26 April 2006


Wellington’s lights, a multi-coloured constellation, demarcate its life. Its human life and activity; the shape of its hills; how it challenges the dark, defiant between black water and the soft glow of cloud—cloud visible only because it’s revealed by the light of the city it constrains.

It’s the utter darkness of the harbour that pulls me in. I look at the lights and the dark beneath the line of motorway lights draws my gaze down; down and in. It’s like looking out beyond the boundary of the universe—a feeling I could fall forever, following the countless lives gone before me, vanished, gone, the purest possible aloneness. The terrible longing for extinction. Perhaps this was what Isabelle Eberhardt sought; what she had in mind when she claimed to “have learnt not to look for anything in life but the ecstasy offered by oblivion.” She destroyed herself, but it was a flood—water in the night—that finally took her life [1]. Perhaps the distinction is meaningless. What do you long for?

Dirk sleeps slumped sideways on the sofa. Sometimes he snores and his paws twitch as if he’s making little grabs at dreamed mice. I disturb him, deliberately; stroke his head, feeling the skull beneath the fur. He jerks awake, chirrups loudly and stretches—a long shudder, then he relaxes into a loud, continuous purr. Miep calls at the big patio doors so I open them and she runs inside on silent feet, a warm grey shape with no edges. Straight to her bowl. I stroke her as she eats and I get the sound of a gurgled purr mixed with crunched cat biscuits. It’s impossible to tell when my palm first touches her fur.

I saw an aeroplane fly overhead this afternoon. I looked up from the deck of this house above Eastbourne; looked up into a blue sky streaked with hazy cirrus and watched the belly of the plane, two engines carrying it on a high, slow arc towards the South. A plane flying overhead is always going away from you. I watched as the plane flew on over the gorse hills, out towards the southern horizon; I watched the plane shrink until it became only a brilliant point of light, moving almost imperceptibly. Then it was gone. Down there, down South, the sky was a grey and orange-brown haze with a faint greenish cast, a smudge of subtle colours. Hogsbacks had begun to form, some towering and massive, others classically curved and elongated, each like a slash in the sky revealing something and somewhere darker through the rent. What do you long for?

Dirk sat upright, nearby and facing my deck chair. He tucked his feet neatly together, wrapped his tail around them and closed his eyes. A formal patience, waiting to be noticed. I heard the momentary tinkle of a bell, looked around and saw Miep padding toward me. She bumped against my chair, wrapped herself around my leg a couple of times then sat in the same pose as Dirk, closer but with her back to me. A flock of finches flew past, quick, with rapid wingbeats black against the brilliant sea, their voices like the memory of Miep’s bell. Far below, somewhere near the water’s edge, oystercatchers called and I remembered standing outside on a clear, moonless night when I was still in my teens, hearing oystercatchers flying overhead, lost in the darkness, their piping sounding like something from the roof of heaven. There’s a kind of ache in that sound, something that says everything about immensity and timelessness and impermanence; about the appalling and incomprehensible brevity of lives; and about the ridiculous pomposity of too much human activity. What do you long for? The sun went down, the sky began to fade, losing colour, and the wind dropped to a drifting breeze barely strong enough to wrinkle the water. Here and there, glassy patches appeared on the harbour. I looked up into that huge, empty sky and thought, maybe this is why wolves howl.


Some time after 4 p.m. I packed camera, lenses, binoculars, and notebook and walked down the hill, along the foreshore towards Days Bay. Slowly; thinking how I might get photos of black oystercatchers and gulls, maybe a shag; aware I’d be shooting into the light. Difficult—but if you don’t break the rules you stay safe. After a while and a few experiments I turned back towards Eastbourne. I walked slowly, searching the shore, gazing at details. What was I looking for? I imagined someone asking me the question and wondered how I’d reply. Probably by saying something like, “I don’t know, but I will when I find it.” Can you search for something if you don’t know what it is?

I wondered about the appeal of searching. I know people—blokes, mostly—who seem not to need to look for anything, particularly answers. They seem to know them already. I wonder whether they ever wonder. Am I like that—am I too ready to state facts and deliver answers? The idea that I might be perceived like that filled me with dismay as I picked my way over the wet rocks. I tried to move with grace but felt lumpish and clumsy; an oystercatcher stood balanced on one leg on a barnacle encrusted island of rock and watched me lurch past. What am I looking for? I don’t know, but maybe I will when I find it.

Right then, trying to step carefully in the late afternoon with the sun in my eyes, I wondered whether enlightenment is all it’s cracked up to be. Perhaps I misunderstand it. Perhaps I don’t know what it is. Will I know if I find it? I hopped to another rock, and realised I’m not looking for it—at least, I don’t think I am. I suspect if if I do find enlightenment, I won’t arrive there gracefully but will stumble on it. And, if enlightenment is anything like finally finding answers to the big questions, then I think I’m happy being unenlightened. I enjoy wondering; I love the possibility of not knowing. But I probably do misunderstand enlightenment. Maybe it has nothing to do with answers; maybe it’s more about working out ways to live—ways that cause no harm, bring joy, and allow you the freedom to be who you are. Nothing in that requires you to be able to provide an unassailable answer to any question—in fact, it seems more likely that a question asked will evoke a shrug and a genuine query in response. But maybe that’s just me. Maybe I prefer learning to knowledge. Maybe I’ll always be inclined to answer big questions with a shrug, saying, “I don’t know. Tell me what you think.” And, maybe I’ll always start too many sentences with “Maybe”.

I returned, unenlightened and happy. Dirk and Miep greeted me; the big house held the heat of the day. What do I long for?

Right here; right now; nothing.

1. See Sven Lindqvist’s marvellous, unclassifiable book, Desert Divers. London, Granta. (2000). 144 pp.

1. Lampshade.
2. Miep.
3. Dirk.
4. Dark phase variable oystercatcher, toreapango, Haematopus unicolor; Eastbourne (Wellington harbour).
5. Red-billed gull, tarapunga, Larus novaehollandiae scopulinus; Eastbourne.

Photos and words © 2006 Pete McGregor

21 April 2006

Heisenberg (poem)

This is an old one. The photo's also an old one, from Mongolia in 2004. I'm not sure if the two are related.

Heisenberg at the Arts Centre

At the Boulevard Bakehouse
I drank coffee in the absence of
china tea and struggled
with a giant muffin
bought on your recommendation

I managed almost two thirds
and shared the rest with fat sparrows
afternoon conversations
something about impossibility

trams passed by twice
people came and went
quiet jazz clashed around
the stone walls

when the breeze got up
and the third tram stopped
I walked off leaving
the wreck of a snack

taking a curious kind
of emptiness perhaps
it was the space where
I’d tried to measure you.

Photo and words © 2006 Pete McGregor

16 April 2006

Blood and guts

The nurse peers across the desk at the readout. “Your haemoglobin’s fabulous,” she says, her tone like that of a farmer surveying a bumper crop. “You must be doing the right things; eating the right foods.”

I shrug and smile a little, say nothing. I feel strangely calm and deliberate today, as if I’ve been blessed with a deep and peaceful equanimity. She gets me to sign the form and I notice she seems to have missed the “yes” beside the last question, which asks whether I engage in any hazardous activities.

“The hazardous activity is rock climbing,” I say, pointing to the question, “but I’m not doing it today.”

She smiles and jots a note, then takes me through to the donation room, where I get a position by the window. I’m to be attended to by Marcia. She looks to be in her late 50s, determined, capable, in control. Marcia introduces herself and asks for my full name and date of birth; the usual ritual. I tell her, and she sets about transferring small, coded stickers from a sheet to an assortment of bags and tubes and phials. I am to be dispersed, sampled, tested, stored, and, eventually, to become part of someone else. With luck, my fabulous haemoglobin might save someone’s life.

“And what do you have planned for Easter?” Marcia asks.

“Staying put. Staying out of the hills. Too many people; the huts’ll be full of hunters.”

“Ah, the roar,” she says. “Everyone looking for a stag, though why you’d want a stag in the roar, I don’t know.”

“Yeah, beats me. They’re pretty horrible this time of year.”

Marcia and I talk a little about the stink of stags and their disgusting behaviour until she says, “Now, this might be the time to look away.” She has the needle poised over my inflated vein. It doesn’t bother me, but I look away anyway. A momentary prick and it’s done.

“You did that really well,” I say. “I hardly felt a thing.”

“That’s because you were distracted,” she says, but it’s not true. We resume talking about stags.

“I had one write off my car once,” Marcia says. “It was a Datsun 120Y.”

“Classic car.”

She nods and tells me the story. “Apparently this stag decided it didn’t like the look of my car. Somehow it managed to break through the fence; I was inside, and heard a lot of noise. I went out—it was at night—and managed to get the thing back in the paddock.”

She unclips the clamp, and the tube running from my arm instantly turns purple-red. I’m thinking about this small, capable woman managing to get a worked up, hormone blinded red stag, probably weighing close to several hundred kilos, back into its paddock. I’d have shot the bugger.

“Anyway, I had to go to work, and I couldn’t get in the driver’s door, it was too badly beaten up. I had to crawl in through the passenger’s side. The car still drove ok, but I didn’t realise how bad the damage was until I finished my shift and saw it in daylight.” She laughs. “When the other traffic on the road saw me coming, everyone got out of the way.”

“I’m not surprised.”

“I told my husband what had happened. He went outside, looked at it, came back in and made himself a cup of tea. I was furious,” she says.

I think I’d rather have taken on the stag. Apparently the panelwork on the car was too badly damaged and the insurance company wrote the car off.


When my 470 ml is in the bag, Marcia clamps the tube and goes through the remainder of the process, methodically, carefully. She folds a wad of gauze, presses it over the needle, which she then extracts. I know the ritual; I’ve been through it more often than I can remember, so I don’t wait for her to ask, but put my finger on the gauze so she has both hands free to process the various bags and phials. Eventually she takes over the gauze pad, and peeks underneath to see if the hole has closed over. She’s not satisfied, so she raises my arm in the air and presses down firmly on the pad. We chat for a while until she lowers my arm and begins wrapping the pad with a length of that strange, self adherent elastic bandage.

“They first developed this for horses,” she says. “It’s good for tying up plants in the garden.” She gives me a slightly impish look.


In the tearoom I chat with a lively, fit looking guy who asks me what I’m doing for Easter. I give him the same answer I gave Marcia.

“What about you?” I ask.

“Means nothing to me, mate,” he says, all cheerful. “We just carry on as usual where I work.”

“Where’s that?”

“On the milk tankers,” he replies. “Drive ‘em for Fonterra. Go all over the place—Hawkes Bay, Taranaki, down to Levin...”

“You go up the Pohangina Valley?”

“Yeah, too right. Go up there lots.” I get a big grin.

We yarn for a while over a cuppa and a biscuit, then go our separate ways.

“Might see you on the road some time,” I say.

“Yeah, cheers mate,” he says.


I leave, smiling outside and in. You don’t get paid for giving blood in Aotearoa; there’s no financial reward. For me, the rewards are a cup of tea and a biscuit; meeting people like Marcia and the milk tanker driver whose name I don’t even know; and the satisfaction of sharing my fabulous haemoglobin. Beats a bit of cash any day; hands down.

Photo 1: Fence post, No. 3 Line, Pohangina Valley.
Photo 2: Just an autumn photo: Amanita muscaria, Te Awaoteatua Stream, Pohangina Valley.
Photo 3: Shed and grasses, the Catlins, Southland.

Photos and words © 2006 Pete McGregor

13 April 2006


A cold wind in the late afternoon, blowing pale sunlight over paddocks stripped of ripened crops. Stubble, ploughed earth, shorn pasture. A field of black and white bulls. An empty paddock where a horse the colour of the faded daylight moon stands, enduring the wind.

I drove home through light drained of its power to warm—it slipped over surfaces, unable to sink in, bounced off buildings and tree trunks and leaves; shadows everywhere. Later, pain behind my right eye, and rain on the iron roof after dark.


morning sun
through last night’s rain
a yellowhammer


The sun’s just rolled below the western skyline, leaving light the colour of a duck’s egg and the clouds, changing moment by moment, shift through grades of orange and grey and white. The textures are astonishing—here a wild ruffle like a surfer’s sun dried hair; there a scatter of confetti; elsewhere a patterned sheet like muscle beneath skin, a mackerel sky; close to the horizon, long, lenticular clouds as smooth as the cheek of a woman, as a closed eyelid and everything within. One of those curved clouds looks like the profile of a sawfish—that strange creature we used to see sporadically on the wonderful Attenborough narrated natural history documentaries before pay-to-see TV drove them to extinction on the free-to-air channels—a kind of devolution where reality replaces what’s real and adrenaline supplants intelligence.

I sound like a grumpy fossil, a disceptatious dinosaur.

Before my eyes, the sawfish cloud thins and disappears; the space it encompassed fills with a brilliant light which has no colour, like the purest form of nothing. Light only; light without colour; light and nothing more. This makes no sense until you see it.


Tonight the phone rang, an event so rare it startled me. I picked it up.

“Pete speaking,” I said.

It was a woman from the blood bank. She sounded tentative, almost apologetic, which I suppose is understandable when you’re asking someone if it’s all right if you drain a pint or so of their blood. I warmed to her immediately. Before I could say, “yes, of course,” she’d begun to list their opening hours and was wondering whether I could manage to come in some time in the next few weeks.

“Yes, of course,” I said, eager to please, eager she should feel good about the call. “I’ll come in tomorrow morning. I have things to do in town, so I’ll be in anyway,” I lied.

I put the phone down, sat back, and listened to the music filling the room. When it ended, I picked a book from the shelves, not quite at random but more or less haphazardly. I opened it.

There, still, we have magic adventures, more wonderful than any I have told you about; but now, when we wake up in the morning, they are gone before we can catch hold of them. How did the last one begin? ‘One day when Pooh was walking the Forest, there were one hundred and seven cows on a gate...’ No, you see, we have lost it. It was the best, I think.

I went to bed and dreamed of things I don't remember.

1. Perhaps the short poem is or is not a haiku, depending on what you believe haiku to be. For me, it's more about quality than form and structure, and the obsession with 5-7-5 syllables is irrelevant. In any case, it's based on the confusion of onji with the western syllable. Cyril Childs, editor of both NZ haiku anthologies summed it up perfectly when he said that focusing on the structure of haiku is like focusing on the cage that surrounds the singing bird. Whatever mine is, I hope it sings for you.
2. Yellowhammer: Emberiza citrinella. Another of those introduced birds no one seems to know or care much about.
3. When I donated today, I asked, and was told they take 470 ml. So, for the pedantic, it's only about 3/4 of a pint.
4. The quote, if you haven't already guessed, is from A.A. Milne's The House at Pooh Corner, in the Contradiction.

Photo 1: I pass this shed twice, every time I make a trip into town and back.
Photo 2: Posting photos of me seems pretentious, but I'm getting bored with the other photos and I suspect people are vaguely curious by nature. Whatever.

Photos and words © 2006 Pete McGregor

07 April 2006

Being still

A car howls around the downvalley bend, drops a gear as it sweeps through the curl of the bridge, and growls up the hill. I step off the road and wait. The car hurtles around the blind corner, cutting the white line, and flashes up the hill. Red, shiny, trailing a stink of exhaust like a drawn-out, sulphurous fart from its large bore arsehole. I bet the car gets polished every week.


I remember Dirk hunting mice. He simply sat, motionless, on the kitchen floor, watching the hole in the wall where the pipe passed behind the refrigerator. Even when he turned his head to look at me, then turned back to the mouse path, he seemed so still, as if the movement emphasised its own absence.


Te Awaoteatua Stream rushes to the Pohangina. Always in motion. For all I know, this small stream has never ceased flowing for hundreds of years, perhaps far longer. I watch the water for a while, then look away and the boulders on the bank seem to creep back up the little valley. The distant roar of a stag. Poplar leaves hang perfectly still above the rushing water; one detaches, spirals down, and when it lands there’s a faint scratch and rustle. Then nothing but the sound of water.

No matter how quietly I tread, I sound cacophonous.


On the way back down No. 3 Line I stop to listen. I don’t know what I’m listening for—perhaps just the silence itself. It seems to infiltrate; the absence of sound becomes the absence of movement. I realise I’m hardly breathing. Nothing requires effort because everything has paused; the afternoon hesitates, relaxes, waits.

As I stand here, silent, perfectly still, a piwakawaka[1] appears and flits around me, so close I wonder whether it’ll settle on me. It’s so close because I’m so still I’m hardly here at all—I know this; there’s no question the encounter arises from the quality of stillness.


I look down from the bridge at the rushing stream, and realise that this flow has the same quality of stillness as the leaf when it settles; as Dirk waiting; as the silence that follows the stag’s roar. I wonder whether that same quality can ever be found in a red car with polished paint and a large exhaust, even when the oil’s run dry.

1. Rhipidura fuliginosa, the New Zealand fantail.

Photo 1: Flow: Te Awaoteatua Stream, Pohangina Valley.
Photo 2: Raupo (Typha orientalis); No. 3 Line, Pohangina Valley.

Photos and words © 2006 Pete McGregor

03 April 2006

The long fall into autumn

How long has it been since I’ve done this? To sit on the verandah in the warm sun, windows open, music playing, a bit of cheese, a glass of wine... and the bloody dogs going ape because a sheep’s walked too close to the kennels...

Too long, and I’m not sure why. It’d be easy to blame the weather—particularly the winds, which have seemed so often to come from the wrong quarter—but perhaps it’s simpler than that. Perhaps I’ve been away too much. Out in the evenings, watching films, meeting friends, exploring ideas. Maybe I simply haven’t been here for many of the good evenings when I could have sat out here, doing nothing in particular and so much that matters. In the last 4–5 months, I’ve been elsewhere a good quarter of the time—in the Ruahine; down Wellington way; in the South Island. I regret none of it, but now summer’s gone; autumn’s beginning to stretch its shadow across the land towards winter and it’s likely I’ll have few of these evenings left to enjoy. I’d like to share them with friends; here, squinting across the paddock into the sun, at the backlit trees on the terrace edge—the slow-turning leaves of black locust and the apple, the never changing foliage of manuka. Watching thistledown drift like lost feathers on a sea of light; the flickering flight of swallows; a hawk heading somewhere after another day’s floating and spiralling and scanning, falling and rising.

It’s hard during the week, though. It’s not far to drive from town to here, but far enough; for friends faced with the prospect of work the next day, a relaxed verandah session has to compete with a decent sleep and it’s easy to say, “let’s leave it for the weekend” —usually meaning Saturday. One day of seven. It seems wrong. A life is so precious and so ephemeral that to waste any of it seems an unbearable tragedy. No—it is an unbearable tragedy. Yet so many of us do bear that tragedy; most days getting up reluctantly and heading off to a job we don’t like; a job where we’re stressed; most importantly, a job that seems largely trivial and unimportant, without real meaning.

What can be done? Well, you can either change your circumstances or change the way you think. Occasionally, changing your circumstances—for example, switching jobs, moving elsewhere—can work. Often it doesn’t. Conversely, changing how you think can always work—the catch is that it’s far harder. All I can say, from my own experience, is that it gets easier with practice.

I notice a movement down near my bare feet. A little jumping spider, the house hopper Euophrys, swivels to face me. He lifts his head and the effect is remarkable—I swear he’s looking up at me, staring me in the face. Can he see that far? What does he see? What’s he thinking? How do spiders think; what’s it like to be a spider? These are questions curious kids ask and adults don’t know how to answer. I stay very still, looking back at him, trying not to stare too hard. He moves forward a little, towards my big toe. When he stops, it’s a perfect pause as if time itself has hesitated; only the flicker of his tiny white palps counters the effect. Another slight forward movement, then he jumps, quick and nimble, onto my toe. He’s so small and light I feel nothing; those eight little legs tiptoeing over my huge, clumsy toe don’t even register. He makes a small jump onto the next toe, then, presumably deciding it’s a poor hunting ground, hops back down to the verandah. I feel blessed.

Returning to that sad thought about how so much life gets wasted, I think about the recent sale of the NZ online auction, Trade Me, and the response to that news. Trade Me sold for about $NZ 700 million and the news was full of the story of cofounder Sam Morgan, who, only a few years ago, was a trying to keep warm in a shared flat. Now he’s banked something between $200–300 million and is fielding numerous offers of marriage.

Good luck to him. I have no complaints about Sam—what disturbs me is the sort of thinking (if that’s not too generous a word) the story has encouraged. Suddenly it seems everyone wants to know how he did it so they can do it too. That, or something equally successful. The tragedy is that, yet again, success is measured as money. Sam’s either hailed as a hero to emulate or he’s envied because, well, he got rich quick. That’s what’s considered significant; that’s what we should strive for. What seems to have been ignored or downplayed, even when Sam pointed it out himself, is that he enjoys what he does. To me, that’s his real success.

I wonder: what if we all found a way to make $200 million within a few years? Would we be happier? Would our society be better?

On a terrace on the far side of the river a stag roars: a deep, drawn-out groan full of lust and aggression. They’re at it up in the hills too, wandering about, setting up territories, herding hinds, challenging interlopers. In that state they’re easier to hunt, more vulnerable, and the hills are full of blokes with loaded rifles and adrenaline. Autumn: season of mists and mellow fruitfulness my arse. It’s hormones and testosterone poisoning here.

I sit back in the old chair with its sun-rotted fabric and watch a silhouetted magpie hunched sharp and dark on the power line. It lifts a wing and nibbles its armpit, ruffles its feathers and hunches back down. What’s necessary for success? What does it take to be happy?

Not much, I reckon.

There is no greater sin than desire
No greater curse than discontent,
No greater misfortune than wanting something for oneself.
Therefore he who knows that enough is enough will always have enough

Lao Tsu: Tao te ching (46). Translated by Gia-Fu Feng and Jane English (1972). Vintage Books edition 1989. ISBN 0-679-72434-6.

Photo 1: Amanita muscaria on the bank of Te Awaoteatua Stream, Pohangina Valley.
Photo 2: Keep out. If you know me, you know what symbols like this mean to me.
Photo 3: Writing. Based on a photo of a reflection in double glazed windows, when I was minding a house, two cats, and an indeterminate number of mice, one of which lived in the TV. The string of lights near the bottom isn't a reflection; it's the Hutt motorway, leading to Wellington City on the far side of the harbour.

Photos and words © 2006 Pete McGregor