23 March 2014

The functionally invisible world

This is a female booklouse. Booklice aren't lice (although the parasitic lice probably evolved from one of the groups of booklice) and they don't eat books (although some species are associated with them and may nibble the paste in book bindings). They belong to an order of insects called Psocodea [1], which includes 'booklice' (in the narrow sense), 'barklice', and the parasitic lice. The female in the photograph is one of New Zealand's native barklice but that term is far from entirely accurate too, because they're found in far more habitats than on bark. I found her on a lichen-festooned fence batten, where she seemed to be doing her best to avoid the attentions of a male who was displaying vigorously at her.

Many years ago, this unmistakable species was included in the genus Myopsocus. Later, it was transferred to the horribly-named genus Phlotodes (which sounds to me like something you might find honked into a handkerchief); it stayed in that genus for a few years before being shifted back to Myopsocus. Now, apparently, someone has moved it to the genus Nimbopsocus, a name roughly ten times longer than its owner even without the part that identifies the species: australis.

What often strikes me about these kinds of tiny creatures is the way they're unknown to most people. I'd be amazed if the number of New Zealanders who'd ever noticed Nimbopsocus australis [2] got beyond double figures. This species is fairly easy to find: just look closely at anything with a good growth of lichen and eventually you're likely to see either the adults or the herds of nymphs (which cluster in mobs like tiny wildebeest, grazing on algae, fungi and lichen). But who bothers to look? A few oddballs like me; weirdos who get more delight out of peering at lichen-encrusted fence battens and stockyard railings than polishing their Holdens; eccentrics who'd rather know about barklice than Bathhurst. They (these barklice, not me) are beautiful to look at, and the antics of the males when displaying to the females are hilarious (but the same is often true of us, although I've yet to see some bloke doubled over with his head on the ground, waving his arms in the air behind his back, and rocking from side to side).

They're not just beautiful, though: they're fascinating too. Think about everything needed to allow an insect's tiny body to be called 'alive' — the complexity of that astonishing number of structures and processes packed into something so small we overlook it unless it stings us or drowns in our soup. Despite our remarkable advances in engineering, an insect remains utterly beyond our ability to construct; compared to the little barklouse in this photograph, a V8 Supercar is about as complex as a brick.

In short, they're worth watching and thinking about (although I'm unlikely to have convinced the petrolheads [3] I've just antagonised). Yet hardly anyone does watch them — not just barklice, but most of the thousands of species of tiny animals that surround us every day. We don't even see them. They're out there in plain view, but functionally they're invisible.

1. Psocodea is sometimes considered a superorder comprising the order Psocoptera ('booklice' and 'barklice') and the order Phthiraptera ( parasitic lice).
2. More photographs in this NZ NatureWatch entry.
3. I'm using 'petrolhead' in the sense of definition no. 2 in the wiktionary entry.

Photos and original text © 2014 Pete McGregor

09 March 2014

Nietzsche on the No. 1 Line track

When I came around the corner just above the Stinkhorn Step, Nietzsche was sitting beside the track with his head in his hands.
   "Cheer up," I said, "it's not far to the top now."
He looked up.
   "Is it hard?" he said.
   "No. Pretty straightforward. There's a steep, slippery bit, but it won't kill you."
He groaned and put his head back in his hands.
   "Buggerit," he said.
   "It's not that bad. You'll get up it easily."
   "No!" he shouted. "What's the use if it's easy? I want adversity! My soul cries out for hardship!
   "Oh, ... I see," I said. 
He looked so downcast at the prospect of not encountering something that might kill him that I thought I should try cheering him up.
   "It's nice at the top. Bitterly cold; showers of sleet. You could get frostbite or hypothermia."
   "Yep. Only the strong survive up there."
He looked a little less despondent. 
   "How long did you stay?" he asked.
   "Didn't even stop," I lied. "Just turned around and got out of there."
   "Hmph." He looked away: the kind of not-looking that people do to dog turds on footpaths.
   "You'll like it up there," I said, not put off by his dog turd not-look. "You get to look out over the world. Everything's beneath you. It's like an eagle's nest."
He grunted something noncommittal, but I could tell he'd started to warm to the idea that freezing to death might be possible. I decided to leave him to make up his mind so he wouldn't think he'd been persuaded by one of the bungled and botched.
   "See you later," I said, and left him muttering into his moustache.

A little further on, I recognised the corner above the Stinkhorn Step. When I rounded it, Nietzsche was sitting there with his head in his hands. He looked up.
   "Are you a demon?" he asked.

Note: Mostly just a bit of fun, based on my rudimentary knowledge of Nietzsche's philosophy. If it perplexes you, this might help, at least with the last bit. 
Photograph: The No. 1 Line track near its beginning. Nietzsche wasn't there when I photographed this—perhaps he was nearer the top in the lousy weather, not being killed.

Photos and original text © 2014 Pete McGregor

16 January 2014

Changes to Pohanginapete

Because of the ongoing problems with Pohanginapete (the blog, not me), I've finally taken a deep breath and upgraded the template. In the short term the appearance is likely to mutate until my dissatisfaction reaches a level I can live with for a while. If the change proves disastrous, I have the old template — and the blog itself — saved, so in theory I could restore everything.

Links to blogs and other interesting sites will go up eventually. Unfortunately, the transfer isn't quite as simple as changing the other aspects.

Here's hoping the changes reduce the number of problems. Feel free to comment on the new format. What doesn't work so well? How might it be improved? What do you not want me to change?

(The photograph's just to make this post look pretty. Well, I think this tachinid fly looks pretty.)

Update (17 Jan 2014): The upgraded template hasn't fixed the problem that the blog doesn't update in other people's blog lists. I've discovered a few other problems, too (e.g. the template I chose only allowed one 'page' in the bar beneath the blog description, so I've had to change the template). Still, I'll persevere. Keep the suggestions coming. :^)

Photos and original text © 2014 Pete McGregor

15 January 2014

Being still

After dinner I check the spiders. They crouch in their webs, legs folded tight against their bodies so they look like ragged bundles of debris, like the mangled bodies of the prey they've consumed, the bodies they've attached to the web like a string of macabre beads. Which is the killer and which are the killed? Hard to say. Hunched up like this, exquisitely still, one of these spiders is just another bead, indiscernible from its surroundings.

The wind shakes the webs. They tremble and flex and almost touch. What would happen if two webs entangled? Spiders are not known for their interpersonal skills, with the outcome of an encounter generally being death or sex—often both—and even these colonial spiders might not suffer someone else in their webs. Action can be so swift it makes the preceding and following stillness seem even more uncanny.

At night I dream I'm walking a path through long grass in an abandoned garden. No one else accompanies me and I hear no voices from beyond the old trees and the high, paling fence, the boards of which have warped after years of weather. No birds, just the sound of wind. No dogs barking, just the sound of a branch creaking in the moth-riddled apple tree. Two spiders with gleaming, maroon bodies and long, attenuated legs watch me as I walk past. They're almost my size. I climb an old wooden box, shoulder height, because I have no other way to escape. I know this is futile but fear turns hopeless ideas into options. I look down and see the spiders walking towards me. One begins to climb the box.

Nothing is more patient than a spider waiting in a web. Nothing is more focused. These spiders, crouching at the centre of their webs, will wait endlessly until some insect becomes entangled, then they'll rush out and murder it. Another meal—perhaps the first in weeks. Another crushed corpse to add to the string. Then they go back to waiting.

If I could attain the stillness of one of these spiders, might I, too, vanish into my surroundings? Would the spider climbing the box walk right over me and down again and wonder where I'd gone?

Jimmy puts his paws on my leg as I sit trying to write; he hooks at my elbow and his claws penetrate the thin fleece of my jacket and prick my arm. I shake him off several times before he desists. He ignores the food I've put out for him and puts his head in the rubbish instead, investigating, sniffing for scraps of meat. Futile, of course: I don't put meat scraps in the rubbish. I growl at him. Surprisingly, he lifts his head out of the bag and walks away. Cats are predictable only in their unpredictability, and perhaps also their perversity, but I still love them. Maybe I still love them because of their unpredictability and perversity.

Today, though, I have the dogs to look after. Olive and Trev have gone north for the weekend so I'm looking after the farm. I took the dogs for a walk yesterday evening and they seemed remarkably restrained, noticeably quieter than their usual exuberant, almost frenzied pounding around. Hardly sluggish, but more interested in wandering—not far, but as if more interested in investigating, in sniffing out interesting things and eating or rolling in them, than in demented charging around. The spaniel with no brain followed me around more than usual—which is to say he sometimes followed me around—and once even lay down and looked at me as if wishing to be well-behaved. This is new behaviour for him. I looked at him, and remembered the other times I've seen him lying down. These comprise just two situations: when he's chewing something or when he's flaked out in his kennel. But even sleeping dogs can never attain the stillness that comes naturally to a cat, with the possible exception of a heading dog controlling sheep with the power of its gaze.

This reinforces the view that stillness is a quality more than the absence of motion. Even when a cat turns its head to look towards a sound—a door opening, footfalls on a verandah, a food bowl being placed—the cat remains still, as if its head were attending to a matter independently from the rest of its body, which remains focused on the need for stillness. True stillness is more akin to intense concentration than to the state of being motionless.

The coast of Ghana in 2007, somewhere between Agona Junction and Takoradi. A man stands on a traffic island between lanes of speeding vehicles.  He wears a rag on his head, an open, grimy shirt, loose trousers cinched tight around a hard, narrow waist.  He carries his arms slightly raised, poised as if for action—but this man is the antithesis of action.  Utterly motionless, he stands so still he might have been turned to basalt when struck by the sun's first rays.  Even in the few seconds I see him from our passing car, I'm transfixed by the sheer intensity of his stillness.  His is not mere paralysis, it is pure quality—the quality of absolute stillness, as if the components of his cells had suddenly seized, hardened in an instant.

In Europe or New Zealand or elsewhere, this man would be called a street performer or an artist and applauded for his accomplishment.  Here, I suspect, he is called bewitched.

What was the purpose of his absolute motionless, that stillness as if the part of the universe forming his body had frozen while the rest of the cosmos carried on? As if he had stepped outside space-time? Perhaps this was his way of becoming invisible; perhaps he thought if he abandoned every form of motion, including his passage through Time, the cosmos— including all those passing him by on the hectic sweltering street; including the van from which I gazed out and wondered how anyone could be so still, and why— could no longer see him? But among all the frantic activity—the people walking or running or calling out, the vehicles speeding by, the dust rising and swirling, the fierce mid-morning tropical sun melting the dark bodies crowding the street—he was the most visible. Maybe we were the ones who did not exist.

Stillness, then, can be used to become invisible or to become the only thing visible. A third and better purpose is to become part of everything: to be accepted into the world.

I sit on the verandah, very still, my old straw hat tilted slightly forward to shade my eyes. A family of swallows swoops and jinks over the long grass in the hay paddock. Two youngsters, not long from the nest but already almost as accomplished at flying as their parents, speed past. One flashes by, just metres away, then turns suddenly, flies back and hovers in front of me as if checking to see what's under the brim of the hat. The tiny bird is so close I could almost reach out and touch it. But then the spell would break.

I am bewitched.

1. Both photographs are of Cyclosa trilobata, a spider that lives in groups. Currently, I have several colonies of these spiders living in the harakeke (New Zealand flax) bushes along the driveway.
Photos and original text © 2014 Pete McGregor

05 December 2013

The trouble with photographs

The trouble with bad art, Tom Stoppard claimed, is that the artist knows exactly what he’s doing. The trouble with that claim is that not knowing what you’re doing doesn’t guarantee you’ll make good art. If it did, I’d be making good art every time I photographed something.

On the far side of the valley, misty rain hangs gloomy in the gullies around Zigzag Road, wraps itself around old macrocarpas and broken pines and scrubby kanuka, softens the morning, softens the ground that’s been drying and hardening as spring rushes towards summer. Some urge compels me to step outside to try to capture the mood of the morning in a photograph. I’ve tried this before—to make a photograph that accurately evokes this particular rainy-morning mood—but every attempt has left me dissatisfied. This time I think I’ve come close, but the thing with photographs is that they need time before their worth—or worthlessness—can be assessed reliably.
Sometimes a photograph excites me immediately. Later, after having looked at it frequently, or after not having looked at it all, maybe for weeks, I’ll open it and study it and be unimpressed. Sometimes I’ll even cringe: is my judgement that bad? Did I know what I was doing?

It’s tempting to say the reason for this inability to immediately assess a photograph remains a mystery, but if it is, the mystery isn’t complete. One obvious reason is that initial impressions are always coloured by the memory of what was photographed—one sees not just the photograph but the image in memory, which we now know is horribly unreliable. But recent memories are likely to be more accurate than older memories; more to the point, they’re more comprehensive than older memories, so when we look at a photograph soon after its creation, the things that excited us enough to make the photograph will be remembered more clearly and comprehensively than if we look at the photograph a few weeks later. Consequently, the photograph evokes a more comprehensive set of uplifting memories. A problem with this reasoning, however, is that sometimes an initially uninspiring photograph will look better after a period of forgetting. Maybe one forgets the feelings that initially detracted from the photograph? Plausible (perhaps), but I’m unconvinced.

Another reason is that how one responds to a photograph will almost certainly be coloured by one’s mood. The Online Photographer’s Mike Johnston noticed this about his perceptions of music and wondered whether the same could be said about photographs; I, like some of those who commented, imagine this to be indubitable. No one’s mood remains constant—or, if it does, they fall into one of three types: saints, arseholes, and the pathologically boring—so one’s response to a photograph might also be expected to fluctuate. While this reason at least has the advantage that it explains equally well why a photograph can eventually look better or worse than it did at first, it fails to explain why the impression of a photograph seems eventually to settle down, or at least not change as wildly as sometimes happens after that initial period.

So, I’m taking a risk with this photograph, which hasn’t yet matured enough to persuade me it does what my early impressions tell me it does. I know some people will see gloom, depression, and miserable weather—which does NOT mean those people are necessarily gloomy, depressed, and miserable—and perhaps a year from now I’ll see that in this photograph too. Now, however, I see hints of wildness and solitude, hints of the kind of weather that keeps the red dust of the world from settling, and that suggests the possibility of being able to disappear, to walk out of the hectic world. This, I suppose, is the difference between a literal and a metaphorical viewing of a photograph. Others would call it romanticism, or worse, but that’s their prerogative. I’ll take comfort in the thought that I wasn’t entirely sure what I was doing.

1. Tom Stoppard’s claim — cited by Clive James (2008) on p. 787 of Cultural Amnesia, New York: Norton.  
2. ‘“Red dust'” is a Buddhist cliché for sensation’ — Red Pine (Bill Porter) (2000), on p. 110 of his translation of The Collected Songs of Cold Mountain. Port Townsend, WA: Copper Canyon Press.
1 & 2. Two attempts about five minutes apart. A slight difference in feel.
Photos and original text © 2013 Pete McGregor

13 August 2013


I knew the fact — how a bird that weighs only about the same as a can of beer flies further without stopping than any other bird (about 11,000 kilometres from Alaska to New Zealand). I knew them since my childhood and adolescence, knew them where I grew up next to the Avon-Heathcote estuary in Christchurch. Decades later I’d seen them at Foxton, helped sample the mudflats for the food that sustained them on those tremendous flights. I'd even written about them. But I’d never seen them take to the air and leave on the 9000 kilometre flight to the Yellow Sea and eventually back to Alaska. Then, on the last weekend of March this year I finally saw seven bar-tailed godwits rise into the evening and fly fast away from Foxton, the small flock sticking together as if supporting each other, their silhouettes diminishing until even through the binoculars they became little more than dark dots in a pale sky. Then nothing.

Only then did I understand what this meant — the enormity of it, the astonishing accomplishment, the sheer incomprehensibility of what it means to suddenly take to the air and set off on a non-stop flight over the ocean to a place 9000 km away. The usual explanations for why they fly in small groups rather than singly — drafting, like cyclists in a race, or perhaps some kind of wisdom of the flock that ensures any error in navigation will be corrected by the other birds — seemed secondary, even unimportant. The real reason godwits fly in small flocks, I understood, must surely be because flying alone on a journey like that is just too scary.

That’s almost certainly rubbish, of course. In all likelihood, godwits just leave because they feel compelled: some urge gets too strong, one bird takes flight and that’s the trigger; everyone in the group goes too, possibly with a sense of relief and some vague feeling that this is what they need to be doing right now — flying in a certain direction with no intention of landing until some other urge tells them this is the place to land.

For me, though, the sight of those small birds speeding through the sky, getting smaller, seemed inconsolably lonely, like watching a plane carry away a loved one on a journey with no return date. Perhaps the feeling’s universal, or maybe it runs in the family: my mother eventually couldn’t wait around at airports — it’s always hardest for the person left behind, she said, and she was right. The traveller looks ahead at least as much as he looks back, but those who farewell the traveller are denied the consolation of that distraction; for them, the absence is paramount.

So I watched through the binoculars until I lost sight of the small silhouettes heading away, and if I’d had wings I’d have flown after them, not knowing whether I was flying away from a known life or towards the exquisite promise of something unknown. What we know can be a joy, but the unknown will always offer that additional hope: the possibility of what might be.

I have an image in my mind, an image of small birds speeding over the deep ocean, far out there in the darkness, passing over the occasional lights of a ship, weaving between clouds, light from the waning gibbous moon on their wings.

Fare well, my friends.

Photograph: Flight over the Himalaya, 2007
Photographs and original text © 2013 Pete McGregor

13 April 2013

Portraits from the past

In the article, Denis Healey talks about Thatcher. But what caught my interest wasn’t the subject — neither Healey nor, most definitely, the odious Thatcher — but Kalpesh Lathigra’s photograph of Healey. Dull, desaturated, drab, without a single strong or even definite colour, so flat that the light struggles to cast a decent shadow — and brilliant. I don’t need to read the article to get a sense of who Denis Healey is; in fact, I suspect this might be the kind of photograph that says more about its subject than the subject understands about himself.

Open-necked shirt held captive by a woolly jersey; corduroy jacket an olive colour (if colour can be the right word for such a non-colour in such an uncolourful photograph) and apparently — and worryingly — identical to one I still own; a chin almost receding, although that might be an illusion created by the wattles, fleshy and stretched, connecting the chin to the neck and throat; nostrils choked with chopped-off nose-hair — and those eyebrows. Exuberant and wiry, they seem connected to a separate part of the brain not owned by Healey but by the eyebrows themselves. They seem, it might be said, to have a mind of their own; even, perhaps, separate minds for each eyebrow. The right eyebrow sits luxuriant above the strongest feature of the whole portrait: the right eye, with its small black pupil focused on a thought elsewhere, proving once and for all that great portraits do not need to stare down the viewer. The left eyebrow, on the other hand, seems intent on escaping from the photograph, pouring down off the brow and across the eye, which consequently can’t be seen clearly beneath the torrent of wiry hair; an eyebrow constituting a different kind of comb-over.
The mouth: a line, inscrutable. A first look suggests the idea of an impish smile; look longer and the impishness recedes, to be replaced by a grimace that might be resignation or even a trace of bitterness. Perhaps the mouth expresses all these things at once. I wish I were as good at multi-tasking.

Of course, I have no idea how well the photograph portrays Healey. In fact, I keep getting the uneasy feeling that it’s a better portrayal of E.O. Wilson, and that might be part of its appeal. What it does do indisputably, however, is portray a person, and therefore it can be considered a portrait — to my mind, a brilliant one. But don't take my word for it. Go and see for yourself.

Photograph: Tuatara at Pukaha Mt Bruce, 13 January 2008.
All content © 2013 Pete McGregor