Monday, 12. March 2012
New Zealand is the country where I’ve learned about the importance of grammar, for the first time in a long while. That’s not necessarily what I’d expected.
When I was a child, grammar was rather like mathematics for me. The place where you can quantify language or put it into categories: singular, plural, third person. As the rules got more complicated I was amazed that grammar can also be something more complex, and I grew to love the subjunctive. Through a single change of form, something that otherwise would stand as a fact instantly becomes something merely thought, dreamt or contemplated. And then I’d learned all the rules and suddenly understood that they only describe something that I’d been using almost automatically for many years. Suddenly they seemed unspectacular. And I put them aside for a long time.
The first page of every travel guide reveals that New Zealand is called Aotearoa in the Maori language. Like with all names that go back to mythical roots and are taken for granted because they are mentioned too often, you register it first of all without thinking any more about it.
I once went to Egypt, in the late-1990s. I have very clear memories of a taxi ride in an ancient, dented Opel dating back to the early 70s, from the airport through the Sinai mountains. We broke down twice on the rather long journey. Smoke came pouring out from under the bonnet. The Bedouin who was driving us topped up the coolant or doctored with a few screws. As he did so, I stood on the edge of a dusty road and stared into the bare mountains. On grey-brown stony slopes, the folds of the mountains stood out overly clearly in the hard light, countless lines. Like characters or letters, I thought. And a moment later: like tablets of the law. Since then, I have become much more open to things mythical.
I first saw the long white cloud from the plane. But I didn’t call it that. I thought: a compact, extended cloud layer is floating above the South Island.
After a week and after looking through the first sky photos, I’m certain there are cloud formations here that I’ve never seen before. Clouds that are spread pale blue across a white sky in dots, lines and crumbs. Weighty, almost quadratic blocks that move at speed. Symmetrically ordered lines reminiscent of feathers. And occasionally – perhaps due to the perspective of my origins – I get the impression that certain formations are standing on their head.
More than in other places where I’ve looked at the sky before, they also seem to have a particular depth. Whereas you tend to visualize such formations as something two-dimensional on seashores, despite the extension of the visible horizon, here you see clearly how the different heights and air masses give the light, usually white to pale grey heavenly matter at times a coarse, washed-out, ragged-edged form and then at other times a denser and sharply defined shape. Floating close together but at different distances.
After a long first stop by the sea following our first trip up country, after I’ve stood on the white fine-sanded, yellow coarse-grained or even muddy seashores and raised my head to the sky, in Moeraki, on the Otago Peninsula and finally in the southernmost part of the South Island, the Catlins, I understand for the first time: they are somehow connected. They seem to consist of a single material, part of a whole that keeps extending, stretching in liquefied form, blowing away, clenching together again.
So not many, but really one single cloud.
How do you translate that sentence into Te Reo Maori? Perhaps when I’m in Wellington I’ll get a chance to ask the translator whether you can differentiate between one cloud and several clouds in his language, and if so, whether they fit into one sentence at the same time. As far as I could gather in advance, at least, this language gets by with extremely little grammar, similarly to some Asian languages.
As a person who a moment ago was absent-mindedly counting clouds, gathering them together mentally like sheep, I have stepped back, given the status of the one, the singular, back to the cloud, or even back to nature. One single long cloud and me as one person among many. A tiny difference that becomes large when you realize how much respect for nature lies within it. And even though the intellectual part of me immediately vows to start collecting meteorological facts again, and the words “respect for nature” remind me that it was the Maori after all, the first immigrants to the previously uninhabited islands, who swiftly and ruthlessly exterminated the moa, a large, nourishing flightless bird: I’ve been reminded of the fact that singular and plural is much more than one, or two, or several.