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


Anonymous said...

Beautiful piece, Pete. Yes, how will these creatures survive us while the environment becomes increasingly degraded? You've so eloquently put into words many of my thoughts on the matter. I rarely visit the ocean, living too far to visit more than once every few years, but I frequently see a variation on these sights, particularly when I'm out on frog or fish surveys. In some places a seine net will haul fish out of an oily black pond where you wouldn't want to dip your bare hand in the water. Nearby, a heron will be stalking prey in the muck among some trash at the pond's edge. What have we done to these places and to their natural inhabitants? True, there's a push to "clean up" the environment -- but how about that term... "clean up"... as though we could pull out our brooms and sweep away this mess in a few strokes? Unfortunately, it's all been let go for so long, and human populations continue to increase so quickly, that it's difficult to imagine a better future -- and if not better, then what? Well, thanks once again for another wonderful piece of writing on a topic that should be of concern to all.

isabelita said...

Some people still tout the seas as the last frontier. Decades ago, Jacques Cousteau told of rafts of plastic refuse floating about out on the open oceans.
We have pissed and shit in our own amniotic fluid for too long....

Mary said...

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

Pete, you are posting some amazing stuff these days. Your combination of the poetic and the elegaic with a cold hard, knowledgeable and deeply concerned, look at what we are doing to the planet is powerful. Thank you.

I just wish I had some answers

Anonymous said...

Apologies for the delayed response; the ISP went down for 3 days just after I posted... Anyway...

Bev, good point about "cleaning up". Sometimes the attempts seem so insignificant they're almost ridiculous. Yet, I have to believe there's hope in the efforts. I'd like to think something enormously powerful might happen so we're given another chance (as impossible as that seems); meanwhile, every tiny effort helps slow the rate of degradation. What I do know is that if we do nothing, we lose everything.

Isabelita: That's wonderfully said (truly). The image is almost too repulsive to entertain — but when most people think in those terms, perhaps we'll see substantial improvements.

Mary, thankyou :^) I, too, wish I had some answers, but maybe the first step is to get far more people asking the questions and demanding answers?

KSG said...

Beautiful, Pete, as always. Mary is absolutely right, and I feel very fortunate to be able to share in your writings of the things you see, feel, experience and know. I am so often struck by an immense sadness as I witness the degradation of the world - at times I cannot look because the pain is too great and the task of turning it all back seems utterly immense and impossible. But we must never stop trying to turn it back. We must never stop making our own personal contributions toward the whole. I find myself often hoping that the sum of those small contributions will become greater than the whole. That faith and hope and the desire to heal it will somehow become a healing....

We human beings look for answers always - unfortunately the questions seem to fall into empty space in these circumstances and I remain with just one - why? With no answer rebounding to fill the echo.

I found myself soaring at the beauty of your words, Pete, and aching at the sadness of the picture they so perfectly convey. Thank you for including us in your journey.

Anonymous said...

Thanks KSG. "Why?" is an impossible question. That doesn't mean we should ignore it (even if we could), but there are so many responses (I hesitate to call them answers) that it's easy to be paralysed into inaction. What worries me is that as the problem grows, more people feel overwhelmed — and that, also, leads to inaction. That's why hope — arguably going against the evidence — is so important. Despair is surrender. Never give up.

butuki said...

The other day I saw a program on TV about the stromatolites in Shark Bay, Australia. I tried to imagine, as the documentary explained how they lived, what it must have been like at the dawn of life. When they emerged there were no other creatures that could have survived in the atmosphere and landscape that enveloped the Earth. And yet these tiny creatures managed to colonize the entire planet... that's something more amazing than anything we have ever attempted or accomplished.

When you wrote, "This is how I live my life; lost among the details, wondering in what they’re embedded", I couldn't help but reflect on how your way of life has always been my goal in everything I do. To live immersed as deeply and directly as is possible in this modern world within the details of the natural world and to somehow find a way to survive by the knowledge and expression of what I see in those details, by telling the stories, teaching what I can, and dedicating myself to instilling in others what I so love about the "real" world. It's not so obvious, however, what that way of living might be.

I'm curious, Pete... may I ask what you do for a living? Are you a photographer? That explains the constant wandering...

Anonymous said...

Another well-timed post - from my point of view - Pete! On Saturday, instead of riding my bicycle I decided to walk to do some shopping, which is how I happened to meet our postman just before I turned off along the road around the river. He had come from the river in the other direction, almost home after taking his son, who is in a wheelchair, for a walk. He showed me a plastic bag he was carrying, full of rubbish he had picked up from the river bank. "I always pick up the rubbish when we're out," he said. "I wish other people would, too." We also spoke about the way some people discard things anywhere, particularly packaging from food and drink. I walked the rest of the way home picking up odd bits of paper from the footpath and feeling slightly shamed, since I pass litter by as a rule, except when we're in the country and find cans and bottles in a place where we happened to have stopped.

Yesterday I decided to walk to the shop again. As I went I thought about your post, our postie, and this whole business of discarded rubbish. Yes, the problem is huge and feels so overwhelming that any action seems futile. But maybe if those of us (like our postie) who do care take some responsibility, even just in our neighbourhoods, for the actions of those who don't care, we'll make a little bit of difference. I'd thought to tuck a plastic bag into my pocket (I should have put two, to separate recyclables from rubbish), so this time when I returned I walked along the river bank itself, gathering up what I found. I quickly realised that almost everything, far from having been dumped there as I first thought, had been stranded on its way to the sea when the waters of the river went down after recent heavy rain. I arrived home with six plastic bottles and an aluminium can for recycling, plus an assortment of plastic bits and pieces, polystyrene cups and packing, and other odds and ends. Not a huge haul, but I felt better for having done it and the river bank certainly looked better. More heavy rain could have seen that rubbish washed out to sea, with the bottles maybe eventually ending up along the littered littoral you'd walked along, Pete. (A fanciful thought, as I don't know where the currents carry things, but probably not there from here.)

I find it ironical that as we learn more about the need to care for the environment and more people are doing so, we also seem to have an increase among those who don't give a damn and who drop their rubbish anywhere. However, that's just part of a more complicated issue, involving the way we now live in an aggressively-promoted consumer society. Things can be changed, though. Maybe if enough of us keep doing what we can, including drawing as much attention to the problem as possible, in time things really will be better. There are lots of people out there for whom this does matter. One thing is certain: we can'tgo on as we are at present.

Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
robin andrea said...

Now you've painted a picture of New Zealand I was utterly unprepared to read or see. I have always imagined something pristine, clean, not yet wrecked by the hoardes of thoughtless pissers and shitters. Oh well. We have made a mess of it, and I'm not so sure we haven't already passed some tipping point from which there will be no safe return. I have to admit that I am not sad for humans who befoul our own nests, but I am broken-hearted for the animals who can not comprehend what we have done to theirs.

I don't know what can be done. Our empty-headed leaders here in the states do not even "believe" in global warming, and we who are concerned about the planet are easily dismissed as tree-huggers and economy wreckers.

Thanks for a beautiful portrait of a terrible truth.

Anonymous said...

Butuki: What do I do for a living? That's a hard one to answer now, because what I've been doing for the last couple of years isn't the same as what I'm doing now and isn't likely to be the same as what I do for a living in the future. Similar, yes — or perhaps — but it's changing continuously. Essentially, I do whatever comes my way and doesn't interfere with what I want to do. I've done a bit of farm work, i.e. docking and tailing lambs; a reasonable amount of scientific and other editing; and some photography (a contract last year and I've sold a few photos). Those sorts of things. I haven't asked the government for any form of assistance yet, and will try to avoid that for as long as possible, despite the exhortations of friends who point to the taxes I paid for so many years. Eventually I might have to look for "a job" again, but that also I'll try to avoid for as long as possible. What little income I have had for the last couple of years has slowed the rate at which my savings are diminishing. Meanwhile, I've largely foregone conspicuous consumption, not that it ever was particularly conspicuous. And I'm lucky in two major respects: I seem to be able to adjust my way of living to suit what I can afford rather than what I think I want, and I have wonderful and generous friends and family who look after me. In particular, the knowledge that I have people I can rely on allows me to trust that things will be ok — and I'm convinced that my belief that I'll be ok is self-fulfilling. It has been so far.

Of course, that attitude drives some people crazy. "But what about the practicalities?" Well, in practice, so far it's worked for me. At worst I'm just buying time — or, cynically, the best way of life I could hope to lead — and that, to me, seems a remarkably practical thing to do. Some people might even consider it irresponsible, although so far no one's told me that. My response is likely to be, "No. What's more responsible than accepting what happens to you?" Or maybe I'll just sit down with them and explore the accusation — preferably over the pint of Guinness they've just bought me.

However, it's easy for me because no one depends on me for material support; if times get tough, then the difficulties directly affect only me. I won't promote my way of life as applicable for everyone, because most people have others who rely on them for basic needs, like food and shelter, and as much as you might love your kids, they can't eat that. Still, I'd like to think even struggling parents — and their kids, too — might find something encouraging in the way I live. Ultimately, however, I think each of us has to work out how best to live. No one can tell us that.

So, what I do for a living is ... well, I suppose I trust I'll get by, and I try not to let that interfere with ... well, simply living. Essentially, I’m much less interested in what I do for a living than I am in actually living. This probably isn't much help, Butuki, but I hope it's given you some food for thought (even if you can't eat it ;^))

Peregrina: (deleted your duplicate post. No worries; I've done it myself on other blogs...) There are many reasons to hope; many reasons to persist in picking up litter and carrying out those other seemingly ineffectual activities. We're part of a system more complex than we can imagine, and one of the characteristics of complex systems is their tendency to respond in unexpected ways. Who knows — maybe that polystyrene cup you picked up might, like a butterfly's wings closing, cause a storm: but a political storm whose aftermath is a cleaner world? Thanks, on behalf of all of us and what we are.

Robin: Aotearoa is often portrayed the way you imagined, and in many ways that's justified. It is indeed beautiful in a non-superficial way — but it's not perfect and it's fragile. Fortunately, our current government, while far from ideal, seems to have a more enlightened and constructive attitude than yours, or that of our main opposition party. Without wishing to depress anyone further, what does concern me is that our home can be damaged beyond practical repair in such a short period of irresponsibility — decades of care can be negated virtually overnight. It's beyond my comprehension how anyone would want to be remembered for acts of global vandalism, yet some individuals (not mentioning certain presidents, etc.) seem not to care about that legacy.

I don't know either, Robin. But I'll keep doing some things, even if they seem hopeless, because there's a chance they might not be.

butuki said...

Pete, thanks for the detailed answer. It's actually gelled with a lot of my own thoughts on living my life. I've never been able to bring myself to click into the 9 to 5 routine that seems to be the standard for most of the world; even when I do end up working for a company I inevitably feel an awful tugging at my conscience, anxiously urging me to break outside and ride away. It always happens, even when I'm enjoying the work.

I'm out of work now and have ben for the past three weeks. Though I know that I need to find some way of being able to contribute to my sharing of being able to eat and pay the rent, I find I don't want to go back to what I was doing before. I want to be outside, doing as much walking, especially in the mountains, as I can. I want to stop to LOOK at things and SEE them. Take photographs, Draw. Sit still. Experience the weather. LEARN about the living things around me. SLOW DOWN. Write about it. Tell stories about it. LIVE the reality of a dream that seems unreal to most other people. Spend time being with other people on a primordial level that artifical constructs cannot recreate (why I dislike Disneyland so much). Live a life that celebrates itself and the place it inhabits, not seeking to "improve" the world or look beyond it (I used to be an architect, but gave it up one day when I was sent to inspect a pristine piece of land that was scheduled to be converted into a resort. I stood on top of a hill overlooking the forest below and couldn't for the life of me understand how any of it could be touched without destroying what had made it so beautiful in the first place). I want to make the most of my time on Earth.

I just cannot sustain this way of living in Tokyo. Tokyo is too expensive. Even something like a melon might cost $10.00 American dollars! A huge portion of my income goes to paying the rent on a small apartment. I could get by on a much simpler dwelling.

And so I'm now seeking ways to get out to the countryside, living close to the mountains and surviving on my own abilities, like writing, photography, illustration, graphic design, teaching, etc. Quite similar to what you have been doing, I think. That's why it's so fascinating to read about how you see things. It helps reassure me that I'm not crazy.

Your thoughts about people helping you also rings a bell for me. I deeply believe in a society in which people helping one another ought to be the foundation for that society's existence. "Looking out for number one" is not what I think societies should be all about. That sense of distrust and suspicion that always crops up when one person asks another for help or even offers help I believe is the poison that corrodes a society and people's sense of security in the world. Just like when breaking the trust of your partner in a marriage the trust is very hard to restore, so is that distrust in society. People often tell me that life was more brutal and dangerous in the times before "civiliazation", but if I consider the extent of altruism and offers of help during all the climbs I've done in the mountains, when survival and safety are paramount in everyone's minds, then I greatly doubt that people in our prehistoric past spent so much time trying to kill one another. When you live in proximity to the demands and dangers of nature you recognize the fragility of your own life and its dependence on the world around you to survive and on others to help you make it through. That is why I believe the simplest lifestyles are the most generous and gracious; people come together when they need one another to survive.

Thanks for your thoughts. They help me a lot in my own struggle to find my alternative way in my own life.

Anonymous said...

Pete: I love the thought of a half-silted-up polystyrene cup metamorphosing into a butterfly (a white one? - keep it away from my cabbages!) and causing a political storm. That would be a nice twist on the proverbial storm in a teacup: a flimsy half-drowned polystyrene cup responsible for an international storm. The real power to effect that, of course, lies with the people - and WE are the people. We can certainly change people's attitudes - our postie changed mine in regard to the problem of local litter, while your post, which appeared at the same time, made me see that local problem in a global context.

The thought that complex systems can respond in unexpected ways is a hopeful one (although I suppose it's also something that can work two ways). However, the natural world, while it has its fragilities, also seems to have remarkable resilience. I find that hopeful, too. Pattern and order, if delved for deeply enough, can be found in apparently chaotic systems, so maybe somewhere down there an answer exists. Maybe the answer is, indeed, the butterfly effect, and maybe the butterfly has already stirred its wings on your computer. If we look to the past, we can see that other butterflies have initiated changes in practices that were considered normal: slavery, child labour, even smoking in aeroplanes, for instance. In the meantime, as you say, we have to hope that there is a solution and also appreciate that it really is worthwhile doing things which, in light of the vastness of the problem, seem ineffectual. But hey! look at what ants can achieve when they work together.

PS. Just as I was about to send this off, I heard the news of the first vote taken at the IWC - a close vote, but in the anti-whaling lobby's favour. Now there's an example of the power of people. Let's hope it can be maintained.

Anonymous said...

Peregrina: thanks! That's a lovely thought: that maybe what I'm doing with this blog might induce a positive Butterfly Effect. But there are wings stirring all over the blogosphere, and elsewhere too. Actually, I believe strongly in the power of positive feedback, in both senses. A carrot is far more effective than a stick, particularly when trying to influence politicians and other decision makers — many of whom act like asses.