05 August 2007


How do you return to a place? After seven months in India, Nepal, and Africa, and having most recently spent a week in Paris with its animated cafes, its restaurants, its all-hours activity, its famous Boehm's bee eaterfeatures, its legendary art and culture, how could I return here? I stood in the carpark outside the shopping mall in drab Palmerston North with its grey and windy streets and distracted people─many of whom seem focused on shopping for stuff that means nothing at all to me, a slight desperation in their rummaging through clothes shops filled with cheap Chinese imitations of haute couture—and felt almost overwhelmed by bleak despondency, a sense of loss, a kind of uncertainty not bright with possibility but dull with the knowledge that a return to the places of the last seven months, if not impossible, was so unlikely it's not even worth thinking about. Even while travelling I'd begun to wonder whether the travelling was a mistake, not because it wasn't wonderful, but because it was; because, perhaps, I'd be unable ever to settle again; because instead of satisfying my restlessness it might aggravate it.
Now, everything seems strangely unreal, as if all that's happened over the last eight months has been too strange, and mostly too wonderful, to believe. A bit like a dream, really.
A few days after returning I picked up one of the books stacked in heaps on the floor─Rebecca Solnit's A Field Guide to Getting Lost. I opened it─at random, I thought─and read:
Without noticing it you have traversed a great distance; the strange has become familiar and the familiar if not strange at least awkward or uncomfortable, an outgrown garment. And some people travel far more than others. There are those who receive as birthright an adequate or at least unquestioned sense of self and those who set out to reinvent themselves, for survival or for satisfaction, and travel far. Some people inherit values and practices as a house they inhabit; some of us have to burn down that house, find our own ground, build from scratch, even as a psychological metamorphosis.
The synchronicity of it struck me─and in Paris my friend was becoming interested in Jung and had a copy of Victor Mansfield's Synchronicity, Science, and Soul-Making, which I began reading. She'd met Vic Bushbuck, Nyika and had a copy of his paper, which I read and found intriguing. Well written, too. He's a physicist, but with a much broader worldview than the reductionist stereotype, and I suppose I felt a kind of affinity, having myself come from a science background and becoming, as he did, dissatisfied with the constrained way of understanding imposed by that kind of science but grateful for the training and the rigour it encourages. Even there in Paris I had that strange and wonderful feeling that “things” were beginning to connect; that the threads of my life had begun to weave together into something not entirely random─that something might begin to form. Then I returned to the Pohangina Valley and picked up Rebecca Solnit's book and read that passage and was delighted not only by the synchronicity of reading that passage, but by the synchronicity of reading that passage after having read about synchronicity.
The moment in the carpark proved transitory. Occasionally I've glimpsed it again, usually while reading my notebooks, but a month after returning, I've yet to encounter the pervasive dislocation and culture shock felt by many travellers returning from long journeys, particularly those who have spent time in cultures wildly different from their own. This seems not to surprise my friends, who usually flatter me with a comment like, “You're so good at adapting to where you are.”
Maybe. I'm less sure than they are that adapting comes naturally to me. Rebecca Solnit's distinction between those confident in their own selves and those who reinvent themselves is the sort of dichotomy that should annoy me, but it doesn't, not because it's not artificial—it is—but because it contains enough truth to make me wonder where on that psychological cline I lie. Unusually, I'm fairly sure I know where that might be.
But, getting back to the shock of the return, I think my escape from from this feeling—that is, from the feeling which I happen not to be feeling—arises from my awareness that it does happen and can strike hard; forewarned is forearmed, as the saying goes. Or, perhaps I've been so preoccupied that the reality of where I was and what I did hasn't really sunk in. That explanation seems to tally better with the peculiar feeling that it was all unreal; that the person who travelled to those places and did those things was, in fact, someone else. And it's true I've been preoccupied: with catching up with friends; with finding and setting up what was stored; with several weeks of solid contract editing; with looking after one of the Eastbourne houses (a delight, especially because Ralph and I got to share time together); and with all those small tasks you face after a long absence.
Moreover, if there's a sense of loss, it might in fact be more to do with how the Pohangina valley's beginning to change. One evening a few weeks after returning, I walked out onto the verandah after dark and was astonished and a little dismayed to see a line of lights along the opposite side of the valley. House lights. The character of the valley has begun to change; it has begun to relinquish that relaxed, rough-and-ready feel, that kind of easy dishevelment and low-level untidiness so often characteristic of necessary pragmatism and the long histories of rooted lives, of generations whom the land has adapted even as those lives have adapted the land. Now the valley in places seems too neat, too orderly, too manicured, as if new wealth has begun to modify and control, to shape the land according to a particular, human, vision. All with the best of intentions, I'm sure—but the valley is no longer a refuge from the suburbs. It is becoming a suburb.
At about 4:30 p.m. the sun breaks through, dipping below the watery greywash of cloud, into the irregular gap between cloud and western hills. I turn to look downvalley, at fractal winter trees caught by the light, so alight they seem almost illuminated from within. On the far side of the valley, beyond the road, gullies form a chiaroscuro brought into relief by that low, glancing light. Form and light; detail confined to the boundary between shadow and sunlight. A heron perches high in one of the leafless poplars on a bank of the swollen, turbid TeAwaoteatua Stream. The bird stands, hunched, head drawn down into its shoulders; a pale grey body on thin legs; white face tapering to a beak long and thin and sinister. The pale bird stands there on a thin branch, high in the stark tree; stands there like an omen, wrapped around by the sound of rushing water.
I wonder what I burned — my house, or the bridges behind me? Where, now, is my own ground?

Zebra, Nyika

Here, as promised, Zhoen, are a few more critters.
I'll return to my travels in later posts, interspersed with, ... well, ... whatever I feel like writing about. Perhaps it's something to do with rebuilding.
Photos (click to enlarge them):
1. Boehm's bee eater, Merops boehmi, at Chinguni hills, Liwonde National Park, Malawi.
2. Bushbuck, Tragelaphus scriptus, Nyika Plateau, Malawi.
This was among the wrack near the Pencarrow lighthouse, along the Wellington coast South of Eastbourne.
4. Saddle-billed storks, Ephippiorhynchus senegalensis, Kruger National Park, South Africa.
5. Burchell's zebra, Equus quagga burchellii, Nyika Plateau, Malawi.

Photos and words © 2007 Pete McGregor


zhoen said...

It takes a little time for languid souls to drip all the way back.

Thanks for the critters.

Emma said...

It is hard sometimes to know how to comment on your posts, Pete. I am not sure how many times one can use the same words without the encroaching sense that they begin to lose meaning. Maybe I should just say hello? Hello, and this: and felt almost overwhelmed by bleak despondency, a sense of loss, a kind of uncertainty not bright with possibility but dull with the knowledge that a return to the places of the last seven months, if not impossible, was so unlikely it's not even worth thinking about. quite neatly sums up how I felt about returning home to the suburbs of LA after having been in NZ.

Dave said...

That last photo is pretty amazing.

I'm surry to hear that Pohangina Valley is falling victim to the suburban monoculture.

burning silo said...

What you've described in this post seems familiar to me -- at least on some level. I've never spent more than a couple of months away from the farm, but after even a few weeks, it feels very strange to return home. It always feels like a piece of me remains elsewhere. I'm uneasy with people anywhere, so it's not really the cultures, but the places - the geography, weather, the light, the creatures, that seem to become insinuated in my thoughts. When I return home, it's like having more than one place occupying my thoughts. At the same time, it usually feels good to return home, to see what the land looks like, which birds and insects are around. I suspect that others must feel these things -- particularly observant naturalists who travel from place to place because it is generally so easy to feel "at home" in a strange landscape when you're receptive to observing nature in all of its forms. I suspect the same must be true of moving through different cultures, meeting people, etc... but that's something outside of my experience.
The zebra photo is very interesting... the stripes and lines resonating through the creature and landscape like waves...
(Just some not very well expressed thoughts on the matter).

Duncan said...

You struck a few chords in my subconscious with this piece Pete. When I feel unsettled I try to go bush for a while, seems to help.

pohanginapete said...

You're welcome, Zhoen. There will be more.

Emma, at least I had a beautiful environment to return to. Even if the valley has begun to change, I can still take comfort from my proximity to the Ruahine Range. And the time at Eastbourne, with the coast right there, helped. I can't imagine what it must have been like returning to the suburbs of LA — or, I don't want to imagine it.

Cheers Dave. I have similar but more conventional photos like that, but I prefer this. And the valley, despite the changes taking place, is still marvellous.

Bev, I thought you expressed your thoughts very well; there's a lot I recognise in what you say. For me, though, it's the people (particular people) that would draw me back to India. But the birds are wonderful too. Thanks for the thoughts on the zebra photo, too.

Duncan, very true. Going bush can be a wonderful solace. I'm looking forward to time in the Ruahine, and other mountains.

Avus said...

Welcome home, Pete. Nice to have you back. But I guess that it will take time for you to adjust after such a wonderful trip - especially as you seem to get under the skin of the cultures and places you have been - a traveller, not a tourist.
At least you have come back to the beauty of NZ and the Ruahine. that is your home and it seems, maybe, "flat" after all your travels. Yet to me, here in England, I ache to be once more in your delightful country. Why is the grass always greener on the other side of the fence?

Relatively Retiring said...

'One must not linger on the Crystal Mountain'

Brenda Schmidt said...

Great to see you back! A strange thing to say, perhaps. Regardless, what a beautiful journey.

pohanginapete said...

Thankyou Avus, that's a great compliment (about being a traveller rather than a tourist). Of course, there were times when (probably of necessity) I was in fact more tourist than traveller — but those were the circumstances that now do little to call me back.

RR: it's more like mud mountain here right now! But I'm happy where I am, "especially when I have no choice!"

Thanks Brenda. Not strange to those who understand. And yes, a wonderful journey — and a continuing journey.

MB said...

That zebra photo seems to say some of the same things your words do in its own way.

pohanginapete said...

mb, yes, it seemed to fit well. Thanks for stopping in :-)

robin andrea said...

You raise an interesting question, as always, Pete. I remember when I was much younger wondering how I might learn the most about life. Should I travel far and wide, or stay in one place and try to discern something true by knowing one thing very well. My temperament makes me stay in one place and stare at the familiar, hoping to tease out the most profound things from what is before me. We set fire to our own psyches wherever we are.

pohanginapete said...

Robin andrea, it's something I've often thought about. I wrote about it a while ago and still wonder. I think there's a lot of pressure on us — young people and New Zealanders in particular (and especially young New Zealanders) — to travel. It's as if you lack gumption if you don't travel, yet to resist that pressure can, I think, require much greater strength of character. But, I suppose I've succumbed to that pressure. Whether I can find what Eihei Dogen refers to is something I have to keep working on.

Thanks for your thoughts — it's always good to hear from you.

christy said...

Hi there Pete,

This post, like so many of your other ones, leaves me a little breathtaken.

I've just spent the last hour or so "travelling" to and from some of the links you've embedded here -- it's interesting to me that this post of yours begins with a scene and a feeling of drab, grey dullness, and meaningless superficiality, but then the rest of what you write creates a jewel box of thoughts and images and connected meanings that lead way down deep.

The paper of Victor Mansfield's that you link to talks about a person "as a knot in a web of relations" and it seems like you've included here so many knots arrayed
into so many "networks of threads" that it would be surprising, I think, if there *wasn't* a powerful sense of synchronicity and coincidence!

I won't take up too much space with the several resonant connections I found within your references and links, except to say that I especially appreciated the pointer to your post from a while ago, about the dragon of our true nature & "home," which is something I have also been thinking about a lot lately... You quote Peter Matthiesen quoting Eihei Dogen, and then you say:

"I feel most at home where the qualities of wildness, possibility, uncertainty, and complexity are strongest"

and those words describe somehow the feeling I get from this post.

Thanks, Pete!

pohanginapete said...

Christy, first, thanks for the generous comments! Second, I'm delighted you found your own connections and resonances in the post. I can only write from my own perspective, and it's always interesting to hear what other people find in what I write. Fascinating, too, that so often it does seem to strike a responsive chord — and that encourages me. I find it comforting to know there are other people who feel strongly about the things so important to me.

Thankyou, Christy :-)

tracy said...

Great to see you back! Your journey sounds altering, encouraging, and deeply fascinating. I look forward to reading your posts again.

pohanginapete said...

Thanks Tracy. Yes, it was all of those and more. I'm still trying to figure out how it's altered me. I'll probably keep wondering about that indefinitely.

Anonymous said...

wow - Pete, like Emma, I find it hard to know what to say....and at the risk of repeating myself I WILL say - thank you. And of course, welcome home - however it manifests for you and wherever the "home journey" takes you. It is a pleasure to read you again, and to see your wonderful captures of live in photographic form.

Hoping the Valley changes SLOWLY - and continues to make you feel embraced for as long as you need it to.

Take good care :-) from KSG

pohanginapete said...

Thanks KSG! :-)

christy said...

Pete, I agree that knowing that other people feel a sympathetic resonance with what I care about is deeply comforting. It's part of what helps me feel "at home" in the world, and if "home" is another way of saying "our true nature," then that sense of resonance is a reminder of who we really are.

cheers, and warm regards!

herhimnbryn said...

Welcome back P.
I too have been overwhelmed ( in a good way!) by your posts.
I wonder when you will be off again?

pohanginapete said...

Thanks HHnB. When will I be off again? Who knows — but probably sooner than I imagined when I wrote this post.