Spirit of place

It’s fifteen years since I first started to work with my Dark Angels partner John Simmons, and it must now be nearly a decade since we both started our regular blogs. We have a lot in common and it would be fair to say that we often address similar themes in what we write. But thus far we’ve never duplicated one another.

So I apologise in advance to anyone who also reads John’s blog for reproducing here a piece of writing which appeared in 26 Fruits last week. Written by freelance copywriter Jane Langley, it’s simply one of the best and most eloquent expositions ever of the Dark Angels experience. Jane wrote:

I think what happens at Dark Angels is that you raise the stakes.

You get together with a bunch of strangers and you write, and share, and write, and share, and write, and share, until with this next piece, you suddenly hear a catch in your voice. And that catch is the connection you have finally made. 

Without realising you were doing it, you have been carving out a deep trench with your pen, and now that you’re deep down in that trench, you meet other diggers, and the meeting is profound. It’s a down-deep connection to each other, but more importantly, it’s to yourself, and the self you are now able to bring to the page.

Jane was one of the five women who attended the residential course that John and I ran in February. It was in the village of Karekare, on the west coast of New Zealand’s North Island. There was much that we all found inspirational about Karekare, whose beach was the setting for the landing of the piano in the film of that name.

Always drawn to water, I made for the ocean at every opportunity, crossing an enormous expanse of heated black volcanic sand to reach a fierce surf line. At Karekare, as elsewhere on the west coast, ‘swimming’ mostly means standing in the sea waiting for a breaker to knock you down, then scrambling up just in time for the next wave to break and knock you down again. Fifteen minutes in the warm water was exhilarating but exhausting.

A member of the local surf life saving club was always on hand, ready to swim to the rescue of anyone who found themselves in trouble. Many do. The breakers are powerful and the rips lethal. In the first few weeks of 2018, nine people had already been hauled out by volunteers, some aged in their sixties, who brave the surf with nothing but a pair of flippers for themselves and a flotation tube for the rescuee. Of the nine saved at Karekare, I was told, a couple might have made it out on their own. Seven certainly wouldn’t have.

Our host at Karekare was Sir Bob Harvey. A prominent writer, filmmaker, environmentalist and former politician, he is also one of the founders of the New Zealand surf life saving club movement, which these days trains children from an early age to swim safely in the dangerous waters and later become volunteers.

Sir Bob’s house, where we stayed and ran the course, was of an award-winning modern design, half buried in the thickly vegetated hillside, a few hundred yards back from the beach. Built mainly of mainly glass and timber, it tapered to a point at the seaward-facing end, like the prow of a ship. There in the apex was a raised sleeping platform on which, to the distant roar of the surf, I went to sleep at night gazing at the southern hemisphere heavens through glass roof panels.

By that time we had already been greeted in the courtyard of the house at a powhiri, or Maori welcome, organised by Sir Bob who speaks the language and is closely connected with the local Maori community. It was an intensely moving ceremony in which our hosts first spoke of their place and ancestors, then we, the visitors, were asked to avow our peaceful intent and speak to the gathering of whence we came and what was our purpose at Karekare. We also sang to one another.

Connecting with the spirit of the place is an essential aspect of every Dark Angels course. Wherever we are we invite people to tune in to their surroundings from the first moment. There in New Zealand, a backdrop to the powhiri and the house and the dense, draping vegetation, the black sand and pounding surf, there was something in the way the land folded and fell so steeply from the Waitakere range to Karekare’s elongated cove that was almost trench-like.

We were all down there raising the stakes and sharing and digging, students and tutors together, digging and connecting and finding that catch in our voices. As Jane Langley says, it’s what Dark Angels do.

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