Light has a central role in the Māori understanding of the universe. According to Māori stories of creation, the world was once in darkness (Te Pō). Then Tāne, god of the forests, forced apart his parents Rangi, the sky father, and Papatūānuku, the earth mother, and light flooded into the world.
This primal moment of illumination, the entry into the world of light (Te Ao Marama), is often referred to on the marae. The Māori word for New Zealand, ‘Aotearoa’ (usually translated as ‘land of the long white cloud’) may mean ‘long bright world’ or ‘land of abiding day’, referring to the distinctive qualities of New Zealand light.
Most 19th-century immigrants came from Britain, a land known for its soft, gentle light and its mists, where the black coal smoke of industrial factories must have added to the gloom and haze.
An American tourist wrote in his blog from Auckland in July 2005: ‘What’s most amazing, we’ve all concurred, is the light … the clarity of the air allows you to see farther than I think I’ve ever been able to look on a city of this size. It’s impossible to explain, the light has a different tone … the clouds in the air move constantly, rain falls without warning … The light on the sea, as a result, is in constant flux, so one second the water is a pale greenish brown, the next it’s a deep azurean blue. Incredible.’ 1
Settlers noted the clarity of New Zealand light. In 1874 Mary Robinson, an English immigrant living in Temuka, wrote to her parents in Bedfordshire: ‘We can sit in our house and see the mountains with the tops all covered with snow, although they are about 60 miles off.’ 2
The English immigrants who came in the 1950s, when London was blanketed in smog, also commented on the clear light and the amazingly blue and clean sky. One of them remembers seeing Auckland, ‘a sparkling blue harbour with white boats at anchor, green hills in the background, houses on the hills and clear, clear air.’ 3 In 2005 a Thai immigrant spoke of ‘a clarity in the atmosphere that makes me think of being inside a beautiful orb of crystal.’ 4
Out of the shadows
The American poet Robert Creeley wrote in 1976, ‘New Zealand light – intense, clear, particularizing, ruthless, unlike any I’ve previously known. In my own concerns, it brought all things factually to stand in the light, and that’s where finally one wants to see them.’ 5
Not surprisingly, different regions have exploited this perception to claim their own unique light. In 2005 Central Otago’s marketing motto was ‘Come see the light’, while Marlborough was just as sure that it was ‘awash with sun and a wonderful quality of light’.
As for New Zealanders, many wear dark glasses outside, while those who do not will often develop a squint.