Walking upstream with Oakley Creek
Essay by Professor Robin Kearns
I often exit the shared cycling and walking path that runs along Great North Road and walk onto the trail that skirts Te Auaunga/Oakley Creek. Doing so is to step through a portal into a corridor of imperfect beauty. The path is broken but the land is being healed. Here, for almost two decades, volunteers have weeded, planted and cared for this place. Gradually its mana is being restored. I too have planted and plucked rubbish from the riverbank. But more commonly I have just walked.
The waters of Oakley Creek have become part of my place. I know each bend and I am not alone. A friend tells me he cannot stay away: the Creek has become his Walden Pond. In its presence, the stream speaks to those who listen.
We are drawn to water if we allow it to beckon us. It is as if we are attracted by a centripetal force. The stream forges a curvature to serve its gushing artery. There is a pulsing energy from the heart of the isthmus, contesting attempts to contain its course. Straight lines, by contrast, are the city’s motif: lines mark the middle of roads, edges of buildings, the geometries of boundaries. But streams have their own reasoning, carving a course of least resistance; passing mossy rocks and through gaps between them. The flow knows its own compass, seeking out the sea.
Kennedy Warne has described the Creek as one of the “unkempt edges of the familiar”. Here, neglect and nurture co-exist; rotting stumps of pines, perforated by burrowing insects, and newly planted natives stand side by side.
It’s a place of the unexpected. Kawakawa, karaka, kahikatea: is there a shade of green absent in the palette of this ravine? Suddenly there can be a pair of ducks, struggling upstream over tiny rapids to rest within a pool of their own; next moment the deep-throated rasp of a heron high in a pine tree is a sentinel to the setting sun.
Between the ominous brick of the former asylum on one side and the newly widened Great North Road on the other, the tree-filled ravine dulls the city’s sounds. There are remnants of gentler times: rock walls crafted from basalt lava flows and rusted artefacts of early industry. Parts of a boiler lie on the riverside suggesting the Japanese idea of wabi sabi, that poignancy of passing of time and inevitability of decay.
Some days, the Creek smells stale with a hint of detergent. Yet on summer days, the young and the brave jump from the waterfall, oblivious to pollution warnings. Will purity of the water one day be restored? We need clean waterways for more than just the integrity of the life they support. As Thomas Berry writes, the more tainted our planet’s waterways become the less we appreciate water’s significance. Tainted streams, he says, diminish our understanding of clarity and water’s ritual uses become degraded in the collective consciousness.
Above the waterfall, the path ascends from the valley and embraces the city again – winding past sports fields, the cycleway and train tracks. Then a choice: descend to greet the stream again or branch off back into the busy world. Michel de Certeau writes of two types of walking: the strategic and the tactical. Roads and cycleways offer strategies: they prompt people to keep left and keep moving. They are logically constructed to efficiently ensure we get from points A to B. Tactics are more nuanced: ways of walking involving shortcuts, pauses, and memories. The Creek encourages tactics. It suggests stepping off the path to observe the water’s flow, a pool’s reflection or some small life form. Through the tactic of lingering, we expose ourselves to the watery influences on wellbeing.
Beyond the bush, tendrils of the waterway reach up into higher ground along culverts and through tunnels. Yet the Creek has the last words: “contain and constrain me at your peril”, it seems to say. Managing routes through channels and kerbs works most days. But venture to the riverbank with caution during a storm. Then the waterway roars and trees are ripped out by their roots. There are no delicate scenes when a stream is in flood. Be warned by the debris caught waist-high in those tree branches. As James K. Baxter wrote ‘The creek has to run muddy before it can run clear’. A rich metaphor for the human journey.
The Creek asks little of us but to walk attentively in its presence. Can we slow down and be moved by its fluid talk?