A year or two ago, I visited Pompeii. It is a small Roman town halfway around the Bay of Naples. It was buried when Mt Vesuvius erupted in AD79. The town was "rediscovered" in 1748, and then excavations began. They have continued ever since. People from all over the world are drawn to the site to get a glimpse of life 2000 years ago.
Tourists get to see the houses that ordinary people lived in, the mosaics that decorated their bathroom floors, the frescoes that adorned the walls of their bedrooms. They see a small arena where gladiators fought to the death, temples to the myriad Roman gods, even the pornographic pictures that presumably added to the zest of contemporary life for those rich enough to afford such graphic extravagances.
The stone fields are relics of a time before there was an Auckland. In their vague sketched-out form they remind us of where we came from and what we have become.
All these things are accessible in hundreds of other Italian towns but here in Pompeii they have the poignant mystique that comes from their rapid and total demise. They were not destroyed by conquest or economic factors, but rather through a dramatic geological event. Pompeii today (the one outside the gates), is an unremarkable satellite town which, along with Herculaneum, is part of the ugly conurbation of modern Naples. Close by are the tourist magnets of Sorrento and Capri, but the greater the Neapolitan area these days is mainly famous for street crime and the home-grown Mafia known as the Commora.
What has kept Pompeii going is that special and tragic story of a volcanic eruption along with well preserved remains. Mothers fleeing with their babies wrapped in their arms. Bakers still holding their long-handled spatulas. Horses tied up in their stables. These are all snap-frozen from that day almost 2000 years ago. It is a unique phenomenon which puts other more recent dramatic historic events into sharp focus.
All this brings me to Ihumātao. We are reliably informed that Aotearoa-New Zealand is the most recently settled of all the world's major land masses. For millions of years these islands slumbered, untouched by human contact. The animal and plant life evolved in unique ways that reflected this. Flightless birds, huge trees, pure water and bountiful seas. All this began to change about a thousand years ago. The first Polynesian explorers made landfall and so began the country we all share today.
Living in the comparative isolation of this far-flung land, these Polynesians developed a unique indigenous culture. Their language, history and values evolved in ways that were informed by their whakapapa, and the history and geography of this new land.
About 200 years ago, the first Europeans began to arrive. What happened between then and now defined what we have become. The land has been mostly cleared. The purity of the waterways is no longer a given. The world has shrunk and the 800 years of isolation has given way to teeming messages.
Truth is to be found in relics of the past. They are accessible to all who want to look. Like Pompeii, Ihumātao reminds us of a world long ago. Gently rolling fields, lines of stone, bird cries and the swelling bulk of the Manukau harbour. The meaning of these things is divined through study, through contemplation, perhaps through dreams.
We who have lived here in Auckland for a while know only too well how the city has changed. How monuments and heritages have vanished. How our volcanic cones have been mined; our harbour reclaimed and reconfigured.
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When I consider how much has changed since I moved here in the 1970s it amazes me that we have learned so little. The stone fields are relics of a time before there was an Auckland. In their vague sketched-out form they remind us of where we came from and what we have become. To allow these treasures to be subsumed within a new housing area can not be considered progress. There are always other alternatives – other solutions.
It is time now to put Fletcher's financial woes and the Labour Government's desire for a second term on the back burner. It is time to think harder and find a way forward that respects our past. Now, more than ever, it is essential that we preserve the beginnings of our nationhood.
Kia maia, kia kaha, kia manawanui.
* Ted Dawe is an author and former teacher at Aorere College