26 July 2016

Aliens drink in the old New Railway Hotel

We met at the café as arranged, but she’d no sooner arrived than she wanted to go to a pub.

‘The one over there,’ she said, waving towards half of Palmerston North. I tried to think of pubs in that general direction, but because I don’t frequent pubs and seldom drive in that area of the city, I couldn’t think which one she meant. We started walking, and she led me further away from the centre of the city.

‘The old one over there,’ she said, pointing to the New Railway Hotel which was, as she’d indicated, old, not new. I asked whether she knew what it was like, but my question was more a statement — a warning, in fact — than a question. She laughed a little, but was that a note of apprehension in her voice?

We stepped inside and an old man studying the dregs of his beer looked up. He looked shocked. So too did the half dozen haggard guys leaning on one of the bench tables on the far side of the bar. Every pair of eyes in the place looked at us. Even the guys slumped over with their backs to us sat up and turned around and stared, no doubt alerted to this extraordinary sight by the stunned expressions on their mates’ faces.

Perhaps the shock arose from seeing someone new, but I suspect it had little to do with me and everything to do with the sudden appearance of an attractive woman. In the entire time we spent there, the clientele remained resolutely male, and I wouldn’t be surprised if a week passed without that bar being graced by the presence of a woman. Maybe the atmosphere would change on a Saturday night, but I couldn’t guess, because this was late on a Thursday afternoon.

The eyes followed us. I didn’t need to see them to know. Her presence must surely have encouraged the barflies to make a special effort to return on subsequent Thursday afternoons — not that encouragement to frequent the old New Railway Hotel looked necessary — hoping she might return one day, preferably alone. Hope, though, had seemed, if not in desperately short supply, at least not evident, but now just enough of it had been kindled to be dashed. Even while we were there, it began to fade, and our own conversation turned out to be more animated, and possibly louder, than the subdued murmuring from the sombre men. We were enjoying ourselves, but whether they were wasn’t certain. It’s possible, of course, that their conversation livened up after we left and they were free to speculate.

The old man disappeared while we ordered drinks. His expression suggested he couldn’t cope with the apparition that had just walked through the door, but maybe he’d just been unsettled by the disruption of the usual pattern of his Thursday afternoons, or maybe he’d finished his beer and was about to leave, although that last hypothesis seemed the least likely.

Adrian, the barman, was big and bearded and young and my friend’s request for a gin and soda stumped him. He stood there, not sure how to respond, until she rescued him by suggesting perhaps a gin and tonic would be easier if they didn’t have any soda, but even that almost defeated him until he remembered they had little bottles of premixed gin and tonic. He disappeared and returned with a tiny bottle of Gordon’s. He popped the top off and placed it on the bar, where it began rapidly beading with condensation. A glass wasn’t forthcoming, but she was happy to swig it from the bottle, and I liked her more for that.

Adrian asked what I wanted. I had a choice of four identical beers with different names, so I chose an Export Gold. He stood waiting. I wondered what I’d forgotten to say, but this time it was his turn to rescue me.

‘Handle?’ he said.

‘Yeah. Thanks,’ I said, and he drew a handle.

The bar did have EFTPOS: we hadn’t, as I’d begun to wonder, stepped through a wormhole and tumbled into the mid twentieth century. While she paid, we chatted with Adrian, who had recovered from his cognitive dissonance and told us how the even older, historic building across the road was scheduled for imminent demolition. It had been gutted by fire, and while the insurance would cover some of the losses, the building couldn’t be insured unless it was fire-proofed, and (here’s the catch) the insurance company wouldn’t pay for fire-proofing because it hadn’t been in place when the fire had ripped through — if it had, the fire wouldn’t have gutted the building. Something didn’t feel right about that, but I had better things to do than whinge about insurance companies, which in any case was too easy.

We took our drinks to the table vacated by the old guy. All the seating comprised bar stools at bench tables designed to accommodate large numbers of people standing, with the tabletops being about the right height on which to lean hairy tattooed forearms while their owners assessed how much beer remained in their handles. Suspended out of reach, a TV screened Indian Premier League cricket while another showed greyhound racing, but no one was watching.

A sign near the bar said ‘He rules the roost but I rule the rooster’. No one seemed to be ruling anything, though.

A guy in casual clothes and a daypack arrived. Despite the midwinter cold, he wore jandals, and this impressed my friend. As he ambled past she remarked on his footwear but he took it in his stride. He was an electrician, he said, so he wore work boots all day.

‘Bit of a relief to get out of them?’ I said, and he nodded. He’d just come up from Christchurch, which was even colder and damper than Palmerston North, making his choice of footwear even more impressive.

‘Tough guy,’ she said, making it sound like a compliment, and he pretended not to hear. He, at least, had a chance of fitting in, but we were and always would be aliens in the bar of the old New Railway Hotel, and even if we’d struck up a conversation with the sombre barflies on the far side of the room, we’d have remained misfits, aberrations, the Other who didn’t and couldn’t belong. Even with the best of intentions and a genuine effort to fit in and to understand attitudes that might have differed wildly from our own, we couldn’t fit in because we had no shared experience — well, I had no shared experience of any significance even if I’d been able to guess what that might have been. I didn’t know her well enough to speak for her, although her previous occupations might have given her some contact with people who had that kind of experience: the kind, in other words, that resulted in long periods in bars like the Railway Hotel on afternoons when luckier people were working and earning an adequate wage.

I’d been thinking along those lines when I realised, to my shame, that I’d been speculating wildly, making enormous assumptions about the circumstances that had left those men (who might actually have been members of a local philosophy group) melancholy and muttering quietly among themselves, but I had no basis for what I imagined other than what I’d imagined. I’d assumed their conversation most probably focused on sport or cars — undoubtedly Holdens vs Fords — and possibly a little about politics; and I’d imagined opinions were in short supply compared to statements of obvious fact; and questions, … well, what were those? Questions are admissions of weakness among blokes, for whom questions are redundant because they already know the answers.

But, as I've said, I was speculating (itself an admission I don’t qualify as a real bloke, because in real-bloke conversations the indicators of speculation — ‘maybe’, and ‘perhaps’, and suchlike — don’t occur; they’ve been replaced by indicators of certainty, like ‘the fact is...’, or ‘the real reason why...’), and I might have been way off the mark. For all I knew, the quiet men might have been having a deep, civilised colloquy about the merits of a deontological approach to resolving homelessness, or about semiotics and the novels of Jane Austen.

In the end, I decided I was probably wrong about everything. The one thing I might have been right about, I decided, was that even if we’d wanted to fit into the inner circle gathered around that rectangular table, we couldn’t.

1. The barman's name has been changed.

Photos and original text © 2016 Pete McGregor

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

12 May 2016

Deer on the hill

The deer had returned to the face of the hill and as the sun crept up behind the southern Ruahine I watched them from my back door. The stag was nowhere to be seen, even though I’d seen him just yesterday with the five now feeding there. Had he become bored with these few, or become exhausted and fed up with trying to keep them under control? Maybe he recognised that if the hinds weren’t now carrying his genes into the future they never would; maybe he understood in some subliminal, animal way that if he wanted the best chance to perpetuate his genes, he’d do better looking for other hinds.

Another possibility, but one I hoped hadn’t happened, was that he’d been shot. But that seemed unlikely, because even if the landowner had given permission for someone to hunt the area where I assumed the stag and hinds were living, who would shoot a rank, rutting stag with skinny little antlers when a yearling or one of the hinds would provide much better meat?

I watched the five deer grazing in the dawn light. The face of the hill was still in shadow, but sunlight had already arrowed through a saddle on the hills to light up the silver birch and bead tree by the little woolshed. The gold and brown and dull green birch leaves trembled in a cold, gusting breeze and the bronze bead tree leaves shimmered in the wind and sun. I stepped back slightly into the shade of the doorway and put the binoculars back to my eyes. The deer had come further down the hill, closer, almost to the fence at the foot of the slope. I could have watched them all day, but I had tea to drink, breakfast to eat, and work to do.

I wished them luck and turned back to the day’s tasks.

Since writing this, I've seen the stag back with the others on the hill on many occasions.

At one stage a month or two ago, the mob had increased to eight. This was one of the few times I've seen them in the sun; usually they wait until the face is in shadow.

Photos and original text © 2015 Pete McGregor

20 March 2016

A pig tale

Having not read anything new from Helen Macdonald recently, I searched Google for her name and 'NY Times', because I know she writes regularly there, and I restricted the search to the last month. Sure enough, up came the first of several pages of results, and among them was a new article. I suppressed the despondency I felt when I realised she was publishing more frequently in the NY Times, with its enormous readership, than I was on my blog, with its  list  of readers barely longer than the Planck-length, and I clicked the link. The article appeared, headed by a striking photograph of a pig.

The article meditated on the reintroduction of wild boar to Britain, but the pig in the photograph didn't look like a true wild boar. To be fair, though, it didn't claim to be a photograph of a wild boar. In fact, it didn't claim to be anything: the caption simply said 'Andrew Zuckerman'. I assumed this meant the photograph was by Andrew Zuckerman, not of Andrew Zuckerman, although I suppose that might be possible if the photographer didn't like Andrew Zuckerman. But the intention seemed clear to me, and clarity in writing can be taken to extremes: clear enough is good enough.

The photograph itself was certainly clear enough—so clear it couldn't be mistaken for anything but a pig; so detailed it looked as if some old Chinese hermit had devoted forty years of his life to painting it molecule by molecule. The detail was so sharp I felt uncomfortable using my finger to scroll the article, as if the razor-sharp detail might slice my finger open. It was the perfect photograph of a pig—so perfect it looked like a hyperrealist painting. I liked the irony: a photograph that looked like a painting trying to look like a photograph.

That was all I liked about it, though. The photograph disconcerted me.

I read Helen Macdonald's article, which I thought competent and interesting but which had only occasional glimpses of the brilliance she's demonstrated elsewhere, notably in the book that made her famous: 'H is for hawk'. But I kept thinking about that pig photograph and wondering why I felt so uneasy about it.

Technically, it's perfect. Perfectly lit, perfectly presented. Someone must have spent a long time grooming that pig: washing it, brushing its bristles, possibly even polishing its hoofs and wiping its snout. If its tusks had been visible, someone would have spent an hour scrubbing them with tuskpaste. The lighting looked like professional studio lighting, and I later discovered it was.RedStagKinvigMarch2016[400px]

Despite its hyperrealism, though, the photograph didn't look real, and I finally realised the reason: the pig had no context. Not even a shadow. The pure white background provided no clue to what pigs are like, no hint of the essence of pig-ness. Where was the wildness, the character — and where was the muck?

More was missing than just context, too. Where was the story? I'm not one of those who insist every photograph must tell a story, but if a photograph doesn't tell a story it should do something else, like point to something: a point made persuasively by photographer David duChemin. The Zuckerman pig told me no story, nor did it point to anything other than a pig manicured to dismal perfection.

That's how the photograph struck me, but I'm probably part of the minority, as indicated by the success of his book Creature, a collection of photographs in this animals-as-exhibits style. But, when it comes to matters of taste, I'm indifferent about belonging to any particular group (unless, maybe, it comprises those with good taste, or, to put it another way, those who agree with me).


What the photograph had done, though, was get me thinking about pigs. I like pigs; I find them full of personality and character, and Zuckerman's photograph seemed like an injustice; like an overprocessed, excessively retouched photograph of a person with its implied judgement that the real person isn't good enough.

Ironically, I've seen a true wild pig in the wild only once. Strictly, it was a feral pig, but its most recent domesticated ancestor could probably be traced back a hundred years, possibly more, and if you had the bad luck to bump into it unexpectedly you'd think 'wild' perfectly fitting, maybe more so than 'feral'. We watched it from a far mountainside as it made its way downhill, through patches of scrub, in the shimmering heat, towards the stream. Being large and black in the mid-summer heat of North Canterbury must make life uncomfortable, but this pig clearly knew what to do. The sight thrilled me.

I've seen several captive wild pigs, though, and for several months during the summer of 2012 I even lived with one: a small, black, bristly wild pig who arrived after being caught in the Tararua Range. He was one of a large litter; his brothers and sisters stayed at their captor's property but he was one too many, so he travelled north to be re-homed in the small woolshed paddock not far from my back door. He settled in well and adapted to his new home, and I quickly grew to enjoy his personality.

Sometimes he'd run at high speed around the edge of the paddock — and high speed for a pig is far, far faster than most people imagine. If you're ever chased by a wild pig, running's a bad idea. Climb something if you can (despite their intelligence and accomplished physical abilities, pigs not only can't fly, they haven't learned to climb trees, either).

Having run a lap or two around the paddock, he'd stop, panting happily; then, after a second or two, he'd sprint around the paddock again in the opposite direction. His acceleration from a standing start was astonishing. That's something else to remember if you encounter a wild pig. Helen Macdonald was lucky the one she met was on the opposite side of a fence.

My little wild pig also lived on the opposite side of a fence, but eventually we both learned neither was a danger to the other. He'd listen for the sound of my back door opening, and, when he heard it, he'd sprint to the fence and stand there waiting. I'd walk over and scratch his back and the base of his hairy ears, and he'd stand transfixed, sometimes drooling slightly. He loved those back-scratches.

Sometimes he'd grunt a little as he ran to the fence, as if signalling to me that he was there and available to be back-scratched, but during the scratching he mostly remained silent. He seemed to understand that the great pleasures of life are transitory, and, being not only intelligent but wiser than most humans, he accepted this and never objected when I'd finally apologise and walk away. He'd just stand there for a while, meditating on non-attachment, the negation of desire, and impermanence, and then he'd wander off to snuffle around in the shade of the big silver birch.

I learned a lot from that little wild pig.

I said 'my' wild pig, but he was never mine in any sense. I don't know whether he thought of me as his, although I suspect he believed he had me well trained, and he was right.

I went away one weekend, and when I returned I saw the drip tray lying in the sun, swarmed by flies. In the tray a pool of blood was turning black, and on the edge of the pool lay a small, black, bristly tail.


I never ate anything of him, and I'm glad, although if anyone had to eat him it should have been someone who appreciated him for more than his flavour. And it had to happen, of course: he would soon have turned into a mature wild boar, difficult and dangerous, and at that stage he'd not have been fit for much other than rank sausages or dog tucker.  Even if he'd been allowed to live indefinitely, he'd have died sooner or later: every living thing does. It's just a matter of when and how. Maybe that was his final lesson for me.

But this sounds like rationalising, and it probably is. What I really want to say is that he was a true wild pig, and that means he was complex, capable (both physically and mentally), and possessed of a delightful personality. He had a story — one in which I figure — and that story and his personality make up the pig he was. The pig Andrew Zuckerman photographed no doubt had a personality, too, and it must have had some kind of story. Of those things, though, the photograph tells us nothing.

1. Zuckerman describes his technique as ... recontextualiz[ing his subjects] in the clarifying white space to distill each animal to its most essential qualities'. By now, you might realise I think he didn't distill those essential qualities: he destroyed them.

1 and 3. This was him.
2. Another wild/ feral inhabitant of New Zealand’s mountain lands: red deer. I photographed this stag late in the evening on a steep slip in the headwaters of the Pohangina river a few weeks ago.

Photos and original text © 2015 Pete McGregor

20 February 2016

The spider and its saints

A cellar spider picked its way cautiously up the wall, testing each foothold. With eight legs, it’s no wonder the testing took a while. Every now and then the skinny little spider stopped and touched the tip of its abdomen to the wall as it anchored its silken lifeline. The movement looked like a ritual, some kind of benediction, as if the spider had paused to pray to the patron saint of wall climbers, or maybe travellers, or just to St Francis who I’m sure loved cellar spiders as much as any other animal, although you don’t hear about that from the stories that focus on the fluffy animals and little birds. Those saint-marketers knew what they were doing. Who would pray to a saint who loved animals that most people fear?

On the other hand, St Francis did apparently have a fondness for human-eating wolves (so the legend goes), and who wouldn't fear those? Remarkably, too, the saint-marketers decided to recognise a patron saint of spiders, so maybe the little spider's arse-bending benediction was directed to St Felix? More implausible events happen all the time.

This spider was a male, which might have explained his wandering. I could tell he was a male by his long, roughly cylindrical abdomen and the shape of the front of his body: I couldn’t see well enough to make out the detail, but I knew that shape at the front would have been his swollen pedipalps, drawn up close to his head.

I watched the spider’s shadow as the little animal made its slow way up and across the wall. He was thin and long and stringy, but the shadow looked even thinner and longer and stringier — and distorted, too. It looked like the sort of shadow that appears in horror films, except the film version’s invariably enormous and accompanied by screaming.

I like these spiders, not just because we share similar physiques, and they're one of the few I don't instinctively recoil from (jumping spiders are the other exception). Even though I appreciate all spiders, even though I find them fascinating, and even though I know a reasonable amount about them and will seek them out because I consider them ..., well ..., awesome, I still get a mild fright if I encounter one close and unexpectedly. I have no fear of handling cellar spiders or jumping spiders (although I prefer not to disturb them), but to handle any other kind of spider is probably more than I could manage.

I think this fear is (mostly) learned[1], though, and it's learned when you're very young. That's why, when three small friends visited a few days ago and wanted to know what the spider was that was lying under the hammock next door, I went over and picked it up and put it on the palm of my hand and showed it to them without showing any trace of fear or squeamishness.

It helped that I knew the spider had been paralysed and abandoned by a mason wasp, and I explained this to my small friends, but they seemed unimpressed by the thought that the spider had been destined to be eaten alive by a mason wasp grub. Still, I hope they picked up on the way I picked up the spider, and maybe if they'd begun to learn the too-common fear of spiders, seeing what I'd done might have helped them unlearn it a little. I hope so.

[Update: I've replaced the first photograph with one that looks less similar to the second.]

1. For another interesting discussion about whether fear of spiders is innate, inherited, or learned, see: Buddle, C. (2014, May 8). Explainer: why are we afraid of spiders? Retrieved from http://theconversation.com/explainer-why-are-we-afraid-of-spiders-26405

Photos: Another male cellar spider, photographed a few days later. It's possible it could be the same one, but, if so, he'd undertaken an impressive journey through the house, with only limited opportunities to negotiate a closed door. Maybe he had help from his saint.

Photos and original text © 2016 Pete McGregor

12 February 2016

Designer disasters

Ever since the first upright ape sharpened a stick to spear another animal, humans have been designing things. You'd think after all these millennia we'd get it right — and the photographs of this beautiful guitar show that we often do — but after encountering some egregious examples of bad design recently, I've begun to wonder how much we've really learned.

Take the flowing soap I'm currently using, for example. One would reasonably assume this had been through a rigorous process of development that included evaluation by testing panels. Surely, someone at some stage would have squeezed a blob of this soap onto the palm of their hand, looked at the colour — somewhere between beige and bleached yellow — and said, 'Ooh, yuk. This looks like pus.'

Apparently not. The soap's still on sale, so I suppose enough people don't mind washing their hands with pus. More probably, like me, they didn't know it looked like pus until they got it home, because the container's opaque: another example of bad — or possibly wilfully devious — design.

Another example: I bought some laundry pegs and, as usual, chose the cheapest. The first time I used one, I squeezed it between thumb and forefinger to pin a sock to the line and it instantly shot like a melon pip from my fingers and rocketed across the verandah into the paddock. The peg was lined with small ridges, but instead of running across the grip, they ran along it. Instead of increasing friction, they reduced it. That's like designing running shoes with a tread comprising longitudinal grooves — try running on a slippery surface in a shoe with a tread like that.

Surely someone must have tried using one of those pegs?

Perhaps the profit on laundry pegs is so low the manufacturer couldn't justify paying a competent designer and certainly couldn't entertain adequate product testing.

  'Just design me something that opens and closes and can hold a sock on a line,' the manufacturer says.

The designer goes away and returns ten minutes later with a CAD diagram that shows two short lengths of plastic joined with a spring. At least he's thought to put a few semi-circular notches in the jaws to hold socks more securely on the line.

But no one produces a prototype — doing that would cost extra. No one tries pegging socks on a line with the first batch of pegs, because the manufacturer doesn't want to know about any problems. That would require costly retooling in addition to the expense of redesigning (although surely ten minutes of trainee designer time can't be that expensive).

So, the stupidly-designed pegs go into production, and by the time the complaints come in — if they ever do, because who would bother complaining about a few cheap laundry pegs? —the production run has finished and the manufacturer's shifted to some other product. Soles for running shoes, perhaps — no doubt patterned with longitudinal grooves?

How do these incompetent designs arise? Perhaps the designer comes from a culture where people dry laundry in some other way than pinning it on a line — tossing it into a dryer, for example, or spreading it on riverbank rocks in the baking sun, or simply draping it over a balcony railing? Perhaps he grew up in a household where pinning wet socks on a line was exclusively work for women, so he'd never in his life had a peg shoot twenty feet from his fingers?

Other reasons abound, but one that seems important is simply that much good design must be learned. It's not innate; it relies heavily on the experience of predecessors, and even if careful thinking can compensate for knowledge that hasn't yet been learned, thinking has two major shortcomings: sometimes you overlook crucially important things, and sometimes you just get it wrong. (Both are possible, even likely, in this blog post.)

That's why relying on a single designer seems risky. That's one reason why a group of ordinary mortals can sometimes provide a better answer than a genius. The genius might come up with a dozen great ideas; the crowd of fifty might only come up with thirteen, but that additional idea might be the one that makes the difference — the one that realises this soap looks like pus, or that positioning the ridges longitudinally on a laundry peg will sooner or later see you sued because someone's retina was detached by one of those speeding pegs.

1, 2. Although this post focuses on bad design, it's easy to find innumerable examples of wonderful design. This gorgeous guitar was handmade by Christchurch (NZ) luthier Nick Oliver. 
3. Update: Added at Dylan's request via Zhoen. The photograph distorts the headstock a bit, but it's the only photograph I have that shows it, and the guitar's in Christchurch — a long way from me.

Photos and original text © 2016 Pete McGregor