28 September 2007

Yellow flowers, smiling

Willis Street, the heart of Wellington. Roaring traffic, the squeal of bus brakes, a screech of aluminium as poorly adjusted doors fold open to liberate passengers. A taxi blares its horn, unwilling to ease its acceleration. Petulant impatience. Californian quail, femaleOn the footpath a young woman walks, hands in jacket pockets, lips moving as she speaks to no one. She seems halfway between distraction and distress but discloses no clues about which way she’s heading—only that it’s elsewhere. A young man in black with a shoulder bag and green hair bounces along the street. Confident, going somewhere. A little later the elsewhere woman returns, eating a pie. If she looked at me I’d smile but she notices no one, she’s gone from the noise and the rush; wherever she is, it isn’t here.
My bus still hasn’t appeared. A man, probably in his early 30s with a long beard and a colourful knitted hat, sits on the bench near where I’m standing. With him is a little girl, maybe six or seven years old, dressed in a yellow T-shirt and burnt orange, patterned tights with a hole above the right knee. She has long blonde hair and wears a purple, handmade felt hat with a slight Paddington-bear look to it. It’s decorated with a row of bright yellow daisy-like flowers. Among the mass of bustling people dressed in black and dull, muted colours the man and the girl look like slightly faded rainbows on a squally day. It’s hard to believe they live anywhere but in a house bus painted with flowers and called Myrtle.
She swings her legs as she sits on the bench and looks around at the people passing by while she talks to him. An Oystercatcherold woman labours over to the bench and eases herself down; with an effort she bends and removes her left shoe. The man picks up the little girl and sits her on his knee to give the old woman more room. After rubbing her foot she replaces her shoe. The girl watches. The woman looks up her—and the small face framed in gold and purple becomes an enormous smile, one leaving room for nothing else, no competing emotions. She beams and swings her legs on her father’s knees.
Even from a few feet away I can’t hear the conversation because the cacophony from the street drowns everything. But the words are incidental. Her father’s smiling too, and I catch a phrase: “She’s going to Caitlin’s this afternoon.” The yellow flowers tremble on the purple hat.
Along the coast from Burdan’s Gate two Californian quail run, agitated, across the dusty gravel track, pausing before disappearing Californian quail, malebeneath the boneseed. I stop pedalling, let the bike coast and slow and stop so I can peer into the dim tangle of low branches, but the birds have gone. Evening surf hisses on the shingle beach; a gull yelps.
Boneseed—that strange, unyielding name, with its connotations of death and potential life. Slowly, boneseed has begun to take over the shingle beach, moving down off the steep, goat-gnawed hillsides where it mingles with the gorse; spreading onto the wide shingle dunes, seedlings springing up among the driftwood and brittle shells. I bike on, towards the lighthouse, alone in the evening. Everywhere I look, yellow flowers remind me of a small child with a smile that could embrace the world.

1. The flowers might look pretty, but the spread of boneseed along New Zealand's coast is worrying. However, in early 2007, the boneseed leafroller (Tortrix s.l. sp. "chrysanthemoides"), a potential biological control agent was released (365 Kb PDF). Caterpillars of the boneseed leafroller damage the plant's leaves, stems, and bark, causing terminal leaves and shoot tips to die. The outcome of the biological control programme might not be known for some time — possibly many years — but we can remain hopeful.
2. Californian quail were introduced to New Zealand in 1865 and are now widespread. I have a soft spot for these birds, as they were common where I grew up, in a small valley on the outskirts of Christchurch. Hearing their distinctive call can take me back decades.

Photos (click to enlarge them):
1, 3. Californian quail, Callipepla californica (photo 1, female; photo 3, male). Wellington coast, near Burdan's Gate, Point Arthur.
2. Torea, the variable oystercatcher, Haematopus unicolor.
Wellington coast, near Burdan's Gate, Point Arthur.
4. Boneseed (Chrysanthemoides monilifera ssp. monilifera) flowers. These appear identical to the flowers on the little girl's hat.

Photos and words © 2007 Pete McGregor

11 September 2007

How to get lost

Leave the highway and follow the gravel road past the row of macrocarpas, the old woolshed with its lichen-smothered yards, the derelict cottage, one window opening glassless into the vacant dark, the dark full of memories and the scamper of small feet, the other window opaque with age and grime, like a cataract. Both eyes blind. Leave the car at the broken gate; follow the track under the pines; stop for a moment to listen to the wind whispering in the needles and to feel the softly rotting litter under your feet. Then carry on, up over the hill.

Manuka scrub, a few half-wild sheep shedding ragged fleeces. A little colour in a bitterly cold sky filled with the sound of distant surf and a skylark's song—but the bird cannot be seen. At the far end of the small lake a kahu floats on wide wings, tipping and circling above a wetland of rushes and raupo. There the lake becomes the wide end of a rough gully patchworked with old gorse, through which mahoe and five-finger have begun to grow, replacing it. With time and luck, they too will be replaced and a future forest might muffle your footfalls. But now, pick your way along the sheep track skirting the wetland. Perhaps you'll flush a pair of ducks; in years gone they might have been greys but these days they're more likely to be mallards or hybrids.

Silvereyes scatter on the wind, past the rattle of cabbage tree leaves black against the light.

Follow the sheep track up through the tussocks and back 40 years; watch the old hare lope over the skyline. You're no threat to him, but he wants to be on the safe side. By now you are becoming like him, each step taking you out of the world, back to the time before the little strangers arrived, back to the time before the tide washed away the first footprint with five toes; forward to the time you can be forgotten. A gust of wind wrinkles the surface of the lake and the world vanishes.

You are the air in flight, a ripple in long grass. Sweep on over the hill, into the evening, following the hare's long lope; you will reform in the lake, somewhere between land and sky.

You are the wind, the light reflected, movement and moment. You are the sound of the surf beyond the low hills, a sound repeating the story of your life, over, and over, and over.

The passage is short and footnote markers would interrupt it, so I've not indicated them in the text.
1. Macrocarpas—Cupressus macrocarpa. The common name is Monterey cypress, but here everyone calls them macrocarpas.
2. Manuka—Leptospermum scoparium; sometimes refers also to kanuka, Kunzea ericoides.
3. Kahu—the harrier, Circus approximans.
4. RaupoTypha orientalis.
5. Mahoe—whiteywood, Melicytus ramiflorus.
6. Five-finger—puahou, Pseudopanax arboreus.

7. "...greys..."—grey ducks, Anas superciliosa, are native in Aotearoa, but are becoming increasingly rare as the introduced mallards compete and hybridise with them.
8. The Maori name for silvereyes, "tauhou", means "little stranger", a reference to their recent arrival in Aotearoa. Presumably blown across the Tasman, they were first recorded here, near Wellington, in 1856.
9. "...the old hare.."—there's a photo of someone like him in this post, and another here.

1. Tauhou, the waxeye, white-eye or silvereye; Zosterops lateralis.

Photo and words © 2007 Pete McGregor

02 September 2007

Grace on a rainy day

Ground hunting spider

Before dawn the wind arrives, roaring around the house, banging a loose sheet of metal somewhere outside in the dark. Last night the weather man issued warnings—hurricane force winds, he said; and I wonder whether they'll arrive here, or even if they'll hit the Wairarapa as forecast. I drop back to sleep, wake a little later to hear the wind's no worse. Then a shower of rain, heavy, solid drops, but it comes to nothing. The shower passes, the wind comes and goes, gusting but not developing.

All morning it stays heavily overcast, with occasional, half-hearted showers. Trainee rain. Just enough to keep the ground wet. The tops of the southern Ruahine disappear into dense, looming cloud. It's not really the sort of day to be out turning over rocks looking for what lives under them, and besides, it's only the second day of Spring—not as cold as the heart of Winter, but still not the best time of year to expect to find much invertebrate life.

Still, I'd like to make some kind of small contribution to helping make International Rock Flipping Day a success. After lunch I gear up and drive to the end of No. 1 Line. Rain spatters the windscreen; someone in an SUV, towing a trailer, speeds down the gravel road—fortunately, I at least, am driving sedately—and at the road end the cloud's so dense and low I almost abandon my plans and head for lower, drier ground on which to flip rocks.

But the bush shelters me from the passing showers; I hear them hissing on the leaves in the canopy overhead, but they're not persistent enough to filter through. At my level down here, the understorey foliage glistens with old rainwater, the leaves shine in the dull light. Rocks seem scarce, however. At least, the kind of rocks I'd like to turn over; the sort that seem somehow promising. Here, most are old, heavily blanketed with thick mosses and foliose lichens, and deeply embedded in the forest floor. I ease one or two carefully out of the leaf mould, finding, as expected, nothing other than a leafhopper or two—the little amphipods twitch and scramble their way out of sight within a few seconds. I wonder what I'm doing, disturbing them like this.

I replace the rocks gently and carry on up the steep, greasy track, realising as I climb that actually I don't want to turn over rocks. Somewhere along the years my curiosity to know what's living there has been supplanted by the desire to let what's living there continue to live there, unmolested. It's absurd to believe my turning over rocks might have any sort of detrimental effect on the invertebrate populations here, but that seems beside the point. Increasingly, my concern has come to be for the individuals; the possibility that no matter how carefully I replace the rock, my action makes someone homeless, at least temporarily, and therefore vulnerable.

Although, perhaps there's more to it than that. As I climb, I find myself placing my feet carefully, quietly, not because I'm Rimu barktrying to avoid slipping (although I am) and not because I think I might see a deer (I don't), but simply because it seems, well, ... right. It's the same feeling I've had on an untrodden sand beach, or a snowfield—a feeling of not wanting to disturb or intrude, to leave no trace, to travel so lightly no one could ever know I'd been there. Perhaps it's the art of passing through a place with grace. Or perhaps it's plain, simple respect.

It's impossible, of course—Heisenberg proved that—but that, too, is beside the point. So what if it's impossible? Maybe the knowledge that something's impossible protects us from despair. If we believe something is possible, but it proves too difficult, the urge to see ourselves as failures is likely to be irresistible. On the other hand, knowing something's impossible frees us to enjoy striving as hard as we're able.

I see I'm drifting away from rock flipping. I'd still like to contribute something, and I acknowledge how important rock flipping used to be to me, and how exciting it is for kids in particular. Have you ever noticed how, in a child's mind, the larger the rock the more wonderful the things that must live beneath it? I think many adults haven't grown beyond that idea.

I turn a few rocks, mostly for IRFD instigator Dave, and find little other than a couple of large carabid beetles and a ground hunting spider. I manage one quick photo of the spider before she buries herself beneath the litter. She was living beneath one of the smallest rocks I flipped all day.

Photos (click to enlarge them):
1. The ground hunting spider. Miturga sp. The taxonomy's contested, I think; it's now sometimes placed in Uliodon.
2. Different day (earlier this week); different road end (No. 3 Line); similar weather.
3. I actually spent more time photographing the bark of this rimu (Dacrydium cupressinum) than turning over rocks.

Update: You can find links to everyone else who's posted about IRFD at the bottom of Dave's post. He'll be adding to the list from time to time, so check back there occasionally. In any case, via Negativa's an excellent blog so go and check it out if you don't already visit regularly.

Photos and words © 2007 Pete McGregor