Caught by the River

The Caught by the River Book of the Month: August

3rd August 2021

A blend of memoir and nature writing set between London, New Zealand, Shanghai and Malaysia, Nina Mingya Powles’ lyrical, poetic essay collection ‘Small Bodies of Water’ is our Book of the Month for August. The following extract is taken from an essay titled ‘Where the Kōwhai Blooms’.

When I first saw the yellow tree in London I thought I was hallucinating. It might have been hot enough for that. In the distance, the air shimmered and bent into waves above the asphalt. I walked closer. The tree seemed to be glowing. I felt that if I stood close enough I would be able to see the gold reflected on my skin, like a buttercup held up to the chin. Its slender bell-shaped flowers were full and open, ready to drop at the slightest touch. More than half had already dropped in a pool of yellow petals. I touched them with my foot. I picked up one of the fallen blooms and held it in my hand. I took a picture with my phone and sent it to my mum on WeChat.

Heatwaves often occur in fiction as plot devices, forcing characters to contend with the uncomfortable and the unbearable. New York City is often depicted in a heatwave, as in two of my favourite novels when I was a teenager, The Great Gatsby and The Bell Jar. The latter famously begins with the particular taste and smell of an inner-city heatwave: ‘the hot streets wavered in the sun, the car tops sizzled and glittered, and the dry, cindery dust blew into my eyes and down my throat’. The strange heat of London that day made everything feel luminous, dreamlike, a little unsettling. Would all Aprils from now on be like this one?

The tree vibrated in my memory afterwards. I went back the following day, and the next, unsure whether I’d be able to find it again. But it was there, still standing in eerie silence, with no Wellington wind and no noisy tūī to dart around its branches, to sing and suck nectar. Who planted this tree? Did they know where it came from? Had anyone else seen it, stopped in their tracks in front of it, unsure whether they were dreaming? The flowers fell without a sound.

My own map of London consists of three lines connecting the places where I’ve spotted kōwhai trees blooming in and around the city: north, near Bounds Green station; south-east, while driving back to the city from the New Forest (a bright gold blur spotted from the car window); and north-west, on a street just around the corner from my flat. I walked past it one day in mid-autumn. Its frilled evergreen leaves caught my eye. Dried golden petals coated the gravel path. At that time, the news was full of pictures of burning: eucalyptus forest fires in Australia, early scrub fires in Aotearoa. Each year the burning goes on longer and the images grow more surreal. A clip circulating on Twitter showed a charred ridge of flame being whipped into spirals by the wind: a bright funnel of light in mid-air.

I attended a poetry workshop where one of the participants asked: ‘How do we write about nature without writing an elegy?’ I am still trying to work out the answer. I never really intended to write about ecological loss, but I also don’t know how to avoid writing about it. I have to begin again, this time with the words of the poet Franny Choi, from her poem titled ‘How to Let Go of the World’:

in lieu of all I can’t do or undo; I hold.
The faces of the trees in my hands.

Katherine Mansfield’s short story ‘At the Bay’, written in 1922, a year before the writer died from tuberculosis at the age of thirty-four, contains what I am sure is a description of a kōwhai tree, though in the text Mansfield names it as a mānuka. But mānuka flowers are neither yellow nor in ‘the shape of a bell’. They are white and candy-pink, with rounded petals and pink stamens. Had she mixed up the names? She was living in Europe at the time and hadn’t been back to Aotearoa for more than a decade. In the story, set in Wellington, one of the characters gazes up through the leaves while flowers fall around her:

[. . .] if you held one of those flowers on the palm of your hand and looked at it closely, it was an exquisite small thing. Each pale yellow petal shone as if it was the careful work of a loving hand. The tiny tongue in the centre gave it the shape of a bell. And when you turned it over the outside was a deep bronze colour. But as soon as they flowered, they fell and were scattered [. . .] Why, then, flower at all?

One unusually warm day in October, the sun touches the back of my neck as I sit on a park bench pulling my socks and shoes on after swimming at the pond. I take out my Thermos, an apple and a book. I’m rereading Turning by Jessica J. Lee, her memoir about swimming year-round in the lakes of Berlin. I open the book and out falls a pressed kōwhai flower from between pages 230 and 231. I don’t remember placing the flower inside the book, but I think it must have come from the tree in full bloom in Bounds Green, since my copy of this book has never left London. It’s like I’m holding a memory or a secret message in my palm, one I myself had left behind and forgotten. I wonder if Anna Jackson felt something similar when she opened Mansfield’s notebook in the library. The flower is still yellow, but faded to pale gold just like the colour of the botanical drawing of Sophora tetraptera from 1791. Holding it up to the light, I can see the delicate veins that run the length of each petal.

Where does spring begin? Where does it end? On the 13th of February I walk around the corner to see if the kōwhai shows any sign of flowering. I notice for the first time that whoever lives here must be a careful gardener: a tender fig tree has been wrapped in gauze to keep it safe from frost. I wonder if they’ve seen me staring at their tree. I wonder if they were the one to plant it, or whether they inherited it, and if so from whom? The kōwhai’s dark evergreen leaves stand out against the bare branches of planes and oaks. I can see bunches of small, pointed buds starting to turn from green to gold.

My markers of home are rooted in plants and weather. Wind that tastes of salt, the tūī’s bright warbling call, the crunch of shells underfoot, a swaying kōwhai tree. As time passes, these pieces of home begin to feel unstable, shifting further away. Long after I’ve moved away from Wellington, after my parents moved out of our house by the sea, after the garden has gone wild, a kōwhai tree grows in a garden in London: some small proof that although my pieces of home are scattered, I will always find my way to them.


‘Small Bodies of Water’ is published by Canongate this Thursday. Order a copy here (£14.99).