16 October 2008

The road to Whanganui

Fencepost, Pohangina Valley
At 7 p.m. Jacobs' Ladders reach down from the western cloud, the sun still only two thirds of the way on its journey down towards the horizon. A row of thin, wind-gnarled macrocarpas on a long, slow slope; silhouettes against golden light. I should stop and reach for the camera.
Then the vision's gone; the road dips into a dull, low valley.
Plastic flowers, yellow and orange and pink; plastic flowers bright in a pile against a fencepost, bright in the fading evening, bright against the dull green grass, the long grass rising to smother the marker, the reminder — this is where someone's life ended. A moment of realisation.
Then impact.
Then the world carries on.
A pair of ducks speeds over a green paddock where a brown bull grazes; an irregular patch of bright sunlight slides over the hills; a sunbeam slips through a gap in an old shed and illuminates a dusty jar of old nails on an age-grimed bench. Plovers harass a kahu, wind ripples the surface of a small pond behind a farm dam. Old fencepost, Pohangina ValleyBeside a fallen macrocarpa, dry and bleached, a rabbit stretches to nibble then sits up at the sound of a distant four-wheeler. Low sun shines through the rabbit's ears.
The world carries on. Someone places plastic flowers which fade slowly as the months and years pass. The brown bull goes to market and is sold, minced with god-knows-what and extruded into plastic tubing, as dog roll. Someone shoots the rabbit. A farmer chainsaws the fallen macrocarpa into a winter's supply of firewood and listens as it crackles and sparks on cold evenings. New generations of ducks fly over the green paddock, unaware of their ancestors who flew over that same paddock on that particular evening.
Someone drives past plastic flowers leaning against a fencepost on the road to Whanganui, on an evening when Jacobs' Ladders reach down from the sky. The world carries on.
I should stop and reach for the camera, but the moment's gone.

1. The "Wh" in Whanganui in this area is pronounced approximately like "W", not as "F"; thus, "Whanganui" sounds much like "Wanganui", which is the more common spelling.
2. The birds: Plovers — spur-winged plover, Vanellus miles novaehollandiae; kahu — Australasian harrier, Circus approximans. The ducks were probably mallards.
3. Macrocarpa — Cupressus macrocarpa. Harry Ricketts has written a most informative and entertaining piece about macrocarpas in Thirteen ways of starting a New Zealand novel called macrocarpa. Do check it out.
1 & 2. Pohangina valley fenceposts. Out in front of my place, on the edge of the terrace.

Photos and words © 2008 Pete McGregor


Emma said...

Right through the heart, this one. In particular the way you wrap it all up. So often I think that last sentence is the story of my life. [Resists temptation to launch into winding speech re: living in the moment.] In any case -- this made me catch my breath.

P.E.A. said...

What lovely writing, and the barely believeable truth that, yes, life goes on.

Anne-Marie said...

As always, Pete, I love how you write about ordinary or even unpleasant things in poetic ways. A beautiful meditation [you may not like that word meditation, but it's appropriate].

I'm sure I know the spot you are writing of. I always look at those markings on the side of the road too, and think of the people who have died there.

[As for explaining the "h" in "Whanganui" ... I'm resisting adding my own rant on that subject with great difficulty!]

peregrina said...

The passing moment that you miss photographing, a person's life - both are ephemeral. I like the way they echo one another here. As a moment in life is fleeting, so is a life in eternity. From the perspective of eternity both are insignificant, yet how much they can both be cherished.

Don't Feed The Pixies said...

As a slight aside i was reading something about how traditions start and are maintained and the author mentioned flowers on roadsides where an accident has been: this is a fairly recent tradition as a way of showing grief and emotion.

The worrying thing is that a certain amount of people have to be killed at a particular place for it to be considered a "blackspot" and for something to be done about it. Surely one life lost is one too many?

Theriomorph said...

Ah, lovely, Pete. So visual, so visceral.

The distance of the observer here is not emotional, but temporal: as emma said, right through the heart, but via the brain, the experience of time. Beautiful. And I love the fencepost photograph with it - the wire becomes a painful and apt metaphor.

pohanginapete said...

Emma, thank you. I've often thought last sentences are the most important of all, so I'm pleased this worked for you. (OTOH, first sentences are important too. And then one has to maintain interest with the sentences between ... ;^))

P.E.A., well put — that life continues after a death seems incomprehensible. That's always been one of the hardest realisations for me — waking to a new day and realising someone no longer shares it.

Anne-Marie, yes, I'm sure you'll have noticed that spot (and “meditation” is fine). I, too, had to restrain my urge to write more about the “Wh/W” argument; I wouldn't want to be written off by your mayor as a nutcase, would I? ;^)

Peregrina, a good insight. I suppose one might argue that ephemeral things are inherently more precious than those lasting indefinitely, because the opportunity to enjoy them, or at least learn from them, is so fleeting.

Hungry pixie, our roadsides used to be extensively marked with white crosses, but apparently the powers-that-be eventually decided to do away with them. I'm not sure of the justification, but perhaps they decided motorists had become inured to the sight, and the expense of putting them up was no longer justifiable. In NZ I don't think there was ever a policy of a minimum number of deaths for a marker. That seems appallingly callous. Here, it's now the bunches of flowers (plastic or real) that mark some spots, and I have to say they probably have more effect; they're placed not by officials, but by loved ones, and that has to mean far more to passers-by.

Thanks Theriomorph. There's something about old fences that seems to draw my eye; as you say, there's so much metaphor about them. I could go on, but the photo says it more eloquently.

Emma said...

Okay, I have to ask -- what's the deal with the wh/w? In my original note I nearly left a question about it, but didn't want to come off as a nutcase. :) If "wh" is so often pronounced as an "f" then why not just use an "f"? I asked my Linguistics professor about it; he simply shrugged and said that the people who conquered typically get to make those decisions.

That said, it sounds as though perhaps the wh/w issue you and Anne-Marie speak of is of a different nature altogether?Inquiring (or "enquiring" depending upon what sort of English one speaks) minds want to know!

Bob McKerrow said...

The photos and writings are superb.

Off to the northern-most island of Indonesia in a few minutes, Pulau Wei. I hope I can slowly get your observant eye.



Ruahines said...

Kia ora Pete,
Very cool capturing of a moment, and that you captured it with such eloquence, as usual.
I drive down JFK Drive here in Palmy with great regularity. Tara and I lived not far away when Taylor was very little. There was a young boy living near us who was killed on JFK by a drunk driver, just a numbing tragedy. For years there were fresh flowers and plants left there at all times. I always slowed to look at them, and remember that boy. Now they are gone, no more flowers left, perhaps that family has moved away. I still look at that place, at that tree, and remember that boy. Maybe it is my turn to leave a flower.
Cheers Pete, hope all is well.

pohanginapete said...

Emma, I can't claim any authority on this, but I'll explain how I think the controversy arises. I'm pretty sure Anne-Marie knows more about it and can probably enlighten us when she returns.
Maori was an oral language; it had no written form before pakeha arrived, so the “wh/w/f” issue was meaningless. What mattered was the pronounciation — how the word sounded — and words with the same meaning were sometimes pronounced slightly differently among different regions. Two particularly common variations were in the pronunciation of the “wh” and “ng” sounds; thus, in the north, “Whangaroa” sounded to a pakeha ear very much like “Farngaroar”, but much farther south, Ngai Tahu would pronounce it more like “Arkaroar” (i.e. Akaroa) — the “wh” was silent or barely audible and the “ng”, most often pronounced as in the english word “singing”, approximated a “k” sound. I assume the use of the written “wh” arose because an “f” would not have adequately represented the great range of pronunciations of that sound, including the intermediate, aspirated sound which resembles the wh in the english “where”.
Now, in the Whanganui region the “wh” is pronounced almost as “w”, and certainly not like the “f”; thus, “Whanganui” sounds like “Wanganui”, and pronouncing it as “Fanganui” would mark you as a northerner. A problem with simply switching to “w” instead of “wh” is that the meaning of some words is obscured — any speaker of Maori would recognise that “whanga” in this context probably refers to “bay”, “estuary”, etc. (“nui” in this context means big, so the literal meaning of Whanganui is pretty obvious). But what does “wanga” mean? To the best of my knowledge, the word doesn't exist in written Maori.
Moreover, if a strictly phonetic written language were to be used, we'd have to get used to writing “Farngaroar” (or Fangaroa) for Whangaroa and Farkartarnay for Whakatane.
But the strongest argument, for me, is simply that “Whanganui” is preferred by the local people to whose language the word belongs.
I'll finish by reiterating that I think this is the logic of the argument, but I claim neither authority nor privilege.

Bob — thanks! I hope your time in Indonesia's north proves rewarding in many respects. Cheers :^)

Robb, there's something terribly poignant in seeing a long-tended marker eventually fade and disappear. For years there was a strange and wonderful sculpture on the Takapau plains, marking the place where four teenagers were killed — also by a drunk driver. Now that sculpture has gone and that seems like another kind of loss.
Yes, things are going well — flat out, but good. Hope it's all good for you and the whanau too, Robb.

Emma said...

Ah! Thanks for the explanation, Pete. It's fascinating stuff and something I had wondered for so long! And for the record, you asked, "But what does 'wanga' mean?" Clearly, not much in written Maori, as you say -- but in Spanish (in Mexican Spanish, anyhow) it is something loose/loose-fitting (e.g., a t-shirt sleeve that's been stretched out), in the feminine form. Very oddly, lots of Maori words have completely unrelated meanings in Spanish. Perhaps most notably, "Te Mata" in Spanish means "[He/She/It] kills you." =)

Anonymous said...

Thanks again Pete. I love seeing the world through your eyes.

pohanginapete said...

Emma, I'm sure the Spanish equivalent of Te Mata has gone through more than one person's head as he/she trudged up Te Mata peak on a sweltering Hawkes Bay day... :^)

Clare — thanks, and ditto! :^)

butuki said...

Last month, after two years absence, I visited the place I lived in Tokyo before I moved out here to Chiba. To my shock an ancient beech grove inside the walled garden of an ancient, thatched-roof farm house had been completely felled to make room for a huge parking lot and apartment complex. It was the last stand of ancient and original trees in the whole area and I felt the loss profoundly. What was particularly wrenching about it was that all of it was done completely without recognition by anyone... no ceremonies, no public protests, no sense at all that anything had been lost, and I think it was due to the transient nature of the community populace; no one lived there long enough to develop an emotional connection to anything there. Japan is becoming more and more like that and thereby losing a huge bond with its past.

A friend recently asked me why a places are so important to me. I found it difficult to express what it is that I need without sounding religious. I guess for me a place is not something lifeless; it is alive, like a person. In the same way that you seek out a lover who matches your heart, I seek out a place with which I can fall in love.

Those roadside icons, like the roadside deity stones (O-jizo) that line the old accident sites here in Japan, seem to express this love in the same way. Maybe because love is an affirmation of the ephemeral?

Zhoen said...

Trees in bondage.

pohanginapete said...

Miguel, yes, loss takes many forms. I struggle with how to come to terms with loss while still attempting to achieve true non-attachment. I don't believe they're incompatible, yet faced with grief it's hard to realise non-attachment as an attitude vastly different from denial. My gut feeling is that what underlies and reconciles grief and non-attachment has much to do with "being present" — what's commonly called "living in the moment" (a misunderstood and misused concept). And perhaps you're right; perhaps love is an affirmation of the ephemeral — but for many, I think love, or what passes for it, is an attempt to transcend the ephemeral.

Zhoen — Ha! I'd never thought of fenceposts that way, but I'll see them in a new light now. Thanks!

mm said...

So beautiful. Hard to find a comment that does this justice.

I find plastic flowers in particular very poignant. Loss. Remembrance. Love. Human beings trying hard but in vain to create permanence. Life does indeed go on.

Good to be here again, Pete. Thanks for dropping by. I have much to catch up on in your archives.

Michael said...

Inspiring piece. Reminds me of a home I've never seen. Also makes me want to pick up some Annie Dillard.

pohanginapete said...

MM, it's good to see you back, and nice to know you're in the same neck of the woods as my aunt. Thanks for the comment :^)

Thanks Michael. I think it's likely all of us have some kind of primal sense of home and can recognise it to varying degrees in a piece of writing, or a photograph, or some other kind of art. Interesting that you should find it in this post, which to me is so strongly rooted in New Zealand. Cheers!

PATERIKA HENGREAVES, Poet Laureate said...

Kia ora Pete

I enjoy reading your style of writing. On my drive from Orewa to Whangarei I passed many wayside floral arrangements. I was puzzled as to why they were there. My Kiwi guide told me that they marked the site where deadly vehicular accidents occured. As such, they tend to alert drivers to drive with caution. I thought that was very respectful and with profound message better than signpost I'd say.

By the way, are they Kuri trees with the wired fence?


pohanginapete said...

Kia ora Paterika, and thanks. The trees in the background of the photo with the wired fencepost are a mixed bag; I'd have to check, but I know there are poplars, tagasaste (tree lucerne), and a few other weedy introduced species, as well as some native trees, particularly tarata and manuka. No kauri, I'm afraid — historically, this area has been to cold, although that's changing.

peregrina said...

Pete, Anne-Marie says she loves the way that you write about ordinary things. Coincidentally, after first reading this post and before that comment had appeared, what I'd been thinking about was the way in which you photograph ordinary things and make them appear exceptional. It's so easy to not notice the familiar.

Regarding the pronunciation of "wh": I was once told by a well-known speaker of Maori (obviously not from the North!) that it would have been better if the sound concerned had been written as "hw", because the aspirate sound came first. While in Japan, I noticed that their "f" sound was closer to this than it was to the English "f" (a sound they had difficulty in learning to pronounce correctly).

pohanginapete said...

Thanks Peregrina. Perhaps part, or even most, of the reason so many of us don't notice the day-to-day details is because it seems to be considered some kind of secular sin simply to sit and look. Being still is equated with doing nothing, but done right, it's hugely productive in ways that can't be predicted. Unfortunately, in our goal focused society, it seems unacceptable to admit in advance that the outcome will be worth it unless we can say what the outcome will be.

Interesting, too, about the Japanese pronunciation of "f" — I'd heard the vowel sounds in Japanese are closer to Maori than English. Thanks!

Avus said...

And there was me thinking it was "clever" to pronounce "Wh" as "F" when in UnZud!

butuki said...

Having grown up speaking Japanese it was kind of funny reading this exchange about how to pronounce the w/wh/hw sounds. I found myself sitting here pronouncing the Japanese "f-" again and again and wondering what the hoopla was about. ;-)

Now the languages I REALLY have a hard time with are some of the southern African ones, with all the clicks and chortles and clucks that my tongue cannot begin to figure out!

pohanginapete said...

Avus, I see you haven't lost the lingo!

Miguel, I agree — I have no idea how I'd survive if I had to ask for food and shelter in one of those African languages. Guess I'd get good at miming...

Anonymous said...

"I close my eyes,
only for a moment, then the moment's gone,
All my dreams,
Pass before my eyes with curiosity"

Dust In The Wind - Kansas
Check out that song if you get a chance. It fits this post perfectly.

pohanginapete said...

Samurai, I remember that song. Very apt. Now you've given me an earworm.