Pounamu

The Maori legend of Pounamu tells how Poutini, a water serpent or Taniwha, was trusted with guarding the sacred Pounamu (jade or greenstone commonly found near rivers or the ocean off of the West Coast of the South island of New Zealand). Poutini, while in the North Island, became captivated with the beauty of Waitaiki as he saw her bathing. He stole her away and began his journey back to his home in the South. Well, Waitaiki’s husband, Tama ahua, was not so happy with this and gave chase after them. As Poutini and Waitaiki fled, they left in their wake significant stone quarries or deposits still found today throughout the country. In Tahanga (Coromandel Peninsula): basalt, on the Western shore of lake Taupo: obsidian, and near Pahoutane: flint (Pahua). Upon nearing the Arahura river, with Tama ahua making up ground, Poutini hid with Waitaiki in a cave. Realizing that they would soon be found, Poutini vowed that if he could not have Waitaiki then no one could. So, he turned Waitaiki into his own natural essence—pounamu and, becoming again a taniwha, swam back to the sea. Tama ahua arrived shortly after and, powerless to change her back to her prior form, he returned home to grieve. This is why the most sacred pounamu can be found near the Arahura. Waitaiki remains here, but her children can be found swimming down the river toward the sea and their father Poutini.

Pounamu has a deep connection with the land as such and thus is respected as sacred in Maori culture and indeed among kiwis of European descent as well. This stone struck me as a most special thing and through my travels I kept my eye out for a piece of pounamu that would be right for a certain gift I had in mind. As I made my way through the North Island I saw beautiful paua shells, the striking white pumice stone shores of Taupo, and plenty of pounamu stones in tourist centers along the way. But, none were imbued with history or meaning that I could relate to. I was looking for something symbolic. A stone to represent the people in my life who ground me and exert their positive influence despite being many miles away. Anchors if you will…

After two wonderful months travelling, I headed across the Cook Strait to the South Island of New Zealand. Finally, my search for pounamu took me to the place that the legend had named: the rugged and beautiful West Coast. In the middle of a rain drenched day, the wind whipping around and making my umbrella near obsolete, I found myself walking into the little town of Hokitika. Hokitika, I had heard from multiple people, would be the place to find a piece of raw, uncut greenstone (pounamu). I entered the first shop I spied, the aptly named Jade Factory, and made my way towards the back of the store where the stone carvers were busy at work: cutting, polishing, and shaping various pieces of pounamu. I was quickly enthralled by the obvious skill of one particular carver and luckily he was quite friendly and happy to tell me all about his art.

Daz was his name and he had been carving pounamu for over 30 years. I learned that pounamu is a very hard stone and so the saws used for cutting large pieces and all the finer tools for shaping the stone are diamond edged. After watching him work for a bit, I asked Daz where I could find an uncut stone and hopefully held up a chunk of greenstone that was for sale in the adjoining store. He explained frankly the flaws in this particular stone and woas forthcoming with saying that I would not find a good stone for carving in any store. All the best stones for carving were kept and used by the artists themselves (of course!).I’m not sure whether he took pity at seeing my earnest dissappointment or whether he was intrigued by the story of what I would like my gift to be…whatever the reason, Daz said, “here’s what I’m going to do, I’m going to sell you a piece of stone from my own collection that I was going to use.” He reached into a box under his work station and produced a beautiful piece of pounamu. Light green and irridescent, the stone was patterned with drops of black throughout (iron deposit). I couldn’t help but accept the stone with a big grin on my face and a heartfelt thank you.

Two days later, I made my way up to Blenheim, at the top of the South Island, the precious piece of pounamu safely tucked into my bag. As luck would have it, the couple I was staying with knew of a carver about 30 minutes West of Blenheim who graciously agreed to look at the stone. This stone carver, Clem Mellish, was of Maori descent and a well respected and acclaimed artist in the area. He agreed to what I had in mind and a few days later rung up to say that the pieces were finished. Frances drove me through the vineyards of Blenheim to his studio in Havelock. We arrived and Clem showed us each piece he had completed. I could not have been more pleased! The beauty of the stone and the skill that went into the carving combined in a wonderful harmony. In Maori culture, pounamu is said to be a taonga (a treasure). Taongas can be tangible or intangible and for me I count my brothers as taonga. I am a triplet and so they have not only been siblings, but peers–influencing my life and providing plenty of competition, encouragement, and laughter. My search for a special gift for them culminated in this: 3 anchor stone pendants, carved from the same pounamu stone. Same in shape, but very different in coloring and lustre. Two plain and masculine (for them) and one inscribed with a spiral design representing the New Zealand silver fern (for me). I believe that as the pounamu is shaped by the water in which it is found, we are shaped by the people we surround ourselves with. I am lucky to have such people to shape me. Love you Austin and Jesse!

-Leda

*A piece of pounamu stone given as a gift is said to retain the essence of the giver and is special in this. Also, the pounamu is said to take care of its wearer as its wearer takes care of it*

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4 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. David Michael Johann Swietlicki
    Mar 07, 2012 @ 14:10:22

    Ledda,

    That is a beautiful story! I’m glad that you have that special bond with your brothers. I fully understand that bond and the influence they have had in your life. I’m sure they appreciate having you share in their life journey as well. I feel fortunate to have crossed your path in this extraordinary journey we call our lives!

    Have a great day and welcome back to our homeland!

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  2. David Michael Johann Swietlicki
    Mar 07, 2012 @ 14:13:56

    Leda,

    Sorry I double-punched the d in your name…It was early in my day! šŸ™‚

    Like

    Reply

  3. Don Dufresne
    Mar 07, 2012 @ 21:13:18

    Fascinating and touching post, Leda. Thanks for sharing it.

    Like

    Reply

  4. Grandma Jody
    Mar 08, 2012 @ 21:40:14

    Leda dear,
    This story, and your tribute to Austin and Jesse, brought tears. The Pounamu pieces are the perfect gifts for them.

    Like

    Reply

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