11 June 2022

Tea and animals at dawn

At seven o'clock the blackbird flew in like a small dark missile and landed abruptly on the lawn, yelling quietly as he settled and clucking occasionally as he began his breakfast foraging. The pre-dawn light had just begun to illuminate the birch so its main branches gleamed like white gold; the sky was smudged with hazy clouds suffused with salmon and mauve and grey against the idea of blue. I'd wrapped myself in merino and fleece and thick down and I was drinking unsmoked lapsang souchong tea, savouring the biscuity flavour, and I was warmer than on any morning I could remember since discovering what had become a morning ritual. I can't say the ritual had been intentional: I'd simply begun to sit outside first thing in the morning and gradually the practice became more regular and I began to enjoy it even more, so, as the mornings grew darker and colder I continued to sit outside drinking tea. Eventually the days shortened sufficiently so I found myself watching the dawn arrive, darkness lightening, the sky taking on colour, the birch beginning to glow, the early bird catching the worm, ducks and pigeons and starlings speeding across the dawn, the drab and faded colours of the neighbouring roofs and walls and fences lit briefly with soft light like the elegance of a Joel Meyerowitz photograph. The whole time, a thrush sang in a leafless poplar. When the sun finally slid above the unseen horizon so direct rays lit the tops of the trees and the highest houses, the magic vanished; the colours lost their subtle spectacular elegance; the world once more became possessed by humans. I'd pick up the empty tea bowl and jug and the small blue sitting pad and the Traveler's Notebook and pen roll and go inside. The blackbird carried on hunting for worms.
Sometimes as I sat there next to the small wood-and-iron table by the back door I'd hear the click of paws on the vinyl floor so I'd get up and push the door open  and a small whiskery face would look up at me and Guston would trot out onto the concrete pad. If rain was falling, or had recently fallen, he'd stand right at the boundary of dry and wet. He'd stay there as if making up his mind which was worse: the discomfort of getting wet or the discomfort of needing a pee. Sometimes, getting wet was clearly worse. If the lawn was dry, though, he'd be out there doing his rounds, sniffing his garden for evidence of cat-trespassing. Usually he'd ignore me until he'd completed his mission; only then, and not always, would he stop to greet me on his way back inside. I don't mind being ignored by animals, though: I like the reminder that they're not ours, that the attention we receive is a gift, that the value of a dog's affection (or a cat's) is because they can choose to ignore us if they wish. I love the lack of respect some birds have for us and wish we gave them more reason to consider us not worth bothering about, but, sadly, I can't see that ever happening.

From the farmland beyond the edge of town I heard a barrage of gunshots as ducks were shot for sport.

Note: Guston is a miniature Schnauzer. He's not mine but we get along famously.

Photos: 1. Next door. 2. The actual blackbird on the actual lawn. 3. The birch on a windy dawn.

Photos and original text © 2022 Pete McGregor

20 May 2022

Steinbeck, Ricketts, Doyle and the ~algias

I sit on the sofa, gazing out the window at the late afternoon sunlight sifting through the soft foliage hanging over the driveway, thinking about The Log From the Sea of Cortez. I’d first read that book by Steinbeck and Ricketts so long ago it seems like a different life. I’ve read it several times since, and now I’m partway through yet another reading and I still think it’s marvellous even though I’m more conscious of some shortcomings. They’re unimportant shortcomings, though, and some even add to the book’s quality: they’re the imperfections that rescue a work of art from perfection. The Log was written by real human beings: real, flawed, compassionate, crotchety, curious people who took delight in the similarly complex people they encountered and could see them as part of the greater wide wonderful world, including the multifarious, diverse creatures of the intertidal zone that ostensibly justified the journey. Now, more recently, the person who seems to me to most characterise those qualities is the late wonderful one-and-only incomparable Brian Doyle, and I wonder what a meeting between Steinbeck and Ricketts and Brian Doyle would have been like. The energy from that encounter, I imagine, would have been enough to power the great cities of the world; even thinking about it now fills me with such imagined delight and joy that I can hardly stand it and might have to pour another glass of wine.

Not everyone sees The Log like that, though. I’ve seen criticisms of ‘tenth-rate philosophising’, of boring descriptions of the animals the expedition collected, of a repetitiveness that wears thin, and other carpings. Those criticisms, to me, say more about the carpers than the book. Perhaps I’m more receptive to lists of animals because I know, if not the specific creatures, their cousins, and because I have some education in zoology perhaps I appreciate the complexity of those lives and how they’re suited to their environment. But maybe I’ve just always loved animals, and not just the fluffy cute ones. Even hideous things can be beautiful: Steinbeck tells how Ricketts once advertised hagfish — in Steinbeck’s view, ‘a perfect animal horror’ — using the adjectives ‘delightful’ and ‘beautiful’. [1] I don’t find the account repetitive, either; what some critics see as repetition I see as structure, a framework that supports the substance of the book and helps it avoid becoming an aimless ramble.

What most gets my goat, though, is that criticism about the ‘shallowness of the philosophising’. I might be mistaken, but Steinbeck and Ricketts not only never claim to be ‘philosophising’ but explicitly say they’re letting their ideas go wherever they will. Whether that’s philosophising is arguable, but I suspect that if The Log’s authors said it was, the critics would pounce with glee and say it’s not at all what philosophy is. Yet, those critics are happy to say the exploring of ideas in The Log is philosophising and because it doesn’t conform to what they believe philosophy should be, it’s tenth-rate, superficial, facile. But what does that imply? That only people with brains as obviously super-developed as those of the critics should be allowed to publish their thoughts? That rambling explorations of ideas have no worth? That only geniuses — or those who conform to the strictures of formal, academic philosophy — have the right to be published? Attitudes like that smack of intellectual arrogance, and implicit in the criticism is the idea that the only value of those explorations of ideas is as formal arguments.

In addition, the implication that ‘shallow’ philosophising (or the exploring of ideas) has little or no value leads inevitably to the question, ‘ When does shallow philosophising become real, worthwhile philosophising?’ I suspect the critics’ answer (although they’re unlikely to admit it) would be, ‘When it’s difficult enough to challenge my own superior intellect.’ But, someone, somewhere, will always understand an idea better than everyone else, so everyone else’s thoughts will, by definition, be shallow. (We can discount those who, like a certain ‘stable genius’, believe they’re more intelligent than everyone else even when all the evidence suggests the opposite.)

Exploring ideas has value even if it goes wildly off track. A reader, recognising that something’s not right, thinks about the idea and, with effort and a little luck, might work out where the exploration went astray. That’s useful; the reader has learned something. Even if they don’t identify the missteps, they understand more about the idea. Besides, it’s not always necessary to decide whether something’s right or wrong; often, it’s more valuable to let the uncertainty remain, perhaps to incubate and maybe eventually to hatch a related idea more interesting or useful than the original. Often, accepting that the truth of an idea depends on the perspective from which it’s viewed is more important than deciding which of those perspectives should have priority (this is an assertion about the value of pluralism, not a defence of relativism). My guess is that one sign of a highly developed intellect rather than a self-claimed superior one is the ability to understand that making a judgement is less important than understanding the idea, and accepting that ideas always generate more ideas and exploring those is generally more fruitful than sitting back smugly and dismissing the original idea because it contains some kind of logical flaw.

What I’m doing, of course is exploring an idea without even the supposedly small degree of intellectual rigour Steinbeck and Ricketts applied to their explorations. What they did, however, was to incorporate their musings into a narrative replete with gorgeous, evocative writing: often generously and compassionately humorous; occasionally sardonic; frequently with that ineffable quality that might be characterised as wabi-sabi; almost always suffused with the kind of nostalgia that some see as debilitating [2] but others (including me) see as not simply a longing for what we’ve lost or never had but a connection with the history that makes us who we are, or who we’d like to be, or who we’re glad we’re not. Perhaps it’s not even nostalgia but more closely related to ‘solastalgia’: that feeling you have ‘when your endemic sense of place is being violated’, to use the words of Glenn Albrecht, the philosopher who coined the term. In that sense, the Sea of Cortez has already been lost; the place Steinbeck and Ricketts and their companions visited on the expedition and which gave rise to the book no longer exists, and even when the Western Flyer sailed that sea, the signs were evident that supposed civilisation had begun to encroach. If one were to visit now, one would at best experience intimations of what the Western Flyer’s crew experienced. The people they encountered have gone, too. No doubt new, interesting, complex characters live there, but the sense of remoteness, of strangeness, of other-worldliness that weaves through the narrative must inevitably be greatly diminished by technologies like GPS and Google Earth that make the Gulf of California so much safer to navigate, so much more accessible, so much less mysterious.


Routledge, C., Wildschut, T., Sedikides, C., & Juhl, J. (2013). Nostalgia as a resource for psychological health and well-being. Social and Personality Psychology Compass, 7(11), 808–818. https://doi.org/10.1111/spc3.12070

Sedikides, C., & Wildschut, T. (2018). Finding meaning in nostalgia. Review of General Psychology, 22(1), 48–61. https://doi.org/10.1037/gpr0000109


1. On p. 18 of my Pan Books (1960) edition

2. Nostalgia used to be considered as mental illness but a more recent, evidence-based perspective considers it an important way to foster psychological well-being including a heightened sense that one’s life has meaning (Routledge et al., 2013; Sedikides & Wildschut, 2018).


1. Purple shore crab (Leptograpsus variegatus) at Flounder Bay a long time ago

2. Rock pool at Flounder Bay. Steinbeck and Ricketts never made it here, but in theory one could sail across the Pacific from Flounder Bay on the coast of Aotearoa New Zealand to the Sea of Cortez without touching land.

3. The coast at Flounder Bay

Photos and original text © 2022 Pete McGregor

27 June 2021

The weather and Brian Doyle

The weather arrived at a quarter to three as I was reclining on the couch reading Brian Doyle’s excellent collection of Brian Doyle essays, Reading In Bed, with the new electric heated throw wrapped over my body from the waist down and my upper body encased in my best largest puffiest down jacket (the Mont Bell) so if anything had been watching I must have looked like a giant grub or chrysalis, but nothing sentient enough to make that comparison was around to watch so I was safe from those kinds of uncomplimentary judgements. But boy, that weather wasn’t holding back. The rain pounded down so hard it sounded like hail, and darkness moved over the face of the land so if I hadn’t been reading on my Kindle I’d have muttered, ‘God, let there be light’ respectfully like a prayer not blasphemously, and would have had to metamorphose into adult form, crawling out of my electric heated throw cocoon to get to a light switch. Fortunately, I had plenty of charge left in the Kindle and I’d adjusted the brightness and font size so I could ignore the rain and keep reading, which is all anyone reading Brian Doyle essays or books or anything else by Brian Doyle ever wants to do. By the time I finished the book the rain had given up trying to discombobulate me or stimulate a premature metamorphosis and had settled into a quieter sulking steady rhythm that I took to be respect for Brian Doyle’s writing, and when I finally closed the cover on the Kindle I noticed the rain had stopped. So it should.

It came back later for another attempt but I was impervious and laughed at it and enjoyed the sound of its tantrum on the roof, and again it exhausted itself and gave up. In the battle of the weather versus Brian Doyle and me, we won by a loooong way. At least for the moment, though, because the weather has now called up a vicious bitterly cold violent hissy fit from the deep Southern Ocean and if the forecasters are to be believed, that evil blast should get here tomorrow night. I’m prepared, though: I have plenty of charge still left in the Kindle and Haruki Murakami’s latest collection of short stories, First Person Singular, to read. I just have to resist the temptation to read it all tonight, which might be a problem because his books are soooo good, which makes me wonder: how can two writers so different in style as Brian Doyle and Haruki Murakami be so wonderful and weather-resistant?

Photo: Evening rain moving up the valley earlier this year

Photos and original text © 2021 Pete McGregor

01 April 2021

That thing about birds

What is it that you love about birds? What’s at the root of the thrill you get when something as apparently ordinary as a sparrow sits on your verandah railing, puffed up against the cold, with a spatter of drizzly raindrops sparkling and gleaming diamond-like on the feathers of its back, and it doesn’t bother to fly off when you walk past the window? Or, when you watch a magpie swoop in fast and streamlined, a white-and-black bullet, low over the paddock then suddenly tilt and arc around and flare its wings and stop in mid-air to lower itself onto the ground, the sheer class and cheek of it a delight you can almost feel physically, as if for a moment you inhabited the bird’s body and felt the rush of air and the forces twisting your wings as you bent the low sky to your will? For a moment, you left your own body and lived in the air with a command and sheer gall you yourself, you slow and awkward lump of mammal fixed to the ground with your fear of falling, never had and never will. No flying bird ever feared falling. How could it? A fish might as well fear water.

Naturally, your pedant’s mind reminds you not all birds fly. But big deal — you love them nevertheless. That pheasant rooster you saw this morning just below the Raumai Hill could have flown if it felt the need, but it didn’t — didn’t fly, didn’t feel the need — and you didn’t love it any the less because it stayed earth-bound, strutting and peering, a little anxious perhaps, but not prepared to waste energy flying. Perhaps it knew you were no threat. Perhaps it sensed you just wanted to admire, on the verge of gasping, anything that could be so spectacular; perhaps it sensed your twinge of envy, your awareness of your own drab and heavy form.

Perhaps you love the insouciance of so many birds, too — the way they just go about their lives not caring about you and your kind even when you might be a danger or a benefit. Those crows among the filth in India, for example — just going about their business, fossicking for the delicious among the unspeakable; they know you’re there, but they ignore you until you’re one step too close, and then they’re gone. A few flaps of those strong, shining wings and they’re above you — you’re beneath them and they’re looking down on you — and when you’re a few steps further on they’re back down to earth, getting on with their day.

You’re a minor nuisance but they’re not bothered. They do what they’re doing. When they’re feeding they’re feeding; when they’re fighting they’re fighting; when they’re mobbing a threat — a cat, an owl, you — they give it all they’ve got. Then they go somewhere else and do something else.

They know how to concentrate, those birds. Watch a heron stalking, or a kingfisher posted on a power line, watching the paddock, or a godwit probing the estuary, and you know you know nothing about focus. You’re a mess of distractions — even when you think you’re writing well, you’re … ooh, hey, look at that rain, how will I get back to the car without getting soaked? … that guy in the brown coat and trendy hair looks familiar, … and so on. Could you focus for an hour on picking worms out of estuarine mud? I bet not.

But here’s your pedant’s mind again, telling you birds aren’t really like that — they can’t be like that, surely? Even when they’re stalking bullies in the shallows, or crabs on the coast, or lizards on the rocks, they’re alert for threats — that cat again, or the owl, or you, or the shadow overhead — and maybe they can use different parts of their bird brains more independently than us. Some, like godwits, can sleep on the wing, switching half the brain off while the other half carries on allowing their wings to carry them on that immense journey from Alaska to New Zealand, eleven thousand kilometres, non-stop.

Try sending half your brain to sleep on your drive home and see how far you get.

You don’t envy birds, though. You love them — among so many other reasons, only a few of which you can identify — because they’re so much more competent than you, yet most of the time they don’t bother rubbing it in the way we would if we were more competent than them. There’s no malice in their superiority — it’s just a fact to them, and they’d probably try to cheer you up if they thought you envied them. You, in turn, only envy them in a good, respectful way, the way you wish you were as wonderful as someone you love.

And maybe that’s exactly why you love birds, but you really don’t know.


1. Ring-necked pheasant, Pohangina Valley

2. Miromiro (North Island tomtit), No. 1 Line track, Pohangina Valley

Photos and original text © 2021 Pete McGregor

19 October 2020

The Gardener

My recollection of her is faint, which is to be expected because it was a long time ago and I haven’t thought about her in years. Possibly decades. I don’t know why I’ve started thinking about her recently. Perhaps it was the dream, a strange one, like all dreams, that I had a while ago, alone in a mountain hut (Why there? I have to ask) and which left me unsettled and also thinking perhaps I could write a short story about this. But the difficulty is how much to stay true to what I remember (which might be unreliable anyway) and how much I should feel free to make up, or at least extrapolate. The other difficulty is that I don’t know what the story means. A story has to have a point, after all, doesn’t it? Maybe it doesn’t, or maybe the point, the meaning, is something that arrives after the story has been written, and maybe the reader sees the meaning better than the writer? But, having pointed to the story’s existence, I suppose I now have to relate it.

Every day after school I’d get off the bus opposite the Moa Bone cave and walk home around the edge of the Bay — roughly half a mile, a few houses on my left, on my right the road and just to the right of that the stink of mud and rotting sea lettuce if the tide was out or, if it was in, glittering water where the glass shrimps crept and nibbled among the rusting rubbish. Then the abandoned quarry on my left and the road and gravel dumps and waste land on my right, and eventually our road and the ominous row of old trees behind which drinking and other immoral acts sometimes occurred after dark on Fridays and Saturdays and occasionally at other times too. Sometimes when I walked past, a car would be parked there, well back from the road, and I walked past quickly, not looking.

Hers was the last house I passed, not long before the quarry. I often thought the garden was wonderful, crowded with trees and shrubs so it resembled a small forest, and I liked the house, too, mostly because the main part was raised above a garage and what I guessed must have been the laundry and maybe some storage areas. From the upper part of the house she must have been able to look out over the bay and see the water and the birds and probably no other houses except so far away they didn’t matter. She’d see the Causeway with all its traffic, of course, but that was inevitable: nothing to be done about that.

Once I mentioned to my mother that I really liked the woman’s garden. She looked at me, and eventually she said, ‘She’s got too much planted. It’s too crowded.’

She looked away, and then she said, ‘She’s there all on her own.’

One day I was walking home and as I approached the entrance to her property — a gap in the bulk of foliage — I saw her working, snipping with secateurs at a shrub. I think it was a Pittosporum, but that doesn’t matter, except I like Pittosporums because they’re endemic and their foliage is nice and P. tenuifolium (kohuhu; black matipo) has the most beautiful and powerful scent of any plant I know, and the flowers are small and dark so you’d never notice them if the scent didn’t say ‘Check me out’.

She smiled at me and said hello and I said hello.

She asked how my day had been and remarked on my bag, which she supposed must have been very heavy, presumably because it was full of books.

‘Yes. Lots of homework.’

I never found out what kind of work she did, and I don’t know if my mother knew.

She asked if I liked reading, and I said yes, and she asked what kind of books I liked reading.

‘Lots of things, but I particularly like reading about mountains.’

‘Oh,’ she said, and something changed, like the conversation wasn’t just casual anymore.

‘Some books arrived today’ she said. ‘I’ve been looking for them for a while and found them in a bookseller’s catalogue. I’m delighted with them. One’s John Pascoe’s Mr Explorer Douglas. Have you heard of him?’

I had. I knew of Pascoe and even had one of his books, Exploration New Zealand, which I’d won as a prize at school. I’d heard of Charlie Douglas, too.

‘Would you like to see it?’ she said.

We’d been warned about talking to strangers, never getting into cars with someone we didn’t know, that sort of thing. But she wasn’t really a stranger, and maybe it wouldn’t be polite to refuse, and I wanted to see Pascoe’s famous book.

She led me inside, and I took my shoes off at the door because we’d been taught it was the proper thing to do, and her house was so clean and tidy I’d have been uncomfortable walking through it with shoes on. I have only a vague recollection of the large lounge — dim despite the large windows, but perhaps the trees outside kept the light out. As I’d guessed, the main window looked out to the entranceway and across the road to a strip of bay and the causeway with its incessant traffic. I suppose when the light was right she could look right across to the foothills of the Southern Alps. I most clearly remember two books sitting on a dark wooden table. She stood next to them, her arms by her side as if she’d been trained how to stand for formal occasions like public speaking. She smiled again and looked down at the books and picked up the one on top and ran her hand gently over the cover, the way you’d stroke something fragile or desired, even longed for, and she opened it carefully and turned a few pages. She turned them carefully, from the corners, the way I’d been taught to respect books.

‘Would you like to look at it?’ she said, and she held it out for me.

I took the book from her, gently, and turned some pages in the same careful way, hoping she’d notice my respect. I couldn’t say much, though, because it was all text and I didn’t want to flick through it looking for photos.

‘It’s in very good condition,’ I said.

‘Yes. I was very lucky. It’s out of print. Hard to find, and good copies are rare.’

We were both unsure what else to say.

I don’t remember much more — a vague recollection that she might have offered me a biscuit or even a cup of tea, but memories are constructed rather than recalled and are therefore unreliable. If she did offer me anything, I declined politely. I had to get home in case my mother worried. She nodded and let me go.

Later — possibly weeks or months — my mother told me someone had remarked on how well I spoke and how I always looked so neat and well dressed in my school uniform. This surprised me because I didn’t think I spoke particularly well, often loosened my tie and let my socks slip down, and wasn’t sure I wanted to be known for proper speech and tidy presentation anyway. I was at the stage when fitting in was more important. She wouldn’t tell me who the person was, though, and when I asked, she said, ‘It doesn’t matter. I just wanted you to know.’

I could tell she was pleased that my good speech and neatness had been noticed, but I often wondered whether the remark had come from the woman with the garden and the books, and I wondered what my mother knew about her. The time for finding out has gone, though. I have so many questions, but none of them are clear; they’re vague wonderings that I can’t bring myself to pin down. Maybe that’s for the best.



1. Kotare (New Zealand kingfisher; Todiramphus sanctus), common around the Bay. I photographed this in the Pohangina Valley just a few days ago.

2 & 3. White-faced heron (matuku moana; Egretta novaehollandiae), another common inhabitant of the Bay. I photographed these roughly a decade ago at Flounder Bay on the east coast of the North Island.

Photos and original text © 2020 Pete McGregor

24 September 2020

The magpie

I'd been sitting at the kitchen table marking assignments and wearing out my brain, so late in the morning I slung the camera over my shoulder and strolled down the driveway. At the bend I headed towards the letterbox and, as I neared the water trough in the corner of the orchard paddock, a magpie took to the air. It flew awkwardly and I had the impression it was a young bird, although September seems early. I stopped and watched it fly into the big tarata, where it scrabbled briefly before settling on a branch. I took the camera off my shoulder, and as I did so the magpie toppled backwards and hung by its feet from the branch, upside down, wings outstretched. I photographed it, twice, as it hung there.
And then it just dropped. Like the proverbial stone. I heard it hit the ground, and I stood there, waiting for it to get up, but it didn’t. Finally, I walked over and saw it lying on its back, perfectly still. I thought maybe it was playing dead. Maybe this was some kind of defensive behaviour? Magpies are complex and interesting birds, and I wouldn’t have been surprised to have seen this kind of unusual behaviour.
The bird lay on its back, just out of reach beyond the wire fence and I didn’t want to try because that would achieve nothing except further stressing it. I watched it for a minute or so, beginning to feel concerned, and then decided the best thing I could do would be to leave it alone to recover. I’d heard another magpie squawk when the young bird first flew across the drive, but since then I’d neither seen nor heard any adult bird. 
I walked to the letterbox, checked the mail, and on the way back checked the magpie.
It still lay on its back in exactly the same position, and I saw its eye had begun to cloud over. No question now: it was dead.
I have no idea what happened and felt terrible. I couldn’t escape the feeling that I was in some way responsible, even though I knew I wasn’t. But what I felt wasn’t important; what mattered was that a living, complex, wonderful bird had gone from being aware and conscious to being an inanimate collection of feathers and bone and muscle and blood. And a brain that had ceased to function, a mind no longer aware. 

Photos and original text © 2020 Pete McGregor

10 September 2020

The Hermit Marshes

The day after the deluge, I saw the aftermath — how the rough paddock beside the railway line had turned into a small marsh, the water shining like polished zinc 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 go — places where wizened 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 damp sky, drinking tea from small cracked cups with a patina accumulated year after year after year, 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 enlightened. 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 detest that word. To me, it connotes the taking of something beautiful and wondrous and mysterious and removing those qualities so the thing 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. 

‘Productivity’ values 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, but now the world is out of bounds. 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 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 awful 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 writing is almost possible, so I think maybe I should be writing. On the kind of trains where you sit stealing glances across a small, cold, shiny table at the person sitting facing you (who you sense is also stealing glances at you), 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 or bus stops, or scrawl, usually illegibly, when it's moving. The Traveler’s Notebook I carry everywhere carries a record of my travels not just in what I've written but in how it's written — when I browse through it and come across what appears to be written in Urdu (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.

But it’s irrelevant anyway, because mostly I don’t want to write on a bus or train or aeroplane because I have more important things to do, like nothing, or looking out the window at the place I’m passing through and letting my mind wander. The importance of these inactivities cannot be overestimated. For me, time travelling is time out.

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 in the Traveler’s Notebook or the big Moleskine cahier 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 in motion, moving from place to place. Last summer I managed several times to write extensively in the Traveler’s Notebook while flying — for example, on the final flight from Kuala Lumpur to Delhi, when I glimpsed, far below between white clouds, the Andaman Islands and longed to be there and knew I never would; or between bouts of gazing out the window at the Himalaya while returning from Kathmandu to Delhi, the giants breaking through ragged cloud, gleaming with snow, their shoulders patterned with bare dark and yellow rock. I recognised the Annapurna massif, could see the Sanctuary in deep shadow, saw Machapuchare; I looked along the Kali Gandaki towards Dolpo and Shey and thought inevitably of Matthiessen and Schaller, of Tukten and the others and their journey. Somewhere where I was gazing, snow leopards were roaming, hunting, living solitary lives on the edge of the possible. If I had unlimited means, I thought, I’d do the trek all the way to Shey to see it with my own eyes and understand better what Matthiessen saw and felt. I scribbled notes and looked back out the window. The mountains went on forever, lower now but still magical. I looked down and realised we must by now be flying over Bardia. Already, that time seemed distant. The plane banked slightly and shadow slid along the wing and the snows of the Himalaya drew further away. Now I recognised the distinctive forms of Trisul and Nanda Devi — we were passing over Kausani and were back in India.

I read those notes now 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 the 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 from dry shrubs for firewood.

I don't want to think about that, though. I might be wrong and hope I am. And 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 this old, overwrought world, some small silent sage still sips his tea as he listens to the wind in the reeds and the thin cries of unseen birds.

Photos (all from November 2019 ‒ January 2020, before the world changed).

1. Egret at Bharatpur, India

2. Plain Prinia at Bardia, Nepal

3. Trisul from Kausani, India

4. White wagtail at Bardia, Nepal

Photos and original text © 2020 Pete McGregor