14 December 2008

Lives on the Line

No. 2 Line, Pohangina Valley

I took the usual route, biking up the valley a short distance before turning off the tarmac onto the rough dirt and gravel of No. 2 Line. A few hundred metres of level ground, then the climb began. Perhaps it was the slight tailwind, or perhaps the crackers and tomato had fueled me better than I'd expected, or perhaps I'd just struck a good day, physically and mentally; whatever the reason, the result was a quick ride up the steep, winding road in a gear at least one cog higher than usual. At the top I circled a few times; the usual slow, tight circles; time to let the burn in my legs begin to subside; time to gaze out over the valley, up towards the Oroua headwaters, out northwest to where hard hill country receded into the distance under heavy grey cloud. Somewhere out there, Ruapehu slept under that dense blanket. One day he'll awaken fully and remind us of our true powerlessness View down No. 2 Line, Pohangina Valleyand insignificance. Or, maybe Taupo will wake first, and if that eruption proves anything like that of 1800 years ago — one of the largest in recorded history — let alone like the Oruanui eruption which, 26,500 years ago, spewed out 300 cubic kilometres of ignimbrite and 500 cubic kilometres of pumice and ash, ...well, no one anywhere near here will survive to reflect on his powerlessness and insignificance.

I sped back down the road, taking the corners carefully. Too much loose gravel on hard-packed dirt; too much chance of being ripped to bits in a spill. Blood and skin and pain, and maybe a broken bone or two. Maybe worse. I lost a wonderful friend in a bike crash a few years ago, and now find the fierce joy of careening down these rough roads tempered by the memory of his accident. I honour him in three ways: by remembering him, by delighting in the biking, and by staying alive. I think he'd appreciate all of those.
But where the road's straight or the corners gentle, it's hard to resist that thrill, that urge to cut loose, especially when it's been earned not by pumping fossil fuel into an engine's tank, but by the hard work of muscles and lungs,View up No. 2 Line, Pohangina Valley blood and willpower. I leaned slightly into a gradual corner, straightened as the road dipped, and readied myself to start pedalling again when the road rose once more.

And something ran out from the roadside grass and across the road in front of me. An instant of astonishment, then I recognised it.

A stoat.

I could have run it over. It seemed curiously slow, although its legs were working furiously. I saw the black-tipped tail, the cream-coloured belly.

I heard it, clearly, distinctly, a high-pitched chittering as if the small beast was swearing at me, telling me to eff off, to mind where I was going. I heard it and understood the message as I sped past and it vanished into the grass on the other side of the road.

I could have run it over. Perhaps I should have, but I'm glad I didn't. I veered slightly and shot past it. I couldn't crush something so wild, so fierce, so alive.

I biked on, buzzing with adrenaline and delight, realising I'd called out as the stoat disappeared behind me. I should have exclaimed something profound or enlightened, but all I'd uttered was an inane, although vehement, “Ah! Fantastic!”

But the words didn't matter. What mattered was the encounter, a moment when nothing mattered but that moment, when being alive was more important than anything. What mattered was that one intense, small, electric life, disappearing into the long grass and swearing at me as it ran.

Beyond the roadend, No. 2 Line

1. For anyone wondering why running over the stoat might have been a good idea, I added a few notes (with links) to a post I wrote a few years ago. That post includes several photos of a wild stoat.
Photos (click to enlarge them):
1 & 3. Looking up No. 2 Line; about three quarters of the way to the road end.
2. The view down the road from the same spot. Loggers had been working there for the last week or so.
4. Beyond the road end, No. 2 Line. A poled route leads a short distance over farmland to the edge of the Ruahine Forest Park, and to the "Ashurst boulder" (300 Kb pdf) — actually about 20 km from Ashhurst (it has two "h"s); it's a group of boulders with a few reasonable problems.

Photos and words © 2008 Pete McGregor


Relatively Retiring said...

Thank you for such enjoyable read - I even felt the burn in the legs from the safety of my chair.

You really are such a stoat-magnet.......

Zhoen said...

I couldn't have killed it either.

Relatively Retiring said...

P.S. What do you do when you've reached the top of that stone? Turn round and slither down again?

Michael said...

Wonderfully written. The tone of the writing, word choice, flow, syntax, suited the subject and I envy you the experience.

Bob McKerrow said...

Pete, yuou are such a wonderful wordsmith. I loved the lines "

What mattered was the encounter, a moment when nothing mattered but that moment, when being alive was more important than anything. What mattered was that one intense, small, electric life, disappearing into the long grass and swearing at me as it ran."

You'd be happy to know Robb. Tara and I teamed up over the weekend and turned an internet friendship into a face to face one where a bottle Of Jamisons committed us to blood bothers and sisters.

Keep up the writing .


Vickie said...

Wonderful journey of images and words. Especially the depth with which your appreciate and describe your experience. Beautiful countryside. There's something that feels ancient about the terrain when I view it.

The stoat is unfamiliar to me and I looked it up before I noticed your link. I look forward to reading your earlier experience, as well.

robin andrea said...

I had forgotten about stoats, it is so good to be reminded of them. I suppose they can't be blamed for their presence any more than the introduced choking vines that overtake native plants and the green crabs scurrying in the northwest Pacific devouring their hapless relations. We humans have sure made a mess of things. It would be so great if all the creatures would turn and look us in the eyes and tell us to "ef off."

Thanks so much for stopping by the Bums today. It's lovely to hear from you, Pete.

pohanginapete said...

RR, thank you. I think it's more that stoats are a Pete-magnet ;^) And about the descent from the boulders: because they're on the side of a hill, the top is actually close to the slope so it's easy to get down. Most climbs are on the downhill face of the boulder, with a few around the sides. However, in other situations it is indeed something to consider before attempting a hard boulder problem. Very embarrassing to be stuck on top of a boulder while one's mates laugh and chant "Jump! Jump!" ;^)

Zhoen, I remember David Attenborough narrating a marvellous documentary on stoats (Stoats in the Priory) and admitting at the conclusion that he'd fallen in love with them.

Michael, thank you; I appreciate the feedback. I wish more people — particularly kids — could enjoy encounters with real wildness like this rather than vicariously through documentaries, photos, and writings.

Cheers Bob! Ah, I'd have loved to have been there with you, Robb and Tara, Colin, and the others. I'd probably be paying the price now, though ;^)

Vickie, thanks :^) Your comment reminds me of the strangeness of the word “stoat”. “Weasel” seems wonderfully appropriate (for weasels) — it has a long, sinuous sound — but to me, “stoat” seems unlike anything else. Hard to explain, but curious.

Robin Andrea, spot on. Blame for the actions of stoats should be directed nowhere but at ourselves, and if it's necessary to protect other species by reducing the depradations of stoats, we have a responsibility to do that as humanely (what an inappropriate word!) as possible. And best wishes to Roger for a speedy healing. I winced when I saw the photo of his toe :^(.

Maureen and Eric said...

A few years ago we encountered a mink while canoeing on the remote Selway river in Idaho. What a thrill it was. Your "stout" looks like what we would call in America a "weasel". A beautiful creature! We enjoyed your post immensely.

pohanginapete said...

Glad you liked the post, Maureen and Eric. Stoats are a type of weasel; they're different species of the same genus. Overseas, stoats are sometimes called ermine, particularly when they change colour in winter (all but the black tip of the tail changes to white). However, that name's not used in New Zealand perhaps because stoats here don't turn white in winter. Whatever colour, though, I agree — they're beautiful animals.

Emma said...

Gorgeous all around, Pete -- images, words, and images created by words. I hope to write as well as you do, one day.

Don't Feed The Pixies said...

The worst joke i ever heard (aside from the one about the Elephant) was: what's the difference between a weasel and a stoat?

A weasel is weasily identified, but a stoat is stoatilly different.


Anyways - looking at these pictures it's amazing how much NZ looks like an idyllic form of the UK - if i ever come over i would love to go cycling across this beautiful landscape.

pohanginapete said...

Emma, thank you. Don't underrate the quality of your own stories, though. :^)

Hungry pixie — that one's so old it's got whiskers! I think my favourite weasel quotation (oops, I almost wrote "quoatation" — a Freudian slip perhaps) is from Homer Simpson:
Marge, don't discourage the boy! Weaseling out of things is important to learn. It's what separates us from the animals! Except the weasel.

Emma said...

Oh dear, he's quoting the Simpsons...

peregrina said...

Pete, have you read Fiona Farrell's "Mr Allbones' Ferrets" (Random House New Zealand, 2007. To be published in North America in 2009.)? It's a novel based on a brief entry in an 1880s ship's list: Walter Allbones travelled to NZ with ferrets. It's delightful (in spite of the consequences).

I love the double entendre of the title of this post.

pohanginapete said...

Hey Emma! Don't knock Homer — he's (sometimes) a wise man. I doubt he'd have done worse than your outgoing President. ;^P

Peregrina, no, I hadn't even heard of Fiona Farrell's book. I do know she's written some wonderful stuff (erk! — certainly better than this sentence). Thanks for the recommendation, and yes, I'm quite pleased with that title. I usually have great difficulty with them.

Emma said...

Pete, let's make one thing clear: he is not, by any stretch of the imagination, my president. If Homer had been in charge we may have at least had more fun... harrumph.

pohanginapete said...

Emma, point taken. Actually, I can't think of anyone I personally know who has any respect whatsoever for dubya. For me, he's been one of biggest challenges I've faced when attempting to live up to my grand statements about the critical need for pluralism — if I truly believe what I say, I have, somehow, to put myself in his position, think how he thinks, hold the beliefs he holds. That, needless to say, has been horrendously hard, and I can't claim to have managed it for more than a fleeting moment — and I doubt I've achieved it to any real degree.

Having said that, and having no doubt that your disowning of him was genuine and heartfelt, I'd ask you (and others) to remember that now we have a new government here — one seemingly hellbent on trashing this marvellous planet and robbing from the poor to pay the rich — that this new government neither speaks nor acts for me.
Right, time for a nice cup of tea and a lie down...

Emma said...

Pete, I feel your pain. And I think a cup of tea and a lie down, given that humans don't naturally play possum so well as the possum does, is sometimes the only reasonable reaction to things. Feels like I've been doing that for the last eight years...

Avus said...

Thanks for a really interesting post, Pete. As a cyclist I felt your "burn" and empathised with your downhill exhilaration.
Volcanoes and earth movements also fascinate me and your "Taupo" link was absorbing. When we last toured the North Island I reflected on that vast lake and the cataclysms that brought it into being - also those soft billowing hills from there to Napier which are shaped by the vast disjecta from that eruption.

butuki said...

Ah, the gravelly downhill turns... such exquisite pain when the wheel hits just the right angle and jumps out from under you! One of those times when gravity both winks out and hits you hard, all at the same time. Nothing like a good reminder of the plurality of your own skin! (^J^)/"

pohanginapete said...

Emma, maybe I'll let that rest now!

Avus, well, it's no wonder New Zealand appeals to you. Plenty of good cycling country; plenty of geologically active landscape — what more could one wish for, other than to be elsewhere when that landscape becomes active?

Miguel, clearly you know the feeling first-hand!

A very Merry Christmas to you all :^)

Lydia said...

I loved the ride, the beautiful photography, the encounter with the stoat. I had to look up the word, never heard it before. Have heard of ermines, though, but never have seen one. They're really quite gorgeous. I went back to your 2005 post and really love the shots of the stoat, and the way you described that special encounter. I do and don't believe in totem animals, but in my moments of do-believe I'd say that one of yours must be the stoat!

(The Dept. of Conservation link in your older post no longer works, which was best because I'd only have become depressed reading about stoats eating kiwi chicks.... :)

[word verification: fated]

pohanginapete said...

Lydia, thank you :^) You might be right about my totem animal. Then again, there are so many wonderful animals ... but perhaps one doesn't choose a totem animal, but is chosen by it.

Thanks for pointing out the broken link. Hmmph! It's bad enough that most of DOC's web pages seem to be written for children younger than ten years old. Grump!! I'll see if I can find a suitable replacement link.

pohanginapete said...

P.S. — Lydia, I've fixed the link. It's a pretty insubstantial article (only a few paragraphs) but it documents the sad stats on mortality of kiwi chicks.

Lydia said...

Wow, you're good.....I will look at it in the light of day, though - don't want those sad stats to be on my mind before sleep.