Below the beaks, the curator had arranged a huia skull and a few bones, amber-yellow with age, on a dark board. Disarticulated, most of the skeleton missing. The bones of the feet still had tiny, curled claws; what remained of the bird lay in the position associated with an execution. I looked at it for a long time. I wanted to reach out, cup my hand over the small, fragile skull and let some of my own life flow into it. To tell it something—but what? That this would never happen again? That would be a lie. To ask forgiveness? Hypocrisy. That it would not be forgotten? What consolation is that?
The enormity of what we’ve done silenced me. All I wanted to do was touch that tiny skull, and I don’t know why.
In a small theatre adjoining the display, a film showed how people from disparate backgrounds live here in Aotearoa. An elderly woman, the matriarch of a sheep station in the southern South Island, described her relationship to the land:
“I’ve lived here so long,” she said, traces of significant schooling still evident in her voice, “that the land has become part of me.”
I wondered why she didn’t say she had become part of the land.
Back at the big house I sat on the deck, looking out across the harbour, Dirk and Miep meditating at my feet. A blackbacked gull slid past on the air, tilting and rocking slightly, wings flexing in the wind. As it skimmed by, fast and close, it seemed I felt the air cushioned beneath me, the resilience under my own outstretched wings; I felt the slight pull of negative pressure on my back and the upper surface of of my arms as I surfed the sky. Soon after, three small birds flashed overhead, swift, streamlined, in a loose formation which they maintained when they suddenly veered East. They reminded me of small, flickering fish. Birds inhabit the air; fish the sea, lakes, and rivers. We, the superior species, creep on land, attached to its surface. Birds and fish live in an extra dimension and our only access to that life is through technology and imagination.
I have never seen an aeroplane jink and twist its way through the sky the way a tui chases a korimako through a garden; I’ll never see an aeroplane slip between the strands of a nine-wire fence like a magpie; never see an aeroplane alight with the deft touch of titipounamu clinging upside down to a twig. I’ve never seen any part of an aeroplane to match the engineering accomplishment of a feather.
On the other hand, I know of no bird that has ever lived that could lift a full grown human being into the sky, let alone over 500 at once; let alone transport all those lives thousands of kilometres. But why, as accomplishments, do these technological achievements seem so inferior to the flight of a sparrow?
It's the same in that other three dimensional world. Encased in a wet suit, breathing bottled air and peering through a mask, I felt as if I were exploring another planet, perhaps a marvellous dream. At the Poor Knights Islands, years ago, I swam through an underwater arch as early morning sunlight poured down in long beams through deep blue water; floating a metre above the ocean floor I gazed at the open mouth of a small moray eel below me and watched rays glide past on undulating wings, a strange eye looking back as the great weird fish cruised past through the arch. I’ve dived at night, in black water, into a small, long tunnel where the world ceased to exist beyond the distinctly illuminated hemisphere of torchlight. I could have been in outer space. Without bottled air, on a briefly held breath, I’ve dived down, twisted and tumbled like a seal, revelled in the pure joy of unconstrained movement in three dimensions. Yet any watching seal might have laughed, perhaps wet itself at my slow and graceless tumbling; the rays gliding past might have pitied the ridiculous hissing and bubbling form with its lumps and tubes and awkward aquabatics. If I hadn't been so full of delight—and hadn't needed the air—I'd have laughed too.
When will our marvellous technology make machines to challenge the flight of birds, the shimmer of fish? More to the point—what, exactly, will we have achieved? And at what cost?
Meanwhile, we are spared humiliation because we believe birds cannot pity us; because we think fish are dumb.
1. Evening shoreline, Eastbourne.
2. Juvenile blackbacked gull, karoro, Larus dominicanus dominicanus; Point Arthur, Eastbourne.
3. Edge of the sea, Eastbourne.
4. Evening sea, Point Arthur.
Photos and words © 2006 Pete McGregor