An excerpt from Toni Nealie’s new book, The Miles Between Me
Image courtesy of the author
by Toni Nealie
As will the thistle, letting
A clenched bloom unfold
Once, a decapitated head bobbed before me in a dusk tide. I watched with tight jaw and prickling neck as waves sucked it back towards the horizon, then hurled it to the shore. Rolling in a wash of spume, it turned its Cyclops eye to glare at me. In the fading grey evening, I realized that the lolling head was a coconut. It had floated from some distant Pacific atoll, preparing to germinate far from its mother tree.
For a time, the idea of being an immigrant in America terrified me. Taking root on a distant and ambivalent shore was not what I wanted. I called myself an expatriate because that word saved me from commitment, kept one boot planted in my homeland. It protected me from complaints about undesirable implants, the rants of politicians and talkback hosts, conversations overheard at the carwash, mutterings on the Internet.
Some plants are adventurers turned stealthy invaders, some invisible escapees, spores wafted on transcontinental winds, others cast out on the tide, shifting about the globe.
Love-in-the-mist, nigella damascena, self-sows near my hydrangeas. The spiky flowers bloom the color of cloudless skies and still seas, blue flecked with white. Their ancestors came from a packet of seeds I scattered seasons ago. They remind me of my mother’s garden, close to Te Tai-o-Rehua, the Tasman Sea, margin waters of the South Pacific. English colonists grew the hardy flower in their cottage beds to remind them of home, and now I do the same. A scattering, dispersion— diaspora, from the Greek διασπορά. It sounds like the suck of water through rock pools, sibilance on faraway shores. Di-asssss-por-ahhh, the last syllable a sigh and a backward glance to my mother’s beach and her love-in-the-mist, roses, lilies, clematis, jasmine, and honeysuckle.
Some plants are adventurers turned stealthy invaders, some invisible escapees, spores wafted on transcontinental winds, others cast out on the tide, shifting about the globe. Journeyers, pilgrims, exiles, nomads, transplants—dispersed.
Come summer, the air fills with maple legions helicoptering across the parkway. Dandelion parachutes drift across Oak Park’s gold-pocked lawns. My border collie gets grass burrs stuck in his surrender-flag tail, as he rushes at the squirrels that uproot my parsley while burying and digging up acorns.
Our garden borders cannot be protected. I dig random seedlings from the vegetable bed. By midsummer, those I missed have grown into lanky juveniles along the garage wall. Trees and plants may look stationary, but they are fervent in their work of propagation. They disseminate far and wide.
Yellow-green pods of manawa—native mangrove—float along intertidal stretches of northern New Zealand. The propagules seek purchase on silty shores. They nestle in. Settle deep. If you paddle a kayak up a Northland river estuary, you will see where they shoot up aerial roots, olive-green periscopes poking from the mudflats. Shoals of tiny mullet flit in and out of these pneumaphores, as the mangrove offspring are called. The plants extend their territory by stealth, colonizing salt marsh. Property developers rip them out, but mangroves do good. They guard against seeping zinc and copper, host whelks and crabs, slow the waves’ rub and pound. Protectors of coastal edges. Securers of margins.
The kuaka, the godwit, forages here. Every year it flies almost eighteen thousand miles to the northern hemisphere, without pausing to eat, drink or rest—the longest non-stop journey for any bird. A-wik, a-wik, a-wik, it cries, before setting out, as Robin Hyde wrote, “on a migration beside which the swallow’s blue hither and yon is a mere stroll with wings.” Young New Zealanders, too, fly north, “our youth, our best, our intelligent, brave and beautiful, must make the long migration, under a compulsion they hardly understand; or else be dissatisfied all their lives long.”
“Why do some go and some stay?” he asks. He wrestles with the idea. “It’s too hard to confront,” he says. He talks of himself, but the question is also my own.
I gave my brother an American pin oak for his birthday. Circled by sheep sculptures, it grows in the centre of a field adjoining his garden in the North Island of New Zealand. Real sheep outnumber humans there, two thousand to one. My brother’s tree sprouts fresh leaves in his spring, about the time my neighborhood oak leaves turn yellow, floating down to cover the sidewalk in my fall. When we were kids, my brother and I played a game matching capital cities and flags to their countries, using the large wall map that hung above my bed. That map, with its immense expanse of blue sprawling far beyond our collection of southern islands, excited me to travel. I left my homeland, but my brother stayed.
On Wabash Avenue, I run into my friend Filip, a graduate film student from Ghana. He is making a film about two African cousins who come to America. One returns, the other one stays. “Why do some go and some stay?” he asks. He wrestles with the idea. “It’s too hard to confront,” he says. He talks of himself, but the question is also my own.
Living in the opposite hemisphere to my mother, brother, and one sister, I’m out of sync, in season and when we talk. There’s dissonance between me and those who remained. Muffed communication—a misread email or skewed conversation. It reminds me of Letters from Wonderland, where Lewis Carroll describes a lecture where the teacher sits at the far end of the room, a scout sits outside the door, the sub-scout sits outside the outer door, the sub-sub-scout sits halfway downstairs, and down in the yard sits the pupil, with questions and answers shouted back and forth:
Tutor: Divide a hundred by twelve!
Scout: Provide wonderful bells!
Sub-Scout: Go ride under it yourself?
Sub-sub-scout: Deride the dunderheaded elf!
Pupil (surprised): Who do you mean?
Sub-sub-scout: Doings between!
Sub-scout: Blue is the screen!
Scout: Soup tureen.
And so on.
I try not to look over my shoulder. If I do, I see red pōhutukawa blazing along summer coasts. Number-eight-wire fences slice across rugged hillsides. Sheep scratch against the barbs. Tufts of their wool used to stick to my clothes when I climbed over. Months later, I’d find bits in my pocket, smelling of lanoline, soothing to touch. My mother collected strands from farm boundaries. She spun the raw fleece into yarn, softly pumping the treadle of her silver beech wheel, feeding the thread on to a wooden bobbin. Then she’d knit the thread into sweaters, smelling of sheep and fields, farm brush burn-offs, morning mist, ocean summers, and longing. I remember too, the smell of my dad’s manuka-smoked fish at Christmas. Fresh snapper smoked in a little smoke shed with a tin roof. Maa-noo-ka. Maa-noo-ka. Liking the sound of the native wood, rolling it over my tongue.
Is this nostalgia, the sickness of clinging to a candy-sweet past? It can leave your mouth with the cloying aftertaste of gum chewed too long. What is the idea of home, really? Topophilia, love of place, said W.H. Auden. Endomophilia, love of a place and culture, said Glen Albrecht. Existential insiderness, said Edward Relph, a state of homewellness, the completeness of being immersed in culture and place. When I moved to the United States, my best friend was Magda, a Polish woman who relocated with her Dutch husband and two children. For two years, we lived a block apart and together navigated our new neighborhood. She returned to the Netherlands, then to her homeland of Poland. Now she reports a gap between her and her childhood friends—that she is forever an outsider, no matter how long she is back.
“Where is home?” I ask my youngest child, who was two years old when he moved to the United States. “New Zealand, our house here, the park, our dog.” My first-born has a nuanced answer. “Home is wherever you are. Home is New Zealand. But I feel at home in Oak Park and at college.” My husband is at home wherever he lives, immersed in whatever he is doing.
For me, home is my boys, heads touching, sleeping on our sofa in the next room. The sound of my dog’s tongue rasping as he licks his belly. The scarlet cardinal I see through the kitchen window, sitting amid the crabapple berries. It’s also the loamy, salt-laden air of Auckland isthmus, the pointy volcanic cone poking out of the harbor. My mother, sitting in her rose-patterned chair. Pīwakawaka fanning their tails as they dart about the native trees. Pōhutukawa’s vibrant crimson flowers lighting up the cliffs during the southern Christmas. Its roots can sprout out of branches and trunks, growing through the air to clutch at crevices, meandering to find moisture, clinging to cliffs, thriving in habitats often wild and inhospitable.
My sons were both born at home in Auckland. A heat wave sizzled during my first pregnancy. We were prohibited from watering the garden or taking baths that summer. I made hundreds of ice cubes flavored with herbs—mint, lemon balm, lemongrass, apple mint—thinking they would cool me in labor. During the final weeks of pregnancy, I rattled the cubes from their trays, lined them up in Ziploc bags and stacked them in the freezer. When contractions began, I wanted nothing on my lips. The bags remained unopened. The first rain in months fell early the morning I gave birth, pattering lightly on the tin roof of our house. My friend Ross made a chocolate birthday cake, but I couldn’t eat. He put the remains in the refrigerator. Two days later, I asked for cake. I had seen it earlier, wrapped in a white plastic bag, but the cake was all eaten. What was actually in the plastic bag was the placenta, the whenua. The midwife saved it in case we wanted to bury it in the earth according to Māori custom. My carefully arranged ice cubes left no room in the freezer, so the midwife placed the placenta on the middle shelf of the refrigerator, next to the milk. She forgot to tell us. When my sleep-deprived husband discovered it, he took a spade to the rock-hard ground. The rain had barely dampened the surface. He scraped away for an hour and buried the whenua under the apple tree. Five years later, our second son was born at dawn, in a different house, not during a drought. My husband dug into soft dirt and buried our boy’s placenta under another tree. Both boys are therefore linked irrevocably to that land.
Near my house, near a retirement home, is a four-acre woodland park full of mature trees and a prairie grass-lined path that I often walk along on my way home. One afternoon as I strolled through, an elderly woman called to me. Sitting alone on a bench in sunlight filtering through elm leaves, she said she was lonely and wanted to talk. I sat with her for a while. She migrated from Austria with her husband when she was young, and raised her children here. They were all gone now. She was the only one left. “Don’t let that happen to you,” she said. “Go back while you are still young and can make a life. Don’t be left here.”
Toni Nealie is the author of The Miles Between Me, an essay collection about homeland, dispersal, heritage and family, by Curbside Splendor Publishing this month. Her essays have appeared in Guernica, The Prague Revue, The Offing, The Rumpus and Hobart. Her essay “the Displeasure of the Table” was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Originally from New Zealand, she holds an MFA from Columbia College Chicago. She teaches, writes in Chicago, where she is Literary Editor of Newcity.
The Miles Between Me is available from independent local bookstores and Curbside Splendor Publishing from April 12th, and Amazon on May 3rd.