04 August 2015

Ghost thoughts

I leave home as the colour begins to leach from the dawn, and drive towards town under a sky smudged with indistinct cloud, promising a good day. Near the Raumai bridge two cyclists pedal past, going the other way, up the valley, blindingly bright lights mounted on their helmets. On the journey to the market I’ll see more keen pedallers — three along the straight near Ashhurst; a bunch in Ashhurst itself; a lone cyclist on the Napier Road, perhaps trying to catch the three MAMILs a little way ahead who draft in an angled line like half a flock of flying geese.

MAMIL-mocking’s a popular sport now, but I admire the commitment of anyone prepared to get on a bike before dawn (if they started from Palmerston North, the two near Raumai might already have been on the road for an hour) in the midwinter cold on a Saturday morning to cycle up the valley, through Apiti and Colyton and back to town — probably over a hundred kilometres. It’s not flat, either: much of that ride’s aggressively hilly, and the downhill glides never adequately compensate for the uphill grinds.

Once, I too used to bike. I still do, but much less. Mostly just half an hour to an hour on the battered old mountain bike, up the metalled sided roads leading nowhere, ending at the edge of the Ruahine Forest Park. A sometimes knuckle-clenching freewheel back down, the bike twitching on loose-surfaced bends, then the final short ride back along the sealed road. After the effort and adrenaline of the gravel, the tarseal seems easy and dull, but by then I have the satisfaction of knowing I have another decent exercise session under my belt.

But those rides tend to be irregular, and less common in winter. Now my preferred exercise is a walk up the No. 1 Line track, with the bike rides interspersed so I’m not binge-exercising.

On the edge of the tarseal near Ashhurst a kahu stands with its talons sunk into a road-killed possum. Two magpies stalk the road nearby, no doubt looking to deal some bovver to the hawk, but they fly off as the car approaches. The hawk leaves too, lifting into the air on strong wings and immediately arcing around, away from the road, away from the car, away from the danger (although I’ve slowed already — the thought of hitting one of these wonderful birds (or any bird, for that matter) appals me). Further back another kahu had crossed the road, low in the sky, ahead of the car, flying deliberately, strongly, over one of the dairy paddocks. I seldom see them flying like that, with regular, consistent wingbeats; mostly they cruise and float, sliding on the air, just occasionally adding a lazy downward stroke of those wide wings.

When I see how it seems so intent on going somewhere I’m reminded of a thought I’ve often had before, a thought I’m sure countless others have also had: what’s it like to be a bird? What do birds think? What do they feel? Do they simply respond, or do they possess what we might consider awareness — the realisation of their own existence?

Another thought crosses my mind — will I forget this thought; will I forget not only the bird, crossing, going who knows where, but also the thought, the wondering about what it means to be a bird? When I bike up those rough roads, when I walk the No. 1 Line track, and when I drive to town, I often find my mind alive with thoughts, with things I notice that seem worth noting, with interesting ideas (ideas, that is, that seem interesting at the time but often prove less interesting later — if I do manage to remember them), and with occasional flashes of insight.

Unfortunately, remembering that congeries of thoughts proves almost impossible. Even remembering one thing can be difficult. How often have I dismounted from the bike, or unpacked the little black moleskine at the No. 1 Line seat, or parked the car and thought, what was that thing I’d thought about? Like dreams, I know I had them but cannot remember them.

I’ve tried using a voice recorder but couldn’t use it. An observer effect, I suppose: the act of recording affects the thing — the thought — being recorded. Besides, I've never perfected the art of talking to myself.

Jotting down the thought doesn’t work either, for obvious reasons. Like talking to myself, scribbling notes while biking or driving, or even walking, remains one of my non-accomplishments, which for biking and driving must surely be a good thing. Stopping to jot drives me nuts, too — on the few occasions I’ve tried, the continual stopping frustrated me more than the forgetting of thoughts. More importantly, it interfered with the apparently spontaneous upwelling of those thoughts.

So I do my best to remember, knowing most of the thoughts will dissolve, hoping I’ll recall at least the one most important thought, thinking that, like ghosts which reveal themselves only in the absence of anyone able to verify their existence, worthwhile thoughts seem most likely to appear only in the absence of any means of remembering them.

1. MAMIL, if you don't already know, is an acronym for Middle-Aged Men In Lycra. Or, is it 'Man'? Is MAMIL both singular and plural? I dunno. You decide.

1. Lucerne near the top of the No. 1 Line Road. Sometimes during the summer I'll bike up here.
2. Tui in tagasaste, Pohangina Valley. I would LOVE to know what tui think.
3. Kahu and bull, Pohangina Valley.

Photos and original text © 2015 Pete McGregor

10 July 2015

A kind of review (or maybe not) of Brian Doyle's 'The Plover'

What do you say about Brian Doyle’s new book, The Plover, which very soon will not be his new book because already he has Martin Marten in the pipeline and at the end of The Plover you can even read an extract from Martin Marten? It’s like he wants to be done with The Plover almost as soon as he’s published it, although why anyone would want to be done with a book as crazy and compelling and strange and unable-to-be-pinned-down and flawed but all-round excellent in a contentious way as The Plover beats me. Who knows why anyone would want to be done with that book and moving on to some other book, which in this case means the anyone is Brian Doyle and the other book which is being moved on to is Martin Marten. Yes, it beats me. Bless me; indeed.

But this is supposed to be about The Plover, not Martin Marten, although maybe it’s more about Brian Doyle, who, if you haven’t read him you should if you like writing that’s nuttier than squirrel shit (a delightful phrase I stole from another excellent writer who’s unknown for anything other than the marvellous piece of writing which you simply must read, which is to say The Riflemaker Dreams of Africa by Matthew Clark, about whom nothing is known except he lives in Maine and has written nothing else but if he has please let me know because I burn to read more of his writing). But back to Brian Doyle.

In fact, back to The Plover.

Which is typical Brian Doyle writing but maybe — and I say this hesitantly and with great respect to this writer whose work I will devour the way a starving squirrel devours a happened-upon-by-chance nut with a look that says nothing on this god’s earth will get between me and this nut so don’t even THINK about it — but maybe this book isn’t quite up to the genius of some of his shorter pieces of writing like Raptorous or this book’s predecessor, the inestimably wonderful Mink River. Maybe The Plover can’t match those. Maybe that might be true. Maybe in places he tries too hard. Maybe the literary devices — the long detailed mostly unpunctuated lists which sometimes include a detail, an observed thing, that makes you almost gasp out loud and exclaim that is so perfect because it makes the list, well, so perfect; the run-on sentences like a stream-of-consciousness; the obviously deliberate flouting of grammar and correct spellings of words which sometimes aren’t even proper words at all unless you’re Brian Doyle but are obviously the right words anyway; the direct addressing of the reader sometimes without clearly identifying the narrator who might be one of the characters in the book or might not and instead might be the book’s author who might not be Brian Doyle even though Brian Doyle is the book’s author — those literary devices, which will make some readers froth and foam and snarl and write angry letters such as Brian Doyle used for his excellent short piece entitled Letters and Comments on My Writing, seem too obvious, especially once you’ve read plenty of Brian Doyle, and while they confer an energy that makes you wonder whether the page will no longer be able to contain the words, which will leap up off the page and run around naked and yelling, you nevertheless think sometimes what the story needs would be some more quiet, more controlled passages so the book didn’t strike you as having ADHD. That could have happened. Yes indeed. That book with less relentless ADHD could have happened. Yes it could. Brian Doyle could have written that book. At least I think perhaps he could have. But maybe if he had he wouldn’t be Brian Doyle.

Then there’s the risk that if you read too much Brian Doyle — after you’ve read too much Brian Doyle and have been transported into his magical realist run-on-sentenced long-listed crazy-charactered Irish-inflected world with its liberal lacing of fecking feck fecks and Jesus Christmases — you can’t write anything without lapsing into the style of Brian Doyle, which is not necessarily a bad thing unless you’re one of the frothing foaming snarling letter writers and might even be a truly wonderful and wondrous bless me thing were it not for one tiny little less-than-warbler-sized problem which is in fact an enormous problem — humungous enough to maybe fill his ginormous Jesus-Christmas-can-you-believe-how-astonishingly-huge-his-world-is world — and that huge tiny problem is that Brian Doyle already created that world and occupies it. That’s a problem.

That problem’s a puzzle, too, because how can one person create a world that big and occupy all of it? But maybe he does indeed occupy all that seething energetic world, and around it lurk and sneak the other writers who lack the eptitude and wit and energy and maybe ADHD and irrepressibilitousness and fearlessness and feralness with words and don’t-careness and sheer wild longing imagination possessed by and possessing the one and singular Brian Doyle. Maybe those other writers lurk and sneak and sniff like lonely mutts and wish they’d been Brian Doyle only someone else, namely themselves, but Brian Doyle did it first and best (or maybe Kerouac did it first after a fashion which wasn’t even a fashion when he did it first, but I have to say Brian Doyle does it better or at least differently because despite the great flood of pouring energetic words, all of Brian Doyle’s writing is coherent. How does he do that?)

Maybe the problem, or not so much a problem as a slight worry, is that Brian Doyle has become too much like Brian Doyle. But even if he is at risk of becoming too much like himself, you should read The Plover unless you absolutely loathe and detest his Brian Doyle-like writing style and might be tempted to snarl and write angry letters, in which case maybe go and find some Jane Austen and ask yourself why you froth and foam over Brian Doyle’s perfunctory punctuation when J.A. didn’t know her comma from her colon either.

So, you should most definitely read The Plover (probably), but first you should read some short pieces like those to which I’ve already directed you and in addition This Particular Badger and maybe most of all The Place Where I Write: Brian Doyle. Then read Mink River.

Then you’re ready for The Plover.

1. Oh, I see Martin Marten has already been published in hardback. Crikey. What's Brian Doyle on? I want some.
2. I like much of Kerouac’s writing, especially The Dharma Bums, but even you, the world’s greatest appreciator of Kerouac, whoever and wherever you are, have to admit some of his stuff was, well, gibberish.
3. You should not take anything I said as a criticism of Jane Austen. Did I say her punctuational ineptitude made her a bad writer? No, you're right, I did not. Thank you.

1&2. This is a black-backed gull, not a plover. A gull figures prominently in The Plover, although that one was a herring gull, which we don't have in New Zealand.
3. This is a red-billed gull (tarapunga), which is much more similar to a herring gull than is the blackback but still isn't one.

Photos and original text © 2015 Pete McGregor

19 June 2015

The No. 1 Line hare

The first part of the No. 1 Line track weaves gently through possum-shattered forest, past the sign indicating the side track to the giant rimu — ‘Giant rimu: 1 min’, it says, but if you look at the sign you can see the tree just 20 metres away — and on to the junction where the track branches. The left branch takes you to the giant rata banded with sheet metal to keep possums from climbing the double trunk and eating the tree into oblivion, and the right branch begins the climb that steepens progressively before reaching the first lookout about 20 minutes from the car and then carries on more gently to the top seat. Beyond that, the re-marked track winds down and up and around and through horopito and toro and other scrub and eventually into the tupare, the leatherwood, also known by worse names, and right over to Kiritaki hut on the other side of the range. If you had the time and the inclination you could walk all the way across the southern Ruahine Range to Hawkes Bay. I might do that one day, although Hawkes Bay’s farmlands hold no appeal for me, and the only truly compelling reason for visiting Hawkes Bay would be to return to the coast, to Flounder Bay and the Cove of Giants and Earthquake Bay.

But too many memories haunt me in those places.

Shortly after the climb began I heard voices. I kept walking, almost soundlessly because the recent rain had left the ground damp and soft. I heard something coming down the track and guessed it would be a dog — the only other car at the end of the road had been a ute with a large, box-like canopy  that advertised ‘K9 search detection dog training’. I stopped so I wouldn’t be detected, so I’d see the dog before it saw me.

Sure enough, a beautiful, sleek dog, mostly but not entirely Alsatian, came running down the track. A transmitter collar encircled its neck, the short aerial pointing up and slightly back. The dog carried something I couldn’t identify in its mouth. If the dog had been black it might have materialised from Tarkovsky's Stalker, and I fell in love immediately. Not wishing to startle it — startling anything with a mouthful of fangs is never a good idea — I called out when it got to within about ten metres.

‘Hello there,’ I called.

The dog braked hard and looked at me. I wondered if it would start growling, but instead it looked at me while it made up its mind. Then it barked a few times — muffled barks, because it still hung on to the thing in its mouth, but loud enough to let someone — its owners, perhaps me — know it was barking. The barking didn’t sound aggressive. I tried to encourage the dog, who turned out to be a bitch but only literally, to come closer to check me out and understand I wasn’t a threat, but she turned and trotted back up the track.

I followed, and soon met the owners — a man about my age in a blaze orange camo fleece jacket, and a much younger woman. Both had UK accents, his more marked than hers. They'd taken the dogs — the other was a gorgeous, small, part-golden-lab — to the top seat. We chatted for a while. The small gorgeous semi-lab sat obediently next to the man while the semi-Alsatian tugged on the thing in its mouth as the woman tugged back. The dog kept her eyes on the woman the whole time with that beseeching ‘Play with me, pleeeease!’ look, which the woman refused, although it was obvious she loved the dog.

The little lab-like thing, the man said (although he didn’t call it that), would be re-certified as a search-and-rescue dog in September, her current certification having expired.

I wanted to get accidentally lost so I could be found by one of these beautiful dogs.

Eventually we went in different directions, slightly reluctantly.

‘Nice to have met you,’ the man said.

‘Likewise,’ I replied, ‘nice to have met you too.’

I started walking up the track, pausing momentarily to scruffle the little dog's head and let  it sniff my hand. Its nose felt damp and very soft and I felt a quick surreptitious lick of its tongue. They started down, but the part-Alsatian came bounding up the track after me, no doubt thinking I was a better bet for some playtime. The woman called it back, and unfortunately it obeyed her.

When I’d seen the ute parked at the end of the road my heart had sunk. I’d wanted the place to myself. Yet, when the dog turned and disappeared, my heart sank again, very slightly. I almost wished they’d been going up the track so I could have brewed tea for them at the top.


The compensations of solitude take some beating, though. At the top seat I had the whole mountain range to myself. I assembled the Caldera and started heating water and after the Lapsang Souchong had steeped put the foam pad on the still-frozen ground and sat, tea at hand, and scanned the far mountainside for deer. I saw one, too — big, dark body; cream-coloured arse; too far away for the Bushnells to resolve antlers if the deer had any. It probably did, I decided, concluding on the basis of the animal’s bulk that it was a stag. I put the binoculars down, wrote a few notes in the little Moleskine, and when I picked up the binoculars again the deer had gone.

I continued to scan the mountainside. A bird flew into the field of view — a falcon! I followed it through the 10x42s, watching it flare its tail, hover momentarily, then circle around as if checking a potential meal fluttering in the scrub far below. Then it carried on up the gully and disappeared. I watched a little while longer, wondering whether it might reappear, but I never saw it again. Just like the deer.


Back at the car, I put the camera on the seat next to me, the 100-300 mm lens mounted. Already the late afternoon had begun to darken slightly, and cloud had begun to encroach from the south and west. I drove slowly down the gravel road and at the hairpin bend slowed to a crawl, glancing across the small gully. I’ve often seen a hare there (I’m tempted to call this part of the road the Hare-pin Bend) and hoped to see it again.

And there it was, half crouching, ears laid back against its shoulders, looking nervous. I slowed and stopped, turned the engine off and wound the window down. Through the lens I could see the hare staring at me. Very quickly, though, it began to relax and groom itself, wiping its paws over its face, nibbling its toes. On two occasions it punched the air rapidly with its front paws, like a boxer warming up. Finally it nibbled some grass then loped a short distance across the hillside. I photographed carefully, trying different ISO settings to search for the best combination of shutter speed and image noise. Mostly I just liked watching it. I love hares, love their wildness, the way they seem so comfortable in their solitary lives, the aura of mystery that accompanies them. Rabbits seem busy and jumpy and preoccupied and sometimes a little dimwitted — harebrained, I suppose — but hares in contrast strike me as far more contemplative and comfortable in their own being, except of course when they think they might be shot. I’m glad this hare so quickly realised I offered no threat.

The hare was nibbling weeds in the middle of the rough hillside when I turned away, put the camera down, started the car, and eased slowly down the road. When I looked back, the hare had gone. In those few seconds it had vanished as utterly as if it had been absorbed into the hillside. I wouldn’t have been surprised if it had.


1, 3 & 4. The hare. From the series of photographs.
2. The No. 1 Line track just before the top seat. Late March 2015.
Photos and original text © 2015 Pete McGregor

31 May 2015

The Hermit Marshes

The day after the deluge, I saw the aftermath — how the rough paddock beside the railway line had turned into a small marsh, the wrinklezinc water shining in the quiet morning light, the low rushes reminding me of the places I found so fascinating and wonderful as a child and still do. The small marshy paddock reminded me of places I’ve never seen but want to — places where wizened Chinese sages live solitary lives in small huts and spend their days listening to the thin cries of strange birds, fishing for eels and catfish that taste mostly of mud, watching the trickle of smoke from the small fire rise into the low grey sky, drinking tea from small cracked cups with a tea patina accumulated over years, at night watching the moon and eating their meagre meals of rice and vegetables and mud-fish, and just sitting there motionless so anyone seeing them would think they were meditating and therefore must be wise and gnomic. But really, they just sit there.

I want to see those places and I don’t even know if they still exist. Most have probably been drained and turned into productive land. ‘Productive’ — I hate that word. To me, it connotes the taking of something beautiful and wondrous and mysterious and removing those very qualities so it becomes merely useful. It’s like seeing a gorgeous pheasant dustbathing in sunlight in a little clearing in a small stand of scrub in a forgotten corner of a farm and seeing only a meal’s worth of pheasant meat. Productivity would argue for clearing the scrub to grow ryegrass and white clover and get one more stock unit’s worth of grazing, which of course would produce more meat than a stringy old pheasant. This, apparently, would be making good use of the land.

To me, ‘productivity’ connotes the valuing of quantity over quality, and in that contest between quantity and quality, quantity will always win because by its very nature it’s easy to measure; quality, on the other hand, is far harder — and often impossible — to measure.

So, I wonder whether, or to what extent, those exquisite unknown lonely places still survive. Probably they don't, but I’d like to go there anyway. Maybe these words, or someone else’s better words, are the only way to do that now.

I drove on past the idea of marshes and thought about why travelling, meaning the movement, the actual going from place to place, seems so appealing. I love sitting in a bus, going somewhere, and I’d be happy sitting in a bus going nowhere as long as the bus was in motion, going somewhere. While I’m on that bus I can’t attend to important matters — productive tasks, that is. I can’t work in any reasonable sense; I can’t read (at least not for more than a few seconds); I can’t do anything productive in the usual sense of that loathesome word. For a few hours I’m free from the demands of the world.

Maybe that’s why I sometimes prefer buses over trains — on a train, I can almost write, so I think maybe I should be writing. On the kind of trains where you sit stealing glances at the person sitting facing you (who you sense is also stealing glances at you) on the other side of a small, cold table, writing would be perfectly possible if I decided to open a laptop or tablet, but buses don’t offer that option. Handwriting's even harder — far harder. The best I can do is jot a quick, short note or two when the train stops, or scrawl, often illegibly, when it's moving. The little Moleskine cahiers I carry everywhere carry a record of my travels not just in what I've written but in how it's written — when I browse back through them and come across what appears to be written in Arabic (which I neither write nor understand), I know I was on a train or bus.  I've seen people jot notes by hand in a moving bus but I haven’t developed that skill and have no idea how  they manage it.

But it’s irrelevant anyway, because mostly I don’t want to write on a bus or train or aeroplane because I have more important things to do, like looking out the window at the place I’m passing through and letting my mind wander. The importance of these inactivities cannot be overestimated. For me, time travelling is time out.

Having said that, I’ll now point out I have written in aeroplanes. While they still seem like time out for me and I'd furiously resent having to work on a plane, they’re usually so smooth it’s easy to write by hand with the cahier (big or small) on the fold-out tray table. Even that has shortcomings, though, because the person in the adjacent seat (on both sides if I’m unlucky) will inevitably want to sneak a look at what I’m writing, and even if I’d otherwise be happy to share the writing, the knowledge that someone might be surreptitiously reading constrains my writing; in fact, sometimes all I can find to write about is the awkwardness of writing about someone sneaking a look at what I’m writing, which of course makes it impossible to write.

Nevertheless, I can sometimes write while travelling — for example, last year I several times managed to write extensively in the big cahier while flying. I think of that — of writing in an aeroplane while returning from Leh to Delhi (or was it from Srinagar?) — and the ache for India returns, and that raises the paradox I don’t understand: I long for teeming India yet also long for places like those existentially lonely, hermit-haunted marshes, which I find impossible to imagine still exist in India — if anything remotely like those marshes does exist, the fish will not only taste of mud but will probably be dense with heavy metals, litter will line the waterways, goats will gnaw the rushes, and someone not more than a hundred or so metres away will snap small branches of scrub for firewood.

I don't want to think about that, though. I might be wrong and hope I am. Even if I never see the hermit marshes, I want to know they still exist; I want to know that in some almost-forgotten corner of an out-of-the-way part of that old, overwrought land, some small silent sage still sips his tea as he listens to the wind in the reeds and the thin cries of unseen birds.

1. Not 'productive' land — and may it stay this way forever. Leatherwood (tupare) on the Ngamoko Range, Ruahine Forest Park.
2. Not reeds or rushes: snow tussocks along the old, recently re-marked section of the No. 1 Line track in the southern Ruahine Range.
3. Not a marsh (although almost boggy enough in places). This is the interior of the leatherwood jungle that covers the tops of the southern Ruahine Range. Who knows what it keeps secret?
4. Not a sage. Some scribbler in a small clearing in the leatherwood on a cold day under a heavy sky; the Lapsang Souchong tea almost ready.

Photos and original text © 2015 Pete McGregor

07 May 2015

Light and time

The light in the evening looked old, like light from the time when I was growing up on the loess hillsides of Christchurch’s Port Hills with their volcanic rocks rough with lichen, with pale tussocks and small banks pocked with tiger beetle holes, where little owls and hares hid, and finches scattered up into the sky from rickety wire-and-batten fences and long, dry grass; from the time when Birdling’s Flat meant the possibility of geckos. The light looked soft, as if all the edges and angles had been worn off it. Perhaps the wind had done just that. It certainly seemed wild and strong enough, thrashing the trees about, churning the hay paddocks so the seething air took visible form — the wind incarnate. Once, a gust caught the car as if a giant had poked it sideways with an invisible finger.

The light seemed old, and the age carried me back to another time when both my parents were alive and the thought they might die was inconceivable and unbearable. They both did, long after that time, in a time long ago, separated by two decades. The light took me back not just through memories but beyond, to a time before I'd even been born, to a time before any human left a footprint on an empty beach, a time when the only footprints might have been made by moa and birds with pseudoteeth cruised the coast around Motunau Island. I felt the presence of that time, re-entered it even as I drove home through that strange soft light with the wind pushing at the car, and I realised that time is sometimes neither linear nor regular. Time makes no sense — at least none I can comprehend — but the idea of time as something measurable makes even less. Time makes its own rules.

I drove on, not sure where I was and less sure when. Space and time can’t be separated, the physicists say, and maybe they’re right, but if that’s true then I don’t understand why we think of them as so utterly different. Why is it so easy to understand great distance (particularly when it separates you from someone or somewhere you love), and why can I believe that crossing that distance is just a matter of travelling in space — no big deal in theory even if the difficulty in practice drives me to despair — yet at the same time I know so clearly that I can never, meaning in no possible way, cross the time back to the past? Tell me why it’s so impossible to understand how the past is irretrievable and the future inaccessible if space and time don't differ. Tell me how it happens that, moment by moment, the future becomes irretrievable.

I drove on, moving through the old, worn-out light, with the future changing into the past and the past haunting me. I drove the Napier Road towards Ashhurst, through a wild sky scattered with finches from the past and hung now with a hawk here and there; driving through memories of clay banks with tiger beetle holes, a goldfinch nest high in an old willow, herons roosting at dusk and owls starting up with their beautiful sad calls, a hare disappearing beyond the curve of the empty hilltop, Pegasus Bay stretching out green and luminous in the nor’west light of the place I left so long ago, Motunau Island crouching there in the far distance. When the past returns it takes you to another place, and sometimes you know neither where you are, nor when.

1. Birdling's Flat: a long, low, shingle spit that stretches south from the south-western hills of Banks' Peninsula and separates Lake Ellesmere from the ocean. My father told us he'd caught geckos there in his younger days, but we never found any. 

2. Motunau Island sits in the northern curve of Pegasus Bay. Fragments of a prehistoric pseudotooth bird (Pseudodontornis stirtoni — the taxonomy's debated) were found on Motunau beach, opposite the island.

1.Another place, another time: on the flight from Kazakhstan to Kathmandu, September 2014.

Photos and original text © 2015 Pete McGregor

26 March 2015

Three fine things

One of the great perks of working for a university is access to an excellent library. Right now I have several books on loan from Massey’s library, and yesterday, walking to the car carrying three of those, I thought how they summed up my major interests — my delights, or perhaps even passions (or, less kindly, obsessions). One was Phillip Lopate’s To Show and to Tell: The Craft of Literary Nonfiction, one was Jerry Thompson’s Truth and Photography: Notes on Looking and Photographing, and one was Jean Drèze and Amartya Sen’s An Uncertain Glory: India and Its Contradictions.

Writing, photography, and India. I can think of worse interests, worse things to be passionate about or obsess over — cars, golf, and reality shows, for example. I’m sure cars, golf, and reality shows can be defended as worthy obsessions, but defending them would sound like rationalising — an attempt, after the fact, to justify the indefensible. In contrast, I find it harder to see how defending an interest in writing, photography, or India could be criticised as mere rationalisation, but I’m biased.

I'm not just biased, though: I’m also comfortable with these kinds of contentious assertions, at least when I make them or when they’re made by people I like. (In fact, I might even like them more when someone I like makes them, because then I don’t have to make them and can instead keep quiet and appear reasonable and fair-minded, although I’m not.)

But back to my three delights (not the only ones, of course, but they’re right up there at the top with a few others). As I thought about them, I realised how well they complement each other. Writing and photography — well, the way they go together should be obvious. Conversely, they sometimes work against each other, as is the case in a great many books where either the text or the photographs dominate, one subordinate and usually diminished as a consequence. Coffee table books, for example: great photographs (sometimes), but even when the text amounts to a work of literature (as, for example, John Fowles’ text accompanying Frank Horvat’s photographs in The Tree), that text would have been better read independently without the distraction of photographs that compel the eye to linger (the more haunting of Horvat’s photographs in The Tree, to use that example again).

Perhaps, though, that potential conflict between writing and photographs creates the kind of challenge that leads to something better — not conflict, but a kind of creative tension. No great work of art ever comes easily, except perhaps to geniuses, whose existence I doubt, having been disappointed so often by their works. For writing and photography, the challenge remains, in my view, unmet — I’ve yet to see the book I want to see: one where the text and the photographs don’t just avoid competing with each other but complement each other in a way that creates a greater work of art than the two simply juxtaposed.

And India? Well, what better subject for writing and photographing? That should say it all, so I’ll say no more, bearing in mind Amartya Sen’s quotation from one of his teachers, economist Joan Robinson, who said, ‘...whatever you can rightly say about India, the opposite is also true.’

How true.

1. The mention of the three books in the first paragraph should not necessarily be taken as a recommendation because I haven't read them yet. I have, however, now read much of Phillip Lopate's book and have found it enjoyable and thought-provoking. 

1. At Leh, October 2014.
2. On the flight from Kazakhstan to Kathmandu, September 2014. You can see a larger version of this photograph on The Ruins of the Moment.

Photos and original text © 2015 Pete McGregor

09 March 2015

Weta, rat, dog tucker

New Zealanders use the expression ‘dog tucker’ — literally, dog food — to describe something or someone about to meet disaster. For example, a professional rugby coach whose team loses eight straight games will inevitably be described as dog tucker — his sacking will be as certain as sunrise. Sadly, the term doesn’t just apply to rugby coaches, as I found out last night while prowling around the lower section of the No. 1 Line track, looking for interesting animals to photograph. Only a few minutes after entering the forest, I came across a beautiful, large, female weta — a flightless, nocturnal, grasshopper-like insect — sitting on the trunk of a tree at about head height. I photographed her and carried on up the track. Not long afterwards, I had an encounter that left me depressed, thinking this beautiful, ancient insect would inevitably end up as dog tucker.

Or, in this case, another type of tucker.

I’d heard something that sounded like the rasping of another weta but not quite right for that. I picked my way past the giant rimu and through a tangle of shrubbery, turning my head so the lamp played over the ground, along the fallen, rotting branches, and over the foliage. Nothing. Then I heard the sound again and turned towards it. A shadow moved, then two small orange-yellow eyes glowed back at me. I kept the headlamp trained on the eyes and switched it to full power. There, sitting on the fallen stipe of a tree fern frond, was Rattus rattus — the black, ship, or roof rat.

New Zealand has three species of rats, all introduced by humans. Kiore (Rattus exulans) are now rare on mainland New Zealand, and brown rats (Rattus norvegicus) tend to stay close to the ground, so they pose little risk to arboreal animals — my weta would probably be safe if she stayed up her tree. But black rats climb nimbly, as this one demonstrated when it finally ran off along a thin, flexible stem of supplejack and vanished into the night.

In New Zealand, the two pests with the highest public profiles are possums and stoats. While rats do get mentioned, in the public’s consciousness of conservation pests they rate less highly compared to possums and stoats, yet an infestation of Rattus rattus means disaster not only for the larger native insects like weta, ground beetles, and some of our spectacular weevils, but for birds too — the agile black rat easily raids nests, devouring eggs, chicks, and sometimes the adult birds who, particularly at night, can be sitting ducks (or in this case, fantails, riflemen, tomtits, and so on).

Rats also damage ecosystems by eating seeds. While some seeds need to be eaten so the plant can disperse, rats are not effective dispersers of larger seeds like those of tawa (a bit like an olive). Kereru, New Zealand’s native pigeon, swallow tawa fruits and crap the seeds out, often well away from the fruiting tree (Wotton & Kelly, 2012), but a tawa fruit is too big for a rat to swallow whole. Instead, the rat will do its usual ratty thing, nibbling away the flesh and either dropping the seed without dispersing it or gnawing the seed and therefore destroying it.

I could go on about the evils of rats, particularly black rats, but a more pressing point is what we should do about them. The good news is that possum and stoat control operations both kill rats. Rats eat and are killed by the poison baits used for possum control, and the traps used for stoat control also trap and kill rats. The bad news is that these control programmes don’t cover the whole country. They certainly don’t include the No. 1 Line track.

When I returned over an hour later, past the tree where I’d photographed the weta, she’d gone. I hoped she’d climbed higher into the canopy where she might be harder for a rat to find. The very fact she’d survived and grown to adulthood comforted me. Rats might have a relatively low status in the public consciousness compared to possums and stoats, but weta are ingrained in the national psyche — so much so that the company responsible for the remarkable special effects in Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings films named itself after these charismatic insects — and the thought that weta might become rare around here appalled me. More than that, though, I’d formed an attachment to this particular weta, who had been so cooperative, calmly sitting there while I photographed her. I hadn’t seen a big beautiful weta like this for a long time. She was the only one I saw last night (although I heard a couple more), and I couldn’t bear to think she was dog tucker.

Or, more accurately, rat tucker.

1. Strictly, 'weta' should have a macron over both vowels, thus: 'wētā'. The word without macrons has an entirely different meaning, but in practice you're unlikely to be misunderstood.

1. Last night's weta: Hemideina crassidens, the Wellington tree weta. The long thing that looks like a sting is her ovipositor—the apparatus she uses to deposit her eggs.
2. ... And this is last night's Rattus rattus. Note the very long tail and large ears, characteristics distinguishing it from the Brown rat, R. norvegicus. You can see a larger version of the photograph on The Ruins of the Moment.

Wotton, D. M., & Kelly, D. (2012). Do larger frugivores move seeds further? Body size, seed dispersal distance, and a case study of a large, sedentary pigeon. Journal of Biogeography, 39(11), 1973–1983. doi: 10.1111/jbi.12000

Photos and original text © 2015 Pete McGregor