I hadn’t thought about taniwha in decades, until a couple of months ago when I was working in New York City. When I was young my grandmother shared Māori stories of taniwha with me, and I only realized recently that a Māori bone carving pendant I inherited from her is a taniwha.
Taniwha are protectors of natural and sacred boundaries, often appearing to people as giant lizards or whales, inhabiting and protecting waterways, caves and other tapu places. They can also be over-steppers of boundaries, causing people hunt them to protect their family (in one story a taniwha body is slit open to find their people inside). Taniwha seem to be regulators of hubris, forming powerful and sometimes intimate relationships with humans, or themselves living in human form. They are cited in legal injunctions by Māori elders to protect tapu land from being encroached by roads and prisons.
Taniwha became figures in my mindscape recently. One appeared in a recent dream, where a whale sped like a torpedo onto the sand of a beach, turning its body and head to face me, bellowing, with human teeth, from a wide, bloody mouth. It is one of the clearest dreams I’ve had in a long time.
Around the same time a taniwha has appeared in our new piece, “In Praise of Shadows”, that I’m co-composing with New Zealand composer Martin Lodge and taonga puoro musician, Horomona Horo. The geographical and cultural distances are surreal, as “Shadows” has become a piece about Manhattan – but there it is, creative works have insistent spirits. I felt it first when traveling regularly to rehearsal in Brooklyn NY with pianist Kathy Supové (a collaborator in my upcoming album). The F and G trains sang distinct melodies as they hurtled around the turns. It’s a marvel to travel in the intestines of this city, being shoved and shot through its pipes and junctions.
Manhattan is all rock and water, and the subways need to be bailed out everyday. Our new place, to which we will move from Oregon this summer, is perched on higher ground. We will have some reprieve from the inevitable flooding of lower Manhattan streets, where cars will drive in swirling streets like alligators, while subway waters boil with coke cans and diapers.
Especially when you look over at the New Jersey palisades across the Hudson river, it’s easy to feel the presence of the people who’ve been here before, over hundreds of years. A vivid ancestry that will not shut up and play dead.
Manhattan is all about boundaries – taxes, swift ordinances, and departments that descend upon you if you fuck up. Many New Yorkers are proud guardians of their place. They know how a century-old building works, that every cranky inch of this land has limits, that aging pipes are long suffering and predictably vulnerable when tree roots seek freedom and block basement pipes. Our sewer specialist was passionate about this kind of extraction, like a dermatologist extracting pimples.
By contrast, the air seems a freer and fresher space around our place, close to northern Manhattan parks and river winds. Birds are canny survivors, and sparrows congregate in thick numbers on our front “garden” patch, a squat congregation of evergreen shrubs pruned to cubes. If there are insects to eat I could not see them
There are many beings who seem bewildered, overwhelmed by the world of rules and difficult things. I did not see one spider in all of two months – not a web. Even the cockroaches were not their cocky selves. Three (only three!) shoved along by neighboring renovations and the winter, wandered from the drain onto my kitchen floor, like stoner kids on a jaunt to a planetarium concert.
And then there was a mouse, more a blur actually, that lived under the refrigerator. At first I thought it was my eyes playing tricks, but no, there it was, the sweetest, tiniest, city mouse. I laid a catch-and-release trap against the wall, where it would feel its way, with poor eyesight and delicate whiskers, to the pita bread bait, and wait for the terrible ape monster to end its life.
I took it a short distance away to a gaping, empty city block of raggedy weeds, bricks, and junkie debris. The mouse leapt from the box, squeaked and blurred into a pile of leaves, as the A train trembled the ground beneath both of us.