26 June 2006


Green hills and long shadows; the morning sun cutting across dark gullies, lighting ridgelines and revealing the texture of the land. In the distance, hazy rain, luminous beneath dark cloud, and beyond, a glimpse of snow rising towards the Ngamoko Range. We look across to where the Pohangina turns East and disappears into the Ruahine Range. I feel as if the land's offering me a gift: the chance to show Tony the nature of this place.

He's busy with tripods and graduated filters and a camera the size of a campervan. I'm the last person he's visiting during a month of travelling the North Island, meeting friends, photographing, interviewing, exploring places he’s never been, getting snowed in, surviving a succession of southerly storms—but perhaps most of all, coming to understand more about what he does. Why he does it. Why he photographs. You can see it in his photos; you can feel something in them. He tries to explain it, and the phrase “the wairua of the land” comes up several times. It’s difficult to translate. “Wairua” is sometimes synonymised with “spirit”, but that English word has slightly pejorative connotations. Another friend recently pointed out how, as soon as you mention the word “spiritual”, you’re sidelined; you’re grouped with the fringe dwellers—a candle seen as a fire hazard not a means of illumination. At best, decision makers will treat you as another annoyance needing to be accommodated. Besides, “spirit” doesn’t quite seem to do justice to the concept, although I admit to not understanding it well enough to claim any authority.

We detour up Takapari Road, crunching and squelching slowly in four wheel drive up towards the bushline and the Forest Park boundary. Four other vehicles occupy the road end. A guy and a pre-teen boy with a camo-pattern high-viz beanie wander around. Just looking, I think. The ground’s half covered with slushy snow and the wind’s like steel on a Arctic beach. But the light is simply astonishing; streaming in angled beams from wild cloud, drifting in brilliant patches across dark hill country far below, the river shining, distant arcs of wet road gleaming.

Later, Tony tries again to explain what he means by “the wairua of the land”. He mentions how he often senses a kind of melancholy in the land; not grief, more like a gentle and strangely beautiful sadness. I’m sure I know what he’s getting at, and wonder whether he’s come across the term “wabi sabi”. He hasn’t, but when I try to articulate it, I can’t. I stumble over words, I cast about looking for examples or analogies, but they’re elusive. Now, days later, I can suggest that it’s like walking that fine line between joy and loneliness, akin to an existential awareness but without the angst, and lacking the intellectual pretense. But those are just words, and I suspect the concept of wabi sabi is further confirmation that Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle has corollaries far removed from quantum mechanics—in this case, the closer you get to defining wabi sabi, the further you move from its essence. This requires tacit understanding; it’s what I know but can’t say. The closest you can come to hearing it articulated is through a poem. Through haiku. Through the quality of art.

And, perhaps especially, through a photograph; one taken by someone open to what the land says, or sings. Someone who not only hears, but listens; not only looks, but sees. Someone, I suspect, not separate from the land.

Photos (click on 1–3 for a larger image):
1. Pohangina Valley, looking towards the Ngamoko Range, from Takapari Road.
2. Pohangina Valley and southern Ruahine Range from Utuwai.
3. Farmland near Utuwai, Pohangina Valley.
4. Rain coming in, Utuwai, Pohangina Valley.

Photos and words © 2006 Pete McGregor

19 June 2006

The shag who spied me

A Little shag [1]—the white-throated phase—sits hunched on the apex of the little shed on the jetty. Morning sun; a blue winter sky, the moon still in it. You can almost see the warmth being absorbed into the black feathers. The bird’s feet curl, black over the faded aquamarine of the tin flashing, the dark webbing between the toes calling up thoughts of pterodactyls’ wings. It’s a visual pun—‘pterodactyl’ means ‘winged finger’—but misleading: birds are most commonly considered to have evolved not from pterosaurs but from theropod dinosaurs. Pterosaurs weren’t even dinosaurs, just their contemporaries.

Not that this Little shag could care less. All that matters to it, I suspect, is soaking up that sun and digesting the morning’s fish. A week or more ago, I’d stopped near Inconstant Point to watch a flock of gulls, a gannet inspecting the bay, terns doing laps along the shoreline; I put the binoculars down and suddenly, close to the shingle beach, a Little shag popped up from beneath the surface of the sea, a small, slender fish thrashing in its beak. A flick of the head, a quick flash of silver. Further inland, it might have been someone’s goldfish [2]. Life in transition.

The bird looks down. Why has he stopped—is this danger? He’s looking away, doing something; now he’s raised something to his eye and it’s pointing at me. Something round and staring. This is making me nervous.

I lower the camera slowly and look away, turn my body side on and wait, occasionally looking out of the corner of my eye. Little shags abound along the Wellington coast. Every time I biked out towards Pencarrow Head I’d see them on the rocks, half asleep or preening or perhaps meditating, sometimes with wings widespread, drying in the sun. Alone, in twos or threes, sometimes aggregated in larger groups on a favoured roost. One evening I wandered on foot along the shore between Eastbourne and Days Bay, and even there, so close to the roaring traffic, shags perched unperturbed—between a rock and a tarred place, perhaps, but not caught there.

evening tide —
the shag’s rock
becomes an island

Looking into the low sun that evening, I saw everything as darkness and light; the world as shapes and boundaries. Shadows lengthen, like histories. Little shags, it seems, have longer histories than any other cormorants [3]—a history stretching back about 12 million years [4]. Ironically, although it has the longest history, it’s the smallest of New Zealand’s shags. This one, however, peering down at me from its superior position, has no shadow. But what of its personal history? Where and when was it born; what has it seen; how narrowly has it escaped being eaten; where did it shelter and how did it eat during the big storm a few days ago? What is it like to be this shag, sitting in the cold, clear wind and warm sun on an eroded tin roof?

He’s walking away now; good. My fish has moved on, making room for more. Ahhh...[a long streak on the far side of the roof]... that’s better. Here we go then, the terns have found a school of something.

At the end of the jetty I look back. The shag’s gone from the roof. Maybe tomorrow it’ll be back, or maybe it’ll be digesting somewhere else. Who knows. It may have cast no shadow on the roof, or the sky, or the sea, but this bird has left something far less ephemeral. It has left itself, imprinted on my memory.

1. Kawaupaka, Phalacrocorax melanoleucos. Elsewhere, Little shags are often called Little pied cormorants (see note 3). The New Zealand subspecies is brevirostris.
2. “Diet varies greatly with habitat but is mainly small fish (less than 13 cm long)
and freshwater crayfish, with the occasional frog and tadpole. The main inland prey are smelt, bullies and goldfish, whereas the main marine species taken are bullies, flounder, sole and smelt.” [Heather, B.D., Robertson, H.A. 2005. The Field Guide to the Birds of New Zealand, (revised edition). Auckland, Viking (Penguin). 440 pp. ISBN 0 14 302040 4.]
3. What’s the difference between a shag and a cormorant? Nothing, or vernacular, it seems. Shags and cormorants were distinguished either by behavioural or morphological characteristics but the two classifications didn’t agree. Now, genetic analysis suggests shags and cormorants are not distinct groups; this research suggests all might best be included in the single genus, Phalacrocorax. [Kennedy, M., Gray, R.D., Spencer, H.G. 2000. The Phylogenetic Relationships of the Shags and Cormorants: Can Sequence Data Resolve a Disagreement between Behavior and Morphology? Molecular Phylogenetics and Evolution 17 (3): 345–359.]
4. Kennedy et al. 2000; op. cit.

Photos (don't bother clicking on them; they're all full size (blogger is being idiosyncratic again, so I've had to resize them)):
1. Little shag, Eastbourne, Wellington harbour.
2. Jetty at Petone, Wellington harbour.
3. This is the one. Jetty at Petone, Wellington harbour.

Photos and words © 2006 Pete McGregor

13 June 2006

Icon of wildness

The snow leopard,” Attenborough says, “ is an almost mythical creature. It is an icon of the wilderness.”

In that apparently simple statement, he sums up so much of the importance and tragedy of wildness (I say ‘wildness’ to emphasise the quality, the spirit, while not wishing to downplay the physical nature of the concept—rock, ice, rivers, seas, jungles, deserts, and so on). The snow leopard as an icon; as an embodiment and reminder of what we long for; an idea that articulates that longing and need far more eloquently than any words. Perhaps there are no words that adequately say this. For so many people—people like me and most of my friends—the knowledge that snow leopards still live, wild and unseen—and unknown—is hope.

That’s much of the importance: while it is still possible to believe the icon exists in our world we can hope, and we can believe wildness, or wilderness if you will, still exists.

And there’s the tragedy. There’s something almost heartbreaking in those words; that the snow leopard is “an almost mythical creature.” Mythical creatures exist, but not in the world we believe to be real; not in the world we believe we experience. For the snow leopard to become a mythical creature would require the loss of one of the world’s greatest icons of wilderness and wildness. We’re so close to that—yet, for a while, there’s hope. Hope that hinges on a single word: almost.

“The snow leopard is an almost mythical creature.” A simple statement expressing the power of symbol; the value of what we’re so close to losing; the proximity and enormity of the loss; and still—hope. Hope that, just maybe, we won’t have to survive that loss.

I wake from a dream of tigers, aware of something heavy on the bed. I reach out and feel the fur, hear the chirrup and how it changes to a purr. Moonlight, and wind around the house.

The quote by David Attenborough comes from the BBC's Planet Earth. I was lucky to catch the documentary, with its astonishing footage of wild snow leopards. I think I remembered the quote correctly.

Photo (click if you want a larger image):
1. Fence and moon, Petone wharf, Wellington harbour.
I didn't have a photo of a snow leopard, and would need to think hard about my reasons for taking one. I probably would, but I don't believe the issues are as simple as "drawing attention to the animal's plight". I do know that I hope one day to be faced with the dilemma.

Photo and words © 2006 Pete McGregor

08 June 2006

What the sea threw up

A slow walk along the coast from Point Arthur towards Pencarrow Head. A tennis ball, still fluorescent yellow but soggy, saturated with seawater. An intact coconut, heavy, the liquid inside sloshing when I shook it. How long had it been drifting, how far had it travelled? It might have come from the heart of the Pacific, or—more likely—the other side of the harbour.

A small running shoe. The mouthpiece of a snorkel.

Greenfinches, pipits, piwakawaka.

The remains of a storm-wrecked shearwater, the tips of its wings pointing to the sky; a glimpse of twisted vertebrae. The head, hardly more than a skull, lay on the stony beach with its long bill pointing towards the past, as if the bird were resting, remembering. I crouched beside it, looking, and left the camera in my pack.

Blackbacked gulls fighting on the edge of the surf. Biting, grappling, screaming. An oystercatcher flying south, fast, with a bivalve in its beak.

This is how I live my life; lost among the details, wondering in what they’re embedded.

Lying stretched out on the shingle, waiting for the fossicking pipit to work its way closer, to fill the frame. It tosses drying wrack in the air; snatches something—a sandhopper, perhaps. I wait for the moment it turns its head and pauses, the sun a point of light in its eye. This, the catchlight, they say, brings a bird to life.

Plastic bottles everywhere—I guess the only items that outnumber them are the gaping shells of wrecked mussels, the vast drifts of washed up wood—sticks, branches, bleached planks, fence battens—and the stones themselves, their number unimaginable. Of course, this is not literal, but the point’s made—this littoral’s littered: bottles, cans, blue strapping bands, plastic bags, fishing line, fragments of toys, floats, a shriveled party balloon. Nothing would surprise. Yet all this human flotsam seems to matter less than it might elsewhere. It’s all faded and bleached, lessened by the sea—even if it’s not, it soon will be. A reminder of impermanence. The sea will always be able to do this—but what sort of sea will remain when we’re gone? What will live in that sea? What will have vanished from the sea a thousand years from now? I have no way of knowing, but I believe the answer will be: Too much”.

The next day—or was it the day after?—I extracted the bike from the back of the car and rode through Eastbourne to Point Arthur; working hard against the cold; traveling fast with the northerly behind me. Out along the Coast road, past the people fishing by the barrier gate, past elderly couples and jogging women and dog walkers. With the wind at my back the ride seemed effortless—weaving through crater fields of potholes full of opaque water the colour of cold coffee; hearing the hiss of tires on damp, hard clay, the crunch and spatter as I cut across gravel to find a less rutted path. On towards Pencarrow Head, past Inconstant Point, the names hinting at histories, stories from the past.

Then the warning sign. Don’t collect shellfish, paua [1], crays [2]; don’t swim or dive here; pollution hazard; health risk.

I stopped near the old lighthouse, wheeled the bike onto the beach and watched the surf heaving up and bursting against pinnacles of rock, rushing up and sizzling back down the shingle. Someone—an anonymous, hooded figure—searched the high tide line further along the beach; occasionally stooping, placing something in a bucket. I became engrossed in photographing details—a gull’s feather trapped in shingle and vibrating in the wind; sunlight on cast up kelp; a feathery coral frond, startlingly white on grey stones. When I stood and looked around again, the hooded person had moved past me along the beach and now stood at the edge of the sea, waiting while a diver hauled himself from the ocean, shedding the water in which it’s not safe to swim. He dragged himself up the beach as if re-enacting that immense evolutionary step, labouring under the weight of his yellow tank, all his paraphernalia, his catch bag banging against his thigh. I wondered what it contained; how successful he’d been at harvesting the shellfish and crays it’s not safe to eat. They’re probably abundant here, I thought, realizing that one of the seals of doom for a species is to be delicious or pharmacologically useful.

I rode on, pausing at Lake Kohangapiripiri [3] to read the information sign. Banded dotterels [4] nest here. I saw none (and the nesting season had, of course, long finished), but saw small patches of pingao, the increasingly rare, native, sand-binding plant, growing hard up against the introduced marram. Rushes emerged from wind-wrinkled water into the bright dazzle of winter sun. No one else was around. The place felt old, like a survivor left behind; even the light seemed tired and beautiful.


Eventually I turned a corner and saw, hauled out a long way from the sea, a huge, double-hulled launch. The sight—so technological, so expensive, so manmade—appalled me. Others, I suppose, would have said, “Wow!”

The road led through an open gate, past a sign saying “Private road beyond this point”, with the name of the station appended. I think the road’s open to bikers and walkers, but I’d lost the urge to go any further. Immediately by the gate a large body of semi-stagnant water stretched towards the ocean, separated from it by a low shingle bar. Part of a rusted drum protruded through the surface of the dark, still water—brownish-black water with a hint of iridescence. Sinister water, its depth impossible to gauge. Just below the surface and close to where I stood, the tendrils of a decaying frond of kelp stretched out towards me like the desire of an evil creature. Something not known to us. If Kohangapiripiri had seemed like grace from the past, this seemed like a portent of the future—the damage that might be left after humans have vanished.

I struggled back, battling the headwind, grateful for occasional easy going where the curve of the coast sheltered me. Relentless surf pounded the shore, great swells rolling in and smashing against the rocks with such ferocity it seemed impossible that anything could survive. But the mussels and limpets and chitons, the barnacles and paua and kelp and who knows how many other forms of life survive and thrive in those conditions—even if they’re filtering our shit from the sea, their home. Their sheer tenacity, their ability to survive, astounded me. But, I wondered, for how long can they survive us?

[1] Haliotis iris and H. australis.
[2] Crayfish, rock lobster, koura, Jasus edwardsii; and packhorse crayfish
Sagmariasus verrauxi.
[3] Find as much information as you want in: Gibbs, G.W. 2002: Pencarrow lakes: conservation values and management. Wellington, Department of Conservation. 35 pp. ISBN 0-478-22187-8. (Warning: it's a
798 Kb PDF, so it'll be slow on a dial-up connection ).
[4] Tuturiwhatu, Charadrius bicinctus.

Photos (click on them for a larger image):
1 & 3. Along the Coast road between Point Arthur and Lake Kohangapiripiri, Wellington Harbour.
2. Little shags, kawaupaka, Phalacrocorax melanoleucos. Near Inconstant Point, loc. cit. Here you see three phases: white-throated, black, and pied.
4. Lake Kohangapiriri; a view from Bluff Point lookout on another day (this one, actually).
5. Blackbacked gulls,
karoro, Larus dominicanus dominicanus; near Point Arthur.

Photos and words © 2006 Pete McGregor

04 June 2006

What we write with

Some words we step over, most days. We come across them and step over them or take a small detour; carry on where we were heading. Like “fountain pen”—actually two words, but never mind. I found it on page 124 of my copy of The English Patient [1]:

She writes everything down. Then puts the fountain pen into the drawer of the small table where she keeps the book she is reading to him, along with two candles, Vesta matches.

Most days I’d step over “fountain pen”, knowing it well, sometimes writing with one, enjoying the feel of the nib sliding over clean paper, the shape of ideas appearing for the first time, the long flow of ink drawing words into existence. Words like “fountain pen” in these sentences. Because I know the phrase well, it doesn’t break my stride—I read those last two words on page 124; the image arises; certain connections form, and my eye flicks to the top of the next page,

into the drawer of the small table
An image of ink drying; a cap closing over a gold nib; nearby, a heavy bottle sitting on a sheet of extensively stained blotting paper—its soft, thick feel no longer as common as when Hana closed that pen as her war drew to a close.

The pages of my copy of the book resemble blotting paper; just a little less soft, a little less absorbent. If I touched the nib of a fountain pen to one of those pages the ink would spread along the fibres as if the page were trying to suck words from the pen. Nothing I wrote would be clear.

The images and the connections they make now locate “fountain pen” in the past. The candles and the Vesta matches—particularly the Vestas—confirm it, make it more precise, move it further back but not too far; they give it a period. I’ve held Vestas. I know what they are and what they look like; the size, colour, and texture of the box; but, unlike fountain pens, few people now can form this detailed an image—for them, the connotations are intellectual rather than experiential. Most people, I suspect, will detour around “Vesta matches”, appreciating the detail, the specificity, but not able to step straight over the image.

Usually, this is what we do with unfamiliar words, and the next time we encounter them they’re a little less unfamiliar—with each encounter we come to know them a little better; each context adds a little more understanding, until at last we find ourselves taking them in our stride.

Sometimes unfamiliar words stop us. The detour seems too far; obstructed, we stop reading and hunt for information—definitions, which are often unhelpful, and examples, which are often better than definitions, particularly because we now have two: the example that stopped us and the example we sought.

But some days we’re stopped in our tracks by familiar words. Words we've met many times and usually consider ordinary. We read “fountain pen” and something arrests us; we read past the small table, the candles, and the Vesta matches and find we haven’t really gone anywhere. We’re still back at the fountain pen, wondering; captivated by something. But what? Is it that “fountain pen” is at last beginning to become unfamiliar—if not to us, then maybe to the biro and felt-tip generation, and certainly to the keyboard kids? Is it the knowledge of the accumulating unfamiliarity that draws attention to the words?

Or perhaps it’s because the words, like the pens themselves, are becoming rare. We read them and something taps us on an ankle, trips us; something that says, “Look, it’s been a while since you’ve seen those words.”

Then you begin to notice the strangeness of the words—why “fountain pen”? To fountain would seem to be the last thing you’d want a pen to do. Generations of designers struggled to prevent pens from doing exactly that; strove to design the pen that could be relied on never to gush over your page or piss in your pocket. You wonder; you don’t step over the words, nor detour around them—you circle, inspect, explore; and the more you do so, the more you feel you’re seeing them for the first time.

When you finally pick up the book again to read on, you know those words differently. Maybe you think you understand them better; maybe not; maybe you think you understand them less. What you do know is this—you appreciate them more.

I'm looking after Dirk, Miep, and the marvellous house at Eastbourne, and struggling to process photos on a computer with too little memory and too slow a processor—a bit like me, I think. So, you only get three photos. Sorry.
[1] Ondaatje, Michael 1992 The English Patient. London, Picador (Pan Books). 302 pp. ISBN 0 330 32754 2.

(click on the first two if you want larger images; the third is full size (blogger being uncooperative)):
1. Mere illustration
(see note 2 on this post).
2. Pihoihoi, New Zealand pipit, Anthus novaeseelandiae. Eastern shore of Wellington harbour, south of Point Arthur.
Piwakawaka, New Zealand fantail, Rhipdura fuliginosa. loc. cit.

Photos and words © 2006 Pete McGregor