The afternoon light shifts low on the horizon in Pakanae outside of Opononi. In the distance a church rests on a tranquil hilly clearing. I wondered if it might be open. Many in Northland are, perhaps as refuge for the wandering pilgrim or parishioner. I also wonder who mows the grass so regularly in these out of the way places. There is no sign of lawnmower or grounds keeping tools as if this place is preserved in a perpetual frozen state of upkeep. I have no reason to think otherwise.
Deciding to alter my route and revise time, I turn off the main highway and the car grumbles down a gravel road, juddered by the combination of rain runoff, stones and loose dirt. The road narrows. Up ahead is a farm gate across the driveway the veers upward to the right towards the church.
Stepping out the driver’s side door I fall into a shallow ditch, boggy with moss and mud. Blackberry vines grow wild here and though not yet in fruit small green shoots are wandering over grass and stumps, overwhelming surrounding vegetation as it flourishes.
Taking in the surroundings distracts me long enough to allow my t-shirt to catch on the thorns and I am scratched by my absent-minded movement, leaving sharp, red marks that darken as they dry across my bare legs. Small incisions creating blood shed, an action recorded on skin.
The stillness of the gravel road is confirmed by the wooded hills that close in on the valley. The dense bush beyond the narrow pastureland swallows up remaining echoes of the car engine. Before getting to the gate a large copper coloured pheasant leaps, screaming from the undergrowth and flies away into denser bush. As the bird scurries away I hear my rapid heartbeat thrown into action by reactions beyond my control. I hadn’t noticed the bird cowering and still and I wonder what else goes unseen in the quiet places of the world.
The gate has a handwritten note attached to the top bar. A white, rounded-square ice-cream container lid reminds visitors to ‘keep the gate shut’ I look up to church in sursum coda, an action of reverence. Looking up is supposed to release chemicals in your brain that make you feel happy. There is a moment of the unknown and unknowing that I decide is to be ruptured on this occasion; there will be others that don’t have the same response.
I breath in and the church with its ochre-red roof and white weatherboard exterior settles in its clearing. Religious buildings will always be at odds with their environments. Its presence is that of being purposefully in, but not of the world with its iconic form reiterating its sacred position as a place of worship in the minds of believers.
The church sits here to interrupt a vision of the ordinary landscape and, with the help of the spire, sans bell, points to the sky, which draws my eyes involuntarily to the heavens.