27 July 2006

Dimensions of a life

I step outside, into the cold, into the late evening light after the sun’s gone below the hills. I step carefully, not wanting to smudge the chalked verandah art C.’s left after her weekend visit—the yellow sun with its alternate long and short rays; the multicoloured butterfly; the poem she called a story, written in blue chalk and carefully titled: The Cat:

“The cat/and rat/sat on/the mat/and that/is that.”

No cold can diminish that warmth.


The dogs in the kennels see me and gaze expectantly, or at least with hope. X begins barking, at first persistently, then, realising it has no effect and I’m not going to let them out to muster sheep, sporadically. Finally he shuts up and they all watch. You never know, and besides, there’s nothing much else to do.

A band of dark grey cloud tinged with salmon pink hangs above the now silhouetted hills. Below the cloud and above the hills, clear sky changes imperceptibly from pale, leached blue to that colour that’s no colour at all; just pure light. A contrail, thin and brilliant, elongates across the sky, as if a bored god has decided to scratch a slow line on it to let the light of heaven through. The plane making the trail is invisible; like some strange subatomic particle it has a position but no dimensions. I hunch into my down jacket. You can almost see the cold developing, creeping out from under the rough and tangled vegetation on the far side of the fence, rising up under the house, gathering in the dark under low branches, around the corners of sheds. A frost tonight, for sure. The blackbirds are chinking; it’s that particular sound they make as dusk approaches and it brings back memories of winter evenings in the little valley where I grew up—the light fading, little owls calling from rock outcrops, from the telephone poles that marched up the hill. Herons calling like strangled souls from the darkness inside macrocarpas—I remember the bone field under the roost; needlelike fish bones, the carapaces of crabs, everything bleached white and dry, lives digested. Years ago, but the sound of blackbirds calling between day and night folds time back on itself and I’m up on the hill, hands under armpits, picking my way down the rough sheep track. Stopping to look. Taking it in. Perhaps the hint of movement, the twitch of an ear in long grass, that signifies a rabbit feeding cautiously in the dusk. The silhouette of a hare loping over the skyline, among tussocks; the long curve of Pegasus Bay from Christchurch right up to the Kaikoura Ranges, the light on the ocean like the end of the world—or perhaps its beginning.

I looked North to those mountains for the first couple of decades of my life, and finally climbed the highest, Tapuae-o-Uenuku [1], when I was 20. Or maybe 21—I’d have to check, I don’t remember exactly. What I do recall was that I wasn’t even on a climbing trip; I was a summer research assistant for the entomologists at Canterbury University, and two of us on that field trip were told to head up the Hodder River to collect insects around the hut while the academics—those wonderful old guys—camped and fossicked near the road end. As it happened, the person who accompanied me up the river was also a keen mountaineer, so we decided there must be interesting insects on the summit. We collected our way up the mountain and back down again—and did find interesting fauna. We ate lunch on the top with blowflies that must have sniffed us out from a vast distance, as the mountain is mostly just an enormous pile of crumbling rock, a giant talus, with no apparent blowfly habitat for thousands of feet. Giant mountain weta, Deinacrida connectens, under rocks in the scree by tongues of cushion plants. My climbing/collecting mate was German, with three passions in life: wine, jazz, and mountaineering. As I got to know him, his dry humour began to crack me up. I think I’ve seen him once since I left Christchurch, all those years ago.

I digress. I looked North to the Kaikoura Ranges all that time, then moved to the North Island. Now when I look to them I mostly look South. South from places like Eastbourne, or from the ferry crossing Cook Strait; South as I’ve driven down from Picton to Christchurch, where I’ve walked on the Port Hills and felt that wrenching sense of visiting my past. That same sense evoked now by the chink-chink of these blackbirds as I lean on the end of the verandah with the dogs trying to will me into letting them loose and the tip of my nose going numb from the cold. Physicists speak of the arrow of time; our culture takes for granted the linear progression of time; we assume our lives are like that contrail across the sky, slowly extending and finally vanishing. But sometimes I glimpse something else, another manifestation of time. Sometimes the sense of the past seems so strong I’m almost there—not déjà vu, but another kind of recognition, almost like another part of what we think is real. And, some years ago, I realised that the linear view of a life didn’t fit well with my own life. That idea of a life as something linear, something to which you add events sequentially until you die, seemed hopelessly simplistic. My own life, I realised, seemed better described as a process of enrichment, of increasing complexity (here I make the distinction between being complex and being complicated). Seen like that, my life seemed to have almost limitless possibility. I could weave new patterns into it; fill empty spaces if I wished; branch out... in short, the limitations imposed by linear time were hopeless. Compared to this idea of a life, the linear model seemed tragically constrained.

I go inside, shut the door and draw the curtains to try to retain what little warmth the house has absorbed. Life has more than one dimension—depth and breadth are as important as length, and time is not an hegemony. This thought is just a concept, of course, but for me it seems to fit the truth far better than conventional, linear ideas of life and time. And, ultimately I suspect, you are what you believe.

1. "Tapuae-o-Uenuku" is usually translated as "Footsteps of the Rainbow God".

Photos (click on them if you want a larger image):
1. Te Awaoteatua Stream, Pohangina Valley. After the recent rain eased off.
2. This Australian magpie, Gymnorhina tibicen, had been fighting in the rain at the edge of the terrace and seemed to be a little the worse for wear. [I've removed the colour from everything but the bird.]
3. Another magpie, a month or so ago.
4. Farmland near Utuwai, Pohangina Valley. June 2006

Photos and words © 2006 Pete McGregor

19 July 2006

Midwinter, Pohangina Valley

Midwinter, and all good blowflies should be torpid. Or dead. But there’s warmth in the two o’clock sun and this brown blowfly—Calliphora stygia—has emerged from somewhere to soak in it. The dark verandah boards radiate heat; the fly turns, presents as much as possible of its body to the sun, stretches its wings, rubs its back legs over its bum, and falls over.

The torpor, it seems, hasn’t vanished completely.

Like the fly, I’ve emerged onto the verandah to soak in the sun’s warmth. Unlike the fly, I don’t attempt to clean my bum with my back legs. After a month in the suburbs of Palmerston North it’s good to be here again in the Pohangina Valley, especially in weather like this. I’ve been back three nights now, and each day I’ve walked down through the cutting, its banks a mass of flowering tree lucerne [1]. I’ve listened to the korimako [2] sing loud and glorious through the soft roar of innumerable bees foraging among those flowers; bird and insects competing for the excess of nectar. Kereru [3] eat those same flowers; the buds, too. Big, heavy birds stretching necks to pluck succulent buds from the tip of a swaying twig. Sometimes it’s too much for the shoot to bear—it dips; the bird slips and falls into the air, swooping off with a rush of powerful wings to land somewhere nearby. This morning, two kereru sat on a dead branch high up on the bank, preening in the sun. Soaking it up, like the blowfly, like me. I studied them through the binoculars, entranced by the texture of feathers, the diverse colours, the iridescence on the breast, the red pigeon-beak. I’ve seen these things so often, yet it still delights me. I believe it always will.

Each day I’ve carried on and peered over the railing of the bridge at Te Awaoteatua Stream rushing below; each day I’ve seen it a little less swollen and turbid. A pair of putangitangi [4] seem to have set up home nearby. They’re noisy, but spectacular; today they were in the paddock on the true right, yesterday they were on the other side of the stream, in the quarry paddock. Both days they yelled at me. I wonder if they’ll get used to me, whether they’ll eventually look up, think, “Oh, him,” and carry on feeding?

The blowfly seems reluctant to go anywhere, to do anything other than reposition itself in the sun. By the time Spring comes, it’ll be long dead.

I’d walked up No. 3 Line, about halfway to the terrace, when I had that feeling of being followed. I stopped and turned, looking back down the winding road. About 10 metres behind, Alice lowered her head and drooped her ears and looked sideways at me. Apprehensive; submissive. I bent and patted my knee and she came up and leaned against it and looked up at me, guilty as sin. I scruffled her around the collar and patted her shoulder and told her off.

“What you doing up here, eh? Ya ratbag. Y’know you’re not allowed to follow people.”

She wagged her tail and looked up, still leaning against my leg. Then she tried to hongi, but I was having none of it. Dogs eat things I’d rather not think about.

When I continued up the road, she didn’t come any further, but milled around trying to look innocent but succeeding only in appearing furtive. By the time I returned, she’d gone. Home, I trust.

A tiny ladybeetle motors along the edge of one of the verandah boards, then slides up onto the top, into the sun. From this distance I can’t see its legs, so it looks like a minute, mobile blister of red and black and white. It turns and heads towards the blowfly. Perhaps it’s remembered it’s a voracious predator and has a glorious vision of bringing down this giant fly and feasting all winter. The fly shuffles sideways, out of harm’s way, but the ladybeetle immediately changes course and aims for it again. The dance continues until the ladybeetle finally accepts that ladybeetles eat aphids and similar-sized insects, not beasts the relative size of a mammoth. Unlike the blowfly, this tiny beetle might make it to Spring.

I go inside and slice up an apple, return to the verandah and eat the crisp, fresh slices. The blowfly’s gone and there’s no sign of the ladybeetle. A tui [5] whirrs across the paddock and drops down into the tree lucerne, and one of the local kahu [6] circles slowly, high in the blue air. Bright sun and a cold breeze; the fractal silhouette of a leafless sycamore against the sky. A piwakawaka [7] dancing by the dog kennels, sunlight flashing in the fan of its tail. The Pohangina Valley in midwinter.

It’s good to be back.

1. The recommended name for tree lucerne is tagasaste (Chamaecytisus palmensis), but I prefer the old name—everyone knows what you’re referring to.
2. The New Zealand bellbird, Anthornis melanura. The April 2006 issue of Massey University's magazine (imaginatively called Massey) has an excellent article about current research on korimako song; it includes much information on korimako behaviour. Recommended—and it's even better if you can locate the hardcopy, as it has some lovely photos which the online version reproduces poorly. [Wood, M. 2006. Songlines. Massey 20: 12–19.)
3. New Zealand pigeon, kukupa, Hemiphaga novaeseelandiae.
4. Paradise shelduck, Tadorna variegata.
5. Prosthemadera novaeseelandiae. The tui, korimako, and hihi (stitchbird, Notiomystis cincta) comprise New Zealand's honeyeaters.
6. Australasian harrier, Circus approximans.
7. New Zealand fantail, Rhipidura fuliginosa.

Photos (click on the photos above if you want a larger image):
1. My back yard, Pohangina Valley. Late evening, March 2006.
2. Female putangitangi, camping ground at Aoraki/Mt Cook National Park.
3. Rainbow, No. 3 Line, Pohangina Valley.
4. Chook house detail, Pohangina Valley.
5. Heat, at the other end of the year and the other end of Aotearoa. Surat Bay (if I remember correctly), the Catlins, South Island.

Photos and words © 2006 Pete McGregor

11 July 2006


The city is a fact in nature, like a cave, a run of mackerel, or an ant heap. But it is also a conscious work of art, and it holds within its communal framework many simpler and more personal forms of art. Mind takes form in the city; and in turn, urban forms condition mind.”
Lewis Mumford

In this cold, even the light seems brittle, like old bones on a frozen beach. The straightness of light—its refusal to bend—seems more apparent. Everything has hard edges, angles, corners; I walk into town, directly into the mid afternoon sun, squinting because the light’s so piercing, or the air’s so cold. Possibly both.

What is a city? Buildings, streets, cars, people, all aggregated? This perspective views cities as primarily physical; made up of stuff—the stuff of cities. But a different view sees cities as processes, as aggregations of ideas, as closely connected relationships. Sometimes you hear cities described as having a particular soul—or lacking one. And the heart of a city is not necessarily its geographical centre. A city is not only organic.

Another day, and I look out from the behind the louvred windows of the Palmerston North City Library, through grey rain across rooftops. Below, occasional pedestrians walk along George Street, past the Deli and the designer boutiques. Past the Mao Bar with its bright red patio umbrellas: a geometry of vermillion warmth in the drab light, serving no function other than this, the ornamental—the umbrellas shelter beneath the eaves sheltering the footpath—but it’s enough. Colour like this can’t be considered too important on such a dismal day. Some of the passersby seem to have a definite purpose in mind; others amble, perhaps a little lost in their thoughts. Everywhere in this city, people right now are thinking about things from the mundane and pragmatic to the incandescent and esoteric. Some think about the same, or similar, things; some think about other people; some think of what was, some of what might be; some wonder what to buy for dinner. If you could draw a map of the city as a diagram of the connections between these thoughts, would you recognise the city? And would you know whether this city was alive and healthy or beginning its decline, heading towards eventual abandonment and final ruin?

I remember travelling by bus through industrial Tokyo in the remains of the day. Rust-stained pipework crawling over walls like a diagram with nodes made of valves and joints and spoked iron wheels. Razor wire, shredded paper wrapped around it. A bridge over a miasmic river. Skyscrapers in clusters on the smoky orange horizon; the city going on forever. The sense that this darkening area we were speeding through had already been abandoned and was now inhabited only by what had been left behind or had crept in unnoticed. In a representation of relationships, a diagram of connected thoughts, what would this look like? An empty space? A void? A faded patch in a multicoloured quilt?

Saturday night in the city, but here in a cul-de-sac in the suburbs it’s quiet. A breeze in winter branches; the sound of cars in the distance— boy racers. Occasionally, a far-off clamour of shouting. Nothing intrusive. The cat door rattles, then Molly appears on the bed, wanting to hongi [1], her fur damp and her paws cold. The best sounds in the world just before you drift into dreams are rain on an iron roof, the sound of moving water—the sea or a river—and a cat purring. In the heart of a city you can hope only for the first and last.

How do you represent thoughts or relationships? Should you represent the connections, and if so, between what? Between thinkers or thoughts? Perhaps you should focus on the intensity, the energy? “Should”, of course, is not a suitable word—I should have said, “could.” These questions are meant to provoke responses, not answers.

Perhaps this is what artists do best. An artist, intrigued with the idea of a city as a nexus of ideas, as a pattern of thoughts and relationships, might translate the idea into an expression of what seems impossible to pin down satisfactorily. It’s likely the artist, pressed to explain, would shrug, stumble over words, and finally suggest that the work is the explanation, or that the intention—as in all works of art—is not to explain but to evoke.

I’m left wondering, though. What might such a work look like? The shape and colour of a dream; the texture of imagination? Asked for a best guess, I’d probably reply, “The depths of a human brain.”

For the last month I've been looking after a house and two small, delightful cats in suburban Palmerston North. The stint ends in a few days; I'll miss Molly and Norman and I've enjoyed walking into town and some of the other benefits of urban living, but suburbia isn't really my environment.
1. To hongi is to greet another by pressing noses.

(click if you want a larger image):
1 & 2. UCOL building at dusk, Palmerston North.
3. Eastbourne interior.
4. Wellington harbour and the South Island's Kaikoura Ranges. The tiny point of light in the sky in the East isn't a star, it's an aeroplane coming in to land.

Photos and words © 2006 Pete McGregor

04 July 2006

An archaeology

Sealed in a wall of a house in the Pohangina Valley is a copy of the first Pohangina Valley Newsletter—a message from the mid 90s, waiting to be found. When? Decades from now? Already the message has been waiting 12 years. Who will find it? Will the reader remember or wonder?

Here you still find old houses with walls covered with scrim. Hessian, rotted with age. Sometimes, beneath the scrim you find old newspapers. Messages from the time when war was still “The War”; when everything was scarce except memories of loss; before television; when families listened to the radio in the evenings; when tobacconists sold Kauri flake in tin cans. The time when engineers calculated with slide rules and people wrote letters by hand, with fountain pens. I’ve torn faded wallpaper from old walls, pulled the scrim from sarking[1] walls and read those brittle scraps of newspapers; stood among the dust, the fragile past.

You find builders’ names pencilled on dwangs[2], with a date before you were born. Calculations in feet and inches. Sometimes you find a coin—a penny perhaps, or a sixpence or a florin[3]—and you wonder whether it fell or was placed; whether the person who left it still lives.

Someone, somewhere in Canada, writes a poem on a basement floor; someone else covers the floor; eventually someone removes the covering and finds the poem. Will the reader remember or wonder?

In a set of handmade bookshelves a small, hidden compartment contains a little scroll of paper, on which is written a simple message from the woodworker to his partner. He made the shelves for her years ago and sealed the message inside. They are no longer together but the significance of that time is there, still, in the wood.

Before customwood and modern glues—when, to be a cabinetmaker you had to know more about how wood moves and twists and shrinks and swells than about how to set up machinery for a production run—dressers and drawers, desks and chests and other items often included secret compartments. Press a certain part of the underside of a desk and a panel popped open or a drawer slid out, revealing an unsuspected hollow; a space, waiting. Blanket chests often have false bottoms. Some fine-furniture makers still incorporate these in their cabinets; some not-so-fine-furniture also includes simple secret spaces.

How many of these secret compartments are now known to no one? The old desk at which you sit, scribbling shopping lists and reminder notes, might contain a hidden compartment, or two, or twenty-one. Perhaps in one of those, a message waits. Perhaps it’s a trinket, a postage stamp, a lock of hair from someone now anonymous—someone who may or may not still be alive. What remains to be found; who will remember; when will the past become a present?

What have you hidden? What’s behind your walls? Who will tear them down and read your messages? Will the reader remember, or wonder?

1. Sarking has various meanings; here I refer to boards nailed across walls to act as a lining. In old houses the sarking also functioned as strengthening before dwangs came into common use.
2. Dwangs ("noggins" in the UK) are the horizontal cross pieces between wall studs.
3. A florin was a two bob (i.e. 2 shilling) piece. New Zealand changed to decimal currency on 10 July 1967, and the 20 cent coin became the equivalent of a florin.

This is my granddad, my mother's father. He was 85, going on 86, when I photographed him at the wedding of one of my cousins in February 1983. I came across the photo recently and copied it, hastily, in poor light, simply by snapping a photo with the digital camera.

Photos and words © 2006 Pete McGregor