16 December 2005

A nice day...

I woke suddenly in the wee hours of a hot, humid night, startled by the roar of the house shuddering about me. Instinct told me to throw back the covers, roll out of bed, and hit the floor, but some other part of my brain—the sensible cortex, perhaps—refused to wake. I lay there, the usual earthquake thoughts rolling through my semi-consciousness: how long will it last, how big will it be, should I take cover, is Wellington a pile of rubble? Eventually it stopped. I looked at the clock—2:57 a.m.—and went back to sleep.

The ‘quake was centred about 50km away and 25 km deep; 5 on the Richter scale. Wellington wasn’t a pile of rubble and National Radio even appeared unaware the ‘quake had happened. Here in Aotearoa, on the Pacific rim of fire, you get used to earthquakes. From an early age you’re taught what to do—stand in a doorway, get under a table, and so on—but after years of surviving them and having nothing actually falling on you, you become complacent. You know what you should do, but when it requires getting out of bed you lie there instead, trying to decide just how bad it has to get before you move. It’s as if the land has been crying “Wolf!” all your life.

But one day we’ll get the big one.

At breakfast I listened to Jakob’s Subsets of Sets, compelled by the title of the brilliant 3rd track: “Nice day for an earthquake”. The day had an oppressive, brooding feel; a sense of tension; of something about to happen. If anything, the humidity had increased despite a hot, blustery wind from the North-East. I kept expecting a storm, another earthquake, maybe an eruption from Ruapehu or Ngauruhoe; but the sky remained quiet and strewn with patternless cloud, the ground remained firm and immobile beneath my feet, and Ruapehu, according to the GNS website, was doing nothing more than simmer at level 1. By mid afternoon I’d decided to release some of my own tension, so I wheeled the mountainbike out and set off for No. 2 Line.

I’d expected to feel exhausted, enervated by the weather, but the feel of doing something physical and energetic revitalised me. I won’t say I raced up the steep and dusty gravel road—I was less like a racing sardine than a jogging flounder (a floundering jogger?)—but a steady effort took me to the end of the road without shattering me. From the end of the road I could see out across the Pohangina Valley and over the hill country towards Wanganui; South to the Tararua; North along the line of the Ruahine to the Ngamoko Range where the tops were hidden by cloud rolling over from the East and dissolving down deep gullies, silhouetting ridgelines. In the West, at last, a thunderstorm had formed over the hills, its borders hazy with dark rain, its upper region a mountain of wild, white and black and grey cumulus. I released the brakes and began the descent. No more floundering; now I felt even quicker than that racing sardine, maybe even as fast as a Pohangina Valley blowfly. It’s one of the most accessible ways to get a buzz—powering down a gravel road on a mountainbike on the edge of control, eyes showing more white than a hard-boiled egg, imagination switched off, and the smell of fear in your nostrils after you feel the back wheel twitch on a bend. Despite the wind generated by my speed, I could still feel the nor’easter’s buffeting. I shot around a corner, lifted my head slightly to check the road and BANG!—the wind tore the sun visor from my helmet. Bummer. By the time I’d managed to stop, I was faced with an unwelcome grind back up the road to retrieve it. More exercise than I’d intended, but I’m sure it did me good. It also gave me the opportunity to realise there was a truck speeding up the single lane road.

The highlight of the ride came as I accelerated up out of a dip in the road and rounded a bend where the road levels off for a short way. Up ahead, something crossed the road. Lithe, quick, a ripple of agile energy—then another, a body’s length behind the first. Stoats! A few seconds’ glimpse, then they were gone, vanished into the long, wind-whipped grass on the roadside. I pulled up, swung off the saddle and peered into the dense grass; scanned the close-cropped paddock on the other side of the fence. A sheep stared back at me. Distant thunder growled, a long rumble reverberating around the valley. The image of the stoats seemed to fit the sound—intensely charged and ephemeral, like a strange form of lightning. Nothing moved other than the grasses. No sign of stoats.

I drove into town that evening. Beyond Ashhurst I saw railway lines, deeply rusted but, on top, polished clean and gleaming, forming perfect lines of light; sunlight through the shimmer of a starling’s wings as it arced away from the car. I returned after dark, late, with the headlight beams full of erratic moths and wisps and ghosts of mist rising from the warm tarmac. A bird rose from the side of the road, straight up and into darkness. Over everything—the valley, the Ruahine, the western hills, to every horizon—long clouds stretched in moonlight. Pure drama; the essence of legend. A nice day for an earthquake.

Photo 1: Inspired by the Urban Dragon Hunters, I fossicked through some old photos and found some I'd taken last year at little tarn on the summit of the Ngamoko Range. These are Austrolestes colensonis.
Photo 2: ...and these are Xanthocnemis zealandica.
Photo 3: Thundercloud and rain, Pohangina Valley.

Photos and words copyright 2005 Pete McGregor


Tracy Hamon said...

I enjoyed these pictures--we've had howling winds plus snow, snow, snow, and more snow. I'm amazed with the shapes nature creates, or maybe we create the heart from the shapes of nature.
(Such romantic mating rituals for these creatures).

pohanginapete said...

Yes, you'd have to be pretty obdurate to miss the symbolism in the Xanthocnemis photo.
Hope you're enjoying the snow, Tracy. It's still thunderstorms and terrific humidity here; torrential downpours too, which is not good for next week's plans—I'm supposed to be wading the entire length of the Pohangina headwaters surveying whio (blue ducks).

Nannothemis said...

These are fantastic photos, and you have a beautiful blog. Bookmarked!

Thanks for stopping by Urban Dragon Hunters.

Rexroth's Daughter said...

We lived in California for many years before we relocated to the Olympic Peninsula in Washington. (The pirate is a 5th generation native Californian.) In California, there's often talk of "earthquake weather." It's often those unseasonably warm days in winter, or a new unsettling wind that blows in. The pirate and I were quite present for the Loma Prieta quake of 1989 (we were a few short miles from the epicenter). It measured 7.1 on the Richter scale. After the shaking stopped, and life resumed-- we all exhaled. The conventional wisdom was, "that wasn't the big one." We always thought it was big enough for us!

We'd like to thank you for stopping by the Dharma Bums and leaving such insightful and inspired comments. How in the world did you find us?

pohanginapete said...

Nannothemis: Thanks! I'll be dragon hunting over the summer—but it won't be urban. The Ruahine Range has some lovely tarns and I know some good spots for the big Uropetala—the devil's darning needle.

RD: 7.1 would definitely have me out of bed and in the doorway. Actually, we had another one this morning! Just 3.9, but big enough to notice. I can't remember exactly how I found you bums, but I know I kept coming across you; it can't have been pure chance (no such thing anyway). At a guess I'd say it was probably via one of DPR's comments on The Taming of the Band-Aid.

Looks like you northern hemisphereans are in for a white Christmas!

Brenda Schmidt said...

I've never experienced an earthquake. The closest thing I've felt is the mine's underground blasts, which can be felt twice a day. I've lived here twenty years and they still startle me. Going by that, I doubt if I'm cut out for a quake zone.

Stunning photos, Pete!

pohanginapete said...

Hi Brenda. I think I'd prefer the occasional earthquake to having someone twice a day blow up the ground under my feet... And thanks for the comment on the photos :D Actually,the depth of field in the first photo is too shallow, so I'll be trying for better damselfly/dragonfly photos over this summer.