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The Roughness of its Touch: A psychology of Auckland volcanics

Warwick Freeman, 2017

Personally, I like the presence of Auckland’s hot spot, ninety kilometres down. I like that it corresponds in size to the city itself — huge, unknowable, utterly dark. I like that it can impose its terms upon Auckland, that from time to time it lets go a molten droplet, primed with sufficient volatiles to rise upwards at motorway speeds and severely shock the surface. That it can proceed from that explosive moment to build a great edifice, and finally cap that structure with its familiar dusty red signature. The riddled red stone of the summits. The roughness of its touch.

Such are my affections around Auckland’s volcanics, prejudices even, and certainly it took me a while to find the kind of offbeat scholar who might confirm the majority of them, and venture new ones of his own. In 2015 I was writing a book on New Zealand’s geology, Auckland came into the frame, and around the same time, by chance, I met Warwick Freeman. I pressed him on his interest in the local rock:

— Not the science of it, he said, but the social thing. How people respond to the rock, and how they use the rock.

We ventured out next day to fossick on tidal flats at the foot of Mt Victoria, and I saw he was several steps ahead of my simple curiosity. We were looking for volcanic bombs, or fragments of bombs, but back in the workshop he had a hydrochloric acid bath to dissolve the encrusted shell off these old lapilli, and the tools to turn them into useful adjuncts of vernacular architecture. Basalt drawer pulls, or door handles, shapes that reified some larger, more obscure process — the insertion of volcanic rock into social settings. He had diamond saws to dissect the stone, and handed me a thin round of aerated basalt, as full of cellular holes as any crosscut vascular system. He backed and encircled those discs with silver, polished the face of them with oil, and fit them with a clasp. If you wanted a direct material relationship with the volcanic landscape, then here it was in miniature — small but intense, an ornament, a brooch.

I judged him the right man to tackle the wider investigation, and we walked out of Devonport soon after, into the vexed arena of Auckland’s psychogeography. We walked across a city marked everywhere by eruptive violence, trying to discern the influence of such widespread volcanic product. The buildings: this volcanic bluestone church, these hand-knapped basalt kerbstones. This high scoria wall the Central Police Station inflicts on the citizens below.

We walked across wide ground-level craters and the soft green rise of their tuff rings. We walked across the lava flows, invisible now under the built environment. We walked over the great cones that define whole suburbs: Maungawhau / Mt Eden, the suburb so prettily arrayed around its eponymous cone that journeymen drinking soy lattes within cafes at the mountain’s base often adopt the default description for Auckland’s distinct volcanic locales – the perfidious, overly-comfortable ‘sense of place’.The psychogeography we were attempting was more — manic. We beheld in the cold stone mountains the intense blackbody radiation of their progenitor, active and brooding far, far below. We tipped our hats to past uses of the mountains, admiring the astonishing physical labours of early Maori, who’d girdled the cones with defensive terraces, and piled stones to conserve heat in the gardens below. We recalled, within the demands of their own time, the city- and nation-building settlers who’d embedded water reservoirs in the summits, or stripped whole scoria cones for railway ballast or drainage ditches. We noted the contemporary Maori determination to hallow the summits, return them to their past, to ban vehicles and dropkick exotic trees right off the slopes. Thus the psychogeography of Auckland, its cones and vents, and the strong emotions they evoke — love, fear, greed, anger, indifference, resentment, respect.

Warwick Freeman, Lava Brooch (2004), Image: Roy Tremain

Scoria poster, cropped

Volcanic rock is geology’s only rock near vertical at its inception, and scoria – basaltic froth if you like – is more vertical yet. A wildly aspirant rock, emerging at speed, soaring high, then, in a comic-book cloud of puffs, losing upon the instant its volatile propellant. The CO2, the fluorine, the sulphur the H2O gases, all fled. It’s full of holes, falling, spent. This tiny Icarus.

‘Spell Scoria backwards.’ said Warwick as we walked finally through Ihumatao, out by Auckland’s International Airport, around the stump of the Otuataua volcano, and across the adjacent stonefields. I tried and failed to come up with anything intelligible. ‘A–I–R–O–C–S’, said Warwick. ‘Air rocks.’

If scoria was to have a theme song, said Warwick, it’d be that van Morrison anthem to love. The song that spells out the girlfriend’s name letter by letter, G–L–O–R–I–A and follows along with a thunderous chorus — GLORIA. A short step, then, to S–C–O–R–I–A and its suitably thunderous chorus. To say Warwick likes this rock is to seriously downplay the love affair he has with it. If you pressed him on the point, he’d say that scoria rocks, and that his various excursions with it are simply playful. Yet it’s a commonplace that cities obscure their geography, and that technology in general diminishes the power of natural features. Part of Warwick’s particular artisan’s ju jitsu, suggests an underlying purpose, to use that muffling technology against itself, with an artisan’s tools to un-muffle those natural features, and to offer them back, sliced and diced, for re-appraisal.

It’s a skilful endeavour, this attempt to do more than look at the 
volcanoes, but actually to see them. I once drove the Australian poet, 
Les Murray, to the top of Mt Victoria, gestured to the city that lay at our 
feet, and asked him what he made of Auckland. He was a hero of mine, high functioning, a borderline autistic, a seer of sorts. He looked past the city sprawl, past the yachts, past the skytower, and delivered a big, bold, and basic judgement:

— It’s been boiling like a pot of old porridge.

Was boiling, will boil again, some time or another. Meantime, long live whatever shrines we raise to the astonishing volcanic landscape we live 
in, and what’s that brooch you’ve got pinned to your chest? Well, you know, it’s a small volcano, in the instant of its eruption.

Geoff Chapple’s 2015 book Terrain — Travels through a Deep Landscape has just gone into its second edition.

Warwick Freeman, In Praise of Volcanoes, Objectspace July 2017 - September 2018