When we say that something is set in stone, we mean it’s immutable, permanent. But stone wears down over time, crumbles in the weather, is consumed by lichen. Stone is always changing; it just happens at a rate beyond human timeframes. Stone, then, holds two seemingly opposed concepts: permanence and transfiguration.
The lives of our ancestors progressed at a slow pace. Some stayed in one place, perhaps a single village, their whole lives. Those who did move, did so slowly, by waka, sailing ship, horse, or their own feet. But we live in a state of perpetual, rapid motion, and it’s addictive. Since the pandemic, I’ve been still for too long, and I’m feeling homesick for England. The walls of the room feel too close; the possibility of not being able to leave here is unendurable, so I go out for a ride. I cycle past the gravel pit on the far side of Palmerston North. The river gravel that underlies the city has been used to construct railways and roads since the settlement’s early days. Our need to keep moving has transformed this area. Along the river path, white toetoe echo the shape of black flax flowers. The white cat that appears on the ranges when snow settles is clearly visible. Winter lays bare the skeleton of the landscape; the ranges form the region’s backbone. I stop at a clearing and sit on a gabion that’s been made into a seat. Three people on gravel motorbikes rev their engines down by the water.
I continue through one of the rapidly expanding city suburbs. It feels like senior citizen country: cemetery, retirement village, bungalows, campervans in driveways, garden statuary. A grinning gnome in a red hat stands alongside a Roman emperor. Old colonial villas sit incongruously among grey concrete new-builds. One small blue villa has been crowded out by the housing development that moves like a slow wave of magma outwards from the city over the surrounding farmland. Forlorn, for sale, the villa is hemmed in by new homes on one side and the cemetery on the other. Poised between life and death, its time is marked. In the cemetery, inscriptions speak silently of expired lives. Beneath them, bones turn stony. Our bones live on after our deaths, holding traces of our fleeting existence, bearing mute witness to the continued movement of our species.
I ride past a new road sign: Freedom Drive. No exit. I feel as though I’m waiting to die in Palmerston North, and this fills me with mild panic.
A flock of pigeons flies up, reflecting silver light from grey and white feathers, matching the roofs and walls of the new houses. As I turn the corner, I catch the wind and take off, away from the suburbs.
My German friend and I go to walk in Te Āpiti, the Manawatū Gorge. The gorge divides the Tararua and Ruahine mountain ranges, which border Manawatū. The ranges, composed of greywacke stone covered with marine sediments, were formed about three million years ago, and uplifted over the past million. This sounds ancient, but they’re the youngest mountain ranges in the world. The gorge was carved out over thousands of years by the flow of the Manawatū awa from the east. The native podocarps—trees with cones and berries—and nīkau palms that cover the gorge like a cloak give a glimpse of what this region was like before the forest fell to fire and axe.
Today the gorge is busy, with families milling around. The road through Te Āpiti, hewn from the rock in 1872 to connect east and west, has been closed since 2017 after a series of landslips made it too expensive to maintain. A new state highway will carry traffic east across the ranges. The old gorge road now stops at the car park. The tarmac is covered in black rubber donuts; large concrete barriers stop the joyriders going further.
Beyond this point, the road is deep in gravel. A big pile of fly-tipped electronics and household rubbish sits at the side of the road. In the car park, two men in hoodies, with bulldogs straining on leads, walk up the road with a pair of small boys who clamber over the concrete barriers.
We walk under the road bridge, and enter the bush on the other side. It’s cool, dark and green; a stream gurgles downhill. It’s quiet, very quiet. There’s no car noise up here. But the silence is disconcerting.
“I can’t hear any birds,” my friend says. A bit further on she pauses, listens; a riroriro/grey warbler sings, and a tūī calls. These two birds are all we hear. Instead of live birds, there are wooden posts bearing plasticised pictures of different species, and a QR code to scan so you can hear what a real bird would sound like, if it were here, and it were singing.
After a steep walk uphill, we stop at a lookout, and sit on a bench eating sandwiches while we gaze over Manawatū, across the fields, to the road in the distance with its tiny cars. We talk about how much we miss our families on the other side of the world; wonder when we’ll see them again. She starts to cry. I take her hand and tell her everything is going to be OK. I’m trying to convince myself, too.
A family appears at the lookout, so we say hi, then pack our bags and keep walking. From the next lookout, we see far below us Te Au Rere a Te Tonga (the rushing current of the south)/White Horse Rapids, up which Māori hauled their waka when travelling from the east. A huge, rust-coloured rock called Te Ahu a Tūranga sits in the river. Legend says that this rock is never submerged, and that it holds the mauri of the awa and of the Rangitāne iwi.
My friend drops me back home later.
“Kia kaha,” I tell her.
On my ride today, I pass a man who’s moving big greywacke boulders into a huge, decorative pile at the end of a driveway.
“That’s a big job!” I call out as I pass.
“She certainly is,” he says.
Back on my street, I ask a man clearing an abandoned section if a new housing development is going in. No, he says, he’s just clearing it on behalf of the owner, having to use poison on the noxious weeds, by order of the council. He rolls his eyes.
We talk about the unusual old Spanish-style house on the section, which has been empty for the eight years I’ve lived here. Then we get on to the subject of the historic villa that was recently removed from the end of the street, with its rose gardens and native trees, replaced by a subdivision of new-builds with concrete slabs and pebbles where plants once grew. He rolls his eyes again.
“You’re English aren’t you?” he says.
He tells me he likes old things, and that his English ancestors were diamond merchants who are buried in Tewkesbury Abbey: “Ten generations, there’s a stone in the floor.”
We etch names into stone to remember them. Back home in England, Mum has paid an undertaker to re-inscribe Dad’s gravestone, worn down by time. It cost a fortune, but, she says, “It’s one last thing I can do for him.”
The undertaker is an old schoolmate of mine. Flashback to secondary school careers class, 1981. We all had to say what we wanted to be when we grew up. We went round the room: musician, accountant, footballer, mechanic, farmer, editor (me). Then a boy said, “Undertaker.” The other kids laughed.
The teacher shushed us, and asked, “Why do you want to be an undertaker, Paul?”
“Well, people are always going to die, so I’ll never be out of a job,” he said.
Three days after my dad died, in 1984, I took my Cambridge University entrance exam. A handful of us sat at desks in a silent room, then the teacher said, “You may begin.” I opened the exam paper and one question jumped out at me: “Explore themes of death and dying in 20th century literature.” I scanned the rest of the questions. I couldn’t answer any of them. I stood up and left the room; my English teacher came after me, looking concerned.
“What happened?” I burst into tears, and when I told him, he looked as if he wanted to cry too.
When I got home, Mum said, “I think it’s a good thing you don’t go to Cambridge. The people might be snooty, and you wouldn’t fit in.”
I went to university in Norwich instead, an ancient city of old stone houses, pubs and castle, centred around a limestone, flint and mortar cathedral. The cathedral has been repeatedly damaged by lightning, wind, fire and riots, but it endures. The cathedral’s stone bosses, high up in the ceiling vaults, are some of the world’s greatest medieval sculptures, depicting flowers and leaves, pagan green men, and scenes of the apocalypse.
Today I walk to the historic cemetery a couple of kilometres from my house. The city’s first cemetery was located in a swampy area of town, but when bodies started to rise to the surface—the dead rejoining the living—the cemetery was relocated to Napier Road. The old site is now home to the speedway. I wonder how many people know that, as they watch the stock cars on a Saturday night.
The early history of the city is spelt out here in stone. About 10,000 people were interred between 1872 and 1927. The cemetery’s online guidebook notes that many early colonists met early and grisly deaths while clearing the dense tōtara and kahikatea bush surrounding the settlement. In the 1870s, ten per cent of children died before their first birthdays, from illnesses such as pneumonia, tuberculosis, whooping cough or diphtheria, illnesses that today can be treated by vaccines and antibiotics. Stillborn babies were buried in their own area.
The oldest Māori headstone is dated 1888, and commemorates Meritini Te Panau of the Rangitāne Te Awe Awe family. Her husband Kerei, who lived to about 103 years old, is also buried here.
Early Palmerston North had a small Chinese community, many of whom were market gardeners. One of these was Ah-Yung, who died in 1884. The local newspaper reported that his countrymen were upset at Ah-Yung’s dying in a strange land. Chinese residents travelled to the cemetery annually, leaving fruit, rice, nuts and sweets as food for the dead. They also left flowers—sustenance for the soul, perhaps—and let off firecrackers.
The influenza pandemic that swept the world after the Great War put such a strain on the cemetery that a new one was built in 1927 at Kelvin Grove. In New Zealand, from a population of one million, more than 6,700 people died of ‘flu. Scaled up to today’s population, that would be 32,329 deaths.
The cemetery houses the remains of the long-dead, but also serves as a place of remembrance for the living. Memories reside in teddy bears sculpted on a child’s grave; stones left on a Jewish tomb; narratives of deaths by house fires or murders. Loss and grief are encoded here in stone. But there’s also an area of the cemetery that has no physical memorials, because those who lie here had no money for such things. Names and events etched on stone only tell part of the story of a life, or a place, just as history books only tell part of the story. The rest lives in memory, in the landscape, in the gaps.
We memorialise negative events in stone: wars, disasters, deaths. But Palmerston North has sculptures and statues relating to good things too: tangata whenua and settlers from all lands; birds, trees, flowers, animals; peace and diversity.
I have a meeting in town. I get there early and sit gathering my thoughts on a concrete wall in Te Marae o Hine, near the statue of Rangitāne leader and tipuna Te Peeti Te Awe Awe.
A little boy in gumboots climbs on a rock carving near me.
He looks at me and says, “I’m good at climbing eh?”
“You are! That’s awesome.”
A girl, with a smaller child on her back, calls him.
“You’d better go with your sister,” I say (assuming) to the boy, but he doesn’t move.
She comes over, hoists the small girl further up her back.
“Come on bubba.”
The boy clambers down awkwardly and the kids leave. The sculpture is a chunky circle of rock with a hole in the middle. In Southwest England, where Dad’s family lived for generations, the story goes that if you pass through a hole in a large stone, you move into a new phase of life. The hole is too small for me to fit, but I put my hand through it, and hope that will be enough.