29 August 2008

Life after birth

Winter willows

In the front paddock a kāhu stands in the rain, tearing at an afterbirth. Tugging at the membrane, from time to time stopping and raising its head to check for danger. Bending again over its work. It's usually there at the end of a life — the shot possum; the road-crushed hedgehog a mess of guts and spines; the car-struck silvereye tumbled along the tarmac, feathers blowing away like life — but the kāhu's not fussy: it'll take the aftermath of a birth any day.

All the lambs seem to have survived, though, and there's no way of telling which ewe and lamb left the big bird's breakfast. The rain drives down; the bird eats; a ewe shakes a shower from her sodden fleece as her lamb stumbles on shaky legs, searching for the udder. Mist in the valley creeps up, forms on the edge of the terrace, turns the old apple, the leafless black locusts, the manuka and lacebark, the fence that's seen better days, and the feeding hawk into a kind of dream, a memory lingering on the edge of awareness.

That livid mass of slimy tissue lying on the rain-drenched grass sustained new life for five months, feeding a growing lamb until some time early today when it followed the lamb into a cold, wet world, its primary purpose — perhaps its only purpose — completed.

Yet, even now, cast aside, its job done, it nurtures another life. The kāhu bends forward and tears another shred; swallows the past in the winter rain.

1. K
āhu: Australasian harrier, Circus approximans; silvereye: tauhou, Zosterops lateralis.

1. Willows in winter, Pohangina Valley. Playing again.

Photo and words © 2008 Pete McGregor

21 August 2008

The joy of organs: National Offal Week

"And now for something completely different..." Here's something I wrote four or five years ago for an in-house newsletter when I worked for a large science research organisation.
Warning!! This is not for the squeamish, nor for those who believe eating animals is morally reprehensible.

Vulture, Ghana

"There are things he stretched, but mostly he told the truth." —Mark Twain [1]

It's Tuesday, so we eat Phil’s kidneys. They're delicious: simmered with mushrooms and onions in a white wine sauce, they put National Offal Week back on track after Monday's abysmal beginning.

National Offal Week is the brainchild of offal-eater extraordinaire Chris, the man with New Zealand's highest iron count (I arrived early at work one morning to find him clamped to one of the magnetic door locks). Keen to share the joy of offal-eating with his colleagues, he's volunteered to set the mountain oyster [2] rolling by promising "a bucket of tripe and onions" for Monday's lunch. Unfortunately he keeps his promise. I walk into the common room kitchen to find Harley retching over the pig bucket while Chris looks affronted.

I peer cautiously into the pot, which contains a speckled, porridge-coloured sauce. Quivering sections of pale stomach belch their way to the surface before the sauce envelops them again.

"Try some?" Chris says. "It's not my best effort," he explains. "I curdled the sauce."

I can feel the sauce in my own stomach beginning to curdle, but reach for a fork. The lump is soft, resilient, apparently impossible to break down by chewing, and it tastes like the smell of carrion. I shoulder Harley away from the pig bucket, then hurriedly make up a Milo [3] to kill the taste. Clare’s next; her reaction is similar, but she's tougher than Harley and me, and she swallows her portion. Within seconds she ages ten years.

But not everyone is as discerning. The two Australians spoon it down, at first tentatively, then with relish. "Hmm, not bad," Dave says. Peter agrees, although he suggests that the flavour is like really old mushrooms – the sort you find marinating in a brown puddle at the back of your fridge. The real champion, however, is Keitha. After her third plateful, Chris has to swat her away from the stove. He's worried there won't be enough left for him.

So Phil's kidneys raise the standard. They're an unexpected treat after all his promises about the can of haggis he found, swollen and dangerous, at the back of a cupboard. Things are looking up, and sure enough, Chris redeems himself on Wednesday with a fine dish of liver and bacon. Perfectly cooked, in a tasty sauce; it may be the best liver I've eaten, and I've eaten some mighty fine livers. I'm tempted to say that the toss-up for best dish is between Chris' liver and Phil's kidneys, but far and away the winning toss-up is, of course, Chris' tripe.

Thursday morning, and Dave can't find his brains. "There are no brains in Palmerston North!" he rants. Somewhere he finds some, and later that day I follow the smell of smoke into the kitchen. Dave has fried his brains. He's also blackening a black pudding. I've never eaten brains before, but spurred on by Phil's assurance that the risk of contracting scrapie [4] is absurdly small, I sample a morsel, carefully selecting Blowfly, Pohangina Valleythe reptilian part of the brain to minimise what tiny risk there might be. Several hours later, I experience an overwhelming desire to bask in the sun on the ledge outside my window, and I'm eyeing up a large blowfly and thinking how wonderful it must be to have six drumsticks – oops, I mean legs.

Dave's brains are like semi-congealed fat. But they're a hit with quite a few people. Sue makes little exclamations of delight as she polishes off another and licks her fingers. "Ooh, they're lovely!" she says. She tells us how she used to cook them for her kids, then lets slip that her daughters have left home and gone overseas. Harley, too, is into them in a big way. Never having had a brain before, he's apprehensive at first, but finds the experience to his liking. He peels away the crumb coating and drools over the little, wrinkled, lump of grey matter. Meanwhile, Peter’s making short work of his portion.
"Hey, look!" someone exclaims, "Peter's only got half a brain!"

And so it goes on.

The week finishes on a high note. KK offers her tongue to anyone who wants it, and there's no shortage of takers. Sandwiched with picallili between slices of soft white bread, it's a sensual delight. Nyree has prepared kidneys vindaloo, a deceptive dish that seems fine at first but gradually heats up until my eyelids are sweating profusely and I'm thinking of renaming the dish as kidneys portaloo [5]. I'm saved only by my own contribution to National Offal Week — the fresh date chutney I'd prepared earlier in the week as an accompaniment for the crumbed chicken livers that I've been too busy to prepare. The chicken livers would have been great — little, golden, crumb-encased parcels of paté — but the chutney goes at least as well with the vindaloo.

National Offal Week has been a raging success, even for those for whom (to quote Ruth) "offal is vile filth which I will eat under no circumstances" [6]. For those people it's been wonderful entertainment to watch the reactions of the more courageous; for those who love offal it's been a marvellous week of feasting; and for those like me who swallowed their preconceptions but not Chris' tripe — well, all I can say is: it took guts.

Female agama lizard, Accra, Ghana

1. While reading, please bear in mind the Mark Twain quotation.
2. Mountain oysters: sheep testicles — a delicacy
(apparently); available during the docking and tailing season.
3. Milo: a supposedly nutritious, somewhat chocolate flavoured drink; its manufacturer, Nestlé, got a Heart Foundation tick for milo despite its being 47% sugar.
4. Scrapie: a fatal disease of sheep. It's similar to BSE ("mad cow" disease); like BSE, the causative agent of scrapie is a prion. Neither scrapie nor BSE occur in New Zealand.
5. Portaloo
: a portable toilet; a transportable outhouse.
6. The quotation is originally from Geoff Dyer: "...seafood is vile filth which I will eat under no circumstances." P. 64 in Dyer G 1997 Out of sheer rage: in the shadow of D. H. Lawrence. London, Abacus. 242 pp. ISBN 0 349 10858 7.

1. Hooded vulture, Necrosyrtes monachus, on the coast of Ghana. That object it's standing over is the carapace of a green turtle. Ironically, vultures throughout the world might face similar or even greater extinction risks than sea turtles. Why? Because the common veterinary drug diclofenac sodium (for human use we know it by brand names like voltaren) kills vultures — it causes renal failure. Cattle that die carrying accumulated diclofenac kill the vultures feeding on the carcase. Throughout much of Asia, vulture populations have declined catastrophically; now, diclofenac is being sold in Africa for veterinary use. Imagine Africa without vultures? What would be the consequences? Well,here's just one effect: in India, the increase in cattle carcases has boosted populations of feral dogs, leading to more cases of rabies. Rather than rant on, I strongly recommend you read Charlie's post about this on 10,000 Birds.
Blowfly, Calliphora sp., Pohangina Valley (click to enlarge it).
Female agama lizard, Accra, Ghana.

Photos and words © 2008 Pete McGregor

18 August 2008

Nepal: Return to Pokhara

More sketches from Nepal, early last year ...


Saturday 17 March 2007

I ate at the Bella Napoli again in the evening, sitting at one of the tables next to the footpath. The middle-aged French couple I met several times on the trek walked past, and in a spontaneous act of bonhomie, I called out, “Bonjour!” It probably should have been “Bon soir!” but it was enough. I think they had even less English thanMorning, Phewa Lake my French, but we managed a rudimentary conversation, mostly about where we were intending to go. I liked them; they felt like friends, yet I have almost no basis for feeling this way.

A big flight of termites. In the headlights at dusk they're like flakes of snow, eddying in the wind. I free several from the condensation on my bottle of Nepal Ice, their wings trapped by the moisture. Others have already shed their wings, leaving them lying useless, spent, delicate, discarded on the table under the lamplight. I know why these insects are trapped by the light. They believe it's the moon and fly at a constant angle to it, but because it's so close they end up spiralling around it, and finally into it. Simple, mechanical, and mistaken. Are we more complex but no more mysterious—and just as mistaken? Is all our behaviour just mechanical—the inevitable outcome of physical laws? Am “I” no more than an illusion, a survival mechanism produced by my brain?

When we shed our wings, do we too go into the dark?


After dinner I sit on the steps of Lali's shop, just happy to talk a little with him. He really wants to sell me a bus ticket but I haven't decided where, nor when, I want to go. Two Korean men come up and Lali introduces me as his “boss” — a term he uses freely, applying it to friends, clients, kids; in fact, anyone he's met more than once. One of the Koreans asks where I'm from.
“New Zealand,” I say.
“Whooaah!!” he says, his delight lubricated with what seems like a generous dose of alcohol.
He explains, with very limited English, that New Zealand's a very nice country and that he's visited there. The usual places of course. He's very happy and it's a nice way to end the evening.

Sunday 18 March 2007
I think I'll go to Chitwan on Tuesday. I feel like a tourist.

I also feel worn out by travelling. Thinking a lot about family and friends. Feeling a little alone, too. Mieke left with Kamal on her trek to Jomsom this morning but I missed seeing her off—not that we were more than acquaintances. Instead, I think it's the knowledge that by the time she returns I'll be gone from Nepal, probably gone from India, probably—all going well—in Ghana. As is inevitable, while travelling you meet people, you become friends to varying degrees, then you go different ways, mostly never to meet again. The strangeness of this is that it's the people I'm less close to who seem to have this effect on me more than those with whom I get along very well. Perhaps I can't believe that the people I really like and seem to connect with strongly are those I'll never meet again; perhaps the degree of connection convinces me we'll meet again or at least remain in touch. Perhaps the degree of connection surmounts geographical separation.

Who will I meet in Ghana, in South Africa, in Malawi?


A large group of middle-aged to elderly foreigners troops in. Their language, what I catch of it, sounds Germanic but I'm really not listening; instead, I'm enjoying a beer and a quiet time. But I do hear a thud—something out of place, not right. One of the men has collapsed; he lies on his back on the concrete. I rush over; the first there. He's conscious, trying to sit up. I support his head and ask if he's all right as several of his friends hurry over. We help him to his feet, unsure whether he fainted or just tripped. No one seems to speak any English. He stands, apparently all right, talking to his friends. Then his expression turns blank, he begins to lean backwards, and, perfectly straight, falls onto his back onto the concrete, his head missing a sharp-edged concrete step by millimetres. It all seems so slow—time for me to see the step, think his head will hit it, think we'll have a dead man at our feet. Time to hear the horrified gasps from his friends, yet no time to react.

How he survived those falls onto concrete, I have no idea—the impact should have fractured his skull. But after his friends have fussed over him and put pillows under his head and propped his feet up on a chair, he recovers, gets up and joins the others at the big table. There are no more incidents. I eat my fried rice, finish my beer, and return to the hotel, where I continue reading John Man's Genghis Khan and feel again the call, the pull of Mongolia. But, is it Mongolia calling or those marvellous people I travelled with?

Monday 19 March 2007
During the night I wake with a mild cramp in my gut; more a feeling of discomfort than pain, but enough to disrupt my sleep and confirm the twinges I've been having aren't just my imagination. They continue, on and off, through the day, although I think—and trust—they've begun to disappear. But they've added to my indecisiveness, my inability to carry out the simple act of booking a bus ticket to Chitwan tomorrow. I suppose in the back of my mind I have visions of struggling with a crook gut on a six or seven hour bus journey, and while I could dose myself with drugs to survive the trip, I want to do more than that. I want to enjoy it. Mostly, I love bus journeys; the opportunity to look out the window, to see, to think, to wonder.

But mostly I think it's the enervating effect of feeling slightly off-colour. I'd suspected my low mood over the last couple of days might have been a symptom of a low-level illness, and now I'm more sure that's the case. Ironically, it's like a sense of relief—it's easier to downplay a low mood when there's a clear, or at least likely, cause, and the best way I've found of dealing with low moods is simply to accept them for what they are, treat them as being of as little importance as I can, and just wait for them to pass—as they always do. As this will.

I did the sensible thing, too—I took it easy. Rested, relaxed in my room, finished Genghis Khan [1]. It's an excellent book, one of those accomplished blends of scholarship and personal anecdote; where something of the process gets explained also. And John Man isn't afraid to offer opinions—well-reasoned opinions, but the sort of subjectivity that's usually frowned upon and rejected by academic editors.

Now, of course, I have nothing to read but the largely uninspiring or, at best, frustrating Lonely Planet guidebook. Perhaps I'll pick up something else to read tomorrow.

Having left it too late to book a ticket to Chitwan, I took a risk and ordered a steak for dinner. After almost 5 months of vegetarianism, I felt reluctant to eat animal, but I think I need some good quality protein. I got it—tough but flavoursome—and trust it won't aggravate my dodgy gut.

Tuesday 20 March 2007
On the eve of departure from Pokhara, to travel to the lower, hotter terai, to Chitwan National Park, away from the mountains, further from the possibility of remoteness, I buy an old copy of The Snow Leopard [2] and begin reading it once more. Perhaps this is because when I talk about this book, I'd like to speak at least in a small way from personal experience. Perhaps I'm here not just for myself, but for my family also, the way I visited places like Rudraprayag, Naini Tal, and Kaladhungi because of Corbett's place in our family's mythology. I like to think, too, that maybe one day—perhaps even after I'm gone—J or H might visit these places, might stand and look at the small memorial at Rudraprayag or begin a journey from Pokhara and think, “Pete was here.” This is how mythologies—I can't think of a better word—develop; this is how lives and events link to form something that survives beyond the events and beyond the lives. What will J and H add, and who will remember it and build on it? What will be lost? And what will be added that did not happen?

I finally made it to Koto, the Japanese restaurant, for lunch—the most expensive lunch I can recall having paid for in four and a half months. A can of San Miguel and a teriyaki beef. The meat was called fillet—“fillet teriyaki”—and that was all it was. Strips of marinated beef—almost Man-eating leopard memorial, Rudraprayag, Indiacertainly not fillet—on a lettuce leaf. Flavoursome, tasty, but tough. Still, I enjoyed it—mostly, I think, because of the attempt at elegance. Most of the food I've had in the last 4–5 months has been ... how do I describe it? Quantity seems to have been the main characteristic, and the food, while often enjoyable, might better be called comfort food—simple, tasty, easy to eat—than cuisine. The sameness of the food and the menus left me wanting something different; something fresh, flavours from the food itself rather than from the added spices (I suppose, on reflection, beef teriyaki was an odd choice); food with at least a little finesse. Koto offered at least the idea of those things, but mostly it gave me a glimpse into another culture where those qualities I've mentioned are commonplace, and sometimes taken to extremes.

I sat at the table in the almost deserted restaurant thinking about Japan and Mongolia. Of the countries I've visited, those two most strongly draw me back—something I'd mentioned in an email to Debbie when I told her about John Man's book. I'd replied to P.E.A.'s recent emails also, pointing out my agreement with her about how what's a big adventure for some people is mundane for others. Jono and I had discussed this via email a couple of years ago, and, as I pointed out to P.E.A., what some of my friends see as my own great adventure often seems to me to be ordinary and unadventurous compared to the journeys of many of the travellers I've met. Somehow, that led to my suggesting how true courage is often more truly found in the lives of people like my mother, who, from god knows where, found the strength to support us and provide us with every opportunity she could. I suppose the cynical and mean-spirited would call it martyrdom, but to me—to all my family, I have no doubt—it was sheer courage rooted in unconditional love.

A Nepali man laughs to himself as he walks towards me and passes by. Just beyond, a foreign woman stands next to a man who's crouched by a low wall on the far side of the street. He's just thrown up and is recovering his breath and composure, but neither seems to be returning fast.

A flight of white egrets in the humid evening over Phewa Lake; white birds against a sky threatening storm; white birds blown about in a sudden gust. After an apocalypse leaving Pokhara silent and overgrown, inhabited only by ghosts and wild things, perhaps these white birds will still fly in an angry sky at dusk, over the silent lake, over sunken boats and lost memories.
Kids at Leopard memorial, Rudraprayag

1. Man, J. 2004. Genghis Khan: Life, death and resurrection. London, Bantam. 431 pp. ISBN 0 553 81498 2. Sue Bradbury reviewed it in The Guardian on 20 March 2004.
2. Matthiessen, P. 1979. The Snow Leopard. London, Harvill. 312 pp. ISBN 0 00 272025 6.

Photos (click to enlarge them):
1. Crow in rain cloud at Chhomrong on the Annapurna Sanctuary trail, Nepal. I'm reasonably sure this is a jungle (large-billed) crow, Corvus macrorhynchos.
2. Morning at Phewa Lake, Pokhara, Nepal.
3. On the road between Kathmandu and Pokhara.
4. Machhupuchare from the outskirts of Pokhara.
5. At Phewa Lake.
6. The memorial marking the spot where Jim Corbett shot the man-eating leopard of Rudraprayag. Uttaranchal, India.
7. Kids at the leopard memorial, Rudraprayag, Indian Himalaya.

Photos and words © 2008 Pete McGregor

13 August 2008

No shelter from the storm

Wild weather in the Pohangina Valley

The Hawkes Bay Today warned of a dangerous storm on the way. Be prepared to look after yourself for 72 hours, it said. No electricity; watch out for storm surges along the coast and be prepared for broken windows; have the gas barbecue handy. But when we left Flounder Bay the storm still hadn't arrived and we drove through an eerie, heavily overcast morning; calm, ominous, oppressive. Then through rain, and eventually out of that caliginous miasma into an afternoon that seemed like any other showery day.

The storm arrived overnight; wild, but the valley had weathered worse. Elsewhere, it killed five people. A few days later the big storm hit.

I lay in bed at dawn, listening to the roar of the gusts approaching, each time wondering whether this would be the one to rip the verandah roof off or burst the windows on the north end of the house — the windows in my room. I left the heavy curtains drawn just in case, got up and boiled water on the gas rings for a brew of tea. The power had gone hours ago, in the wee hours of the morning. Three days later I arrived home with a gas lantern — the adventure of living without electricity had been replaced within a few hours by the difficulty of reading by candlelight — only to find the power had been reconnected.

The damage will take months to repair. Some losses will take decades to replace; some will simply be abandoned. Old trees uprooted or snapped off or smashed; 30-year-old plantations ready to harvest lying prone, their value reduced to a fraction of what it had been a day earlier. Sheds destroyed or in tatters; roofing iron, twisted and buckled, lying paddocks away or wrapped around fences or stumps; windows smashed; streams choked by Old pine snapped by windfallen trees. Everywhere, fences down; broken and buried under shattered pines and macrocarpas — occasionally part of a fence had been lifted high into the air by the roots of a fallen tree. Farms can't function without fences. I don't know how the deer farms fared, but once deer are out they're gone for good. Unlike sheep and cattle, deer on the loose can't be mustered.

On the day of the storm I walked along the road to see first hand what had happened. I scuttled quickly across the little bridge over Teawaoteatua stream, conscious of the brittle poplar branches whipping and roaring high overhead. When I returned, I heard a loud CRACK!! and saw two tall poplars begin to lean, then crash down across the stream. They weren't the first, nor the last.

At Raumai bridge over the Pohangina river I scrambled down to the water's edge to photograph the flood as it raged beneath the bridge. It looked like liquid mud and filled the entire bed, bank to bank. A massive pine rolled and pitched down the river but slid between the piers without hitting them. Minutes later, another big log collided with a pier, sending a resonant BOOM reverberating across the water. I zoomed the lens in on one of the piers. Just visible above the waterline, someone's graffiti proclaimed, “God loves us.”

Next to it, someone else had sketched the symbol for Anarchy.

1. The view from outside my kitchen on the morning of the storm.
2. What kind of wind does it take to do this? On one of the farms higher on the eastern side of the Pohangina valley.

Photos and words © 2008 Pete McGregor

05 August 2008

The uselessness of everything

"...the table rose into the air and headed south with pancakes, jam, fruit and flowers, punch and sweets, and also the Muskrat's book which he had left on the corner.
“Hi!” said the Muskrat. “Now I should like my book spirited back again please.”
“Right!” said the Hobgoblin. “Here you are, sir!”
“On the Usefulness of Everything,” read the Muskrat. “But this is the wrong book. The one I had was about the Use
lessness of Everything.”
But the Hobgoblin only laughed.

— Tove Jansson: Finn Family Moomintroll.


At dusk Jupiter hangs bright and still in the eastern sky, his reflection shining long and rippled in the lagoon. Beyond the sandbank, surf booms; the evening fills with the fading hiss of foam rushing up the beach. Then the boom and roar again; the rush and sizzle. Where the stream slips from its raupo lined edges into the lagoon, water laps with a sound like a cat drinking. The sky darkens, stars appear everywhere and the bright immense cloud of the Milky Way stretches overhead. Memories of the sky at night over the coast of Ghana: the fireball that arced across the star-stippled black in a shriek of green and red; the storms out at sea, green-black, vast, fractured by lightning; the heat and humidity, so utterly different to the bitter midwinter cold here, now. But the same sound of surf; the universal music that reminds us of the same sea in us all [1].

Amelie points out Scorpio: the line of stars forming his head; his red heart, Antares; the huge curl of his tail.
“He's the wrong way up, here in the Southern Hemisphere,” she says.
Her ability to identify the planets and stars and constellations astonishes me, but I disagree with her statement.
“No,” I reply, “he's just clinging to the underside of a rock.”

He's the only scorpion I can ever recall seeing — in all that time overseas I never encountered one. With luck, maybe next time. So many astonishing things to see. Hummingbirds, for example — perhaps I'll at last watch hummingbirds when I get to South America, the place that's fascinated me since I was a small boy; a fascination that prompted my parents to gift me the Time-Life book of South America. I spent hours poring over it, wanting to explore those countries, to see those remarkable animals, those birds brilliant and weird, those mountains that seem to have erupted from the earth all in an instant,Evening cloud over Hawke Bay piercing the sky. I wanted to walk alone on wild coasts, to search for jaguars and hoatzins and have my provisions eaten by coatis, which I developed a particular fondness for because they had long, thin faces like me; I wanted to watch glaciers calving into the sea while parakeets flashed through beech forests; I wanted to see condors circling around the Torres del Paine.

I still do.

Now, here at Flounder Bay [2] I look up at the sky, at those uncountable stars, and try to imagine all those other planets out there, and I wonder how many are lifeless lumps of rock or super-heated balls of gas, and how many — or whether any — might be alive the way ours is: colourful, incomprehensibly diverse, seething with life — and some of it aware of its own aliveness. Surely we all wonder like this when we look up at a night sky? I've heard accusations that science destroys wonder by removing mystery, but when I look up at the Milky Way, the knowledge, gifted by science, of what's out there makes it seem not in the slightest diminished but, on the contrary, even more extraordinarily magnificent and mysterious.

In any case, we're so far from being able to explain everything that I can't believe science really threatens mystery, at least in the foreseeable future. And, in my experience, science seems much better at throwing up questions than providing answers. Every time we got a result, it would inevitably be accompanied by not just a further question, but a further set of questions. Now, if that's generally true of scientific investigations, then the conclusion seems almost (but not actually) paradoxical — the more we know, the more we know we don't know. That hardly seems like a sound basis on which to criticise science for diminishing wonder.

But, let's suppose we really did manage to understand everything reasonably worth knowing. What if no questions remained; nothing about which we could wonder?

The thought fills me with horror. Perhaps I'm wrong, but knowing everything seems to imply the death of possibility — I could no longer enjoy Caravan at Earthquake Bayimagining what might live in that quiet, swampy little patch of raupo and small shrubs on the far side of the slow, eel-cruised stream; I'd know all the rails [3] had gone, that the galaxiids were only just surviving — and I'd know they'd be gone completely ten years from now; that it would be inevitable that the hillsides would be subdivided and landscaped and the saltmarsh turned into a marina for rich people's playboats and Private Property signs would confront the jobless poor.

On the other hand, perhaps I'd know rails still survived; that after the 'quake the road would reopen only as a pot-holed track, the ruined subdivisions with their collapsed holiday homes would be abandoned; that the new saltmarsh raised by Ruaumoko [4] would sustain larger, more diverse populations of small animals, of fish and birds and complex interrelationships.

But it wouldn't be hope. It would be certainty. Which is better? Which is to be preferred? It depends, I suppose, on what you want; given certain knowledge of an unwanted outcome, most of us would be happier hoping, provided we didn't know the hope was gifted because the outcome was unwanted. Perhaps that's what underlies the objection to science — the thought that what it tells us, we might not want. Put that way, the objection seems dishonest. It's a denial of truth, an act of cowardice.


The beach is still in shadow but the sea beyond, grey-green from the reflection of the mostly-overcast sky, shines with a dull gleam like satin-polished metal. Whitecaps, lit by the low morning sun angling from beyond the bluffs, Beach at Flounder Bayspeckle the plane of the ocean; gannets circle and plunge, straight and fast as rain, sending up plumes of white spray that burst and hang momentarily in the air before vanishing.


Why do questions so much bigger than us matter so much to us? I've met people who claim no interest in big metaphysical questions — freedom and determinism, mind-body, the nature of reality, and so on — and some who even have no interest in the more arcane areas of science. Blank stares, incomprehension, responses like, “Yes, but how's that going to feed the world?” Although, you know many have no interest in feeding the world, only themselves, and it's guaranteed access to Antarctic toothfish steaks and out-of-season exotic fruits they're interested in, not rice. Others do have more compassionate concerns but still think it a waste of time to wonder about these questions, accepting value in them only in so far as they might make me, as a friend, happy wondering about them.
“But what use are they?” they say.

Well, what use is raincloud on the ocean's horizon, streaked with rainbow colours? What use is the iridescence inside a paua shell? What use is a lightning flash that turns the night sky over the coast of Ghana into a net of light? To say the rainbow cloud could be photographed and sold, the paua turned into jewelry, or that lightning fixes nitrogen, is so wide of the mark it's off the planet. Questions like those are meaningless. I'm even tempted to say they're useless.

Furthermore, knowledge sometimes, perhaps often, becomes useful only after a long period during which its only utility is that someone Only part of the largest flock of kereru I've ever seenenjoys the knowing of it. History abounds with apparently useless discoveries that eventually proved valuable (although right now I can't think of any — I only know my assertion's true. I'm sure you can think of your own examples easily enough, though). But, I'm a little uneasy about that defence because it implies knowledge only becomes worthwhile when someone discovers a use for it. It's a dangerous defence if we wish to defend the search for knowledge , because, if it's accepted, support will be forthcoming only (or largely) for investigations that promise a high likelihood of eventual usefulness — knowledge we believe unlikely ever to be “useful” stands little or no chance of receiving support.

Unfortunately, that's pretty much how science is supported now.


The sun comes and goes, and a cold wind with it. A woman carrying a surfboard returns from the beach, wringing water from her hair with one hand, the board clutched under the other arm. She slides it into her BMW and drives off, leaving the winter beach empty except for the roar of the surf, the scurrying wind, the arcs and jinks of swallows. Something splashes in the creek, down among the dry dead raupo, and a duck calls. Then the rain arrives, drizzle at first then heavier, then the sun follows, shining through the haze of rain and out at sea a rainbow forms. Tell me what this is useful for.


Two things strike me about that criticism of science. First, the claim that it diminishes mystery and wonder by explaining the nature of things, how things work, and so on, is a claim that confuses mystery and wonder. The two are not the same; that science reduces mystery, even if true, does not imply it reduces wonder. On the contrary, depth of knowledge often increases the capacity for wonder, at least by encouraging an appreciation of complexity. Leaf and dropletsHow, for example, can wonder be diminished by understanding something of the physiology of plants — the marvels of photosynthesis, the development of reaction wood, or how deciduous trees lose their leaves in autumn?

Second, it's likely science will never be able to explain everything, even in principle. The work of the legendary logician Kurt Gödel suggests this is likely to be the case, although this popular interpretation of his incompleteness theorems — i.e. that it's not possible to prove everything — is apparently a popular misconception. Even so, if science could explain everything, does this knowledge really diminish mystery and wonder, given it's also likely this would be possible only in principle, not in fact? I suppose this is itself one of the big questions about which the down-to-earth, get-real, what-a-waste-of-time crowd are so sceptical. Me? I don't know the answer; I don't know whether it would matter or not, but I do think it's worth thinking about.

But, I suspect that when someone condemns the propensity of science to reduce the mysterious to the mundane, he's not actually thinking of the general principle; instead, he has in mind specific cases — specifically, those cases where science demonstrates a cherished belief or desired outcome to be false or, to all intents and purposes, impossible. My guess is that Amelie at Earthquake Bayproof of Nessie's existence would delight most of the world's population, but the unequivocal demonstration that Nessie never existed would reinforce the low-level antipathy towards scientific investigation. On the other hand, science is at its most popular when it reveals something unexpected and sensational — the colossal interest in the colossal squid, while arising more from technology than science per se, provides a reasonable example. But imagine the response if, hypothetically, rigorous scientific research showed squid could never grow larger than a metre or two and the giant sucker marks on sperm whales were some kind of artefact created by abyssal pressures. I'm sure the response would be muted at best; the value of the finding would be questioned in popular culture (bloggers would have a field day); and the perception of science-as-killjoy would strengthen as we were forced to drown the kraken along with our sorrows.

In short, we like science when it tells us what we want to believe but many of us are quick to condemn it when it tells us otherwise. But anything that tells us only what we want to believe is more than merely useless — it's dishonest. Moreover, systems like that would be far more effective than science at destroying wonder, because they vindicate any belief, thereby making anything possible. And if anything's possible, possibility loses its power.

Ute and skull

1. Kaplinski, Jaan 1990. The Same Sea in Us All. London, Collins Harvill. 98 pp. ISBN 0 00 271091 9. (First published in the USA by Breitenbush Books in 1985). Jaan's second book of poems is The Wandering Border (Harvill 1992, ISBN 0 00 271090 0).
2. Some names have been changed.
3. Mainland Aotearoa New Zealand has three extant rails: the banded rail (moho-pereru; Rallus philippensis), the spotless crake (puweto; Porzana tabuensis), and the marsh crake (koitareke, Porzana pusilla).
4. Ruaumoko is the god of earthquakes.

Photos (click to enlarge them):
1. The inside of a tiny paua (Haliotis sp.) shell.
2. Evening over Hawke Bay, North Island, Aotearoa.
3. Caravan at Earthquake Bay.
4. Beach detail, Flounder Bay.
5. Only part (perhaps half to one third) of the largest flock of kereru (Hemiphaga novaeseelandiae) I've ever seen. This photo alone shows 23 birds.
6. After the rain at Flounder Bay.
7. Edge of the lagoon at Earthquake Bay.
8. Ute and skull at Earthquake Bay.

Photos and words © 2008 Pete McGregor