National Geographic : 2014 Mar
58 He passes it to me, and I stroke its river-smoothed skin. “Our people have a tradition that you don’t keep the first piece you find,” he says. “So I’m giving it to you.” A thought comes to me. Mahuika is a master carver of greenstone. I hand the stone back to him and say, “If you drill a hole in it, I will wear this pounamu around my neck, to bind me to this place.” Te Wahipounamu, the place of jade. Since 1990 this southwestern edge of New Zealand has enjoyed World Heritage recognition for its four national parks and interconnecting tracts of conservation land. Of all the wilderness areas in my country, this is the one I return to most often, to breathe its mountain air, wade its rivers, hike its forests, and absorb its presence. The carver and I are walking in the Cascade Valley, an hour beyond the end of the coast road, where it terminates south of Haast. Over our shoulders the Red Hills Range glows dark crim- son in the afternoon sun. The pounamu in the rivers comes from those hills. The same tectonic forces that built the mountains made the stone. We pace the riverbanks, heads down like wading birds, looking but not looking, because Maori believe pounamu is not found, it reveals itself. Revelation, however, is complicated by the fact that there are many green stones that are not greenstone, or nephrite, as geologists call it. I discover I am an expert in locating these look- alikes—the fool’s gold of the jade enterprise. Time and again I stoop to pick up a pretty sage green pebble. “How about this one, Jeff? Nephrite?” “Nope, leaverite,” he says, as in, “Leave ’er right there.” When Maori were lords of this land, no resource was held in higher esteem than pounamu. In part the stone’s stature arose from the un- countable hours needed to shape it into tools or ornaments, for pou- namu is harder than steel. Working the stone over weeks or months imbued it with the life of its owner. In one tradition, when Maori died, their prized pieces of pounamu were buried with them, to be dug up later and passed on to a descendant. In this way pounamu transcended time, binding generations in a sacred embrace. To handle such treasures today—in the form of chisels, ear pendants, fighting clubs—is to sense a link not just with the maker and owner but also with the physical ancestry of the stone. In the Maori world, objects speak to their ori- gins: whalebone to the whale, wood to the tree, pounamu to its source river and mountain. Water and ice scour the stone from its host rock; rivers carry it down to the sea. “ The stone is always moving,” says Mahuika. “In our stories we call it a fish. It’s on a journey, just like we are.” We cross the Cascade River waist-deep, hold- ing our arms out like wings, balancing against the current’s muscular pull. It is spring, when the fry of native fish surge into Te Wahipounamu’s rivers from the sea, heading upstream to grow to maturity in cool forest reaches. Catching these whitebait is a west coast religion. From dawn till dusk, coasters wade the river mouths with long scoop nets, sieving for ’bait. Later, in a tiny riverbank hut, or over a driftwood fire, butter will be melted in a frying pan and a mixture of egg and whitebait tipped in. Whitebait patties, food of the gods. Maori call the commonest type of whitebait By Kennedy Warne Photographs by Michael Melford Jeff Mahuika bends down suddenly. Among the thousands of river pebbles at our feet, he has seen something my eyes have missed. His fingers grasp the edge of a stone and pry it gently from the gravel that all but hides it from view. It is a finger-long sliver of pounamu—greenstone, or jade—and as he holds it to the light, it gleams a cool gray green. This beachcombed jade, above, about 11 pounds, was photographed on a bed of river stones.