22 February 2010

Time at Flounder Bay [Part I]

Extracts from two weeks’ worth of writing at Flounder Bay at the beginning of February. Part II will follow sometime soon.
Kowhero Stream, where it leaves the redwoods
Rain all night long. I wake several times during the night to the sound of it, to the sound of the sea and the wind. By morning the rain's stopped but the sea and the wind still roar, incessant, insistent. Sun struggles to break through the misty cloud and manages to cast only weak, diffuse shadows, to make the puddles gleam. But out at sea the horizon shines at the boundary of an ocean like a sheet of silver. Nothing out there gives any clue about Earth's history — the scene could have been a million years before the first human looked on it and wondered what made that blinding light in the sky, reflected on the water; it could be a million years after the last human closes her eyes for the last time and wishes her species had acted otherwise.

Nothing but ocean, cloud and the cold brilliance of the hazy sun.

At the mouth of the lagoon where the creek and the sea clash, the wrack of last night's chaos litters the shore. Bleached, sodden planks, branches, tree trunks; everything wrapped in tangled weed, everything spattered and mixed with gouts of creamy white and yellow foam. The bulkier masses of spume along the strand line shiver in the wind and release small scraps that dance off along the beach with the sudden gusts. A white-faced heron steps nervously at the edge of the lagoon where the water's calmer; it steps nervously, crouches, waits, then takes flight: a slow leap into the air and the lazy lifting and falling; the bird banks and alights on the sandbar on the far side of the lagoon, beyond the log jam. Nearby, a red-billed gull stands alone at the water's edge, one wing drooping; it fluffs its feathers and settles its wings, sleeking them down. But the drooping wing — the left — won't stay put. The gull flicks it several times, but each time it falls back, its tip just touching the wet sand. After a storm, the small corpses of birds can often be found on beaches like this — petrels, prions, shearwaters, terns, gulls, occasionally something larger. What kills them? Exhaustion, perhaps — the additional effort of flying in violent, turbulent winds; perhaps an unexpected dousing? I don't know; I'm guessing; I make a note to ask my friends who might have a sounder basis for speculation.

But this gull... with a wing like this, flying will be difficult, perhaps impossible and, if so, the outcome is inevitable. Nature has no sentiment.


Rain. The showers come and go, drifting in misty veils from the sea, inland across the face of Te Whaurangi, the headland; past the small side valley with its regenerating bush; on up the main valley. Bill drives up in his ute, climbs out, pulls out a builder's tape and measures the door of the lounge. He comes over to where we sit at the tables next to the kitchen. The conversation begins with the weather, of course.
" We had 319 mm of rain this January," he says.
I ask him how much they'd expect in a typical January.
"About a hundred would be a wet January."
Everyone we meet talks about the weather. It's usually the first topic and the attitude's usually the same: incredulity, commiserations, outright grizzling. But last night we saw a different attitude in action. The rain had eased off but the wind still blew hard and gusty, and the British guy camped near us with his German partner and their two delightful little kids took his opportunity. Down on the flats by the stream, he flew his kite, rushing it through the semi-darkness, making it swoop and soar, making the most of the wind.
"He couldn't resist it," his partner said, and we thought what a marvellous way to turn a constraint into an opportunity to have fun with the kids. Anne-Marie tells me later how she'd walked the dogs along one of Whanganui's beaches one day when a vicious wind scouring the beach had driven away almost everyone but the hardiest of dog-walkers and other fools. She'd heard someone call her name; looked around and recognised someone from her workplace.
"I love this wind!" he'd said.
He was a keen wind surfer. Perhaps, for the kite-flyer and the wind surfer, lousy weather amounts to a fine, calm, lounge-on-the-beach day. One of the best-known sayings of Gautama Buddha begins, "We are what we think. All that we are arises with our thoughts." So rain is rain, wind is wind, but good weather and lousy weather are what we think they are.

I think this weather's great for reading and writing, but I wouldn't mind a bit of warm sunshine.


The gull with the injured wing still stands at the water's edge, not far from the mouth of the stream, near where we saw it this morning. It flicks the wing often, apparently irritated by its inability to fold it fully. It makes a little run and pecks at something in the water. A sad sight — a life soon to end but still determined to live. 

But suddenly the gull runs upstream and launches into the air. It flies up, over the sandbar, turns and settles. The flight seems strong, although the wing doesn't move as easily as a normal wing; the tips of the wings point downwards more than in the flight of other gulls. Nevertheless, if I hadn't known about the injury — or perhaps it's a deformity — I wouldn't have noticed anything out of the ordinary about the flight. Maybe it has a future beyond a matter of days. Nature has no sentiment, but does have an enormous capacity to surprise.


Rain again last night. I woke some time in the small hours of the morning to hear it pouring down; didn't care and dropped back to sleep. This morning the sky seems lighter, the cloud higher and with more structure; at times one could almost believe the sun might break through.

We walk to the mouth of the stream again, where we know we'll be sheltered from the wind, and as we approach I hear a distinctive, piping call. I look up, recognising the call, and scan the beach and the valley. And there they are — two dark birds, flying fast towards us. Torea pango, the variable oystercatcher. They speed past, their orange bills bright in the overcast morning. On out to sea and along the coast, then they circle over the ocean and fly back past us, further away. It's like meeting friends after a long absence, but we don't realise this will be the only time we see them during our two weeks here. So often, we humans are driven by wanting to know what will happen; we strive to develop ever more accurate ways to predict everything from the weather to the results of lotteries and elections; yet knowing an outcome in advance can destroy the experience — knowing we wouldn't see the torea pango again this time would have muted the delight of seeing them now. Ignorance might not be bliss, but without it there could be neither expectation nor hope. Maybe the difference between wisdom and cleverness consists in knowing what not to know.

Anne-Marie does yoga on a clear patch of sand; I photograph a gull preening on a rock, then sit on my own watching the sea, watching the surf rolling in, curling over and breaking, rushing up the beach to foam at the small sandbank. A section of the bank collapses, followed a few seconds later by another. The sculptor at work again. Driftwood bobs and tosses, and a sodden branch bumps and judders in a gap between two wave-washed boulders. There's always something going on here; always the possibility of seeing something strange and wonderful, even if it seldom happens, even if it's mostly just driftwood and the usual flotsam — plastic bottles, short lengths of rope, a faded jandal, the tennis ball someone's dog failed to retrieve from the surf six months and a hundred kilometres ago. But one never knows. One day it might be a length of colossal tentacle, or a bottle with a message from the past, or a glimpse of something large and alive surfacing momentarily where the swell begins to rise into breakers. Come here and you know what to expect, and you never know what to expect.

Later in the morning , when the weather's clearing and warming — or so it seems — we cross the stream on Bill's pontoon, walk past the new houses that appear to us like mansions but are, according to Bill, just weekend homes ("No one lives there," he says, adding, "It'll be like Coronation Street over there, all crammed in next to each other") and follow the track to the north end of the beach. On the edge of the raupo, something disturbs the water. A frog? A rat? A fish? Despite the improbability, I find myself hoping it's something rare and fascinating — a marsh or spotless crake or banded rail, perhaps. But whatever it is remains unseen, and so the possibility it might be something more fascinating and exciting than a mere frog or rat also remains. I'm almost glad I don't know.


On the beach: many bluebottles; a puffer fish, now substantially unpuffed. Tide lines marked by wrack — seaweeds and twigs, coated with drying salt water and iridescent bubbles. The foam here's whiter than at the southern end of the beach where the stream discharges its load of farm run-off into the surf; but here too the foam shivers in the wind; it liberates small clumps that roll up the beach leaving faint trails and growing smaller with each revolution. We walk on, down the beach towards the stream. I stop and gaze at a pile of wrack and realise, suddenly, that what I'm looking at is the small body of a bird, a shearwater. Its remains lie twisted, partly buried in the sand, mingled with the weed.

And further on, another bird — takapu, the gannet; twisted and folded as if its entire life, all those years of cruising the sky and searching the sea were now trying to fit within its own remains. Even in death, buckled and half buried like this, the eye clouded over, the head partly hidden, it's beautiful; it demands respect.  Is this what it all comes down to? It's impossible not to feel a twinge of sadness. I wonder about checking its legs for bands, but I think I can see enough to confirm it's unbanded. Besides, I don't feel like disturbing it — to do so would seem like interfering with the dead.


Low tide — as low as I recall ever having seen it here at Flounder Bay — exposes a herd of boulders along the northern end of the beach; boulders densely draped with weed that would most of the time swirl and writhe in the surge but now hangs glistening from the sides of the rocks, only the tips dancing in the water. Further out, the boulders and weed appear momentarily then vanish as the swell surges over; when they reappear, water pours off them in long, shining streams like a different kind of weed: unbranched, ephemeral, constantly changing. At the edge of the sea where only the spray wets the rocks and weed, a purple shore crab creeps sideways, prowling for scraps, investigating crevices, crawling over the face of a huge boulder and easing over its edge into shadow; it clings to the overhanging surface and moves over it apparently as easily as if it were level ground. It's good to see these big crabs again — the more one looks, the more of them one sees — and to confirm the huge one we saw last winter crawling, wary and spray-lashed on the edge of a wild sea, wasn't just a rare visitor or a survivor from a once-but-no-longer healthy population. Looking out at the coast it's possible to imagine hundreds of these crabs foraging among the intertidal rocks, going about their lives largely unnoticed by the humans who surf or fish or play or simply fossick along the sandy beach; unnoticed, too, by those who stride along the goat track above the boulders and what, at low tide, passes for a narrow, rocky beach.

This is one of the things I love about coming to know about a place — that sense, after repeated visits or a prolonged stay, of gradually discovering what lies beneath the superficial, of seeing how things work, and being able to fit the pieces into a more complex understanding. Much of it's not conscious awareness; it's more the developing of a feel for a place, an awareness of some kind of history — one's own history while present; what one learns consciously of the history, both human and other, of the place; and what one imagines might have happened here or might one day happen. Ten thousand years ago, this beach was probably marked often by the tracks of moa, but what will leave tracks here ten thousand years from now? I find it difficult to believe those tracks might be human, but if they are, and if by some weird warping of space-time I came face-to-face with the maker of those tracks, how much of myself would I recognise in her?


After a period of steady morning rain the sun comes out, light drifting along the beach, shining on the ocean. At the mouth of the stream, sunlight on breaking surf shines so bright and white it's hard to look at, but out at sea, dark cloud drops an ominous veil of rain on the horizon. Darkness and light, weather and time. The beach and the sea seem strangely devoid of birds — a curious kind of emptiness as if the planet has not only switched to geological time but has become entirely geological, with no time for the biological. Could this ever happen — that all life, not just human life, might eventually be extinguished on this infinitesimally small particle circling through space? Perhaps it might, but, if it were to come about, the view would not be of this dark sky, steel and blue-green sea and dazzling surf, but something far more alien, unrecognisable as once being our Earth. Black rock and acid seas, unimaginable heat; or perhaps the hard light of our now-ancient sun through a sky no longer blue but eternally black, shining on waterless sand and treeless rock, and the ruins of our time here irretrievably lost, remembered by nothing. And what might have brought this about? One of only two things, I think: aeons, or our own actions. I have no idea which is more likely.

The beach at Earthquake Bay

1. Birds mentioned: White-faced heron (Egretta novaehollandiae); red-billed gull (tarapunga); torea pango (variable oystercatcher); marsh crake (Koitareke; Porzana pusilla affinis); spotless crake (Puweto; Porzana tabuensis plumbea); banded rail (mohopereru; Rallus philippensis assimilis); takapu (Australasian gannet; Morus serrator); moa (Aotearoa’s group of extinct, flightless birds now thought to have been most closely related to the South American tinamous).
2. Raupo: Typha orientalis; bulrush.
3. Bluebottle: in this context, the Portugese man o’ war, Physalia utriculus.
4. Puffer fish: closely related to porcupine fish, and also poisonous. I’ve used it as a generic term — I don’t know whether the fish we saw washed up were puffers or porcupines.
5. Purple shore crab: Leptograpsus variegatus.

Photos (clicking on the smaller photos will open slightly larger versions. Use the back button to return to the post, or open them in a new tab):
1. Kowhero stream near its exit from the redwood grove.
2. Anne-Marie on Watchman’s Rock.
3. Tractor country. Bill’s a keen collector of old tractors.
4. The gull with the droopy wing. Will feature in Part II.
5. Takapu.
6. I never tired of seeing light and patterns like this.
7. The beach at Earthquake Bay

Photos and original text © 2010 Pete McGregor