Shane Cotton's Takarangi

I grew up in the Motueka Valley at a place called Ngatimoti. The Peninsula Bridge crosses the Motueka river there. It carries one lane on a timber deck joining SH 61 to Peninsula Road and the west bank of the river. The bridge is 110 years old, still doing its job of daring every kid who grows up in its vicinity to climb the railing and take the leap one day – maybe thirty feet if the summer is hot and the river sedate and inviting. By the time I’m sixteen, I’m a veteran. Veterans don’t jump. We dive, head first, eyes open, arms outstretched. There must be grace in the art of falling.

Grace in the Art of Falling

Late November, 1978. Warm spring rain. Muggy afternoon. The river is up and rising. Ten or twelve feet above summer’s inclination. The colour of strong tea with a splash of milk. We call it a ‘fresh’, not a flood. But it approaches flood proportions. I’m on the bridge observing flow. The swirls and eddies, the swift moving currents. I watch denuded tree trunks, broken branches and lesser timbers sail off down the river to whatever fate nature’s great cycles of death and renewal have in store for them. Their course is set as the river ordains. I’m drawn irresistibly to inquire. I take off my shirt and climb to the top of the railing. Sixteen is a dangerous age for a boy who thinks he’s man enough to defy a river.

The first time I saw Takarangi, I felt drawn irresistibly to inquire. I wanted to dive right into it. From a certain aspect, flying and falling are the same. The wairua of a bird and the wairua of a boy who thinks he’s man enough share a moment of commonality. An Icarus moment. Before the melting and the torrent. Sun and river. Fire and water. Elemental gods. If you believe the apocrypha, gods don’t like defiance. Jaunty little Piwaiwakawaka doesn’t care a jot. Why should he? He was there at the end. He’ll be there at the beginning. Still laughing.

The great primordial edifice. Carbon black. Composed of every atom of every ancestor of every life form. The rawest epitome of mass, substance, density. Brutish beginnings. Blurred uncertainty. Dawning awareness. The riddle of light emerging from darkness. The riddle of nothing emerging from light. All understanding comes from nothing. The flit and fall of enigmatic birds like souls shut out of the Guf. A teenager perched on a rail.

Takarangi. The word is many things. Toi whakairo displays an intersecting spiral motif that uses space – and therefore light, or marama – to define the open spiralled forms. Maramatanga is the light of understanding and knowledge. It reveals the graceful spiralling umbilicals that bind us to wairua and whakapapa – that bring us the past through all space and time, informing us as we require, preceding us as we go. And then there is takarangi; to stagger and stumble clumsily. To layer up the heavens. To fall down from the sky. Or the railing of an old suspension bridge.

Appeared in

22 June 2022

Ben Brown

Ben Brown is a writer, performance poet and public speaker. In May 2021 he was appointed inaugural Te Awhi Rito Reading Ambassador for New Zealand. He is also a father of two, which he considers his best work to date. He lives and works in Lyttelton.