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