31 August 2006


A shower of rain, heavy on the roof at night. A friend sends a txt: the sound of rain, her bed a tent, her vehicle a bike, her house a backpack. I reply saying rain here too, but there's too much stuff here, and tell her about the herons nesting in the poplars by the bridge [1].

The Gang of Three visited this morning. We sat on the verandah and I read another book to them, but Emma, being only four, got distracted and kept checking the paddock for more pieces of wood for their fireplace. “That one's no good!” she said, “It's got dirt on it!” My reading meant nothing to Aaron, of course—he's less than a year old and only just discovering words. Carly, however, sat next to me listening, attentive, politely not interrupting. Holding onto Cookie. She tells me he likes going for walks because he gets bored lying in her room all day doing nothing until she's home from school. Eventually Olive and Aaron went to feed the deer and lambs, and the girls and I followed shortly after, to find Aaron sitting on the ground by the gate, in the mud, with two lambs checking him out while Olive threw stale buns or something to the deer in the next paddock. We rescued him as Olive returned, half muttering and half laughing about kids and mud and saying that’s what washing machines are for. Back on the verandah we sat on the steps, chatting while the kids ran up and down the verandah yelling and having fun. Aaron waddled over and managed to topple and slide head first onto the top step. Not serious, but I expected howls and tears. But Emma picked him up and put her arms around him—she’s hardly bigger than he is—and hugged him, tucked his head into her shoulder and held him tight. The tears never came—instead, he went straight back to stealing the pieces of wood she'd collected, and offering them to me. I remembered how Emma had become upset a few weeks ago and Carly had comforted her in the same way; arms around her. The wisdom of small children. I think of the puerile behaviour of our politicians and realise they don't deserve the compliment of being called “childish”.

I walked down the road, stopping to photograph tui [2] and korimako [3] and the herons standing tall and thin in the poplars by the bridge; walked on up No. 3 Line a little way, then returned, photographing the herons again and a kereru [4] in the cutting. Cold air but the brilliance of a clear day at the deep end of winter; some warmth. Birds; lambs growing day by day—already the wobbly fragility of the newborns has begun to disappear and they’re beginning to develop that slight robustness. I walked along the road and looked out over Te Awaoteatua Stream from the No. 3 Line road, looked up to the Ruahine, dense with leatherwood [5] and bright under dark cloud, and saw everything new, saw it all as if for the first time. The following evening I drove South to Point Howard. The light still had that old look to it—deep shadows, strong relief, the warm look where the sun caught the land seemingly at odds with the cold contained in gullies, under hedges, beneath trees, behind barns. Shower cloud darkened the sky and let the sunlight through in rays and beams. Prehistoric light. Along the coast between Paekakariki and Pukerua Bay the sun had almost set, the clouds orange and mauve and grey; the South Island silhouetted on the horizon. That feeling of the utter remorselessness of time. You look ahead to something, then it’s here, then it’s gone. It becomes the past; becomes history. Your history. Is that all we do—moment by moment, create our own histories? In a sense, maybe it is, whether we create it—in the sense of determining or influencing it—or not. But, seen like that, perhaps it’s the ultimate lesson in making the most of every moment: because we’ll never get another chance. What we do with these moments determines what they’ll be, forever.

My friend sends another text; words I recognise: “…geese in flight and dogs that bite…”[6]. I check the definition of “vagrant”[7], and read, “A wanderer who has no established residence or visible means of support.”

The wind picks up, and a shiver runs through the house.

The names of some people may have been changed.
1. White faced herons; Ardea novaehollandiae novaehollandiae.
Prosthemadera novaeseelandiae.
Anthornis melanura.
4. New Zealand pigeon; Hemiphaga novaeseelandiae.
5. Olearia colensoi; tupare.
6. From James Taylor's, Carolina on my mind.
7. The definition is from WordWeb, the free edition. It may not be as comprehensive or authoritative as some other dictionaries, but for sheer functionality, it's peerless. Highly recommended.

Photos (click on the smaller photos if you want a larger image):
1. The kereru in the cutting.
2. Red billed gull (
Larus novaehollandiae scopulinus; tarapunga) preening; Petone wharf, Wellington harbour.
3. The same gull, doing what gulls are wont to do.
4. Rock, mussels, waves. Eastern shore of Wellington harbour, near Burdan's Gate (ref. my 6 August post). I desaturated all the colours except the greens, and tweaked the contrast a little.

22 August 2006


A week of illness leaves me feeling weak. But it feels good to be able to breathe easily again, to feel my legs working well, to exercise. Gently, though—I’ve felt as if I'm coming right only in the last few days. I'm sure I haven't recovered fully, and I have no intention of being killed by viral myocarditis. How often do you hear someone say, “Just a bit of a cold,” or, “A good spin on the bike’ll blow the bugs out,” or something similar? Sometimes it's good not to let ill health get the better of you, but if that “bit of a bug” happens to have infected your myocardium, a good spin on the bike might kill you.

So I crawl up the hill in the lowest three gears, often at no more than walking pace. I don’t care. It feels good, I’m enjoying the afternoon, the sounds, the clean air, the warmth of the sun soaking into my back, the smells of freshly graded clay by the roadside, and … oh yes, silage, and those other bucolic smells . Better than exhaust fumes, though.

Besides, I have as much time as I like. Since I can’t go hard out, I might as well go easily and for longer.

At the top of No. 2 Line I look out over the Pohangina Valley. Deep shadows, green hills, the afternoon sky a perfect blue, fading as it approaches the horizon hundreds of kilometres away. So pure, all I can see are the imperfections of my own eyes, drifting and floating, half thought, half perceived, reminders of who and what I am. Up North, snow on the Ngamoko, Ruahine, and Whanahuia tops. Fresh, white, clean; from this distance the snowline appears distinct, almost as if it’s been stencilled onto the summits. It’ll be melting fast, but will still be slow going—deep in drifts, a crust that sometimes supports your weight, sometimes collapses. I’ve trudged and waded through snow like that many times. It's tiring and frustrating. I’d like to be doing it now.

The sight of that snow reminds me of the words of Ishak the minstrel:

We are the pilgrims, master; we shall go
Always a little further: it may be
Beyond that last blue mountain barred with snow

How long would it take me to walk to those mountains? One day? Two? Of course, no one thinks of walking those distances if a road goes there. You drive; if you’re keen, fit, and concerned, you ride a bike. If, for some reason, you have to walk, you do so with your thumb out, with your most harmless demeanour on display. In that philosophy, the object of travelling is to arrive, to get there.

But Ishak said, “Always a little further…” suggesting the pilgrimage would never end. This is like Arawata Bill’s prospecting [2]: the gold he sought in the wildness of South Westland, he never found—or he lived with it, constantly. What would he have done if he had found the mother lode? What would Ishak have done if he had found, “…a prophet who can understand /Why men were born”?

Asked these questions, I suspect Bill and Ishak would have either given unconvincing answers or—more likely—would have looked away and excused themselves from further questioning on the grounds that the gold, or the prophet, still remained undiscovered [3].

Downhill’s fun but lacks the satisfaction of exercise. The only things working hard are my hands gripping the bars and my adrenals, pumping furiously as I hit a patch of loose gravel. I coast along a flat section and pedal slowly up a slight incline, taking time to look around before I have to concentrate on the next, winding downhill section. Time—to do what I’m doing. Much of the art of living, it seems to me, is to be able to focus on what’s happening; conversely, much unhappiness and dissatisfaction arises from the tendency to be engaged with something other than what we’re doing. Always something at the back of the mind; something we did or didn’t do; something we have to do when we finish what we’re not doing properly right now.

A pair of putangitangi [4] call in alarm from the dam as I speed past. The value of time, like that of money, lies not in how much you have but in how you spend it. The thought prompts me to wonder how much of the suffering in the world arises from two time-related insecurities: attachment to the past, and fear of the future. I think I'll keep working on a different aapproach: the past as something to be appreciated, and the future as possibilities to be anticipated.

1. J.E. Flecker: Hassan: The Story of Hassan of Baghdad and How He Came to Make the Golden Journey to Samarkand. In fact, I first found the quote in the 1953–54 edition of The Canterbury Mountaineer, the same volume in which my father wrote an article on mountain photography. It's a strange feeling to read something written by your father, in a time before you were born.
2. Arawata Bill is less well known as William O'Leary, and better known as the subject of Denis Glover's 1953 poem, Arawata Bill.
3. I might be wrong about this, as the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography points out that "He ... made no significant gold finds during his lifetime, but, as he admitted to a friend, his prospecting only rationalised his love for the back country."
4. Paradise shelduck, Tadorna variegata.

Photos (click on them if you want a larger image):
. Farm track, Pohangina Valley, August 2006.
2. I heard from a neighbour recently that this ruined shed on No. 3 Line used to be a schoolhouse. Now, I suppose, it teaches us other lessons.
3. Sometimes even a common weed, caught by morning sun on a roadside bank, has the power to captivate. No—not sometimes. Often.
4. And now for something completely different (again). Just a bit of fun with a zoom lens and software. The underlying image is autumn poplars in Te Awaoteatua Stream. I think it's worth a closer look at this; I found it disclosed more than initially met my eye.

Photos and words © 2006 Pete McGregor

06 August 2006


I sit in the car at Burdan’s Gate[1], waiting for J to return home with the Christchurch crew. Dusk and the sound of the sea outside; the long swells sliding in smooth and dark, breaking and foaming only when they hit the shore. A sickle moon hangs in the sky among scattered scraps of cloud and the Kaikoura Ranges look like one of Hokusai’s prints; as I watch, the lights of an aeroplane cross the orange-tinted sky above those distant mountains. I’ve missed this place; only realised it fully when I drove here this afternoon from Wellington and stopped in at the Eastbourne village, looked up at M&I’s, at JK&A’s; walked out onto Rona wharf where bored gulls sat on the mooring posts and ignored me until I got to within a few metres. Of course, I’d left the big lens in the car. Not that I cared—photos weren’t a high priority, although I took a handful, inspired by the light; by the patterns of the white-painted flaking picket fence with its rust stains and rot; the sweep of a long strand of kelp undulating in the green water; the colours in the evening sky; the textures of wood weathered by the sea and polished by wind and salt.

The light’s almost gone now. Two people walk past, first in one direction then, shortly after, back towards Eastbourne. A ute crawls down the farm track and across the harbour, Wellington glitters, a constellation of sodium stars. A big swell rolls in.

A black, looming wall, racing towards me.


The following evening J and YH and I walk up the track behind the house. A strong wind beats at the manuka[2] and other mixed native scrub but the canopy’s high enough to shelter us from the wind and give sections of the track the impression of a kind of tunnel. The sound of wind roaring when you’re sheltered from it—a good feeling; one of those enormously comfortable sounds, like rain on a roof, or the sea lapping at the hull of the boat in some safe harbour as you drop off to sleep. I remember that sound from years ago, when we sheltered in the Bay of Islands on our diving trip to the Poor Knights Islands, so long ago now. Was it the day when, much to my amazement and the envy of the serious fishers, I’d caught the hapuku? Or the day we dived for scallops? I do remember it was the day we dived down to the Rainbow Warrior, still discernible then as the wreck of a ship, where we peered in through portholes and saw schools of fish sheltering in cabins that had once sheltered laughter and argument and passions to protect the world. I touched the seabed at 88 feet and returned to the surface with a head full of new memories and aching from the cold.


We drive to Burdan’s Gate; leave the cars there and walk along the coast in the wind, the Nor’wester whipping waves onto the shore, buffeting the gorse[3] and Melianthus and ngaio[4] and other scrubby plants; blackbacked gulls hanging in the wind, little shags peering at us from where they bob among the troughs and peaks of choppy water. On the shingle beach I pick up a cast up masking crab Notomithrax ursus, most of the weed gone from the hairy shell, like the vanished life, but on its left chelicera a white mark in the shape of a perfect ‘2’—so perfect I wonder whether it’s been put there by human intervention, the jetsam of a research project. Eventually I decide it’s coincidental, an accident of nature, but the possibility remains.

We struggle back in the wind, rugged up, enjoying the fresh air. Eyes watering from the wind, noses on the brink of running. Black oystercatchers and white goats; the shingle beach a mass of jumbled driftwood and old plastic bottles; a wrecked running shoe. On a stack just too far to reach without wading, I see a sodden jacket. I study it carefully with the binoculars, a vague insistent thought reminding me that not far from here a Chinese fisherman was swept overboard on that stormy night while I was looking after M&I’s house, and a handless, almost decapitated body was discovered recently on the beach at Owhiro Bay. The hands have not been found, nor the body of the fisherman. I walk closer to the stack, climb a nearby boulder and scan the saturated jacket, but it appears to be nothing but a lost item of clothing, something left behind, something returning to the elements—something containing nothing.

YJ and YH collect empty paua shells, as is the tendency of most boys in places like this. They’re still young, still struggling to understand how acquisition and ownership might be less important than appreciation. This a lesson that cannot be taught, only learned. Some people never learn it. The lust to possess—from where, and how, does it arise? So many of us never seem to realise that our dissatisfactions, our lack of contentment, our desires, cannot be satisfied by owning even more. I suspect it’s the converse: that those desires and discontent can usually be ameliorated best by owning less. Perhaps this is the buddhist concept of nonattachment? I can’t say—I’m not a buddhist—but why, when I hear the word “ownership”, does it evoke ideas of exclusion and encumbrance?

But perhaps I’m wrong; perhaps I’m the one who hasn’t learnt; perhaps I’m destined for failure. Perhaps I’m at risk of failing my lessons in capitalism.

1. Burdan's Gate is the barrier,
beyond Eastbourne, where vehicle access along the Coast road ends.
2. Leptospermum scoparium. It may have included kanuka, Kunzea ericoides, too.
3. Ulex europaeus.
4. Myoporum laetum.

Photos (click on them if you want a larger image):
1&3. Jacob's Ladders (a.k.a. "God beams") over Paekakariki. West coast of the lower North Island, North of Wellington.
I stopped for these photos just beyond Pukerua Bay, while I was driving back to the valley last Monday morning.
2. Low tide at Waipapa Point, Southland. The weed is rimurapa, bull kelp, Durvillea spp. (antarctica or willana).
4. More Jacob's Ladders, this time over the Pohangina Valley, looking towards the Ngamoko Range from Takapari Road.
5. "And now for something completely different..." Steer (no bull...), Pohangina Valley, yesterday.

Photos and words © 2006 Pete McGregor