09 December 2006

The idea of mountains

I've parked up for a day or two while I recover from the inevitable illness; I'll spare you the details. So, this post is going up sooner than I'd intended — it's as good a way as any of resting.

Sunday 19 November 2006
They’re dynamiting down in the valley again. A sudden boom, the
reverberating echo, then a second or two later the sound of a tremendous fall of rock. What orogenesis and erosion create, we humans seem compelled to modify.

Driving to Badrinath three days ago, we looked down to the river, the flow of water substantially subordinate to the size of its bed. Much of the flow, apparently, has been diverted for the Vishnuprayag hydroelectric power project. It’s a familiar story, and I’m reminded strongly of the Whanganui River in New Zealand’s North Island. Both rivers beheaded to provide power. Where does it end? When will the demand for more power cease? When these rivers have all been maimed, will the windmills and solar plants move in? What will limit their spread? I imagine the ridgeline of
Elephant Peak lined with churning mills instead of old pines, the Himalayan sun shining not from a turbulent river pouring over washed-clean boulders but from an array of focused mirrors.

I write these words by candlelight because the electrical supply has failed again. As I waited for
the agonizingly slow internet connection this afternoon I felt my impatience and frustration as a physical sensation, like anxiety, and had to remind myself to relax; that if I couldn’t achieve as much as I wanted in that half hour, what was the real loss? Perhaps this is a too-common mistake: to think the solution to an unmet need is to supply the demand rather than remove the want.


Monday 20 November 2006
What makes a life better? What enables a life to be lived with a better sense of accomplishment — “satisfaction” has too much smugness to be a satisfactory word — or delight in the living of that life? Ask anyone here in Joshimath or the nearby villages and the answer’s almost certain to be pragmatic: more reliable electricity, be
tter roads, a safer, more effective supply of clean water. Perhaps more appliances and labour-saving devices, although there seems to be no shortage of small shops selling TVs, DVD players, radios and so on. Perhaps a functional internet? I’m guessing.

Others might take a longer view — better education and easier access to it; some form of minimum wage or other social welfare.
What all these sorts of answers have in common is that they assume life will consequently be easier, that there will be less hardship. Does that make life better? Perhaps, if “better” means, as I’ve implied, a greater sense of achievement, these things do not make life better. I think this was one of Nietzsche’s main arguments — that adversity enables us to improve: “What doesn’t kill me, makes me stronger”. But there are different kinds of hardship, and I wonder whether there’s much sense of achievement from simply managing to survive another day. My guess is that the feeling is one of relief rather than accomplishment; moreover, I suspect the relationship between adversity and improvement is not only non-linear, it’s not even monotonic; in plain language, beyond a certain level, hardship wears you down and weakens you.

I wondered about these things as I lay awake this morning. I wondered because the way life’s lived in the little of India I’ve seen so far seems so hard. Borderline, in fact, for many people. I wondered what would make it better; what, if anything, I could do — or anyone could do. But I also realized that the ramifications of well-intentioned actions can be unexpected and undesirable, especially when based on little knowledge and even less understanding. And, also, that one person’s good intention is another person’s meddling.


Wednesday 22 November 2006
When I step outside into the dawn, the world has changed. I’ve become accustomed to the brilliant, cloudless Himalayan sky, sun touching the summits, but this morning dark cloud and misty rain hang about the peaks and drift into ravines; the whole sky’s heavily overcast. It should seem oppressive and ominous but it’s magnificent, a vision from the mind of William Blake. Crows wheel and caw in the cold air; behind them, nothing but s
pace and height and then mountains swirling with mist, precipices edged with old pines, deep ravines disappearing into the gloom. Do you get used to these things; how long, if ever, does it take before you stop seeing these things — before they stop you in your tracks? How much conscious attention does it take to continue noticing and appreciating them? Surely this depends on the person, on who you are — if your attention focuses on cutting another load of hay, or drying the laundry, or trying to stay warm, you might notice birds flying in drizzle but fail to appreciate the immanence in the slow, strong grace of crows circling against that vast landscape. On the other hand, perhaps I don’t truly appreciate the difficulty of weather like this — Mr S tells me it’s 4°C and the barometer’s falling — for those cutting hay, doing laundry, or facing a hard, bitter winter. I do have some inkling, though, as I write with slow, cold, mittened hands, sip hot water with biscuits, and huddle in a blanket in an unheated room, trying to keep warm.


Thursday 23 November 2006
At Mirag, kids play cricket in a small courtyard and laugh after I’ve passed by. An elderly woman gives us tea in bone china cups, with bi
scuits, and like so many people I’ve met here, responds warmly to my “namaste”, my hands pressed together in front of my chest. It’s the same with the elderly man we meet as we leave — his eyes sparkle as he beams at me, leaning on his stick. And Mirag’s gardens are neat and fertile; cauliflowers carefully weeded, a plot of marigolds, things indicating knowledge and attention — and a great deal of hard work. A simple life, but hard — or a hard life, but simple? Given the choice, which would you choose: hardship or ease, simplicity or complexity?


Saturday 25 November 2006
A common road sign here says, "Life is journey Complete it." At Nandprayag I look down from the bus window to the ghats at the confluence — the prayag — where a small cluster of people watches a massive fire among the boulders by the water's edge.
Nearby, on a raised structure, another figure, shrouded in black, waits for the fire. These lives have been completed, or, according to the prevalent belief system here, are undergoing transformation.

If I were to be reborn as an animal, I think I'd like to be reincarnated as a bird. Closer to Joshimath, what I
think are white-backed vultures soar high around the precipitous bluffs; I have to lean closer to the window and look up to see the birds circling. One flies close to the mountainside, its shadow distinct, following close beneath and slightly behind the bird in the strong morning sun. We're like the shadows of birds, trapped on the ground, but even more constrained — to go where that bird's shadow traversed so easily would require enormous skill, artificial aids like ropes and climbing protection, and the mental ability to deal with terrifying exposure. My years of climbing have accustomed me to some degree of exposure, but even so I feel a few rushes of adrenaline when I look down and see not road but a sheer drop to the gorge far below. I tell myself the driver does this everyday; the wheels aren't as close to the edge as they seem; and I remind myself to think like a bird — to soar out over the abyss and enjoy the freedom, the ability to cross in minutes by wing what would take us half a day on foot, and probably using hands much of the time.


Down in the river at Karanprayag, men have been breaking rocks by hand, pounding boulders with sledgehammers. Another man sits on a huge mound of fractured pieces, breaking them down with a hammer into smaller fragments. This happens everywhere I've been in India. At the end of each day, what sense of accomplishment might you feel from such a job, knowing it will be the same tomorrow and perhaps for the rest of your life; that there will always be more need for broken rock and there will always be more rock to break? Is it enough to say, "This is what I do," the way others say, "I write," or, "I photograph," knowing there will always be more to write, always more to photograph?

If your life is a journey, where is the breaking of rock taking you, and what will you look back on when you're about to complete it?


Sunday 26 November 2006
Mid morning, the early winter sun lighting the valley of the Ata Gad, a swift, powerful river flowing to its confluence
with the Alaknanda at Karanprayag. Steep, high mountainsides drop to the river; they're sparsely forested with conifers, and, amazingly, here and there I see villages perched near the ridgetops. How do you live in such a landscape? A visit to the valley bottom must be a major undertaking. This is country for wild animals: birds like the lammergeier I see patrolling near the ridgetop; once again its shadow follows as if unwilling to separate from the bird.

I look down from the summit to the river, wondering about the fish living there. The mahseer has a reputation for being a fierce fighter when hooked, and this seems appropriate for this fierce river. The mahseer, the river, the landscape — the word "uncompromising" springs to mind.

And the people? I don't know them well enough — I hardly know them at all — yet from what I've seen, there must be a toughness there, a will to survive.
In Karanprayag I saw two porters carrying a lounge suite; one carried two stacked, upholstered armchairs, the other an enormous sofa, and they walked along the road with these immense loads on their backs, with no aids other than a tump line around the forehead. I've seen others carrying staggering loads of bricks or broken stone, two bags of cement, enormous sacks of potatoes or onions — there seems to be nothing they can't carry. Yet they're only small, these porters; if I stood face to face with one, he'd look directly at my chest, possibly not even that high. The women, too: small like the men, and like the men they carry enormous loads. Up ahead, two haystacks move slowly along the road with a slight side to side, rocking motion; as we draw closer, I see the legs beneath the stacks, a slow plodding; the women bent over under their loads. Day after day they do this; they've carried these loads for centuries, perhaps millennia. Again, the question — what have you accomplished at the end of your days?

Perhaps, if they knew me and knew my life, they might ask me the same question. If I had an answer for them, it would probably mention the creation of something new, and something that shares a life. What I'm doing now, I trust, will be part of that accomplishment.


At Baijnath an old man wanders back and forth beside the bus, an air of nervousness about him. Anxiety. He wears a pale, roughly knitted woollen jersey,
grubby about the hem and cuffs, dun coloured loose trousers, old sneakers, a pale grey, well worn pundit's cap. Back and forth, carrying a woven plastic sack one third full of something heavy over his shoulder. He's slightly taller and noticeably thinner than most, so his clothes hang on him. Finally he sits on some steps leading to a small, second story house, but he's only there for a few minutes before an old woman comes down the steps, wanting to get past. She shoos him away and he gets quickly to his feet and goes and sits in front of a stall. He puts his hands to his cheeks, rubs his palms over his face, hides behind them. He is a man stripped of all self-assurance, as if this is an alien environment. He looks about, this way and that, unwilling to let his gaze settle — perhaps because, if he did, he would be noticed.


Kumaon's lower than Garhwal, the landscape more hilly than mountainous, the forest denser and more extensive. Presumably because of the gentler topography, the terraced areas are larger and more abundant; another consequence is that it's possible to see much further — as the bus gains height, the views open up: huge vistas over valleys and hills. Then, behind the furthermost, forested hills, the summits of the Himalaya, white with brilliant snow. At first, just one or two peaks, then a few more, and connecting ridges, then, as we move deeper into Kumaon, a great expanse of the Indian Himalaya comes into view. In Garhwal, at Joshimath, Badrinath, and Auli, although much closer to the big peaks, I only on a few occasions felt as if I truly saw the Himalaya; ironically, although I'm so much further away here in Kumaon among the gentler hills, forests, and cultivated lands, I see the Himalaya better. But, in the evening at Kausani, I scan the distant peaks through binoculars, look at the rock, snow, and ice slopes of Trishul, and realise how far I am from being part of that environment — that here I am among my own kind, but also, that I am not.


Monday 27 November 2006
Now, in the middle of a bright overcast day, those distant mountains appear, at a cursory glance, dull and flat; most would find them uninspiring.
snow leopard, Naini Tal zooBut look closer, particularly if you have binoculars; let your eyes wander the slopes and ridges and summits, some of which disappear into misty cloud. It's easy to believe there's no one there, that the whole range is silent except for the sounds of things not human — wind, water, rockfall, birds; that it's the home of the tahr and the snow leopard, the lammergeier and flocks of choughs, their red legs and yellow bills bright and new in the old light. It's easy to believe there, among those mountains, you might understand things that can't be articulated; that language would fail to flesh out the bones of Orphic knowledge; that there you might find not the answers, but the right questions.

You might go further in, always a little further. Beyond that last blue mountain. What do you seek? Do you even know — and does it matter?

A faded blue flag fluttering in the breeze, a red plastic chair by a grey plastic table on a dull concrete patio. Beyond, past the smoky hills below, past the densely packed towns and villages and the ubiquitous scattered houses, beyond the smouldering rubbish fires and human lives — the veiled Himalaya, and the idea of mountains.

Photos (click to enlarge them):
1. Indian Himalaya from Kausani.
2. One of Mr S's friends.
3. Not sure of the identification of this, but it's the most common conifer high on the slopes above Tapovan.
4. At Rishikesh. Not all who look like this are genuine.
5. Also at Rishikesh. This spider would have been about the size of my open hand. All are genuine.
6. The lower part of Trishul (7120 metres) at sunrise from Kausani.
7. Porter at Naini Tal.
8. Kausani evening.
9. Female snow leopard at Naini Tal zoo. Note: this photo is of a CAPTIVE ANIMAL. I was the only person around; when she noticed me, she stalked and charged me, then played hide and seek. I would far rather have had this privilege in the wild, but it's unlikely I'd be telling you about it now.

Photos and words © 2006 Pete McGregor

07 December 2006

Engineer Baba

Another in the series; again, these are selections from my notes (mostly as written, i.e. unedited) and the photos have been prepared from small JPGs on horrible monitors. I hope they look okay.

Saturday 18 November 2006

As we leave the forest the track levels, dips, and rises again towards
the village of Urgam, set high on this mountainside among terraced fields. We meet more people and are often greeted with exclamations of recognition and delight. Mr S and Dr M — the teacher and the doctor — are well known and clearly appreciated here. Mr S has been coming here since 1961; he lived here for 2–3 years and set up the school. He left, he says, because he couldn’t stand the ignorance — I think he means the clinging to superstitions — and he tells me that in remote villages difficult to access, 95% of the work is done by the women, while the men mostly sit around “drinking, playing cards, or taking narcotics.” But today, everyone, men included seems to be out in the fields, working.

We stop and are welcomed at a house where a family’s threshing amaranth, the man driving two slow cattle beasts around in circles over the strewn stalks. We’re shown inside, through a tiny door, into a pastel green room with massive, thick, stone walls and a small window. Two beds, posters on the walls. Shiva. We’re given tea by the daughter; it has a pleasant tang, a kind of sharpness and I guess it’s sweetened with honey.

More tea soon after — this is to become a pattern — where Mr S is greeted with what can only be described as joy. He introduces me to an ancient-looking, tiny man who takes my hand between his and gives me a wonderful, beaming, gap-toothed smile. His face isn’t wrinkled — it’s deeply creased, and he looks to be at least in his 80s. Mr S later tells me he’s 65, the same age as him.


Beyond Urgam we stop to visit the temple at Kolpeshwar. As usual, I’m reluctant to intrude, but with Mr S’s encouragement — insistence, in fact — I visit the shrine. A small, dark cave, lit by flame and with a beautiful incense from a small array of smouldering sticks. The centre, the focus, is a stone about the size of a human head. The power here is astonishing — there’s something, some kind of energy or force, something that feels ageless, profound. For the first time in India, I have some inkling of the significance of some, at least, of these holy places.

The saddhu distributes photo albums for us to inspect. One of the main subjects is a yogi who lived upriver for eight or nine years, and for 30 years kept his right arm raised above his head. Several photos show how his fingernails, uncut for that period, grew down across his palm and coiled around his wrist. I can’t help thinking, “Why?” and am reminded of Peter Matthiessen’s mention of the sage who reputedly wept when he heard of the man who had spent 30 years learning to walk on water when the ferryman could have taken him across the river for a small coin.


We walk back across the river on a footbridge. From there, the remains of a stone-paved road, now strewn with fallen leaves, follows the river through the autumn forest. This is virgin forest says Mr S, who used to walk here often when he lived at Urgam. He tells me some of the animals that lived here; animals he’s seen on his walks: deer, hogs, bear. Leopards. When we return through the lower forest below Urgam in the late evening he explains it’s important in the mornings and evenings always to walk with at least one other person because of the bears. They don’t usually attack people, but it is not unknown.

I look around at the forest, denser here than lower down, the trees taller, the understorey more vigorous. It’s easy to believe we’re getting beyond the range of daily human activity, that we might indeed see a large shape leap or crash away deeper into the forest — but we’re walking on the remains of a road. “Virgin” is a labile word, its context in India substantially different from that in New Zealand.


But, despite the sense of leaving other humans behind, we come to a rough footbridge — branches laid side by side on parallel poles which span the stream; one or two flat rocks added; a rickety but effective structure — and on the far bank, four buffalo browse. The human world returns, and with it a trace of melancholy.

Nevertheless, we’ve arrived. A short way on we follow a track up a bank and through a heavy, badly leaning but functional gate in a dry stone wall overgrown with tall weeds and small shrubs. Inside: a small hut, plastered the colour of clay, the doorway and eaves blackened by smoke; in front of the hut, an area paved with flat stones and partly covered with blankets; next to it a tap trickling clear water into a bright steel pot, the water overflowing onto the stone slab beneath. A small vegetable garden, with dark soil, bright green cabbage seedlings and no weeds; nearby, a small forest of spindly, wild hemp, with only a few leaves left.

Sitting on the blankets in front of the hut, a small man with a dense, mostly white, unkempt beard, his hair curled in a topknot, a dun-coloured blanket wrapped around him, smiles at us. This is the monk we have come to visit: Maharj Raman Giri.


After the introductions we sit on the blankets and talk — or, they talk and I listen. I don’t know if they’re speaking Hindi or Garwhali; probably the latter. The monk — Mr S’s term; I’d say saddhu but only because he looks like one — speaks softly, and the creases around his eyes suggest that behind his smoke-stained beard he’s smiling most of the time. Some people have what’s usually described as a “presence”, an air of something significant, out of the ordinary — even the sceptical, I suspect, voice their scepticism because they’re aware of this presence and feel compelled to question it out of their own insecurity. I might be wrong. This man, however, has that presence, a kind of attentive serenity with a quiet, unaffected humour. How can I tell this? Perhaps from the laughter during the conversation, and the way he laughs, but I really don’t know how I know — I just know.

In fact, he speaks very good English, better than anyone I’ve met so far in
India other than Gerard and Evelyne or the few native English speakers I’ve spoken with. I feel no need to deconstruct my speech — to think what I wish to say, take it apart and rebuild it in simple sentences. When we move inside and sit cross-legged on either side of the hut I ask him about the animals; about what kinds live here. He doesn’t see many, because he doesn’t often walk far, but confirms Mr S’s list; however, he doesn’t mention leopards. But, “Bears,” he says, “this is bear country.” His eyes sparkle. How long has he lived here? Six or seven years, but he visited here for another six or seven before that. Over that period, what changes has he noticed in the numbers of animals? He shrugs slightly.

“The same types of animals, but fewer of them.”

Outside, voices, some kind of activity. Villagers have arrived to cut hay along the river banks. Each year they come more often, and go further up the river, and what’s wild, I think, moves further back. Eventually there will be nowhere left to which to retreat. I think of the monk as well as the deer, the bears, and the leopard, which might already be gone.


After chai, Maharj prepares food, rinsing a few handfuls of mixed dahl and placing it in his small brass pot with water. The pot sits on a battered, blackened, trivet over a small fire fed by gradually moving long, dry branches further into the coals. A small flame, and a little smoke curls up and flows out the door. The hut has no chimney. He cooks cabbage with herbs and chillies — a kind of cabbage curry — and an enormous pot of rice, while the two friends who have accompanied Dr M, Mr S, and me prepare radish and select dangerous chillies as accompaniments. I talk a little more with Maharj, known to the local people as “Engineer Baba” because he has a first class Masters degree in mechanical engineering. He asks me about New Zealand, about its economy, and what my work is. I explain I was a scientist, doing research in entomology and ecology, but now I write and photograph. This is true, but to what extent? I can think of no better way to answer this difficult question, and besides, now it is what I do.

The food ready, Maharj dishes it onto steel plates for us. Vast amounts of rice, a good ladleful of dahl and a couple of ladles of the cabbage curry. Mr S protests at the amount and is humoured — I also protest but Maharj just grins at me, says, “By the time you’re halfway down that hill, you’ll need it,” and keeps ladling. It’s good — very good — and I eat it all. And it gets me down the hill.

Dr M has seconds, but as Maharj dishes it, the doctor says something which I assume means, “Hey, hey, that’s enough!” But Maharj just smiles, mutters, and adds another large spatula scoop of rice.
Laughing, I say, “That’s what my mother used to do. We’d say, ‘No more,’ so she’d give us two more spoonfuls.”

Maharj leans back, laughing.


When I’ve finished I put down my plate and say, “That was very good, thankyou.” He gestures at us and points out that we brought all the food with us.
“Well, it was very well cooked.”
He says nothing, but smiles and nods towards the fire.


Dr M’s keen for a group photo, so I take two when they line up outside the hut. As usual, the second’s better. This is usually true — the first photo’s formal, everyone, or the individual, looking serious, then they relax and you’re more likely to get the smiles. I say goodbye to Engineer Baba and thank him, genuinely.

“You’re always welcome here,” he says. “Come whenever you like. Stay a few days.”

Photos (click to enlarge them):
1. The man at Urgam, said by Mr S to be 65.
2. Threshing amaranth at Urgam.
3. This small temple at Urgam, I was told, dates back several thousand years.
4. Amaranth thresher.
5. Part of lunch.
6. A typical house in the area.
7. Engineer Baba, Maharj Raman Giri. (Pronounced "Maharaj").

Photos and words © 2006 Pete McGregor

02 December 2006


With some good luck and help from new friends at Joshimath, I've managed to get a few photos prepared. They're taken from small JPG files, so the quality isn't the greatest and Shrine on the way to ManaI haven't been able to do much processing; moreover, what I have managed has mostly been on terrible monitors, so I have to trust the colours and contrast are reasonable (not a good assumption). Still, they should give you some idea of what I've been up to. As for the text... well, it might be 5% of what I've written. I'm at Naini Tal now, in the foothills of the Indian Himalaya, getting ready to head back in there. There will be one or two more posts, but I can't say when.

Noho ora mai ra, my friends.

Wednesday 15 November 2006
Six hours of travelling from Rudraprayag to Joshimath; six hours of near-continuous travel in two jeeps and a bus. A little cramped and bumpy at times, but mostly far better than the travel in Mongolia; for the most part, the roads are far better. Joinery at JoshimathI settle in at a comfortable guest house with a large balcony shared with just three other rooms and, most important of all, a marvellous, airy view across the valley to the surrounding peaks. They’re devoid of snow; like most of the region, the impression is of aridity, but behind them, rising above, a glimpse of higher peaks, and snow. I’m among mountains again, and it feels like solace.

Katabatic winds; the breeze changing direction as the sun leaves the summits. It’s cool, too; I suspect tonight will be chilly but I’m well equipped for the cold and the bed’s supplied with a duvet and blankets. I’ll stay here a while, I think. Have a good look around; take my time.

A huge explosion, a roar from the mountainside somewhere down the valley. Road works, I assume — from the bus I saw them laying out the green cable, connecting the drilled holes. The labour involved in building and maintaining Roadworksthese roads can hardly be imagined — for much of its length it’s cut from mountainsides that approach, and sometimes attain, the vertical.


The second jeep was less comfortable but still easily bearable. I ended up squashed in the middle of the back seat with my daypack on my knees — luxury compared to what I'd later endure. We drove through to Gopeshwar, gaining altitude; there everyone else disembarked and the driver and I returned to Chamoli. During the descent, I catch a glimpse of distant snow mountains, soft in the brilliant haze, but distinct nevertheless. Then I’m transferred to the bus for the last two hours, climbing, bumping over innumerable rough sections where the seal’s been destroyed by landslides, stopping to pick up or set down passengers, gradually working our way into even steeper, Mr Sbigger country. It’s a desiccated land — parts of the mountainsides support thickets of a kind of cactus — but a species of pine softens the starkness; where those pines march along a ridgeline, in silhouette against the atmospheric perspective of a more distant ridge, the effect’s graphic and beautiful. I’m beginning to feel closer to what I might have been expecting or hoping for, although I’ve tried hard to expect and hope for nothing.


The little kids from the unit next door have gathered around again.
“Your writing is very good,” they say, looking
at my scrawl, so I thank them.
“Your eyes are blue,” the little girl says, and
I realise that in this characteristic too I differ from everyone here. I’m a novelty.


An ederly man appears from the unit next door — the kids’ unit — and introduces himself. He speaks reasonably good English and has been coming here since 1961. He’s over 65 and now spends nine months here and three months at his house in Calcutta (he uses that pronunciation rather than “Kolkata”). He explains that tomorrow is the last day the temple at Badrinath will be open; he and some friends are going there tomorrow to view the closing ceremony. They’ll hire a car or catch a bus, and I’m welcome to join them. It’s too good an opportunity to miss.

Thursday 16 November 2006
In the hour before dawn, chanting, and the sound of drums.
Dogs bark in the distance all night, but the mountains remain unmoved.


My 65-years-plus friend, Mr S, calls for me earlier than expected, not long after I’d at last enjoyed a hot bucket shower. The delight of being thoroughly clean, especially without dust-matted hair. Even if it’s only briefly — but at least here, high in the mountains, the dust’s relatively clean compared to Delhi’s polluted grime. Fortunately I’m not far from being ready when Mr S calls, and within minutes we’re wandering the upper bazaar, looking for transport to Badrinath. It’s easy. We collect a French couple about my age, weatherbeaten and likeable, with good English, and several locals — the jeep simply drives up and down the bazaar as one man leans out the window, calling, “Badrinath! Badrinath!”

The French couple have been trekking elsewhere, and I’m impressed by their competence, their assured self-reliance. Of course, they have each other. Sometimes when the going gets rough or particularly dusty the woman puts her arm around his shoulders and leans against him, probably as much for the feeling of reassurance as physical support. It’s another thing, along with a kind of unassuming gentleness and their good English — a delight to be able to talk easily without having to concentrate — that endears them to me.

Evelyne talks a little more easily than Gerard, and only stumbles over words twice, once when she asks if my camera is “numeric”, which I quickly understand means “digital”, and the other when I ask what kinds of birds they’ve seen.
“Birds?” she says, not understanding the word.
I try enunciating it more clearly, with
a slightly rolled “r”, but she still doesn’t comprehend. A word from my French lessons at school, decades ago, appears.
“Oiseaux,” I say.
“Ah, birds!”

They’ve seen some which I’m able to guess from their descriptions: magpie, some kind of parrot, not many others, although they mention an eagle, which might be an eagle or a vulture. Later, approaching Badrinath, I see a large distant raptor circling slowly around the far mountainside, gaining height. A lammergeier? But the guess is mostly hope, and in my room in the evening I check the guide and conclude it was probably a white-backed vulture, described by the guide as “a disgusting feeder”.

Mr S takes me walking up the valley beyond Badrinath, along a concreted pathway, past dry-stone walls, dusty post-harvest fields, small stone or tin huts with slate roofs. Flocks of choughs circle and land in the fields. They’re mostly red-billed, but in the town I saw the strikingly beautiful yellow-billed choughs. They’re not mentioned in the Collins guide. We cross the river on a footbridge with rickety wooden planks and a painted, paraphrased quotation from Macbeth on the far side. The incongruity’s enormous.

At the village of Mana, we’re at 12,500 feet.
“For 65 years plus, you are strong at walking,” I say to Mr S.
He doesn’t reply, but smiles broadly.

A glimpse of big mountains, snow covered, at the head of the valley. Mr S explains that beyond those, about 40 km away, is the Chinese border. Tibet. From tomorrow, everyone will be gone from here; the area will be closed for winter. Left to the birds, the small animals, the wind.

“You go on to that bend up there,” Mr S says, pointing. “I will wait here.”

I stride off, feeling no effects from the altitude; in fact, I feel strong, alive, full of energy. A small, beautiful bird alights on a nearby rock, then flies to another. I remove my pack, fit the 300 mm lens, but it’s gone. A rock bunting, perhaps? Twice I see small, furry animals dart beneath rocks, but never get a clear view.
“Rats,” Mr S says, but if they are, they’ll be nothing like
Delhi rats.

We eat lunch — chapattis and biscuits — and walk back to Badrinath. The bend I walked to, Mr S says, is at 13,000 feet.

The closing ceremony doesn’t start until 7 p.m., well after dark, but we need to find a ride back to Joshimath soon or we won’t be able to get one and will have to stay overnight — an uncomfortable prospect, as all the shops, even the chai stalls, have closed and the bedding has been removed from the hotels for the winter. We hang out with a group of other hitchers and eventually I do the rounds, asking if it’s okay to photograph them. They all seem willing, even happy. The happy saddhu who’s been blessing the jeeps with a swastika on the bonnet, and a tikka for any occupant who wishes, is also happy for me to photograph him. He asks where I’m from and how long I’ve been in India, and as I’m about to leave, he presents me with a handful of small sweets and a tikka on my forehead. This feels like the real thing, given in the true spirit.

The ride back down to town must be the least comfortable I’ve ever endured, folded up in the back of a jeep with four others and an assortment of huge, grubby pots. I can’t see out, and I’m crammed into a tiny space in a far corner, unable either to sit or stand, so I half crouch, half squat, and experiment with various positions to stop my feet going numb. I close my eyes and try to dream — astonishingly, I do. The journey takes 1½ hours according to Mr S; half an hour less than the ascent. It feels shorter, perhaps because of the intermittent dozing, but the state of my clothing, especially my pants, shows just how hard it was. My trousers are covered in dirt, smudges of soot, and the almost solid cooking oil from the pot lid I’ve been squashed and rubbed against. It’s said that on travels, there are great moments and memorable moments. This jeep journey has been memorable, but the day has been great.

Friday 17 November 2006
In the far distance, indistinct in the bright mid morning sun and the haze
of distance, a mountain, massive, and shining with snow. Only the summit and its leading ridges can be seen. I ask Mr S the name of the mountain.
“That,” he says, “is
Nanda Devi.”

Far below, near the bottom of the valley, a large raptor floats and glides, turning back and forth on slow wings. I reach for the binoculars and study the bird as it draws closer, but then slides away on the air, heading upvalley. I’m still not sure what it is, but then it turns, drives its wings down in one flexing stroke and begins to sail back down the valley at a higher level. Another down stroke, then it’s floating, gliding fast. It soars past about a hundred feet below, and there can be no doubt now — I watch the great golden head turning and dipping as it scans the slopes.

A lammergeier.

Here at Joshimath I’m beyond Jim Corbett’s primary range, although he undoubtedly visited here, and probably Badrinath and the other famous places too. But he mostly lived further down in the hill country, a region with little left of wildness except the underlying topography. Viewed from a distance, as a general landscape, the scale and steepness astonishes; viewed closer, in details, everything’s touched by humans. What appear to be precipices are being cut by hand for hay; goat paths traverse the mountainsides, and you’re never far from a collection of small shacks, a scree of rubbish fanning from the roadside, a village, billboards — and every so often, when you think you must be in country where the human population finally thins out, you reach a town like Joshimath, with its two bazaars, its buses and jeeps and stalls and guesthouses, with its shrines and temples, with its military post and its hydroelectric power project. How far do you have to go in the Indian Himalaya before you leave these things behind and enter country that still belongs only to animals, wild plants, snow and ice and rock, the wind, and time?

Photos (click them to enlarge them):
1. On the walk from Badrinath to Mana.
2. Joinery shop at Joshimath. These men were part of a team making windows.
3. Road works on the Badrinath road, just past Joshimath.
4. Mr S — "65 years plus".
5. Badrinath, the afternoon of the day it closed for winter.
6. The temple at Badrinath.
7. The view from the balcony of the Charak Guest House at Joshimath, a couple of days after the trip to Badrinath.
8, 10, 11. Some of the men trying to catch a jeep back to Joshimath from Badrinath. The man in photo 9 is one of the hoteliers at Badrinath; he took great delight in displaying his dental armoury.
9. The Happy Saddhu, in one of the rare moments he wasn't laughing.

Photos and words © 2006 Pete McGregor

30 October 2006

The Last Post? *

Tell me what is a thought, and of what substance is it made?
Tell me what is a joy, and in what gardens do joys grow?

—William Blake [1]

The man in the bookshop at Shannon leans back in his chair, eyes closed, feet propped on the desk, hands clasped, an open book face down on his lap. Limp kiwifruit skins litter a plate on the desk. The smell of old books.Little shag gular fluttering
He wakes as I slide the door open.
“I was just having a little doze,” he says, smiling.
I ask whether he has a copy of Thus Spake Zarathustra and his face lights up.
“Oh yes,” he says, “I usually have a couple of copies.”
He walks to the back of the front room, crouches and begins to look through a row of aged books. He frowns, seemingly perplexed that he can’t find a copy, but then extracts a volume from the row.
“Ah, this is the only copy I have at the moment.”
We talk a bit about Nietzsche, and it quickly becomes apparent that he shares my low regard for the great philosopher. I suspect we could natter all afternoon but I’m keen to keep moving. I buy the book, half wondering whether it’s a waste of money but I'm nagged by a feeling of obligation to read something of Nietzsche’s original work rather than slandering him solely on the basis of secondary literature.


At Williams Park the little shags now have chicks—strange, reptilian little animals. The light there is too harsh, too contrasty, so I carry on to Burdan’s Gate. But there, also, the hard, flat light and incessant wind stymie my intention to photograph. I retreat to the car and sit for a while, thinking of things I've seen earlier in the afternoon as I drove South. Somewhere near Tokomaru I saw cattle in a roadside field. One beast reclined on the ground, feet tucked under—but it was the curve of its neck I noticed. It had its head turned back so it lay against its shoulder, facing back. Something about the curve of the neck, the long swell of muscle under the skin. The poise of the head.

Soon after, I'd passed an old, gnarled Lorina Harding & Nigel Gavin at the Celticmacrocarpa, hardly even tree-like in its form, distorted by accidents and weather and perhaps a history of ill considered pruning. One of the big main branches curved in the exact form of the steer's neck; the swell of muscle appeared in the form of the wood beneath the bark. Even the same colour—the weathered silvery-grey of a charolais cross echoed by the bark of a Monterey cypress.

But no one calls them that here. They’re always macrocarpas. I wonder who first called them that consistently, and why, and when. Cupressus macrocarpa. When I was a child, discovering the world at McCormack’s Bay, macrocarpas were old trees where herons roosted and possums called at night and the darkness under low branches fostered too much imagination.


Why is Nietzsche held in such regard? Some call him a genius; he’s widely quoted, usually with awe; the literati relish dropping his name into a conversation, and he’s often referred to as one of the great philosophers of more recent times. Yet, his philosophy—if it can be called that—seems more assertion than reason; more diatribe than argument. I suspect much of the idolising arises from his skill with rhetoric—his ability to form such powerful aphorisms that to deny them is to appear weak and simple-minded. Take, for example, his statement that:

Most thinkers write badly because they communicate not only their thoughts but also the thinking of them.”

It's clever and powerful. However, like so many of Nietzsche’s claims, it's largely bullshit. And, since he deemed it unnecessary—in fact, undesirable—to justify his aphorisms, I won’t attempt to justify my claim that this example is bullshit; instead,Lorina Harding at the Celtic I’ll simply point out that in my experience, poor communication of thoughts more often results from the failure to communicate the thinking of them.

Admittedly, and certainly, some of what he had to say has merit. I think here of one of his more famous aphorisms:

A very popular error: having the courage of one's convictions; rather it is a matter of having the courage for an attack on one's convictions!!![2]

True. His idea of eternal recurrence—live your life as if you're destined to relive that exact life over and over, for ever—can hardly be surpassed as a guiding principle. I'm also very much in agreement with his exhortations to embrace life intensely, to welcome the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune because they offer the opportunity for growth. While I don’t share the intensity of his disgust at the attitude that would shrink from adversity and take refuge in servility, I do prefer courage as a response. But there's a world of difference between turning adversity to your advantage and actively seeking it at the expense of joy. Moreover, courage takes many forms: many more than Nietzsche’s narrow view, which seems heavily weighted towards violence, oppression, deceit, and exploitation. For example, true compassion can require great courage—it's one of the ways it differs from pity or sympathy—yet Nietzsche considered compassion a weakness. The idea that one human being might desire that another will find joy seems not only incomprehensible to him, but repugnant.


My friends visit for lunch, bringing their month old baby and pumpkin pie, and the kind of conversation and understanding that delights me. After the pie we sit on the verandah and talk. Emma, soon to turn three, comes over and leans against me, using me as a buffer between the others and herself, her shyness struggling with her curiosity.

My friends leave. Next door, Olive and Trev’s visitors drive off and the grandkids' parents prepare to leave. Carly and Emma run over and sit, one on each side of me on the verandah steps, talking simultaneously, making the most of their last opportunity for the weekend. I can't get a word in edgeways.

Being trusted by children. There’s as much delight and joy in that as in anything I know.


It’s tempting to characterise Nietzsche as being at the far end of an attitudinal spectrum with the Dalai Lama at the other; however, although I suspect Nietzsche would have appreciated this and probably considered it a spectrum of greatness, the Dalai Lama would probably dismiss the idea as a dualistic illusion. Moreover, I’m sure he would feel genuine compassion for Nietzsche. This, of course, would have driven Nietzsche insane if he hadn’t already been so for the last 11 years of his life.

I'm left struggling to understand why a person who considered women should be “playthings of the warrior”, most of the human race as “bungled and botched” and their wellbeing meaningless, and who compared them (us?) to apes [3], should be revered as an intellectual genius. Moreover, the pervasive dualism in his attitudes—exemplified by his contrast of Apollonian with Dionysian attitudes towards life—seems, to me, shallow; the opportunities for exploring how to combine those approaches to live a better life are wasted. My best guess is that he’s admired for two main reasons: his rhetorical brilliance, and his sheer audacity—his willingness to declaim against conventional, and mostly reasonable, beliefs. In my opinion, only the first deserves respect, and neither makes him a great philosopher.


Grey, drizzly rain; the mountains behind Levin receding in successively lighter silhouettes. Finally, nothing. Perhaps these were the mountains Zarathustra cameMuscovy duck portrait down from; mountains that give birth to legends. Mountains of myth, mountains in the mind. I wonder what our society today would be like if we all followed Nietzsche’s principles? In effect, I suppose I’m loosely applying Kant’s categorical imperative [4] as a test of Nietzsche’s philosophy—but Nietzsche considered Kant’s views absurd and dismissed him as unimportant. Typical, and it does nothing to show Kant was misguided. To the contrary, the little I know of the categorical imperative suggests it’s a useful tool for assessing the value and consistency of a philosophy, and, unfortunately for Nietzsche, it suggests the outcome of applying his teachings would be highly depressing. For example, if we all acted as if compassion were a weakness and the suffering of most of the world’s population as justifiable if it produces even a single great man, then what kind of world would we live in? Not one in which I’d like to live.


Wellington's about to be blown out to sea. Spray from the harbour gusts like squalls of rain across the waterfront; several times I'm almost lifted off my feet. But in the shelter of the canyons of the main business area the wind can't maintain its ferocity and resorts to being merely annoying. I make my way back to the car in the late afternoon, luckily avoiding the heaviest of the real rain which began an hour or so ago. A woman in her late 60s, perhaps her early 70s crosses the street with me, and after a particularly vicious wind gust, we strike up a conversation—the familiarity of shared adversity. She wonders whether she’s met me before; my face looks familiar, she says. I explain I'm not local; mention the Pohangina Valley; shake my head when she asks if I’ve been to Teachers’ College. She smiles and says I look like a tramper. You got that right, I say. She doesn’t elaborate, so I don’t know what gives her that impression but suspect it's the gradually moulting down jacket, the day pack, and the weatherbeaten disarray.

There's a fierce joy in foul weather. I think that kind of feeling may have been part of what gnawed at Nietzsche.


Back in the valley; a warm afternoon; the last clouds disappearing. A strange evening. I drove into town not long before dusk, and everything had an odd, hazy look—like an imminent fog. Down South, a bank of cloud hung over the Tararua Range, the world vanishing into the blank haze. Almost apocalyptic but without the trumpets and horsemen. For all my criticism of him, I think Nietzsche would have understood this feeling. Whether he'd have longed for the trumpets and horsemen is another matter—contentment seemed not to figure in his thinking. Perhaps he considered that a vice, too? Perhaps he thought dissatisfaction's necessary for growth, or, rather, that satisfaction hinders it? Maybe I'm misrepresenting him, but if I'm not, I'm pretty sure he's wrong. And if he's right, well, it's hard to see the point of a life. That, I think is the root of much of my dissatisfaction with his perspective; it's the feeling that it leads nowhere I'd like to be; a life lived as he advised would be an unpleasant and dissatisfied life.

I prefer the life I'm living.

1. from Blake's Visions of the Daughters of Albion. Many thanks to Debbie Lee for this gift.
2. from Nietzsche's
Works, 1920-1929, Volume XVI, page 318

3. I'll point out that I don't necessarily consider “apes” to be a pejorative term, although some of their habits are particularly unpleasant. But in this sense at least, Nietzsche was a man of his time. “What is the ape to man? ” he wrote, “A laughing-stock, a thing of shame. And just the same shall man be to the Superman: a laughing-stock, a thing of shame. ” from Nietzsche's Thus spake Zarathustra.
4. Loosely stated, the categorical imperative states you should act as if what you're doing should be a universal way of acting in similar circumstances. Although it resembles the Golden Rule, it is not the same. The Wikipedia article's a good starting point.

Photos (click the smaller photos to enlarge them):
Little shag (kawaupaka, Phalacrocorax melanoleucos) gular fluttering (it gets hot sitting on those nests. his is how they keep cool). Williams Park, Days Bay, near Eastbourne.
2 & 3. Nigel Gavin and Lorina Harding at the Celtic last Tuesday. Magnificent music. I didn't know they were playing until I arrived as they were setting up; after hearing just a few snippets and phrases of songs I abandoned my intentions of going to a movie. I had the camera with me; the lighting was appalling for photography (dim and red) and I pushed everything to the limits.
4. It's been good weather for ducks lately. A muscovy at Williams Park. I trust I won't look like this by the time the journey's over.
5. Woolshed, No. 2 Line, Pohangina Valley. Playing with the postprocessing.
6. Another in the series of the Wellington coast at dusk, Burdan's Gate, near Eastbourne.

* That's likely to be it for a while, as I fly out early tomorrow morning. I had intended to write more before I left; in particular, I wanted to do something about how I photograph, including the post-processing, but that will have to wait. However, this is only a last post in the sense that all time is contingent; I trust it won't be the last in any absolute sense. Take care, and look after each other.

Photos and words © 2006 Pete McGregor

05 October 2006


Place is security, space is freedom: we are attached to the one and long for the other.”
—Yi-Fu Tuan [1]

When John and I wandered the central Ruahine Range for eight days last November, I saw how he gazed out over the cloud enveloped headwaters of the Pourangaki; sat in the sun above Pinnacle Creek and looked out over the head of the Kawhatau and on into the blue distance; lay back in the snowgrass at the top of the Mania Track, listening to the wind, trying to absorb the nature of the land and breathe in the sky, trying to notice everything. How he seemed to be storing it all up, building memories, a store of solace for the dismal London winter to which he would soon return.

I think I understood how he felt. Now, I not only understand it—I feel it. In less than a month, I leave Aotearoa; I fly out from New Zealand for India and, eventually, Africa. A departure, and an arrival.

Barring the unforeseen, I close the door in the early morning of the 1st of November, make my Burdan's Gate shoreway to the airport and fly to Auckland. Later that day the big jet will speed me away from the place where I was born, to a place I've never been. Leaving home? No—I prefer to think my home comes with me.

However, the problem with saying my home travels with me is that it suggests I'm closed, I'm insulated in my small world. In fact, nothing could be further from the truth—I try to remain open, at least as far as reasonable common sense allows. Perhaps it's better to say my home opens out? Where are the walls of a home? When you step outside and close your door behind you, have you departed from your home? You walk to the edge of the terrace and look out over the evening valley—are you at home? You fall asleep under a bivvy rock in the Darrans, on a different island—are you at home? [2].

At the top of No. 2 Line, I circle slowly on the bike, recovering from a fast, hard climb. The view from the end of the road goes on, seemingly forever. Over deep valleys, endless hills receding; cloud looming; a glimpse of late snow on the shadowed mountains. In the valley below, vivid greens and russets—spring grass and the flush of new leaves on willows and poplars. Already, Azolla, the water fern, has begun to spread its pinkish-red mat over the burnished waters behind farm dams. Patry wasn't wrong when she said I live in one of the most beautiful places on earth. And this is my home; I feel at home here. I understand this, but I also realise “home” can be a matter of degree; to insist, “This is home and that is not,” is to fall into a dualistic trap. Even to say, “Here I feel at home and there I do not,” has elements of that dualism. Perhaps the important question is, “To what degree do I feel at home here?”

Yesterday MB left a comment remarking on the resemblance of some of my photos to the landscapes in which she lives. She's landlocked, far from the sea, yet something about the photo along the coast seemed familiar. I've noticed this when I travel: that tendency to compare landscapes, to recognise what's familiar. I wonder whether we do this to feel more at home?

When we do this, what prejudices do we bring? How does it prevent us from coming to know the true nature of a place?

There's much truth in Yi-Fu Tuan's aphorism, but the more I mull over it, the more I begin to think perhaps “security” isn't quite the right word—for me, at least. “Ease” or “comfort” seems to fit better—or am I confusing place with home? Or maybe it's Yi-Fu Tuan who equates place and home? For me, place is an element of home; sometimes strong, sometimes subtle—possibly necessary but never sufficient.

I circle once more, and begin the descent, gravel crackling under the tyres, the rush of a wheel twitch around a corner reminding me of the fragility of a life. I wonder if, for me, “Home is comfort, space is freedom: I am attached to the one and long for the other”. But even that seems unsatisfactory. Attachment and longing—these are feelings that are slowly becoming strangers to me; paradoxically, these seem increasingly unnecessary while the delight and joy of being with my friends and where I am grows. Perhaps that's good—but one feeling will never be unfamiliar.

I'll always wonder.

The details, and housekeeping:

I arrive in Delhi on 2 November; soon after, I'll make my way to the Garwhal and Kumaon regions, the foothills of the Himalaya. I don't know how far in I'll get—winter will be on the way and I'm not built for the cold. When I can't bear it any longer I'll move South, probably into Rajasthan and on to Gujarat. After that, who knows. Where my feet take me, I suppose. When I find somewhere that feels right, I'll settle for a while—a month or so, then move on.

Five months later, at the end of March, I fly to Ghana. Three weeks there, then a week and a half in northern South Africa, then up to Malawi for a month, all of May. At the beginning of June I head for the UK to catch up with friends and relatives for a week, then on to Paris for a week with friends. Then I'm back—I almost said “home”—to Aotearoa/New Zealand, in late June 2007.

That's the plan, almost as much of it as is confirmed. Whether it happens remains to be seen, but I trust it'll go something like that. There will be great times and there will be ... memorable times.

As for the blog... Sorry, but don't expect much while I'm away. Yes, there will be internet cafes, but there's more to life than hunting for the next internet connection—far more. I'll publish a few more posts before I depart, but from November until July next year, "pohanginapete" will be fairly quiet. If you want to be notified when I do publish a new post, send me an email and I'll put you on the list [3]. I'm unlikely to be able to process photos so they'll be few and far between. However, I will be photographing, and I will be writing—by hand, with a pen, on paper. When I return to Aotearoa—and, with luck, the Pohangina Valley (although that's uncertain)—I expect to have a substantial amount to work on. I don't want to say there will be a book, because every time I say that, it seems to get harder. But...

The travels also mean I won't be commenting on other blogs, or only rarely. Again, I'm sorry; I know how good it is to hear other people's responses, and know I've been remiss in staying silent when even a stone (o) or a :^) would convey what's important. I know it sounds facile, but please trust me—I won't forget you. I'll miss you, too.

He aha te mea nui o te Ao?
Maku e ki atu
He tangata, he tangata, he tangata.

1. P. 3 in Tuan, Yi-Fu 1977: Space and place: the perspective of experience. London, Edward Arnold. 235 pp. ISBN 0-7131-5971-5.
2. Yes.
For reasons beyond my understanding, RSS feeds don't seem to work for this blog—when I try to verify the feed I get a truckload of error messages. Sorry.

Photos (click the smaller photos to enlarge them):
1, 2 & 4. Coast at dusk, Burdan's Gate, near Eastbourne, Wellington harbour.
3. Tui (Prosthemadera novaezealandiae) and kowhai (Sophora sp.), Williams Park, Days Bay, Eastbourne.
5. Little shag (kawaupaka, Phalacrocorax melanoleucos), Williams Park.

Photos and words © 2006 Pete McGregor

01 October 2006



The first of October. The afternoon darkens; grey cloud thickens, saying rain soon. But it’s still warm out here on the verandah, still calm. The firstMallard of October, and this morning I heard the first pipiwharauroa. In the East, cloud begins to melt into a misty veil of rain over distant hills. A blackbird sings a gentle song from the sycamore and another answers from lower down, perhaps in the apple, perhaps the manuka. A tui too: warbles and clucks punctuating melodic phrases.

The rain veil spreads. Two putangitangi fly, silent and synchronised, across that sky, South to North, upvalley. In the same moment a swallow darts and flickers over the paddock, flying directly away from me, more a quick movement than substance. Receding, flickering its way into the oblivion of the encroaching rain. As the putangitangi fly North and the swallow East, a small flight of finches scatters South and alights in the top of the sycamore. The moment lasts no more than a handful of seconds but seems to contain the meaning of a lifetime. I look up into the sky, above the rain, where the cloud seems uncertain whether to close and thicken or break to let the light shine through. It resembles something William Blake might have painted—dark, immanent, potent, full of symbolism. The first of October.

The first rain begins to tap on the verandah roof.


Rainwalking, Pohangina River

I used to hate the rain
the miserable drip and
Duckling dreaming
gradual seep the drum
on the hut
s iron roof
with the river rising
all the time uncountable
crossings still to go

Now on my own making
whatever time I like
s just another part
of being out here
the silence expands
in this taptaptap this
leafsplatter the dull gleam
of riverbed boulders

Anyone else would wreck it
I hope the other world
long gone tucked behind
warm walls with the radio on
leaving me with the cold the
mist thunder in the gorge rain falling -
anyone else would wreck it

but I remember the colour
of the sea and find myself

Photos (click them if you want a larger image):
1. Mallard. Williams Park, Days Bay, near Eastbourne, Wellington harbour.
2. Image based on a mallard duckling (loc. cit.), with significant post-processing.
3. Shoreline at Burdan's Gate, Point Arthur, Wellington harbour.

Photos and words © 2006 Pete McGregor

22 September 2006


A stone sits in the middle of the driveway in front of the house. One stone, darker than the rest. A stone that would fit into a cupped hand. The shape is irregular Possum skulland lumpy; the texture rough and pitted. The stone is encircled by a small, blue band of webbing, like a miniature climber’s sling. I recognise its significance.

It is the mark of incipient terrorism.


The Neurological Foundation of New Zealand (NFNZ) suggests the current scientific consensus is that dreams have no meaning. The Foundation’s usually excellent newsletter quotes Harvard Medical School’s Allan Hobson [1] as pointing out that “hallucinatory mental content is lowest during active waking and highest during REM sleep,” while “the incidence of thinking is highest during quiet waking and lowest during REM sleep.” From this, the Foundation’s article concludes a sleeping brain cannot simultaneously generate perceptions and think about them; in other words, you cannot make sense of your dreams.

I’m still struggling to make sense of that logic.


I walk down the driveway and through the gate, into an area of scrub-covered hillside and crumbling rock, leading down to flat land. I spent my childhood here; now, however, it is Viv playing fiddlemore arid, full of drought and fear. I walk with my hands held out and up to show I am helpless, that I am no threat. I am afraid, but keep walking. A group of small men walk past me and I try to explain that I just wish to talk. They seem to be in a hurry, but they assure me they will arrange a meeting. I am doing this to avert the attack on my family.


The NFNZ’s article was published this year. I check the article on which it was based and find it was published in 1998 [2]. Given the article did not present original research but instead was a selective, popular summary, the conclusions are likely to be close to a decade old. That’s a long time in science, and I wonder what the consensus is now.


I wake in a room already full of light, and reach out to turn on the radio. A New Zealand woman has been seriously wounded by a gunman in Jordan; another person in her group was killed in the attack.

I am awake in my room in the Pohangina Valley, listening to what happened in the world while I was dreaming.


Even a cursory investigation raises doubt about the NFNZ’s dogmatic conclusion. Hobson's models ofTony singing dreaming have not been universally accepted; indeed, they have been opposed vehemently by Mark Solms, whose research results disagree with Hobson's in three major areas.

Hobson claims dreams originate in the same region of the brain (the pons) that stimulates REM sleep; the signals arising here are relatively chaotic [3] and it is the forebrain’s attempts to “make sense” of these chaotic impulses that we experience as dreams. He now concedes that the forebrain might in fact influence REM activity, but still maintains that because the “thinking” part of the forebrain (the prefrontal cortex) is not active during dreaming, while the “emotional brain” (the limbic and paralimbic regions) is active, dreams have little or no meaning.

Solms, however, claims to have shown that dreaming is not synonymous with REM sleep—in other words, that significant dreaming activity occurs independently from REM sleep [4]; and that dreams originate in a different area of the brain (the ventral tegmental area of the midbrain).

Hobson and Solms also disagree about the biochemistry of dreaming. Hobson focuses on the levels of serotonin, norepinephrine, and acetylcholine and how the interactions of these chemicals cause the observed characteristics of dreams, while Solms argues that the dopaminergic system—which also regulates appetites and desires—forms the basis of dreaming.

Thus, the controversy arises from three major differences: the area of the brain in which dreaming Paul playing harmonicaoriginates (and therefore the implications of this in light of what is known about the function of these different regions); whether dreams are substantially a byproduct of REM activity; and the neurochemical basis of dreams (and again, therefore, the implications of this).

The upshot of these differences is that Hobson’s theory points strongly to dreams as being largely random and therefore meaningless, but Solms’ theory links dreaming with areas and processes considered important in generating our appetites and desires. This also means Freud’s theories of dreams can have no place in Hobson’s model, but seem to be not just allowed, but supported by Solms’ model.

Despite this polarisation, Hobson and Solms both consider dreaming as akin to psychosis; they regard dreams as fundamentally bizarre and emotional. However, empirical sleep research—in loose terms, experimental observation—suggests otherwise; moreover, this research suggests both theories are wrong because the predicted associations between neurophysiological activity and the characteristics of dreams (e.g., “bizarreness”, or intense emotion) have not been observed [5].


I lie awake, thinking about the dream, thinking about dreaming. When I was a small child, I often dreamed of being chased by wolves and escaping into the sky. As I grewPhymatosaurus in the Ruahine older and learned more about the true nature of wolves, the dream became less frequent. Now, I no longer have recurring dreams—at least, not that I remember. But other people do, and I wonder: if brain activity during dreaming really is so chaotic, how can this explain recurring dreams?


Further investigation leads me into a mire of arguments, hypotheses, digressions, and technical jargon well beyond my comprehension, but what does seem clear is that the NFNZ's dogmatic conclusion is unjustified: other theories have been proposed, but all are flawed in some way. Even the popular assertion that sleep serves to consolidate memory is hotly argued [6].

Currently, no satisfactory model explains dreaming. A sound model, it seems, remains a dream.


Do dreams have meaning? For all my scepticism about the quality of the NFNZ’s article and regardless of whether Allan Hobson’s theories (or any others) are correct, I’m inclined to agree with at least part of what he says: the greatest value of dreams is that the attempt to interpret them tells us something about ourselves. The difficulty, of course, arises if you believe they mean nothing; if you believe you cannot meaningfully interrogate your dreams. If you believe that, then dreams can tell you nothing about yourself.


I’m not suggesting any kind of prescience in the dreams I mention here, nor do I attach any importance to the supposed coincidences. Dreams about terrorism are, I suspect, not uncommon. Tragically, nor is terrorism solely a nightmare.

1. Hobson is one of the developers of the activation-synthesis hypothesis, which in its original form regards dreams as essentially meaningless (Hobson, J.A.; McCarley, R. 1977: The brain as a dream state generator: An activation-synthesis hypothesis of the dream process. American Journal of Psychiatry 134: 1335–1348. [Read the abstract]).
2. The original article is no help, because in it Allan Hobson doesn’t argue the case for denying that dreams have meaning—he insists they have no meaning: ‘"Dreams do not contain messages from the unconscious mind, or provide an outlet for repressed feelings," insists J. Allan Hobson, professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School.’ (op. cit.)
3. This has been disputed; brain stem signals may be ordered and predictable, or at least not as chaotic as claimed by Hobson (Jones, B. E. 2000. The interpretation of physiology. Behavioral and Brain Sciences 23: 955–956).
4. The association between dreaming and REM sleep has been recognised since 1953 (Aserinsky, E.; Kleitman, N. 1953: Regularly occurring periods of eye motility, and concomitant phenomena, during sleep. Science 118:273–274); however, this aspect of the Hobson/Solms controversy focuses on whether REM sleep is the sole origin of significant dreaming.
5. Domhoff, G. W. 2005: Refocusing the neurocognitive approach to dreams: A critique of the Hobson versus Solms debate. Dreaming 15: 3–20.
6. For example, compare Robert Vertes' conclusion that “there is no compelling evidence to support a relationship between sleep and memory consolidation” with the view of Jan Born and Bj√∂rn Rasch that “ compelling evidence has accumulated that links sleep to learning and memory.” Vertes, R. 2004: Memory Consolidation in Sleep: Dream or Reality. Neuron 44: 135-148; Born, J.; Rasch, B. 2006. Sleep to remember. The Neuroscientist 12 (5): 410–424.

Photos (click them if you want a larger image):
1. Possum (Trichosurus vulpecula) skull, No. 1 Line track, Ruahine Range. Someone had hung this by its eye socket from a small, dead shrub in front of the massive rimu, a tree hundreds of years old.
2, 3, 4. Viv, Tony, and Paul playing at the Waterford a few weekends ago.
5. Kowaowao (hound's tongue fern, Microsorum pustulatum), No. 1 Line track.
6. Image based on a photo of horopito (mountain pepperwood, Pseudowintera colorata), No. 1 Line track.

Photos and words © 2006 Pete McGregor