21 June 2016

Waiting for winter

Four days out from the winter solstice, the trees still hadn't finished dropping their leaves. Some were still far from it, smothered in yellow and russet, some even with a few green-tinged leaves, as if they knew mid-winter hadn't officially arrived so were hanging onto their leaves because, hey, it's still autumn. Officially they were wrong, of course — winter had begun two-and-a-half weeks ago — and they should have fallen into line with the other, season-compliant trees that had scattered most of their leaves on the damp ground like golden dandruff, but who doesn't like a rebel?

I'd wandered along the edge of the terrace, stopping to look out over the valley. The scene looked bleak and grim: the river mud-grey and deep enough to slide unbroken over the now-drowned rapids; the paddocks the dull blue-tinged green of a fading bruise; the bush dark. Even the poplars still clinging to their leaves offered little relief, needing sunlight to glow golden, and the heavy cloud had no intention of letting that happen. Nothing could even cast a shadow, and I almost wished to see the paper wasps, for no other reason than to be cheered by their bright yellow-and-black and the energy and grace of their slender bodies as they trailed their slender legs through the heavy air.

But the cold and damp had proved too much for them. If they'd even survived the recent heavy rain that had in all likelihood turned their paper nests into papier-mâché, they certainly weren't keen on working in this weather.
For three days the laundry had hung on the line beneath the verandah roof, slowly getting damper. I reasoned that if the socks and towels and the fleece and merino had been sucking moisture from the air, the air must be getting dryer, but that reasoning seemed neither logical nor comforting. Meanwhile, the laundry had also been absorbing the smoke drifting from next door's chimney, so my damp clothing now not only smelled damp but also smelled like creosote.

I carried on, skirting the fallen sycamore. Uprooted and cast onto its side by a storm a few years ago, it had somehow survived, a reminder that even when life skittles you, uproots you and bowls you over, not only is survival possible but you can become more interesting precisely because you survived. A standing sycamore can be a beautiful tree (notwithstanding that here in Aotearoa sycamores are often considered weeds), but a fallen sycamore that flushes with new leaves each spring and continues to flower and set its helicopter seeds is an inspiration — and it's beautiful, too, in its own damaged way.

I'd expected the chainsaw to come out and dismember the tree soon after the storm toppled it, but only one broken limb had been amputated and sawn into firewood-length logs, and even they, still littering the ground and rotting quietly among the grazed grasses and mouldering leaves, added a little character.

Damp from the recent rain muffled the soft rustle carpet of alder and sycamore leaves underfoot. A rabbit materialised a short distance away on the far side of the old road cutting, and while it watched me, I managed two photographs. A rabbit; the scattered yellow and brown leaves; the old fence with its rust-tarnished barbed wire and weathered battens; the indistinct blur of the paddock in front of my house: every element of that photograph had been introduced to New Zealand within the last couple of hundred years. Nothing obvious was native, yet I still loved the feeling it evoked.

Now, looking at it again, I wonder what would ruin it. The answer's clearer than I'd have guessed: a new, tight, fully functional fence in the background; a tidy, leafless, ryegrass-and-white-clover pasture; a white plastic electric fence standard. Anything modern and efficient. Anything giving the impression of neatness, of tidiness and efficiency, of human domination (and you can count out that old fence, whose days of dominating anything had long passed).

I wandered on, wondering why I dislike well-maintained, efficient farms without rabbits. I knew those places — places like the farm across the valley with its tree-less, lawn-like, weed-free, highly productive paddocks enclosed by professionally-strained netting deer fences — and they seemed so sterile they horrified me, but that was just another way of saying the same thing.

Maybe what I needed was the possibility of being surprised. I walked on, hoping a pheasant rooster might suddenly burst into the air from a patch of long grass in an explosion of wings and colour. It didn't, but it might have, and that, for the moment, was comfort enough.

1. The cloud broke in the afternoon and the sun dried the laundry. No rewash necessary.

1. Morning, late autumn, in the valley.
2. Asian paper wasp on another old fence at the edge of the terrace.
3. Rabbits along the old fence earlier in the year.

Photos and original text © 2016 Pete McGregor

11 June 2016

The pigeon post

The pigeons had been let out with trepidation. One was a homer, and we wondered whether, even after months of incarceration, it would embark on its own odyssey, taking the other one with it back to the place it had come from, the place that had been its home: the place, in other words, where the owner had threatened to shoot them if they returned.

I didn't know the full story. As usual, all I'd heard had been hints and snippets, enough to know the danger but little more. But I needn't have worried, because both pigeons decided the implement shed was a better bet than either their old shack, where they'd been cooped up with the barnevelder and the golden-laced wyandotte and the mad Silkie, or their even older and now potentially lethal former home. The implement shed had a lot going for it from a pigeon's perspective: freedom; ease of escape; proximity to the three pigeons still immured in a less-than-lofty cage of chicken wire, two-by-one laths, and plywood; and—maybe most important—my car to crap on.

I could put up with that, though. By the time their crap had corroded the paintwork — the paintwork, that is, that the sun hadn't yet blistered or faded, or that hadn't been abraded by the licking of heifers — the car would probably be nearing the end of its days. Maybe I'd even take to washing the pigeon poo off each day, which would mean some parts of the car would actually get washed. The last time that had happened had been so long ago I couldn't remember it.

Besides, if it came to a contest between pigeons and car cosmetics, the birds would always win. I've loved pigeons ever since my parents refused to allow me to keep them. I'd have been about eight, give or take a year, and the ostensible reason for the refusal was because of the diseases they were supposed to carry ('psittacosis' might have been the first really big word I ever learned). A more plausible explanation was that keeping them would have required buying pigeon food, with neither meat nor eggs as compensation.

It's not that my parents didn't like animals — they did, and I grew up with chooks, cattle, goats, geese, and plenty of wildlife — but that money wasn't abundant. The favoured animals were those that offered some kind of practical, as well as aesthetic or recreational, payback for the cost of being fed.

But some of my school friends kept pigeons. They claimed they'd climbed the crumbling volcanic cliffs where the big flocks of feral pigeons roosted and had stolen squabs. The idea seems utterly implausible now, even if they'd done it without their parents' permission, but the fact remains: they had pigeons, and they sometimes brought one to school to show off, and the bright eye and iridescence and sheer birdness of a pigeon held in the hand captivated me.

Many decades later the Christchurch earthquakes brought down and reshaped most of the pigeon cliffs, and I heard that for a long time the pigeons had gone. I don't blame them.

What never disappeared, though, was my fondness for pigeons. If anything, that fondness has grown, but the funny thing is that I've never owned pigeons of my own, in any sense of that objectionable word, 'owned'. The closest I've come has been looking after these five — the two now liberated and the three still caged — for three weeks while their nominal owners were overseas.

I think my pigeon-fondness increased markedly during my overseas travels. I've seen them, in one form or another, in most places I've travelled. I've seen them everywhere I've been in India, from the great and small cities of Gujarat and Rajasthan to the high, sere Himalaya; in the Karni Mata rat temple at Deshnoke; flying in scattered flocks around the great dome of the Jama Masjid in Old Delhi, where the height obliterated the sense of scale and they could have been angels, or maybe souls, trying to find the way to heaven. I've seen them at dusk as the bus drove into Jaipur and they gazed at us from their twilight roosts on either side of the small canyon. That memory is indistinct yet vivid: the kind of memory I no longer trust because it feels too much like imagination or a congeries of dreams and other memories and expectations, the only thing in common to all those workings of the mind being the slightly surprised yet somehow self-contained stare of countless pigeons.

I've seen them inhabiting the quake-fractured stone towers and cracked walls of buildings in Bhuj, in Gujarat, the buildings still standing as if waiting for the next quake when they can complete their transformation into ruins. Meanwhile the pigeons flutter and shuffle and rearrange themselves onto small ledges and stare down at people who no longer notice them. No one notices pigeons until they're a nuisance or, maybe, until they're no longer there. Then they say, 'Where have all the pigeons gone?' and their voices fill with uneasiness.

I've seen them in the Rumbak Valley in Ladakh's Hemis National Park. I watched a flock take flight with a roar of wings, and as I saw the flash of white on their tails a thrill ran through me because I realised these were hill pigeons, close cousins of the feral pigeons we no longer notice in our cities. That flock would surely at some time have been watched by a snow leopard, and it's not utterly beyond the bounds of possibility that I too, during my short time there, might have been watched by a snow leopard. Many things connect me to the snow leopard — bharal; the local people I met at Rumbak, some of whom have seen shan; Matthiessen's book, which I've read many times including during both visits to Nepal; and so on — and now, pigeons.

I've seen pigeons in Almaty, in Kazakhstan, too. There, they were the only common birds and even they weren't as abundant as I'd expected. They were darker than usual, with a greasy sheen as if they'd flown through a fine spray of sump oil, and they looked a little wrong. Almaty had its charms, but it felt too much under human control and even the pigeons had a hard time treating us as if we didn't matter.

And that's one of the things I love about pigeons: they way they use us and offer nothing in return except the opportunity for us to appreciate their independence. They use our buildings and monuments and bridges — those things we think of as major accomplishments of architecture and art and engineering: as symbols of our greatness and superiority, in other words — and they pay us neither rent nor homage. They put us in our place by pooing on our greatness and —here's the wonderful thing — they don't even bother doing it with contempt or malice. We're beneath them, literally and figuratively, except when we feed them either deliberately or inadvertently, and in either case, guess who's the superior being?

But, most of all, I find comfort in knowing pigeons are there. You can rely on pigeons: they're there in most places in one form or another to remind you that no matter how difficult the circumstances, survival is possible. Pigeons thrive in places where the horror of the human condition could easily overwhelm you. If you want inspiration, if you want to know success is achievable no matter what — just look for the pigeons.

1. Yes, I know some people eat pigeons, and others are obsessed with fancy breeds or racing pigeons, but I've chosen to ignore those inconvenient truths. It's even OK for you not to share my pigeon-enthusiasms.
2. Shan is the name of the snow leopard in Ladakh.

These are the two pigeons now free to make the implement shed their home (and my car their toilet).

Photos and original text © 2016 Pete McGregor