Thursday, July 19, 2007

Lake Waikaremoana

There is not much to say about Lake Waikaremoana, in the North Island of New Zealand. This is not because there is not much to the Lake. Rather, the place is so beautiful that it is hard to say anything that will succeed in being about the Lake, rather than about some lesser place.

How can one say, for example, how the hills rise up straight out of the lake and run away into the distance for miles and miles, and how they are all covered in thick bush? The guide-book says that the hills “roll north in a seemingly endless procession, mantled in a lush carpet of emerald-green foliage.” This author tries hard to say what the hills are like, but there is something missing, and it is not just that the physical reality of the hills are missing from a piece of writing. The picture they put in the reader’s mind is also inferior to the real thing.

And how can one give a good picture, an accurate picture, of how the lake looks in the early morning, just after the mist has lifted over the hills and disappeared, and the water is perfectly still? In a little estuary on the lake, the water is like a mirror. It is like a mirror, but of course it is not a mirror. A mirror does not ripple like that, a mirror is set into processed wood, not living trees and tangled foliage, and a mirror reflects people and hallways, not toi-toi and rimu.

Perhaps narrowing the simile down will make it more accurate: let’s say that the reflective qualities of the lake surface, and nothing else about the lake or its environment, are very similar to those of a mirror. But actually we do want to say something about the lake and its environment, so accuracy comes at a high price.

And perhaps accuracy does not even come at all: perhaps we are so used to seeing near-perfect reflection instantiated in a household mirror, that the quality of near-perfect reflection cannot be detached in our minds from the qualities of household mirrors. Perhaps, for this reason, the mirror on the lake surface will always be smudged by the household banalities it carries over from the usual dwelling-place of mirrors.

Perhaps we can improve things by describing how the lake is not a mirror. A mirror does not fail at its edges, and show what is inside it instead of what is outside. You cannot look into the shallow parts of a mirror and see blue-green logs and grasses. And only a liquid could change itself so easily to match the contours of the shore-line, all the little bays and coves and stumpy peninsulas, the streams and the jutting bushes. And the silence! The immense and fragile silence, which is so dense and which you can break with a movement of your foot.

But look at the angle of the struts of the bridge. Perhaps you could specify this angle, put it at, say, 37 degrees from the vertical. But even to a person whose head was full of struts of every different angle this would not be enough, because there is something about the shape of the struts, and the texture of the wood, and the slope of the branch in the foreground, that gives the angle a special quality.

Perhaps one could get closer to the real thing by specifying the relevant qualities of the wood and the branch and the shape of the struts. But noone has a head full of wood and branches and textures of all different kinds. So even if we knew just where the special quality came from we would not be able to get that quality into another person’s head.

And the colours of the sunset? Well, one could say that they are “soft” and “pink”, but just how soft are they, and what sort of pink? They are soft in the sense of being diffuse rather than concentrated, and they are the kind of pink that you never find on the dresses of little girls. But is that really much use? It is something, but it does not really capture the actual delicacy or grandeur of the colours of the sunset, or the peculiar shapes of the clouds.

And I despair of getting across to the reader the precise way in which the water at the lake’s edge creased into a wrinkle, and bent into a little “v”, when it snagged on a stick that was poking up out of the sand. And there was also the soft beating of the sea on the sand, as if of an immense but far-off heart, a beating that seemed to me to be too specific and too rare to be chased down by similes and adjectives.

The toi-toi stood in groups, and their heads were bowed and nodded in the wind. They were a bit like old men in conference, bowing and nodding like that, but they were so much unlike old men in conference, and the source of the unlikeness is so hard for me to grasp, that I can’t say I have really given you the right idea about those toi-tois.

There were many different ripples on the lake, and sheets and bands of water that were distinct from the rest but had no ripples at all. There are many different ways in which the water rearranges the sun. Here the sun is a white glitter on the lake, here it is a wide and glaring plain, here an intense wobbly mass.

Is it breath-taking, the hills and the lake and the sun? When you go along the track and come to a sudden gap in the bush, so that you can see the whole scene spread out, does Lake Waikaremoana take away your breath? No, it does not. I have tried it, and if anything it gave me back my breath, smoothed things up in my throat as if a knot had been untied somewhere in there. But this may have been because I had a rest after a bit of hard walking.

Is it spectacular? One might use that word to describe the lake, but that would place the lake on the same level as rugby tries and economic booms. It is certainly a spectacle, but it is not truly spectacular. It is too quiet, too still, lacks aggression. Is it superb, beautiful, sublime, unique, unparalleled? I do not want to say it is, because the first four of those terms are muddied by incautious usage, and would make the lake sound more ordinary than otherwise. And the fifth is false. The best I can say is that Lake Waikaremoana is worth seeing, and you won't really see it except by going there yourself.