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Published: December 6th 2009
From Baxter's Grave
St Joseph's Church at Jerusalem (Hiruharama)
High Country Weather Alone we are born,
And die alone.
Yet see the red-gold cirrus,
Over snow-mountain shine.
Upon the upland,
Ride easy stranger.
Surrender to the sky,
Your heart of anger.
- James K. Baxter Jerusalem Pilgrimage
When planning this journey, I knew one of the places I wanted to visit was the Whanganui River and in particular the tiny settlement of Jerusalem where the poet James K Baxter established a community in the 1960s. When he died in 1972 he was buried there.
Baxter was a hugely controversial figure, besides being probably our best poet. I was intrigued to see the place where he’d spent much of the last decade of his life First the Church
I arrived in Jerusalem mid-afternoon during a break in the weather. At some point in his life Baxter converted to Roman Catholicism and religion was an extremely important part of his life. He was supported in his efforts to establish his community by the Sisters at the convent attached to St Joseph’s Church in Jerusalem. This afternoon the buildings glistened in the weak sunlight. I sat in the church reflecting that this was where Baxter
prayed for guidance, sometimes in the dead of night.
There was no sign pointing to a cemetery but eventually one of the Sisters greeted me and I asked whether it might be possible to visit Baxter’s grave. She pointed to a small gate and warned me the track was muddy. A Muddy Track
She was right about the track. It was muddy and the overhanging branches dripped water down my neck. Eventually, I emerged into a clearing and there in front of me stood the house where Baxter had lived, along with hundreds of lost souls over the years. I peered through the windows, some of which were broken, and could vaguely make out what looked like old clothing and odds and ends - including an exercycle. But I didn’t open the door.
Beyond the house I could see several graves but none of them matched the description given me by the Sister. “It’s the white-painted one,” she’d said.
Then suddenly over a corrugated iron fence I saw three or four more graves. As I scrambled towards them, I could see St Joseph’s Church, rising up out of the bush below. The Grave
headstone was indeed painted white. It was very simple, and began with the name he preferred “Hemi” Like the track, it was overgrown. A few flowers struggled by the headstone, but the place was cold and damp had an air of abandonment.
Baxter knew this was where he wanted to be buried; near his community and the church and the river. But it saddened me, that a man who had written so powerfully and had made such an effort to help his fellow man should end up like this - his grave akmost overlooked by the rest of us.
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