Before dawn the wind arrives, roaring around the house, banging a loose sheet of metal somewhere outside in the dark. Last night the weather man issued warnings—hurricane force winds, he said; and I wonder whether they'll arrive here, or even if they'll hit the Wairarapa as forecast. I drop back to sleep, wake a little later to hear the wind's no worse. Then a shower of rain, heavy, solid drops, but it comes to nothing. The shower passes, the wind comes and goes, gusting but not developing.
All morning it stays heavily overcast, with occasional, half-hearted showers. Trainee rain. Just enough to keep the ground wet. The tops of the southern Ruahine disappear into dense, looming cloud. It's not really the sort of day to be out turning over rocks looking for what lives under them, and besides, it's only the second day of Spring—not as cold as the heart of Winter, but still not the best time of year to expect to find much invertebrate life.
Still, I'd like to make some kind of small contribution to helping make International Rock Flipping Day a success. After lunch I gear up and drive to the end of No. 1 Line. Rain spatters the windscreen; someone in an SUV, towing a trailer, speeds down the gravel road—fortunately, I at least, am driving sedately—and at the road end the cloud's so dense and low I almost abandon my plans and head for lower, drier ground on which to flip rocks.
But the bush shelters me from the passing showers; I hear them hissing on the leaves in the canopy overhead, but they're not persistent enough to filter through. At my level down here, the understorey foliage glistens with old rainwater, the leaves shine in the dull light. Rocks seem scarce, however. At least, the kind of rocks I'd like to turn over; the sort that seem somehow promising. Here, most are old, heavily blanketed with thick mosses and foliose lichens, and deeply embedded in the forest floor. I ease one or two carefully out of the leaf mould, finding, as expected, nothing other than a leafhopper or two—the little amphipods twitch and scramble their way out of sight within a few seconds. I wonder what I'm doing, disturbing them like this.
I replace the rocks gently and carry on up the steep, greasy track, realising as I climb that actually I don't want to turn over rocks. Somewhere along the years my curiosity to know what's living there has been supplanted by the desire to let what's living there continue to live there, unmolested. It's absurd to believe my turning over rocks might have any sort of detrimental effect on the invertebrate populations here, but that seems beside the point. Increasingly, my concern has come to be for the individuals; the possibility that no matter how carefully I replace the rock, my action makes someone homeless, at least temporarily, and therefore vulnerable.
Although, perhaps there's more to it than that. As I climb, I find myself placing my feet carefully, quietly, not because I'm trying to avoid slipping (although I am) and not because I think I might see a deer (I don't), but simply because it seems, well, ... right. It's the same feeling I've had on an untrodden sand beach, or a snowfield—a feeling of not wanting to disturb or intrude, to leave no trace, to travel so lightly no one could ever know I'd been there. Perhaps it's the art of passing through a place with grace. Or perhaps it's plain, simple respect.
It's impossible, of course—Heisenberg proved that—but that, too, is beside the point. So what if it's impossible? Maybe the knowledge that something's impossible protects us from despair. If we believe something is possible, but it proves too difficult, the urge to see ourselves as failures is likely to be irresistible. On the other hand, knowing something's impossible frees us to enjoy striving as hard as we're able.
I see I'm drifting away from rock flipping. I'd still like to contribute something, and I acknowledge how important rock flipping used to be to me, and how exciting it is for kids in particular. Have you ever noticed how, in a child's mind, the larger the rock the more wonderful the things that must live beneath it? I think many adults haven't grown beyond that idea.
I turn a few rocks, mostly for IRFD instigator Dave, and find little other than a couple of large carabid beetles and a ground hunting spider. I manage one quick photo of the spider before she buries herself beneath the litter. She was living beneath one of the smallest rocks I flipped all day.
Photos (click to enlarge them):
1. The ground hunting spider. Miturga sp. The taxonomy's contested, I think; it's now sometimes placed in Uliodon.
2. Different day (earlier this week); different road end (No. 3 Line); similar weather.
3. I actually spent more time photographing the bark of this rimu (Dacrydium cupressinum) than turning over rocks.
Update: You can find links to everyone else who's posted about IRFD at the bottom of Dave's post. He'll be adding to the list from time to time, so check back there occasionally. In any case, via Negativa's an excellent blog so go and check it out if you don't already visit regularly.
Photos and words © 2007 Pete McGregor