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