22 September 2006


A stone sits in the middle of the driveway in front of the house. One stone, darker than the rest. A stone that would fit into a cupped hand. The shape is irregular Possum skulland lumpy; the texture rough and pitted. The stone is encircled by a small, blue band of webbing, like a miniature climber’s sling. I recognise its significance.

It is the mark of incipient terrorism.


The Neurological Foundation of New Zealand (NFNZ) suggests the current scientific consensus is that dreams have no meaning. The Foundation’s usually excellent newsletter quotes Harvard Medical School’s Allan Hobson [1] as pointing out that “hallucinatory mental content is lowest during active waking and highest during REM sleep,” while “the incidence of thinking is highest during quiet waking and lowest during REM sleep.” From this, the Foundation’s article concludes a sleeping brain cannot simultaneously generate perceptions and think about them; in other words, you cannot make sense of your dreams.

I’m still struggling to make sense of that logic.


I walk down the driveway and through the gate, into an area of scrub-covered hillside and crumbling rock, leading down to flat land. I spent my childhood here; now, however, it is Viv playing fiddlemore arid, full of drought and fear. I walk with my hands held out and up to show I am helpless, that I am no threat. I am afraid, but keep walking. A group of small men walk past me and I try to explain that I just wish to talk. They seem to be in a hurry, but they assure me they will arrange a meeting. I am doing this to avert the attack on my family.


The NFNZ’s article was published this year. I check the article on which it was based and find it was published in 1998 [2]. Given the article did not present original research but instead was a selective, popular summary, the conclusions are likely to be close to a decade old. That’s a long time in science, and I wonder what the consensus is now.


I wake in a room already full of light, and reach out to turn on the radio. A New Zealand woman has been seriously wounded by a gunman in Jordan; another person in her group was killed in the attack.

I am awake in my room in the Pohangina Valley, listening to what happened in the world while I was dreaming.


Even a cursory investigation raises doubt about the NFNZ’s dogmatic conclusion. Hobson's models ofTony singing dreaming have not been universally accepted; indeed, they have been opposed vehemently by Mark Solms, whose research results disagree with Hobson's in three major areas.

Hobson claims dreams originate in the same region of the brain (the pons) that stimulates REM sleep; the signals arising here are relatively chaotic [3] and it is the forebrain’s attempts to “make sense” of these chaotic impulses that we experience as dreams. He now concedes that the forebrain might in fact influence REM activity, but still maintains that because the “thinking” part of the forebrain (the prefrontal cortex) is not active during dreaming, while the “emotional brain” (the limbic and paralimbic regions) is active, dreams have little or no meaning.

Solms, however, claims to have shown that dreaming is not synonymous with REM sleep—in other words, that significant dreaming activity occurs independently from REM sleep [4]; and that dreams originate in a different area of the brain (the ventral tegmental area of the midbrain).

Hobson and Solms also disagree about the biochemistry of dreaming. Hobson focuses on the levels of serotonin, norepinephrine, and acetylcholine and how the interactions of these chemicals cause the observed characteristics of dreams, while Solms argues that the dopaminergic system—which also regulates appetites and desires—forms the basis of dreaming.

Thus, the controversy arises from three major differences: the area of the brain in which dreaming Paul playing harmonicaoriginates (and therefore the implications of this in light of what is known about the function of these different regions); whether dreams are substantially a byproduct of REM activity; and the neurochemical basis of dreams (and again, therefore, the implications of this).

The upshot of these differences is that Hobson’s theory points strongly to dreams as being largely random and therefore meaningless, but Solms’ theory links dreaming with areas and processes considered important in generating our appetites and desires. This also means Freud’s theories of dreams can have no place in Hobson’s model, but seem to be not just allowed, but supported by Solms’ model.

Despite this polarisation, Hobson and Solms both consider dreaming as akin to psychosis; they regard dreams as fundamentally bizarre and emotional. However, empirical sleep research—in loose terms, experimental observation—suggests otherwise; moreover, this research suggests both theories are wrong because the predicted associations between neurophysiological activity and the characteristics of dreams (e.g., “bizarreness”, or intense emotion) have not been observed [5].


I lie awake, thinking about the dream, thinking about dreaming. When I was a small child, I often dreamed of being chased by wolves and escaping into the sky. As I grewPhymatosaurus in the Ruahine older and learned more about the true nature of wolves, the dream became less frequent. Now, I no longer have recurring dreams—at least, not that I remember. But other people do, and I wonder: if brain activity during dreaming really is so chaotic, how can this explain recurring dreams?


Further investigation leads me into a mire of arguments, hypotheses, digressions, and technical jargon well beyond my comprehension, but what does seem clear is that the NFNZ's dogmatic conclusion is unjustified: other theories have been proposed, but all are flawed in some way. Even the popular assertion that sleep serves to consolidate memory is hotly argued [6].

Currently, no satisfactory model explains dreaming. A sound model, it seems, remains a dream.


Do dreams have meaning? For all my scepticism about the quality of the NFNZ’s article and regardless of whether Allan Hobson’s theories (or any others) are correct, I’m inclined to agree with at least part of what he says: the greatest value of dreams is that the attempt to interpret them tells us something about ourselves. The difficulty, of course, arises if you believe they mean nothing; if you believe you cannot meaningfully interrogate your dreams. If you believe that, then dreams can tell you nothing about yourself.


I’m not suggesting any kind of prescience in the dreams I mention here, nor do I attach any importance to the supposed coincidences. Dreams about terrorism are, I suspect, not uncommon. Tragically, nor is terrorism solely a nightmare.

1. Hobson is one of the developers of the activation-synthesis hypothesis, which in its original form regards dreams as essentially meaningless (Hobson, J.A.; McCarley, R. 1977: The brain as a dream state generator: An activation-synthesis hypothesis of the dream process. American Journal of Psychiatry 134: 1335–1348. [Read the abstract]).
2. The original article is no help, because in it Allan Hobson doesn’t argue the case for denying that dreams have meaning—he insists they have no meaning: ‘"Dreams do not contain messages from the unconscious mind, or provide an outlet for repressed feelings," insists J. Allan Hobson, professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School.’ (op. cit.)
3. This has been disputed; brain stem signals may be ordered and predictable, or at least not as chaotic as claimed by Hobson (Jones, B. E. 2000. The interpretation of physiology. Behavioral and Brain Sciences 23: 955–956).
4. The association between dreaming and REM sleep has been recognised since 1953 (Aserinsky, E.; Kleitman, N. 1953: Regularly occurring periods of eye motility, and concomitant phenomena, during sleep. Science 118:273–274); however, this aspect of the Hobson/Solms controversy focuses on whether REM sleep is the sole origin of significant dreaming.
5. Domhoff, G. W. 2005: Refocusing the neurocognitive approach to dreams: A critique of the Hobson versus Solms debate. Dreaming 15: 3–20.
6. For example, compare Robert Vertes' conclusion that “there is no compelling evidence to support a relationship between sleep and memory consolidation” with the view of Jan Born and Bj√∂rn Rasch that “ compelling evidence has accumulated that links sleep to learning and memory.” Vertes, R. 2004: Memory Consolidation in Sleep: Dream or Reality. Neuron 44: 135-148; Born, J.; Rasch, B. 2006. Sleep to remember. The Neuroscientist 12 (5): 410–424.

Photos (click them if you want a larger image):
1. Possum (Trichosurus vulpecula) skull, No. 1 Line track, Ruahine Range. Someone had hung this by its eye socket from a small, dead shrub in front of the massive rimu, a tree hundreds of years old.
2, 3, 4. Viv, Tony, and Paul playing at the Waterford a few weekends ago.
5. Kowaowao (hound's tongue fern, Microsorum pustulatum), No. 1 Line track.
6. Image based on a photo of horopito (mountain pepperwood, Pseudowintera colorata), No. 1 Line track.

Photos and words © 2006 Pete McGregor

15 September 2006

Corrugated iron

Corrugated iron. It’s so much a part of the New Zealand landscape—sheds, roofs, fences, shelters, old sheets lying in paddocks. Newly erected iron gleaming; iron painted every colour; unpainted, faded iron; rusted iron. Patchworks of reused iron salvaged from demolitions and nailed onto the side of a shed to replace the iron rotted by age and too much rain and damp seeping from cold ground. It’s everywhere, from every angle you choose to view the landscape; it’s rural and urban; you find it on old huts in remote areas among mountains and along coasts—particularly along coasts where people shelter after a day’s whitebaiting [1] or surfcasting and drink beer and whisky and lie about what they had on the line. The rain arrives—hard, West Coast rain so loud you can hardly hear the lies so you sit back and eat fritters and enjoy the sound and hope it’ll be a good day in the morning.

Not everyone appreciates corrugated iron. Some people associate it with other things. Years ago I knew someone who emigrated from South Africa to New Zealand to practise as a GP for the foreseeable future. As her plane flew low over Palmerston North she looked down on the rooftops. She looked down on all those corrugated iron rooftops and burst into tears. She thought she'd come to live in a shanty town.

At Te Papa, the Museum of New Zealand, there’s a Holden Kingswood station wagon on display [2]. The panel work is made from corrugated iron the colour of rust. To me, cars are tools, but I can appreciate a car like that.

I think it’s the texture I love as much as anything else. A corrugated iron wall can never be a blank wall. Not like the freshly painted wall I see out this window, across the street from the Wellington City Library, next to the construction site. A blank, concrete wall, painted khaki. Bland and featureless, it functions aesthetically only as a screen on which the late morning sun projects patterns of shadow and Pukekolight from the glass and concrete surroundings, and as a backdrop for the found sculpture of reinforcing rods projecting skywards from the foundations like stripped sinews. Corrugated iron, however, always has texture; it’s never blank. Lead-head nails slide their shadows across the corrugations; the sun glances off the side of a shed at a low angle and every long hollow’s a line of shadow, every ridge a bright line of light. The pattern's so regular that every dent stands out, each containing a story. A world without imperfections is a world with nothing to say.

I drive the narrow road to Kuku beach, past dairy farms and ragged hedges, by old wire fences with battens leaning at random angles. The wire's still the old, pliable No. 8, not the thin and difficult high tensile modern stuff. Beyond the railway line there’s a poultry farm, every shed made of corrugated iron. Pukeko [3] forage in roadside paddocks, high stepping, tails flicking. One stretches its neck to inspect the car as I idle past; another slips away, head down, through long, hummocky grass. More reptile, or dinosaur, than bird. Each house has one or more sheds or garages of corrugated iron; the houses themselves are roofed with it. Haybarns, milking sheds, calf shelters, abandoned fowlhouses—all corrugated iron in shades of oxidised galvanising and faded red. That battered shed over there might once have been pale lavender, perhaps from a cheap lot of bargain bin paint; now it’s almost indistinguishable from the grey of aged iron. A shelter by a farm driveway is the simplest of structures: three sides and a roof, just enough in which to keep dry until the school bus arrives; a basic frame of weathered four by twos and a few sheets of corrugated iron banged on with left-over lead-heads. But the bus has gone, the kids have disappeared, and the shelter contains nothing but sunlight and shadows, the warmth of Spring and a few infinitely patient spiders Spur winged ploverat the mouths of their retreats. Nail a sheet of corrugated iron to a wooden frame and you create 27 homes [4].

The car bounces over the last 50 metres of sandy track to the carpark. I assume this is it; it’s just a flattish area in the dunes, near a line of low, salt-stunted macrocarpas. Empty of cars, empty of people. The place has that out-of-time feel, as if it’s been abandoned by the twenty-first century, left to the birds and the wind. I walk slowly, aware how each footprint adds to the line, and sit on a driftwood log in the sun and the cold breeze. A spur winged plover [5] calls at me until it sees I’m sitting still, then it resumes its inspection of the shallow water along the edge of the stream. On the far side, pied stilts [6] step and yelp and probe the water.

The whitebaiters padlock the door and drive off, and a blowfly, trapped inside, walks up and down the windowsill; a cloud passes overhead and the iron roof cools and contracts, banging and cracking. Inside, the clock's tick stops; the fly pauses, then falls to the floor, and the room fills with the sound of surf at the river's mouth and wind around the walls.

Corrugated iron car

1. New Zealand whitebait are juvenile forms of our native galaxiid fishes. They're mostly diadromous and definitely delicious, with inanga (Galaxias maculatus; considered catadromous because the adults migrate to estuaries to spawn) reputedly being the best of the several main species of whitebait. In Wellington last week, 100 gram punnets of whitebait were selling for NZ$15; bad luck if you're short of money—or if you're a whitebait.
2. The work is by Jeff Thomson
(do check out the link; it's an excellent essay with great examples of his work). He's well known for his corrugated iron sculptures, particularly the animals.
3. Porphyrio porphyrio. The English vernacular is “swamphen”, but no one I know calls them that in New Zealand. They're always pukeko. Or “pookackas”, sometimes abbreviated to “pooks”. A few farmers—those whose crops have been damaged or water troughs fouled—have other names for them.
4. Three rows of nine tunnels. Now, corrugated iron is rolled in all sorts of lengths and contours, but my calculation's roughly true for the old style sheets. Its propensity for harbouring little creatures is something else people hate about it. Understandable when you're sitting on the long drop at night, surrounded by the gleam of spiders' eyes, the long legs of Cambridgea reaching out from between the iron and wood.
5. Vanellus miles novaehollandiae
. Rare only a few decades ago, these weird and rowdy birds have spread throughout New Zealand and are now among the most common farmland birds. Because they prefer large areas of open pasture, they're found at most airports; consequently, they're the most common cause of bird strikes in New Zealand.
6. Poaka; Himantopus himantopus.

Photos (click on those above if you want a larger image):
1. Shed and creeper; Shannon.
2. Pukeko at Lindale; Horowhenua.
3. Spur winged plover at Kuku beach; Horowhenua.
4. Jeff Thomson's Holden; Te Papa, Wellington.

Photos and words © 2006 Pete McGregor

09 September 2006


You step out into the dusk. Grey and white clouds mount over the ranges; a full moon rises, huge, the colour of bone. Colour still lingers in the sky—violet, purple, mauve, a tinge of pink. Hues fade, moment by moment; the remains of the day are overwhelmed by twilight, the looming dark. Edges soften and disappear, leaving only forms and shapes; clarity becomes a remembered concept; the world is seen best from an angle, not confronted directly by the eye. This is the time of birds roosting, late shapes flitting quick across a road, the chink-chink of blackbirds, things half seen moving under branches. This is when the rustling starts in old sheds; when you hear the pattering run of small feet along the malthoid lining of the fowlhouse roof. Chooks murmur and shuffle on their perch. Perhaps a possum[1] might start up in the macrocarpas[2]—the sound of an old man trying to cough and gasp and chuckle all at the same time. Hearing it, a man reaches for his spotlight and .22.
You step out into the dusk, which is no longer a winter dusk. Cold, but without the edge, lacking the bitterness. You step out into the dusk and fall backwards out of the present, into a half dreamed world of wire netting and paling fences preserved with old sump oil and warped by the years. A cat springs onto a post, looks briefly back, and is gone. Vegetable gardens in back yards; careful rows hoed; a few cabbages; a pruned vine trained along the paling fence, tied with baler twine. Your grandfather sits in the doorway of the shed with his pipe and his memories. Perhaps he’s thinking of a time before your mother was born, or perhaps he’s thinking about what to plant in the plot he’s just finished turning over.
You step out into the dusk and people you never met walk out of the shadows. They build fires and camp on river banks, cook eels and kereru, and move on past you, upriver, into the shadow of the mountain. They nod to you as they walk by and you do the same. No words. A ruru[3] calls and another answers; in the moonlight, something runs across a clearing. You don’t know what it is, but you know it will never be seen anywhere but here, in this time, in this twilight, in the back of your mind.

I've been working on a post about dreams, and seem to have stalled. Late the other night I abandoned it (perhaps temporarily) and started writing something completely different; something not intended as a post; something I thought would have no structure, would go nowhere. Writing for the sake of writing and nothing more. Later, I stopped, sat back and wondered where on earth—or elsewhere—it came from. This is it.

1. The introduced Australian brushtail possum, Trichosurus vulpecula.
2. Cupressus macrocarpa. Known as Monterey cypress elsewhere but here simply as macrocarpas, these are near-ubiquitous features of the rural New Zealand landscape.
3. The morepork, Ninox novaeseelandiae. Aotearoa's only extant native owl.

Photos (click on them if you want a larger image):
. A view East across the upper Pohangina Valley to the southern Ruahine Range, winter 2006.
2. My maternal grandmother, Veronica Blake (R; dark hair), and her sister, Aileen. Date unknown, probably the first few years of the 20th Century. The original photographer was H.H. Clifford, of Christchurch, N.Z. Veronica ('Nana' to us when we were kids) grew up and married James McGrath.
Photos and words © 2006 Pete McGregor