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.



Notes:
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.

Photos:
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.]

Notes: 
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.



Photos: 
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.


Notes: 
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.

Photos: 
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

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.



Notes: 
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.

Photos: 
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.


Notes: 
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.


Photos: 
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.

____________





Photos: 
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