Sand shifts with every passing tide. People come and go more slowly but the land endures, right? Well, not always. Soft cliffs and strong seas along the north Taranaki Bight make for a coastline that is always in a state of galloping retreat... Pat Greenfield
Camerawoman on a cliff
Pat Greenfield aims her lens at a coastline in a state of strife. She clicks her shutter and captures cliffs that are fast eroding away. Combining close observation with skilled photography, she records the deteriorating coastal landscape of North Taranaki in a way that any layman can see and understand. Her images prove to all the damage the elements have done and the speed of the destruction.
"You might expect cliffs to be more permanent, but those at Tongaporutu are not," she says. "They have been fashioned from crumbling grey papa and sandstone and are under constant assault from the volatile Tasman Sea. Anecdotal evidence suggests that the coastline is eroding at the rate of two metres annually. Changes are occurring over breathtakingly short time frames, even in human terms, let alone normal spans of geology.
"Spooky caves, stoic rock stacks and great sheer faces of layered rock - none of them last," she says.
Tongaporutu, in the north Taranaki Bight, has become Pat's turangawaewae - the place where she stands. She had felt its pain and recorded its losses.
An exhibition of her photographs, held at Puke Ariki in 2004, lasted six months, and a collection of her notes and images are now stored in the archives, to be saved for posterity and easy access to generations to come. Many of her stark, soaring images can be seen in the September/October 2006 issue of New Zealand Geographic.
Tongaporutu is a work in progress. "I'm no scientist," she says in her quiet, unassuming way. "I'm going there as a researcher to see what's changed from last time. It's a mixture, but basically I'm researching, recording what's there; everything I've seen, starting at the 'Tonga toilet', my first point of call. I noticed last time that there were no thrushes around, though I had seen at least one on previous occasions. I recorded that, but didn't make any judgments."
And so she begins a tale of how she first became involved in a mission that could well be life long.
"I first went up to Tongaporutu in 2001. That's when I 'discovered' the Three Sisters and fell in love with the place. I went up to 'Tonga', as I now call it, a couple more times to photograph from the cliff top. This was always on the southern side of the Tongaporutu River. Later, I discovered a track down to the northern side and came across a cave system where the rocks were beautifully positioned and lit. A slow shutter speed dictated setting my medium format Pentax camera on a tripod, but the tripod head packed up."
While sitting on one of two large boulders to have lunch, and feeling annoyed, Pat decided to return in a fortnight with a repaired tripod to re-photograph the rocks. But when she did, the rocks had completely vanished, along with the boulders.
"I was totally gob-smacked," she says. "I thought if the changes were occurring that quickly then, being a project-orientated person, perhaps this was a project I was meant to do. I decided, right, I'll document the changes over a year and go up at least once a month. Also, I'll further refine this to photograph key things from the same position, like the rock formations called the Three Sisters."
The Third Sister Falls
And that was how Pat came to record the loss of the third Sister. The series of chimney-like rock stacks, formed over perhaps 500 years, had long been North Taranaki icons. But on 29 September, 2003, a severe storm pounded the coast and destroyed the littlest Sister. The same storm also took out one of the Four Brothers rock stacks not far south of the Three Sisters.
"Yes," Pat says, "I mourned her loss. I mean, it was only a piece of rock but she was part of my family. I never dreamed I would document her demise. I felt guilty in a way."
The lone photographer witnessed the storm that brought destruction from a cliff top that frequently shook from the pounding being dealt to it. She tells how the photos came at great personal risk, knowing that at any time she could be swept away, not by the waves she could see, but by the monsters behind her that she couldn't.
But Pat has no regrets. "It was both terrifying and exhilarating. It was then that I understood why people climb mountains. In the presence of death you never feel more alive. Because every moment might be your last, all your senses are heightened. Yet amidst and above all that frenzy, my most enduring memory was of hearing a skylark sing. I was reminded in that moment how precarious, but just how wonderful, life could be."
Knowing the risks doesn't necessarily lessen them, Pat says. "The more times I expose myself to risk, the greater the odds that one day my number will be on the next wave." But once on the cliff top and working, she is more concerned about her camera's welfare than her own. "I have a supermarket bag on the windward side of the camera. It doesn't matter if I get swamped with spray, but not the camera!"
One thing Pat laments is the lack of a 'body' to give scale to her storm images. "People relate to people," she says, then smiles wryly. "No one has so far been stupid enough to be there in storm conditions, except me."
Over the last few years, Pat has learned a lot about storms. "The more powerful the storm, the further out to sea its wash zone extends," she says. "The waves that pound the cliffs from these are basically just wash. The really big stuff breaks far out to sea."
She calls the most potent storms 'alpha storms'. "Each storm has its own unique high end energy signature dependent upon a number of varying factors."
She goes on to say that the alpha storm that devastated the coastline in September 2005 was on a par with the alpha storm that destroyed the Third Sister in September 2003, but there was a crucial difference. "Their high end energy signatures were different. The 2005 storm's energy was concentrated in huge, powerful waves. By contrast, the 2003 storm was more deadly because the entire sea was in a frenzy. It also had an added sting in the form of a strange hum which I recorded.""
She also wondered if that hum had contributed to the loss of the Third Sister and one of the Four Brothers. She had observed that no rock stacks were destroyed during the 2005 storm, even though this weather event had bigger waves.
"The hum generated by the 2003 storm could have caused the rock stacks to implode," she says. "A certain frequency will shatter glass and sand grains are like glass, so I wondered if the unique noise generated by this particular storm could have contributed to the rock stacks' demise."
These two potent storms both occurred in September, two years apart. If the pattern continues, then this September (2007) could yield another monster.
Advice proffered in photography magazines has sometimes made Pat chuckle. "Someone once commented that 'a great landscape can be elusive but at least they won't disappear overnight'.
"I always smile when I recall this sage piece of advice," she says, "Because it is incorrect, particularly with respect to the Tongaporutu coastline which is in a constant state of flux."
Beaches, she adds – the highways of the coast – are the most ephemeral of natural features. "Their malleable mantles of sand ebb and flow in tune with the prevailing currents and weather conditions. Each tidal cycle produces a fresh canvas, one never to be repeated."
A purposeful trek
In 2003, Pat photographed Te Kawau Pa, north of Rapanui, and photographed in sequence, the entire coastline from Rapanui all the way south to Whitecliffs, a trek of approximately 11km. This took six months to complete, but these images now stand as a template against which all future events can be compared.
Pat, who lives alone since the death of her partner is philosophical. "When you've got a partner, often that's enough because you know you're valued by them, but on your own you can sometimes think, 'What's the point?' It's nice know you have a worth, that your existence means something to someone. If no one likes or values what you're doing…it's not enough for me to do something just for me. It's not an ego or vanity thing. It's just a basic human need to feel needed and valued.
"Part of the reason I gifted the work to Puke Ariki was because I thought it could be used for research purposes and education. And also, I'm looking into the future. In a hundred years when we're all pushing up daisies, someone might look at my work and see how much the Tongaporutu coastline has changed. And tellingly, whether we were partly instrumental in the speed of change via human-induced climate change."
The Tongaporutu coastal landscape continues to offer itself up to those with a scientific and photographic bent. How lucky we are that Pat Greenfield, New Plymouth photographer, has chosen it to be the magnus opus of her work.
First published 2 August 2007