Point of Astonishment

Photographs of New Zealand


In every landscape, the point of astonishment is the meeting of the sky and the earth.
— Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nature, 1850

I recently traveled from the Western United States to New Zealand and discovered an extraordinary — an astonishing — landscape. Here on the other side of the earth I found landscapes where plate tectonics transform the horizon from the peaceful repose of open plains and wide lakes to the jagged heights of volcanic mountains. I found landscapes that demand to be moved on, over, under and through. Planes flew us close to volcanic spouts, buses rambled precariously over hills and through tunnels on a voyage through fjords to the ocean. Caves were filled with glowworms that seemed like stars as we floated on the water looking up.

These dynamic experiences opened up new ways to connect with landscapes, mixing continuous sensations of earth, air and water. And throughout there is the quality of the light. The air in New Zealand is notably clean, and the light remarkably pure, unfiltered by haze and pollution. In some parts of the country the landscape seems jaunty, sparkling in the clear air. In contrast some landscapes, especially on the western side of the South Island, are dark, murky from clouds that deposit over a hundred inches of rain every year.

These dynamic experiences opened up new ways to connect with landscapes.

To relate to these new and exotic landscapes, I referenced my experience in the western United States, especially California. I thought about what I’d learned of the history of California in the first half of the 20th century, before the big postwar suburban boom, when the state was less populous, the air not so dirty. New Zealand today seemed to me like California once was. So you could say that these photographs are an attempt to see two lands and two times as one. To see a land as I move through it, in the here and now, and to imagine a long-ago place I can never visit. And to wonder: What was it like? What have we gained, and what have we lost?

Ken McCown, “Point of Astonishment,” Places Journal, June 2011. Accessed 01 Jun 2023. https://doi.org/10.22269/110630

Comments are closed. If you would like to share your thoughts about this article, or anything else on Places Journal, visit our Facebook page or send us a message on Twitter.

Past Discussions View
  • John Hare

    07.12.2011 at 20:51

    Could you please send me Ken's correct email address, the one given in his bio won't deliver.
    I have some photos of NZ he may be interested in.


    John Hare

  • Nancy Levinson

    07.13.2011 at 03:09


    Please try the university email address in Ken's site bio. If that doesn't work, you might work through the University of Tennessee.

    Nancy Levinson

  • David Tulloch

    07.14.2011 at 08:57

    The comparison to California is fascinating. Although I haven't visited NZ yet, I find that landscapes in both places challenge my basic beliefs about what a landscape is or how it should function or appear. Both places seem filled with countless surprises of both grandeur and surreality.