07 December 2009

How to post big photos in blogger (and other tweaks)

In a comment on my latest post, Avus said, “I keep meaning to ask, Pete. How do you manage to include the large images on your blog? Blogger only allows me quite small ones which need clicking on to enlarge.”

Earlier, Dr FTSE had pointed out how to get rid of the redundant clickability for large photos (clicking on them just opened up a page with nothing but the same photo at the same size) and how to change the mouse pointer from a hand to an arrow. Unfortunately, the new style of editing form for blogger posts wouldn’t accept his latter suThe code (s400/) for the size has already been removed from this exampleggestion; however, there’s a simpler way to:
1. include large photos in your blog;
2. make them non-clickable and prevent the cursor from changing to a hand pointer instead of an arrow pointer when you move it over the photo.

1. How to display a photo at its original size in a Blogger post

First — and this is crucial — you need to resize your photo to exactly the size at which you want it to appear in your blog. If you make it too large, you’ll screw up your blog’s formatting; too small is less serious, but why not get it right? The easiest way, if you use Firefox, is to install the addon MeasureIt and use it to check the width of the text on your blog. Remember to allow a few pixels on each side for the photo’s borders, too. The proper and accurate way is to inspect the html for your blog’s template, but if you can interpret that, you won’t need to read this post.

Next, after uploading your photo into the post editing form, click on the “HTML” tab (circled in red on the figure above) and look for the block of code that begins with “<img” and ends with “/>”. It’ll look something like this:
<img border="0" src="https://blogger.googleusercontent.com/img/b/R29vZ2xl/AVvXsEglPo6Onx7f6b-eceRBFgryEqjXp7ocxjcCN9YLkOcXsXMSQQCbqLKzkspgPR7EAaCJx8uxY26HB_Ud6RWNST551f_YkIFz9GfOPplrdF4Roi5s81mQ33UXlRWY06byDj_r2ffi/s400/Kea_8961.jpg"/>
Now look for the filename, and immediately before it you’ll see some code that looks like “s400/”. Depending on what size you've chosen when Blogger asks you to pick small, medium, large, or x-large, this code will appear as s200/, s320/, s400/, or s640/ (you can probably guess which code refers to which size), but it doesn’t matter. I’ve marked it in red. Now, simply delete it (i.e. the code in red):
<img border="0" src="https://blogger.googleusercontent.com/img/b/R29vZ2xl/AVvXsEglPo6Onx7f6b-eceRBFgryEqjXp7ocxjcCN9YLkOcXsXMSQQCbqLKzkspgPR7EAaCJx8uxY26HB_Ud6RWNST551f_YkIFz9GfOPplrdF4Roi5s81mQ33UXlRWY06byDj_r2ffi/s400/Kea_8961.jpg"/>
Your photo will now appear at its original size.

2. How to remove the link (URL) from a photo

When you’ve tweaked the html so your photo appears at its actual size, it’s pointless to keep it clickable. Here’s how to get rid of the link and keep the cursor as an arrow, not a hand.
After uploading your photo, click on the “HTML” tab and look for the block of code that looks similar to this:
<a href="https://blogger.googleusercontent.com/img/b/R29vZ2xl/AVvXsEglPo6Onx7f6b-eceRBFgryEqjXp7ocxjcCN9YLkOcXsXMSQQCbqLKzkspgPR7EAaCJx8uxY26HB_Ud6RWNST551f_YkIFz9GfOPplrdF4Roi5s81mQ33UXlRWY06byDj_r2ffi/s1600-h/Kea_8961.jpg" imageanchor="1" style="margin-left: 1em; margin-right: 1em;"><img border="0" src="https://blogger.googleusercontent.com/img/b/R29vZ2xl/AVvXsEglPo6Onx7f6b-eceRBFgryEqjXp7ocxjcCN9YLkOcXsXMSQQCbqLKzkspgPR7EAaCJx8uxY26HB_Ud6RWNST551f_YkIFz9GfOPplrdF4Roi5s81mQ33UXlRWY06byDj_r2ffi/"/></a>
Delete the sections in red (i.e. the bit beginning with “<a href” and ending immediately before “<img”, and the “</a>” at the end):
<a href="https://blogger.googleusercontent.com/img/b/R29vZ2xl/AVvXsEglPo6Onx7f6b-eceRBFgryEqjXp7ocxjcCN9YLkOcXsXMSQQCbqLKzkspgPR7EAaCJx8uxY26HB_Ud6RWNST551f_YkIFz9GfOPplrdF4Roi5s81mQ33UXlRWY06byDj_r2ffi/s1600-h/Kea_8961.jpg" imageanchor="1" style="margin-left: 1em; margin-right: 1em;"><img border="0" src="https://blogger.googleusercontent.com/img/b/R29vZ2xl/AVvXsEglPo6Onx7f6b-eceRBFgryEqjXp7ocxjcCN9YLkOcXsXMSQQCbqLKzkspgPR7EAaCJx8uxY26HB_Ud6RWNST551f_YkIFz9GfOPplrdF4Roi5s81mQ33UXlRWY06byDj_r2ffi/"/></a>
That's it. When you hover the mouse over the photo, the pointer will appear as an arrow rather than changing to a hand, and clicking will do nothing.

You can see the result of each of these changes on the post Kea, Darran mountains, on my photoblog, The Ruins of the Moment.

Note: Ignore the links in the sections of code I've listed — Blogger won't let me convert them to plain text. A bit beyond my technical ability, I'm afraid. 

Photos and original text © 2009 Pete McGregor

19 November 2009

Different people

Cow and drongo at Keoladeo Ghana NP
In the library recently, I encountered (from a distance) a man who seemed entranced with the phrase "political correctness gone mad". Having seen some young people eating in the library, he accosted a library assistant, first asking her to stop this outrage, then, because she responded by referring him to the person in charge if he wished to make a complaint, somehow reasoned this was "political correctness gone mad".
   "In my day," he began... and finished by strolling among the shelves, loudly proclaiming "political correctness gone mad" — presumably forgetting that in his day silence in libraries was even more of an imperative than not eating.

What is it about libraries that attracts what might, for want of a more politically correct expression, be called the different people? Visit the local public library at any time and you're likely to encounter them — the busy, elderly woman with a backpack and several carry-bags, noisily rustling the pages of magazines and never sitting down; the loud talker with his slightly unfocused gaze, addressing similarly not-quite-present friends or a patient, non-committal librarian or just everything within earshot (generally a substantial radius); the loud talker's friend who responds with less volume but a curiously definite way of speaking that has never admitted the use of contractions; or the gaunt, haunted young man with cheeks like the hips of an Indian cow and pale eyes apparently accustomed to searching for enlightenment in the subterranean dark.

Then there's the quiet, slightly sad-looking, middle-aged man with long, lank, greying hair; his trousers loose, well-worn and shiny, his old nylon windbreaker faded to an indefinite colour, his spectacles relics from the 1980s (when he wore spectacles from the 1960s) — the same man who creeps around the shelves avoiding eye contact and occasionally sitting to peer at an opened book or magazine in a manner suggesting what's being read refuses to sink in.

A diverse range, but what they all have in common is a worn-out air, like things left out in the weather too long — a jacket left behind on a fencepost at the start of winter and rediscovered in spring, Between the shelvesor a pair of overalls salvaged from a grubby pile in the corner of a workshop then given an inadequate wash and pressed into service, resurrected for cleaning out the shed, painting the house or crawling under the car to change the oil.

It's not that all hope has gone. Not like the man I saw dragging himself along a back street in St Petersburg — I saw him and recognised inevitable and imminent death; his pallor almost there already, his eyes, although open, seeing something other than the reality I and the other living perceived. No, these library regulars live real lives, with the possibility that circumstances might change, that they might have surprisingly rich social lives, that they might belong to subcultures every bit as intriguing and fulfilling as those of the surfies, the practising petrolheads, the poets, the green activists and the folk musicians.

But those are only possibilities and the reality might be far more quietly desperate and grim. What appears to us (the supposedly normal — that slippery and indefinable concept) as oddball behaviour might simply be how they persuade themselves they do in fact lead rich and normal lives, or at least lives less grim than they appear to us. Perhaps they come to libraries not just to read, not just to escape the mould, draughts and chilling ache of wherever they call home, not just to piss in an unblocked toilet, but to see and hear other people, perhaps even to have conversations, to feel part of a larger community. In that respect they're just as normal as anyone else — maybe they’re not so different after all. Perhaps the man obsessed with political-correctness-gone-mad was, consciously or otherwise, trying to convince himself he had a role to play in society rather than just occupying space on its fringes — and isn't that what most of us would like to believe? Yet we see the strange behaviours, the apparent self-absorption, the intense focus that admits no casual intrusion, and we avoid eye contact and detour around the other side of the shelves. Better not to risk getting involved, you think. Who knows what you'd be getting yourself into if you smiled and said g'day?

Yes, it could all turn pear-shaped — but what if it didn't? Perhaps you'd get a smile in return, or maybe you'd just get the knowledge that someone felt, even for a moment, that he was no longer invisible, no longer a fringe dweller among grimy, plastic-covered books; the knowledge that someone felt, even for a moment, that she was no longer different.
After dark

1. All characters in this post are fictional (except the political-correctness-gone-mad man), but they could be real.

1. Cow and drongo at Keoladeo Ghana National Park, Bharatpur, Rajasthan.
2. Book dreaming, Palmerston North public library
3. Carpark after dark (not the library)

Photos and original text © 2009 Pete McGregor

18 October 2009

Memories, dreams

Waking, I remember a line of broken-down houses, hardly more than shacks. I remember derelict 1950s houses with broken windows, mouldering sofas on rotting verandahs, old cars being slowly consumed by rust and lichen on what were once, long ago, front lawns. Weeds grow along rutted driveways; vines smother walls and lever guttering from peeling, corrugated iron roofs that bang in the wind and leak into ceilings full of dust, forgotten boxes of old magazines, abandoned wasp nests and silent spiders. In a back yard, fowls scratch and dust-bathe among straggly weeds in a run fenced off with chicken wire and posts of desiccated macrocarpa, some as thick as a wrist, others the thickness of the lower leg of a horse. A scrambling rose entwines one end of the run, its faded pink flowers incongruously bright against the grey and brown fowl-scraped soil, the silvery-grey of the wooden fowlhouse, the dull yellow-green of the withered weeds.

Yet people still live here. A man limps out of a shed and lifts his battered fedora to scratch his head. He replaces the hat with a slight forward tilt to shade his eyes from the weak afternoon sun. Surf breaks on the nearby beach, the sound as permanent a part of the yard as the fowl run, the shed's bleached weatherboards, the patch of ragged cabbages with its joggling white butterflies, the paling fence stained black with waste sump oil, the Albany Surprise stretched out along that fence, its dense green foliage revealing glimpses of sweet, dark grapes swelling in the afternoon warmth — oh that delicious muscatel taste! The eyes of a cat peer from shadows behind leaves.

Someone speeds up a pot-holed driveway on a bike and dismounts on the run, dropping the bike by the concrete steps as he runs inside, slamming the door. Three youths, observed, quickly cover something with an old sack. A face peers from a glassless window and calls out, then withdraws into a dark, unknowable interior. The hazy sun and relentless roar of surf oppress a world full of hidden things and things hiding; a world of desperation on the fringe of violence, where authority carries no more weight than a challenge.

I wake and remember this line of broken-down houses, which I know is in a suburb by the sea, a real place — a place I could visit. What I don't know is whether these houses and driveways and inhabitants are memories or dreams.

1. Albany Surprise was the distinctively flavoured grape that grew in every New Zealand quarter-acre section in the mid 20th century. It's still available, but not as common as it once was.
1.Once, years ago, this housed chooks.
2. Part of the ANZAC memorial on No. 4 Line, Pohangina Valley.

Photos and original text © 2009 Pete McGregor

21 September 2009

This rock belongs to us all

Dawn light filters through the matchstick blind as International Rock Flipping Day begins. Outside, a tui squawks and chuckles, probably from among the mass of yellow flowers on the big kowhai by the gate, and when Anne-Marie pulls up the blind on the east window the sky's the pale blue of a starling's egg—that slightly cold colour with the promise of warmth.

I get a cup of tea in bed, with toast and quince jam, and shortly afterwards she brings in a small leaf from some lawn weed. She holds it out for me to inspect. It's covered with dew.
"Not dew", she says.
I touch it. It's hard, like tiny crystals.
"Frost", she says. "Very light, but definitely a frost".

But by mid morning not a trace remains. Ted sits propped against the back door frame, panting rapidly with his fluffy belly exposed to the sun's heat. He looks like a small buddha, but Maisie sits in the dignified pose of the Sphinx, surveying her Flatwormdomain to keep it free from blackbirds and other insolent intruders. She pants too, though, and blinks in the bright, hot sun.

Where will we flip our first rock today?

Anne-Marie suggests either Castlecliff or Waiinu because they're both beaches Ted will enjoy. I, being misanthropic, opt for the less populated Waiinu, so we leave in the late morning, arriving at a deserted parking spot near a paddock of steers. Paint peels and flakes from the sun-bleached DOC [1] sign, but this is not Waiinu, it's the access to the mouth of the Waitotara river. Anne-Marie had tempted me with tales of an ancient, drowned totara forest, and the prospect of seeing drowned trees, thousands of years old, reaching for the sky from watery graves, had been too much.

So here we are, and Ted's beside himself with the prospect of exploring new territory, with delicious bucolic smells and mud and dung and other forms of dog porn. Given the temptations, he's surprisingly well-behaved though: happy to trot along with Anne-Marie in tow on a tight but not straining leash. We walk the quiet, slightly windswept track with a narrow strip of diverse native shrubs on our left between us and the river, and on our right a low, three wire electric fence separating us from the small mob of steers tracking us with that characteristic mixture of curiosity and fear—they come right up to the fence to stare at us, puffing steam from snotty nostrils, but when I turn to look back at them they run away like hysterical children. Then they trot back because they still can't figure us out.

Skylarks sing above the paddocks; two blackbacked gulls roost on a log in the slow-flowing, murky river; once a pheasant flushes with a roar of wings from just a few metres away and flies low and fast across the river. Porcellio scaberA couple of utes [2] bounce and joggle past on their way back from the beach, going slowly, waving hello as they pass by.

We cross a Taranaki gate [3] and walk a couple of metres down to the edge of the river. Ted marches in, of course, but I refuse to get my feet wet so hold him on an outstretched leash. The three of us wander along the wet, black sand, out of sight of the track, in our own world, our own time. It feels as if we've left the world of people and cars and entered the world of birds and water and washed-up memories from a hundred years into the future, when all the towns and cities and lonely farmhouses have fallen into ruin. Ahead in the distance, eight white birds roost on a log jam a long way from the shore. I think they're spoonbills, but I've left my binoculars in the Pohangina valley (accidentally) along with the big lens (deliberately). Nearby, the drowned totara forest emerges from the wind-rippled water. It's not what I was expecting—all that's visible is a small collection of small, knob-like stumps.

But we're here to flip rocks. Unfortunately, rocks are scarce, and the few we do flip are in such a water-logged substrate they're home to nothing we can see. Eventually we make our way back to the car. Perhaps we can find something in the garden.

And we do. Not under rocks, but the eucalyptus log is so dense it's close enough. It's home to a good collection of tiny lives, too—perhaps not as exciting as last year's find, but when one looks closely, the segments on a woodlouse must surely be worthy of admiration. And, as one looks so closely it's impossible not to wonder how these tiny animals live their lives. They're all around us, and how much do most of us know about them? A thought crosses my mind: if, by and large, we fail to notice these myriad lives with whom we share the rock we call Earth, what, on some incomprehensibly larger or more advanced scale might, right now, be failing to notice us?


1. DOC is the acronym for Aotearoa's Department of Conservation.
2. "Ute" (pronounced "yoot") is short for "utility vehicle" — a pickup truck in the US.
3. A Taranaki gate is a makeshift gate comprising a length of wire netting with a couple of supporting battens (thin posts attached to the wire but free from the ground) at each end.
4. There's a photo of the river over on my photoblog.
5. In case you're wondering, Ted is a border terrier (Maisie's a Westie).
Photos (click to enlarge them):
1. Under the log. The woodlouse (I like the word much better than "slater") is the cosmopolitan Porcellio scaber; the long, segmented things are millipedes of some sort; the little, short white things with stumpy legs and antennae are springtails (Collembola); the long whitish things are enchytraeid worms (more or less cousins to earthworms). If you want to find out more, Massey University has a wonderful Illustrated Guide to New Zealand Soil Invertebrates. Highly recommended.
2. Some kind of flatworm (Turbellaria). I guess other flatworms find them attractive ;^).
3. A closer view of Porcellio scaber and friends.
4. Maisie guards the garden.
Update (23 September 2009): Here's the list of other rock flippers so far:
The Natural Capital; Fertanish Chatter; Roundrock Journal; Just Playin' Around; What It's like on the Inside; KrisAbel; BugSafari; Sofia_Alexandra; Growing with Science; ChickenSpaghetti; NaturalNotes; Yips and Howls; Rock, Paper, Lizard; Outside My Window; The dog geek; Dave Ingram's Natural History Blog; Via Negativa; Unplug Your Kids; ORCA: Observar, Recordar, Crecer y Aprender; Will Rees Fine Woodworking ...; The Marvelous in Nature; Ontario Wanderer; Bare Baby Feet; The Homefront Lines; Crazy Maize World; Dr. Omed's Tent Show Revival; Wanderin' Weeta

And remember to check the Flickr group, too.

Photos and original text © 2009 Pete McGregor

17 September 2009

This Sunday it's International Rock Flipping Day

It's International Rock Flipping Day this Sunday, 20 September. The idea's simple — find some rocks, flip them over, record what you find, then share it. Make sure you replace the rocks carefully to restore the homes you've temporarily disturbed, and in particular to avoid injuring any of those little lives. International Rock-Flipping Day, September 2, 2007Blog about it, or if you don't have a blog, you can post photos or other artwork on the IRFD Flickr group. This year, Dave Bonta and Bev Wigney have passed the baton (or should that be the rock?) to Susannah Anderson to coordinate the results, so when you've blogged or posted to the Flickr group, email Susannah to let her know (wanderinweeta [at] gmail [dot] com).

Read Susannah's post for the details.

So, this Sunday get out there and enjoy it. Kids (of all ages) find it fascinating and fun, and it's a chance to instill in them a sense of respect, wonder and excitement about the real world.

If you want advice on how to photograph the little critters you might find, Bev has a wonderful post full of common sense about macro photography using point-and-shoot cameras.

Last year's event turned up a cool find for me. What will yours be?

IRFD badge by cephalopodcast

06 September 2009

Colds, kidneys and the cosmic dance

Apple tree
Days come no better than this: as perfect as they come — a hard, white frost melting under a warm sun; no trace of cloud in a flawless sky; no hint of wind stirring the still air; the kind of day one should do something active and outdoors — go tramping in the Ruahine, get on the road bike for an hour or two's cycling up the valley or the mountain bike for the slog up No. 1 Line and the delightful cruise back down, freewheeling most of the way, or maybe a wander up the river with the fly rod and polaroids, hoping to spot a trout but not minding if you don't because it's just so lovely to be out there in weather like this, as perfect as it gets.

But I'm at the peak of my cold. Slightly headachy, sinuses stuffed up, nose sore from constant blowing, a general feeling of exhaustion, weakness and lassitude, and regular bouts of sneezing. Once, I sneezed violently and thought I'd Kereru in plumruptured a kidney — a sudden, agonising shaft of pain knifing through the region where, I thought, the shattered remains of my right-side kidney now dangled, dripping and bloody. I suppose I'd just pulled a muscle, or maybe something had spasmed, but it still made me gasp and groan out loud. Even now, an hour or two later, it aches [1].

Then there's that weird feeling as if either the world's real or I'm real but not both. Am I somewhere else, looking at the world, or does the world go about its existence somewhere slightly removed from me, somehow independently of me? I knew viruses were strange, but never realised they could sever the connection between consciousness and reality.

Even time seems different. I listened to some favourite songs and they sounded far too fast; the pitch remained the same but the tempo had speeded up, as if the songs were late for a meeting. Had I slowed down, or had reality speeded up? If that makes any sense at all — which, given my state, it might not — could there be any difference, and if there is, could it be detectable even if principle?

A kereru [2] alights in the plum tree by the kennels and begins plucking buds as it sways on a branch seemingly too thin to support the big bird's bulk. A swallow [3] skims fast over the paddock in front of the verandah a few metres away; it loops and flits back, disappearing over the roof. The bird moves around its motionless wing, the world moves around the bird. Perhaps this is our mistake: we think the world revolves around us, but maybe we revolve around it, or — and this idea I like best — maybe we move around and with each other in an infinitely complex, eternally recurring cosmic dance.


1. Maybe I was right. Shortly after I wrote that, I discovered I was pissing blood. I rang the medical centre, and was transferred to the after hours service where I was told it would be good if I could come in and get checked. A trip into town: half an hour's driving each way, who knows how long sitting in a waiting room swapping my cold virus for someone else's swine 'flu, and then what could they do? Tell me, “Yes, you have blood in your piss?” I decided to wait, to see whether it would get better (as I suspected it would); to do what cats, those master healers, do — sleep in the sun and heal themselves. It worked, and my admiration for the wisdom of cats has further increased.
2. Kereru, Aotearoa/New Zealand's native pigeon, Hemiphaga novaeseelandiae.
3. The Welcome swallow, Hirundo tahitica neoxena.
Photos (click to enlarge them):
1. This could be several things. One is the wild old apple near the edge of the terrace. The weird colours are deliberate.
2. This is that kereru, plucking plum buds.
3. And this is Ming, one of the wise, 22 years old now and still owning the place. He kept me company yesterday afternoon in the sun on the verandah.

Photos and original text © 2009 Pete McGregor

27 August 2009

Insanity and improbability

Crew of B461On the night of 4 November 1943, four Stirling bombers from 75 Squadron took off from an RAF airbase at Mepal in England on a mission to lay mines in the Baltic Sea. Near Kallerup in Denmark a German JU88 night fighter piloted by Leutnant Karl Rechberger attacked Stirling BF461. Some of the fighter's fire hit home, but Rechberger was wounded in the thigh by return fire from the bomber. Despite the injury he landed safely.

The Stirling wasn't so lucky. The exact nature of the damage will never be known, but it was sufficient to cripple the bomber. Unable to control the doomed plane, pilot Gordon Williams gave the command to bail out.

On hearing the order, the front gunner spun his turret to align it so he could climb back into the bulkhead to retrieve his parachute. Unfortunately, he misaligned the turret; the wind caught and wrenched it and strained the hinges and he found himself trapped in the turret. Fighting panic, he ripped off his helmet and managed to squeeze his head and shoulders through the gap. Suddenly, the plane lurched and he Frank McGregorwas thrown through the gap into the bulkhead. He reached for his parachute and tried to clip it on, but by now his fingers were numb and he couldn't tell if the clips had buckled securely. Time was running out. He opened the hatch and lowered his legs into space, then, with a terrific effort of will, released his hold and tumbled into the night sky, away from the crippled bomber. He waited several seconds, freefalling through the night until he was sure his parachute would clear the plane, then pulled the ripcord. A moment later he felt the impact as the parachute opened. The clips were secure.

With help from local Danes he evaded capture for two days but was finally turned over to the Germans. He spent the remainder of World War II as a Prisoner of War in the huge Stalag IV-B at Mühlburg, about 50 km north of Dresden.

He was my father.

When I think about those events of almost 70 years ago, two overriding thoughts come to mind. The first is the sheer insanity of what happened, the second is the absurd improbability that those events and their successors could have led to my sitting here thinking about them.

First the insanity.

I sit in the Celtic, enjoying a beer with a cosmopolitan group of friends: French, US American, Canadian, Irish, English, Spanish—and German. Seventy years ago, I might have been shooting at Marco or dropping bombs on Melanie. Arne might have been forced to throw grenades at me. Christina might have been working on an assembly line manufacturing the night fighter that would shoot my plane from the sky; Barbara perhaps packing boxes of ammunition—bullets to be shot at me. Instead of laughing and hugging each other, helping our team come oh so close to winning the night's quiz, we might have been hiding, waiting for the chance to escape or to kill each other.

How do people rationalise killing people they've never met, have never known? Perhaps it's precisely because of that — because they don't know those people as individuals — that they're able to squeeze a trigger, press a button, or follow — or issue — an order. My father had never travelled overseas before being shipped toStalag IV-B Canada for his training, and, as far as I know, he'd never met anyone from Germany. Apparently, when he released bombs over German cities he felt convinced that what he was doing was utterly justified. Nevertheless, like many of his contemporaries, he seldom spoke about what he'd been through, and by the time I'd grown up enough to discuss it with him, it was too late. But I wonder how he'd have felt if he'd had the opportunity to enjoy friendships with people from the country he viewed as “the enemy”. If he'd talked and laughed and eaten with the person who would eventually become Marco's father or Melanie's mum or Arne's uncle. If someone from Barbara's home town had slept in the shearers' quarters where my father grew up and had sat at the table and eaten roast lamb and peas and tried to describe the huge variety of sausage back home. In short, if he'd had the opportunities and friendships I've been so lucky to enjoy. If, if, if.

Which brings me to the second thought — the vanishingly small probability that I, writing this, should be here, writing this.

If the turret had jammed with the opening just a little smaller. If the plane hadn't lurched; if the clips on his parachute hadn't been buckled properly. If he'd fallen fatally ill in Stalag IV-B. The list of “ifs” seems infinite, stretching back into the past, before he was born, before his parents were born and so on; and stretching out towards me, as I sit writing this. Once, somewhere in the Southern Alps of New Zealand, he slipped on a mountainside and saved himself by grabbing a small, wiry bush. If a seed hadn't germinated there years before, he'd have fallen over the bluff, probably to his death.

My existence seems an improbability of truly cosmic proportions. Still, I'm here, writing this, and I'm glad. But tell me this. If the chances of any actual event are so infinitesimal, how can wars be so common?

Stalag IV-B; F. McGregor watercolour

1. I'm particularly grateful to Mogens Kruse and Anders Straarup for finding us and providing information additional to Dad's records.
2. Airwar over Denmark by Søren Flensted has a page about Stirling BF461 and its crew.
3. Allied Airmen 1939-45 DK by Anders Straarup includes good information about STI BF461 and all its crew members with many links. If you're keen, you can read Dad's account of the mission and his time in Stalag IV-B by downloading the pdf (70 pages; almost 6 Mb); a smaller pdf (about 600 Kb) is a 7-page account of the week before the camp was liberated. Copyright in both articles resides with the estate of F.E. McGregor.
4. B461 crashed here (thanks to Mogens Kruse for this).
(I photographed these from Dad's albums. Apart from a little cleaning up of spots and scratches they're as close as I can get to the originals.)
1. The crew of Stirling BF461 ("B for Beer"). [Standing, L-R]: W.F. Morice (navigator), W.J. Champion (wireless operator), G.K. Williams (pilot), J. Black (mid-upper gunner), R. Ingray (tail gunner); [Kneeling, L-R]: F.E. McGregor (bomb aimer/front gunner), H. Moffat (engineer).
2. Frank McGregor. I'm not sure of the date of the photo, but assume it was during his training, or perhaps while he was on active service before he was shot down.
3. The main road of Stalag IV-B, from a photo in Frank McGregor's albums.
4. One of his watercolour sketches. It's dated 1945; Stalag IV-B was abandoned by its German guards in April 1945 shortly before a Russian contingent arrived.
Photos and original text © 2009 Pete McGregor

18 June 2009

The Ice Man

Pohangina valley evening
Dawn comes like the realisation of youth fading; a gradual awareness that options have begun to diminish. Soon one must step out into the cold. The thermometer registers a single degree[1]inside the house; condensation on every window has frozen solid; through lightly textured ice the outside world appears as indefinite as last night's dreams. Trees, the shed next door, a line of hills beneath a salmon-tinged sky: all have become vague forms in colour, ill-defined, beautiful, approximating the abstract. I open the kitchen door and step outside to empty the teapot and frost crunches on the verandah beneath my feet, white frost covers the paddock save for dull green patches where the sheep have been lying. A line of footprints connects one such patch with a grazing sheep and I wonder — does grass taste different when it's frozen?
A long-sleeved thermal top, then two layers of fleece and a down jacket; fleece pants over long johns; a balaclava as a neck muff; fingerless mittens and it's still hardly enough. I drink tea as hot as I can without burning my tongue and begin to warm up. I'm not built for the cold. Sometimes I think so little meat covers my bones I could uncontentiously be included in a vegetarian diet. I find winter hard, and every winter seems harder than the last. I remember how, long ago, I used to cycle all year round in shorts, when frosts regularly touched six or seven degrees below zero and we had plenty of those every winter; now, decades later, frosts as hard as that come once or twice a winter or never, and if now I biked in shorts in frosts like that, my knees, I'm sure, would seize as their synovial fluid thickened and turned to ice. If ever I was built for the cold, now I'm not.

In winter I'm torn between the desire to hunker down in what warm refuges I can find (right now I'm writing in the city library) and the urge to leave the cold, to travel to where it's warm. I dream of Gujarat, where at times I could hardly bear the heat; Kileshwar, where sometimes even a thin silk sleeping bag liner was too hot and I slept with the warm wind rattling the window shutters and a bat flew around the room and a rat ate my ayurvedic soap; where peafowl screamed and dogs barked and I lay awake listening for the coughing of the leopard that a few weeks earlier had been seen prowling past the compound. In this winter the idea of heat like that is almost unimaginable, even if the rat isn't: I'm reminded of it every time I hear the Rat of the Baskervilles galloping across the uninsulated ceiling or gnawing in the walls (also uninsulated), and apparently preferring wood (not, I trust, electrical cable) to the generously offered sachets of poison bait lying untouched out the back.

No, I'm not built for winter, what with its aching cold and unwelcome fauna — big queen wasps are entering hibernation in the walls, too; I heard them buzzing regularly as they warmed down for hibernation until Trev did for them with a generous application of blowfly-strike powder puffed through a gap into the wall — and with its threats of pestilence (swine flu has just begun its exponential proliferation in Aotearoa) and chilblains (I have my first chilblain in decades) and unaffordable power bills. Sometimes I wonder how I'd survive in cold countries — really cold countries. The idea of polar and subpolar regions captivates me; I love the idea of loneliness and wild lives, huge seas breaking on desolate shores, whales and walruses, albatrosses and wheeling gulls, wind-carved rock and ice and the sun at midnight and all those histories of humans and the wildlife that preceded them and the stories of glaciers and storms and seas that reach forward from the unpredictable past to the increasingly constrained future. Frosted leaf But could I survive such cold? When I stepped from the warm library onto the street I felt as if the cold might claim me before I could reach the car, and the temperature hadn't even dropped to freezing.

Perhaps I'm going soft, or maybe I've always lacked the psychological as well as physical insulation to withstand real cold. I've never been even remotely in the same league as Antarctic explorer — and survivor — Douglas Mawson (although few, if any, were), or Charlie Douglas who over a century ago ran down from a South Westland mountain to find blizzard-blown snow packed like fat inside his shirt, around his belly. “There had not been enough heat in my carcase to melt it”, he'd said, and attributed his survival to never having considered the possibility of dying: “Nothing”, he said, “is as bad as terror for lowering a man's stamina”.[2] Me? If I had to face those conditions now, I'd end up as the distant future's equivalent of Ötzi the ice man — lasered from the ice by aliens impressed by my state of preservation and underdeveloped cerebral cortex.

No, I'm not built for winter. We haven't even reached the shortest day and our coldest, grimmest weather arrives after that — not an encouraging thought. But, if I do end up like Ötzi, maybe those aliens will find me and, with their advanced technology, thaw me out and restore me to life. I just hope it won't happen in the middle of winter.
Winter trees

1. All temperatures are in degrees Celsius (centigrade). One degree Celsius is about 34° Fahrenheit.
2. Pp. 141–142 in Langton G. 2000. Mr Explorer Douglas: John Pascoe's New Zealand Classic revised by Graham Langton. Christchurch, New Zealand, Canterbury University Press. 320 pp. ISBN 0-908812-95-7.

Photos (click to enlarge them):
1. Evening on the southern Ruahine range, from Pohangina Valley East Road. Almost exactly one year ago.
2. Everything looked like this a few days ago.
3. Winter; leafless poplar, dead pine. No. 3 Line, Pohangina Valley.

Photos and text © 2009 Pete McGregor

29 May 2009

Demons and Angels


A man walks back from the beach at half past four in the evening; he walks out of the sunlight, and the evening rises up his body as he steps away from the sea. The light climbs to his chest, his shoulders, his head; another step and he crosses the border into night. Behind him, the steel-blue sea, above that the perfect sky. Nothing on the water; in the sky, only two swallows, darting and soaring.

All night the little cabin fills with the distant thump and slow roar of surf breaking, sometimes one roar after another, quick, hurried; Dawn at Flounder Baysometimes the gradual dying away before the next big breaker booms down. Sometimes the sound dies away completely, so for a few seconds all that remains is the memory—then nothing. Where has the sea gone? Has it begun to gather itself far from shore, building the monstrous wave that will wash this place from the ill-named Earth?


Then the next breaker collapses and the pattern resumes; the land relaxes and sleep creeps through the cabin like a slow, rolling swell rising on the deep ocean.

In the evenings I read Moominvalley in November, occasionally reading the best bits out loud to Anne-Marie who laughs and doesn't mind. She responds by offering to read me bits from A Woman's Book of Yoga so I can learn how to align my menstrual cycles with my chakras.

At the edge of the lagoon we flush a heron, which rises into the air slowly, legs dangling, then bobs through the cold, grey air above the perfectly still water. Something about the bird's colour, and perhaps other things noticed subconsciously, says this is not our common white-faced heron. The bird alights on the sand on the far side of the lagoon and pulls its head into its shoulders, begins striding on enormous, dull yellow feet. The bill has a hint of a downward curve and appears blunter than the needle bill of the white-faced heron; the drab, brownish-black plumage and complete absence of any white around the head confirms the identification. I'm looking at the first New Zealand reef heron I've ever seen.

For the rest of the day I can't stop thinking about it, delighting in the sighting. Not just a glimpse—a chance to study it as it stalked along the beach, looking like a grumpy old man until, once, Breaking waveit extended its head on that long neck and stabbed at some morsel and in that moment became once more a heron. I photographed it from a great distance, a record only, confirmation of the identification. The better record remains in memory.

We sit on the beach and look out at the empty sea. Further along, towards the northern end, a black shag spreads his wings in the afternoon sun. He looks like something exiled from the shadows of the headland behind him. Wind sends sand showering against our backs, hissing around the big driftwood log against which we've settled; a Caspian tern flies the length of the shore with its pointy bill down, scrutinising the surf; ragged clouds form and dissipate over the ocean. The place feels old, like a glimpse of the future—a future after humans have gone. A hint of winter in the wind, a suggestion of some sub-Antarctic island. Before I die I want to walk the loneliest beach in the world, where gulls fly yelping over wet black shingle; where the pale bones of whales lie beside storm-piled kelp and glaciers crawl from iron-grey cloud to calve bergs into a black sea rolling like oil, studded with ice and swirling with ghosts.

We walk south to Driftwood Cove in the evening. From the track below the cliffs, and again when we reach the cove, we watch a big surf roll in and shatter on the rocks. The sea rises, heaving in a huge, narrowing, green-blue wall that races Lagoon, twilightforward before the first trace of white appears along the crest; the wall curls over and bursts into white that speeds along the length of the onrushing wave; a tremendous roar—and then the next wall of ocean begins its heave towards the sky. Far out at sea a line of light separates ocean and looming sky. Faced with such immensity, such enormous dimensions and power, one must surely recognise the insignificance of humans. How could one not be awed? In moments like these I can almost accept Nietzsche had something worthwhile to say despite his heartlessness towards the humanity he despised: speaking of ewige Wiederkunft (“eternal recurrence”)—the challenge issued by a demon who reveals we must live each moment of our lives again and again in exactly the same way—Nietzsche asks how we would respond to such a revelation. He goes on to explain: “The question in each and every thing, 'Do you desire this once more and innumerable times more?' would lie upon your actions as the greatest weight.”

I watch gannets circle and soar in a sky coloured like lead; white birds bright against a sky heavier than the sea. From this distance they look like angels and I think maybe I understand those who would respond to Nietzsche's demon by saying, “You are a god and never have I heard anything more divine.”

We walk back in the twilight, the waning gibbous moon shining through cloud onto the ocean, the way it must have shone before any human walked the Earth; before the first dinosaurs; before the first creature crawled or slithered from that sea—that sea on which a waning gibbous moon lights a pathway to the night horizon. And after the last pink and orange has faded; after the dark in the foliage of treees and in the clefts of rock has turned black; after the clouds have begun to blur and take on that faint tinge of mauve and violet over the steel-grey sea; after these changes, the horizon remains—Surf over rockthe boundary between sky and sea. The horizon, which is nothing more than a concept—what remains is sky and sea, and their difference creates something that does not exist.

After breakfast we left on foot for the Cove of Giants. A little shag swam around in the lagoon, sometimes disappearing below the surface then reappearing a few seconds later. It swam to the log jam in the middle of the lagoon and climbed out, spread its wings in the sun. The feathers of shags resist water less than the feathers of most other birds; by saturating easily they trap less air, enabling the bird to dive and swim underwater better but requiring it to dry out after fishing. What do shags do in rain, or in cold, damp weather? How easily do their feathers dry? How does a shag stay warm?

They look so strange, always peering as if they're slightly myopic. To me they've always seemed as if they go about their lives with a greater disregard for humans than any other bird I can think of; fishing, drying their wings, going somewhere to attend to shag business—even when we approach too close and they fly off they seem to do so without acknowledging our role as disturbers. One can almost hear the sigh and “Whatever...” as they take off and fly to elsewhere.

We had no idea whether the shag at the lagoon was male or female—can humans tell them apart by superficial features? Even if not, shags can, and that's what matters (which is why we still have shags to enjoy and wonder about)—but this bird seemed like a male and I had an overwhelming urge to call him (it) Gerald. I have no idea why.

The wind had turned nor'west and felt mild; with the morning sun on our backs we began to warm up and soon shed a layer of fleece. Even in the shadow of the enormous, eroded cliffs the temperature remained pleasant. The cliffs, scoured by rain and wind and driven sand, hung above us on the right; to the left, the slope below the track fell steeply to the sea and the jumble of massive, angular boulders against which great rolling swells from the Pacific rose into luminous waves and destroyed themselves in wild explosions of white, foaming spray.

At Driftwood Cove we prowled the beach, inspecting the shingle, fascinated by thousands of fragments of shells—the former homes of long dead molluscs—and stones of myriad colours and patterns. Frog on the goat trackWe wandered and stopped and moved slowly on and stopped again, feeling that at any moment something even more remarkable might appear. Arrested by possibility, we could hardly bear to leave.

Eventually we climbed the track into sunlight then descended once more to the Cove of Giants. A massive pine lay at the edge of the sea, neither fully on land nor fully submerged. Like the horizon, the edge of the sea remains indefinable. The trunk, polished by who-knows-how-many wild seas, had taken on a diffuse pattern of livid blue-greys and green-greys, like the body of a dead animal. I photographed it from various angles but couldn't frame it in a way that seemed satisfactory, that conveyed its massive bulk or the wild, organic shapes and textures and colours of the stump and the way the surf rushed and foamed up the sand to curl around the bole. The tree, or its remains, seemed to possess the patience of things occupying the border between the animate and inanimate; although apparently dead, it retained the memory of its life. Now it waited, perhaps for the storm in which it would finally break apart and wash away with the last of its life; the ruins of its moments drifting away, washing up on shores elsewhere. How long would it wait? I have no idea. I'd first seen it a year and a half ago and still it seemed utterly unchanged.

The line between sunlight and shadow crept north along the beach as the morning wore on, then began to slide south again although the sun hadn't reached Log in lagoonits peak in the sky. I realised the apparent anomaly reflected nothing more than the shape of the headlands towering above us—the skyline of those great, looming cliffs. On the walk to the cove I'd stopped where the track passed close to the cliff. The face looked unstable, apparently little more than consolidated sand. Like trainee rock. I wondered how secure it was. I turned to Anne-Marie.
“You wouldn't want to be here in...”
“Shsh!” she said, glaring at me. “Don't say it!”
“What? You mean...”
“Shsh! Quiet, you!”

Now, on the beach at the Cove of Giants, at least we'd have some chance of dodging the disintegrating cliffs, I reasoned, probably illogically. We'd be able to see the giant chunks bounding towards us and could escape to the sea where we'd be drowned, frozen and shredded on the rocks, not necessarily in that order. But at least we wouldn't be crushed to death.

Of course, if we survived, we'd be trapped at the cove and the subsequent tsunami would finish us off.

Places like the Cove of Giants get one thinking like that. About mortality, time, transience. About the fragility and sheer strangeness of an individual life; its tenuous and utterly unfathomable hold on its own Being, which can wink out in an instant; yet the extraordinary resilience of life in its collective form. One can have these thoughts anywhere, but perhaps this is part of the real value of places like this: that they so readily encourage awareness of and respect for life, for lives, for impermanence and for persistence. If there's any truth in Nietzsche's eternal recurrence, it's not that an individual's life repeats itself, but that life repeats itself through individuals. Each individual has one, and only one, chance.

How will you live yours?

Recommended reading: Anne-Marie has also written a beautiful piece about the Cove of Giants.
Notes:1. Some names have been changed.
2. I've posted more photos from this journey to Flounder Bay and nearby on my photoblog (The Ruins of the Moment). At the time of this posting, they include photos of a purple shore crab, the pine stump, Driftwood Cove, Hawke Bay, a white-faced heron in flight and perched, and the piwakawaka (see photo 1). Probably more to come.
3. Birds mentioned in the post (in order of appearance): welcome swallow (Hirundo tahitica neoxena); reef heron (matuku-moana, Egreta sacra sacra); white-faced heron (Ardea novaehollandiae
novaehollandiae); black shag (kawau, Phalacrocorax carbo novaehollandiae); Caspian tern (taranui, Sterna caspia); Australasian gannet (takapu, Morus serrator); little shag (kawaupaka, Microcarbo melanoleucos brevirostris).
4. Nietzsche's demon makes an appearance in aphorism 341 of The Gay Science (which I admit to not having read):
"What, if some day or night a demon were to steal after you into your loneliest loneliness and say to you: "This life as you now live it and have lived it, you will have to live once more and innumerable times more; and there will be nothing new in it, but every pain and every joy and every thought and sigh and everything unutterably small or great in your life will have to return to you, all in the same succession and sequence—even this spider and this moonlight between the trees, and even this moment and I myself. The eternal hourglass of existence is turned upside down again and again, and you with it, speck of dust!"
Would you not throw yourself down and gnash your teeth and curse the demon who spoke thus? Or have you once experienced a tremendous moment when you would have answered him: "You are a god and never have I heard anything more divine." If this thought gained possession of you, it would change you as you are or perhaps crush you. The question in each and every thing, "Do you desire this once more and innumerable times more?" would lie upon your actions as the greatest weight. Or how well disposed would you have to become to yourself and to life to crave nothing more fervently than this ultimate eternal confirmation and seal?"
5. Although shags are commonly thought to spread their wings in order to dry them, the actual reason for this wing-spreading behaviour is still debated (see Cook & LeBlanc (2007) (pdf)).
Photos (click to enlarge them):
1. Piwakawaka (fantail, Rhipidura fuliginosa) at Flounder Bay. Demon or angel? The same individual gave me a good telling off (well, maybe. The urge to anthropomorphise can be irresistible).
2. Dawn, the main beach at Flounder Bay. The man sitting in the middle of the beach on his deck chair, with his chilly bin close at hand, was fishing (
apparently). I bet I know how he would have responded to Nietzsche's demon.
3. Wave breaking, Flounder Bay.
4. The seaward end of the lagoon at twilight.
5. The edge of the ocean, Driftwood Cove.
6. Southern bell frog, Litoria raniformis, on the track between the Cove of Giants and Flounder Bay.
7. The lagoon.

Photos and original text © 2009 Pete McGregor

30 April 2009

Questions, knowing, risk: thirteen thoughts about thinking

The Pohangina Valley from No. 2 Line


The grader's been up No. 2 Line in the last day or so, leaving the road covered in small rocks, mounds and long ridges of gravel, and furrows full of soft, silty soil—a nightmare on which to bike. The knobbly tyres slip and skid; once, the rear wheel shoots sideways on a sloping ridge of gravel and I only just manage to stay upright. I feel as if I'm pedalling uphill through sand, but I grind on, slow and dogged, glad I've no intention of setting personal records. All I want is to feel my legs and lungs working the way they’re supposed to work, not the way they’ve been hardly working most of the day.
So I pedal on up the road, trying to pick the hard surfaces, the tracks where the grader’s giant tyres have compressed the dirt into a reasonable surface mostly free from loose stones. Trying to pick a safe line. Much like life, I suppose—perhaps too much like my own.
How much risk is reasonable?


As I begin to heat up I pull down the front zip of my jacket to let the wind cool me—true, natural, air conditioning. The jacket is a generous gift; My hair looks mental, she saysNew Zealand made, and an item too expensive for me to have bought. If I hadn’t been the lucky recipient I suppose I’d have continued to use one of my other jackets or perhaps bought something cheaper — and, inevitably, made in China.
The thought prompts me to think about the ethics of buying Chinese made goods. Some say it puts workers here in Aotearoa out of jobs (they’re correct); others argue it provides Chinese workers with jobs (they’re correct too). Some say it perpetuates what amounts to slavery and oppression in China (a convincing argument); others say those Chinese workers would be worse off without the jobs (similarly convincing). The arguments for and against buying Chinese made goods go on.
It’s like that with many questions. Should we allow private companies to run our prisons? Should all New Zealanders be taxed to pay for Auckland’s transport system to be fixed? Is it wrong to eat meat? Is there a god?
Questions like these—so-called “closed” questions because they can be answered (and usually are) with a simple “yes” or “no”—nearly always develop into arguments between the yeas and the nays, each camp attempting to demonstrate the strength of its own position and the error of the other's. At its most constructive, this kind of to-and-fro supposedly delivers a better understanding of what's being discussed; it (again supposedly) leads to one or both sides modifying their original positions or perhaps even abandoning an untenable position; in a related view, it homes in on “the truth”—the best known, most formal example being the legal system where prosecution and defence lawyers attempt to convince a jury that the accused is or is not guilty.
Do these apparently incisive questions, does this impressively methodical way of arguing, really deliver such wonderful results? I have my doubts. Convincing someone to change an opinion—a rare outcome, in any case—too often seems less a matter of truth and logic than of rhetorical skill and facility with the selection of facts. Consider this: if you were on trial, which lawyer would you prefer as your defence counsel: a superb orator or one who speaks in a dry monotone of incomplete sentences punctuated by ums and ahs?


I negotiate another steeply cambered, gravel-slippery corner and change up a couple of gears as the road levels out. I think of the road ahead, the steep climb; I feel like an old dog confronted by happy kids. Perhaps I’ve had enough exercise already. Should I turn around at the dam and skip that long uphill grind? Will I be a wuss if I don’t struggle all the way to the end of the road?


But questions can be asked in ways that encourage exploration rather than conflict. How might we run our prisons most effectively and efficiently? What systems of funding would be most equitable and efficient for ameliorating Auckland’s transport problems? What are the consequences of eating meat—or believing in a god? Questions framed like this often have no set answers, which is why they’re called “open-ended”.Dawn moon over the Pohangina Valley They can lead in all kinds of directions and beyond anything you might have guessed. Don’t ask questions like these unless you have time to listen. And time to think. Lots of time.
How far should I bike today?


Questions don’t have to involve two or more people, nor does the kind of dialectical conflict—I mean “argument”—I’ve described above. We do it in our heads, all the time. But, if we’re conscious of mentally debating a question, it’s often (I suspect) less a rational exercise than a rationalisation enabling us to choose the conclusion we always wanted, whether we knew it or not.
“That new camera isn’t really necessary,” Reasonable Pete says. “Your old camera still does the job”.
“Yes,” Evil Pete says, “yes, but think of the photos you could get in really dim light”.
And there it is: “Yes but”—the defining phrase of the tendentious.
“Yes, but what are you going to do with those photos?” Reasonable Pete counters. “You can still get them with the old camera—they’ll just have a bit more noise”.
“Yes but,” Evil Pete says, “yes, but you’ll be able to crop more heavily with all those additional megapixels. Go on, you know you want it”.
And you’d get it if you thought you wouldn’t have to buy food and pay rent and get the car and your teeth fixed and never wanted to visit India again.


Rain, the forecasters say; rain by tomorrow afternoon, but the sky over the western hills burns the bellies of the clouds crimson and orange. Up No. 2 Line a few hours ago the light seemed to have been sucked from the land and sky, leaving the world in a kind of apocalyptic gloom. Was it a glimpse of the future, rushing towards us while we quibble and bicker? One feels an overwhelming urge to say something profound about evenings like this but their defining characteristic is their power to insist there have been no other evenings like this: this is the moment the world changes forever.


How do you assess an argument; how do you know the convincing argument you’ve just heard really is as convincing as it sounds? Even if it’s logically flawless, the conclusion’s only true if all the premises are also true. What worries me is the frequencyJacket, inhabited with which I hear a convincing argument—logically correct, with believable premises—only to learn later that additional information would turn the conclusion upside down. Making the wearing of bicycle helmets compulsory seems like a good way to reduce the costs associated with bicycle accidents: costs like hospital treatment, rehabilitation and time off work. Then someone points out that because such a law would discourage cycling, it would actually be more costly—perhaps greatly so. In this example, the researcher and the proponents of compulsory helmet-wearing continue to argue. Who's right? How do you decide?
And what about your own logic? You explore an idea and arrive at a surprising—perhaps unpalatable—conclusion. How do you decide whether the conclusion is right or your reasoning wrong?


The air's alive with aphids, the tiny insects spattering the arms and shoulders of the jacket and tapping against my sunglasses, which are needed not because of the sun—there's none to be seen—but because I don't want corneas studded with small corpses, don't want eyeballs like pomanders. The tiny insects embed themselves in my eyebrows and beard as I bike, tight-lipped, breathing as much as possible through my nose to avoid inhaling insects. From experience, I know aphids in the alveoli are not to be recommended.


Rain, the forecasters say; fine, say the crimson clouds. Who will be right: the forecasters or the old wives?


Emma runs back to the house next door, yelling at me to wait. She returns soon after, clutching a small book which we inspect for words she might recognise while we sit swinging our legs in the late afternoon sun on the edge of the verandah.Autumn leaves and the daylight moon The sheep ignore us from a comfortable distance as they crop the grass. Her three-year-old brother yells and waves from beside the ute in the driveway, but evidently his mum and dad and the packing to leave are more interesting than the sedentary inspection of books, or his sister, or me. Emma's mum calls to her to come and pack her things. Emma rolls her eyes.
“Oh, no”, she says, in a perfectly adult-inflected, exasperated voice, and turns back to the book.
The sun burns, hot and glaring, through brown and gold leaves on the far side of the paddock at the terrace edge; it stretches over the oblivious sheep and directly onto the man and the small girl sitting on the edge of the verandah, swinging their legs and searching for words.


What to do, what to do? What should I think about buying cheap Chinese goods? What should I think of the idea that economic salvation lies in increasing consumption? Intuition tells me to buy less, thus avoiding the first question and denying the answer implicit in the second—but intuition, the rationalists tell us, is not to be trusted. On the other hand, logical analysis seems to mire us in never-ending argument. Perhaps these difficulties are inescapable? However, while the retreat into scepticism—the idea that we can know nothing—might have been a solution for Pyrrho, for me it seems utterly impractical (besides, I remain Evening on the Ngamoko Range, looking east over the Pohangina headwaterssceptical whether Pyrrho was, in his day-to-day life, as sceptical as the anecdotes claim). In practice, in real life, questions suffuse our lives and, put simply, for a great many questions, we must decide.
So, what to do? Two things, perhaps. First—and this should be obvious to the point of being trivial— answering a question often doesn't matter. Not all questions are important enough to agonise over. The consequences of choosing the wrong flavour of icecream are never likely to be serious (parents of small children might disagree), but the consequences of switching jobs can be life-changing. Then, if any of the possible answers do strike you as important, ask yourself, “How likely is that particular outcome?”.
Risk: consequence, weighted by likelihood.


Second, think again about the question. What is it really asking? What problem does it try to solve? Too many questions are like that proverbial ladder leaning against the wrong wall: at the top you see the view but find you're looking the wrong way, or gazing into someone's rubbish dump. So, the second, and more important, suggestion.
If you think a question's worth thinking about in any depth, ask yourself the most important question: “Is this the right question?”.


This evening I can't decide how far to go, so I keep pedalling. Eventually I reach the end of the Line, where the world out west falls away into a blue, darkening haze of valleys and hills. Up north the mountains encircling the Oroua headwaters loom on the horizon, grey and tinged with blue and older than anything alive. Who knows what might have lived there, what strange animals trod forgotten forests? But one thing remains certain: those mountains will remain when we have gone; they will remain when the world has erased us; they will remain when all our questions, answered or not, have been forgotten.
Poplars above Te Awaoteatua Stream

Photos (click to enlarge them):
1. The Pohangina Valley and northern Manawatu hill country, looking north-west from No. 2 Line.
2. The bestower of jackets, on Kapiti Island last Sunday.
3. Harvest. Not mine.
4. Dawn, Good Friday, from the verandah.
5. The jacket.
6. Robinia leaves and the autumn moon half gone.
7. Evening on the Ngamoko Range.
8. Autumn poplars above Te Awaoteatua Stream.

Photos and words © 2009 Pete McGregor

17 February 2009

Forty percent of real life

Fly, vine, twine

A smell contains worlds.

This morning the kitchen smells of jasmine and sandalwood and lapsang souchong tea, smoke tinged with piney resin, a glimpse of a mountainside in a strange land, in a time alive in a stranger's deep memory. Old, crazy poets drinking alone in cloud forests, laughing at reflections in mountain streams, waiting to follow the fast flight of birds as they disappear around the mountain, beyond those great, mist-wreathed cliffs, on beyond knowledge into oblivion.

Outside, the quiet dawn smells of dry grass with the night still in it. Of deep summer, a promise of heat, a memory of years long gone, an old hare running through long dry grass over an empty skyline; yellowhammers rising from lichen-covered fence posts and slipping sideways on the wind, off towards some small peninsula bay Nor'wester over Godley Headwhere the surge heaves up mats of writhing kelp and smacks against old volcanic rock. Among the boulders on the small beach one finds a washed up float bleached almost white, a scrap of fishing net tangled in dried wrack, a cloud of shore flies rising from the shrivelled corpse of a kahawai. No one lives here and few visit. A sway-backed horse on an empty hill; a line of broken macrocarpas where sheep camp in the dust and cough in the night like old men with ruined lungs; where possums hack and hiss. At night, the gibbous moon shines on the sea and ghosts sleep on the shingle beach.

A smell contains worlds. I step into a pantry, into the smell of apples, and I'm eight again; a woman walks by on a Wellington street and a wisp of perfume wraps around the past and hauls up an ache I thought I'd released years ago.

Yet, for all its power to evoke and recall, it's the forgotten sense. You who read this do so using your vision; a few might listen with the aid of a text-to-speech program. What your computer can't do is deliver the smell of this kitchen or of the ground outside, damp from new rain. Nor, for that matter, can it convey the feel of the keys under my fingers and the humid warmth of that sub-tropical air on my skin ( a strange, complex system of fronts is swamping much of Aotearoa right now). Nor can I share over the Internet the utterly distinctive taste of that slice of watermelon, cold and crisp and sweet.

The number of our senses is disputed, but the traditional five will do for now. Five, and the Internet delivers two. Forty percent of real life? Perhaps. The detail could be disputed, but the point remains — life cannot be lived fully online.

I walk away from the computer, pick up an apple and go outside to sit on the verandah. Jimmy saunters over and brushes against my leg; I run a hand along his fur and it feels warm and soft beneath my palm. He puts his front paws on my knee and when I bend towards him he dabs his nose on mine — a momentary touch, a greeting. He smells of fresh hay. He licks my hand; Blue baler twineI feel the soft, rough tongue rasp my skin. The apple crunches crisp and juicy between my teeth.

I suppose one could argue books suffer the same sensory shortcomings as the Internet — even more, perhaps, because a book (generally speaking) utters no sound. Moreover, many books lack photos or other graphics; the reality those books attempt to convey relies on fewer senses than perhaps any other form of communication. Even vision, the only sense with which they reach out to us, reveals on the face of it a strange, complex pattern of black and white lines and arcs, a geometry from which we somehow make not mere sense, but meaning. How is it then, that the best books convey reality at least as adroitly and often better than media that offer more sensation?

Perhaps books achieve this by forcing us to engage imagination. With no real sensory input we must turn to our own experience, our knowledge of our senses — what it's like to drink lapsang souchong tea on a humid, misty morning or stroke a cat. What an apple tastes like; or a slice of cold watermelon. Show us those things in a photo and we relax, we let vision take over, but if we could do that with a book, “watermelon” and “cat” would be hieroglyphics. Having learned to read, we automatically imagine the melon and the cat; the words instantly invoke our imagination, which responds and creates the objects.

I overstate the case, of course. Exceptions can be found — for example, powerful films rely strongly on vision and sound, and can transport and transform us; and books, no matter how strongly they conjure worlds, are no more real life than is the virtual reality of some regions of the Internet — but here's my challenge. Find a photo you like and try to smell it. Touch it. If you're game and don't mind ruining your monitor, you could even try tasting it. I guarantee none of those sensations will correspond to the smell, feel, or taste of what you see in the photo.

So, just for a while, step away from that screen. Remember this when you're reading that book, and close it (mark the page, though). Then make a cup of tea (real tea with leaves), or stroke the cat (or pat the dog) or step outside, or do the whole damn lot, and pay attention to all your senses.

Particularly the sixty percent you've just been neglecting.

Red deer

Writing seems to have been particularly difficult lately. However, I have no intention of giving up.
Photos (click to enlarge them):
1. Vine and twine; textures from a garden fence.
2. Nor'wester over Godley Head, Banks Peninsula, Canterbury. January 2009.
3. More selective vision from the same garden.
4. Deer have poor vision, although they're good at detecting movement. Their hearing, however, is phenomenal, and their sense of smell is beyond comprehension. While walking to mid Pohangina hut on the first day of the whio survey just before last Christmas, I heard something moving in the forest. I stayed perfectly still and waited, knowing the wind was blowing from the sound towards me. A hind stepped out of the bush, browsed slowly past me and wandered off up the track. I paced out the distance. She'd walked within ten metres of me. If the wind had been going the other way, she'd have known I was there if I'd been a kilometre away. [These are captive deer; one of the delights of living here.]

Photos and words © 2009 Pete McGregor