26 September 2010

The Spring wind

Clearing after the flood

Outside in the dark as the rain eases and stops, a sheep coughs. The barking has a note of desperation, as if the sheep's lungs have been choked with worms and the poor creature will asphyxiate if it fails to cough them up. As I listen I feel my own lungs beginning to wither and fail and I feel, too, the frightened sheep's sense of its own mortality.

This, of course, is my own fear projected onto the sheep, which, having coughed enough, begins to scratch itself on a verandah pile. Already, it has probably forgotten its fit of hacking.


The first stag cast both antlers nine days ago; today the other stag cast his. Without antlers the big animals seem odd, out of proportion, as if all that powerful body seems pointless, casting about for a purpose long gone. Already they'll be starting to grow new sets so six months from now, crowned once again, they can fight over the hinds.

The futility of this seems absurd, yet, in a sense, this is all there is — fail in the competition to leave progeny and you might as well never have existed. Perhaps this is why we, the evolutionary dead ends, the dinosaurs, write so desperately: so we won't be forgotten, so we might influence the world in which we will no longer live, so something of us might survive.


A cold wind knocks pink and white petals from the magnolia, scatters white clouds across a blue sky, piles them up over the ranges. Winter's casualties continue their slow collapse — one hind, skin stretched and cracking over disarticulating bones; a ewe or two sinking into the wriggling ground; somewhere the old cat in a place only he knows.

But the tree lucerne bustles with tauhou and the low roar of feeding bees. I walk on, down through the cutting, looking out over the valley, down to Te Awaoteatua Stream, its grey-trunked poplars already hung with yellow-green catkins. At the bridge I lean over the parapet and stare at the swift, shallow water. I think of Pooh sticks, but it's pointless now. I walk on, further than I'd intended; I walk on because my legs keep carrying me down the road in the pale, silvery light and cold wind; I walk on because I can't stop, can't make the decision to turn around. I want to walk on forever, out of the world.

But I stop at Tokeawa Stream and lean over again, gazing at the water rushing white over algal-brown boulders. I look down, remembering, and the water begins to mutter questions I can't quite make out.

After a long time I begin walking back up the quiet road.

1. Various hypotheses have been proposed for the function of antlers (see Clutton-Brock, T. H. (1982). The functions of antlers. Behaviour, 79(2/4), 108–125), but why do red deer retain their antlers throughout the winter, i.e. for 4–5 months after the roar (rut; breeding/fighting season)?
2.Tree lucerne — tagasaste, Chamaecytisus palmensis.
3. Tauhou — the silvereye, Zosterops lateralis

1. Boulders, Te Awaoteatua Stream.
2. Te Awaoteatua Stream running high after rain. "What might have been is an abstraction/Remaining a perpetual possibility/Only in a world of speculation." — T.S. Eliot, Four Quartets: Burnt Norton.

Photos and original text © 2010 Pete McGregor

15 September 2010

Wild lives matter

A few nights ago I watched an episode of the Australian program Outback Wildlife Rescue, in which one of the events centred on an operation to remedy the deformed tail of a young eastern grey kangaroo. The program pointed out that Australia has about 50 million kangaroos and I recalled how in some areas they're considered pests and professional shooters make a living killing them. The cost of fixing the tail of this young animal must have been enormous, even if the vet and his staff donated their time (I don't know how the centre's funded — probably from donations and grants?), and I found myself asking the inevitable question: "Why spend so much effort rescuing one kangaroo?" Surely the most sensible and practical option would have been to euthanase the kangaroo?

Then I started thinking harder, and some benefits of this huge effort became apparent.

First, the operation wasn't standard: not only had the vet never attempted it before, it's unlikely anyone had, and he had to work out much of what he had to do as he went along. The benefits are that the vet developed his skills and also added to the fund of knowledge about these kinds of operations — not just fixing kangaroos' tails, but operations on the tails of other animals, operations to correct the shape and position of vertebrae and other bones, operations to correct muscular imbalances and so on. Once we've repeated a procedure of any sort more than a few times, we learn better not by repeating the same procedure over and over, but by carrying out similar but not identical procedures. It's like rock climbing — once you know the sequence of moves, repeated ascents of the same climb don't improve your skills as much as working out the sequence of moves on other, different but similar climbs.

Another argument is that if we simply euthanased all injured kangaroos we wouldn't develop the same degree of knowledge about how to treat injured kangaroos when an important need arises — say, for example, when the marsupial star of a wildlife park falls lame. Moreover, as I've already pointed out, much of that knowledge will be transferable to other animals and, I suppose, in theory to humans, although I don't know the extent to which that kind of cross-over occurs (that knowledge comes far more from deliberate experiments on animals — and that, in the context of this discussion, is both acutely ironic and an entirely different, ethical issue).

But these arguments are practical, and although they're persuasive, the most compelling argument for me is simply that those seemingly extraordinary efforts to save the lives of common wild animals remind us that it's not just human lives that have value — and by "lives", I mean individual lives, not just species. This might be difficult to justify logically — the argument is not about instrumental value (how useful that life is to us) but about intrinsic value (the life is valuable simply because it's a life), which is inordinately difficult to "prove" — but logic is beside the point. We understand the true value of other lives not by being convinced through logical argument, but through that slightly choked-up feeling we get when we see a hawksbill turtle, successfully treated for pneumonia after swallowing a plastic bag, released into the ocean and swimming out to sea; when we see a kite, brought back to health after being rescued from a snare, finally flying off into the Australian outback; or when we see a young eastern grey kangaroo beginning to use its tail normally after ground-breaking surgery. We know these lives are vital not because we've been convinced by argument: we know it because our empathy leaves no doubt.

1.Bushbuck (Tragelaphus scriptus), Nyika Plateau, Malawi.

Photo and original text © 2010 Pete McGregor

06 September 2010

Last days

It's been a rough month. Ming slept all day on the verandah seats, curled or crouched on the old folded sheet I'd arranged as a nest for him; something more comfortable than the vinyl upholstery. He kept half-standing, turning slowly and settling down, constantly searching for a better position. I put a bowl of biscuits and another of water near him; he ate a few biscuits and lapped a little water then curled up again.

I sat next to him several times during the day when the sun broke through. I sipped tea and tried to understand what it meant to sit next to Ming during what might be the last hours of his life, what it would mean to sit there in the days that followed, looking at the world, the lambs lying on green grass, white clouds in a blue sky, plum blossoms profuse on the tree next to the dog kennels, tui fighting in the poplars, a korimako calling from the Grevillea next door — looking at the world and knowing Ming was no longer part of it. Yeah, sure, he'll still be here, re-entering it in a different form, as diffuse processes, as memory — but all that wise, enlightened bullshit can't compensate for his actual absence, the joy of hearing rustling in the kitchen and finding him with his head shoved in the rubbish, trying to hook out some morsel; can't compensate for the yowls of protest when I took his dead rat from him (in case it had a sublethal dose of poison); can't compensate for his selective deafness when told off. We know the world mostly through our senses — even our ability to imagine arises from what we've learned from our senses — and the loss of something, or someone, we can see and hear and touch is bearable only insofar as we can rationalise the loss. For those we love, this seems impossible. I have no idea how we manage it.

I sit next to him in the Spring sun, sipping tea and gazing out over the paddock, sensing his slow breathing. A kahu circles, calling. It's been a rough month, and it's a long way from over. Every time I blink the world seems to go slightly blurry. 

Photo: Ming in better times

Update (12 September 2010): Ming has not been seen since early last week. The conclusion is inevitable.

Photos and original text © 2010 Pete McGregor