Nor'wester In The Cemetery - William A Sutton 1950
This painting by the Canterbury (New Zealand) artist Bill Sutton has become an iconic New Zealand image. The cemetery is a montage of a number of cemeteries around Christchurch.
I remember growing up with this image and remember it especially when I was a Teachers Training College student doing Art as a major in my third year. This painting was in the permanent collection of the Robert McDougall Art Gallery and I made many trips there during those years.
The painting is very large and very compelling to anyone who has grown up in Canterbury and knows the strength and power of a Canterbury Nor'wester - It is a hot and furious wind, full of passion and drive. It's a wind that you either have to embrace head on or go and hide from. It's a wind that takes no prisoners. To lean into this wind with arms outstretched is to ask Mr Issac Newton some very hard questions indeed. Nor'westers have a unique gravity of purpose all of their own.
The Canterbury Nor'wester is part of a larger metrological three act drama.
It begins with what is called 'The Nor’west Arch' which is a band of high clouds which form an arch in the sky from one horizon to the next.
Next comes the wind. Wet laden air from the Tasman Sea drops its moisture on the west side of the Southern Alps in torrents before screaming across the Canterbury Plains with a ferocity that can almost set your hair alight - ah, to sail a small yacht successfully in such a wind is to feel like a Viking or an old Cape Horner. Who would condemn a small boy from shouting, screaming and whooping down the sailing wind on a day like this? Who indeed would hear him?
The finale is when the sideral fire of the hot nor'wester creates its opposite - The hot dry furnace wind, the hot dry plains create a gigantic vortex of hot rising air which sucks in from the south a southerly buster of cold air which arrives with its own set of atmospheric fireworks. Trundling up from the south comes a huge mass of grey clouds, often with towering anvil like features that reach the moon. Then with a sudden Blitzkrieg this southern monster is unleashed - the temperature plummets, anything not tied down that was spared by the nor'wester now becomes airborne and the wind and the rain envelope the land with such a ferocity you can hear old Noah chuckling.
Many a time I watched all this through a rain lashed window with eyes shining because I knew; I knew it meant a backyard hugely flooded. It meant raincoats and gumboots and small homemade model boats sailing, and participation in the gumboot challenge i.e. - See how long you can keep the insides of your gumboots from being flooded - (world record about one and a half minutes).
Here is what prompted this post about the Canterbury Nor'wester. It's a poem by Brian Turner:
Affecting without affectation, like the sere hills
then the early evening sky where Sirius dominates
for a time, then is joined by lesser lights,
stars indistinct as those seen through the canopies
of trees shaking in the wind. There's this wish
to feel part of something wholly explicable
and irreplaceable, something enduring
and wholesome that suppresses the urge to fight....
or is there? Ah, the cosmic questions
that keep on coming like shooting stars
and will, until, and then what? All I can say
is that for me nothing hurts more
than leaving and nothing less than coming home,
when a nor'wester's gusting in the pines
like operatic laughter, and the roadside grasses
are laced with the blue and orange and pink
of bugloss, poppies and yarrow, all of them
swishing, dancing, bending, as they do, as we do.