Saturday, 18 September 2010

The Shaky Isles, Part 3: In Praise of Useless Beauty


[Layer upon layer of beauty - Doubtful Sound, Fiordland, New Zealand.]

Elvis Costello possibly had the female of the species in mind when he penned the song All This Useless Beauty. However the phrase came to mind in a different context while I was in New Zealand’s Doubtful Sound.

The back-story begins in the Fiordland town of Manapouri. Decades ago Manapouri was a place of controversy. The lake that drains some of the extravagantly wet and lofty peaks of Fiordland, was due to be raised and joined with Lake Te Anau for hydro-electric power generation. Conservationists saw it as an afront to a beautiful place, as well as a foot-in-the-door for further incursions into the wild south-west of the South Island.

In the end a compromise saw the lake level remain more or less where it was, with some elaborate tunnelling now linking it and Lake Te Anau to an underground power station near Deep Cove in Doubtful Sound.

Our trip to that fjord began with a boat journey across Lake Manapouri to West Cove. From there a bus took us up and over Wilmott Pass on a road accessible only by water, through forest that could conjugate green many times over, were it a verb. And to Deep Cove, whose 5 metres of rain per annum explain the area’s eloquence in green.

There we boarded the Tuteko II,  just four of us, plus a crew of two, and sailed into a world of useless beauty. Because beyond Deep Cove there is nothing but frighteningly deep water, neck-achingly steep mountains, and heart-achingly beautiful scenery. It is a place that is patently not there for the service of humanity. Its water, wind, weather and wildness just are. Created by glacial action over several ice ages, it is a true fjord, a landscape open to the sea that has been cleft and scoured into a three dimensional puzzle of such depth that it laughs at map makers.

Well might Douglas Adams’ comic planet designer, Slartibartfast, have taken pride in his invention of fjords. And well might the Romantic poets have sought out the numinous thrill and chill of such landscapes, and coined the word sublime to describe them.

Even in a visit of just two days, I begin to feel myself taken prisoner by beauty. Words fail and expressions of awe begin to hang limp and useless. Even in the dark of night a humid nor’wester thumps into a swift and icy sou’wester, thrusting moist air high into the night sky. It rains wetly. Brilliant sheets of lightning illuminate the bellying cloud. Rolling rumbles of thunder ricochet off the steep canyon walls. And then all is deafeningly quiet.

In the clear morning we wake to the tinkling of tuis. The waterfall by which we’d anchored has found full voice too after the evening’s deluge. The surrounding tops are freshly garmented in snow. I stretch, gape, and finally form my impossible question. What do you do with such terrible beauty?


[A terrible beauty! Water plunges from the steep sides of Doubtful Sound, NZ]


My father was fond of the Stoic philosophers, fashioning for himself a set of more or less practical beliefs. They included the notion that aloofness from that which could hurt you,  let you down, or be lost to you, would shelter you from grief and bring some form of contentment. As sons will do, I rebelled against that philosophy of detachment, especially when I came to see that it did not keep him from even trivial grief. (His tears during the B-grade “weepie” “Lassie Come Home” are part of family legend!)

For me beauty is to be celebrated; and love to be lived. Out in Doubtful Sound I just want to give in, to be gulped down by the beauty. I suppose that puts me in peril, but I choose to remain open to beauty.

Perhaps that puts me in the same boat as the flightless kakapo. That marvellous parrot once ranged throughout all the useless beauty of Fiordland. Today barely 100 individual birds remain, thanks to introduced predators. Most of those birds are on predator-proof islands, a kind of avian gated community that’s virtually guarded by humans.

The same Douglas Adams met the bird and described it thus.

The kakapo is a bird out of time. If you look one in its large, round, greeny- brown face, it has a look of serenely innocent incomprehension that makes you want to hug it and tell it that everything will be all right, though you know that it probably will not be.

Might he not conclude the same about Fiordland, or indeed about any one of us? Which place or person is not imperiled by climate, comet, cataclysm or love? Even so, I choose attachment. In my incomprehension, I choose to look into that greeny-brown face. And I hope to do so for the rest of my life.
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