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


Zhoen said...


Anonymous said...

What a lovely posting: detailed 'Book of Hours' miniatures that glow with life.

robin andrea said...

It surprises me so to see California Quail there. Something I would have never imagined. I haven't seen an oystercatcher here in ages. Not sure why that is.

Nice slice of life at the busstop.

pohanginapete said...

Cheers Zhoen; thanks for the stone.

R.R. — I'd have written it in Latin but I don't know any. Although, credo nos in fluctu eodem esse.

robin andrea, quail aren't the only Californians here. Two of our most common trees are the Monterey cypress (Cupressus macrocarpa), which we simply call 'macrocarpa', and Pinus radiata, which overseas is called Monterey pine but here is either 'radiata' (with or without 'pine' appended) or 'sometimes just, 'P. rad.' As for your absence of oystercatchers, well, animal populations do fluctuate, but trends in some bird populations are disturbing. The rapid dwindling of house sparrow numbers in the UK and Europe (think I got that right) is an obvious example.

butuki said...

Decline in house sparrow populations? I didn't know that! Who would imagine house sparrows ever having trouble surviving?

Your words, and the way you look at people, always makes me rethink my own tendency to get disillusioned with people, and it always has to do with your willingness to notice the little things that are happening big all the time. The trick is to give value to those little things and remember that the world is made of zillions of splinters all fitted together.

Your warm outlook is balm for the times when I begin to doubt myself and why things are the way the are. All your posts are like that. A good end to the day today.

Lené Gary said...

Your post is heartwarming this morning. You've recreated the experience in such a vivid way, Pete, which I've found is always your way, that I have also smiled at the yellow flowers and the little girl. Thank you. And, the scientist side of me loves your footnotes. :)

I'll have to post about the cabin soon. Have you ventured out to your hut yet? I'm off to fly-fish in NY...be back in a few days.

Be well.

Avus said...

You have an eye for the minute detail, Pete, are blessed with the power to remember it and the poetry to record it (do you make notes??)
The way that the yellow flowers at the end tied in with those on the girl's hat was perfect.

christy lee-engel said...

I am fond of California quail, too, and also grew up in a place where there are lots of them (California!)but I haven't happened to see one for a long time.

Thank you,Pete, for all this radiance. Yellow here right now is mostly leaves turning, and the autumn light (when it's not grey or otherwise dark dark dark). I think your words have tuned me up to pay a little more attention to all the patches of brightness.

pohanginapete said...

Butuki/Miguel, I'm glad what I wrote warmed you up — thankyou! I have to say I'm a little surprised at your own disillusionment. I don't mean that in any kind of derogatory sense; what strikes me as strange is how it seems at odds with your own ability to see the detail and wonder in things at all scales, from vast mountains to the tiny lives with whom we share this world. Your photos and writing leave no doubt about that, and there are plenty of people who'll agree with me. But perhaps communication through emails and blog comments can only go so far, and I do have to admit I'm more fortunate than many people in having great friends nearby, in person. And, do remember — if you make it to New Zealand, you've got a friend here.

Lené, I'm delighted I helped you smile (although from what I can gather from the Whorled Leaves crew, that's not hard to do). It's nice to know the notes add interest, too. Tight lines! :-)

Avus, thanks. Actually, I seldom take notes at the time, unless I'm sitting somewhere and making the effort to write. Writing notes would, too often, interfere. It's more a matter of returning to the situation later; putting myself back there.

Christy, good to hear from you. You've got me thinking about the connotations of colours; something I think I've become more aware of lately. Or, at least, I seem to "see" colours differently now. I think I used to see them the same way we hear but don't listen. Perhaps it's all part of paying attention.