02 July 2014

Walking the No. 1 Line track

The way to pay tribute to a place is not always to go there and wear it down, and capture it, and make pictures of it, and describe it.
— Nicolas Rothwell

Maybe the best journeys are the ones that are worth repeating, and are repeated.
— Rebecca Solnit

Late in the afternoon I sat again at the top of the No. 1 Line track and waited for the water to boil. A heavy overcast sky hung low, dimming the light on the mountainsides, turning them dull and flat; a long way out over the Manawatu plains, grim grey cloud obscured the horizon. No view of Kapiti; certainly no view of the distant South Island which just a day earlier had floated, hazy and silhouetted but distinct, above the dull shine of the midwinter ocean. I hadn’t stayed long then, partly because the cold wind had made sitting uncomfortable, but mostly because I’d forgotten the tea. I’d scribbled a few notes, tried to photograph the little male miromiro who’d appeared almost the instant I’d sat down, mentally kicked myself for also forgetting the binoculars—was I really so distracted by imminent travel that I could forget such essential items as tea and binoculars?—and soon started back down the track into the dusk.

Now I sat sipping Lapsang Souchong tea, cupping the blue tin bowl in my hands and every so often jotting down another thought. A blackbird sang quietly a long way below in the steep gully; a pair of hedge sparrows called to one another nearby; otherwise only the sound of occasional gusts of half-hearted wind sighing through the pepperwood and a few distant shotgun blasts broke the silence. I realised I missed the insects of summer. Nothing buzzed past; no crane flies bumbled around in the bush rice grass below the seat; nothing crawled or scuttled along the seat or over the damp cold ground or up the old stump reaching into the sky. The worst of the winter cold hadn’t yet arrived—that might not be far off, with the forecast saying snow below a thousand metres in the next few days—but already the small lives that animate this place in summer had shut down, or died, or changed into some other, possibly even more alien, form.
Life existed in abundance all around me, but the impossibly slow lives of plants can’t replace the intensity of insects. Trees may outlive us but we burn brighter; we, if we’re lucky, outlive all insects but they burn like arrows on fire. This raises the question: which is the better life—slow but long, or intense but short?
I’ve heard it said that what counts isn’t the length of a life but its quality, but that has never seemed satisfactory to me. A short, intense life might be wonderful but, barring bad luck, a long, wonderful life must surely be possible and just as surely more desirable; after all, the longer you live, the more opportunities you have. What you do with those opportunities—more accurately, how you respond to them—is up to you, but even if you stumble and waste some, or struggle to make the most of circumstances that seem on the face of it to be those you’d rather have done without, a life of 97 years, say, offers many more opportunities than one of, say, 23. For example, not the least of the advantages of a long life is the ability to develop what we usually call wisdom—the application of a life’s experiences to help interpret, tolerate, and appreciate life’s events; and to use those experiences and a lifetime of accumulated knowledge to grow, to help others, and to make the world better for the fact we’ve lived in it.

I walked back down No. 1 Line, sometimes inadvertently glissading on the mud that constituted much of the upper part of the track and wondering whether this might become a new winter sport particularly suited to the Tararua Range, that often-disparaged but popular range of mountains immediately south of the Ruahine and notorious for its weather and mud. Where the track made its way through the bush, so little light remained that I packed the camera away and enjoyed the freedom of having both hands free. I negotiated the bog at the top of the Copper Glade, passed quietly through the Possum Bones Clearing, took the usual detour past the Stinkhorn Step, and paused at the lower lookout. A tui warbled and coughed from the miro; the volcanoes of the Central Plateau hid behind a pall of dark, hazy cloud; the familiar farmland below looked bruised and worn out in the cold dusk.

How many times had I stood here and studied the same but not-quite-the-same view? I wondered about people who return to the same place, over and over—the same mountain, the same hut, the same wild little beach, the same swimming hole in the same river—the people who return year after year and sometimes become so associated with that place that it becomes part of their identity. Does this represent a lack of imagination, a lack of curiosity about other places? Or, does it indicate a love for the place, the gradual building of a relationship with it so, finally, it becomes home?

Both, I suspect, and to varying degrees depending on personality, but I like to think my own inclination to return to places like No. 1 Line and the headwaters of the Pohangina reflects a deepening love for those places; that the more I come to know them the more they come to know me and welcome me back. What I try hard to avoid, though, is any sense of ownership of those places—the kind of attitude I’ve encountered (fortunately, rarely) where a person who’s made a habit of of returning to a place projects an air of superiority, of knowing more about it than anyone else—a kind of verbal marking out of territory. This can be a subtle trap because the more you know about a place, the greater the temptation to share that knowledge, and that can be analogous to name-dropping—a particularly tempting and objectionable tendency that probably arises from insecurity. This knowledge-dropping—most noticeable among blokes, who seem unable to resist the challenge of competitive storytelling—might be well-intentioned, but that makes it no less distasteful for the listener. I’m guilty; I’ve done this far too often. Now I understand the trap I hope to avoid it, but habits die hard; in fact, habits are almost impossible to kill—the way to defeat them, I think, is to replace them.
Below the lookout I picked my way down the steepest part of the track, into the gathering dark. I tried as always to walk as quietly as possible, an effort made easier by the damp ground and harder by the silence. The breeze higher up had died away and nothing disturbed that silence other than the occasional fall of something small—a twig or berry, a leaf, or a flake of bark—and the shuffle of a large bird roosting, probably a kereru; intermittent rifle shots from somewhere down the No. 1 Line road; and my own quiet tread. When sight begins to fail the first sense to take over is hearing, and the snap of a small twig made me pause and listen harder. Nothing more, though. Possibly the first possum; perhaps even a deer; probably just the land adjusting to the approach of night.

I walked on, enjoying the thought that, in my camo bush shirt and dull green longs, I might be almost invisible. To come to know something well—some person, some place, some event—you have to interact with it, but to interact with something is to change it, and sometimes the change affects the characteristics you most love. Sometimes those changes might be for the better; too often they’re not; most often we don’t know whether they’re good or bad, and the very concept of good and bad might be irrelevant or meaningless. If my presence here, moving through the dark under the trees along a rough track, changes this place, I want those changes to be for the better, but I have no way of knowing. The best I can do, then, is to have as little effect on the place as I can, and that means moving quietly, disturbing nothing, leaving no trace, and resisting the urge to take anything. Sometimes, even photographs seem too intrusive.

But when the land seems to offer something, I’m not strong enough to resist, nor, I think, should I resist. When a miromiro flies to a perch a few metres away and eats its caterpillar there, brazenly, right in front of you when your camera’s sitting next to you with the right lens on, what should you do?

Here’s my answer.

1. The introductory quotation by Nicolas Rothwell is from page 172 of The Red Highway, Collingwood, Australia: Blank Inc., (2010). ISBN 9781863954938. The one by Rebecca Solnit is from her essay ‘The art of arrival: On movement, stillness, and the arc of a life’, in Orion 33(3): 58—63.

1. Kapiti Island from the top of the No. 1 Line track. June 2014.
2. Jacob’s Ladder (‘God beam’) over the Pohangina Valley. April 2014.
3. Popokatea (Whitehead) on the No. 1 Line track. May 2014
4. Miromiro at the top lookout on the No. 1 Line track. June 2014.

Photos and original text © 2014 Pete McGregor


Zhoen said...

Listening to the place, letting it lead.

Bird wanted you to remember, see, share. You were invited in. Tell the tale.

Ruahine said...

Kia ora Pete,
I read your quotes at the start and knew this was going to a thought inducing post for me...particularly as I start to mentally and physically begin to prepare for an end of July trip into Maropea Forks. Perhaps my mid 20's something visit to that Ruahine spot. I don't get too much chance, outside of John and yourself, to really get into any sort of story telling about such places, and of course the few peeps whom may read the blog. Tara's eye quickly glaze over when I drift back there :), so I like to believe that it is my real adoration and aroha for the place, for the Ruahine, that pulls me back again and again. In any case e hoa, beautiful thoughts and summation of feeling you have invoked within. Travel well my friend.

pohanginapete said...

Zhoen, I think you're right — 'Listening to the place' is crucial.

Kia ora Robb. One of the things I love about sharing a hut with you and John is the yarning. Listening to stories from the Ruahine; hearing about places I know and others I don't; sharing what makes the place so special. I'm greatly looking forward to more of that when I return at the end of the year.

Barbara Butler McCoy said...

Whether it's NZ or Appalachia or Ireland, I think these moments are such rare treasures. Seamus Heaney's "St. Kevin and the Blackbird" comes to mind, from "The Spirit Level": ... "Neat head and claws and, finding himself linked/Into the network of eternal life ...... For he has forgotten self, forgotten bird/And on the riverbank forgotten the river's name."

pohanginapete said...

Thank you, Barbara. I didn't know of Heaney's poem, but must now seek it out. Very apt. :^)