Friday, 4 April 2014

Birdman 7

Robyn and I had lined up for most of the morning, to change a traveler’s cheque, at the BancoEstado. The hours, like Hanga Roa’s street plan, and the commission charges, were irregular. We left the bank for the long wind-blown grassy slopes of the speckled water caldera of Rano Kau. Here, from 1540, inside the low entrances of the elliptical stone houses at Orongo, was born the Birdman Cult, rising in megalithic structures of flat basalt, as the hardened volcanic ash ancestors were huri moai tumbled to the ground. Nearby were the richest collections of petroglyphs in Polynesia, carved and painted in homage to the chief god Make-Make, komari vulvas, and sea turtles. Fitness, fertility, and fortune. At this ceremonial village, every Austral spring September for more than a century, the ivi-atua priests, the ‘kinsmen of the gods,’ held a competition to determine who would hold and administer the island’s new mana, for the coming year. The young male hopu competitors raced down the sheer southwestern cliff face of the volcano, until its increasing verticality forced them to dive off into the boiling surf a thousand feet further below and, on the small totara reed paddleboards they had jumped with, swim across the two kilometer shark-infested expanse, to the last of three islands in the deepest of Southern Seas swells, the summits of seamounts another thousand feet tall. Robyn and I stared down in disbelief at the physical dimensions of the challenge, and wondered how anyone would have survived even that part of the ordeal. The race contestants continued, past the tall fang-shaped spire of Moto Iti. They finally reached Moto Nui, and scrambled up its steep ledges to search for the first eggs of the nesting Frigate birds, back from their annual migration. Each candidate tied one into a small forehead basket, like a Jewish phylactery, with all the prayers outside. He swam back across the treacherous sea, and climbed up the precipitous volcanic rock face, to present it to the waiting priests. No one knew if any egg had broken during the ordeal until its basket was open. The one with the first intact egg to see daylight on the Orongo side would be named Tangata manu, Birdman. His head and eyebrows were shaved, eyelashes plucked, and his body painted, before he was locked in total darkness with just a priest for company for the next twelve months. Not even his wife could enter the dwelling. His nails grew until they curled like claws. In exchange for this enforced eccentric reclusiveness, the Birdman was imbued with a spiritual mana so powerful, that he could take the land and lives of other tribes, including the consumption of their flesh in sacrificial ceremony. And a year later, he would be squinting into the sun, screaming the start of the next race for the next Birdman. The film critic Gene Siskel had thought that the Rapa Nui ‘egg hunt’ sequence was ridiculous.’ But the ritual was real, as real as the birdman’s avatar was a scary swirling image, a goggle-eyed, curved beak-egg-clutching idol, carved into the rock of ages and myth, and the glyphic Mayan-like mysteries of the still-undeciphered Rongorongo script.
The village of Orongo is just over the hill from Mataveri airport. And I wondered what a Birdman would have made of our 200-ton Lan Chile Boeing 767, landing on the other side of his volcano.
As the number of bird bones in the middens began to decrease, a new style of art emerged, showing people with exposed ribs and distended bellies. But the Polynesians had landed, and had started eating, and had never stopped, and knew how to eat. All the eggs had been broken. All the birds had been eaten, and then the pigs, and then the dogs. The islanders had moved into fortified caves, with narrowed entrances and crawl spaces with ambush points. One was known as Anakai Tangata, the ‘Cave where Men are Eaten,’ where fingers and toes were considered the most palatable bits of kai-tangata, and the age of warfare and cannibalism had begun.
In the evening after Robyn and I had visited Orongo, we ate in a restaurant that served a variety of local fish- piafi, toremo, atun, po’o po, kana kana, mata huira. The fishermen had spoken Spanish. The boats were from the mainland, painted wood. Our dinner arrived on an elliptical metal pan, with little nametags stuck in the flesh of the fillets. The Chilean owner set it on an imported wooden slice of tree slab, burnt with a Birdman design in the center, and rough bark still around the outside. She brought a bottle of Los Vascos sauvignon blanc from Santiago, covered in a blue plastic insulator, decorated in Mandarin script, and a Chinese pagoda. Her son was obese, and sat in a corner, brown eyes glued to the television, both hands in a bag of Chis pop. We finished at another place for ice cream. Frangipanis had been sprinkled on the tablecloth.
Later, I dreamt. Of trees and frangipanis and fish and ice cream, and eggs unbroken.

   “As for the men in power, they are so anxious to establish the myth of
    infallibility that they do their utmost to ignore truth.”
                                                                                        Boris Pasternak

Thursday, 3 April 2014

Birdman 6


                      “The myth of unlimited production brings war in its train as inevitably
                         as clouds announce a storm”
                                                                                                  Albert Camus

And the Myth of the Ancestor Cult gave way to the Myth of the Birdman Cult.
Wherever Polynesians had landed, they started eating. Not that they had ever stopped. Food on their long ocean voyages had been undoubtedly rationed, and they had likely arrived hungry. But they had still arrived, with the seeds of their new prosperity, and their ultimate destruction. The Polynesians ate the rats, but the rats, lacking any other natural predators, ate them back. The Rapanui couldn’t eat the rats as fast as the rats could eat the Paschalococos disperta Easter Island palm tree nuts. The palms took a hundred years to reach maturity. The rats took eight months. It was a massacre. The rodent population soared, until the trees were gone, and then it crashed.
In the rapid destruction of the Rapa Nui forest, the rats had all kinds of human help. Polynesians were farmers, not fishermen, and their staple diet consisted mainly of cultivated taro root, sweet potato, yams, cassava, and bananas. Slash-and-burn agriculture cleared vast tracts of woodland. Palm and Sophora toromiro trees were needed for building settlement dwellings, boats, and tools. The Ancestor Cult required more and more logs and lubrication to move the moai. From about 1650 to 1850, the climatic effects of the Little Ice Age may have hastened deforestation. Whatever the relative contribution of each of these factors, the total destruction for Easter Island’s original subtropical moist broadleaf forests became inexorable, and total. This resulted in considerably less rainfall as a result of less condensation, and a dependence on either wells or the three volcanic lakes for fresh water, as there were no permanent streams or rivers on Rapa Nui because its volcanic soil was so porous.
With no trees to protect their crops, soil erosion, the sudden reduction in fresh water flow, and the increased salinity from sea spray, led to harvest failures. The islanders took to planting below the collapsed ceilings of caves, covering the soil with rocks to reduce evaporation. With no wood to construct the kind of fishing vessels that were necessary to provide the main protein sources of tuna and dolphin, the Polynesians didn’t stop eating. Before the arrival of humans, Easter Island had vast seabird colonies containing probably over 30 resident species, perhaps the world's richest. There were five species of landbirds, two rails, two parrots and a heron. Midden history began to show a drop in fish bones and a corresponding rise in bird skeletons. With the disappearance of the last trees, no more moai were made. If the akuaku ancestor spirits could no longer provide for all the needs of the living, the allegiances of their descendents would change, and venerate the creatures than could. The symbiosis continued, but was now interspecific. You can’t eat ancestors. Geography determines climate; climate determines culture.

Wednesday, 2 April 2014

Birdman 5

But he also had another observation, that the islanders no longer sculpted, preserved, or worshipped the moai. If he had travelled inland, he would have seen them littering the pathways like the discarded toys of giants. The moai had started to come down more than the hill. They had started to come down, like the trees that came down before them. The Ancestors were being pushed over, their necks deliberately broken. The last upright statues were reported by Abel Thouars in 1838. There were none standing, other than those that Robyn and I had played with on the outer slopes of Rano Raraku, by 1868. Other indignities were to follow. Eleven were removed from the island, and others re-erected at museums elsewhere. The tsunami that swept away the Tongariki ahu in 1960, had its summer solstice sunset-facing 15 moai restored, including an 86 ton monster, with the help of the Japanese, thirty years later. Just after we left, a Finnish tourist chipped a piece off an ear of one. He was fined $17,000 and banned for the island for three years. Forever would have been better but, as the Rapanui ancestors would substantiate, if they had been talking heads, nothing lasts forever.
Robyn and I descended with the nursery’s descendents, marching past those still frozen in time and space on the slopes. We drove across the navel of the land to the north coast, past Bahia de La Perouse, and the steep long path down to swim naked at the red sand beach at Ovahe. The white sands of Anakena were wider, and there were seven beautiful moai, complete with cylindrical topknots, that Thor Heyerdahl had put right, before he put everything else wrong. Others had been decapitated, and weren’t coming back. Robyn changed behind the blue and white triangles of our hotel umbrella, and we lay under a palm tree from a more conducive Tahitian climate, that had stopped struggling so hard.
A sudden rain put us back in our Suzuki, for the return around the Terevaka northern road, to Hanga Roa. Bill was heading out of the Taura'a, as we were heading in.
“How’d ya go, mate?” He asked.
“Great.” I said.
“Bonza.” He said, condensing the experience of a lifetime and a thousand years of mystery into a quintessential Australian abstraction. And was gone.
We decided to celebrate our wonderful day with a wonderful evening, and took a stroll back down to the harbor, to look for seafood. I spotted a place near the fishing boats, beside the dive shops, and put a little more speed and traction on Robyn’s arm.
“It’s French.” She said. And so it appeared. La Taverne du Pecheur. “Probably more hoity-toity than fish.” And she was right. And she was wrong.
The hoity-toity part was unmistakable, and immediate. The big potbellied owner, Giles, was gigabyte grumpy Gaul, and had just thrown out one customer, for asking for ketchup. His huge handlebar mustache moved more quickly when he was agitated, and he was agitated all the time. The décor was more rustic than it had a right to be, for the print and prices on the menu, but I reminded myself how far away we were from France, or anywhere else. His waitress installed us in a rough-hewn wooden booth, surrounded by more plants than on the entire rest of the island. I could feel him watching me peruse the wine list. Frowning, when he wasn’t barking at the staff. I ordered something midrange, from a decent Puligny vintage. His expression softened ever so slightly, until another couple asked to sit upstairs.
“Non!” He said. And that was all. I summoned up the courage to ask him where he was from.
“Normandie.” He said.
“Calvados.” I said. And we were good. I ordered the seafood platter, and the prawns pil pil, and we were better. It turned out that Giles had ended up in Hanga Roa by marrying a Rapanui woman. Whatever she had done to him, his crustacean crustiness had become a local legend, and he was known to the Chileans as El Vikingo. The food was magnificent.
I cringed when the accent of the new couple landed in the booth beside us. When their order emerged from the kitchen, I didn’t wait long, before a Midwestern whine accompanied it, next door. I think it was something about moisture and the fish. Giles closed the distance from where he had been, to where he would be, without any leather touching the floor.
“The aioli.” He shouted. “The aioli! You have to use the aioli.” I ordered the Crêpes Suzette, figuring he was finished. But I was wrong. The female half of the booth had decided to have an opinion.
“You’re American.” He said.” You don’t know how to eat.”
Perhaps, I thought. But the Polynesians did.

Tuesday, 1 April 2014

Birdman 4

When Roggeveen arrived in 1722, he found 887 upright stony-faced moai statues. They had been carved from 1100 to 1680 AD, almost all with basalt hand chisels out of the solidified volcanic tuff ash at the Rano Raraku quarry. Each clan had its own territory. It took six men a year to complete a single moai. The largest ever made was over 69 feet high, and weighed 270 tons, although most averaged a paltry 13 feet high, and 14 tons.
Nearly half of all the moai ever created were still staring at Robyn and I, at Rano Raruku, waiting to descend to their descendents. They were gigantic chess pieces in the game of Southern Sea survival, carved in minimalist flat planes, with proud unfathomable faces on overly large heads. The ones that had made it off the slopes were meant to have rust red scoria pukao topknots added at the bottom. Their brows were heavy, over orbits, slit deep to receive the rocks and coral that would color their eye parts. Ears were elongated oblong rectangles, and their sharp chins set their strong jaws out over truncated necks on heavy torsos with subtly outlined clavicles. White lichens had appeared, a few millimeters every decade, as age spots, for that many years. Their noses were long and broad with sneering fishhook-curled nostrils, over protruding lips pursed into a thin pout. The message was anything but blithe, except for the Percy Shelley Ozymandian kind. Look upon my works, ye Mighty, and despair.
A theory, and when it comes to Easter Island, there are always theories that come to Easter Island, exists that the physical features of the moai represent essential signs of leprosy in a reversed overcorrected form, in an attempt to ritually ‘undo’ the ravages and ‘existential shock’ that the disease had visited on the general population. It was propounded by Dr. Anneliese Pontius, a psychiatrist from Harvard, to explain the aesthetic preference of a people whose main diet, before they began to eat each other, was probably the Polynesian rat. I’m thinking no.
The big mystery about the moai, however, was not how they were created, but how they got to where they were going. What we do know is that, by the time Roggeveen arrived in 1722, the island was treeless. These stone figures caused us to be filled with wonder, for we could not understand how it was possible that people who are destitute of heavy or thick timber, and also of stout cordage, out of which to construct gear, had been able to erect them.
We know from the pollen record that it was totally forested up to 1200 AD, and that tree pollen was gone by 1650. Because that’s when the statues stopped being made, we infer a relationship with the trees. The latest theory about transportation was that the moai were literally ‘walked’ to their ahu terraces by rocking and tilting them down the hill, from side to side. Whether the 250 men needed to move each stone statue employed ropes, sledges, lubricated rollers, tracks, A-frames, or cantilevered posts, is of specialized interest, but doesn’t change the fact that Rapanui obsession with their Ancestor Cult was the principal instrument of their own destruction.
Robyn and I posed for the usual foolish optically delusional photos of us pushing up falling moai, lying down beside the ones with broken backs and whispering in their oblong ears, and generally celebrating our own private festival of indecorous desecration.
We hiked around the crested corner, past lone striated moai on the internal caldera slopes, to the freshwater volcanic lake, its rushes and wild horses, and a massive murmuring nest of bees, in a rock hollow, on the way back out. Where had they come from?
And where had the maroon and white painted upright Ancestral statues gone? By the time that Cook arrived in 1754, he had a similar impression as that of his predecessor. We could hardly conceive how these islanders, wholly unacquainted with any mechanical power, could raise such stupendous figures, and afterwards place the large cylindric stones upon their heads.

Monday, 31 March 2014

Birdman 3


                   “Myth is an attempt to narrate a whole human experience, of which
                     the purpose is too deep, going too deep in the blood and soul, for    
                     mental explanation or description.”
                                                                                                   D. H. Lawrence

And the Myth of Origin gave way to the Myth of the Ancestor Cult. Geography determines climate; climate determines culture.
The sixty square miles of Easter Island arose from three coalesced volcanoes, as extinct as the culture that had erupted on them. Terevaka is the largest, the youngest, the highest, the most northerly, and the least culturally significant, lava field and wind. The far eastern stoneless headland is Poike, the oldest, most weathered and once separate volcano, the site of the ‘Poike Ditch’ and the Battle of Poike, between the Long Ears and the Short Ears, that changed the course of Rapa Nui history. The last large volcano, Ranu Kau, in the southwest, has high sea cliffs that have eroded back from the blue ocean, chewing into the wall of the mile wide crater filled by an eerie freshwater lake, speckled with totara reed islands and its own microclimate. Sheltered from the wind, figs and oranges and vines and bananas flourish inside the caldera. The last native toromiro tree was cut down on the inner slope in 1960, for firewood. Here is the abandoned ceremonial village of Orongo, on the cusp of where the sea cliff and the inner crater wall, and the Ancestor Cult and Birdman Cult histories, converge. Robyn and I would come here last.
Before the descendents were the ancestors, and I was anxious to see where their birth and descent had occurred. We had negotiated the red and gunmetal Suzuki SUV in town the day before, from a Chilean mainlander who had given us a deal, because I had negotiated in Spanish. I asked him why the petrol was cheaper than on the mainland, almost four thousand kilometers away.
“No hay impuestos.” He said. No tax. For which we were grateful.
In the early morning, we headed east along the southern coast road, through the Polynesian vowels and glottal stops of all the bays we passed. Ahu Hanga Te’e, Ahu Ura Uranga Te Mahina, Ahu Akahanga, Ahu Oroi, Ahu Runga Va’e, Ahu Hanga Tetanga. The sun shot fibrous streams and shafts of quicksilver through the smoky clouds above us, onto rivers of twin tire track light on the mud road ahead, and broad pewter patches of the following sea, off to our right. Wild wet horses galloped across our path, and we rolled down our windows to smell them. When the sun pushed through the black sky blanket above, it turned the ocean the bluest of blue, just for a moment, before it was overwhelmed and enveloped again. We drove the grey line between wide expanses of coarse straw tussock spattered with cold chunks of coal-colored lava rock, past random red stone topknots, out of the quarry at Puna Pau, and an immense solitary broken dead prone moai I lay beside, out of empathy. And as we turned left, climbing away from the Southern Sea, the sun pushed through in a final burst of determination, and illuminated a convoluted crested crater cone at the top of the road. Here was where the ancestors lived. Here is where their descendents descended with them, and the nursery we ascended to. Rano Raraku.

On the most remote island in the world, Robyn and I found ourselves at the most famous mystery in the world, alone except for the forest of a hundred stone faces, looking right through us. It wasn’t anything like we had imagined it would be. It was like finding your own remains, and those of everyone who ever looked like you, in an attic- strange, spooky, surreal, ghostly, unearthly, hair-raising. The Rapanui believed that the akuaku spirits of their ancestors provided for all the needs of their living- fitness, fertility, and fortune. In turn, their descendents made offerings that provided the dead with a better place in the spirit world. It was a symbiosis. The aringa ora living faces were made to watch over the settlements before them, with their backs toward the spirit world in the sea. No one dares to go near them at night.

Sunday, 30 March 2014

Birdman 2

The waves crashed into the coast near the cemetery, its ornate graves with the crosses and bright plastic flowers and Polynesian names, beautiful against the open sea. Farther along the shore, past the row of standing stone moai at Ahu Mahai, one with a red scoria topknot, and eyes made from similar red irises, black obsidian pupils, and white coral conjunctivas, we found a huge sentinel brother, at Ahu Akapu. Its massive size hadn’t been accurately suggested by any of the photos I had previously seen, now so imposing against the breeze-blown grass and volcanic rock in the foreground, and the clouds and wide Pacific surf behind. Chestnut horses grazed on the greener areas of brown expanse. We stopped to pose before an inverted boat-shaped skeleton of a more traditional hare paenga dwelling, and to wonder at the baby banana plant, hiding from the winds inside an individual round lava rock wall formation, especially constructed for its protection.
The dirt road led on to the one room Museo Antropológico Padre Sebastián Englert, named for the ‘strict, authoritarian and patriarchal’ Bavarian Catholic priest who, in collusion with the Chilean authorities, prevented the Rapanui from working, traveling, or buying imported goods, and publicly censured churchgoers in his sermons based on their private confessions. Inside the museum were their ancestors’ skulls and fishhooks, the most ancient oblong stone ‘potato heads,’ and grotesque emaciated Toromiro pine Moai kavakava statues, with goatees, exposed ribs and vertebrae, and expressions of pain. The humidity had taken its toll on some of the older historical photographs.
Back out along the shore, towards the township of Hanga Roa, a Christmas festival of balloons and bicycles and a carousel for the children to fly around on, was in full merry-go-round. The local fire truck had been polished to a fine cherry red, and three young boys with their own topknots, were scraping a large pig with knives, under one of the few struggling coconut trees that had been originally brought from a more conducive Tahitian climate. The only conifer in sight, a Chilean cedar, drooped under the weight of the tinsel and presents and heat and guilt that hung from its own branches.
Hanga Roa was supposed to have three thousand inhabitants, but they seemed to be hiding from us today, like they had hidden from the Peruvian blackbirders who had looked for them 150 years earlier. It was Christmas on Easter Island. Still, there were signs of sprawling habitation- a dog and a pile of BMX bikes on a porch, kitchen gardens with evidence of recent harvest, vehicles on steep sloped twin cement drives, each the width of a tire, and the odd burst of Tahitian or Chilean pop music from behind a curtain. A cow skull, painted brown, was tied to a post. Down Avenida Atamu Tekana, the movie playing in the theater was Rapa Nui. A life-sized Santa stood guard outside a closed shop selling brown Barbie dolls, and Coca-cola. There were almost no other street names, and no street numbers. On the village walls between two far-flung volcanoes, sharp contrast lines of light and darkness cut between the bright subtropical sun, illuminating the motives, and the simple dark empty shadows, hiding the deeds.
We finished down Caleta Hanga Roa, watching the colorful open Chilean fishing boats move up and down in the harbor. On an island where all the other statues faced inland, there was one lonely statue of Christ, celebrating his birthday in the place named after his resurrection, looking out to sea.