27 July 2006

Dimensions of a life

I step outside, into the cold, into the late evening light after the sun’s gone below the hills. I step carefully, not wanting to smudge the chalked verandah art C.’s left after her weekend visit—the yellow sun with its alternate long and short rays; the multicoloured butterfly; the poem she called a story, written in blue chalk and carefully titled: The Cat:

“The cat/and rat/sat on/the mat/and that/is that.”

No cold can diminish that warmth.


The dogs in the kennels see me and gaze expectantly, or at least with hope. X begins barking, at first persistently, then, realising it has no effect and I’m not going to let them out to muster sheep, sporadically. Finally he shuts up and they all watch. You never know, and besides, there’s nothing much else to do.

A band of dark grey cloud tinged with salmon pink hangs above the now silhouetted hills. Below the cloud and above the hills, clear sky changes imperceptibly from pale, leached blue to that colour that’s no colour at all; just pure light. A contrail, thin and brilliant, elongates across the sky, as if a bored god has decided to scratch a slow line on it to let the light of heaven through. The plane making the trail is invisible; like some strange subatomic particle it has a position but no dimensions. I hunch into my down jacket. You can almost see the cold developing, creeping out from under the rough and tangled vegetation on the far side of the fence, rising up under the house, gathering in the dark under low branches, around the corners of sheds. A frost tonight, for sure. The blackbirds are chinking; it’s that particular sound they make as dusk approaches and it brings back memories of winter evenings in the little valley where I grew up—the light fading, little owls calling from rock outcrops, from the telephone poles that marched up the hill. Herons calling like strangled souls from the darkness inside macrocarpas—I remember the bone field under the roost; needlelike fish bones, the carapaces of crabs, everything bleached white and dry, lives digested. Years ago, but the sound of blackbirds calling between day and night folds time back on itself and I’m up on the hill, hands under armpits, picking my way down the rough sheep track. Stopping to look. Taking it in. Perhaps the hint of movement, the twitch of an ear in long grass, that signifies a rabbit feeding cautiously in the dusk. The silhouette of a hare loping over the skyline, among tussocks; the long curve of Pegasus Bay from Christchurch right up to the Kaikoura Ranges, the light on the ocean like the end of the world—or perhaps its beginning.

I looked North to those mountains for the first couple of decades of my life, and finally climbed the highest, Tapuae-o-Uenuku [1], when I was 20. Or maybe 21—I’d have to check, I don’t remember exactly. What I do recall was that I wasn’t even on a climbing trip; I was a summer research assistant for the entomologists at Canterbury University, and two of us on that field trip were told to head up the Hodder River to collect insects around the hut while the academics—those wonderful old guys—camped and fossicked near the road end. As it happened, the person who accompanied me up the river was also a keen mountaineer, so we decided there must be interesting insects on the summit. We collected our way up the mountain and back down again—and did find interesting fauna. We ate lunch on the top with blowflies that must have sniffed us out from a vast distance, as the mountain is mostly just an enormous pile of crumbling rock, a giant talus, with no apparent blowfly habitat for thousands of feet. Giant mountain weta, Deinacrida connectens, under rocks in the scree by tongues of cushion plants. My climbing/collecting mate was German, with three passions in life: wine, jazz, and mountaineering. As I got to know him, his dry humour began to crack me up. I think I’ve seen him once since I left Christchurch, all those years ago.

I digress. I looked North to the Kaikoura Ranges all that time, then moved to the North Island. Now when I look to them I mostly look South. South from places like Eastbourne, or from the ferry crossing Cook Strait; South as I’ve driven down from Picton to Christchurch, where I’ve walked on the Port Hills and felt that wrenching sense of visiting my past. That same sense evoked now by the chink-chink of these blackbirds as I lean on the end of the verandah with the dogs trying to will me into letting them loose and the tip of my nose going numb from the cold. Physicists speak of the arrow of time; our culture takes for granted the linear progression of time; we assume our lives are like that contrail across the sky, slowly extending and finally vanishing. But sometimes I glimpse something else, another manifestation of time. Sometimes the sense of the past seems so strong I’m almost there—not déjà vu, but another kind of recognition, almost like another part of what we think is real. And, some years ago, I realised that the linear view of a life didn’t fit well with my own life. That idea of a life as something linear, something to which you add events sequentially until you die, seemed hopelessly simplistic. My own life, I realised, seemed better described as a process of enrichment, of increasing complexity (here I make the distinction between being complex and being complicated). Seen like that, my life seemed to have almost limitless possibility. I could weave new patterns into it; fill empty spaces if I wished; branch out... in short, the limitations imposed by linear time were hopeless. Compared to this idea of a life, the linear model seemed tragically constrained.

I go inside, shut the door and draw the curtains to try to retain what little warmth the house has absorbed. Life has more than one dimension—depth and breadth are as important as length, and time is not an hegemony. This thought is just a concept, of course, but for me it seems to fit the truth far better than conventional, linear ideas of life and time. And, ultimately I suspect, you are what you believe.

1. "Tapuae-o-Uenuku" is usually translated as "Footsteps of the Rainbow God".

Photos (click on them if you want a larger image):
1. Te Awaoteatua Stream, Pohangina Valley. After the recent rain eased off.
2. This Australian magpie, Gymnorhina tibicen, had been fighting in the rain at the edge of the terrace and seemed to be a little the worse for wear. [I've removed the colour from everything but the bird.]
3. Another magpie, a month or so ago.
4. Farmland near Utuwai, Pohangina Valley. June 2006

Photos and words © 2006 Pete McGregor


DivaJood said...

removing the color from everything around the magpie conveys the cold - quite interesting. I didn't realize why I shivered when I looked at the image, and then I read the footnote.

Then the sunlight on the rolling hills, with that dark, foreboding sky - I forgot how winter makes a person hunker down - it has been so hot here in LA, I think I'll never be cold again.

Dave said...

I like this way of thinking about one's life. Maybe I'll try it too!

zhoen said...

I yearn for your cold weather.

the Flaneur said...

Oh yes, the familiar sight of Tapuae-o-Uenuku from Christchurch. But when you write of a wrenching sense of visiting your past. I can only wonder what that's like. Thanks for a glimpse of how it is on the far side of the mountain.

pohanginapete said...

Thanks everyone; sorry I've been slow to respond. Other things going on; other things on my mind.

Divajood: Sometimes I'm dismayed by how quickly I long for the kind of weather I'm not having... But today's brilliant; sunny and warm, though cold in the shade — a great midwinter's day — and I'm relishing it. Just got back from a walk in the hills, too :^D

Dave: I'll be interested to hear how it suits you. I'm sure there are many other ways of conceptualising life, so if you find other interesting ideas, let's know.

Zhoen: I don't! (I seem to be better built for warm weather than cold). OK, maybe I do enjoy cold weather sometimes, but only if I have a refuge from it.

Flaneur: I got to see it again this last weekend; down Eastbourne way again, and we walked one of the ridge tracks in the East Harbour Regional Park one evening. We could just make out Tapuae-o-Uenuku through the misty haze of distance. A glimpse of snow, shining.

Anderl said...

I've just come here, because I was looking for a blog about climbing, and although I haven't found any posts yet, I'm impressed by the quality of your photos - and the qualities of the landscape they show :-)

I would like to read more about your ideas in depth. I think the pictures speak for themselves.

Thank you for a good experience. I've added you to my (so far rather small) blogroll :-)

pohanginapete said...

Thanks Anderl, glad you've found the visit worthwhile. The "Index and summary of all posts" link in the sidebar under "Archives" should help you find posts of interest. Some of the mountaineering posts are on the old (Xanga) blog, but I've listed them in the index. To start, the March 2006 archive has several posts from a South Island trip in February.

You might also like Baring Head Bouldering, a blog containing more photos of the 2006 NZ National Bouldering Competition event near Wellington. (Note that I don't update that blog, and won't be around to photograph the 2007 event!).

Brenda Schmidt said...

Great stuff, Pete. I doubt that anyone who is one with their place could ever buy into the linear model.

pohanginapete said...

Thanks Brenda. I think most of us (me included) get easily trapped into habitual ways of thinking, and the idea of life as linear is both persuasive and pervasive. I suspect you're right; it arises from seeing oneself as something "separate" — a kind of arrogance, I suppose. I'm not sure how to explain that better, sorry. But thanks for the idea!

Brenda Schmidt said...

I'm afraid I spoke hastily and it shows. :)

Anderl said...

Thanks, pohanginapete, I'll look around for more. Your new photos are brilliant again...