21 June 2016

Waiting for winter

Four days out from the winter solstice, the trees still hadn't finished dropping their leaves. Some were still far from it, smothered in yellow and russet, some even with a few green-tinged leaves, as if they knew mid-winter hadn't officially arrived so were hanging onto their leaves because, hey, it's still autumn. Officially they were wrong, of course — winter had begun two-and-a-half weeks ago — and they should have fallen into line with the other, season-compliant trees that had scattered most of their leaves on the damp ground like golden dandruff, but who doesn't like a rebel?

I'd wandered along the edge of the terrace, stopping to look out over the valley. The scene looked bleak and grim: the river mud-grey and deep enough to slide unbroken over the now-drowned rapids; the paddocks the dull blue-tinged green of a fading bruise; the bush dark. Even the poplars still clinging to their leaves offered little relief, needing sunlight to glow golden, and the heavy cloud had no intention of letting that happen. Nothing could even cast a shadow, and I almost wished to see the paper wasps, for no other reason than to be cheered by their bright yellow-and-black and the energy and grace of their slender bodies as they trailed their slender legs through the heavy air.

But the cold and damp had proved too much for them. If they'd even survived the recent heavy rain that had in all likelihood turned their paper nests into papier-mâché, they certainly weren't keen on working in this weather.
For three days the laundry had hung on the line beneath the verandah roof, slowly getting damper. I reasoned that if the socks and towels and the fleece and merino had been sucking moisture from the air, the air must be getting dryer, but that reasoning seemed neither logical nor comforting. Meanwhile, the laundry had also been absorbing the smoke drifting from next door's chimney, so my damp clothing now not only smelled damp but also smelled like creosote.

I carried on, skirting the fallen sycamore. Uprooted and cast onto its side by a storm a few years ago, it had somehow survived, a reminder that even when life skittles you, uproots you and bowls you over, not only is survival possible but you can become more interesting precisely because you survived. A standing sycamore can be a beautiful tree (notwithstanding that here in Aotearoa sycamores are often considered weeds), but a fallen sycamore that flushes with new leaves each spring and continues to flower and set its helicopter seeds is an inspiration — and it's beautiful, too, in its own damaged way.

I'd expected the chainsaw to come out and dismember the tree soon after the storm toppled it, but only one broken limb had been amputated and sawn into firewood-length logs, and even they, still littering the ground and rotting quietly among the grazed grasses and mouldering leaves, added a little character.

Damp from the recent rain muffled the soft rustle carpet of alder and sycamore leaves underfoot. A rabbit materialised a short distance away on the far side of the old road cutting, and while it watched me, I managed two photographs. A rabbit; the scattered yellow and brown leaves; the old fence with its rust-tarnished barbed wire and weathered battens; the indistinct blur of the paddock in front of my house: every element of that photograph had been introduced to New Zealand within the last couple of hundred years. Nothing obvious was native, yet I still loved the feeling it evoked.

Now, looking at it again, I wonder what would ruin it. The answer's clearer than I'd have guessed: a new, tight, fully functional fence in the background; a tidy, leafless, ryegrass-and-white-clover pasture; a white plastic electric fence standard. Anything modern and efficient. Anything giving the impression of neatness, of tidiness and efficiency, of human domination (and you can count out that old fence, whose days of dominating anything had long passed).

I wandered on, wondering why I dislike well-maintained, efficient farms without rabbits. I knew those places — places like the farm across the valley with its tree-less, lawn-like, weed-free, highly productive paddocks enclosed by professionally-strained netting deer fences — and they seemed so sterile they horrified me, but that was just another way of saying the same thing.

Maybe what I needed was the possibility of being surprised. I walked on, hoping a pheasant rooster might suddenly burst into the air from a patch of long grass in an explosion of wings and colour. It didn't, but it might have, and that, for the moment, was comfort enough.

1. The cloud broke in the afternoon and the sun dried the laundry. No rewash necessary.

1. Morning, late autumn, in the valley.
2. Asian paper wasp on another old fence at the edge of the terrace.
3. Rabbits along the old fence earlier in the year.

Photos and original text © 2016 Pete McGregor

11 June 2016

The pigeon post

The pigeons had been let out with trepidation. One was a homer, and we wondered whether, even after months of incarceration, it would embark on its own odyssey, taking the other one with it back to the place it had come from, the place that had been its home: the place, in other words, where the owner had threatened to shoot them if they returned.

I didn't know the full story. As usual, all I'd heard had been hints and snippets, enough to know the danger but little more. But I needn't have worried, because both pigeons decided the implement shed was a better bet than either their old shack, where they'd been cooped up with the barnevelder and the golden-laced wyandotte and the mad Silkie, or their even older and now potentially lethal former home. The implement shed had a lot going for it from a pigeon's perspective: freedom; ease of escape; proximity to the three pigeons still immured in a less-than-lofty cage of chicken wire, two-by-one laths, and plywood; and—maybe most important—my car to crap on.

I could put up with that, though. By the time their crap had corroded the paintwork — the paintwork, that is, that the sun hadn't yet blistered or faded, or that hadn't been abraded by the licking of heifers — the car would probably be nearing the end of its days. Maybe I'd even take to washing the pigeon poo off each day, which would mean some parts of the car would actually get washed. The last time that had happened had been so long ago I couldn't remember it.

Besides, if it came to a contest between pigeons and car cosmetics, the birds would always win. I've loved pigeons ever since my parents refused to allow me to keep them. I'd have been about eight, give or take a year, and the ostensible reason for the refusal was because of the diseases they were supposed to carry ('psittacosis' might have been the first really big word I ever learned). A more plausible explanation was that keeping them would have required buying pigeon food, with neither meat nor eggs as compensation.

It's not that my parents didn't like animals — they did, and I grew up with chooks, cattle, goats, geese, and plenty of wildlife — but that money wasn't abundant. The favoured animals were those that offered some kind of practical, as well as aesthetic or recreational, payback for the cost of being fed.

But some of my school friends kept pigeons. They claimed they'd climbed the crumbling volcanic cliffs where the big flocks of feral pigeons roosted and had stolen squabs. The idea seems utterly implausible now, even if they'd done it without their parents' permission, but the fact remains: they had pigeons, and they sometimes brought one to school to show off, and the bright eye and iridescence and sheer birdness of a pigeon held in the hand captivated me.

Many decades later the Christchurch earthquakes brought down and reshaped most of the pigeon cliffs, and I heard that for a long time the pigeons had gone. I don't blame them.

What never disappeared, though, was my fondness for pigeons. If anything, that fondness has grown, but the funny thing is that I've never owned pigeons of my own, in any sense of that objectionable word, 'owned'. The closest I've come has been looking after these five — the two now liberated and the three still caged — for three weeks while their nominal owners were overseas.

I think my pigeon-fondness increased markedly during my overseas travels. I've seen them, in one form or another, in most places I've travelled. I've seen them everywhere I've been in India, from the great and small cities of Gujarat and Rajasthan to the high, sere Himalaya; in the Karni Mata rat temple at Deshnoke; flying in scattered flocks around the great dome of the Jama Masjid in Old Delhi, where the height obliterated the sense of scale and they could have been angels, or maybe souls, trying to find the way to heaven. I've seen them at dusk as the bus drove into Jaipur and they gazed at us from their twilight roosts on either side of the small canyon. That memory is indistinct yet vivid: the kind of memory I no longer trust because it feels too much like imagination or a congeries of dreams and other memories and expectations, the only thing in common to all those workings of the mind being the slightly surprised yet somehow self-contained stare of countless pigeons.

I've seen them inhabiting the quake-fractured stone towers and cracked walls of buildings in Bhuj, in Gujarat, the buildings still standing as if waiting for the next quake when they can complete their transformation into ruins. Meanwhile the pigeons flutter and shuffle and rearrange themselves onto small ledges and stare down at people who no longer notice them. No one notices pigeons until they're a nuisance or, maybe, until they're no longer there. Then they say, 'Where have all the pigeons gone?' and their voices fill with uneasiness.

I've seen them in the Rumbak Valley in Ladakh's Hemis National Park. I watched a flock take flight with a roar of wings, and as I saw the flash of white on their tails a thrill ran through me because I realised these were hill pigeons, close cousins of the feral pigeons we no longer notice in our cities. That flock would surely at some time have been watched by a snow leopard, and it's not utterly beyond the bounds of possibility that I too, during my short time there, might have been watched by a snow leopard. Many things connect me to the snow leopard — bharal; the local people I met at Rumbak, some of whom have seen shan; Matthiessen's book, which I've read many times including during both visits to Nepal; and so on — and now, pigeons.

I've seen pigeons in Almaty, in Kazakhstan, too. There, they were the only common birds and even they weren't as abundant as I'd expected. They were darker than usual, with a greasy sheen as if they'd flown through a fine spray of sump oil, and they looked a little wrong. Almaty had its charms, but it felt too much under human control and even the pigeons had a hard time treating us as if we didn't matter.

And that's one of the things I love about pigeons: they way they use us and offer nothing in return except the opportunity for us to appreciate their independence. They use our buildings and monuments and bridges — those things we think of as major accomplishments of architecture and art and engineering: as symbols of our greatness and superiority, in other words — and they pay us neither rent nor homage. They put us in our place by pooing on our greatness and —here's the wonderful thing — they don't even bother doing it with contempt or malice. We're beneath them, literally and figuratively, except when we feed them either deliberately or inadvertently, and in either case, guess who's the superior being?

But, most of all, I find comfort in knowing pigeons are there. You can rely on pigeons: they're there in most places in one form or another to remind you that no matter how difficult the circumstances, survival is possible. Pigeons thrive in places where the horror of the human condition could easily overwhelm you. If you want inspiration, if you want to know success is achievable no matter what — just look for the pigeons.

1. Yes, I know some people eat pigeons, and others are obsessed with fancy breeds or racing pigeons, but I've chosen to ignore those inconvenient truths. It's even OK for you not to share my pigeon-enthusiasms.
2. Shan is the name of the snow leopard in Ladakh.

These are the two pigeons now free to make the implement shed their home (and my car their toilet).

Photos and original text © 2016 Pete McGregor

12 May 2016

Deer on the hill

The deer had returned to the face of the hill and as the sun crept up behind the southern Ruahine I watched them from my back door. The stag was nowhere to be seen, even though I’d seen him just yesterday with the five now feeding there. Had he become bored with these few, or become exhausted and fed up with trying to keep them under control? Maybe he recognised that if the hinds weren’t now carrying his genes into the future they never would; maybe he understood in some subliminal, animal way that if he wanted the best chance to perpetuate his genes, he’d do better looking for other hinds.

Another possibility, but one I hoped hadn’t happened, was that he’d been shot. But that seemed unlikely, because even if the landowner had given permission for someone to hunt the area where I assumed the stag and hinds were living, who would shoot a rank, rutting stag with skinny little antlers when a yearling or one of the hinds would provide much better meat?

I watched the five deer grazing in the dawn light. The face of the hill was still in shadow, but sunlight had already arrowed through a saddle on the hills to light up the silver birch and bead tree by the little woolshed. The gold and brown and dull green birch leaves trembled in a cold, gusting breeze and the bronze bead tree leaves shimmered in the wind and sun. I stepped back slightly into the shade of the doorway and put the binoculars back to my eyes. The deer had come further down the hill, closer, almost to the fence at the foot of the slope. I could have watched them all day, but I had tea to drink, breakfast to eat, and work to do.

I wished them luck and turned back to the day’s tasks.

Since writing this, I've seen the stag back with the others on the hill on many occasions.

At one stage a month or two ago, the mob had increased to eight. This was one of the few times I've seen them in the sun; usually they wait until the face is in shadow.

Photos and original text © 2015 Pete McGregor

20 March 2016

A pig tale

Having not read anything new from Helen Macdonald recently, I searched Google for her name and 'NY Times', because I know she writes regularly there, and I restricted the search to the last month. Sure enough, up came the first of several pages of results, and among them was a new article. I suppressed the despondency I felt when I realised she was publishing more frequently in the NY Times, with its enormous readership, than I was on my blog, with its  list  of readers barely longer than the Planck-length, and I clicked the link. The article appeared, headed by a striking photograph of a pig.

The article meditated on the reintroduction of wild boar to Britain, but the pig in the photograph didn't look like a true wild boar. To be fair, though, it didn't claim to be a photograph of a wild boar. In fact, it didn't claim to be anything: the caption simply said 'Andrew Zuckerman'. I assumed this meant the photograph was by Andrew Zuckerman, not of Andrew Zuckerman, although I suppose that might be possible if the photographer didn't like Andrew Zuckerman. But the intention seemed clear to me, and clarity in writing can be taken to extremes: clear enough is good enough.

The photograph itself was certainly clear enough—so clear it couldn't be mistaken for anything but a pig; so detailed it looked as if some old Chinese hermit had devoted forty years of his life to painting it molecule by molecule. The detail was so sharp I felt uncomfortable using my finger to scroll the article, as if the razor-sharp detail might slice my finger open. It was the perfect photograph of a pig—so perfect it looked like a hyperrealist painting. I liked the irony: a photograph that looked like a painting trying to look like a photograph.

That was all I liked about it, though. The photograph disconcerted me.

I read Helen Macdonald's article, which I thought competent and interesting but which had only occasional glimpses of the brilliance she's demonstrated elsewhere, notably in the book that made her famous: 'H is for hawk'. But I kept thinking about that pig photograph and wondering why I felt so uneasy about it.

Technically, it's perfect. Perfectly lit, perfectly presented. Someone must have spent a long time grooming that pig: washing it, brushing its bristles, possibly even polishing its hoofs and wiping its snout. If its tusks had been visible, someone would have spent an hour scrubbing them with tuskpaste. The lighting looked like professional studio lighting, and I later discovered it was.RedStagKinvigMarch2016[400px]

Despite its hyperrealism, though, the photograph didn't look real, and I finally realised the reason: the pig had no context. Not even a shadow. The pure white background provided no clue to what pigs are like, no hint of the essence of pig-ness. Where was the wildness, the character — and where was the muck?

More was missing than just context, too. Where was the story? I'm not one of those who insist every photograph must tell a story, but if a photograph doesn't tell a story it should do something else, like point to something: a point made persuasively by photographer David duChemin. The Zuckerman pig told me no story, nor did it point to anything other than a pig manicured to dismal perfection.

That's how the photograph struck me, but I'm probably part of the minority, as indicated by the success of his book Creature, a collection of photographs in this animals-as-exhibits style. But, when it comes to matters of taste, I'm indifferent about belonging to any particular group (unless, maybe, it comprises those with good taste, or, to put it another way, those who agree with me).


What the photograph had done, though, was get me thinking about pigs. I like pigs; I find them full of personality and character, and Zuckerman's photograph seemed like an injustice; like an overprocessed, excessively retouched photograph of a person with its implied judgement that the real person isn't good enough.

Ironically, I've seen a true wild pig in the wild only once. Strictly, it was a feral pig, but its most recent domesticated ancestor could probably be traced back a hundred years, possibly more, and if you had the bad luck to bump into it unexpectedly you'd think 'wild' perfectly fitting, maybe more so than 'feral'. We watched it from a far mountainside as it made its way downhill, through patches of scrub, in the shimmering heat, towards the stream. Being large and black in the mid-summer heat of North Canterbury must make life uncomfortable, but this pig clearly knew what to do. The sight thrilled me.

I've seen several captive wild pigs, though, and for several months during the summer of 2012 I even lived with one: a small, black, bristly wild pig who arrived after being caught in the Tararua Range. He was one of a large litter; his brothers and sisters stayed at their captor's property but he was one too many, so he travelled north to be re-homed in the small woolshed paddock not far from my back door. He settled in well and adapted to his new home, and I quickly grew to enjoy his personality.

Sometimes he'd run at high speed around the edge of the paddock — and high speed for a pig is far, far faster than most people imagine. If you're ever chased by a wild pig, running's a bad idea. Climb something if you can (despite their intelligence and accomplished physical abilities, pigs not only can't fly, they haven't learned to climb trees, either).

Having run a lap or two around the paddock, he'd stop, panting happily; then, after a second or two, he'd sprint around the paddock again in the opposite direction. His acceleration from a standing start was astonishing. That's something else to remember if you encounter a wild pig. Helen Macdonald was lucky the one she met was on the opposite side of a fence.

My little wild pig also lived on the opposite side of a fence, but eventually we both learned neither was a danger to the other. He'd listen for the sound of my back door opening, and, when he heard it, he'd sprint to the fence and stand there waiting. I'd walk over and scratch his back and the base of his hairy ears, and he'd stand transfixed, sometimes drooling slightly. He loved those back-scratches.

Sometimes he'd grunt a little as he ran to the fence, as if signalling to me that he was there and available to be back-scratched, but during the scratching he mostly remained silent. He seemed to understand that the great pleasures of life are transitory, and, being not only intelligent but wiser than most humans, he accepted this and never objected when I'd finally apologise and walk away. He'd just stand there for a while, meditating on non-attachment, the negation of desire, and impermanence, and then he'd wander off to snuffle around in the shade of the big silver birch.

I learned a lot from that little wild pig.

I said 'my' wild pig, but he was never mine in any sense. I don't know whether he thought of me as his, although I suspect he believed he had me well trained, and he was right.

I went away one weekend, and when I returned I saw the drip tray lying in the sun, swarmed by flies. In the tray a pool of blood was turning black, and on the edge of the pool lay a small, black, bristly tail.


I never ate anything of him, and I'm glad, although if anyone had to eat him it should have been someone who appreciated him for more than his flavour. And it had to happen, of course: he would soon have turned into a mature wild boar, difficult and dangerous, and at that stage he'd not have been fit for much other than rank sausages or dog tucker.  Even if he'd been allowed to live indefinitely, he'd have died sooner or later: every living thing does. It's just a matter of when and how. Maybe that was his final lesson for me.

But this sounds like rationalising, and it probably is. What I really want to say is that he was a true wild pig, and that means he was complex, capable (both physically and mentally), and possessed of a delightful personality. He had a story — one in which I figure — and that story and his personality make up the pig he was. The pig Andrew Zuckerman photographed no doubt had a personality, too, and it must have had some kind of story. Of those things, though, the photograph tells us nothing.

1. Zuckerman describes his technique as ... recontextualiz[ing his subjects] in the clarifying white space to distill each animal to its most essential qualities'. By now, you might realise I think he didn't distill those essential qualities: he destroyed them.

1 and 3. This was him.
2. Another wild/ feral inhabitant of New Zealand’s mountain lands: red deer. I photographed this stag late in the evening on a steep slip in the headwaters of the Pohangina river a few weeks ago.

Photos and original text © 2015 Pete McGregor

20 February 2016

The spider and its saints

A cellar spider picked its way cautiously up the wall, testing each foothold. With eight legs, it’s no wonder the testing took a while. Every now and then the skinny little spider stopped and touched the tip of its abdomen to the wall as it anchored its silken lifeline. The movement looked like a ritual, some kind of benediction, as if the spider had paused to pray to the patron saint of wall climbers, or maybe travellers, or just to St Francis who I’m sure loved cellar spiders as much as any other animal, although you don’t hear about that from the stories that focus on the fluffy animals and little birds. Those saint-marketers knew what they were doing. Who would pray to a saint who loved animals that most people fear?

On the other hand, St Francis did apparently have a fondness for human-eating wolves (so the legend goes), and who wouldn't fear those? Remarkably, too, the saint-marketers decided to recognise a patron saint of spiders, so maybe the little spider's arse-bending benediction was directed to St Felix? More implausible events happen all the time.

This spider was a male, which might have explained his wandering. I could tell he was a male by his long, roughly cylindrical abdomen and the shape of the front of his body: I couldn’t see well enough to make out the detail, but I knew that shape at the front would have been his swollen pedipalps, drawn up close to his head.

I watched the spider’s shadow as the little animal made its slow way up and across the wall. He was thin and long and stringy, but the shadow looked even thinner and longer and stringier — and distorted, too. It looked like the sort of shadow that appears in horror films, except the film version’s invariably enormous and accompanied by screaming.

I like these spiders, not just because we share similar physiques, and they're one of the few I don't instinctively recoil from (jumping spiders are the other exception). Even though I appreciate all spiders, even though I find them fascinating, and even though I know a reasonable amount about them and will seek them out because I consider them ..., well ..., awesome, I still get a mild fright if I encounter one close and unexpectedly. I have no fear of handling cellar spiders or jumping spiders (although I prefer not to disturb them), but to handle any other kind of spider is probably more than I could manage.

I think this fear is (mostly) learned[1], though, and it's learned when you're very young. That's why, when three small friends visited a few days ago and wanted to know what the spider was that was lying under the hammock next door, I went over and picked it up and put it on the palm of my hand and showed it to them without showing any trace of fear or squeamishness.

It helped that I knew the spider had been paralysed and abandoned by a mason wasp, and I explained this to my small friends, but they seemed unimpressed by the thought that the spider had been destined to be eaten alive by a mason wasp grub. Still, I hope they picked up on the way I picked up the spider, and maybe if they'd begun to learn the too-common fear of spiders, seeing what I'd done might have helped them unlearn it a little. I hope so.

[Update: I've replaced the first photograph with one that looks less similar to the second.]

1. For another interesting discussion about whether fear of spiders is innate, inherited, or learned, see: Buddle, C. (2014, May 8). Explainer: why are we afraid of spiders? Retrieved from http://theconversation.com/explainer-why-are-we-afraid-of-spiders-26405

Photos: Another male cellar spider, photographed a few days later. It's possible it could be the same one, but, if so, he'd undertaken an impressive journey through the house, with only limited opportunities to negotiate a closed door. Maybe he had help from his saint.

Photos and original text © 2016 Pete McGregor

12 February 2016

Designer disasters

Ever since the first upright ape sharpened a stick to spear another animal, humans have been designing things. You'd think after all these millennia we'd get it right — and the photographs of this beautiful guitar show that we often do — but after encountering some egregious examples of bad design recently, I've begun to wonder how much we've really learned.

Take the flowing soap I'm currently using, for example. One would reasonably assume this had been through a rigorous process of development that included evaluation by testing panels. Surely, someone at some stage would have squeezed a blob of this soap onto the palm of their hand, looked at the colour — somewhere between beige and bleached yellow — and said, 'Ooh, yuk. This looks like pus.'

Apparently not. The soap's still on sale, so I suppose enough people don't mind washing their hands with pus. More probably, like me, they didn't know it looked like pus until they got it home, because the container's opaque: another example of bad — or possibly wilfully devious — design.

Another example: I bought some laundry pegs and, as usual, chose the cheapest. The first time I used one, I squeezed it between thumb and forefinger to pin a sock to the line and it instantly shot like a melon pip from my fingers and rocketed across the verandah into the paddock. The peg was lined with small ridges, but instead of running across the grip, they ran along it. Instead of increasing friction, they reduced it. That's like designing running shoes with a tread comprising longitudinal grooves — try running on a slippery surface in a shoe with a tread like that.

Surely someone must have tried using one of those pegs?

Perhaps the profit on laundry pegs is so low the manufacturer couldn't justify paying a competent designer and certainly couldn't entertain adequate product testing.

  'Just design me something that opens and closes and can hold a sock on a line,' the manufacturer says.

The designer goes away and returns ten minutes later with a CAD diagram that shows two short lengths of plastic joined with a spring. At least he's thought to put a few semi-circular notches in the jaws to hold socks more securely on the line.

But no one produces a prototype — doing that would cost extra. No one tries pegging socks on a line with the first batch of pegs, because the manufacturer doesn't want to know about any problems. That would require costly retooling in addition to the expense of redesigning (although surely ten minutes of trainee designer time can't be that expensive).

So, the stupidly-designed pegs go into production, and by the time the complaints come in — if they ever do, because who would bother complaining about a few cheap laundry pegs? —the production run has finished and the manufacturer's shifted to some other product. Soles for running shoes, perhaps — no doubt patterned with longitudinal grooves?

How do these incompetent designs arise? Perhaps the designer comes from a culture where people dry laundry in some other way than pinning it on a line — tossing it into a dryer, for example, or spreading it on riverbank rocks in the baking sun, or simply draping it over a balcony railing? Perhaps he grew up in a household where pinning wet socks on a line was exclusively work for women, so he'd never in his life had a peg shoot twenty feet from his fingers?

Other reasons abound, but one that seems important is simply that much good design must be learned. It's not innate; it relies heavily on the experience of predecessors, and even if careful thinking can compensate for knowledge that hasn't yet been learned, thinking has two major shortcomings: sometimes you overlook crucially important things, and sometimes you just get it wrong. (Both are possible, even likely, in this blog post.)

That's why relying on a single designer seems risky. That's one reason why a group of ordinary mortals can sometimes provide a better answer than a genius. The genius might come up with a dozen great ideas; the crowd of fifty might only come up with thirteen, but that additional idea might be the one that makes the difference — the one that realises this soap looks like pus, or that positioning the ridges longitudinally on a laundry peg will sooner or later see you sued because someone's retina was detached by one of those speeding pegs.

1, 2. Although this post focuses on bad design, it's easy to find innumerable examples of wonderful design. This gorgeous guitar was handmade by Christchurch (NZ) luthier Nick Oliver. 
3. Update: Added at Dylan's request via Zhoen. The photograph distorts the headstock a bit, but it's the only photograph I have that shows it, and the guitar's in Christchurch — a long way from me.

Photos and original text © 2016 Pete McGregor

20 October 2015

An hour upon the stage

An old friend and I were drinking flat whites at Café Cuba on a Friday, late in the afternoon but before the influx of the after-work crowd. Even then the place had the trendy café buzz I dislike, but I liked it anyway, partly because the coffee surprised me by being excellent, which made me feel disloyal to my favourite café (closed by then), but mostly because I hadn't seen her for a long time. Besides, perched at a high window table where we looked out to the street instead of back into the ant-nest of the interior, we weren't tempted to make snide sotto voce remarks about the fashionistas and cafelatti and could concentrate on our own conversation.

We talked, inevitably, about travelling we'd done, and about styles of travelling. I said how I liked to do nothing in particular: wander around looking and falling into conversations; mostly not bothering to visit the famous sights; writing a lot, mostly just for the sake of it; going back to the same places to eat, so the staff eventually just grinned and checked I wanted dahl and rice and naan or whatever, as usual. She said she thought I'd turned into her, meaning I'd become the person she'd been, and I thought I heard a little melancholy and a trace of envy, as if she mourned the person she once was. Maybe she felt a little trapped by her success.

I might have felt similarly trapped if I'd been able to claim anything more than trivial success. I can't, though, except for the success of having escaped entrapment by success or being aware of the evil of that entrapment. Others would call that irresponsibility or a refusal to face up to reality, but those accusations smack of envy — and not the gentle, appealing sort of envy I thought I heard in my friend's voice.

'I work hard,' they say (not out loud but clearly enough), 'and you should too,' the subtext of the unsaid jibe being, 'I'm not happy and it's not fair that you're happy.'

Fortunately, none of those people are my friends.


'We should have a glass of wine,' she said. I resisted at first, pointing out that I had to drive myself home, but she pressed a little harder and I thought one glass would be O.K. We peered at the bottles in the chiller and she suggested the Palliser Estate Riesling. When I agreed she got up and bought a glass for each of us. I saw her wince as she put her purse back in her handbag.

While she'd been at the counter I'd glanced around. I wasn't the oldest person in the café but almost everyone who wasn't me looked younger and more competent. All of them, meaning more than a few, were leaning over their phones, poking fingers at screens I'd need glasses to read, and I thought how the first i-phone had begun shaking up the world just eight years ago. Android phones didn't arrive until a year later and only started taking off — I mean trending — five years ago. A lifetime ago, in other words, and if five years is a lifetime, what should all the years of my life be called?

My friend returned and some of her youngness and competence transferred to me, and I relaxed. The excellent wine helped, too, and I might even have become garrulous but she didn't mind.

We talked, also inevitably, about photography. Before I could tell her I was thinking of ordering the Olympus 40–150 mm f2.8 PRO lens with the MC-14 1.4x dedicated teleconverter, a lens she'd owned for some time and, like all owners of that lens, loved, she told me she'd just ordered the Olympus 7–18 mm f2.8 PRO. I felt a twinge of envy.

Digital photography, unlike smartphones, doesn't have a clear birthday. (The first digital camera, on the other hand, arrived in December 1975. The engineer credited with its creation worked for Kodak — a company eventually killed by the digital photography revolution. Irony doesn't come much more ironic.) I believe a few cousins of flat-earthers still deny the existence of digital photography in a form superior to analogue photography — like Holden drivers, they count beliefs and loyalty far more important than facts — but more than a few photographers accept that digital photography truly arrived around the time Canon released the EOS 10D in 2003, or at least when Canon superceded the 10D with the 20D in August 2004.

I still have my 20D. It looked and felt like a monster when I bought it but eventually I grew accustomed to the bulk and heft. Now, on the rare occasions when I pick it up after using my EM-1, the 20D feels like a monster again.

A woman held a phone out at arm's length and leaned against her companion, who leaned against her, and they laughed. I could just hear the fake shutter sound.


Outside the library, a guy with a shiny black BMX helmet cruised up alongside me on a mountain bike with skinny tyres. He wore dark wrap-arounds, baggy shorts, and unlaced high-top boots that looked like they’d been rescued from a skip.  Varicose veins knobbled his hairless pale calves. He stopped the bike and took his sunglasses off.

‘Howya goin’, Pete,’ he said.

‘Good. How are ya, Fred?’

‘Yeah, good. Got plenty of books to take home?’

‘Nah. Been doing some writing.’

‘Yeah? Good on ya, mate. What’s it for?’

I asked if he knew my blog.

He grimaced and said, ‘No. I can’t use a computer.’

All I could think of to say was ‘Bummer.’ I wondered if he was badly dyslexic or had some other kind of disability — the sort of thing that years ago we’d have called a handicap. Now you're not allowed to say that, even if it is a handicap. Sometimes you’re not even allowed to say disability; you have to refer to the person as ‘differently abled’. That sounds absurd to me but I’ll happily use whatever terminology makes the differently abled person most comfortable.

I didn’t know why Fred couldn’t use a computer and didn’t want to risk embarrassing both of us by asking. I changed the subject.

‘How’s your ankle?’

He’d smashed it up a while ago. O.K., he said, but he couldn’t go tramping on it. It had metal pins and screws and a bit of arthritis in it. At least he could bike though. He loved biking and was grateful for that and also for still being alive. I hadn’t realised the accident had been that bad.

I thought of another friend, ten years younger than me, who had arthritis in her foot. Like Fred, she couldn’t go tramping now. I heard doors slamming — behind Fred, behind my friend with the arthritic foot, behind me. Then I realised that all doors behind us have already slammed shut. None ever remain open; you can't return through a door to your past. What I'd heard — metaphorically if not actually —had been doors closing in front of us.

What doors had started swinging shut in front of me?


I woke in the middle of the night and realised the radio was still playing, with Kim Hill interviewing the Welsh duo who were touring New Zealand with their play Hiraeth. From time to time she'd play a song they'd nominated. I dozed and listened and dozed and almost woke, never rising fully from the half-dreamt world, and then I became aware I was listening to music that had begun to draw me up into full consciousness. A powerful orchestral backing dominating the strange vocals; a structure that tricked the listener into believing the track was finishing before suddenly resuming with a wave of sound.

In the morning I checked the playlist on the programme's web page and learned I'd been listening to Hoppípolla, by the band Sigur rós. No wonder I hadn't been able to discern the lyrics — they'd been in Icelandic. Some had even been in a kind of language the band had constructed; the name for that language loosely translates as 'Hopelandic'. It has no consistent syntax.

I found a video of the song and, while I listened, glanced at the YouTube suggestions. One, with an arresting photograph of a girl drew my attention because the girl resembled a younger version of another friend. The piece was a simple but beautiful piano composition, Nuvole Bianche, by the Italian composer Ludovici Einaudi.

I listened, and thought about other piano music and blues and jazz, and about jazz pianists; about Keith Jarrett and Mike Nock and the Australian trio The Necks. I started listening to my favourite Necks track, Open, but had to shut it down because I needed to leave for town. I thought about my grandmother, who had been an accomplished pianist; as a child she'd been considered a virtuoso but, coming from a poor family, she would never become the concert pianist she might otherwise have been. Towards the end of her life a stroke slammed the door on the one thing for which she was most highly regarded. I don't remember how long she lived after the stroke, but I wonder whether she thought she had anything much to live for after that.

She lived on the other side of Christchurch and fought with my grandfather and taught piano. Keyboards in the modern sense hadn't been invented, but she played the organ wonderfully, too, and I have no doubt she'd have been brilliant at anything else with a keyboard — harpsichord, spinet, clavichord, etc. — although maybe not the piano accordion or harmonium. I daren't think what she'd have said about those.

I, too, grew up in a family that scraped by only because of my mother's good and careful management. A piano was out of the question, so my brothers and sister and I never had the opportunity to learn the piano from our grandmother. I'd often wondered what I might have been able to accomplish if I'd learned to play the piano as a kid, and, with the self-confidence of one who knows nothing about the thing they think they'd be great at, I'd more than once thought I could have made a name for myself as a jazz pianist.

Recently, though, I heard a young friend and her mum discussing the technicalities of a keyboard piece she'd been working on. Timing and keys and flats and sharps and signatures and stuff I'd never heard about. I had only the vaguest notion of what they were discussing; they might as well have been speaking Hopelandic. My conviction that I could have been a great jazz pianist vanished at exactly that moment.


Another Friday had ambushed me but late in the day I'd escaped to the City Library, where I'd hidden myself at a desk behind the shelves of film stars and fashion advice and guns and warfare. I was trying to finish an article I'd been writing for too long. Downstairs, someone began playing the beat-up old piano, and at first I took no notice, other than thinking vaguely that whoever was playing sounded confident. Then I started listening harder. This was no plinker practising scales or grinding through Remembrance (which my grandmother and mother both detested, as do I). I packed the laptop away and headed downstairs.

A young man in a faded dark tank top sat at the piano, playing furiously, utterly absorbed in his music. All he had were his hands and the keys and what was in his head. No sheet music. The notes poured from his fingers. The music and the scene were elemental.

I looked down from the ramp and listened for a while then hurried back to the car to pick up the camera bag. The young guy was still playing. I took a seat near another man who was smiling and nodding in time with the music. He looked at me and grinned, and I said something about the music and he agreed and shrugged, spreading his hands to show he had no idea who the musician was but thought him brilliant. The young guy kept playing his extraordinary music.

He wasn't perfect. Occasionally he stumbled as if, momentarily, his hands had decided to go somewhere different from the path his mind was creating, but those slight imperfections made the music even more perfect, in the way the slight imperfections in something handmade make that thing immensely more beautiful than a machine-made perfect product.

I didn't want to interrupt him to ask about photographing. The other man extended a large hand, which I shook. His tattooed biceps looked as if they were about to split the sleeve of his T-shirt.

'I'm Dion,' he said.

I'd been scribbling a few notes about the music in the little cahier I carry everywhere for every kind of purpose.

'Are you an author?' he said.

I replied that I did a lot of writing, but this didn't satisfy Dion.

'Are you an author?' he said again.

I hesitated, then replied again that I did a lot of writing.

'I'm an author,' he said, and explained that his book would be published shortly before Christmas.

'I'm a life coach,' he added. He pointed to some lettering tattoed on his wrist: T.A.N.O.M.

'This stands for "There Are No Ordinary Moments",' he said.

I wondered whether my life was about to be coached, but he must have guessed I was beyond help, so we talked briefly about the music. We agreed that this was no ordinary moment.

The P.A. announced that the library would be closing in fifteen minutes. I took the camera out and walked over and waited until the player noticed me. I gestured with the camera and he smiled and kept playing. I tried different angles and compositions and camera settings but the light was difficult and I couldn't find a way to convey what the moment meant.

When he stopped playing, Dion started clapping and I joined in. The piano player's name was Reuben. I asked him whether everything had been improvised.

'Most of it,' he said, pointing out it was loosely based on something by someone I'd never heard of.

He said that when I'd asked about photographing he'd wondered whether he'd look weird because he'd just had work done on a root canal. He pointed to his right cheek, which was noticeably swollen. I'd been photographing from his left, so the swelling wouldn't show. I didn't ask him whether he'd come to lose the pain by losing himself in his music.

Reuben was in his mid twenties. I asked him how long ago he'd started learning the piano. He thought for a moment, then said, 'About eleven years.'

I added eleven years to my age and for a moment wondered whether I still had time.


Drizzly rain arrived just after dawn, then stopped. The pink and white flowers of the magnolia in the deer paddock looked even more spectacular than usual against the dark dull grey of the overcast sky. I drove into town on a wet road, thinking about the past and the future; of metaphors of doors closing; of smashed ankles and arthritis and friends with new knees and hips, the originals worn out by too much tramping and mountaineering. All my joints still work well — no arthritis, no bone-on-bone grating, no need for ceramic and alloy. So far, that is. I should be grateful, but I couldn't help thinking that maybe my good fortune merely reflected the fact that I hadn't done as much tramping and mountaineering as I'd have liked. Some people wear out; others ossify.

I bypassed the market and drove straight to Tomato, where I ordered a large flat white. At the corner window table I uncapped the pen and began to write.

Yes: as you get older, doors close. Eventually you realise you've missed your chance to make a name for yourself as a mountaineer or an All Black or a jazz pianist. What makes that so sad, though, is that you've become O.K. with that knowledge. You've become happy enough doing comfortable climbs that won't kill you. You're happy enough watching test matches and can even accept occasional All Black defeats. You're glad you discovered The Necks and Keith Jarrett and have become resigned to knowing you'll never play like them or with them. You no longer burn. To salve this malaise of resignation, you seek the consolation of landscapes, and light, and light on landscapes.

A slamming door can snuff out a flame. For you, though it's the vacuum created by the dying flame that pulls the door closed.

But while those doors swing shut, what you've learned opens others; the urgency of increasing age unlocks doors you wouldn't otherwise have bothered opening. You write more, and you think harder about what to do with that writing. You say yes, sure, why not, more easily.


The café started to fill. Couples, small groups, a fair few people on their own. The other loners read newspapers. Almost everyone ate eggs on toast and drank coffee. Most wore unremarkable attire but one regular customer, a short man whose every movement seemed carefully deliberated, wore a slightly-too-small trilby, a straggly goatee, an unbuttoned waistcoat over a white skivvy, and enormously baggy basketball shorts. His shins appeared briefly below the shorts before disappearing again into black ankle socks and well-worn, once-white New Balance trainers. He looked comfortable, unconcerned about what others might think of his attire, and he made the place look interesting. After ordering a small coffee he sat at a tiny table and studied a newspaper through reading glasses, turning the pages slowly and occasionally sipping his coffee.

I was wearing my camo bush shirt. The friend I'd met on Friday once said I was the only person she knew who carried fountain pens in a bush shirt pocket. I liked that, in the way I like things that aren't supposed to go together, like waistcoats and basketball shorts.


Along the Pohangina Road the light was fading fast but the drab landscape lacked the colours to make the Purkinje Shift noticeable. The grey trunks of old macrocarpas shone dull and sinewed under the dark bulk of their foliage, and the car floated along the road as if it knew its way home and just wanted to get there and park up for the night. I, on the other hand, wanted to keep going forever.


A few days later I stepped outside into the evening and stood near the back door, looking at the light after the sun had gone down. The wind had died down, too, and the gales that had blown the sky to bits, leaving churned-up drifts and ragged scraps of cloud in the worn-out sky, had diminished to intermittent breezy gusts. The evening appeared at any moment about to turn to dusk; a huge, dark, ominous bank of cloud sheeted rain down in the west, and in the east the southern Ruahine lay beneath more black cloud. I looked at the old fuel tank perched on its rickety stand, its dull silver paint flaking to reveal the orange primer beneath. I saw its patches of rust and its pentimento of a forgotten oil company’s logo; I noticed the dark brown corrugated iron shed behind the tank, the dull shimmer of the poplars by Te Awa o te Atua Stream and beyond them the pale off-white of the clay cliff above the old quarry. I saw the cropped paddocks, and the silver birch and bead tree just coming into leaf, and I thought that if I didn’t know any better I might think I was back in Patagonia. It was something about the light and the remains of the wind and the almost-broken rural paraphernalia, and I wondered how two places that looked almost identical despite being thousands of kilometres and an ocean apart could feel so different.

That was it — this identical scene in Patagonia would feel utterly different. The fact that it looked identical and would therefore remind me so strongly of here, where I stood watching the light of dusk, would only accentuate the difference. Perhaps, I thought, here I’ve had time to become part of the place, but there on the pampas or the broken farms elsewhere in southern Patagonia I’d be a newcomer. The land would not yet have assimilated me. I wondered whether I’d ever have the courage to return there, not because the travelling would be hard (it wouldn’t) but because the memories would be too much to bear.

Time can turn a journey into an elegy.

But time can create memories out of imagination — what you remember vividly might never have happened. The more elegiac the memory of the journey, the less you should trust it.

And time always turns a person into someone else. Maybe I wasn't turning into my friend's former self, but as I stood in the fading light, haunted by memories and imagination, I shivered, although the wind wasn't cold, and I wondered whether, like my friend, I was beginning to mourn the person I once was.

1. Some names have been changed.
2. The title refers to Macbeth's famous soliloquy.
3. 'I'd been trying to finish an article ...' — this one, in fact. The one you're reading. I'm still not sure it's finished.
4. Because I've mentioned a couple of George Street cafés, I feel I should also mention Café Jacko, where the staff go out of their way to make green tea (real tea, not bags) according to my recommendations.

1, 2. Reuben playing at the Palmerston North City Library
3. Sculpture (?) outside Moxies, another George Street café.
4. The magnolia not far from my back door a few weeks ago.

Photos and original text © 2015 Pete McGregor