Tag: sense of wonder

Aotearoa: sketchbook page

Once again, one page doesn’t do justice to the history and past of the Māori people

This is going to sound more like a plug for New Zealand than an introduction to New Zealand archaeology, but here goes anyway . . .

Between the ages of four to almost sixteen years old I lived in Christchurch, New Zealand. One of my favourite places to go was the Canterbury museum, a beautiful building that seemed enormous to me at the time, which stands right beside Christchurch’s wondrous botanical gardens. Though not as substantial as some of the more famous museums round the world, it was good-sized museum for such a small city, with a diverse and well-displayed collection (at least to my young mind). I was most fascinated with the extinct flora and fauna of New Zealand, and especially quite enamoured with the cultural remains of her earliest settlers.

During the 1980s, as part of Māori recovery programmes, Māori language (known as te reo “the language”), music and art were beginning to be taught in school, at least it was at the primary school I went to. All children were given the opportunity to participate in the Māori choir (which I did and loved), take art lessons and learn te reo, albeit an elementary study of the language. Whenever we went on a school excursion or camp we were treated to traditional Māori folktales, which added a great deal to the history of the place. I can still remember a friend of mine telling me a story about the local dragon or tanewha (pronounced tanifa) during one school camp, whose ground we stood on. Such things have always left deep impressions on me. There’s a reason specific places and spaces are imbued with deeper meaning, why we talk of the essence or spirit of a place and why some spaces are described as sacred. All of New Zealand felt that way to me and the art and folklore of her first people only adds to the sense it is other-worldly.

Te reo has declined over the years, but efforts have been renewed to revive it. Māori is one of New Zealand’s three official languages – the other two being English and New Zealand Sign Language. In contrast, Australia has no official language. English is the language of the majority, with over 300 distinct languages spoken in Australian homes (information from the The Australian Bureau of Statistics 2016 Census data).

New Zealand is a geographically beautiful country with deeply rooted Maori heritage and cultural influences from around the world.

The Sense of Wonder

Do not grow old, no matter how long you live. Never cease to stand like curious children before the great mystery into which we were born.

Albert Einstein

The sense of wonder is a theme that comes up often when I read about creativity or biographies and memoirs of creative thinkers. Awe and curiosity drove Albert Einstein’s scientific and philosophical thought and led to some of the most inspired insights in our understanding of the world. He understood the importance of a sense of wonder and advocated it often. Leonardo Da Vinci definitely possessed a developed sense of wonder. His skill in artistic rendering were matched by his enthusiasm for observation and note-taking, which themselves inspire a sense of wonder in modern readers.

A sense of wonder is not only the feeling of being amazed at something, it is a whole body reaction, which can bring on goosebumps and shudders, leave you breathless or speechless and lead to feelings of reverence and even a sensation there is a magical quality to the experience. D.H. Lawrence described the sense of wonder as the sixth sense, “the natural religious sense”. There is little doubt humans have been experiencing the sense of wonder for many thousands of years, at least. We can see it in prehistoric rock and cave art, in the architecture of the ancients and in their writings. It is why we still cherish those ancient places, ruined though many of them are. Consider the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World; this list has been around since antiquity, despite the fact that only one is still standing – the Great Pyramid of Giza. Modern lists of wonders of the world include both human-made structures and natural wonders, but they have much in common with those of antiquity: they awaken in observers to a sense of curiosity, awareness and delight. The feeling is magnetic and in this we are still very much like our ancestors who lived millennia ago.

Many years ago I visited Newgrange, and was quite enchanted by the place. However, not everyone felt so enamoured. Some visitors complained the site lacked authenticity and that it had been ruined by modern interpretations and aesthetics. I had a degree in archaeology and palaeoanthropology and had read up on megalithic sites in Europe, but even I wasn’t sure what an authentic Newgrange was supposed to feel like, after all, we were all 21st century tourists, with sensitivities and expectations specific to our time and world views. I had suspended my expectations before arriving at Newgrange, but I began to feel as if I was being naive, romanticising the experience. Yet as I wandered around and through the monument, a sense of wonder and curiosity kicked in and I began to enjoy the experience without micromanaging it. While others questioned the guide on the ugliness of the facade, I gave in to reverie. I understand that some people felt no connection to the monument, or indeed the surrounding area, but does that mean connection is impossible for others? Newgrange, like many ancient monuments, is a commemorative place, but it doesn’t mark a single moment in time or represent a single person. It is a place with special meaning for people in the past, and though we might not agree on the nature of the meaning, we are predisposed to honour it. It’s human nature. The fact that Newgrange has been part of the Boyne River valley landscape for over 5,000 years is enough for my unpretentious sense of wonder. For me it’s about continuity, and a confirmation that we are part of something greater than ourselves. The sense of wonder is an intuition that engages the mind, but it’s also an affirmation that there are still mysteries in the world. A great many things would not be possible without it. The sense of wonder begets creativity.

On the summit of the precipice, and in the heart of the green woods . . . there was an intelligence in the winds of the hills, and in the solemn stillness of the buried foliage, that could not be mistaken. It entered into my heard and I could have wept, not that I could not see, but that I could not portray all that I felt.

James Holman
From A Sense of Wonder: How a Blind Man Became History’s Greatest Traveler, by Jason Roberts