Pounamu, as the Maori call it, is known to geologists as nephrite, the native New Zealand jade. It is beautiful, it is hard, and it can be carved to a razor edge.
In the Hokitika Historical Museum, I overheard a conversation between two bird-like old ladies. They were admiring some greenstone mere, on display in a glass case.
“These really are lovely, aren’t they?” the first one murmured, and her friend made a little twittering noise in agreement. The designs at the base of the mere were intricate and skillful, with interlocking curves carved in a low relief.
Then they started reading the caption. “Oh,” they said. “Oh my. Oh. Oh. Oh my word.”
This had to be good. I leaned over their shoulders to see what they were reading:
THE OLD MAORI USED THE MERE FOR STRIKING AND THRUSTING. A FAVOURITE USE WAS TO DRIVE THE SHARP EDGE OF THE BLADE INTO THE THIN PART OF THE SKULL. THE EXPERTS WERE ABLE TO WRENCH THE SKULL OPEN BY A TURN OF THE WRIST AFTER THIS THRUST.
Essentially, the mere is a can opener for your brains. This comes as a surprise to most Europeans, but unlike these sweet old ladies, the first pakeha settlers didn’t learn about greenstone mere in a museum. They found out the other way.
But greenstone can be put to all sorts of peaceful uses as well. Like jewelry, for example. Many Maori still wear pendants made of greenstone, but mostly their culture is appropriated by white people on holiday. I decided to join in this happy tradition when we came across a studio in Hokitika that lets you carve your own greenstone.
“I need to make a necklace,” I announced to Peter. “It’s for our new baby girl. She’s going to be the first New Zealander in the family, and she needs to start her jewelry collection.”
Peter, who is accustomed to this kind of self-serving logic, agreed. So he got to spend the whole day babysitting, while I got to take the day off to play in an art studio. This may seem like a hard bargain, but as I keep reminding him, I am a sacred vessel. I need special attention. And jewels.
Also, a little talent in stone carving wouldn’t hurt. Carving pounamu is a lot harder than it looks. The first Maori, who had no metal tools, worked the stone with a combination of sand, water, and the kind of mind-bending patience that we’ve lost since the invention of channel surfing. I had a whole roomful of power tools, and a teacher to supervise me, and I still came up with a greenstone turd.
Possibly, my design was too complicated. After looking through the binder of traditional motifs (fern fronds, fish hooks, marijuana leaves), I settled on the manaia, which seemed a good choice for a baby. Said to protect against evil, the manaia usually depicts a being with the head of a bird, the body of a man, and the tail of a fish. This is not as disgusting as it sounds. They’re actually quite beautiful.
First, I worked out my design. Note the bulbous bulges. I was trying to make the figure look female, since we’re having a girl:
Next, I chose which part of the stone to carve. You have to look at it with a backlight, so you can check for faults:
Then came seven hours of grinding and polishing. This got a little boring. It would have been more fun with cable TV and a remote. Also, possibly an iPod. And a sandwich.
Finally, at the end of the day, the finished product! The… Cancerous Aardvark!
Those bulges were supposed to be a breast and a belly, rather than malignant tumors. But as the Maori discovered long ago, greenstone is hard.
Besides, an aardvark makes a good guardian, too. Those claws'll tear you right up. Just like a can opener.