31 December 2007

Where to begin

Vegetable vendor, Jamnagar

At the end of a year, where does one begin?

One begins, of course, most often by stumbling, by tripping over words that aren't there, or words that, like the long, wiry seedheads of ryegrass in the paddock in front of this verandah, are far too abundant (how do you choose?); far too tangled to move through easily (how do you create a path?)

A scraggy blackbird, not long from its morning bath in the stock trough, wobbles through the air and sets down among the stalks. Cocks its head, peers, Vegetable vendor, Jamnagarhops—exaggerated jumps because it must leap the annoying stems, which to it must appear like a sparse brake of partly lodged bamboo—and approaches the scrap of discarded bread.

One begins by immediately taking an unintended path—a sidetrack—and trusting it will go somewhere interesting. Perhaps it will even meet the path one wanted to follow. Mostly, though, in an act of unreasonable faith, one trusts the path itself will prove interesting, worthwhile; that one will enjoy the exploration, even if it leads nowhere, because paths are always somewhere. Some of us go to the mountain not to go somewhere nor even “because it is there” [1] but because we can be there; and the more time one spends among mountains the more the being supercedes the going. The same could be said of coasts, or any place with an appreciable degree of wildness or other desirable quality—even, I suppose, of some cities. Go to Jamnagar because it's Jamnagar; while there, go to the vegetable market but don't go to Jamnagar to go to the vegetable market. The difference is subtle but enormous.

The conclusion seems inevitable. If you're focused on a destination—somewhere else, in other words—you're not where you are. So, enjoy the travelling. Eventually, you will arrive where you are. Then, you're always at home.

It's the same for a life. If one thinks of life as a path—not a particularly good metaphor given the complexity and connectedness of lives, but let's use it anyway—then the destination, while not to be feared, seems hardly desirable. Me, I'd rather take my time and enjoy the walk, and I have every intention of doing so.

On the edge of the terrace, manuka in flower looks from a distance as if it's frosted with snow. Incongruous in midsummer, but a kind of Antipodean nod to the Vegetable vendor, JamnagarNorthern Hemisphere where this season's ancient acknowledgment of the world's turning evolved (and was appropriated) into what we called Christmas and now celebrate as the year's major retail event. I'm being cynical of course, but not without justification; moreover, I do acknowledge that among the frenzied consumerism, much of what's best about life survives. Thrives, even. One senses it even among the stressed crowds cramming the malls — perhaps, and not entirely paradoxically, particularly in those fraught places; that sense that we're all in this together; it's madness, this madness, but I understand how you feel because I feel it too and the sooner the season's over the sooner we can relax and enjoy our friends and families. (For some, though — especially mums — the respite, if it comes at all, can be slight. One meal finishes, another must be provided; kids and visitors (sometimes indistinguishable) must be entertained, households kept running. When do mothers relax; when can mothers relax?) The pressure of “the holidays” arises largely from materialism in its worst form: the induced lust to spend and buy; paradoxically, it can foster comradeship. We share this adversity and (mostly) seem more willing to make allowances for others. Someone loses it, and the response is more likely to be empathy, or at least sympathy: “The poor bugger's obviously stressed out by Christmas”. It's a trend, not a rule; exceptions abound, but it does seem noticeable. This is my experience; I hope and trust it's yours too.

But I've digressed, taken a sidetrack. The flowering manuka reminds me of where I began. Where my memories began, that is, (and if I began before my memories — even those I've forgotten — in what sense had I begun?) Vegetable vendor, JamnagarOn the hillside opposite our house, a lone manuka flowered each year. Virtually inaccessible to a small boy because of its location within a gnarly thicket of lower, weedy scrub, it promised rare and wonderful beetles. Actually, it was G.V. Hudson, in his rare and wonderful book on New Zealand beetles who promised rare and wonderful beetles, although he actually only promised “many beetles” — my small boy's imagination supplied “rare and wonderful” [2]. The book belonged to my uncle, who had left New Zealand for England long before I was born. He never returned, and he and my father never saw each other again. I didn't meet my uncle until 2002. A brief visit, but long enough to know he and my aunt were family in every best sense. When I left them at the train station as I departed for Bristol I thought I might never see them again, especially my uncle, whose frailty felt shockingly apparent as we hugged on the platform.

I was wrong. Wrong about his frailty — he proved far more resilient than anyone could have imagined. Vegetable vendor, JamnagarWrong, too, about not seeing him again. I visited again in 2004 and the bonds of family and friendship strengthened. When, once more, I left on the train, I felt this time might indeed be the last time I ever saw him.

I was right. On Christmas Eve 2005 he left on his bike to deliver by hand the last of the Christmas cards. He never returned. He was found on the roadside with a severe head injury. No one expected him to live, and in a sense he didn't — the uncle I loved never returned to the body that survived. I guess he took another path, one none of us could follow. But, at the end of last year's travels I visited my aunt and left knowing we understood each other and could talk with each other better than if my uncle had still been alive. Now, despite the geographical distance, she's one of the special people in my life. Endings and beginnings often cannot be distinguished.

A korimako [3] flies across the paddock to the flowering harakeke [4], a slow, relaxed flight in the bright sun; flight from a moment ago towards a moment about to happen, each wingbeat beginning the rest of its life. The bird that left the grevillea a hundred metres ago now belongs eternally in the past; the I — whatever “I” might be — that saw the bird launch into flight that moment ago also belongs eternally in the past. I (the same or not?) wonder why we believe we can change the future but not the past? Is it because we remember the past but believe we cannot know the future? How does knowledge differ from memory? The semantics of those questions, I suspect, are a mire — or perhaps they're a forest where paths fork often, with the branching more than dichotomous? But,Robber fly getting back to the question, which I accept is ill-formed: can we change the future, or is it just as fixed as the past?

No. A bald statement, but I see no alternative. Ignoring multiple other universes, one and only one “future” exists; if I could change it, it would become the the one future which was always going to be the one and only future.

On the other hand, maybe the future does not exist. Perhaps it's something we construct to save ourselves from going mad. Perhaps we're always and inescapably at the boundary between the possible and the unchangeable; the present is that moment at which the possible becomes the unalterable. Seen this way, the future does not exist until we create it; having made it, we can do nothing to influence it. While it places on one an almost impossible degree of responsibility (the future becomes one's personal responsibility, making us, in effect, God), this also confers ultimate freedom: let the past be the past; one can do nothing about it; all that matters is to begin.

One could go crazy thinking about these things, but would it be any worse than losing one's mind in the madness of a Christmas mall? In any case, all the world is mad except thee and me, and sometimes I think even thee is a little crazy. Leave me lost instead; at large in a world I can explore the way I want; let my beginnings take me where they will. The destination doesn't matter. And where does one begin? At the place where everything begins — that place in your life that we call, “Here, right now.”

Pourangaki headwatersNotes:
1. Attributed, perhaps apocryphally, to George Mallory.

2. “Flowering manuka attracts many beetles...” p. 18 in Hudson, GV 1934 New Zealand Beetles and Their Larvae. Wellington, Ferguson & Osborne. 236 pp. + XVII plates.
3. The bellbird, Anthornis melanura.
4. Phormium tenax, New Zealand flax.

Photos (click to enlarge them):
1–5. Vendors at the vegetable market in Jamnagar, Gujarat, India; 13 February 2007.
6. Neither a beetle nor rare, but unquestionably wonderful. Flies rate among my favourite animals, and a robber fly (Diptera: Asilidae) like this (Neoitamus sp., I think) never fails to, er..., give me a buzz. You can't tell from the photo, but this was a male; he decided to rest on my windowsill and obligingly posed for me. Fearsome hunters (check out that proboscis), they're even thought to be major predators of tiger beetles — and if you know tiger beetles, you'll understand why robber flies impress me.
7. Like this post, the photos meander all over the place. This is the view from the Ruahine tops just before Christmas, looking out across the Pourangaki River in the late evening.

Photos and words © 2007 Pete McGregor


zhoen said...

You ask the most wonderful questions.

I have cousins like that, kith unexpected.

Terry Pratchett would say it would depend which leg of the Trousers of Time one took. Probably quantum.

Anne-Marie said...

Yes, Pete, this post does meander all over the place. But how eloquently it does so. As always, I love your use of language ["envious" would be a more appropriate word, I think].

PEA Brain (Pete's English Aunt) said...

Thank you.

herhimnbryn said...

Happy New Year Pete, whichever path you follow.

Relatively Retiring said...

In the UK the '...because it's there' quote is sometimes attributed to the Duke of Edinburgh referring to his decision to marry into the Royal Family.
What miraculously curvaceous paths we may all follow, and, a New Year wish to all Pete's readers, long may we have the freedom to do so.

Beth said...

Perhaps we're always and inescapably at the boundary between the possible and the unchangeable...

Yes, and what a great way to put it. Happy New Year, Pete, and thank you for this wonderful, truth-filled post that has me smiling and nodding, and moved, on a snowy morning halfway around the earth from you. Thank you, too, for those faces.

Emma said...

Lovely, my friend.

(And as for When do mums get to rest?, the answer is hardly ever. But I suspect most of us wouldn't trade it for anything -- even those of us who, prior to being mums, spent much of our time alone, purposely.)

polona said...

what a wonderfully meandering post!

i wish you a happy new year and many interesting paths to discover!

Emma said...

P.S., Why yes, you are fired for "never fails to, er..., give me a buzz." GROAN.

Peregrina said...

All best wishes for 2008, Pete. This post is a great beginning to it, just as it was a great ending to 2007! I like the apparent paradox of endings being beginnings and beginnings being endings.

As I read this I was reminded of an earlier post of yours ("How to Get Lost") where you approached this theme of past-present-future from a slightly different angle. In a comment, I quoted (from an unknown source), "The present is the moving edge of the past". Perhaps to that could be added "... and the boundary between the possible and the unchangeable"? It would give a nice balance, I think.

I was very touched by the story of your uncle. Christmas must now be a very poignant time for your aunt. I can understand part of how she has become special in your life - she shows a lovely quirky sense of humour.

Like Zhoen, I, too, was thinking about Terry Pratchett's bifurcated Trousers of Time as I read on through this. However, in your case you obviously won't be worrying that you might wake up one day to discover you'd gone down the wrong leg. Your philosophy is akin to that expressed in Benjamin Hoff's "The Tao of Pooh".

You've touched on so much in this, Pete, I could go on for ages. However, I'll restrict myself to one last comment. I love the way the construction of the piece reflects the theme - meandering, branching, but a very complete and cohesive whole.


Ruahines said...

Kia ora Pete,
Thanks for the thought provoking post and photos. It will give me much to ponder as I head up into the ranges with heavy pack in the morning and, hopefully, take my mind off the steep renewal with the Ruahines! Can't wait. Thank you as well for your words else where, it means a lot. I will let you know how the trip went. Happy New Year.

Theriomorph said...

Such glorious portraits!

Happy new year, Pete. I wish you every exploration.

pohanginapete said...

Zhoen: questions usually seem more fascinating than answers. Maybe answers are too much like endings but questions are always beginnings?

Anne-Marie: glad you like it. Until now, I've mostly avoided using "one", which to me can sound at best formal and at worst pretentious. But it seemed to fit this attempt, and it's nice to get your thumbs-up. Thanks.

Pea Brain: (probably the least apt term for anything to do with you, but I'll let you away with it this time ;^P). Thank you.

HHnB: likewise! All the best for a great '08 over there in the West.

R.R.: Ha! Maybe there's something to be said for that approach, given he's still there (even if his offspring haven't managed so well). And yes, I second your New Year's wish for everyone who visits here. Thanks!

Beth: cheers; so glad I've found your blog. Happy New Year (and we're into the second day of it already...)

Cheers Emma. I trust you're right about most mums finding such joy in the role. Still, it'd be nice if it wasn't so often at the expense of relaxation. (Oh yes — I'll try to resist harder next time. Sorry.)

Polona: Thanks. I'm sure some of those paths will have a few tricky bits, but I guess that makes them more interesting. Best wishes for '08 :^)

Thanks Peregrina, and I'm very pleased you picked up on the relationship between form and content. As for the Trousers of Time, I'm trusting they won't turn out to be shorts (sorry Emma).

Hey Robb, thanks, and enjoy the Ruahine. The weather's looking great for you — remember the sunscreen and enjoy those big pools :^)

Theriomorph: Thank you. I'm certainly enjoying the exploration of the Observation Series, which seems to have similar qualities to the Pictures of Pictures series. May '08 prove to be particularly good for you.

Gustav said...

Good day Pete

Robb Kloss urged me to checkout your blog and I have been rewarded with the gift of your words and pictures.

Your blog is what blogging can be at its best; a place to dream, to connect and share.

I feel less alone in the world after immersing myself in your creative pools and look forward to wading in again for another view of the Universe, the twisted path, the "Way Back to Beginnings" (see Haunchu Daoren).

Happy 2008 - may we one day connnect in person....perhaps on a mountain or in a river or perhaps Jamnagar......

Gustav said...

Good day again!

I have added Robb's blog link and yours to my blog "Nine Worlds" (pending any objections).


Brenda Schmidt said...

Great stuff, Pete, as always. Happy new year!

pohanginapete said...

Gustav, welcome; great to see you here and thanks for the link and the generous words. It's always a delight when what I'm trying to share gets through so strongly to like-minded people.

Brenda, Happy New Year to you also. Glad you had a fun 2007 and just as pleased you're looking forward to the promise of 2008.

Avus said...

A mazey meditation, Pete. One could get lost in there, sit down to enjoy it and never want to come out! I imagine an evening in conversation with you and like minded friends would be something memorable.
As to the Ruahine picture - superb. I have just got to get back to NZ one day.
Good wishes for the (unknowable) future, my friend.

Gustav said...

To be a slayer of Tiger Beetles is no easy feat Pete.

See Wikipedia comments below on the Tiger Beetle:

The larvae of tiger beetles live in cylindrical burrows as much as a meter deep. They are large-headed, hump-backed grubs that flip backwards to capture prey insects that wander over the ground. The fast-moving adults run down their prey. Some tiger beetles can run at a speed of 5 mph. For its size it has been suggested that they are the fastest running land animals. Some tiger beetles in the tropics are arboreal, but most run on the surface of the ground. They live along sea and lake shores, on sand dunes, around playa lakebeds and on clay banks or woodland paths.

pohanginapete said...

Cheers Gustav. Yes, tiger beetles are certainly impressive animals; very beautiful, too. The adults are active around here now, so I must try for some photos.

English Aunty's friend. said...

Pete - I often drop by to read your blog but have never left a comment - I'm one of those people who quietly tip-toe by, adding to your visit count with no footprint. Your words are always beautiful, poetic, elegant and wonderful to read. Your photos stunning and inspiring. Your latest blog touched me deeply, especially your writing about your lovely Aunt and Uncle.

pohanginapete said...

Beth, any friend of my aunt's is a friend of mine. Welcome; thanks for saying hello and for the compliments.

Patry Francis said...

I found several statements here to toast in the new year, but maybe this one most of all--"Enjoy the travelling."

pohanginapete said...

Patry, thank you, and my very best wishes that good news continues to come your way.

Mark Watson said...

Nice photo!

pohanginapete said...

Thanks Mark!