Stan Hallett Pullen

The Weight of Falling Water

(October 2022)

Our landscape is drunk with rain. The hills drink rain until they can no longer hold it. They get giddy and it all comes back out. Like people, hills are prone to falling down after drinking too much. We clear up the debris and swear it won’t happen again.

Our city’s topography is no secret. Te Whanganui-a-Tara is known and admired for the theatrics of her undulating scenery. As the sun rises, the centre of our town is shaded by the pine forested peaks of Matairangi to the east, with the snow dusted Remutaka Ranges to the north, tussocky Te Kopahou to the south, while in the evenings we look westward at the sun setting behind Mākara Peak. The land of our historic Green Belt, planted during the Great Depression to help banish the memory of smoggy industrial British cities, is rooted firmly with pines, macrocarpa, gum trees and a native understory. The Green Belt breathes for us and fortifies the very earth we stand upon. Each tree is a retaining wall, gripping our precious topsoil against the daily deluges we bravely face every winter in Wellington.

And yet, from the relative safety of a tentative springtime, it appears that the land’s stability, previously fortified by the steadfast stoicism of the Green Belt, was tested last winter. Between July and August 2022, the hillsides around Wellington were recorded slipping 670 times. Some slips closed roads and crushed parked cars, some forced evacuations, while some served as visual reminders, or warnings, of the weight of falling water.

We’ve heard some warnings already, from climate scientists at our universities and from the politicians and community leaders who once studied there. We’ve heard their plans pertaining to emissions thresholds, a billion trees, managed retreats, and carbon zero futures. 

We’ve also heard warnings from protestors and activists. We’ve seen SUV tyres intentionally deflated and seen student processions on our central quays. We’ve seen the massive disruption and expressions of outrage caused by people blockading motorways—stopping the traffic with their bodies. These people are following the example set for us last winter by nature, simulating landslides, blocking roads to try and get our attention.

And yet, the most convincing warnings fell from the skies and slipped from the hills themselves.

Over the wet months last winter—that “unprecedented” winter—Te Whanganui-a-Tara received the most rainfall in our recorded history. The rain that fell here was above seasonal averages by 160% in June, 200% in July, and 170% in August according to NIWA data. The rain fell last winter like it had never fallen before, and we certainly noticed it. Our position in the shadow of these now sodden and crumbling hills felt, for the first time, decidedly precarious. Living under the oppression of rain last winter, with our surroundings saturated and sagging, we saw the earth we had stood upon for centuries now running down hillsides in muddy creeks, flowing out in earthy-coloured streaks to the harbour. Where previously steadfast and stoic, we witnessed the land’s tendency to slip out from underneath us.

So where do we stand now?

I have found that the statistics around climate change no longer inflict upon me a sense of a tangible emotion. It is again water, the abundance of water, which causes most concern for us. Statistics released in May 2022 show that the Wellington region is due for around 60cm of sea level rise by 2050, based on “baked in”—VUW Professor of Earth Science Tim Naish’s slang for “unavoidable”—climate change modelling. In 26 years’ time we’ll be delivering our petitions for climate action to Parliament by kayak.

If that scenario seems unrealistic or hard to believe, if models, statistics, predictions, indisputable evidence, and human expertise have started to blur into overwhelming torrents of factual debris, then ignore them. Switch off and go outside. Look at the scars on the hillsides. There is the proof.

When the predictions become too damning, I find myself not wanting to listen. It’s not denial. I’ve absorbed the statistics, I’m waterlogged in attempts to quantify them, and I’m beginning to drown. Statistics do not reflect our lived experiences, or what it means for people in our city to live on saturated, sinking, slipping land. Click through the interactive sea level rise maps designed by Greater Wellington Regional Council. It predicts that by the year 2100, with a 2.2 metre rise in sea level, Petone or Pito-one, which translates to “end of the sand beach”, will disappear underwater. The predictions are terminal for Pito-one; she will not survive the length of another human lifetime. We are witnessing the end of the sand beach.

Along with Pito-one, something fundamental to all Wellingtonians, and people everywhere, is sinking at the same rate. It’s something about our purpose and what we strive towards. It’s something in the inherent certainty of the Western notion of the infinite progress of humankind, built on the assumption of ourselves as living at odds with the non-human world.

We erect monuments to our achievements; beginning every new year in hopeful anticipation of what’s to come. We imagine our ancestors marvelling at what we have now. But when we become the ancestors, will that reverence be afforded to us?

Future generations will need a snorkel to see the Petone Settlers Museum. Our history is becoming an underwater attraction, along with our sense of who we are and what we are doing here.

It is too late to completely stop climate change. These weather “events” aren’t one-offs; we can’t clear the slips and expect them never to return with the severity we saw last winter. These “unprecedented” weather events are now what we can consider normal for Te Whanganui-a-Tara. Last winter set a new precedent for the severity that we should expect every winter from now on. We must begin the process of learning to live in a climate and landscape that we cannot master, or assume to have uncontested control over, as we have in the past. Our windswept, rain-soaked peninsula will no longer guarantee a hospitable existence for the people living here.

Te Whanganui-a-Tara’s unofficial motto, the gleefully quoted proverb “you can’t beat Wellington on a good day”, is a proclamation you hear most often in the depths of winter, when the southerly subsides just long enough to walk through the Green Belt or sit for a moment at Oriental Bay. Despite the motto often being deployed with a hint of sarcasm, it suggests that our collective assessment of our wellbeing and our sense of pride as a city is partially derived from the weather. When the weather begins to destroy us, the places we live and our estimations of ourselves, we will look back and envy the winter of 2022, back when Wellington couldn’t be beaten.

It’s not that we didn’t know it was coming. Wellington’s natural landscape knows too and has warned us in a way we couldn’t ignore. The human warnings we constantly hear, even when coming from the most trusted of sources, are always up for debate. We um, ahh, and wring our hands like old farmers, trying to remember the last time it was this bad, lulling ourselves with the false hopes of next year. The warnings we are now receiving from nature makes climate change real, indisputable, and happening now. Look at us and look at the ground we stand upon. We may clear the debris at the bottom of the slips and fortify the precarious hillsides, even as their scars are slowly healed by the growth of the springtime grasses, but how do we prepare for the next winter? Or for a future of a thousand winters, each more sodden than the last?

As the low-lying areas of our city begin to sink, we look up to the hills and the solace of their higher ground, however drunk, unstable, weak, and prone to falling down they’ve become. A habit they picked up last winter in the stresses of this new climate. We can’t really blame them; it was a tough winter.

Pay your respects to Pito-one; she deserves them, we drowned her. Walk not in the shade of the Green Belt without expressing your thanks to the trees for holding us together for this long. When the drops of rain fall hard and heavy next winter, heed their warnings and hear their truths. Make peace and act not surprised at the burst banks, the fallen trees, the highest high tides and the slipping hills. Know that we’re no longer exempt from the consequences, now and forever.



Photograph by Fenn Braithwaite 

Stan Hallett Pullen

Stan (he/him) is an aspiring writer studying in his final semester towards a BA in English Literature at Te Herenga Waka in Te Whanganui-a-Tara. He is interested in writing creative non-fiction that explores human relationships with ecology, and strives to navigate a sense of place in the future.