The presence of the past

Image of Tane Mahuta

Moderator Dan Wootton standing in front of the giant kauri tree in the Waipoua Forest of the Northland Region.

“I have a lofty tree upon one of my estates at New South Wales. It stands upon the summit of a hill. When I first took possession of the land, this tree was surrounded with many more. It appeared from its strength and stateliness that it would stand uninjured for ages. I removed all the rest and left it to stand alone. It soon withered and died. It still remains in its former situation, a dead leafless object and has furnished me with many reflections at different times.”

This entry, written by the Rev Samuel Marsden on 12 August 1823, has furnished me with a reflection at a different time. It follows my attendance at a Trans-Tasman gathering of the Presidents and Moderators of the Uniting Church in Australia and the respective Methodist and Presbyterian Churches of Aotearoa, New Zealand.

Samuel Marsden was an Anglican minister and member of the Church Missionary Society. He is credited with bringing Christianity to New Zealand in 1814. Having now fully read the book The Years before Waitangi by Patricia Bawden, which was generously given to each of the Australian attendees at the gathering, it is clear that Marsden enjoys a gentler reputation in NZ than he does here in Australia.

The gathering at Paihia in the Bay of Islands was an enormous privilege for me. Not only was it an opportunity to share our various joys and burdens, we were also treated to extraordinary warmth and hospitality by our NZ counterparts, which included home-cooked meals and cultural, religious, ecological and historic tours in a 12 seater church bus.

The gathering began with a traditional Maori equivalent to what might be called here a ‘Welcome to Country’, involving our respective ‘chiefs’, with very specific and equally important roles for the women and men. As you might imagine, quite a lot of talk about church and God ensued. However, for me, all that talk couldn’t easily be separated from my experience of ‘place’. This was enhanced by the intermittent tours conducted by our hosts.

As I have found to be the case with many Australian Aboriginal people, the Maori people have a very intimate connection between spirit and place, which is perhaps hard for some of us to grasp.

When you find yourself in such a picturesque place as the Bay of Islands, it is very easy to focus on the scenery. From the vantage point of our accommodation, ferry, bus and on foot, I heard many exclamations of ‘wow’ and ‘that’s fantastic’. It was very easy to move visually from one beautiful place to the next.

On return to Melbourne, I took time to fully read Bawden’s story of early Maori/European contact in New Zealand. This enhanced my appreciation of the rituals of entry and departure given to us by the Maori people. It aided my interpretation of what might be called ‘gestures of approach’. In many respects, our ability to heed the natural environment through the lens of another tradition has ‘withered and died’.

At the conclusion of our gathering we were each asked for our highlight and my response was that it was either the visit to Marsden’s Cross at Oihi Bay commemorating the point at which Christianity was first brought to NZ; or the visit to Tāne Mahuta, the giant kauri tree in the Waipoua Forest of the Northland Region. The age of this tree is unknown but it is estimated to be between 1,250 and 2,500 years. It is the largest kauri known to stand today.

Its Maori name means ‘Lord of the Forest’. Both places held a strong sense of spirit for me. I said that I needed some more time to ponder. And by that, I think I meant pondering the active presence of the past.

According to John’s Gospel, “God is spirit, and those who worship must worship in spirit and truth”. In my mind, to pray in spirit, doesn’t mean to close the doors on our senses. On the contrary, it means to open them and to introduce breath to each of them. The Kingdom of God is of course beyond our senses. It is to go from those things, which will pass away, toward that which never passes away … that which never withers and dies.

Upon reflection, my vote is for the indescribably beautiful Tāne Mahuta with its enormous trunk penetrating darkness and light. Whilst the photograph (above) gives a limited sense of the dense undergrowth, I’m actually standing on decking about 10 or 15 meters in front of it in order to protect its hidden roots. Primeval is perhaps the best adjective I can use – of or pertaining to the first age of the world. Yet, astonishingly old as it is, this too will eventually pass away.

Dan Wootton

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