3.06 GHz, dual core iMac.

      The manuscripts arrive from the editor as electronic files or paper copies of pre-existing electronic files bespattered with varying amounts of scrawl of varying degrees of legibility depending on who the editor is.

      Between us, Duraid Suleiman from Baghdad, Zhaohui Lu from Shanghai, Kalpesh Patel from Gujarat, Angus MacKenzie from Dunedin and I transform these manuscripts into school textbooks – books which are printed in Wellington or Singapore or Delhi and then shipped around New Zealand and the Pacific.

      I have sat thus for the last thirteen years.
      The books we produce cover almost every possible subject – Latin, Digital Technology, Year 1 English, Level 3 Calculus.
      It is an interesting fact that one can typeset an entire book and absorb next to nothing of its contents. After weeks of painstaking work over the 436 pages of Level 3 Calculus Study Guide, I understood no more of what all those little squiggles were meant to denote than I did thirty years earlier, when the long-suffering Mr Sauer at Mairehau High School had written on my report, beneath what even I recognised as a rather small number – 30%: `has shown patches of perception and understanding, but has been reluctant to apply himself in this subject'.

      However, once in a while something of the content of a book one is working on registers in one's consciousness. Who knew that polar bears had black skin or that Eratosthenes was the chief librarian at Alexandria and precisely calculated the circumference of the Earth in 200 BC?

      Occasionally what registers does so because it seems erroneous and even annoying.

      I know only a little more about writing than I do about the second derivatives of parametric equations, but I do know that a simile expresses the resemblance of one thing to another, and that that resemblance is meant to cast light upon the nature of one of those things. Which is why I become exasperated to find that half the English books which the company produces include a cheery picture of a hamburger – meant to engage the jaded student no doubt – drawn by Jane, our freelance illustrator, with accompanying text that reads something along the lines of (in this case directly from Level 1 English Study Guide):

      The burger method of structuring essays

      Writing an essay is like eating a huge hamburger made up of all the ingredients you need to ensure the reader has a (ful)filling experience.

      You bite into the top bun first, which is the introduction outlining the topic. Next you reach the meaty filling, which is the explanations, evidence and examples used to back up your main point as shown in the introduction. Finally you bite into the bottom bun, which is the conclusion to show the relevance of the main points to the topic and holds everything together.

      But you don't!

      I have seen plenty of people eat a hamburger and never have I seen anyone, even the most eccentric or disgustingly messy eater, consume a burger that way.

      I rail silently at my unresponsive computer screen – could the authors not find an accurate analogy? Or if an essay really is like a burger, then they should tell us how the consumer could eat a mouthful containing introduction, explanation, evidence, examples and conclusion simultaneously as the real burger eater does.
      Other things which bother me are also found in more than one English book – definitions of myths and legends.

      `Myths were used as explanations when our early ancestors did not have logical answers to questions about themselves or their world. Explanations in myths use imagination instead of proven facts and are woven into a narrative, but the format remains essentially the same. Try writing a myth to explain a natural phenomenon.'

      Why should we propagate this awful, reductionist notion? Why fill impressionable minds with such a dry, seemingly rational concept which does not attempt to `explain' but rather to `explain away' the nature of legend and myth?

      When the poor, bewildered children who have been taught this stuff end up at university, their lecturers in the Religious Studies department will be labouring hard to overcome this idea that a myth is an untruth; trying to indicate that the opposite is the case – that a myth is not a false story, it is not even a true story, it is a story of truth, a means of entry into the very heart of truth and reality; not an explanation of what is not known but rather an exposition of what is most profoundly understood.

      I am fortunate that I can get up from in front of my computer and move quickly from the sterile twenty-first century straight into the realm of legend.

      I run most days either before or after, or both before and after work. It is one kilometre from my office to where I run over rough, rolling, green, rock-studded hills above a lonely harbour buffeted by winds blowing in from Africa. It is a landscape which twenty thousand years ago was a burning maelstrom of flying molten rock, heaving waves of magma, deathly vapours and scorching missiles. Today, its igneous and infernal past is evidenced by the great quantities of jagged rock that define the landscape and by two volcanic cones.

      These volcanic craters are not soaring peaks crowned with fire and obscured by wreathing smoke – one is 64 metres and the other is 30 metres above sea level. Indeed, both appear less prominent, rising from the surrounding land, than even those numbers suggest. They are not girt with steaming jungle and capped with rock and snow – they are covered in grass, and on their flanks gentle cows graze; an occasional hare speeds silently through the grass.

      And yet … and yet … like Sinai or Mount Kailash or the ziggurats of ancient Babylon or any other peak, they call to the human spirit, they speak to the legendary heart.

      One of those peaks is called Puketapapa tanga a Hape.
      The Tuhoe tribe arose from the rock and mist-draped forest mountains of the Urewera just as the Spartoi arose from the furrow when Colchian Jason planted in the ground the teeth of the dragon which had guarded Ares' sacred spring. The rest of the population of our collection of small islands believe that our ancestors sailed here from elsewhere. I believe that John McBryde sailed here in 1869 from the mundane demesne of Plymouth, but, beyond that – the highlands, the mist-wrapped glens, the Celtic twilight, Herne the Hunter, ice-age Europe …

      A lot of people flew here on an A330 from Shanghai but the tangata whenua – the people of the land – came with the great fleet from Hawaiki.

      Hawaiki! Hawaiki! Where is it? The palaeoethnobotanists and the hippy freaks may seek it out but in the flash of the shining cuckoo's flight one may travel there; in the expanding silence between incoming breath and exhalation one may glimpse it; slipping sideways between sleeping and waking, dream and analysis, sunlight and dappled shade one may see its shores. Only in death is one assured of regaining it – only as a wisp of spirit that flits through the forest like a gust of wind and descends the roots of the pohutakawa tree at Spirits Bay in the Far North to journey in the ocean's silence back to that ancestral homeland.

      But a thousand years ago the great migration left those blessed isles to journey south to our harsher realm. Masters of the sailor's art, skilled beyond belief in navigation they set out for a new home. It would be, even for those Vikings of the Pacific sunrise, a long and arduous and irrevocable pilgrimage. It was decided that only the fittest of body and the strongest of mind would travel.
      Hape was an honoured citizen of that land but the bones of his foot were twisted from birth and his walk was ungainly and difficult: he would have to remain.

      Tangaroa is the god of the sea – master of the waves and of the denizens of the deep and vast blue ocean which covers our tiny planet.
      For three days and three nights Hape sat at the edge of the sea – the liminal realm where dry and wet, static and mutable interweave amongst dried seaweed and fragments of coral – and there he spoke his loss to the god; he called out, bereft of his kin sailed away to a new life.

      God's grace is everywhere – it blossoms forth through nature and through nature's humble children.
      When the third day was over, a great wave drew near and in the depth of that wave with the grace of a soaring bird and the inscrutable, alien nature of a fish there flew a mighty stingray – Dasyatis brevicaudata, paakauru.
      The name of that stingray was Kaiwhare.
      Who can now say what it is like to travel across the ocean's vastness upon a stingray? There must be fear and joy, exhilaration and exhaustion, a sublime release and the ache of muscles clinging to that great, smooth, undulating body.
      All that we do know is that it is a faster means of crossing the ocean than is the greatest of ocean-going canoes.

      There arose at last before Hape's salt-stung eyes on that sublime and unlikely journey upon the back of a mighty fish – land; and, drawing closer, a harbour mouth and finally he was tumbling and stumbling through the surf.

      Long were the prayers he chanted as he stood upon that beach, great was the gratitude he offered to the Lord Tangaroa and to his servant Kaiwhare as that great, enigmatic beast disappeared from sight in the foam and froth of surf.

      And then he headed inland into the virgin country that was to be the future. He climbed a hill and there he waited. Like Moses on Mount Nebo he surveyed the promised land laid out around him – like Adam solitary and perfect in the Garden of Eden. One man upon a peak in a pristine world with only limitless potential around him. From that eminence he saw at last the waka of his people approaching up the harbour and saw its bow crunch upon the sand of the new homeland. There he was reunited with his people who sang the praises of Hape – so richly favoured by the spirits of sea and land and all creatures.
      I run the slopes of that same hill after work. To stand on its peak would be blasphemy though it appear ever so everyday – pasture with grazing cows, an occasional rabbit or pheasant, the call of the magpie. Below, the harbour is still guarded by Kaiwhare the mystic ray. I have not seen him, but I have seen his vicars.
      From that hill – Puketapapa tanga a Hape – if one looks westward to the harbour mouth and through the headlands, there is no land to be seen until one reaches Africa.
      Often I have faced the cold, ocean wind and dreamed of its journey here from that distant continent. I have strained my eyes as if to see the stony ramparts and towers of Great Zimbabwe beneath the African sun, as if to hear the bark of the baboons and the ringing of a million insect voices raised in paean to that sun.
      I have stood thus and sometimes a hare will break from cover and speed away over the hills. They are splendid creatures – built for speed and making their rabbit cousins look frumpy homebodies in comparison.

      In his book The Heart of the Hunter, Sir Laurens van der Post recounts how the Bushman Xhabbo told to Wilhelm Bleek the story of the hare.

      To reassure the peoples of the Earth grown unsure and doubtful of the nature of existence, the Moon – that ever-waxing and waning satellite – sent her messenger to the Earth with this message: `As I in dying am renewed again, so will you dying be renewed again'.

      The person who received this message was the hare. If it was a simple misunderstanding, a miscommunication, a case of Chinese whispers gone astray, or whether it was the result of some profound lack of faith on the part of the hare we cannot now know, but the hare relayed to all the message: `Unlike the Moon, who dying is renewed again, you dying will not be renewed again'.

      How long the despairing creatures of the Earth lived with this apprehension of their fate we do not know, but when the Moon found out what had happened, she beat the hare. The hare's split lip is the result of that harsh punishment.

      The hare has no home. Unlike its burrowing relative the rabbit, it has no hole, no nest, nor even any special bush beneath which to shelter – it just crouches in the grass where- ever it is, as it does on the slopes of Puketapapa tanga a Hape. The spirit which rejects the notion of renewal through death, the rhythm of waning and waxing, systole and diastole, death and rebirth, degeneration and regeneration, decay and renaissance, is condemned to a rootless existence.

      To this day the hares dance beneath the spring moon – mad as March hares – in recognition of their mistake long ago.
      Authors of English books would have us believe that the legend of the hare is an explanation of the physiognomy and behaviour of Lepus microtis – the African savannah hare – rather than an insight into, and a profound teaching upon, the most central rhythms of existence. But then, they would also conclude an essay with the bottom half of a burger bun – all bare and dry and tasteless – so let us leave them to their rationalistic thoughts and let us run instead across the silent hills with the hares.

      Legends, like the Moon, do not die – they are born again and again to teach us. They teach us the lesson of our immortality, of our origins, and, finally, of our goal.
    • brahmata13
      Fascinating! Thank you for this enjoyable read. I had a good laugh trying to imagine the most awkward burger eater in the world. The fact that you have not
      Message 2 of 2 , Apr 23, 2013
        Fascinating! Thank you for this enjoyable read.

        I had a good laugh trying to imagine the most awkward burger eater in the world.

        The fact that you have not taken to your computer with a blunt object is a testament to the power of meditation (and good nature, and an active lifestyle...) Good on you.
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