Essay: Susan BallardTim Corballison Writing the Tasman

You Will Have Things to Say: Writing the Tasman

‘Coiled loops of time.’ (Tim, part two of an undated letter, possibly begun before xmas 2019, part three finished 4 February 2020.)

—In late 2018, when Su was living in Wollongong, we decided to write letters, back and forth across the Tasman Sea, Wollongong to Wellington and vice versa. These letters were to form a project focused on the Tasman – we would be writing about the Tasman, but our letters would also be crossing it, and so the words and the paper and whatever other materials would, we hoped, cross and trace its coasts and boundaries. Riding the currents. ‘Su, you suggested the idea. You were interested in the Tasman, as I remember, because it wasn’t quite a thing in itself.’ ‘Yes, but you picked it up, and perhaps sent the first letter.’ Though located unambiguously between the coasts of Australia and Aotearoa New Zealand, it was harder to locate other boundaries for the Tasman. Its waters, we supposed, wouldn’t stay put, nor its marine fauna; its more-than animal multispecies creatures were in motion; it was an area on a map but also a series of routes (where, infamously, ships laden with nuclear waste would occasionally skirt the edge of New Zealand on the way to whatever dumping ground they sought). ‘How do we live on its edges? How do we write the Tasman as contingent, contradictory and transformative?’ (Su, 29 January 2019.) We did not know how to begin, except to write. Together. It would be a slow project that takes ‘its most abstract thoughts and joins them, pegs them, to the time, place and contingencies of their thinking.’ (Tim, part one of an undated letter, possibly begun before xmas 2019, part three finished 4 February 2020). We thought it might be possible to write an essay, formed from letters, that are formed from questions, a process of writing that might remain unformed. ‘“Here begins the Dark Sea” – Fra Mauro.’ (Su, from undated postcard, received [29?] November 2019). It might be possible to write about edges and boundaries rather than the water or sea. It might be possible to write an entire essay in questions. Repetition. Possibility. It might be possible to extract every question from our letters, and let them flail around in the Wellington weather. It might be possible to ‘keep those markers of time and lives, all those ecosystems that stretch in all directions out from their muddled moments of writing and thought.’ (Tim, part one of an undated letter, possibly begun before xmas 2019, part three finished 4 February 2020.)

—We have stopped writing letters. They ended in mid-2020, when Su moved to Wellington; a journey made at a time when the Tasman had been abruptly rendered back into a hard, national border, when the movement of human bodies and all our resident microbes, bacteria, viruses were restricted.

After we had stopped writing letters – after Su had moved, and we had started to put our minds to this essay – we found the 1946 edition of A.W.B. Powell ‘s The Shellfish of New Zealand. The National Library of New Zealand was deaccessioning its books, and it was amongst the discards. The book opens with a discussion of the conventions of naming shellfish. Powell is actively involved in this practice of naming and renaming, fixing descriptions – for, ‘is it not better to strive for a nomenclature that expresses the natural relationship of a shellfish rather than to perpetuate a name that is an approximation at best and thus utterly meaningless?’ (Powell, Shellfish.) Powell’s book is the final, definitive and ‘complete check list of all known living species of New Zealand shellfish, marine, land and fresh-water.’ Except it is not. Powell’s efforts have been superseded, his book let go from the collection, his instructions for specimen storage and the removal of a ‘persistent odour from your cabinet’ redundant. Powell describes the travels of shellfish from the tropics to Aotearoa, as they ride the East Australian current ‘which sweeps down the coastline of Eastern Australia and Tasmania and thence across the Tasman’. It strikes us that his is a planetary text where the shellfish and the warm salty currents of the sea meet the sand, mud, shingle and rocks of the shores of Australia and New Zealand. It is a text written across the Tasman that focuses equally on organisms and environments. Powell’s book reminded us of Rachel Carson’s observations of sea life, on the coast of Maine in 1953. Hers were letters and words that did more than present observations. They offered a way to begin to describe multispecies ways of being together, of travelling across waters together.

—Later we learned about the ‘Globigerina ooze’ that makes up huge areas of ocean floor, including that of the Tasman. ‘The depth of the sea is 5,493 m. The base of the sea is made up of globigerina ooze. A small zone of pteropod ooze is found to the south of New Caledonia and to the southern extent of 30°S, siliceous ooze can be found.’ That is Wikipedia. A spatial measurement offered through ooze. The Tasman Sea is described through width, area, depth, and base, and yet, it is none of these things. Containment is an illusion. Even its boundaries are unclear.’ (Su, email sent on 2 August 2018.) This is obvious when we visit the shore: fractal, changing, at no point halting at a boundary. Other measurements offer different rhythms. The ooze is abundant, the water is salty, the tides are regular, the currents unpredictable. So we were writing letters back and forth, across a Tasman that sometimes stretched impossibly far afield (as we will explain) to Mülligen, Switzerland, and underneath it all was a sea bed that was a layer of the shells of planktonic Globigerina, Globorotalia and related species, hundreds of metres thick or more. In his introduction Powell notes that it is impossible to access the species of the sea floor ‘unless your vessel is provided with a power winch [and] a canvas bag with a pair of metal jaws at the opening set at a wide angle in order to scoop into the sea bed.’ It is perhaps the task of this essay to scoop up the Tasman and pass it through our pages.

—We begin to lift numbers and offer them as a form of description. The multi-author voices of Wikipedia, again: ‘The Tasman Sea is 2,250 km wide and has an area of 2,300,000 km.’ It is not clear precisely what is being measured. A liquid measurement. ‘… I had to get my head around exactly what ‘sea-level’ is. Of course it is not what we see. But strangely it is what determines the measurements of mountains. So if mean-sea level increases, do the mountains shrink? I miss the mountains of the South Island.’ (Su, 5 May 2019.) We had started out thinking about boundaries: what the boundaries of the sea were, and the ways the sea itself was a boundary; its surface, its coasts, the ways it could be a conduit for longing (the mountains!) as well as the physical letters we sent. Criss-crossing the Tasman via data mapping we followed bar-tailed godwit 4BBRW lugging a 5gm satellite tag 12,000 kilometres from Alaska to Auckland. If sea level defined the heights of mountains, the sea’s surface was another thing altogether; and the sea floor, the surface of another sea. Globigerina shells are, we worked out, the diameter of grains of coarse sand, and the huge numbers of them that have fallen to the sea floor constitute an archive of sorts. Studies in micropaleontology show that Globerigeria species have been shown to adjust their shell morphology in response to changing environmental conditions. We suppose they register something of the acidity of the ocean, becoming thinner as they find it harder to form shells. A sediment core reading the shapes and the thickness of the shells tells us about changes in climate. Oxygen isotope records from Globigerina species give an indication of the extent of past glaciation. But there is something of a metaphor in all this, or more than a metaphor: the accumulation of shells, the remainder of past planktonic life, being the same as the accumulation of words and letters and images and deeds. ‘Three photos today: 1. Aberhart, Last Light Wollongong, 1997. 2. The ice-cream truck at the end of the school climate strike and march, looking back over the Tasman to the industrial wasteland that is Port Kembla (where all the boats go). 3. Woonona beach Sunday, sitting under the Cook monument, when I zoom in the boats are there, but when I print it the boats disappear.’ (Su, 5 May 2019.) What do these records tell us?

‘You talk a lot about maps. I love all the threads criss-crossing the Tasman.’ (Su 23 March 2019.) All these crossings of the Tasman Sea layer on top of other histories. ‘[I]t strikes me that for Cook the Tasman was understood through the coast, wind, latitude and longitude, not the surface of the water.’ (Su, 29 January 2019.) ‘Tim, did I mention that in 2020 all the boats we could see were cruise ships sitting out the initial months of the Covid crisis? They were unable to dock, and yet remained visible just there on the horizon.’ ‘How to make something of all this?’ (Tim, 4 Feb 2020.) We tell other people about the project and they offer letters back. Jen tells a story of settlement, of generations of Māori families living in Berry. Peter hints at unsettling tales of whaling ships forcing labourers aboard in Kororāreka and then dropping them off on the Gold Coast to make their own way home. Jade had other stories of the whales. The white whale Migaloo marks the seasons. Su spent one whole summer in Wollongong scanning the horizon, in search of a flash of white. ‘Perhaps it helps to think that the Tasman is formed in the intimacy between water and land. I’m thinking also about the idea of the ocean floor as land. I’m not completely sure it is. Because I think this might ignore the agency of the water too much.’ (Su, 23 March 2019.) We could write our plan up on the wall, keep track of the letters that way, but instead we rustle around, shuffling through the pages. Read and re-read again. Letters cross the ocean and fall to the floor joining the ooze; is ooze something intermediate between flow and stasis, network and archive? Its top layers swirl and redeposit, archive teased by flow. ‘It seems like a choice between the abstract and the embodied, or alternatively a choice between stasis and narrative, theory and the flow of life.’ (Tim, 4 Feb 2020.)

—Our letters span a time of two years during which the world transformed. Within that temporal boundary: bush fires; the beginning of Covid. The summer 2019/2020 bush fires in New South Wales were visible, across the Tasman, in Aotearoa. ‘The strongest sense of it all came from the clouds of smoke that turned our skies strange. Smoke blew across the Tasman, performing a kind of sweep up the country, from south to north, turning the dusk a sort of rendered sepia, clear but subtle and hard to describe.’ (Tim, 4 February 2020.) ‘I read your letter and want to interrupt, ask about how smoke can travel from the South to the North.’ ‘I think we first heard about the sepia skies in reports from the South, from Christchurch maybe. The wind must have shifted, from a north-easterly more eastwards, though I don’t suppose things are that straightforward, and we saw them here in Wellington. Later again, I talked to my father and mother in Auckland, and the sepia skies were there too.’ When the fires started they were away from the Illawarra, but the smoke slowly shrouded us, first forming along the horizon out at sea, and then drifting into land, in the same way that the afternoon clouds in Wellington ride the crest of the Orongorongos. In December 2019 the smoke formed drifts that did not disperse, they slowly filled the air. You could see the clear air down at sea-level but everything else was cloudy. I was reminded of the instructions for escaping a house fire, to cover your face with a wet cloth, and then get low, below the smoke. But after a few days we couldn’t get low enough, and going to the coast was not an option. ‘Right now the horizon is dark and smokey, and the sea and sky are not behaving the way they should.’ (Su, 7 November 2019.) We stayed inside with the aircon running constantly refreshing the FiresNearMe app. ‘Now I’m back in my office, and things are differently deep and scary. The back door is open and there are gradual wafts of smoky air. It is not enough to make me close the doors, but enough that my eyes are beginning to itch. The birds are silent.’ (Su, 7 November 2019.) When the coronavirus came, we already had masks at the ready, leftovers from the smoke. ‘I can’t see the Tasman, it is also hidden in a haze of sea fog.’ (Su, 29 January 2019.)

We heard that some Māori refer to the Tasman as Te Tai o Rēhua. We saw the name on a map in a classroom at a parent-teacher conference.

—After we had written together all afternoon, we went home and listened to Gareth Farr’s Te Tai-o-Rēhua from 2016. It is 11 minutes and 45 seconds long and ripples in a way that we think reflects the kinds of writing we are working towards here. The New Zealand String Quartet build up the work together (we’ve always liked string quartets for this reason); it is polyphonic with everyone responsible for a different layer of the sound. In the middle Farr forces a conversation between the cello and viola, silencing the usual showpiece of the violins. What we’re grasping for is a way to describe the work without resorting to representational terms. ‘Have I got that right? Is yearning the right word? Anyway, it would be appropriate for an epistolary project to be personal, in just this way, wouldn’t it? For your letters to express something of your own needs and situation?’ (Tim, part one of an undated letter, possibly begun before xmas 2019, part three finished 4 February 2020.) Is this an allegorical form, or more precisely, is writing about the Tasman inevitably going to be an allegorical form? Allegory transforms the stories of now and the human body into stories of all time, stories of the cosmos; the Tasman as allegory links to the universe and contains it, a sea between shores, and everything. ‘A site held in tension, where on one side floods and storms dump large quantities of water overnight, and the other side gasps for water amid the prime minister’s hopes and prayers.’ (Su, 7 November 2019.)

Rēhua itself is a star, identified with Antares or some other depending on the iwi, and also an atua. Tāwhana, who is involved in the great project of revitalising Pacific way-finding and sea voyaging technologies, said that their seafarers tended to avoid the Tasman – it is treacherous – but he had heard stories of voyages by Pacific ancestors to the northern parts of Australia. This isn’t our story. Tāwhana’s story did not pass through our letters.

—But there is this: ‘Where is the south pacific; Where is the dead sea; Where is the fire in NSW; Where is the Great Barrier Reef; Where is the love.’ (Su, 7 November 2019.) These are Google search suggestions that came up when we typed ‘Where is the…’ They are keystrokes and searchings that have passed through the sea of data that is Google. Or no, Google is nothing but an algorithm, a friend of ours once said. But somewhere, somehow those yearnings and searchings (south pacific, dead sea, fire, love) fall into a sea and sink to its floor to be picked up again when we dredge for them (‘Where is the…’). Hito Steyerl cites a 2011-12 internal NSA communication: ‘Developers, please help! We’re drowning (not waving) in a sea of data.’ And Te Tai o Rēhua, or the Tasman (are they the same?) seems like a sea of data, an archive and network all at once, crossed by connections, produced in the act of measurement and modelling. We know that the instrument makes what it measures. We know the crossing (the writing) makes the sea. Don’t we? Does the crossing of the sea drop its particles to the sea bed? We start gathering up words written by others, as if they might help! Karen Barad: ‘We do not obtain knowledge by standing outside of the world; we know because ‘we’ are of the world.’

—At one point a letter from Tim arrived in Wollongong, belatedly, postmarked Zürich Mülligen Switzerland, its journey, well over three months. The networks, and the Tasman itself, extend further than where we thought the boundaries might lie; the sea is all its water, and it is Switzerland, and it is its clouds and its writing, and it is Antares, rival to Ares, and Rēhua, father of Puanga, and it is the cosmos, (why not?) all making up its ooze. [I]t is so hot that everything is connected.’ (Su, 29 January 2019.) Where is the… –

‘Dear Su. This postcard is long overdue! And it will be met on THIS side of the Tasman… Our project is turned on its head by these developments! You will have things to say…’ (Tim, Undated postcard, left on Su’s desk in Wellington, received 28 July 2020.) When we started writing this essay, (this one, not the other ones that linger unformed on the seafloor, waiting) we drew a diagram on the whiteboard. ‘Baroque’ at the top where the sun should be, and buried in the sediment: a solar archive. Across the surface of the diagram is a series of connections: animal>>>boundaries/ heat>>>ooze. ‘I like the conceit that we’re inscribing lines on the Tasman  –  not just writing words about it but drawing our writing across its surface as letters pass back and forth over it.’ (Tim, 1 February 2019.) We’re struck by the fact that we haven’t once used the word ‘water’. ‘ … and the Tasman will become an illegible blur, a confusion of lines. A confusion so dense as to say nothing – but perhaps that density, that failure to communicate, might also say plenty.’ (Tim, 1 February 2019.) And again; lines, blur, maps, confusion, failure, a density of matter  –  but no water. ‘Our agreed ‘rules’ mean that I cannot check to see if I mentioned Simon Starling’s work Autoxylopryocycloboros (2006) in any of my letters to you.’ ‘I don’t think so.’ Documentation of Autoxylopryocycloboros was exhibited at the Physics Room in Christchurch in May 2012. Starling had reclaimed a small steam boat called Dignity from the bottom of a Lake in Scotland, and in an act of shipboard cannibalism, the wood of the boat was fed back into the steam engine in order to power its journey across a nearby Loch. It was a hideously perverse model of auto-destruction. There are two possibilities here for our essay. We are either dismantling the Tasman in order to cross it, or, our endless mapping is going to form an ouroboros of its own, an alchemical map of the Tasman that manifests itself physically through letters that never once get wet. (A note on materiality: we send paper letters, with a few exceptions.) (A second note: I have to admit to spilling at least one cup of tea on your letters.) Perhaps we are driven by the same need as Starling, a sense that human history and technology are inadequate to the task of living today. (A further note: we (‘we’) depend so heavily, despite our watery world, on electronic devices that can never be wet. But then, nor can paper). ‘So here is a task and a challenge, maybe. Writing about, across, on, onto the surface of the Tasman Sea as our letters cross it.’ (Tim, 1 February 2019.)

—Back to the diagram on the whiteboard. Essaying the letters seems to be also about recognising them as a methodology (we can’t help but be aware of the ever-growing list of methodologies tucked into the corner of the whiteboard). And yet, we’re averse to legitimating them in this way. After we presented the project in a seminar we asked a person who was present what he thought of the project. His completely non-committal response was ‘well, some things should be best kept private.’ He spends his days with books; letters belong to the archives. And even then, only letters from important people, letters that might offer a view into the workings of an exceptionally clever mind. On the whiteboard: animal >>> boundaries/heat >>> ooze >>>. One thing we talked about was about the letters’ form of address: not meant for public consumption but only for the recipient. This affected the way they were written. They were personal, written by each of us for the other. ‘I remember writing to you about how, as it turned out, my mother was dying. I don’t know what I said, only that you replied with sympathy. I knew she was dying, and didn’t know it, at the time – she only died later, at the end of 2020. We all spent time with her in hospital and later hospice, watching her take her leave piece by piece. Her skin looked terrible, red and infected. It had been affected for years, and it had its own leakages that we in my family were all used to. The way she looked no longer upset us, though I think it upset her. What upset us was that she didn’t, and couldn’t, quite talk about what was going on. Nor could we.’ This is part of how the Tasman was present; as a form of address across itself, sender and receiver forming its shores. The shores were spatial and temporal; our letters wrote across a period of two years that enclosed bush fires, a parent’s dying, a world changing under the impact of a virus. And then, the materiality of the envelope and the pleasure of tearing paper to reveal what is inside. ‘It is so good to receive a letter!’ (Su, 23 March 2019.) ‘I’m writing this on the back of…’ (Su, 25 May 2020.) Scraps and mentions of daily life, postcards, re-used paper. ‘The redbacks are breeding under the bike helmets.’ (Su, 29 January 2019.)

Works Cited

Karen Barad, ‘Posthumanist Performativity: Toward an Understanding of How Matter Comes to MatterSigns: Journal of Women in Culture and Society 28, no. 3 (2003): 801-831.

Cesare Emiliani, ‘Isotopic Paleotemperatures and Shell Morphology of Globigerinoides Rubra in the Mediterranean Deep-Sea Core.’ Micropaleontology 20, no. 1 (1974): 106-09.

A.W.B. Powell, The Shellfish of New Zealand, Auckland: Whitecombe and Tombs Ltd, 1946.

Hito Steyerl in Clemens Apprich, Wendy Hui Kyong Chun, Florian Cramer, and Hito Steyerl

Pattern Discrimination, Berlin: Meson Press, 2018.