04 August 2015

Ghost thoughts

I leave home as the colour begins to leach from the dawn, and drive towards town under a sky smudged with indistinct cloud, promising a good day. Near the Raumai bridge two cyclists pedal past, going the other way, up the valley, blindingly bright lights mounted on their helmets. On the journey to the market I’ll see more keen pedallers — three along the straight near Ashhurst; a bunch in Ashhurst itself; a lone cyclist on the Napier Road, perhaps trying to catch the three MAMILs a little way ahead who draft in an angled line like half a flock of flying geese.

MAMIL-mocking’s a popular sport now, but I admire the commitment of anyone prepared to get on a bike before dawn (if they started from Palmerston North, the two near Raumai might already have been on the road for an hour) in the midwinter cold on a Saturday morning to cycle up the valley, through Apiti and Colyton and back to town — probably over a hundred kilometres. It’s not flat, either: much of that ride’s aggressively hilly, and the downhill glides never adequately compensate for the uphill grinds.

Once, I too used to bike. I still do, but much less. Mostly just half an hour to an hour on the battered old mountain bike, up the metalled sided roads leading nowhere, ending at the edge of the Ruahine Forest Park. A sometimes knuckle-clenching freewheel back down, the bike twitching on loose-surfaced bends, then the final short ride back along the sealed road. After the effort and adrenaline of the gravel, the tarseal seems easy and dull, but by then I have the satisfaction of knowing I have another decent exercise session under my belt.

But those rides tend to be irregular, and less common in winter. Now my preferred exercise is a walk up the No. 1 Line track, with the bike rides interspersed so I’m not binge-exercising.

On the edge of the tarseal near Ashhurst a kahu stands with its talons sunk into a road-killed possum. Two magpies stalk the road nearby, no doubt looking to deal some bovver to the hawk, but they fly off as the car approaches. The hawk leaves too, lifting into the air on strong wings and immediately arcing around, away from the road, away from the car, away from the danger (although I’ve slowed already — the thought of hitting one of these wonderful birds (or any bird, for that matter) appals me). Further back another kahu had crossed the road, low in the sky, ahead of the car, flying deliberately, strongly, over one of the dairy paddocks. I seldom see them flying like that, with regular, consistent wingbeats; mostly they cruise and float, sliding on the air, just occasionally adding a lazy downward stroke of those wide wings.

When I see how it seems so intent on going somewhere I’m reminded of a thought I’ve often had before, a thought I’m sure countless others have also had: what’s it like to be a bird? What do birds think? What do they feel? Do they simply respond, or do they possess what we might consider awareness — the realisation of their own existence?

Another thought crosses my mind — will I forget this thought; will I forget not only the bird, crossing, going who knows where, but also the thought, the wondering about what it means to be a bird? When I bike up those rough roads, when I walk the No. 1 Line track, and when I drive to town, I often find my mind alive with thoughts, with things I notice that seem worth noting, with interesting ideas (ideas, that is, that seem interesting at the time but often prove less interesting later — if I do manage to remember them), and with occasional flashes of insight.

Unfortunately, remembering that congeries of thoughts proves almost impossible. Even remembering one thing can be difficult. How often have I dismounted from the bike, or unpacked the little black moleskine at the No. 1 Line seat, or parked the car and thought, what was that thing I’d thought about? Like dreams, I know I had them but cannot remember them.

I’ve tried using a voice recorder but couldn’t use it. An observer effect, I suppose: the act of recording affects the thing — the thought — being recorded. Besides, I've never perfected the art of talking to myself.

Jotting down the thought doesn’t work either, for obvious reasons. Like talking to myself, scribbling notes while biking or driving, or even walking, remains one of my non-accomplishments, which for biking and driving must surely be a good thing. Stopping to jot drives me nuts, too — on the few occasions I’ve tried, the continual stopping frustrated me more than the forgetting of thoughts. More importantly, it interfered with the apparently spontaneous upwelling of those thoughts.

So I do my best to remember, knowing most of the thoughts will dissolve, hoping I’ll recall at least the one most important thought, thinking that, like ghosts which reveal themselves only in the absence of anyone able to verify their existence, worthwhile thoughts seem most likely to appear only in the absence of any means of remembering them.

1. MAMIL, if you don't already know, is an acronym for Middle-Aged Men In Lycra. Or, is it 'Man'? Is MAMIL both singular and plural? I dunno. You decide.

1. Lucerne near the top of the No. 1 Line Road. Sometimes during the summer I'll bike up here.
2. Tui in tagasaste, Pohangina Valley. I would LOVE to know what tui think.
3. Kahu and bull, Pohangina Valley.

Photos and original text © 2015 Pete McGregor