Walking along the road, down through the cutting, the poplars in Te Awaoteatua Stream coming into view, new foliage bright green and orange-red, the sound of the stream rising to meet me. Four spur-winged plovers screech and tippy-toe through the rushes, stop and chitter, stretch and peck at something in green grass. Deep red legs, fawn backs, white underparts; the head black and white, and that bizarre, wattled, sulphur-yellow face. Something about them reminds me of Mervyn Peake's drawings. I watch them for a while, then continue down the road. Not far from the No. 3 Line junction, an eastern rosella calls. A tui, wings whirring, chases something into a kowhai, and when I put the binoculars to my eyes, I see it's the rosella. The tui hops about in the branches, shakes and fluffs itself out and begins to sing, an impossibly complex medley of clucks, bells, warbles, wheezes and whistles. The rosella's sitting not far away, almost motionless, but it responds with a trill; the tui answers and shuffles restlessly. Under the overcast sky, in the still, mild air, the calls seem very loud; there's a slight echo to the sounds as if they're bouncing back from the grey overhead. The battle continues, seemingly purely vocal, until the tui finally whirrs off to a lower tree below the clay bank.
After stopping for a quick chat with Robin, who's fixing the front door of their house, I resume my walk up No. 3 Line, but I'm arrested by Charlie, the little burmese cat who saunters over to me, casual and cool, tail up. I crouch to say hello and he does that cat thing of slipping under my shins, tail dragging over my knees, emerging with his head facing away from me as if to show he's completely relaxed about the attention I'm giving him. In any other animal it'd be arrogance, but because cats are superior to all other forms of life it's nothing to be affronted about—it's just the natural order of things. I pick him up, stand, and scratch the back of his head and under his chin; he closes his eyes and rubs against my hand. The purr gets louder. Eventually I put him back on the ground, and he feigns boredom as I walk off up the gravel road.
I remember another encounter, this time with someone who appeared to be a border collie but was, I suspect, a bodhisattva. In Christchurch last week, Rob and I drove to Sumner, left the car at the Whitewash Head carpark and walked the track right out to Godley Head. The track switchbacks down and up and eventually drops to the beach at Taylor's Mistake. There, just before the beach, a lone, three-legged dog came loping up the track. His lack of one front leg seemed no handicap at all, and he seemed pleased to meet us. He'd been heading up the hill, but on encountering us, turned and followed us back to the beach. I checked his tags; discovered his name was Rocky. The three of us—Rob, Rocky and me—walked the length of the beach, leaving a braid of 7 prints on the clean sand. It was Thursday; apart from one woman and a dog (who Rocky checked out, then ignored in favour of Rob and me), the beach was deserted. At the far end, Rocky hopped up the rocky start of the Godley Head track, pretending he couldn't read the sign which said, “Dogs on leash only”. Rob and I followed—the order of things for most of the rest of the day.
We came to a small, closed gate. Rocky paced back and forth in front of it, nosing it. “We should be able to shake him off here,” Rob said, starting to ease the gate open. No sooner had he said it than Rocky had squeezed through the tiny gap and was happily trotting on up the path.
We ate lunch at the top, under a grey sky, with the remains of the weekend's snow still spattered on the peninsula hills, giving the scene a cold, Scottish highlands look. Rocky lay in the tussocks, occasionally sitting up to look around then flumping down again. He made no attempt to bludge food from us. Once or twice on the way back, he seemed a little too interested in the sheep scattered over the bleak hillside, so I growled at him and he trotted back as if he'd been intending to return anyway.
We finally shook him off shortly before reaching Taylor's Mistake. He'd been distracted by something fascinating in a clump of tussock—perhaps a mouse, or some other dog's turd—and we last saw him high up on the hill, still grubbing at the tussock.
We walked across the gleaming, wet beach, talking quietly and watching lines of clean surf rolling in, breaking, and sighing up the beach to disappear in an ephemeral pattern of white foam on dark sand. I led the way up onto a small promontory of mussel-encrusted, dark volcanic rocks; just before stepping back down onto the sand, Rocky pushed past and resumed his place at the head of the party. He waited while I photographed the bach built into a cave in the cliff, then trotted ahead of us up the track to Whitewash Head, showing us all the shortcuts, which, however, were only suitable for dogs to squeeze through. Where the track leaves the cliffs and cuts across to the carpark, a high, weathered paling fence confined an Alsatian. Rocky ran to the fence and began barking and running up and down the fenceline; the Alsatian chased him, barking furiously. Rocky raced back and forth, barking, working the Alsatian into a frenzy. When he decided the other dog was on the verge of apoplexy, he calmly trotted off towards the car park. Job done; he'd had his fun.
He looked back at us once at the carpark, then disappeared. We got in the car and drove home. I'm not sure he was really a dog—well, I'm sure he wasn't just a dog.
A big kahu flies across the small valley in front of me, behind the lone pine, over the tawa and maire, behind the poplars, above the stream to the edge of the far terrace. It begins to circle, gaining height. Through the binoculars I can see the separated primaries at its wingtips; the way the wings flex ever so slightly; the hook of the bill. As it banks away from me, it suddenly drops its legs, shakes them and retracts them, all in a moment. A flock of finches tinkles up from a field and flies off; mostly goldfinches, a few chaffinches. A kotare dives from a fencepost to the ground, then flies back up to the powerlines. The deer are wallowing, covering themselves in mud, wriggling and threshing, competing for the hole, chasing each other. For them, this fenced paddock is home; for Charlie, a small area at the foot of No. 3 Line is home; for all the birds I've seen this morning, some part of the Pohangina Valley—earth, stream, trees, sky—is home. It's easy to think of home as a geographical location, the place where the deer, Charlie, the birds, spend their time, but there's more to it. Rocky's home, in a superficial sense, is the area around Taylor's Mistake and Godley Head, but I got the sense that his real home is wherever he is. Sometimes I feel like that, and I can't work out whether it's because I've managed to lose myself, in the figurative sense, or whether, because I feel at home wherever I am, I'm never lost. Yes, it's a paradox, but if I knew anything about zen I'd be tempted to suggest it's more like a koan. It's something to think about—if you truly lose yourself, you can never be lost.
Photos and words copyright 2005 Pete McGregor