19 March 2010

Time at Flounder Bay [Part II]

You rise from uneasy dreams and wonder where you are, in which bed you lie, in what direction you face. You rise into awareness from dreams in which a comment meant to tease, to prompt banter, instead alienates friends; in which you draw back the curtains of your office to find the windows obscured by ivy that lets in only an old, weak light. You close the curtains again and turn to your desk with its stereomicroscope and the petri dish of insects in alcohol and the note someone's left saying "Please identify these."
It sounds more like a demand than a request.

The roar of a plane sounds suddenly overhead. I look up, beyond the top of the cliffs to clouds, patches of sky, and a few seconds later the plane slides out of white cloud into blue. The brilliant white craft seems to radiate light, the way one might imagine an angel. It slips across the blue, enters the cloud again and vanishes. All that remains is the sound, and the memory, both fading. But the memory lingers longer.

Further on, movement among the rocks at the south end of the beach catches my eye — a quick shape under a big bleached driftwood tree trunk lodged between two boulders. It doesn't look like a bird. Although I've glimpsed it only fleetingly, it seems more like a rabbit or rat. We move forward, carefully, ready to freeze. A kotare flies up and alights on a nearby boulder but this was not what made the peculiarly mammalian movement that caught my eye.

I step forward, keeping my gaze focused on the gap between the boulders where I expect to see a crouched rabbit, nervous, ready to bolt.

Closer now. I begin to move around the boulders to look behind them. And there it is — a stoat, moving fast. Back and forth under the log, disappearing into a dark recess under the far boulder then reappearing a moment later. So fast, so agile; it seems to flow rather than run. I place my pack on the sand and unzip it, reaching for the camera, taking out the big lens and trying to keep the stoat in sight but it's hopeless. I've only just got hold of the lens when I see the stoat run up onto a rock, pause, then weave onto the bank and disappear through the dry grass into a patch of blackberry. The chances of seeing it again vanish with the black tip of its tail, but the memory of something so vibrantly alive stays with me for days. From now on, this will always be the place where we saw the stoat.


We eat teriyaki chicken sushi on the beach in the evening, after Anne-Marie's ventured into the surf and I, a different kind of chicken, had watched through binoculars. She'd looked petrified but had returned grinning, claiming the water was wonderful but admitting the undertow was terrifying. We feed a few morsels of sticky rice and fragments of apple to the gulls, trying to favour Nipper (the gull with the droopy wing — he seems like a he although we have no idea, just as I have no idea why I've decided to call him Nipper) and Stubby, the gull whose legs are missing just below the knees. Yet another gull limps along the sand. What happened to these birds? How were their injuries sustained? How long can they survive? Are they now out of the gene pool, so to speak? 

The mild breeze feels pleasant on bare arms and legs as I look out along the beach and listen to the surf — the sound rising in pitch before the sudden crash that fades gradually into the hiss of foam across the low sandbar. Strangely, I can smell nothing. Perhaps I've simply become habituated to the particular slightly sharp, softly salt smell of the sea, or perhaps it's like the taste of pure, clean water — so fresh it needs no further flavour. Not like further back along the stream, though, near the place where we saw the stoat. There, as we picked a path among the boulders, the stink of something decaying rose from somewhere in the jumble of wrack; a particularly marine reek, distinctly different from but just as nauseating as a rotting terrestrial animal. The stench of death, recent research reveals, arises mainly from the oleic and butyric acids that are characteristic products of decomposition, but here perhaps those main ingredients have been seasoned with the odours of drying kelp, salt, desiccated barnacles and the like, or perhaps the proportions of oleic and butyric differ substantially enough so one knows, instantly, this is the edge of the sea.


On the evening beach a figure sits among the rocks, unmoving, looking out to sea. My heart sinks. This is not right: all humans should be banned from this place (except us, of course). As we draw closer the figure, a man, seems either unaware of us or unwilling to acknowledge our presence, and, perhaps surprisingly, I warm to him a little. Here, perhaps, is someone similar to us: someone for whom other people in a place like this on an evening like this are an intrusion, a spoiling of sublime solitude.
When we get within a few metres of him (we must pass close by at this constricted part of the beach) he looks up and smiles and nods; we say hello and he smiles again, looks slightly embarrassed and begins paying close attention to the daypack lying next to him. We walk on as he retrieves a stubby and lifts it to his lips; he continues to sit quietly, gazing out at the beach and the sea. Leaving him to whatever kind of meditation he's practising, we climb Watchman's Rock, the massive boulder further along the beach.

When I look back along the beach a few minutes later, I notice he's eating and I warm to him even more. To come in the evening to sit alone and watch colours change in the sea and sky, to listen to the rush and hiss of surf rushing up the sand, to smell the salt spray and the strong odour of drying wrack, and to eat a solitary dinner and enjoy a quiet drink — these are things I understand, and I appreciate those who appreciate these things.

When we return he's wearing spectacles; he's leaning forward, elbows on knees, inspecting the cover of a large, hardback book. It doesn't look like a novel. My imagination suggests something about the New Zealand shore, or ships, or lighthouses, but these are sheer speculation and it doesn't matter — my estimation of him has grown hugely. We don't try to engage him in conversation, merely exchange smiles and leave him to his reverie.


Saturday brings an influx of visitors to the camp, but by late Sunday morning only one or two other tents remain. We, in our little cabin, begin to sense the return of the Flounder Bay we know best; the Flounder Bay that, in some way, might know us. On the beach this morning we sat watching a surfer sitting on his board, apparently too freaked out to try catching the beautiful waves rolling in, and Nipper had watched us from a few metres away, perhaps hoping I'd throw him another black field cricket (I'd fed him the one I'd found crawling on my daypack); we sat, watching and being watched, and after a while Anne-Marie mentioned Barry Lopez's observation about the importance of being storied in a place if one tries to know that place. I suppose she, having visited Flounder Bay since she was a child, has become storied here. Not to the same extent as Bill, who's spent his whole life here and whose family goes back generations at Flounder Bay, but still with a personal, deep and distinctly storied relationship. Now I'm part of some of her stories here; she's in all mine here and my relationship with Flounder Bay continues to grow and deepen.
She looked towards the cliffs at the south end of the beach.
"There's a kind of...," — she hesitated — "...a kind of sadness about this place."
She traced an arc in the sand with her finger. I looked at the cliffs, the band of grey and white rock halfway up, the way the profile of the headland meets the sky.
"As if there's a history here that no one remembers, but the place still remembers it," I suggested.
I looked out to sea as the lone surfer toppled backwards from his board. We'd just missed what seemed to have been his only attempt to catch a wave. Nipper yawned, pulled his head back onto his shoulders and half closed his eyes. Perhaps he'd begun to dream of a plague of black field crickets.


Someone walks a foxie cross on the beach and a man on a four-wheeler putters along, picking up an occasional piece of driftwood and some of the more conspicuous items of rubbish. A broken fragment of a motorcycle's yellow mudguard has lain on the beach for several days, and he picks it up, turns it over and places it on the quad. He crosses the mouth of the stream between wave surges and pulls up near a dark, sinewy log. First we chat about the weather.
"Supposed to clear," he says. "Rain overnight, clearing up this afternoon."
Napier's still hidden by dark, hazy cloud, probably rain, and out at sea the Jacob's Ladders still stretch down, but at the north end of the beach sunlight catches the surf. Radiant against the dark horizon, it looks if god has stroked a finger along the crest of the swell, breaking it into a wild, luminous light.
The man tells us how just over a week ago the stream almost reached the level of the road. Hard to imagine, given it's so low and clear now. He's here now looking for wood to turn.
"Not much native stuff coming down these days," he says, giving the log at his feet a push. He gestures at a block of milled pine lying nearby. "Mostly this tanalised stuff."

Years ago, I too turned wood, mostly into bowls and boxes and, like all woodturners, became both scavenger and hoarder of wood — any log, branch or weathered plank (other than tanalised pine) would be inspected, assessed and, if it made the grade, stored. I could get a box out of that, I'd think, or even an inlay for the lid of a box. So the hoard of scraps and lengths grew, covered with shavings and sanding dust, most of it never to be used. But I did turn some lovely items and took pride in producing pieces with an elegance and simplicity all too rare at that time among the mostly lumpish bowls cluttering the overcrowded souvenir and craft shops.

That was years ago, though, and the effort of regaining and improving those long dormant skills seems too much like a distraction. We leave the man sawing the end off the water-soaked log and cross the stream, heading north. The sea, foaming around our ankles and sucking the sand from beneath our soles, feels almost as warm as a spa.


We walk north along the Goat Track to Earthquake Bay. Through the Swarovskis, from a point shortly before the long beach begins, I see two people on foot, possibly the odd, almost pathologically uncommunicative couple camped below us, and someone on a four-wheeler. A fire, once large but now almost burned out, smoulders on the sand near the lagoon, sending faint blue smoke inland. We amble along the beach, skipping stones across the foamy water between breakers. The undertow's fearsome: even ankle-deep, one feels it pulling hard; when the water's shin deep, staying upright requires concentration; when the wave pulls back it exposes a good fifteen metres of black, glistening shingle. It's impossible not to think of tsunamis — how the sea draws back before the giant wave surges in to smash and swallow the land. These waves aren't tsunamis but they're big enough to impress me and the break travels along the wave much better than it does at Flounder Bay: surfers would love them but, as Anne-Marie points out, getting through them to the point where one could catch a ride could be a mighty battle.
The mouth of the lagoon now meets the sea much further south than it has on our previous visits, and, unlike then, it's uncrossable. No question about it — the surge swirls and foams and heaves skyward when a wave hits, then sucks out to sea viciously. Spectacular, yes; feasible to cross, no.

So we sit on the edge of the lagoon, slather on more sunscreen and eat a late, makeshift lunch: cold sausage, a handful of scroggin, an apple. Then we skip stones again and my best effort sends one in a great series of leaps almost three-quarters of the way to the other side. Find a flat stone on any beach and the urge to skip it is irresistible. Maybe, at some stage of our evolution, the ability to skip stones conferred some advantage — the development or demonstration of excellent coordination, perhaps — and became part of our genetic heritage? On the other hand, maybe it's just great fun.

The people I saw earlier have gone. The beach belongs to us, or maybe we belong to the beach, but mostly this place belongs to the birds — a big gang of black-backed gulls, a few red-bills and white-fronted terns, a black shag, a solitary white-faced heron, a pair of kahu — and the sea. As the tide rises, the waves grow bigger, more intense; they rush over the shingle bar and surge along the lagoon — once, we have to scramble to shift our packs to higher ground. When we begin walking back, the beach below the great mass of driftwood and wrack and flotsam has almost disappeared. This place reminds me of imagined coasts in wild places a thousand miles from any humans; places inhabited by birds and seals, littered with white bones, lashed by storms and lit by the hand of god. Of course, here the nearest human might only be half a kilometre away in the old, mouldering shacks between the lagoon and the weathered macrocarpas, and the bones on this beach are more likely to be those of sheep or cattle than seals or whales (or castaways). But the sea and the shingle fight here the way they do on all such coasts.
And, despite the possible proximity of humans, the place has an emptiness about it that makes any human presence seem temporary, marginal. One could live a life here and afterwards the place would continue as if that life had left it untouched. Some places accept us and change, but others resist; even if we alter those places physically by farming or dredging or building, something about them remains unchanged. In the past this would have been called the spirit of the place, but now that phrase has been diminished, made superficial; an enlightened view would see this as nothing more than the mere projection of our own desires. That seems to go too far. Lopez's claim that a place can know you, and, by implication accept or reject you, seems far more true, but I don't know how to prove the enlightened ones wrong; conversely, I can't see how they can prove I'm wrong.

On the return to Flounder Bay I glimpse something moving fast among the rocks at the high tide line. Another glimpse — a stoat! Could it be the same one we saw last Friday? It's a long way from the south end of Flounder Bay, but stoats have large home ranges: in four days, surely it could have made it here? But it's impossible to tell.

The low sand bank at the mouth of the stream cracks and collapses into the swiftly rushing current, only slightly disturbing the standing waves. More cracks appear elsewhere; before our eyes they widen and another section slumps into the stream. Even as we stand watching, the stream moves south, one collapse at a time. Twenty minutes from now we'd be standing in the water. Meanwhile the evening waves crash in over dark rocks and a thin sheet of white foam slides down the face of one rock like a strange creature — some kind of alien slime mould perhaps — or a time-lapse film of the spread of a fungus. Over the sea, soft clouds; all the shades of grey and white, a few almost black, and a faint hint of evening colour in pastel shades of mauve and salmon. I have no idea how I could photograph this.

Later, the memory starts me thinking. Give someone a hammer and everything looks like a nail; give someone a camera and everything looks like a photo. I suppose that's true, but even without tools the trap remains: for those who write, everything looks like words. More to the point, those of us for whom writing is essential find ourselves constantly struggling to find the right words — no, more than that: the best words in the best order. But would it sometimes be better to leave the moment unwritten? Words can drain the life from a moment just as effectively as a photograph. Still, Lopez abandoned his cameras when he realised how they removed him from the moment, how they interfered with being present, but he abandoned them in order to write from more intense, immediate experience. And even Bashô, one of the four pillars of modern haiku — the master who exhorted us, if we want to learn from the pine, go to the pine — couldn't bring himself to enter the moment so completely that he'd have to abandon his writing. Perhaps, then, I can be excused for continuing to strive to find the best words in the best order, hoping that even as I fail I might be getting better.
On the road from Flounder Bay to the main highway, in one of the dips along the crest of the hills before the road begins its descent, we see a weasel running across in front of the car, carrying something (a mouse, I think) in its mouth. It runs right under the car but somehow misses the wheels; when I glance at the rear-vision mirror I see it slipping into the grass at the side of the road. When I mention it to Bill he tells me weasels are more common here than stoats. Three sightings of mustelids within a fortnight — the greatest frequency I can remember. Part of me despairs for the consequences of such an abundance — the birds and invertebrates being lost continuously to these small, efficient predators — but another part of me can't help rejoice in their sheer grace and vitality, and the knowledge, best appreciated by small boys, that here are things that could do you harm.
Today the property has been in Bill's family for exactly one hundred years.
"Tenth of February 1910," he says, and we talk about what life was like a hundred years ago.
"A trip to town took two days," Bill says, and tells us a little about the history of Flounder Bay, about the tsunami hundreds of years ago; how it took so many of the people most skilled and how, therefore, the local Maori had to learn many of those skills again; how the loss of those skills led to conflict and eventually to the massacre in Kowhero Stream.
"Hardly anyone knows about it now," he says.
I remember Anne-Marie's comment about how this place seems imbued with a sadness, and I feel a sudden shiver of the uncanny.

1. “…he retrieves a stubby and lifts it to his lips…” — a stubby in this context is a small bottle of beer, usually about 330 ml.
2. Black field cricket: Teleogryllus commodus, a common, non-native pasture pest in warmer parts of Aotearoa.
3. “…Barry Lopez's observation about the importance of being storied in a place…” —
Barry Lopez (1997). A literature of place. Retrieved 28 February 2010, from
http://arts.envirolink.org/literary_arts/BarryLopez_LitofPlace.html. In the article he writes:
“Over time I have come to think of these three qualities--paying intimate attention; a storied relationship to a place rather than a solely sensory awareness of it; and living in some sort of ethical unity with a place--as a fundamental human defense against loneliness. If you're intimate with a place, a place with whose history you're familiar, and you establish an ethical conversation with it, the implication that follows is this: the place knows you're there. It feels you. You will not be forgotten, cut off, abandoned.”
4. “…lunch: cold sausage, a handful of scroggin, an apple…” — scroggin is an indeterminate mixture of things like nuts, raisins, chocolate and other goodies. Known elsewhere in the world as trail mix or gorp.
5. "…the best words in the best order…"— the reference is to Samuel Taylor Coleridge: "prose = words in their best order; poetry = the best words in their best order."

Photos (click to enlarge the smaller photos):
1. Flounder Bay at dusk, a glimpse of the sky in the stream.
2. Elf prints and wrack. 
3. Nipper on patrol.
4. Big surf at the shingle bar, Earthquake Bay.
5. Wrack on the beach at Flounder Bay.
6. After the wave.

Photos and original text © 2010 Pete McGregor