Do you hear the Tui call the Huia in the trees

In the weeks before she died my grandmother saw a Ruru in her room, an owl I believed this was a good omen a messenger.  My grandmother also saw lots of people come to visit her, people that most others didn't see.  But it was the Tuis heard by my sister around our grandmother's house and in the trees that seemed to have the clearest of messages. Waking before dawn still adjusting to a new time zone and re-awkening to an old world I too would hear them call.  Their song a melodic chorus reminded me of their visits to the Kowhai tree which grew outside my childhood home.  An iridescent blue black with a white tuff around its neck it is easy to see why the early european settlers called the Tui the Parson Bird.   The Tui though has much more to offer than religious platitudes.   My grandmother was going blind so hearing their dawn chorus must have been a comfort and a soothing sound to wake to.

The Tui is endemic to New Zealand.  Other native song-birds include the Kokako, the Piopio and the Huia the latter two both now extinct.   The story goes the Huia was the first to sing the dawn chorus.  Once it had called out to the rising sun the other birds would join in.   We can only imagine what the sound must have been like.   Today we hear a fraction of this song and it is the Tui which has taken the role the Huia once claimed.

My grandmother was impatient to die declaring that neither God nor the devil wanted her but she still had things to do and tasks to complete so she lingered longer than anyone imagined.   People from the past and present sought her company knowing that the old woman would soon be travelling on.  Before I returned to New Zealand she came to visit in my dreams.   In one she called out in fear of the dark but was soon comforted by a beautiful light and the arrival of a large ship.  In another we sat in my great grandmother Rongoheikume's wharenui while my grandmother sat reminiscing with my grandfather who had passed many years previously.  In the last she came just before I woke to say goodbye.

My grandmother was superstitious.  Once when we gathered in her dining room upon hearing of the death of a family member a Piwakawaka flew in and circled above us chatting before flitting out.   She didn't like this.  Nor did she like peacock feathers as she believed they brought bad luck.  And as she got older her home became a place of memories of people who had died and she became a little afraid.   Afraid of the dark.

The Tui's call at dawn must have been a heart warming sound for a woman whose world was becoming smaller and darker as her eyesight failed her.   Refusing to move out of her home, she dwelt in a place which must have felt desolate at times but for the blessing of her carer a devoted and loving woman and the visits of family and friends.   My grandmother persevered.

When I visited earlier in the year I could see she was getting ready to travel light.   Letting go of hurts and giving thanks for life my grandmother was ready to die.   Philosophical and with a wicked sense of humour  she had journeyed through a life at times  treacherous and dark but she carried on.   She was tough, her mind and heart ticking over with a steady beat.  Even close to death she requested she be woken if a visitor came to see her.  She loved people and in her last few months she had a steady stream of visitors.  I believe she also found the visits of the Ruru and Tui a blessing but more than anything it was the song of the Huia I hoped and imagined she  would wake to.  The song of a gatekeeper to the seventh heaven the Huia would be the guardian which when the time came would carry my grandmother up through the trees and beyond to a place where she would rest and laugh and be.

On an overcast day we gathered.   The women of the family carried her coffin out of the house and the men carried her into the chapel.    I stood before them as a priest and a grandson.  Family spoke and sang, cousins offered beautiful words and prayers in maori, a poem written by my brother  inspired and an Irish blessing was shared.   And as we lowered the coffin into the grave on the day that was also my birthday I imagined her, glint in eye with a glass of vodka in one hand regaling all with rude stories and naughty jokes and I smiled.

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BEANNACHT (Irish for blessing) by John O'Donohue 

On the day when The weight deadens On your shoulders And you stumble, May the clay dance To balance you. 

And when your eyes Freeze behind The grey window And the ghost of loss Gets into you, May a flock of colours, Indigo, red, greenAnd azure blue, Come to awaken in you A meadow of delight. 

When the canvas frays In the currach of thought And a stain of ocean Blackens beneath you, May there come across the waters A path of yellow moonlight To bring you safely home. 

May the nourishment of the earth be yours, May the clarity of light be yours, May the fluency of the ocean be yours, May the protection of the ancestors be yours. And so may a slow Wind work these words Of love around you, An invisible cloak To mind your life. 

Photo of Lake Taupo by Hana Ransfield.

"Do you hear the Tui call the Huia in the Trees"   Words from the Song "Reconnect" by Maisey Rika.

Wharenui - House

Piwakawaka - Faintail (type of bird)

Cosmic Snakes and Ladders

Regan O'Callaghan Stepped symbol and waves, Chazuta, Peru, CeramicsThe jungle speaks in so many ways!

So what were my intentions for travelling to the Amazon, Peru?  I left the leafy suburbs of West Hampstead early December flying first to the U.S where I spent a wonderful month in California which included leading an art workshop for the festival of Our Lady of Guadalupe at St. James Episcopalian Church, Oakland, California.  The art scene in Oakland is fantastic! On the first friday of every month Art Murmer  stages an evening of open studios, galleries and workshops, music, food and entertainment in closed off streets in the city.   The creative buzz is contagious and I was especially inspired by Creative Growth Art centre  which serves adults with developmental, mental and physical disabilities. Absolutely amazing work!   I visited lots of galleries and museums in L.A and San Francisco and spent quality time with dear friends.  The month went by rather quickly and before I knew it I was on a plane to Peru where the Amazon beckoned.

I didnt stay at my first port of call Lima but headed straigth up to Iquitos and a trip down the Amazon River to the Refugio Altiplano. I had stayed at the lodge before and so was looking forward to my time.  Not surprisingly I got sick while there!  The city in this gringo was strong!  Bad spirits said the shaman after a night walk in the jungle.  Two days in bed and regular visits and good care by the shaman and I was better!

Ten days later  I caught a flight to Tarapoto and then a 45 minutes journey in a crammed taxi down a dirt road to the small village of San Roque de Cumbaza, home to 8oo people, 3 churches, friendly people and Sachaqa Art Centre my home for the next 2 and a half months. Here I was warmly welcomed by Trina, Daniel, Jacob, Grace Jones the cat and Arcoeides the Golden Labrador.

Sachaqa which is Quechuan for "spirit of the forest" is an artist residency.  I had come hoping to learn about natural pigments found in the region and other natural materials and be inspired by the Amazon.  One of my first experiences was a visit to Chazuta a small town a few hours away.  Famous for its handmade crafts, I was also planning to collect small stones from the river to make into pigments but the rain had other ideas.  However I did see some of the work of the locals including a visit to a small museum of ancient ceramic burial pots.  It is here I learned about the "The Stepped symbol and the Wave".

This symbol which I drew a copy of is one of the most recuring symbols in the iconography of the region including the Northern Andes.  Studies about the steps and spiral especially from the iconographic point of view seem to indicate that the symbol represents a close relationship between life and death (1).  Which made sense of why it is found on the ceramic burial urns. It also intrigued me due to my love of the Koru a Maori symbol of eternal life.   Chazuta is also a community in which traditional medicines is deeply rooted including use of the plant medicine Ayahausca  or "vine of death".

Even within my short time in the jungle it was easy to see why a symbol of life and death would be so relevant.  The constant rhythm of the jungle reveals an ongoing life and death drama!  From the quick lives and easy deaths of million of insects, the constant falling and rotting leaves,  to the local river which had washed away villagers during flooding after heavy downpours, death was ever present.  But so was life.  The crops of coffee and banana on steep hillsides were a reminder of the people etching out a living in what could be a harsh environment.   The creativity of the people and their crafts a powerful symbol of strength and perseverance.  The women ceramists of Chazuta's deep rooted belief in ancient traditions and crafts are seen as a resilient force even when the town was plagued by drug trafficking and violence. The leaf cutting ants even made me think of how amazing life is! And the huge variety of life in the jungle from the beautiful Azul butterfly that wafts past everday to the birds, and plants and animals and stars at night.

I had begun to understand that my time in the amazon was going to be so much more than just learning about natural pigments. I also sensed the jungles whisper was going to challeenge me to a some wild experiences and that my boundaried inner cityscape would be quickly overgrown and made moist by an ever expanding jungle.  I dont for a moment believe life is a board game but lifes ups and downs its joys and sorrows its passions and disappointments seem intensified in the jungle. So what next for this priest/artist?

1. "Chazuta Arte Ancestoral" J. Barta Del Castillo & A. Narvaez Vargas. Reg. Gov. of San Martin. 2000 pg.  


Regan O'Callaghan Dama wyn, religious icon, egg tempera, sainthood of all believers, cornishDama-wyn (Cornish for Grandmother) was a commission for a friend. Mary was his grandmother who lived to over a 100 years of age. This icon was commissioned as a devotional piece in remembrance of her and the positive influence she was in his life.

In this icon we celebrate the sainthood of all believers. The way we live today and throughout our lives will be remembered by those we leave behind when our call comes for our own onward journey. The challenge for us still living and learning in this world is to live a life in the present.  Not one haunted by regrets and guilt of the past or by fear of the future but rather by a life inspired by the important things in this world.  Family, friends, neighbors, the wonder and beauty of the natural world, the diversity of mankind, the sun , the moon and the stars.

Dancing with Death

Regan O'Callaghan Death, Dancing with Death, oil painting, koru,Dancing with Death is part of my Koru series.  It's title might appear dark and gruesome but it is not intended. Death is a fact of life.  We will all die someday. Life is about death.

I like the The Day of the Dead festival in Mexico as an example of a way to cope with death and loss. Bereaved families will gather around gravestones and will celebrate and have a picnic in memory of their beloveds. Shrines will be set up in family homes and the deceased‚ favourite food will be placed there.

In the U.K where I am a priest people will commemorate the dead on All Souls Day.  Candles will be lit and the names of the departed will be read out. It is a moving service.

Sometimes though I do wonder if we allow enough space and time for grieving?  One never gets over a death of a loved one but rather in time learns to live with their loss. In a busy world people can be expected to be back to normal after a death within a few weeks! Yet grief comes in waves spaced out sometimes over years.  Some days the tide is out and the bereaved feel they can breathe, all is calm. Then the tide comes in and it arrives with huge crashing waves that threaten to overwhelm. People think they are going to drown. Eventually the tide will go out again and the overwhelming feelings of loss will settle down for the time being.  It is here maybe that grieving people need a quiet bay to shelter in and rest and to find a creative way of expressing their loss without having to wait for a formal expression or date on the calender