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


burning silo said...

Beautiful photo of the spider and the rimu bark.
I do occasionally turn rocks when out and about, but don't much like to intrude on small creatures. I don't like picking up rocks that are tightly sealed with the ground as that seems an invasion of space. What probably bothers me most is walking on a rocky beach or trail, knowing that I'm probably crushing the odd invertebrate. I tend to avoid walking through just those kinds of places for that very reason. Perhaps that's the positive side of rock-flipping... raising some awareness that there are often creatures living beneath rocks. We could certainly use a bit more invertebrate awareness on the trails around here as we find so many of the large Narceus millipedes crushed along the way.

pohanginapete said...

Cheers Bev. Yes, I too felt reluctant to disturb rocks well-embedded in the ground. It's usually very difficult to replace them so they look undisturbed. And I agree about walking over littoral rocks. I really don't like the feel of barnacles under my feet. The discomfort's psychological, not physical.

TCM said...

nice photo Pete !! cool to stay and read here... keep it up !!

Anonymous said...

Hi Pete,
I wanted just to drop You a line, to let You know that you're thought of, here in England where we are now.
I keep reading You. And loving it.

Barbara & Andrea

butuki said...

Just spent the better part of this evening catching up on your posts. So much to comment on, perhaps too much. Still, just having to returned to Japan it's comforting to read another traveler's reactions to his turn of landscapes and the passage of travel dreams. The return here to a place I really don't want to be brought great resentment and anger, a feeling of wasted time and skirting the invitation of a cage door closing behind me once again. It's so easy to grow complacent and let things go. The traveling seemed, as you also described, a dream and its glamour is tempting. But there was a truth to the simplicity that the traveling required that I feel, and perhaps that everyday life demands, we are so achingly missing in our complicated modern lives. That contrast of prosperity and poverty that you saw in such clear contrast, and which gets increasingly diluted in our lifestyles where everything comes easily, and in which the inherant worth of everything around us loses its magic, must surely have emphasized to you a lot of what is important and what is superfluous, while at the same time brightening the value of those things which make life easier and more fulfilling. Since so much of what travel is about revolves purely in our heads perhaps that shifting between places and the way they affect us are valuable in that we can find opportunities to compare and find a middle ground. Often it is hard to see the problems in our own backyard unless we look at the way others have handled their take on the world, including those of animals and plants. Your comment about people perhaps spending too much time on worshipping their gods and not enough on what those gods supposedly created rang more true with me than almost all else you wrote, and mirrors so much of how I see the world. We spend so much time worrying about the afterlife and the betterment of human life that we disregard what it is about the world we already inhabit that is good and nourishing. I have always found it incomprehensible how people can waste so much energy in trying to imagine a world that is "better" than this one, or more beautiful. If people would but open their eyes and look around they would see beauty unparallelled to anything they can imagine. And one of the delights of knowing about wild animals is the utter involvement they have with the world, with no questioning or odds with the way the world shapes them. Perhaps one of the punishments of our expulsion from the Garden is this forgetting of how the world has shaped us and how our happiness depends on accepting and becoming one with the world. Perhaps the big questions are, what is and how does one become part of the world? Are death and pain evil, seeing as they are part of being part of the world? What does it mean to be an animal? Is there something inherently wrong with our aspirations as a civilization? Is it possible to inbue deeper meaningfulness in our modern lives if our sheer numbers requires the mass production of the mediocre? Or, as you seem to suggest, will the goblins eventually overtake the corners of our minds?

During my own trip it came across powerfully that some of the strongest memories of my life will always be from experiences with basic needs and interactions, dealing with such things as hunger or cold or loneliness or being lost. During most of the last few months when I spent a lot of time on the internet I doubt that, except for a few notable moments, most of that time will in later years seem important to me.

Thanks for sharing what you saw and experienced on your trip. And if I can make it anytime soon I definitely would like to take you up on the offer of walking in the mountains in New Zealand. The same goes for if you ever visit Japan.

pohanginapete said...

Thanks, and welcome, evoexplorer.

Barbara and Andrea, I miss you back here! The internet can be great, but it's no substitute for being able to sit down together with a pint. I think of you, too, and look forward to catching up somewhere, sometime, for real.

Miguel, "...so much to comment on, perhaps too much." — yes, that was my immediate thought when I read your comment! Sorry to hear about the negative feelings you had on your return. I at least was lucky because (among many other good things) I had a beautiful place to return to and great friends to enjoy catching up with.

Your guess that my travelling emphasised what's important is right on the mark, as is your observation about how travelling can simplify life — at least temporarily. There's a lesson there: I'm trying to hold onto that simplicity; trying to incorporate into my life, for good (the ambiguity's deliberate). Fortunately, I've already had a fair bit of practice, as it's something I've been aware of, very strongly, during my time among the New Zealand mountains, particularly on extended journeys. The feeling of being alone up there, a hut and the evening river to myself, maybe a whio whistling from one of the big pools, the wind in the beech canopy and wild clouds racing overhead from the Ngamoko to the Ruahine... at times like those, everything seems to reduce to a few essential things (deliberate ambiguity again...) It's the kind of joy too few people experience (I guess) and those who do, experience it too seldom. I'm lucky, almost beyond belief, but it's a fine line between appreciating it — deeply — and succumbing to the temptation to feel guilty because so many aren't as lucky. Perhaps the best I can do is enjoy my luck as much as I can; to be grateful for the gift by delighting in it. Of course, some might interpret that as a convenient rationalisation — to them, the only response I can think of is to disagree.

So many other things to think about in your comment. Are death and pain evil? Well, as you point out, they are part of the world, but I don't think logical analysis helps much with questions like that, unless you just enjoy the philosophical discussion as a kind of mental exercise. Nothing wrong with that, of course, and it can contribute to understanding, but I think intuition or something akin to meditation — effort is required; it's deep, not superficial insight — would provide a deeper understanding for that question and the others you pose. I'm sorry I can't offer much more right now, but thanks for the questions — which will pester me for a long time... ;-P

Hope I can catch up with you sometime, here, in Japan, or elsewhere.

Avus said...

There is a lot of Buddha in this post, Pete.

pohanginapete said...

I'm honoured, Avus. Thankyou.

Anonymous said...

'And life runs large on the Long Trail - the trail that is always new.'
What a lovely way to travel it.... as thought-filled as your long-distance journeys.

Zhoen said...

Celebrating the impossible, not neglecting it.

I always felt funny about turning over rocks just to see beneath. Very scientific, but my own knowledge and interest seemed insufficient reason to bother the wee critters. I'm happy to let them hide, if they so wish.

herhimnbryn said...

I wouldn't want anyone flipping my 'rock', thankyou:)
Live and let live huh?

pohanginapete said...

Thanks RR. They’re all old friends on the old trail — and I look forward to meeting them again.

Zhoen, well put. "Celebrating the impossible, not neglecting it." A very good point.

HHnB: Your remark might have been at least partly flippant, but it's an important point. Seeing things from the position of "the other" certainly provides a powerful incentive to think hard. Sure, what we're disturbing when we flip rocks is mostly at a level of consciousness far more rudimentary than ours — but who can really understand what it's like to be a spider, or a slug, or a leafhopper? If there's a purpose for rock flipping (and sharing excitement with and fostering wonder in children is as good a purpose as I can think of), then by all means flip the rocks — but do it with respect.

Patry Francis said...

Before the official day, I flipped a few rocks, but never found anything impressive enough to make a contribution.

Later, of course, I felt contrite. Who am I to judge the beautiful undersides of rocks unworthy?

pohanginapete said...

I suppose some people have devoted a great deal of energy to the art of appreciating beautiful bottoms, Patry.