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
Photos and original text © 2010 Pete McGregor