Returned Conscientious Objectors Association, Moray Place

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Tunnel Beach: Process

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Yesterday I went to Tunnel Beach, near Dunedin.

Tunnel Beach is the result of a father’s love for his daughters a hundred years ago.

The land owner of an extensive farm along Otago’s coast wanted to give his daughters access to the beach at the farm’s edge. The impossible beach lay at the bottom of steep cliff faces.

So, a long tunnel through the earth was built for the children to creep safely through to the beach. The end of the tunnel, where it arrives on the beach is shown above.

At some point Tunnel Beach was opened for public access. In my experience, it’s under visited by locals yet full of tourists. Although I’m from Otago, I found out about Tunnel Beach from an American biker who consistently mispronounced ‘Dunedin’ as ‘Done-Din’.

What I love about Tunnel Beach is the ambiguous mixture of human-made and nature-made structures. The tunnel is obviously a human intervention. Some of the sheer cliffs are cut so beautifully sharp – perfect right angles and triangles – I can easily imagine them emerging from human hands.

Yet their clean geometry is misleading, for they have been cut with the waves and shaken loose by the earth.

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Yesterday, I took my 12-year-old nephew to Tunnel Beach.

I liked having his eyes with me. We crouched low in the grass and looked up at the rock faces, thin and massively tall, rising up out of the sand.

Gaudí-like structures.

Rorschach tests given by God.

We found a face with a winking eye looking back at us and an impossible nose pushed out one side. There was a strange formation where the creature’s hair might have been. My nephew informed me that the formation was Thomas the Tank Engine being worn as a hat. We imagined the clouds above as the steam coming from Thomas’ engine.

As we enjoyed the silly beauty of the sculpture/rock, my eyes drifted towards the waves that had a formed it.

Tunnel Beach is a dangerous beach to swim at: the waves are too powerful, the slope too steep. Yet those deadly waves are beautiful to watch; their coming and going monotonous and promised – one never wonders if a wave will come back again after it departs.

And I thought of the beauty of that. Of the way that both the sculpture and the sculpting process is a mesmerising thing. The process and the result as beautiful as each other – equal worth bestowed on each and neither hidden.

Which is perhaps what gives the maker of these sculptures away: human hands seldom manage such equality of means and ends.

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To get to the tunnel that leads you down onto the beach, you need to first walk a DOC track through some paddocks. It’s a lovely walk down and a steep trek up. To reward ourselves we bought fruit ice-cream from a caravan parked at the top.

The quiet man selling ice-creams told us how he had lived as a hermit for many years. Recently he had decided to leave his hermit life and re-join the human world. He was building a house overlooking the tunnel, and selling ice-creams as low-key way to practice participating in society again.

Perhaps his ice-creaming selling is another beautiful process, like the ever-sculpting waves.

All my teeth metaphors at once

1

I dreamt that all of teeth fell out. Every single one of them spontaneously dropped from my gums. I caught them in the palm of one hand and stood helplessly.

I told two friends about my dream, one said dreaming about losing your teeth means that you’re lying about something, the other said it means you’re scared of aging.

In the dream, my teeth fell with little pain or mess. But my adult mouth was left with the toothlessness of a baby.

I think it was my baby teeth that I lost in that dream. They were small ones. Not strong adult teeth, with their long roots to hold them steady in the gums.

This tooth-dream got me thinking about growth. About transition.

It does strike me as a bit weird, the human tooth building process: We build a set of childhood teeth, lose them, return briefly to our toothless baby mouth, and then grow second, stronger set. Do other animals grow two sets of teeth like this? Or just us?

It’s a different metaphor for growth than the lifecycle of a butterfly for example – caterpillar, cocoon, butterfly – there are no awkward backward steps. All that good linear progression.

Not teeth though. No, to grow adult teeth one must move forward through an apparent regression.

I think I understand why the butterfly’s transformation is the more popular metaphor: In my own growth – intellectual, physical, spiritual – I’d rather not feel as though I am repeating the same stages. I’d like to avoid retracing my steps.

My dream leaves me with the question, does growing (up) sometimes require what looks like backwards steps?

2

Kelburn is a ‘nice’ suburb. It is the suburb where Victoria University of Wellington is located. So, purely for the sake of proximity, Kelburn is the suburb I’ve been living in.

Upland Road snakes its way precariously through the suburb. Down one side of the road is a steep slope, with just enough room for one row of big white houses. Their white gates are mostly closed. I spent a summer looking after one those Upland Road houses – it’s a bit like magic to slip behind such a gate; one can drop down the stairs and simply disappear.

Vincent O’Sullivan, describes rain in July as ‘a sheer glitter ringing about as if all the cutlery draws of Kelburn had been tipped out.’ I suspect there’s plenty of beautiful, shiny things that would fall out of Upland Road if you tipped it upside down.

I’ve come to think of those white houses that line Upland Road as rows of teeth. When I walk the road, I am walking the small gap between top and bottom teeth.

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3

In Otago, where I’m from, many oamaru stone teeth line Dunedin’s harbour mouth. They are public a sculpture. A pun. The oamaru stone will deteriorate in the coastal weather over time. They’ll start to look rotten, bits will fall off, and eventually they’ll disappear.

The residents of Dunedin will watch the decay, perhaps over generations.

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Another transformation – baby teeth, adult teeth, dead teeth.

It’s hard to imagine that death in Kelburn. It’s hard to imagine the pearly white houses decaying. Their whiteness is perpetual, simple; simply put on another coat of paint.

That leaves me with another question, does our growing involve some sort of death?