This rock belongs to us all
Dawn light filters through the matchstick blind as International Rock Flipping Day begins. Outside, a tui squawks and chuckles, probably from among the mass of yellow flowers on the big kowhai by the gate, and when Anne-Marie pulls up the blind on the east window the sky's the pale blue of a starling's egg—that slightly cold colour with the promise of warmth.
I get a cup of tea in bed, with toast and quince jam, and shortly afterwards she brings in a small leaf from some lawn weed. She holds it out for me to inspect. It's covered with dew.
"Not dew", she says.
I touch it. It's hard, like tiny crystals.
"Frost", she says. "Very light, but definitely a frost".
But by mid morning not a trace remains. Ted sits propped against the back door frame, panting rapidly with his fluffy belly exposed to the sun's heat. He looks like a small buddha, but Maisie sits in the dignified pose of the Sphinx, surveying her domain to keep it free from blackbirds and other insolent intruders. She pants too, though, and blinks in the bright, hot sun.
Where will we flip our first rock today?
Anne-Marie suggests either Castlecliff or Waiinu because they're both beaches Ted will enjoy. I, being misanthropic, opt for the less populated Waiinu, so we leave in the late morning, arriving at a deserted parking spot near a paddock of steers. Paint peels and flakes from the sun-bleached DOC  sign, but this is not Waiinu, it's the access to the mouth of the Waitotara river. Anne-Marie had tempted me with tales of an ancient, drowned totara forest, and the prospect of seeing drowned trees, thousands of years old, reaching for the sky from watery graves, had been too much.
So here we are, and Ted's beside himself with the prospect of exploring new territory, with delicious bucolic smells and mud and dung and other forms of dog porn. Given the temptations, he's surprisingly well-behaved though: happy to trot along with Anne-Marie in tow on a tight but not straining leash. We walk the quiet, slightly windswept track with a narrow strip of diverse native shrubs on our left between us and the river, and on our right a low, three wire electric fence separating us from the small mob of steers tracking us with that characteristic mixture of curiosity and fear—they come right up to the fence to stare at us, puffing steam from snotty nostrils, but when I turn to look back at them they run away like hysterical children. Then they trot back because they still can't figure us out.
Skylarks sing above the paddocks; two blackbacked gulls roost on a log in the slow-flowing, murky river; once a pheasant flushes with a roar of wings from just a few metres away and flies low and fast across the river. A couple of utes  bounce and joggle past on their way back from the beach, going slowly, waving hello as they pass by.
We cross a Taranaki gate  and walk a couple of metres down to the edge of the river. Ted marches in, of course, but I refuse to get my feet wet so hold him on an outstretched leash. The three of us wander along the wet, black sand, out of sight of the track, in our own world, our own time. It feels as if we've left the world of people and cars and entered the world of birds and water and washed-up memories from a hundred years into the future, when all the towns and cities and lonely farmhouses have fallen into ruin. Ahead in the distance, eight white birds roost on a log jam a long way from the shore. I think they're spoonbills, but I've left my binoculars in the Pohangina valley (accidentally) along with the big lens (deliberately). Nearby, the drowned totara forest emerges from the wind-rippled water. It's not what I was expecting—all that's visible is a small collection of small, knob-like stumps.
But we're here to flip rocks. Unfortunately, rocks are scarce, and the few we do flip are in such a water-logged substrate they're home to nothing we can see. Eventually we make our way back to the car. Perhaps we can find something in the garden.
And we do. Not under rocks, but the eucalyptus log is so dense it's close enough. It's home to a good collection of tiny lives, too—perhaps not as exciting as last year's find, but when one looks closely, the segments on a woodlouse must surely be worthy of admiration. And, as one looks so closely it's impossible not to wonder how these tiny animals live their lives. They're all around us, and how much do most of us know about them? A thought crosses my mind: if, by and large, we fail to notice these myriad lives with whom we share the rock we call Earth, what, on some incomprehensibly larger or more advanced scale might, right now, be failing to notice us?
1. DOC is the acronym for Aotearoa's Department of Conservation.
2. "Ute" (pronounced "yoot") is short for "utility vehicle" — a pickup truck in the US.
3. A Taranaki gate is a makeshift gate comprising a length of wire netting with a couple of supporting battens (thin posts attached to the wire but free from the ground) at each end.
4. There's a photo of the river over on my photoblog.
5. In case you're wondering, Ted is a border terrier (Maisie's a Westie).
1. Under the log. The woodlouse (I like the word much better than "slater") is the cosmopolitan Porcellio scaber; the long, segmented things are millipedes of some sort; the little, short white things with stumpy legs and antennae are springtails (Collembola); the long whitish things are enchytraeid worms (more or less cousins to earthworms). If you want to find out more, Massey University has a wonderful Illustrated Guide to New Zealand Soil Invertebrates. Highly recommended.
2. Some kind of flatworm (Turbellaria). I guess other flatworms find them attractive ;^).
3. A closer view of Porcellio scaber and friends.
4. Maisie guards the garden.
And remember to check the Flickr group, too.
Labels: Rock flipping