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