The day after the deluge, I saw the aftermath — how the rough paddock beside the railway line had turned into a small marsh, the wrinklezinc water shining in the quiet morning light, the low rushes reminding me of the places I found so fascinating and wonderful as a child and still do. The small marshy paddock reminded me of places I’ve never seen but want to — places where wizened Chinese sages live solitary lives in small huts and spend their days listening to the thin cries of strange birds, fishing for eels and catfish that taste mostly of mud, watching the trickle of smoke from the small fire rise into the low grey sky, drinking tea from small cracked cups with a tea patina accumulated over years, at night watching the moon and eating their meagre meals of rice and vegetables and mud-fish, and just sitting there motionless so anyone seeing them would think they were meditating and therefore must be wise and gnomic. But really, they just sit there.
I want to see those places and I don’t even know if they still exist. Most have probably been drained and turned into productive land. ‘Productive’ — I hate that word. To me, it connotes the taking of something beautiful and wondrous and mysterious and removing those very qualities so it becomes merely useful. It’s like seeing a gorgeous pheasant dustbathing in sunlight in a little clearing in a small stand of scrub in a forgotten corner of a farm and seeing only a meal’s worth of pheasant meat. Productivity would argue for clearing the scrub to grow ryegrass and white clover and get one more stock unit’s worth of grazing, which of course would produce more meat than a stringy old pheasant. This, apparently, would be making good use of the land.
To me, ‘productivity’ connotes the valuing of quantity over quality, and in that contest between quantity and quality, quantity will always win because by its very nature it’s easy to measure; quality, on the other hand, is far harder — and often impossible — to measure.
So, I wonder whether, or to what extent, those exquisite unknown lonely places still survive. Probably they don't, but I’d like to go there anyway. Maybe these words, or someone else’s better words, are the only way to do that now.
I drove on past the idea of marshes and thought about why travelling, meaning the movement, the actual going from place to place, seems so appealing. I love sitting in a bus, going somewhere, and I’d be happy sitting in a bus going nowhere as long as the bus was in motion, going somewhere. While I’m on that bus I can’t attend to important matters — productive tasks, that is. I can’t work in any reasonable sense; I can’t read (at least not for more than a few seconds); I can’t do anything productive in the usual sense of that loathesome word. For a few hours I’m free from the demands of the world.
Maybe that’s why I sometimes prefer buses over trains — on a train, I can almost write, so I think maybe I should be writing. On the kind of trains where you sit stealing glances at the person sitting facing you (who you sense is also stealing glances at you) on the other side of a small, cold table, writing would be perfectly possible if I decided to open a laptop or tablet, but buses don’t offer that option. Handwriting's even harder — far harder. The best I can do is jot a quick, short note or two when the train stops, or scrawl, often illegibly, when it's moving. The little Moleskine cahiers I carry everywhere carry a record of my travels not just in what I've written but in how it's written — when I browse back through them and come across what appears to be written in Arabic (which I neither write nor understand), I know I was on a train or bus. I've seen people jot notes by hand in a moving bus but I haven’t developed that skill and have no idea how they manage it.
Having said that, I’ll now point out I have written in aeroplanes. While they still seem like time out for me and I'd furiously resent having to work on a plane, they’re usually so smooth it’s easy to write by hand with the cahier (big or small) on the fold-out tray table. Even that has shortcomings, though, because the person in the adjacent seat (on both sides if I’m unlucky) will inevitably want to sneak a look at what I’m writing, and even if I’d otherwise be happy to share the writing, the knowledge that someone might be surreptitiously reading constrains my writing; in fact, sometimes all I can find to write about is the awkwardness of writing about someone sneaking a look at what I’m writing, which of course makes it impossible to write.
Nevertheless, I can sometimes write while travelling — for example, last year I several times managed to write extensively in the big cahier while flying. I think of that — of writing in an aeroplane while returning from Leh to Delhi (or was it from Srinagar?) — and the ache for India returns, and that raises the paradox I don’t understand: I long for teeming India yet also long for places like those existentially lonely, hermit-haunted marshes, which I find impossible to imagine still exist in India — if anything remotely like those marshes does exist, the fish will not only taste of mud but will probably be dense with heavy metals, litter will line the waterways, goats will gnaw the rushes, and someone not more than a hundred or so metres away will snap small branches of scrub for firewood.
I don't want to think about that, though. I might be wrong and hope I am. Even if I never see the hermit marshes, I want to know they still exist; I want to know that in some almost-forgotten corner of an out-of-the-way part of that old, overwrought land, some small silent sage still sips his tea as he listens to the wind in the reeds and the thin cries of unseen birds.
1. Not 'productive' land — and may it stay this way forever. Leatherwood (tupare) on the Ngamoko Range, Ruahine Forest Park.
2. Not reeds or rushes: snow tussocks along the old, recently re-marked section of the No. 1 Line track in the southern Ruahine Range.
3. Not a marsh (although almost boggy enough in places). This is the interior of the leatherwood jungle that covers the tops of the southern Ruahine Range. Who knows what it keeps secret?
4. Not a sage. Some scribbler in a small clearing in the leatherwood on a cold day under a heavy sky; the Lapsang Souchong tea almost ready.