Changed, changed utterly, Diane Comer

Earthquakes & Butterflies
Kathleen Gallagher
Wickcandle Books, $35.00,
ISBN 9780473332327

Kathleen Gallagher’s Earthquakes & Butterflies is a work of profound beauty and healing for all of us who experienced the Christchurch earthquakes, however near or far we were from the epicentre. Like concentric rings moving outward from the first event, the book radiates through the reader, even as the quakes did:

Some folk born and bred here who are living on the other side of the world or other parts of the country are affected, as if the shaking of the earth has also gone inside their bones. This is their place, their turangawaewae, the place they call home.

I lived through the Christchurch earthquakes and, as a migrant, this tectonic shift and rift bonded me to New Zealand in a way no amount of time could, for “[in] these earthquakes the entire community bands together, holds itself together, in a way that most folk in their lifetimes would never experience.” What the earthquakes teach us, and what Gallagher’s book honours and celebrates, is our collective humanity, embodied in the Māori proverb, He aha te mea nui o te ao? He tangata, he tangata, he tangata (What is the most important thing in the world? It is the people, it is the people, it is the people).

Gallagher takes us on a journey with four individuals experiencing devastating loss from the February quake. Each embarks on a physical journey that is in actuality a spiritual passage, and as with all such journeys, it is one of painful and essential transformation. Kara and her son Hemi have lost a son and brother. Pieter, a Dutch shopkeeper, has lost his shop, his wife and his ageing mother. Tess, newly arrived from China, has lost her job.  Like many people who survived the February quake, Tess owes her life to a total stranger who pulled her from the rubble. Hemi, whose own brother was buried and killed in the city while trying to save someone, is led to Tess by a voice in his head and a persistent karoro (seagull). From the book’s opening sentences we know that “Nothing is separate. There is no distance between us. No thick veil blocks the natural world from the human world.”

Throughout the narrative, we see how the natural world offers us lessons in how to live: insects, birds, trees, rivers, mountains, ocean and weather, all bear eloquent witness to persistence and resilience in the face of the quakes. Like the butterflies that return each autumn equinox to the kanuka and kahikatea trees, their gathering together gives the people who see them strength and hope, even as the earth moves beneath their feet in aftershocks. As Kara says to her son Hemi, speaking of Papatūānuku, the earth: “We are everything and nothing to her. We are part of her being, of her way forward and we have some choice in how we respond.”

How these four individuals respond to the seismic shifts that have wrenched their world apart forms the core of the narrative. Gallagher -– a poet, playwright and filmmaker – understands how to weave disparate voices and stories through a visual and imagistic narrative. Each of the 40 chapters begins with a haunting and evocative black and white photograph of Christchurch post-quake, taken by Michael Coughlan, paired with a title that distils an image or concept. This gives the book a rhythmic and complex structure, one that is both unified and distinct, lyric in intention and orientation, fuelled as much by image as story. Gallagher’s narrative is impressionistic and polyphonic. She weaves voices, myth, science, poetry, photos, and multiple strands show how everything and everyone is connected, the natural world and the human world, Māori and Catholic, physical and spiritual. For example, a photo of a ngaio tree sprouting amid rocks in Redcliffs fronts a chapter entitled:

~Ngaio~

Blossom

Tree

Look Carefully At

The chapter opens, reminding us that ngaio grow in the most inhospitable of places: “Nga Io, is the nothingness from which everything springs. On some cliff faces, there is nothing but ngaio trees.” A funeral vignette follows, the casket built by hand by Pieter and Hemi for Pieter’s mother. Kara brings candles, flowers, kai and a poem that acknowledges their dead:

This holy mountain

this blessed blade of grass

Everything here is holy

Hone’s passing, Kay’s passing

Helena’s passing.

These huge earth quakings

Throughout the book, these acts of service and tenderness show how grief and suffering may best be borne when shared. Pieter gives everything away from his ruined store in the wake of the quake. Strangers come and fill their bottles in the spring that bubbles up in his garden. Cups of tea are made and shared with strangers and friends. Chimneys are dismantled and liquefaction shovelled.  All the dear and ordinary things that restore dailyness. Songs thread through in Dutch, English and te reo.  Small ongoing acts of kindness tighten the weave of their broken lives. But, always, we see how their stories are part of a larger geologic narrative that has mythic and spiritual dimensions: “The quakes take us into the world at another level. We can’t escape their depth, their insight, their excursions into death and dying and life and living.” How people learn to live in the face of loss and sorrow flows through each page of this narrative, asking always, how does the story help?

Gallagher has given us a book that channels the painful arc of a city and its people amid transformation. Her writing is a conduit, a channel, even as Christchurch is: “This place is a birthing canal …. It’s hard to live an ordinary life in these sacred places. The sacredness of place disrupts the ordinary.” But it is exactly that disruption in the ordinary that brought out the extraordinary in everyone throughout the quakes. The barbers in Riccarton setting up with their clients amid the florist shop; my students migrating through their homes after our venue was damaged; a thousand tiny acts of solidarity and community throughout the city. All of Christchurch has been changed, utterly, by what happened, and the metamorphosis has been both sudden and ongoing.  Gallagher reveals these elemental and subtle changes in prose that is as lucid as it is necessary. Earthquakes & Butterflies is big medicine, unafraid of illuminating our mortal truths. Be careful where you read this book. The fierce compassion of its story left me in tears on a bus in Wellington, for as Gallagher writes: “When people leave the city, the broken open feeling stays inside them. They take the earthquakes with them.”

Diane Comer writes and teaches personal narrative in Wellington.

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