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


Maureen said...

Thanks for taking us along on your rock quest. It was, as usual, a treat to read. Here in Montana the days grow shorter and we enter Autumn. And with it's arrival I am now sick and bundled up against the morning chill of 32F. Your blog continues to enchant and inspire me. Thanks Pete.

Anne-Marie said...

That flatworm gives me the heebie-geebies; I wouldn't want to meet one at close quarters. I like the pictures of the slaters and the worms though.

There is some thing very eerie about the Waitotara estuary. It seems like a place where much has happened in the past and now nothing happens. It has a feel to it not unlike Earthquake Bay.

Your words capture that lovely day so beautifully.

pohanginapete said...

Maureen, thanks. I'm sorry to hear you're under the weather — I had a week or two with a cold recently and it wasn't much fun. At least I had warmer weather to look forward to, though. Best wishes for a quick recovery :^)

Anne-Marie, I agree entirely about the Waitotara estuary (at least what I saw), particularly now I've visited Earthquake Bay. I love places like those — places that seem to exist in their own time. "Eerie" describes it well, although for me there's nothing sinister about the feeling — it feels more as if I'm either irrelevant or simply acknowledged as one who appreciates and respects those places. And thanks: I'm glad you feel the words did it justice :^)

Ruahines said...

Kia ora Pete,
What a lovely day! Thanks to your prior post I took a gaggle of young boys to the Sledge track for a bit of Rock Flipping, and though we did not turn up much we had a great time.
Those frosty spring mornings make getting out of a warm bed a bit harder, but usually worth it with the day that lies ahead.

Avus said...

I have often wondered about your last sentence too, Pete. Let's hope that no large "Monty Python" hand reaches down to flip Earth over!

pohanginapete said...

Kia ora Robb: congratulations for showing the young ones what it's all about. Glad it was such a good day for it. :^)

Avus, it could be worse — it might be the Monty Python foot ;^)

Dave Ingram said...

Great reading and wonderful photographs - this was my first visit to your blog via IRFD. Powerful last sentence - it's amazing how much is missed if we keep the blinders of our daily "life" on.

Bob McKerrow - Wayfarer said...

Dear Pete

I am still recovering from a strained back after trying to lift a huge rock on Sunday. But it was worth it, young Mahdi my six year old son found some ants and played gently with them for quite a while. A squirrel ran up the limb of a tree next to us, so thanks for waking us up to something new.


pohanginapete said...

Dave, thanks for visiting and for your generous comment. It's always good to hear from people who appreciate these kinds of things.

Bob, sorry about the back, but I'm glad you and Mahdi found it worthwhile. Sadly, we had no small children with us, so we (I at least) had to adopt the small child mindset. It seemed disconcertingly easy!

Lené Gary said...

It's so nice to pop over and read your work tonight. I've missed it, and I realized how much so when I was enjoying the way you seamlessly meld photos and words. :) I especially like your line " . . . memories from a hundred years into the future" -- it created a vacancy I didn't expect. Very nice. I hope my note finds you well. :) Smiles, lené

pohanginapete said...

Lené, welcome back, and thanks for the lovely comment. I'm pleased you liked that line about memories from the future — great to know it's appreciated.

Brenda Schmidt said...

What wonderful finds!

pohanginapete said...

Brenda, they might be commonplace, but they are indeed wonderful when one takes the time to look closely.

Don't Feed The Pixies said...

Again apologies - because i could have sworn i'd left a comment here.

I love your analogy as to how great and important we think we are. No doubt an Earwig thinks of itself as being the centre of the world it knows - i often wonder about my cats and how they can possibly know that the big metal shape approaching contains me and what they make of it

But in the general scheme of things we are not even as big, nor as important as the creatures you found under the rock...and i don't think it does us any harm to remember this from time to time.

pohanginapete said...

No worries, Hungry Pixies — no one should feel obliged to comment here!

You're right about our insignificance. I'm often reminded of that when I see yet another spectacular photo from the Hubble telescope with the observation that the distance across the gas cloud or nebula or whatever is so many hundreds of thousands of light years. Kind of puts us in our place.

michael.offworld said...

I really enjoyed this.

pohanginapete said...

Thanks Michael — very pleased. :^)

Barbara Butler McCoy said...

This slipped under my radar, I'm sorry to say, as I was out of town sans laptop (I'm a subversive gal, no ;-0) when you posted it. Your description of the geography you visited reminds me of the Pacific Northwest near Sequim (pronounced Skwim) and the Hoh Rainforest. How many times I've wondered at the myriad 'worlds' too many of us ignore, some much more elegant than ours ...

pohanginapete said...

Thanks Barbara. The realisation that those myriad worlds are being homogenised — sometimes slowly, often rapidly — strikes me as being enormously sad. Everything from communities (natural and human) and ecosystems to languages; diversity might actually increase, but if it's similar diversity everywhere, the world would be far less fascinating. It would be a sad day if I turned over a rock in a different country and recognised most of the lives as the same as those under a rock in Aotearoa.

Lydia said...

Catching up here. I kept seeing the title of this post in my blogroll last week and was intrigued. Wow. It's a great post and packs such a wallop at the end.

Love the doggie photos, too.

pohanginapete said...

Thanks Lydia :^) Endings are important, I think, so it's good to hear this had an impact for you.

Lydia said...

Beginnings are important, too. My college writing teacher was a stickler for the first sentence. You have a perfect one here, most definitely.
I had such appreciation for this post that I linked to it in my sidebar at the "Voltaire's Quote" box. :)

pohanginapete said...

Lydia — thanks! I'm honoured. I agree about the importance of beginnings, too :^)

Di said...

I was so surprised to find the photographs interesting, as opposed to 'ohmygod, icky!

Reads like a lovely day.

pohanginapete said...

Di, I'm sure I could post a few 'ohmygod, icky!' photos. Maybe next year ;^)