22 December 2010

The lives of magpies and others

Birdling's Flat, Canterbury, Aotearoa; March 2008

A magpie flies low and fast across the paddock, through the early morning sunlight, crosses close to the verandah and disappears. I don’t know where it lands, but I can hear the harsh, demanding call of its youngster somewhere nearby. Those magpies have invested a lot in that lanky, scruffy kid. For weeks now the family’s been foraging in the front paddock, and before that the parents would have been feeding the chick in the nest; before that, incubating; before that, nest-building. What else do they do with their lives? When do they finally push the youngster away — when they’re about to start the process all over again?

Is that all there is to a magpie’s life? The irresistible imperative to reproduce, to replace itself? To what extent might it be said that a magpie thinks, rather than responds to some kind of inchoate urge — the wordless voice that says this is what I must do, feed the child, protect it, ensure its survival until it, too, might reproduce?

A month or so ago I walked down the short distance down the road to Tokeawa Stream. I counted the crushed remains of three fledgling magpies on the tarmac, and the enormity of what those flattened forms represented struck me hard. All that effort, wasted. All that potential, gone — none of those three would ever know the joy of harassing hawks (I anthropomorphise, I admit); none would ever know the delicious warmth of morning sun after a cold winter’s night, the brief ecstasy of mating, the appeasement of that urge to raise one’s own young.

In a sense, though, those deaths were necessary, or the world would be overrun by magpies. Still, ... I wonder... One can argue whether what’s good for the many outweighs what’s good for the one, but what’s irrefutable is that the two are sometimes irreconcilable.

I sit here, writing at the kitchen table, thinking about magpies and the lives of animals. A kahu flies with slow wingbeats over the corner of the paddock; the early, warm sun lights its body and the underside of its wings. Pohangina Valley, December 2010 A pale, faded blue sky behind; the tough, sparsely-leafed branches of the lacebark below. A tui sprints across in the other direction, fast and noisy, and two swallows swoop and jink close to the house. Several starling families forage in the thin paddock where the wiry seedheads of ryegrass and the bolting Californian thistle patch signify the arrival of summer. The starlings move restlessly with that typical jerky movement and those sudden changes of direction as if they’re constantly distracted by another morsel: that one, just over there — or maybe there! Like magpies, their young have calls that could hardly be described as complex, let alone melodious, and I wonder whether all young birds have that same characteristic — they need only one call: “Feed me!” — and whether or to what extent they learn their adult songs or discover their ability to sing. Moreover, to what extent are these birds, or any animal for that matter, aware of their own imperatives beyond the urge to answer them?
I wonder — perhaps the characteristic that most sets we humans apart from all other animals is the awareness of our own thoughts, which in turn enables us to wonder. If so, perhaps Salman Rushdie got it right when he argued that doubt is a central condition of human beings, and perhaps conviction and self-assurance might not be the virtues they’re so often claimed to be.
I wonder about awareness in the lives of magpies and others.
I wonder — is it a blessing or a curse?

Photos and original text © 2010 Pete McGregor

27 November 2010

Let us bring them home

Elsewhere on the West Coast. Typical country, typical weather.

Last Friday evening as I was driving to meet friends, the radio reported an explosion at the Pike River coal mine on the West Coast. While the news seemed disturbing I didn’t comprehend its significance — after all, mining accidents on any substantial scale didn’t happen in New Zealand, they happened in China or other countries with lax industrial safety, didn’t they? Even when I heard twenty-nine miners hadn’t returned to the surface, I didn’t imagine what would eventuate over the next week. Rescuers would locate the miners and bring them out, I thought, and all would be well except for the inevitable inquiries and politicking.

Now we know. Now we know the outcome was the worst of all outcomes. Now we know twenty-nine men will never again walk in the sun, never again see their children, their partners, their friends; never again yarn at the pub over a beer, never again walk in the bush or fish in the rivers, never again see the evening sun light up the great peaks of the Southern Alps. I still find it hard to believe, and although I have no direct or even lateral connection with the community to which those twenty-nine miners belong, I still feel something of the enormity of the loss. I’m suspicious of large-scale grieving, which seems to me too often to feed on itself and generate an outwelling of emotion at least partly independent of its ostensible reason, yet what I feel seems to be grief — nothing remotely as agonising as that felt by the families and friends of those miners, of course, but grief nevertheless.

The first explosion happened on the Friday afternoon. The following Wednesday I walked up the No. 1 Line track, through the bush to the lookout. The sun shone, a mild breeze rustled through the scrub, a few blowflies droned between sunlit perches. Fire Other small insects darted or fumbled about and a riroriro sang from further down the track. I thought of the miners trapped several kilometres underground in the dark and sweltering heat, and I hoped they’d managed to find air somewhere, enough to keep them going. But the thought seemed desperate. That morning I’d heard how the rescuers had drilled through into the mine and the gases they’d found had been mostly methane and carbon monoxide, with little oxygen. I think I realised then that the optimism I’d been feeling was mere hope and nothing more. The mine, apparently, was still smouldering, consuming oxygen, generating carbon monoxide, waiting until the methane built up so it could ignite another explosion. I thought of what it must be like down there and it seemed like Hell.

As I made my way down the track I kept thinking not just of the twenty-nine miners, but the mine itself. In my imagination it seemed alive; it had taken on a kind of personality — sinister, not to be trusted, uncontrollable. Malevolent. These miners are mine, it seemed to be saying; I will not give them up, I will not let you in.

Ill-formed images arose, perhaps from the previous night’s dreams, perhaps from the shadowlands between sleeping and waking when I’d turned the radio on and drifted in and out of dark dreams while news bulletins repeated the latest news from the mine, over and over and over. Now I picked my way down the steep track, through a patchwork of shade and sunlight; I looked out over the blue-hazed rolling hills of the Manawatu and Rangitikei and the thought of those men trapped inside a mountain seemed a contrast too great to comprehend. A week earlier, some of them might have enjoyed the same kind of freedom I was enjoying now.

Back home later in the afternoon, I switched on the TV. Breaking news, it said. Second explosion at mine. Then — All hope gone. I sat on the sofa and watched and listened while the reporters repeated everything in detail, trying to find something additional, but there was nothing more to say of any significance. The twenty-nine miners were gone and now nothing could bring them back.

But the mine hadn’t finished. Yesterday a minute’s silence was to have been observed at 3:44 p.m., exactly one week since the first explosion that trapped the miners. In what seemed an act of malevolence, the mine exploded again yesterday — a smaller explosion than the first two, but the timing seemed to be the work of something sentient. The third explosion tore through the mine just five minutes before the observance, at 3:39 p.m.

I felt like standing in front of the mine and pleading with it. Saying, “You've hurt us enough. Please — let us bring them home.”

Photos (please note these have no direct connection with Pike River):
1. The Mungo Valley on the West Coast of the South Island. Typical country, typical weather.
2. After the big slip in Te Awaoteatua Stream almost a year ago, someone decided to burn the piles of logs and fallen trees. I don’t know why they just weren't left to rot down, although I suspect it had something to do with the kiwi bloke's common desire to set a match to anything considered marginally untidy. A relic of pioneering days, perhaps? Whatever the reason, after the initial conflagration the remains smouldered for days. 

Photos and original text © 2010 Pete McGregor

31 October 2010

Eardrum of a lion

A few days ago I finished reading Colin Thubron’s Behind the Wall for the second time, and began re-reading Bruce Chatwin’s In Patagonia. Yesterday, in one of those peculiar coincidences that leave one wondering whether synchronicity amounts to more than mere peculiar coincidence, I came across William Dalrymple’s review of Under the sun: the letters of Bruce Chatwin. Fascinated, and drawn in by Dalrymple’s excellent writing, I read the whole thing and noted several passages that stood out for various reasons — for example, Chatwin’s assertion that, “The function of an artist is to work for a) himself b) to leave something memorable, for the future, to shore up the ruins”, caused me to wonder whether “shore up the ruins” reflected an idea similar to that underlying The Ruins of the Moment.[1]

But one quotation struck me with a particular force. In a note to his wife Elizabeth, Chatwin mentions a consignment containing “...a number of highly precious possessions, including a dried chameleon and the eardrum of a lion”.

Although never intended for publication, that phrase seems to me to sum up much of the quality of Chatwin’s writing — the eccentric, particular noticing that recognises the importance of seemingly random and insignificant things; the awareness of the artefacts, qualities and ostensibly peripheral things that give places their substance and moments their flavour.

The phrase keeps working on me. Driving back from town early yesterday afternoon I kept thinking about the last sounds heard by that eardrum. The drip of blood from the body it shared onto the dusty ground? The gurgle of its ruined lungs? The approaching footsteps then the momentary explosion of sound before the silence of oblivion? I thought about all the sounds heard by that eardrum: the rasp of a mother lion’s tongue on a cub’s fur — the fur on its shared body? The giggling of gathering hyaenas; the roaring at night across savannah; the strangled choking of an impala as its eyes fail; the crack of bone and the knock of a dead dragged hoof against a miombo trunk? All that history, all those sounds, gone.

Who would remove and save the eardrum of a lion, and for what purpose?

The best purpose for the eardrum of a lion is indisputably to allow a lion, alive and wild, to hear. Everything else is at best ancillary. But perhaps, among all those ancillary purposes for this eardrum, the best is to have allowed Chatwin to recognise its significance so those who read his phrase could remember and wonder — not just about Chatwin, but a particular, now immortal lion.


1. I did find it curious that Dalrymple quoted several features of the book that had been noted almost two months earlier in a shorter review by Olivia Lang in The New Statesman. (Dalrymple's review was published on 27 October; Lang's had been published on 7 September.) Coincidence? Cryptomnesia? Or were these the only stand-outs in an otherwise humdrum miscellania?

1. This lioness was one of two hunting an impala at night in South Luangwa National Park, Zambia. She walked by our open jeep, so close she seemed almost within arm's reach.
2. My copies of the books.

Photos and original text © 2010 Pete McGregor

27 October 2010

The meaning of hawks and apples

The old apple tree grows more beautiful each day, its petals still tinged with pink as it approaches the peak of its flowering. On mornings like this, the light flat and grey, hazy with misty drizzle, the colours become more apparent yet they still retain a refined, subtle elegance, so different from the brash spectacular show of the same tree lit by sunlight against the dark hills, yet no less affecting. Yesterday a pale kahu cruised low over the edge of the terrace behind the apple; it banked steeply, dropping down to land out of sight in the channel of the old, abandoned road. The pale bird echoed the pale flowers; the coincidence of colour seemed no coincidence at all, as if through some ineffable communication bird and tree had conspired to reward me simply for noticing.

Many rationalists would rubbish this, I suspect. Coincidence and nothing more, they'd say; this talk of trees and birds conspiring is at best metaphor but more likely nonsense. I wonder. Of course they don't conspire (but note I said "as if" they conspired); however, to dismiss the metaphor as meaningless nonsense seems, well, irrational. I'm far from an expert on Wittgenstein, but when he said, "Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must pass over in silence," [1] I'm pretty sure he wasn't saying everything that can't be expressed in words is meaningless, but that words — language, in other words — can't express everything meaningful.

Language does not merely describe and explain: it evokes, and sometimes the point of saying something is precisely to evoke a feeling rather than explain an event. Something heard (or read) can be felt as much as logically understood, and sometimes what's heard or read can be felt more than it can be logically understood. I’m no expert on T.S. Eliot, either, but this, I think, is what he meant when he coined the phrase "objective correlative". Moreover, feeling, in the sense of intuition or emotional response, and logic aren't mutually exclusive: both are approaches to understanding.

But I suspect the most important point is that meaning probably isn't inherent in any event; instead, it's conferred on the event by the observer or participant. As far as I’m aware, humans are the only animals able to invest an event with meaning [2]; perhaps, therefore, an important part of being human consists in the creation of meaning, and one of the functions of meaning is to engender respect and appreciation.

Meaning, too, cannot always be explained, even in theory — in fact, I suspect we understand the meaning of many events intuitively, and the attempt to explain what something means destroys the meaning. I've long noticed my own aversion to hearing someone say of a poem, "But what does it mean?" — a question that for most good poems is usually the least useful, most inappropriate question one could ask; a question second in pointlessness and potential destructiveness only to an attempt to answer it. As the poet Archibald MacLeish said so succinctly (and to my ear, unpoetically), “A poem should not mean/But be”.

So, I don't doubt the pale hawk circling the flowering apple on that grey morning had some kind of powerful meaning, but it too remains as ineffable as the metaphorical communication I alluded to. I can respect and appreciate it, but I can't explain it — certainly not in words. Forgive me for not passing over it in silence.

[1] Proposition 7 of Wittgenstein's Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus.
[2] ...which might mean our understanding of the concept of meaning is as poor as our understanding of the consciousness of animals.

1.Evening in the valley, from the edge of the terrace. 26 October 2010.
2. Adventitious shoots on one of the old poplars near the edge of the terrace.
3. A kahu's always somewhere nearby — not in this photo, but perhaps that's how it should be.

Photos and original text © 2009 Pete McGregor

18 October 2010

Beating the beast of procrastination in 666 days

The fire of change

Procrastination seems to be occupying my attention lately, not because I'm doing it more than usual — in fact, since beginning this post I've been better than usual at putting off procrastination — but because I've been wondering why I find it so difficult to overcome. The renewed interest arose partly from reading James Surowiecki’s article about procrastination in the New Yorker, but also because lately I've been trying harder to get important things done, promptly. I've also been motivated by disgust with myself over occasional wasted days (like the day before I began this post, when all I accomplished from my long list was to mail my local government voting paper — at the last minute, of course); so disgusted, in fact, that I've felt motivated to prove I'm actually not as hopeless as those days suggest. I've also been intrigued by a recent article about psychologist Ellen Langer, who describes herself as an "anticrastinator" and whose main thesis seems to focus on how mindset influences not just behaviour, but physical change.

That struck a chord with me. The suggestion that thoughts affect physiology as well as behaviour doesn't sound novel, but when she first proposed it she apparently met huge opposition — and still does from some quarters, probably with some justification given the problems with her modus operandi. But the essence of her argument has been said before, for thousands of years; it's been said by people like Buddha, Jesus, Marcus Aurelius, Kierkegaard, Gandhi and many other famous and sometimes wise people. In short — actually, in Buddha's words [1] — we are what we think; the corollary is that if we change what we think, we change who we are. If I think of myself as a procrastinator, I become a procrastinator (if I'm not already); if I think of myself as efficient, effective and productive, I become efficient, effective and productive. That’s the theory.

The problem is that the effect also works the other way: if I procrastinate, I think of myself as a procrastinator; the process is cyclical. As any procrastinator will confirm, it's also difficult to break the cycle. Pigeons at the Jama Masjid in New Delhi, November 2007Merely thinking of myself as efficient, effective and productive won't immediately effect the desired change, nor will just a few days of efficient, effective and productive behaviour. Ingrained patterns of thought and behaviour need persistent effort to change. Conversely, and ironically, the encouraging thought is identical: the process is cyclical, so working on thoughts and actions provides positive feedback — if I work well today this confirms my belief I work well, and if I believe I work well I'm more likely to to work well today.

It sounds easy, but it's not (ask the procrastinator). Procrastination's a habit, and recent research suggests the average time to form a simple habit is slightly more than two months (66 days, apparently). That's two months of near-daily practice. I suspect more complex habits take longer to form, and those that require changing an existing, complex habit will take even longer — given their intransigence, I suspect the average for changing these tasks will turn out to be 666 days. Procrastination’s that kind of beast.

So, I began thinking about how I might change from a chronic procrastinator to someone who gets the important things done — someone who seems comfortably on top of things. Two things seemed important, perhaps essential, for overcoming procrastination in the long term: to start small and to persist, because persistence is necessary and starting small makes persistence more likely. More specifically, I decided to work on five things:
  1. Replacing negative self-talk. I find it easy to lapse into thinking, "Here I go, procrastinating again," so when I catch myself thinking that, I replace it with a pre-prepared phrase —  currently, "I'm getting better at getting things done."
  2. Initially, completing just one important but comfortably achievable task a day.[2] After practising what I'm preaching, I've realised the important point is that the task should be something I don't have to do. For example, I'd booked an eye examination, so all I had to do was turn up for it; I could easily have procrastinated on booking the appointment, but making sure I turned up for it was largely out of my control; procrastination wasn't an issue. In short, I need to do things that could comfortably be delayed. The point at this stage is to succeed: succeeding when the tasks are difficult or unpleasant can come later, when I’m (even) better.
  3. Not worrying if I bomb out occasionally — the recent research mentioned above showed occasionally missing a day's practice, or even two days in a row, seemed not to affect the forming of the habit.
  4. Keeping a simple tally of how many days in a row I've succeeded. The sight of a long row of ticks, with only an occasional gap, must surely help confirm my belief I’m getting better at getting things done.
  5. Putting into practice the adage that the best form of self-control is to put yourself in a situation where self-control isn't necessary. I've forgotten where I read that recently, but it's brilliant — possibly the single most effective piece of advice I've heard on overcoming procrastination. When computer work’s involved, the obvious example is to disconnect from the Internet; the problem is the ease with which one can reconnect. Switching off the wireless adapter or modem isn't particularly effective because it's so easy to power them up again. The New Yorker article mentioned Freedom, a simple (cheap, not free) program that blocks Internet access for up to eight hours and requires a reboot to override, but I find working in the public library or a cafe, where I'd have to pay for a wireless connection, just as effective. At home, the temptation to check e-mail or look up a reference or simply visit a favourite blog or website can be much harder to resist, which is one of the reasons I like to write by hand, with a pen on paper, first thing in the morning. I don't turn the computer on until the writing's done. (That, at least, has become a habit).

But one of the best ways I've found to avoid the need for self-control is simply to set an alarm. I'd been procrastinating on an editing contract recently, but finally finished it in four hour-long sessions by setting an alarm to signal the start of each session. I set a warning alarm for 5–10 minutes beforehand, with the message, "Wrap up what you're doing".[3] Why did this work so well? My guess is that it provided an external imperative rather than requiring me to make a decision at the time; in other words, I'd already made the decision earlier, when it's easier to make these kinds of decisions (the New Yorker article explains that it's called "hyperbolic discounting", but it could be called "beans on toast" for all I care — the point is that it works). To have ignored the alarm would have taken a conscious decision on my part to sabotage my predetermined intention to start working. The warning alarm helped by disabling the excuse "I just need to finish this first" — as we know, those wrappings-up have a remarkable ability to turn into extended explorations of something we hadn't intended to explore. Instead, the warning gave me a short, predefined period to complete what I was doing. I found it enlightening to discover how quickly I could finish scanning my RSS feeds when I knew I had to start editing within five minutes.

So, this is my plan for turning myself from a procrastinator into a paragon of effectiveness, or at least into less of a hopeless case. Could these suggestions work for you? I don't know. They seem to make sense to me, they seem to be working for me, and they're backed by evidence, but I can't guarantee they'll work for anyone else. Moreover, I don't even know if they'll eventually work even for me — I'm still a long way short of even 66 days — but at least I've made a start. For an ex-procrastinator, that's a mighty big deal.

1. “We are what we think. All that we are arises from our thoughts. With our thoughts we make the world.” Gautama Buddha, on Wikiquote, retrieved 18 October 2010. 
2. Finishing this post was my task for today. It's by no means the only thing I'll be doing, but anything else is extra.
3. I'm currently using the free version of TimeLeft, which only allows one alarm at a time (the paid version allows more). It's good enough for me; a bit fiddly to set up, but the warning alarm makes it worthwhile.

1. In the Lotus Sutra’s Parable of the Burning House,  the house represents our day-to-day world; the fire, suffering. Escape from the burning house can be achieved. But a burning house, one of the most affecting of sights, can be seen as a metaphor in many other ways. (This was a local farmer’s way of dealing with a derelict house on his property, two years ago almost to the day).
2. As far as I know, pigeons and other animals don’t procrastinate. (At the Jama Masjid in New Delhi, just short of three years ago. A lot of water under the bridge since then.)
3. This clock is older than me. It’s right twice a day. Sometimes I’d be happy with an average as good as that.

Photos and original text © 2009 Pete McGregor

26 September 2010

The Spring wind

Clearing after the flood

Outside in the dark as the rain eases and stops, a sheep coughs. The barking has a note of desperation, as if the sheep's lungs have been choked with worms and the poor creature will asphyxiate if it fails to cough them up. As I listen I feel my own lungs beginning to wither and fail and I feel, too, the frightened sheep's sense of its own mortality.

This, of course, is my own fear projected onto the sheep, which, having coughed enough, begins to scratch itself on a verandah pile. Already, it has probably forgotten its fit of hacking.


The first stag cast both antlers nine days ago; today the other stag cast his. Without antlers the big animals seem odd, out of proportion, as if all that powerful body seems pointless, casting about for a purpose long gone. Already they'll be starting to grow new sets so six months from now, crowned once again, they can fight over the hinds.

The futility of this seems absurd, yet, in a sense, this is all there is — fail in the competition to leave progeny and you might as well never have existed. Perhaps this is why we, the evolutionary dead ends, the dinosaurs, write so desperately: so we won't be forgotten, so we might influence the world in which we will no longer live, so something of us might survive.


A cold wind knocks pink and white petals from the magnolia, scatters white clouds across a blue sky, piles them up over the ranges. Winter's casualties continue their slow collapse — one hind, skin stretched and cracking over disarticulating bones; a ewe or two sinking into the wriggling ground; somewhere the old cat in a place only he knows.

But the tree lucerne bustles with tauhou and the low roar of feeding bees. I walk on, down through the cutting, looking out over the valley, down to Te Awaoteatua Stream, its grey-trunked poplars already hung with yellow-green catkins. At the bridge I lean over the parapet and stare at the swift, shallow water. I think of Pooh sticks, but it's pointless now. I walk on, further than I'd intended; I walk on because my legs keep carrying me down the road in the pale, silvery light and cold wind; I walk on because I can't stop, can't make the decision to turn around. I want to walk on forever, out of the world.

But I stop at Tokeawa Stream and lean over again, gazing at the water rushing white over algal-brown boulders. I look down, remembering, and the water begins to mutter questions I can't quite make out.

After a long time I begin walking back up the quiet road.

1. Various hypotheses have been proposed for the function of antlers (see Clutton-Brock, T. H. (1982). The functions of antlers. Behaviour, 79(2/4), 108–125), but why do red deer retain their antlers throughout the winter, i.e. for 4–5 months after the roar (rut; breeding/fighting season)?
2.Tree lucerne — tagasaste, Chamaecytisus palmensis.
3. Tauhou — the silvereye, Zosterops lateralis

1. Boulders, Te Awaoteatua Stream.
2. Te Awaoteatua Stream running high after rain. "What might have been is an abstraction/Remaining a perpetual possibility/Only in a world of speculation." — T.S. Eliot, Four Quartets: Burnt Norton.

Photos and original text © 2010 Pete McGregor

15 September 2010

Wild lives matter

A few nights ago I watched an episode of the Australian program Outback Wildlife Rescue, in which one of the events centred on an operation to remedy the deformed tail of a young eastern grey kangaroo. The program pointed out that Australia has about 50 million kangaroos and I recalled how in some areas they're considered pests and professional shooters make a living killing them. The cost of fixing the tail of this young animal must have been enormous, even if the vet and his staff donated their time (I don't know how the centre's funded — probably from donations and grants?), and I found myself asking the inevitable question: "Why spend so much effort rescuing one kangaroo?" Surely the most sensible and practical option would have been to euthanase the kangaroo?

Then I started thinking harder, and some benefits of this huge effort became apparent.

First, the operation wasn't standard: not only had the vet never attempted it before, it's unlikely anyone had, and he had to work out much of what he had to do as he went along. The benefits are that the vet developed his skills and also added to the fund of knowledge about these kinds of operations — not just fixing kangaroos' tails, but operations on the tails of other animals, operations to correct the shape and position of vertebrae and other bones, operations to correct muscular imbalances and so on. Once we've repeated a procedure of any sort more than a few times, we learn better not by repeating the same procedure over and over, but by carrying out similar but not identical procedures. It's like rock climbing — once you know the sequence of moves, repeated ascents of the same climb don't improve your skills as much as working out the sequence of moves on other, different but similar climbs.

Another argument is that if we simply euthanased all injured kangaroos we wouldn't develop the same degree of knowledge about how to treat injured kangaroos when an important need arises — say, for example, when the marsupial star of a wildlife park falls lame. Moreover, as I've already pointed out, much of that knowledge will be transferable to other animals and, I suppose, in theory to humans, although I don't know the extent to which that kind of cross-over occurs (that knowledge comes far more from deliberate experiments on animals — and that, in the context of this discussion, is both acutely ironic and an entirely different, ethical issue).

But these arguments are practical, and although they're persuasive, the most compelling argument for me is simply that those seemingly extraordinary efforts to save the lives of common wild animals remind us that it's not just human lives that have value — and by "lives", I mean individual lives, not just species. This might be difficult to justify logically — the argument is not about instrumental value (how useful that life is to us) but about intrinsic value (the life is valuable simply because it's a life), which is inordinately difficult to "prove" — but logic is beside the point. We understand the true value of other lives not by being convinced through logical argument, but through that slightly choked-up feeling we get when we see a hawksbill turtle, successfully treated for pneumonia after swallowing a plastic bag, released into the ocean and swimming out to sea; when we see a kite, brought back to health after being rescued from a snare, finally flying off into the Australian outback; or when we see a young eastern grey kangaroo beginning to use its tail normally after ground-breaking surgery. We know these lives are vital not because we've been convinced by argument: we know it because our empathy leaves no doubt.

1.Bushbuck (Tragelaphus scriptus), Nyika Plateau, Malawi.

Photo and original text © 2010 Pete McGregor

06 September 2010

Last days

It's been a rough month. Ming slept all day on the verandah seats, curled or crouched on the old folded sheet I'd arranged as a nest for him; something more comfortable than the vinyl upholstery. He kept half-standing, turning slowly and settling down, constantly searching for a better position. I put a bowl of biscuits and another of water near him; he ate a few biscuits and lapped a little water then curled up again.

I sat next to him several times during the day when the sun broke through. I sipped tea and tried to understand what it meant to sit next to Ming during what might be the last hours of his life, what it would mean to sit there in the days that followed, looking at the world, the lambs lying on green grass, white clouds in a blue sky, plum blossoms profuse on the tree next to the dog kennels, tui fighting in the poplars, a korimako calling from the Grevillea next door — looking at the world and knowing Ming was no longer part of it. Yeah, sure, he'll still be here, re-entering it in a different form, as diffuse processes, as memory — but all that wise, enlightened bullshit can't compensate for his actual absence, the joy of hearing rustling in the kitchen and finding him with his head shoved in the rubbish, trying to hook out some morsel; can't compensate for the yowls of protest when I took his dead rat from him (in case it had a sublethal dose of poison); can't compensate for his selective deafness when told off. We know the world mostly through our senses — even our ability to imagine arises from what we've learned from our senses — and the loss of something, or someone, we can see and hear and touch is bearable only insofar as we can rationalise the loss. For those we love, this seems impossible. I have no idea how we manage it.

I sit next to him in the Spring sun, sipping tea and gazing out over the paddock, sensing his slow breathing. A kahu circles, calling. It's been a rough month, and it's a long way from over. Every time I blink the world seems to go slightly blurry. 

Photo: Ming in better times

Update (12 September 2010): Ming has not been seen since early last week. The conclusion is inevitable.

Photos and original text © 2010 Pete McGregor

28 July 2010

Being a bird

Outside in the dim light of another grey, damp dawn, the tui sings — or calls. What's the difference between singing and calling? As I wonder about this, the korimako calls — and that seems the appropriate word for the scolding, the slightly harsh "yak yak yak yak" which I assume (perhaps wrongly) is an alarm call. But I also hear a riroriro singing, and that, too, seems the unassailably correct word — melodious, easy on the ear, with a complex, definite structure in which each note seems to follow naturally from its predecessor.

This, of course, is a human interpretation, but what does a bird hear when it hears another of its own species singing (or calling)? What if the singer and the listener belong to different species; what does the riroriro hear when it hears the tui's astonishingly complex vocalisation (there, I've found another term, one that subsumes singing and calling — a dry, scientific, apparently objective term, but a useful one)? The best we can do to answer these questions is to use a combination of science andI see you long, engaged observation to help us imagine the answers, recognising as we do that we can never truly know, that we can never hear like any bird even if our ears could capture precisely the same range of frequencies. Much of the time we guess wrong when we try to understand what one of our own species hears — a song, for example, or a sound in the night. I hear boring, toneless, puerile, repetitive chanting; you hear complex, clever, rhythmic insight into the modern condition. You hear unexplained footsteps; I hear the house releasing the heat of the day. Sometimes, admittedly, we claim to hear the same thing or, by some comment or gesture, suggest it, but always the inescapable truth remains: we are trapped inside ourselves.

I look up. The clouds in the west have turned pastel orange with a faint hint of mauve in the grey; blackbirds hop about the paddock and sparrows cheep (that, at least, is accurate — it's neither song nor call, and "vocalisation" tells us nothing about the quality of a sparrow's cheep). As I gaze outside, a kahu sails past, a long, low, even glide right across the window-framed view.

What is it like to be a kahu, a hawk on the morning wind?

; silvereye or waxeye (Zosterops lateralis).
2. Kereru (New Zealand pigeon; Hemiphaga novaeseelandiae).

Photos and original text © 2009 Pete McGregor

19 July 2010

Kahu (hawk)

By the north end of the Raumai bridge a kahu turns, banking towards the poplars and the coppicing willows. The sun lights up its outspread wings and the fan of its tail; against the shadow of the trees the wings and tail seem to glow as if illuminated from within their own feathers. Then the vision's gone. The memory contains no movement; the memory of the moment remains fixed like Zeno's arrow, like an emblem — or an omen, auguring the fate of the wild.

I drive on, the image of the bird burning. How can a moment contain such power?

On the Napier Road another kahu drops from the sky towards the road. I brake and veer. The bird hovers over a small, crushed body, blood and feathers on the tarmac; the kahu realises it's too late to pluck the morsel from the road and beats its wings, rising to safety in the sky. Another vision, another moment; again, the movement hardly there — the pale bird, long legs stretching downwards, head looking down, body suspended from upraised wings. Another emblem or omen, like an angel — not the pretty, insipid angel of catechisms but the powerful, dangerous angel of mythology.

Of all the common birds here, kahu might be the most difficult to photograph. Sometimes one of these big birds will watch the car drive past a few metres away, the effort of releasing the body of a possum or hare and rising into the sky not warranted. But if the car slows, even at a distance, the kahu flees. On foot, a hundred metres is far too close for a kahu. I don't have the patience to wait interminably in a hide near a dead possum, and I don't have the kind of lens that would allow a satisfactory photo of a kahu in flight — even in the refuge of the sky, they're unapproachable. I'll keep trying, but perhaps my continual failure's no bad thing. I have some sympathy for Geoff Dyer's belief that "the world will exist only as long as some part of it remains unphotographed".

1.Kahu (pronounced, roughly, KAA hoo) are a common sight in most rural areas of Aotearoa, particularly near roads, where they take advantage of the abundant road kills. Most people simply call them hawks; the official common name is Australasian harrier; the scientific name is Circus approximans.
2. The closing quotation is on p. 327 of Geoff Dyer’s Anglo-English Attitudes. London, Abacus. (1999). 372 pp.

1.Kahu over the edge of my terrace, last year's big slip below.
2. About as good as I've managed so far. Cropped and processed to the limits.

Photos and original text © 2009 Pete McGregor

14 July 2010

Pity the rich

Luxury, says Paul Theroux, is the enemy of observation [1]. The statement has the quality of aphorism — a thing said well has the ring of truth. But how true is it?

Unquestionably, luxury insulates the traveller, isolates her, cocoons her in comfort, and in doing so reduces access to the real world. The traveller in luxury might see the grim, hard world, but from a distance; he might hear it but only in small doses before he retreats to the refuge of quiet, plush hotel rooms and the interiors of gently throbbing tourist coaches with their views of the harsh and glaring world outside softened by tinted windows. The traveller in luxury must make a deliberate effort to eat the food of the masses rather than the treats of the elite; obnoxious smells and physical discomfort must surely be easier to bear when the sufferer knows they're only temporary and largely elective.

Still, luxury—at least anything short of an obscene amount— can't completely isolate a traveller from the actuality of the world through which she glides. Even a tiny exposure to that world must be enough to convey its reality to anyone prepared and willing to notice and imagine. Through the tinted windows of his air-conditioned coach a traveller looks out at evil, festering drains and mountains of rubbish; sees a woman washing a toddler in a basin of filthy water; sees a man squatting next to a wall, his hand over his face as he empties his bowels; sees others sleeping on the urine-stained footpath, each corpse-like and covered only by a thin, grimy blanket; the traveller sees these things, remembers the sounds and smells as he walked from his hotel to the bus and he must surely imagine what it must be like to live day after day like that, watching the big buses cruise by.

Perhaps, however, the traveller used to luxury finds these acts of observation and imagination too uncomfortable, too disturbing. Perhaps guilt suppresses thought—you are privileged, these observations say, and privilege is generally an accusation; the traveller, unable to deny her observations, turns away from their implications. Better not to think.

To be fair, Theroux's argument actually focuses on how luxury itself distracts: how the pleasures of comfort turn us away from paying attention to what's outside our luxurious cocoon. Perhaps he has a point, but he misses another: that luxury is relative and our capacity to become used to it is huge. A night in a vermin-infested hotel room on a hard bed would be luxury to one of the pavement-sleepers but a nightmare to a Remuera socialite [2], and after several weeks of buffet dining, the novelty of tropical fruits and croissants for breakfast can begin to wear thin (I imagine — not having experienced it myself). When we've become accustomed to these luxuries they no longer seem so luxurious: they become day to day life. Then, perhaps, our attention returns to the wider world.

Luxury may indeed be the enemy of observation, but luxury is also its own enemy. The danger is that, instead of allowing its novelty to dissipate, we try to hold on to it by seeking even more of it; we make it a goal — and one increasingly difficult to attain. Perhaps, ironically, the way to enjoy it more is not to seek it but to turn away from it and enter the harsh, all too common world in which luxuries, even if accessible only to those with a little wealth, are never far away (after months of bucket baths, a proper hot shower seems impossibly sumptuous — and that I can confirm). But to what kind of opulence can the habitual dweller in luxury turn?

Theroux goes on to explain how the rich — the acolytes of luxury — not only never listen but constantly complain about the cost of everything: "... indeed, the rich usually complained about being poor," he says [3]. Maybe he's right, but not in the sense he apparently intends. Maybe the rich really are poor; cut off from the real world and struggling to achieve ever greater levels of luxury which become increasingly hard to attain, maybe they shouldn't be envied, but pitied?

1.p. 17 in Theroux, P. (2008). Ghost Train to the Eastern Star. London, Penguin. 485 pp.
2. Remuera is an Auckland suburb populated largely by many of New Zealand's wealthiest people.
3. But if luxury is the enemy of observation and Theroux observed the rich in their natural habitat (i.e. luxury), to what extent can we trust his observations, given he was also in it at the time?
1.The Phool Mahal, the Palace of Flowers. One of the many opulent rooms in the Mehrangarh, the great fort and palace complex, at Jodhpur.
2. Stairway in the Mehrangarh.

Photos and original text © 2009 Pete McGregor

29 June 2010

Conversations with the past

Clare, way up in Arctic Bay, has tagged several bloggers with the invitation to respond to a set of five questions. One of the bloggers he tagged is me, and here I respond to just one of his questions: "What person in history would you most like to have a conversation with?".

That got me thinking. In fact, it got me thinking in the wee hours of the morning a week ago; after waking and finding it difficult to get back to sleep, I tried to distract myself from my worries and restlessness by thinking about that question. I'd expected it to be one of the easier topics; however, I found it harder than I'd imagined. Partly, the difficulty arose because my knowledge of history isn't great and the possibilities seem innumerable — I suspect whomever I chose, I'd quickly think of someone more appropriate[1]. Partly, the difficulty also arises in my natural inclination to choose someone I admire, and I can think of no historical figure I admire unreservedly. Add to those reasons the likelihood that many of those with whom I chose to have a conversation would either think at a level far beyond my capabilities (David Hume, for example) or respond so gnomically (Lao Tzu and many more) that I'd understand nothing, and the difficulty of choosing seems insurmountable[2].

Moreover, many of the candidates are people about whom I know too little. Herodotus, for example, has been identified as the kind of person who'd make an ideal travelling companion[3]; fine — he sounds fascinating, entertaining and accessible — but some of his claims seem bizarre and outrageous. Without reading his work and without knowing more about the basis of his claims — to what extent they might be credible — I wouldn't know how far I could trust his stories. Moreover (and here again my very limited knowledge leaves me on shaky ground), I know little about the extent to which he discussed ideas rather than described events, places and customs, and in any discussion with an historical figure I'd prefer to listen to and question ideas rather than being simply entertained by stories that might or might not be largely true and might or might not be designed to convey some larger idea.

Conversely, others seem too fixed on ideas, or at least on evangelising particular ideas rather than exploring them. Gandhi, for example: while I have great respect for his advocacy of non-violent protest, his compassion and his commitment to live in the manner he evangelised, I remain unconvinced about his interest in exploring ideas other than those he fought for. Again, I might be unfair: my perceptions might be inaccurate because of my limited knowledge and because most of what's written about him focuses on the ideas for which he's most famous. But I have serious misgivings about some aspects of his treatment of women. Perhaps, however, these are actually compelling reasons for conversing with him: to attempt to understand his beliefs sufficiently to understand how he could hold some that seem to me to be harmful to others.

Why so few women?
Now I've touched on the subject of women, I'll admit something that disturbs me: in this consideration of historical figures, I can identify only one woman who might rank highly on the list of candidates: Rachel Carson. Arguably she founded the modern "environmental" movement, but equally important for me is her great knowledge and feeling for the coastal and marine environment, coupled with an outstanding ability to convey that knowledge and feeling through her writing. Just what she was like to hold a conversation with, I don't know, but I'm unable to think of any other woman to include in the shortlist. Of course, I can think of a great many women with whom I'd like to hold a conversation— enough to see me talking and listening for the rest of my life — but the list of people with whom I'd most like a discussion is a different matter altogether.

So why are women so scarce in the shortlist? Surely I must have overlooked someone, or perhaps many? Some who spring to mind immediately count themselves out just as immediately. Ayn Rand, for example, whose Atlas Shrugged so often figures prominently in lists of supposedly great books: not only do her views differ so radically from mine that we'd have no common ground on which to discuss, well, anything at all, but she was so convinced of her own genius[4] that discussion would be out of the question — I'd be reduced to the role of mere listener, if she even deigned to converse with anyone so little like a genius as me. I, on the other hand, would rather have a conversation with the much more open-minded Genghis Khan.Seriously: for all his cruelty and propensity for genocide, he did foster not only a remarkable degree of tolerance for some aspects of other cultures (for religions, it bordered on true pluralism), but in his society women reputedly enjoyed an historically uncommon degree of influence and importance[5].

But back to the absence of women from my list. Most count themselves out because their interests or influence have been largely political (for example, Elizabeth I and Joan of Arc (whose belief that the voices she alone heard were her god speaking directly to her would have counted against a worthwhile conversation), or too focused on the pragmatic (Marie Curie, for example), while those motivated by religious beliefs (Mother Teresa's the outstanding example) leave me uninterested. Personally, I find nothing enlightening in appeals to arbitrary supernatural entities — any system of belief that can explain anything ("It's a miracle/mystery/the will of [insert name of preferred deity]") explains nothing — and deeds motivated by belief in unimaginable rewards after the death of the body or by love of some deity seem less worthy to me than those motivated by sheer compassion for others. This does not mean I'm anti-religion; it means only that I, personally, lack the faith necessary to find value in religious beliefs. However, others do have that faith, and to the extent their beliefs help those people live better, more fulfilled lives without harming others (which includes respecting the rights of others to hold different beliefs), that's fine with me. In fact, the only substantial interest I have in religious beliefs is in trying to understand how others can hold them[6].

I suspect my male-dominated short list arises from two reasons: first, my poor and selective knowledge of history; second, until recently, history has been documented almost exclusively by men, and this, along with the way women have been largely subordinate to, and too often subjugated by, men, has led to a predominantly androcentric view of historical events. For the first reason, I can ask for enlightenment (which women would make your shortlist?); for the second, I can do nothing other than encourage and support research by women and in particular, by women about women in history.

Another approach
But maybe I'm approaching this from the wrong angle. Maybe, instead of casting about trying to think of people I'd like to talk with, I should be asking what I'd be seeking from these hypothetical conversations. What kind of person could offer wonderful conversation; what characteristics would this person have?

Several things spring immediately to mind. Insight and its close relative, wisdom, seem paramount: without those, any conversation can be no more than enjoyable or entertaining. Conversely, humour has an important and generally overlooked role because it so greatly helps build a sense of connection between people — well, between those who have a sense of it, as I trust I do. Perhaps that's another reason for disqualifying Ayn Rand, along with Nietzsche — but Rand and Nietzsche also disqualify themselves on the basis of their apparent complete lack of another crucial characteristic: empathy. I think specifically of Rand's and Nietzsche's absence of empathy for other human beings, at least all but the tiny proportion of humanity they admired: the ubermensch for Nietzsche; Nietzsche for Rand. More generally, but just as crucially, I consider empathy for the non-human world[7] to be a highly desirable characteristic of anyone with whom I'd like to hold a conversation that goes beyond the merely academic.

Three characteristics remain: curiosity (a person without curiosity must be either exceedingly dull or insufferably cocksure); awareness, meaning the ability and inclination to notice things; and, finally but certainly not least, the ability to articulate ideas and emotions. That ability to say what's needed can be interpreted broadly; absolute clarity isn't always a virtue and often, it seems to me, fails miserably where true poetry succeeds magnificently. While the more opaque and difficult poems generally fail to move me, I do find it hard to accept that "Yes, but what does it mean?" can be any sort of meaningful or important response to a poem. The attempt to explain a poem, or, for that matter, any work of art, too often drains the life from it. It's like asking about the meaning of a great haiku: the haiku itself says what needs to be said — would Bashô be as great, or even remembered, if he'd set down explanations of what he felt when he heard a frog plop into that old pond[8]? So, when I say "the ability to articulate", I mean also the ability to choose the appropriate form of language, which may sometimes be none at all — the silence that invites one to reflect on what's just been said.

So where do these six characteristics — insight, humour, empathy, curiosity, awareness and the ability to articulate — leave me in my choice of historical figure with whom to have a conversation? I can only go on what little I know, which I suspect will often be wildly off the mark, and I'm willing to accept the absence of some of those qualifying characteristics in return for an abundance of others — for example, given the acuity of his insights into human nature, I'd love to know why Nietzsche thought compassion a vice and apparently lacked it completely[9]. Moreover, I suspect humour doesn't attract much attention from historians, who seem much more taken with power and influence, so my list of contenders contains few I'd even guess had a sense of humour.

The shortlist
The shortlist, therefore, is short indeed, but before I disclose a final choice I'll make two points. First, we probably learn more by trying to understand those whose values are anathema to us than we do from those whose values we already share; however, because I'd strongly prefer to enjoy the conversation, I've included only one person whose attitudes include many I can't stand: Nietzsche, for the reason I mentioned in the previous paragraph. Second, I'm excluding Zhuangzi because Dave has already bailed him up and is getting drunk with him. Man, I'd love to be in on that conversation.

The remainder: Herodotus, despite my reservations about his predilection for exaggeration and (possibly) invention; Hanshan, for his empathy and his superb ability to articulate the essence of the kind of life I love; Bashô, for his compassion and remarkable ability to notice not just the natural but the human world; Lao Tzu, although I fear his gnomic pronouncements would make for a difficult conversation comprising far more reflective (and possibly mystified) silence than animated discussion; and, finally, the person I'd most like to have a conversation with because of his intense interest in the natural world and his delight and participation in the human, his curiosity about almost everything, his ability to think and to articulate those thoughts, his friends, including Steinbeck and Joseph Campbell, and as far as I know, pretty much all the desirable characteristics I've mentioned: Ed Ricketts, the man who "...would listen to any kind of nonsense and turn it into a kind of wisdom. His mind had no horizon and his sympathy had no warp"[10].

This is my response to just one of Clare's five questions. By ignoring the other four (possibly temporarily) I suppose I'm flouting the rules of 'memes', but I've never been keen on rules. Moreover, I'm supposed to tag five other bloggers to follow up Clare's questions but instead I'll just leave it as an open invitation. The questions are all well worth contemplating and I'd love to read your responses to any of them. If you do accept the invitation, please let me know.

1.I vaguely recall Salman Rushdie saying something similar — "As soon as I say something, I want to disagree with myself" — or words to that effect, but I can't track down the quotation. Perhaps my memory has attributed the quotation incorrectly. The closest I've found so far is Jane Campion's assertion, "...as soon as I say something I think I can stick with, I realize the opposite is true" (Verhoeven, D. (2008). Jane Campion. Routledge. 288 pp. ISBN 0415262755.) Moreover, even as I edited the draft of this post, I found myself discovering other historical figures I'd prefer over my initial choices.
2. For the purposes of this hypothetical conversation I'll assume language is no barrier.
3. Justin Marozzi, (January 2010). Travels with the Father of History.
4. Corey Robin (May 2010). Garbage and Gravitas.
5. Genghis Khan's religious pluralism is well documented (see, e.g., John Man's excellent biography, Genghis Khan: Life, Death and Resurrection); however, despite being widespread, the claim about the role of women is hard to verify — most examples I've found provide no citations and may simply be repeating each other. The most plausible I've found so far is Prof. Morris Rossabi's lecture on Women of the Mongol Court, transcribed by Heidi Roupp (retrieved 25 June 2010).
6. I suspect some of those people are similarly interested in why people like me can't believe what seems unquestionable to them.
7. One can argue whether it's possible or not to empathise with the non-living world, but that's a matter for another discussion.
8. Basho's frog pond haiku is probably the most famous of them all; unfortunately, most of the English translations seem awkward, wordy, or in other ways simply unable to convey the immediacy and depth of that moment.
9. I have my suspicions, but that also is another matter.
10. John Steinbeck, quoted in a 2003 NPR article. Also well worth reading is an article by Ricketts' most recent biographer, Eric Eno Tamm.
1. Bishnoi man, near Jodhpur, Rajasthan.
2. Textile worker, near Bhuj, Gujarat.
3. Anne-Marie at Flounder Bay, Aotearoa.
4. Tide pools between Driftwood Cove and the Cove of Giants, near Flounder Bay.
5. Jono outside Phil's Biv, Darran Mts, Aotearoa.

Photos and original text © 2009 Pete McGregor

20 June 2010


Heavy rain on a dark Sunday morning; the sheep standing with ears drooped in the front paddock; mist in the valley. Ming finally abandons his attempts to investigate the rubbish in favour of curling up on the bed. The rain gets heavier. I imagine this weather in a gorge on Cold Mountain, the sound of rain on the leaves and canes of the bamboo with the roar of the gorge as a background, Hanshan stooped in the entrance of his cave, smiling as he peers out. A crow flying off, black against the grey mist, off to some place only crows know on Cold Mountain, some place in the unknowable mist high on the mountainside where no one goes. Hanshan shakes his head, still smiling, goes inside and pours tea. He watches the steam curling up, becoming the mist. What more could I need, he thinks and takes a noisy slurp.

I pour another cup of oolong. A pen, a notebook for writing, rain on the roof, a cat on the bed. What more could I need?

Photos and original text © 2009 Pete McGregor

17 May 2010

The climber

On the edge of the town the high stone buildings, grey with age, with small, high, grimy windows, begin to change, to transform into the cliffs that ring the plain. A small figure climbs on those cliffs — a man, climbing with no rope, alone in the dull afternoon light. He slides a hand into a long crack that runs almost the full the height of the cliff; he twists slightly and lowers his free hand, shaking his arm for a few moments. He pauses, looks upwards, then resumes climbing, jamming one hand above the other alternately into the crack, placing his feet deliberately, precisely, until he arrives at a great slab projecting horizontally above his head like a roof.

He locks his left hand hard into the crack and leans back and outwards, reaches wide with his right arm and feels for a hold over the lip. Another pause. He drops his head and waits several seconds, stretched out with arms wide. Then he looks up and releases his left hand from the crack.

His feet leave the rock; his body swings out over forty metres of empty space. Forty metres of nothing; forty metres of the long fall into oblivion. He swings from a single wiry arm, out towards the point at which his hand must surely slip from its hold. He draws his legs up to slow the swing and begins to pull himself up on one arm; he reaches up with his free hand and grasps another hold.

The sight makes you feel nauseous. You see him from a great distance, a tiny form hanging over the void, a speck of muscle, bone and blood on that great hard face, hanging there on the edge of life. You see him as if you were a bird hovering a metre from his left shoulder; you hear his hard breathing, you see the thin tough muscles in his arms move as he swings. The ground seems immensely far below; it seems like a memory, the recollection of safety too long ago.

You feel nauseous, sick with the fear that arises from imagination. You feel exhilarated, knowing his freedom, his utter independence and self-reliance, his complete focus like a meditation, the feel of movement like a dance. You hold these polarised emotions in your heart as you begin to walk across the plain towards the cliffs. You walk through desiccated grass, over flat stones like the remains of an ancient plaza; you walk in an arid wind that sends small eddies of dust scampering over the plain. As you walk, the edge of the plain grows outwards so you never draw closer to the cliffs — they recede continuously, like the horizon, as you walk. The climber still hangs there on that edge, always about to make his next move.

You realise you are walking towards yourself.

1. John Palmer completes the difficult (V7) boulder problem Chris & Cosy at the Baring Head Rock Hop in 2008.
2. Ivan Vostinar marks up problems at the 2008 Rock Hop.

Photos and original text © 2010 Pete McGregor

12 April 2010

A conversation with Time

Angel, broken, at Jamnagar.

You sit at the table in the dim light at the border of dawn with your past looking back at you.You reach out but your past withdraws.
"You cannot touch me," it says, "I am always out of reach."
You take back your hand and sit facing your past. You ask why it is here.
"I am always with you," your past says. It gets up and walks around behind you; you turn your head but your past moves to the corner of your eye — a shadow glimpsed, always elusive. You sense its presence behind you, growing older moment by moment. When you look back across the table your future sits there with its back to you.

You cannot see its face.

Photos and original text © 2010 Pete McGregor

01 April 2010

Time at Flounder Bay [Part III]

The third and final part of the Time at Flounder Bay series. [Part I; Part II].

Dawn, and the line of light on the horizon gleams a salmon colour, a thin strip between the great plane of the silver sea and the grey clouds. Higher in the sky, a little of that colour echoes the line on the horizon. The rest of the camp sleeps on, silent, unaware. Twenty minutes later the colour's faded to pale yellow with a trace of bleached brown and the clouds have lost that beautiful, subtle shading, becoming a dirty grey bordering on black, with no apparent pattern. But the sea still gleams, and the camp sleeps on.


The waves here break twice. Out at sea the swell rises, mounts into a luminous green wall then curls over and crashes down in a welter of white. The remains of the wave rush towards shore then begin to rise again,swelling for a second time into a wall that crashes down before racing up the beach. Perhaps the sea bed has some particular shape — maybe a kind of sand and shingle stationary wave — that causes this. Perhaps the waves here echo what lies beneath them, the way the present can echo the past or presage the future.

As the sun climbs higher the day seems set for a scorcher. The horizon hides somewhere in a hazy, almost indiscernible mist, a kind of heat haze or the last, fast-vanishing trace of morning mist, but by the time we reach Driftwood Cove the mist has gone completely and the heat has arrived, riding the silence of the surf: that endless, repetitive, constantly changing sound; the kind of sound with the qualities of silence — in particular, that of providing the aural space in which one can think freely. I find it exceptionally relaxing, too, but it drives others mad. This morning an elderly woman from Auckland remarked to Anne-Marie how the sound of the sea had driven her to distraction: she found it difficult to sleep, she said. Perhaps one's response to the sea depends on experience; perhaps one isn't born with the response but instead learns what to think of this sound, which to others is like a homecoming.

I look up from these thoughts to see a sudden spout of water shoot skywards, and I grab for the binoculars. But the excitement's short-lived — it's no whale surfacing, just a gannet diving. I'd missed by a moment the sight of the bird plunging into the sea with half-folded wings and had seen only the plume shooting into the sky. Out on the horizon a cruise ship waits; a helicopter roars across the cove, going north. Reminders of humans; technology.

Someone has built a small shelter at the top of the beach. A surprising effort has gone into it, so it looks like something built by a castaway with plenty of time and desperation. On the shingle, the dried leg of a crab and the remnant of a shell that looks like the flukes of a whale sounding. Earlier, I'd peered into the first rock pool I'd found after we'd left the track and crunched across the small beach, over stones and shattered shells and wrack; I watched a little blue-black cushion star gliding slowly across the bottom of the clear pool and, as I watched, I noticed a snakeskin chiton also moving, almost imperceptibly. Rock pools contain enough life and interest and questions to fascinate a person for a lifetime.

Then there are the other inhabitants of the intertidal zone — inspiration for some of the most inspirational books I know, like the early works of Rachel Carson and Steinbeck and Ricketts’ magnificent Log From the Sea of Cortez. It's easy to understand this fascination — just spend a few hours pottering along a rocky coast; ideally, take a kid with you. Not long after peering into the rock pool I'd startled a couple of Leptograpsus and my first thought was the urge to show them to someone. I can't imagine anyone, let alone a child, who wouldn't get a thrill from seeing these large colourful crabs with their impressive claws, particularly when the sighting takes place where these animals are truly at home. Anyone not moved by such a sight must surely suffer from some kind of malady: some kind of illness brought on by too much isolation from the real world, too much exposure to our own artificial environments and inventions, too little connection to the world in which we evolved.

The sun beats down relentlessly. I drape a bandana over my head to cover my ears and neck and to shade my eyes, and hold it in place with a baseball cap. The relief from the glare and heat allows me to relax again and gaze about from my perch on a low, flat rock. Anne-Marie says I look like John the Baptist.


A bright green scallop shell mould lies on the beach, left behind, presumably, by a family with at least one small child. I make two scallop shells from damp sand, leaving them to dry and crumble in the sun and wind, and I place the mould above the high-water mark. With luck, other visitors to the beach will do the same, leaving small, impermanent records of their visits and leaving the mould behind. I wonder how many generations of this cycle will happen before someone's acquisitiveness brings it to an end.

In the terrific heat and humidity of the afternoon we visit the Redwood grove. Anne-Marie writes by the stream; I potter with the macro lens and tripod, photographing fungi; brightly coloured leaves on old, brown litter; bark; other details. As we leave the cool, quiet shade something alights on my hand. I look, and see a female robber fly grasping a small damselfly which isn't yet dead. Its abdomen, long and thin, curls and uncurls, back and forth.

After supper Anne-Marie goes for a walk around the village and I set off alone for the Cove of Giants. Perhaps because I'm alone, or perhaps for some other reason I don't understand, the small cove feels eerie — wilder than Driftwood Cove and less welcoming but also fascinating, with a greater sense of possibility: the feeling that one might find something extraordinary cast up among the rocks or half buried along the strand line. A great pine log, bleached pale grey, lies propped up and resembling an enormous cannon pointing out to sea. I walk partway up it, enjoying the balancing act, and stop where I can look down into a narrow gap between the log and the rocks. The sea rushes in beneath me, backlighting the gap, and there in the narrow space the silhouettes of several large Leptograpsus shuffle and creep, move a few scrabbling steps and stop, then move again. They look like something in a scene from Alien.

Teasel, that peculiar, distinctive plant, flowers above the high-water mark; a red jandal faded to pink lies warped among pale stones. The giant tree still lies on the shore, more bleached than when we last saw it but still resisting the sea, the storms, the scouring sand. Its branches reach out as if appealing to the evening sky. White bones of a seabird lie on a rock and, nearby, more, with the matted remains of feathers. The evening breeze slides over my skin, cicadas and black field crickets sing in the grass between the beach and the looming cliffs and, out at sea, a gannet cruises south. In the whole darkening world, there's no other human to be seen.


With the Mission Vineyards concert on in Napier in the evening, the camp's almost full. All the cabins are occupied and numerous tents interrupt the once-unimpeded view. Kids scream and yell, get lost, hurt themselves and bawl. Yesterday afternoon a large, dark green, excessively-polished Holden throbbed its way up the drive, circled and parked by one of the expensive cabins, and this morning we find a bulky Landcruiser Prado parked in front of our little one-room cabin: "3400 V6 Quad Cam" the beast says. It might as well have simply said "Notice my status". One can almost sense the tension between it and the Holden: the air beginning to reek with the smell of vehicular testosterone.

But when I step outside this morning into the warm dawn on the last day, no one else has woken, no one else has risen to see the spectacular light and colours over the sea and on the Nor'west clouds glowing above the valley. All the tents are zipped, the cabin curtains closed, the dusty driveway occupied only by a few sparrows — the birds are always the first up — and a dead rat, belly up, presumably a victim of the poison under every cabin.

The solitude doesn't last. Soon the kids begin to prowl, whispering at first, then talking, and so the quiet time ends. Not that they're all noisy, though: a girl, almost a teenager and wearing a T-shirt that says, "I kissed a vampire and I liked it", sits on a large rock in the sun and reads a book. Probably a book about vampires — the Twilight kind of vampires, that is — although I'm just guessing. But I doubt it was about Heidegger's concept of the uncanny; sadly, I also doubt it was anything about the real, non-vampire life living along the shores of Aotearoa.

However, at least it was a real book. In Napier I'd picked up Joe Bageant's Deer Hunting With Jesus; late in the book he comments on research showing how TV subdues the left side of the brain and stimulates the right (an oversimplified but useful shorthand for saying it discourages critical, analytical thinking and encourages emotional responses). Reading that, I wondered: perhaps one of the major advantages of the written word over TV, radio and other auditory/visual methods of communication is that when reading it's easy to stop and think but when watching TV it's much harder to do that. The same might be said of podcasts and videos, although it's possible in theory to pause those. But really: how often do you pause a video partway through, to think about what's been presented? In practice, pausing a video differs so greatly from the simple act of looking up from a page of writing to mull something over that listening/watching and reading amount to two utterly different forms of communication. Thus, even if my guess about the nature of vampire-girl's book was right, and the intent of the book was entirely to appeal to the emotions, at least she had the opportunity to think about what she was reading.

Our time at Flounder Bay has almost come to an end. Or has it? When does a journey end? And when does a journey begin? Suppose your journey involves travel overseas — to India and Nepal for five months, say, then two months in Africa, then brief stop-overs in the UK and France to visit friends on the way home (that nebulous concept that can be pinned down only by the trenchantly dogmatic). Does the journey begin when you close the door and turn the key for the last time for seven and a half months? Or does it begin when you step onto the plane, or when (looking the other way) you book your flights? What about when you first start planning when and where you'll go, or even when you get that first restless urge to move away from mundane life with its relatively regular and predictable (although not necessarily boring) pattern — that sense that there's more to this life than more of the same, and less of this life in which the opportunity to travel still remains?

Think like this and the start of your journey can extend back almost indefinitely, or at least as far back as the time you became aware of a world more extensive than that in which you spent your days playing and visiting other small friends and grandparents and, one hopes, learning. Perhaps you opened a book and saw photos of weird animals you never knew existed (rhinoceros, giraffe, condor, tapir, cassowary) in places you never knew existed (Africa, South America, New Guinea); now, more likely, perhaps you learned about these animals and places when you first saw them on TV. Perhaps this is when your journey began: when you first discovered these things and thought these were things you wanted to see for yourself. Perhaps, also, your journey never ends, at least not while it lives on in your memory, or in your desire to resume it.

We close the lock on the door and say goodbye to the little cabin, drive slowly past the crowds and out the first gate, past the kennels and the sheds and the old tractors, over the small wooden bridge and through the last gate onto the main road. It'll be a long, hot drive back to the valley and when we arrive, something will be missing. It'll be the sound of the sea. 


1. Cushion star:
Patiriella sp., one of the most common starfish along the coast of Aotearoa.
2. Snakeskin chiton: Sypharochiton pelliserpentis. Abundant along our rocky coasts.
3.. "They look like something in a scene from Alien": later, the comparison strikes me as ironic — the real world compared to the fictitious, and that particular fiction drawing inspiration from the real world where parasitoids lay eggs in living creatures from which they later emerge. Life imitating art imitating life, I suppose.  

Photos (click to enlarge them):
1. Shell fragment at Driftwood Cove.
2. The edge of the sea at the Cove of Giants.
3. Writer in the redwood grove.
4. Redwood leaf on redwood leaves.
5. The Pink Jandal.
6. Beached pine at the Cove of Giants.
7. Recycling in the redwood grove.

Photos and original text © 2010 Pete McGregor