31 December 2007

Where to begin

Vegetable vendor, Jamnagar

At the end of a year, where does one begin?

One begins, of course, most often by stumbling, by tripping over words that aren't there, or words that, like the long, wiry seedheads of ryegrass in the paddock in front of this verandah, are far too abundant (how do you choose?); far too tangled to move through easily (how do you create a path?)

A scraggy blackbird, not long from its morning bath in the stock trough, wobbles through the air and sets down among the stalks. Cocks its head, peers, Vegetable vendor, Jamnagarhops—exaggerated jumps because it must leap the annoying stems, which to it must appear like a sparse brake of partly lodged bamboo—and approaches the scrap of discarded bread.

One begins by immediately taking an unintended path—a sidetrack—and trusting it will go somewhere interesting. Perhaps it will even meet the path one wanted to follow. Mostly, though, in an act of unreasonable faith, one trusts the path itself will prove interesting, worthwhile; that one will enjoy the exploration, even if it leads nowhere, because paths are always somewhere. Some of us go to the mountain not to go somewhere nor even “because it is there” [1] but because we can be there; and the more time one spends among mountains the more the being supercedes the going. The same could be said of coasts, or any place with an appreciable degree of wildness or other desirable quality—even, I suppose, of some cities. Go to Jamnagar because it's Jamnagar; while there, go to the vegetable market but don't go to Jamnagar to go to the vegetable market. The difference is subtle but enormous.

The conclusion seems inevitable. If you're focused on a destination—somewhere else, in other words—you're not where you are. So, enjoy the travelling. Eventually, you will arrive where you are. Then, you're always at home.

It's the same for a life. If one thinks of life as a path—not a particularly good metaphor given the complexity and connectedness of lives, but let's use it anyway—then the destination, while not to be feared, seems hardly desirable. Me, I'd rather take my time and enjoy the walk, and I have every intention of doing so.

On the edge of the terrace, manuka in flower looks from a distance as if it's frosted with snow. Incongruous in midsummer, but a kind of Antipodean nod to the Vegetable vendor, JamnagarNorthern Hemisphere where this season's ancient acknowledgment of the world's turning evolved (and was appropriated) into what we called Christmas and now celebrate as the year's major retail event. I'm being cynical of course, but not without justification; moreover, I do acknowledge that among the frenzied consumerism, much of what's best about life survives. Thrives, even. One senses it even among the stressed crowds cramming the malls — perhaps, and not entirely paradoxically, particularly in those fraught places; that sense that we're all in this together; it's madness, this madness, but I understand how you feel because I feel it too and the sooner the season's over the sooner we can relax and enjoy our friends and families. (For some, though — especially mums — the respite, if it comes at all, can be slight. One meal finishes, another must be provided; kids and visitors (sometimes indistinguishable) must be entertained, households kept running. When do mothers relax; when can mothers relax?) The pressure of “the holidays” arises largely from materialism in its worst form: the induced lust to spend and buy; paradoxically, it can foster comradeship. We share this adversity and (mostly) seem more willing to make allowances for others. Someone loses it, and the response is more likely to be empathy, or at least sympathy: “The poor bugger's obviously stressed out by Christmas”. It's a trend, not a rule; exceptions abound, but it does seem noticeable. This is my experience; I hope and trust it's yours too.

But I've digressed, taken a sidetrack. The flowering manuka reminds me of where I began. Where my memories began, that is, (and if I began before my memories — even those I've forgotten — in what sense had I begun?) Vegetable vendor, JamnagarOn the hillside opposite our house, a lone manuka flowered each year. Virtually inaccessible to a small boy because of its location within a gnarly thicket of lower, weedy scrub, it promised rare and wonderful beetles. Actually, it was G.V. Hudson, in his rare and wonderful book on New Zealand beetles who promised rare and wonderful beetles, although he actually only promised “many beetles” — my small boy's imagination supplied “rare and wonderful” [2]. The book belonged to my uncle, who had left New Zealand for England long before I was born. He never returned, and he and my father never saw each other again. I didn't meet my uncle until 2002. A brief visit, but long enough to know he and my aunt were family in every best sense. When I left them at the train station as I departed for Bristol I thought I might never see them again, especially my uncle, whose frailty felt shockingly apparent as we hugged on the platform.

I was wrong. Wrong about his frailty — he proved far more resilient than anyone could have imagined. Vegetable vendor, JamnagarWrong, too, about not seeing him again. I visited again in 2004 and the bonds of family and friendship strengthened. When, once more, I left on the train, I felt this time might indeed be the last time I ever saw him.

I was right. On Christmas Eve 2005 he left on his bike to deliver by hand the last of the Christmas cards. He never returned. He was found on the roadside with a severe head injury. No one expected him to live, and in a sense he didn't — the uncle I loved never returned to the body that survived. I guess he took another path, one none of us could follow. But, at the end of last year's travels I visited my aunt and left knowing we understood each other and could talk with each other better than if my uncle had still been alive. Now, despite the geographical distance, she's one of the special people in my life. Endings and beginnings often cannot be distinguished.

A korimako [3] flies across the paddock to the flowering harakeke [4], a slow, relaxed flight in the bright sun; flight from a moment ago towards a moment about to happen, each wingbeat beginning the rest of its life. The bird that left the grevillea a hundred metres ago now belongs eternally in the past; the I — whatever “I” might be — that saw the bird launch into flight that moment ago also belongs eternally in the past. I (the same or not?) wonder why we believe we can change the future but not the past? Is it because we remember the past but believe we cannot know the future? How does knowledge differ from memory? The semantics of those questions, I suspect, are a mire — or perhaps they're a forest where paths fork often, with the branching more than dichotomous? But,Robber fly getting back to the question, which I accept is ill-formed: can we change the future, or is it just as fixed as the past?

No. A bald statement, but I see no alternative. Ignoring multiple other universes, one and only one “future” exists; if I could change it, it would become the the one future which was always going to be the one and only future.

On the other hand, maybe the future does not exist. Perhaps it's something we construct to save ourselves from going mad. Perhaps we're always and inescapably at the boundary between the possible and the unchangeable; the present is that moment at which the possible becomes the unalterable. Seen this way, the future does not exist until we create it; having made it, we can do nothing to influence it. While it places on one an almost impossible degree of responsibility (the future becomes one's personal responsibility, making us, in effect, God), this also confers ultimate freedom: let the past be the past; one can do nothing about it; all that matters is to begin.

One could go crazy thinking about these things, but would it be any worse than losing one's mind in the madness of a Christmas mall? In any case, all the world is mad except thee and me, and sometimes I think even thee is a little crazy. Leave me lost instead; at large in a world I can explore the way I want; let my beginnings take me where they will. The destination doesn't matter. And where does one begin? At the place where everything begins — that place in your life that we call, “Here, right now.”

Pourangaki headwatersNotes:
1. Attributed, perhaps apocryphally, to George Mallory.

2. “Flowering manuka attracts many beetles...” p. 18 in Hudson, GV 1934 New Zealand Beetles and Their Larvae. Wellington, Ferguson & Osborne. 236 pp. + XVII plates.
3. The bellbird, Anthornis melanura.
4. Phormium tenax, New Zealand flax.

Photos (click to enlarge them):
1–5. Vendors at the vegetable market in Jamnagar, Gujarat, India; 13 February 2007.
6. Neither a beetle nor rare, but unquestionably wonderful. Flies rate among my favourite animals, and a robber fly (Diptera: Asilidae) like this (Neoitamus sp., I think) never fails to, er..., give me a buzz. You can't tell from the photo, but this was a male; he decided to rest on my windowsill and obligingly posed for me. Fearsome hunters (check out that proboscis), they're even thought to be major predators of tiger beetles — and if you know tiger beetles, you'll understand why robber flies impress me.
7. Like this post, the photos meander all over the place. This is the view from the Ruahine tops just before Christmas, looking out across the Pourangaki River in the late evening.

Photos and words © 2007 Pete McGregor

17 December 2007

One more; once more

Whio and chick

Here's another photo of whio from the Waikamaka river. I'm off into the Ruahine again today, for the rest of the week; the weather forecast's not too flash, but we have a comfortable hut and I'm taking a good book, a pen, and my notebook (the paper version).

I hope you have as good a week to look forward to.


1. Whio (Hymenolaimus malacorhynchos) adult and Class II chick. Waikamaka River, Ruahine Range; December '07.
2. And now for something completely different... Until recently, this grey house spider (Badumna longinqua) lived in a corner of one of my windows. As an indication of scale, that's the remains of a blowfly on the right. The untidy web is typical of these spiders. She eventually ended up outside, after I opened the window and she scuttled off and fell out :^(

Photos and words © 2007 Pete McGregor

13 December 2007


Whio & chicks on pool
Sometimes the best action is to take no action; sometimes the best choice is to carry on doing what you were doing, which might mean doing nothing much at all. Like sitting quietly, watching the dawn river river slide by, green-tinged and transparent beneath an overcast sky. Like realigning a few feathers or nibbling at a wingpit louse; digesting a dawn feed of caddis larvae; waiting until the light reaches the intensity that says time to hide away, to return to the cool dark, deep under the log jam or beneath the overhanging, tangled bank. To act differently, or even to act at all, can draw attention; to become alarmed, to whistle or rattle would say, “Over here; we're over here so keep away.” Then, of course, the predator knows.
These whio, sitting quietly on their rock shelf on the far side of the pool, know this, but not as we know it. It's just what they do. They survive whionow because this is what they've done for thousands of years. But will it ensure they survive the next thousand years — or even the next 30?
A thousand years ago, the only predators these whio faced would have been birds and eels. But then humans and their rodents arrived, then their stoats and possums, cats and dogs. Whio eggs and chicks and perhaps the occasional brooding adult provided good food for voracious predators. Axes and fires converted vast tracts of diverse, lowland forest into farmland dominated by ryegrass and white clover, and whio retreated into higher, more remote rivers. Introduced brown and rainbow trout colonised the rivers, competing for the caddises and other invertebrates on which whio feed — and perhaps a big backcountry trout wouldn't scorn a newly hatched chick if it had the chance. Trout grow big in Aotearoa. Hydro-electric power schemes beheaded some of the rivers where whio formerly lived. Now, only about 640 pairs of whio survive in the North Island, with perhaps 700 pairs in the South Island, and the number continues to decline [1, 2].
Sitting still and keeping quiet might have served them well in the past and still seems like a good strategy, at least for defence against some predators. We were anything but predators, yet we'd walked right past them and it wasn't whio chickuntil Duncan looked back to say something to me that he saw them, quiet and motionless on the low rock shelf above the pool. Even last night, when we first saw them swimming in the middle of a pool at a bend in the Waikamaka about 20 minutes downstream from Wakelings hut, they'd been remarkably silent — just an occasional, brief whistle from the male; a hint of a rattle from the female. Usually it's the whistle that gives them away, and now I wonder — how often have whio sat quietly and watched me walk past?
But sitting still’s not a good option when a stoat comes hunting, and stoats are one of the main threats to these birds’ survival. Sitting still does nothing to protect you when the water drains away to a trickle, diverted to provide power to keep lights burning, smelters working around the clock to produce aluminium, computers running, air conditioners pampering.
Millennia of evolution taught you to sit still, keep quiet. The predators then came from the sky or haunted the waters. Fly, and you’d be struck down; swim and your chicks would be swallowed. Now, you still sit on your rocky shelf, almost invisible save for that bright bill, and wait for the danger to pass by. You sit still on your rocky shelf as the stoat approaches and the water drains away.
We, though, are no danger to you today. Stretched out here on the awkward boulders at the river’s edge, I watch and photograph and wish you well; hope both your surviving chicks live long enough to raise chicks of their own. You preen and stretch and ignore me, for which I’m grateful. When I move, I do so slowly, trying not to disturb you.
When we leave, I thank you silently. At last, I have photos better than the first, all those years ago. Mid winter, 1996, in the big pool below whio chickthe mid Pohangina swingbridge; as I crossed it on the way out, I whistled and immediately received a reply; dropping my pack, I climbed down to the riverbed and photographed whio for the first time. Now, 11 years later, I’ve been gifted photographic opportunities as good as I could hope for.
We return to the hut, pack our gear, and walk a long day to Waikamaka hut, checking the big side streams on the way. Up the bouldery river bed, the day perfect for walking beneath an ominous sky; river flats yellow and green below red beech forest dense on steep mountainsides; water so clear you could read through metres of it, pools reflecting the colours of the bush, rock, flax, toetoe. At Waikamaka the sky’s so heavy that evening arrives hours early but still the rain holds off. I stand outside, looking up at the big snowgrass basin, and the ground’s so dry it doesn’t even dampen my socks.
A pair of riflemen flit about behind the hut. Not much light, but I fit the big lens and dial the ISO up to 800. The shutter speed’s still very low, so I push it to 1600, hoping it might deliver something useable. Meanwhile, the birds have disappeared, so I purse my lips and try for the high-pitched squeaking sound that seems to be a generic small-bird attractant. Immediately the riflemen reappear, flitting about close by. The female spreads her wings and vibrates them rapidly, facing me. I manage a couple of photos and try the squeaking sound again, hoping to keep them nearby.
To my astonishment, the female flies straight at me, darting just overhead and alighting close by. Another photo of her; a couple of the more distinctly coloured male. The female circles me. Curious about her reaction, I try squeaking again, and again she swoops at me, so close I instinctively dip my head. They must have a nest nearby. Enough — I don’t wish to disturb them further, so I retreat, driven away by this ferocious imp, New Zealand’s smallest bird.
Back in the hut, I’m still grinning. Duncan looks up from his book.
“I’ve just been attacked by a rifleman,” I tell him, and he laughs. “I almost expected to come back with a rifleman embedded in my forehead, or clinging to my eyebrows, pecking furiously.”
During the night sporadic drizzle becomes persistent, turning to steady rain at dawn. It’ll be good for the bush, which shows some signs of stress. It eases in the late morning, but returns about midday, bringing a blustery wind as well. We check the river upstream, towards Rangi Saddle, but see no whio and no sign — not surprising, given the very low flow. Then, in the early afternoon, we leave the hut and its riflemen, and begin the walk to Waipawa Saddle, on to Waipawa hut where we’ll stay the night before heading to the road in the morning. Light rain encourages me to pull the parka hood over my head as we climb to the saddle. Brilliant, canary-yellow Ranunculus flowers brighten the sombre day. Dark, misty cloud; the dull gleam of wet rock; the faint outline of a distant ridge.
So much depends upon/these leatherwood leaves/glazed with rainwater/beside the yellow flowers [3].
As we climb, I think of the whio photos stored on those small cards, safely tucked away in my pack, and it occurs to me that no matter how good they might be, they’re at best second rate. They’re not the event, not the whio; they’re merely a visual record. No matter how evocative, no photo delivers the actual moment, the sound of rushing water, the sharp, pungent smell of wet rock, the feel of riverbed gravel under your elbows and legs as you lie stretched out, watching the whio and their chicks just a few metres away across the transparent, rippling pool. The best that can be hoped for, of any photo, is that it will recall for you, and engender in others, the emotions of the moment. Anything else is pretence.

Whio swimming

1. Department of Conservation (DOC). Facts about blue duck/whio. http://www.doc.govt.nz/templates/page.aspx?id=33064 (accessed 9 December 2007).
2. DOC. Threats to blue duck/whio. http://www.doc.govt.nz/templates/page.aspx?id=33065
(accessed 9 December 2007).
3. Apologies to William Carlos Williams.

Photos (click to enlarge them):
1. Whio (Hymenolaimus malacorhynchos) with chicks, Waikamaka River, Ruahine Range. Late evening on 4 December '07, downstream from Wakelings hut.
2, 7. Whio, a little further downriver the next morning.
3, 4. Whio chicks, loc. cit.
5. Titipounamu, the rifleman (Acanthisitta chloris). This is the female who attacked me — all 6–7 grams of her.
6. Ranunculus sp., head of the Waikamaka River below Waipawa Saddle.
Photos and words © 2007 Pete McGregor

03 December 2007

On a long coast

"...a snufkin loathes notices, everything that reminds him of private property, No entry, Off limits, Keep out — if one is the least bit interested in a snufkin one knows that notices are the only things that can make him angry, vulnerable and at the mercy of others. And now he felt ashamed! He had shouted and carried on and it was not to be forgiven, even if one took out all the nails in the world!"
—Tove Jansson; Moominvalley in November (1971).

Coastal grass clumpPlaces like this still exist in Aotearoa. Places still unsold to the foreign millionaire, to the new rich New Zealander with his four wheel drives, his architects with their white-concrete-and-glass statements, and his delight in ownership, success, control, and the best of everything. Places like this have not yet become playgrounds or reserves for privilege.

Places like this, where three or four old caravans from the 1950s or '60s decay quietly in front of a line of old macrocarpas; where they blister and peel through the summers and leak and moulder during the winters, enduring the salt and storms lashed in from the sea beyond the spit. A bach with grimy windows and rusting iron keeps the caravans company; an old tractor rusts nearby, its perishing tyres slowly sinking into the accumulating sand. On the lagoon where the stream slackens and spreads before finally escaping through the sand bar to the sea, a small flotilla of black swans [1] rocks on the wind-chopped Evening surfwater and four shags perch, heads drawn down onto their shoulders, on the emergent branches of a sunken tree. The wind scurries in from the sea, hissing over the sand, abrading and burying.

Amelie lies half asleep in the sun, behind the big bleached driftwood log. Nowhere else on the beach offers any better shelter from the cold, incessant wind. We eat the bacon and salad rolls we'd prepared in the morning, and laugh about the telling off we'd received from the oystercatchers [2] further down the beach. I'd suspected a nest or chicks nearby, and sure enough, I happened to look across at the right time to see two small, fuzzy, speckled pompoms on legs trotting away along an old quad bike track in the sand. Then a third, a little way behind. We watched briefly through the binoculars, then hastened away to minimise the disturbance. Later we wondered at the adults' behaviour; how it seemed counter-productive — surely all the fuss would indicate to a predator that tasty morsels waited nearby? Surely, going about your usual activity would provide less incentive for any moderately bright predator to check the area more thoroughly? We walked on quickly until the agitated parents finally stopped following and circling us.

Halfway between the stream and our mediocre shelter behind the log, something pale and slightly gleaming lies on the sand. A fish, I assume, but when I put the binoculars on it, I see I'm wrong. White-faced heronIt's a dead penguin. Up close, it's identifiable as a little blue penguin [3], perhaps a day or two old. Lots of blowflies; a broken beak. I have no idea what killed it, but find the sight sad. The broken bill gapes open like a soundless scream.

Fortunately, all the other birds in this place of birds are alive. White-faced herons [4] hunch on a massive rock near the beach; a pheasant [5] calls and beats his wings in the jungle of long grass and bracken and fallen branches behind the cabin and another calls from the wetland near the stream; swallows [6] flit in the early summer sky and yellowhammers [7] startle in the wind. Kereru, kotare, kahu [8]. The sparrows [9] here are so unafraid they'll almost (but not) land on an outstretched hand (food would have to be proffered, of course).

Gannets [10] cruise along the coast, sometimes coming in close as we walk the track below the cliffs and above the jumble of huge, fallen blocks of mudstone; as the big birds glide past on powerful, deliberate wingbeats, we can see the strong markings on the head, the streamlined bill and tapered wings; elegance to the point of perfection. Out at sea, one suddenly jinks, its wings folding as it flicks sideways and down, almost backwards, and begins to plummet towards the ocean. But it breaks from the dive and resumes its patrolling. A fish survives, somewhere down there in the silvery-blue sea. Two gulls fly low overhead and Wind sculpturesettle at the edge of the surf by the mouth of the stream. Something about them seems to differ from the usual tarapunga, the red-billed gulls [11]. Of course! — the bills are intensely black; they're longer, more slender than the bills of tarapunga, and the legs and feet are also that deep black. They're black-billed gulls [12], the first I've seen in years; in fact, the first for which I've ever been confident in my identification — I suspect those I thought were black-bills, all those years ago when I was a kid, were probably juvenile red-bills. Amelie studies them through the binoculars. She too is delighted by the sighting. They seem distinctly more elegant than tarapunga, and when a pair of those hover overhead and alight on the sand only a few metres away, the difference in bill shape (not to mention the vivid vermillion compared to the basalt black) becomes strikingly obvious.

If only the black-bills had settled where the tarapunga now strut, so close the head and shoulders of the nearer bird fill the viewfinder. I don't even bother trying to photograph the black-bills. Anyway, we're satisfied just to watch. Yet they're not rare, at least not in the North Island. Why haven't I seen them more often? Well-gnawed driftwoodMaybe I have; maybe it's not a matter of seeing, but of noticing — maybe I've glanced and thought, “juvenile red-bills.” I'll look with more care from now on.

Now a pair of black-backed gulls [13] lands. Near the black-bills, the new arrivals look massive, almost ungainly. They're nesting along the coast; we saw two sitting as we walked here, and on our return both birds have left their nests, revealing, in each, three grey-green, black-speckled eggs. Again, we don't tarry, allowing the adults to circle and settle. I wonder how safe the oystercatcher chicks might be with these birds around, or with the ever-present, slowly circling kahu with its marvellously keen eyesight. It's part of life I suppose; one bird becoming another; life and death as transformation. Sentiment, sometimes excruciatingly painful, is uniquely human.

Out at sea a few clouds darken the water from turquoise to aquamarine, and away North the line of coastal cliffs recedes into the blue haze of distance, like the impossible knowledge of the future — when you get there, it's solid beneath your feet but fromEvening reflections, main beach here, now, it could be almost anything.

“Guess how many settlements there are along the coast from here to Moanaroa,” Amelie says.


“None. Maybe the odd hut or house, but no towns, nothing like back at the beach.” She estimates the distance, then adds, “Wouldn't it be wonderful to walk all the way there?”

I look at her and do a quick calculation of how many days it might take. Perhaps the better part of a week? There'd be rivers to cross, of course, and some of the headlands might be impassable along the coast, but I wonder what it would be like to wander for a week beside the sea, meeting only an occasional farmer, someone fishing, perhaps a distant glimpse of a white-haired hermit moving slowly out of sight like some ghost from an old world. For me, the question doesn't even need an answer.

Places like this still exist in Aotearoa.

Evening surfNotes:
Place names have been changed. Bird names are accurate to the best of my knowledge.
1. Cygnus atratus. Black swans, although deliberately introduced to New Zealand in the 1860s, probably arrived naturally from Australia about the same time. They're now widespread throughout the country.
Haematopus unicolor, the endemic variable oystercatcher (torea), often called black oystercatcher (toreapango) in the completely black phase (the birds we saw this day). I was startled to discover later that they're considered rare, with a total population of about 4000 birds. Despite this, I've found them to be easily seen along the Wellington coast — walk South from Eastbourne, for example, and you'll definitely see them.
3. Eudyptula minor. On the last evening we walked to the small bay South of the beach; there, while I stood on a car-sized rock with the surf surging below me, a blue penguin bobbed and dived and swam, as unsinkable as a cork, only a few metres out and immediately in front of me. It seemed like a gift; as if the land and sea and sky were saying, “Remember us.”
Ardea novaehollandiae, often called the blue heron, a colloquial name formerly used (but now discouraged) for the much rarer reef heron (Egretta sacra). Self-introduced from Australia in the mid 20th Century and now the most common New Zealand heron.
Phasianus colchicus.
6. The welcome swallow,
Hirundo tahitica.
Emberiza citrinella. Introduced in the late 19th century and now widespread.
'Underground mutton'
8. Kereru, kotare, kahu: respectively, the native pigeon Hemiphaga novaeseelandiae; the kingfisher Halcyon sancta; the harrier Circus approximans.
9. House sparrows,
Passer domesticus.
10. Takapu, Australasian gannet,
Morus serrator.
11. Larus novaehollandiae.
Larus bulleri.
13. Karoro,
Larus dominicanus.

Photos (click to enlarge them):
1. On the cliffs above the small South bay; the last evening.
2. Same place, same evening.
3. White-faced heron.
4. Wind sculpted cliffs on the way to the northern bay.
5. On the beach at the northern bay.
6. Main beach, evening.
Birds weren't the only animals around.

Photos and words © 2007 Pete McGregor