26 March 2015

Three fine things

One of the great perks of working for a university is access to an excellent library. Right now I have several books on loan from Massey’s library, and yesterday, walking to the car carrying three of those, I thought how they summed up my major interests — my delights, or perhaps even passions (or, less kindly, obsessions). One was Phillip Lopate’s To Show and to Tell: The Craft of Literary Nonfiction, one was Jerry Thompson’s Truth and Photography: Notes on Looking and Photographing, and one was Jean Drèze and Amartya Sen’s An Uncertain Glory: India and Its Contradictions.

Writing, photography, and India. I can think of worse interests, worse things to be passionate about or obsess over — cars, golf, and reality shows, for example. I’m sure cars, golf, and reality shows can be defended as worthy obsessions, but defending them would sound like rationalising — an attempt, after the fact, to justify the indefensible. In contrast, I find it harder to see how defending an interest in writing, photography, or India could be criticised as mere rationalisation, but I’m biased.

I'm not just biased, though: I’m also comfortable with these kinds of contentious assertions, at least when I make them or when they’re made by people I like. (In fact, I might even like them more when someone I like makes them, because then I don’t have to make them and can instead keep quiet and appear reasonable and fair-minded, although I’m not.)

But back to my three delights (not the only ones, of course, but they’re right up there at the top with a few others). As I thought about them, I realised how well they complement each other. Writing and photography — well, the way they go together should be obvious. Conversely, they sometimes work against each other, as is the case in a great many books where either the text or the photographs dominate, one subordinate and usually diminished as a consequence. Coffee table books, for example: great photographs (sometimes), but even when the text amounts to a work of literature (as, for example, John Fowles’ text accompanying Frank Horvat’s photographs in The Tree), that text would have been better read independently without the distraction of photographs that compel the eye to linger (the more haunting of Horvat’s photographs in The Tree, to use that example again).

Perhaps, though, that potential conflict between writing and photographs creates the kind of challenge that leads to something better — not conflict, but a kind of creative tension. No great work of art ever comes easily, except perhaps to geniuses, whose existence I doubt, having been disappointed so often by their works. For writing and photography, the challenge remains, in my view, unmet — I’ve yet to see the book I want to see: one where the text and the photographs don’t just avoid competing with each other but complement each other in a way that creates a greater work of art than the two simply juxtaposed.

And India? Well, what better subject for writing and photographing? That should say it all, so I’ll say no more, bearing in mind Amartya Sen’s quotation from one of his teachers, economist Joan Robinson, who said, ‘...whatever you can rightly say about India, the opposite is also true.’

How true.

1. The mention of the three books in the first paragraph should not necessarily be taken as a recommendation because I haven't read them yet. I have, however, now read much of Phillip Lopate's book and have found it enjoyable and thought-provoking. 

1. At Leh, October 2014.
2. On the flight from Kazakhstan to Kathmandu, September 2014. You can see a larger version of this photograph on The Ruins of the Moment.

Photos and original text © 2015 Pete McGregor

09 March 2015

Weta, rat, dog tucker

New Zealanders use the expression ‘dog tucker’ — literally, dog food — to describe something or someone about to meet disaster. For example, a professional rugby coach whose team loses eight straight games will inevitably be described as dog tucker — his sacking will be as certain as sunrise. Sadly, the term doesn’t just apply to rugby coaches, as I found out last night while prowling around the lower section of the No. 1 Line track, looking for interesting animals to photograph. Only a few minutes after entering the forest, I came across a beautiful, large, female weta — a flightless, nocturnal, grasshopper-like insect — sitting on the trunk of a tree at about head height. I photographed her and carried on up the track. Not long afterwards, I had an encounter that left me depressed, thinking this beautiful, ancient insect would inevitably end up as dog tucker.

Or, in this case, another type of tucker.

I’d heard something that sounded like the rasping of another weta but not quite right for that. I picked my way past the giant rimu and through a tangle of shrubbery, turning my head so the lamp played over the ground, along the fallen, rotting branches, and over the foliage. Nothing. Then I heard the sound again and turned towards it. A shadow moved, then two small orange-yellow eyes glowed back at me. I kept the headlamp trained on the eyes and switched it to full power. There, sitting on the fallen stipe of a tree fern frond, was Rattus rattus — the black, ship, or roof rat.

New Zealand has three species of rats, all introduced by humans. Kiore (Rattus exulans) are now rare on mainland New Zealand, and brown rats (Rattus norvegicus) tend to stay close to the ground, so they pose little risk to arboreal animals — my weta would probably be safe if she stayed up her tree. But black rats climb nimbly, as this one demonstrated when it finally ran off along a thin, flexible stem of supplejack and vanished into the night.

In New Zealand, the two pests with the highest public profiles are possums and stoats. While rats do get mentioned, in the public’s consciousness of conservation pests they rate less highly compared to possums and stoats, yet an infestation of Rattus rattus means disaster not only for the larger native insects like weta, ground beetles, and some of our spectacular weevils, but for birds too — the agile black rat easily raids nests, devouring eggs, chicks, and sometimes the adult birds who, particularly at night, can be sitting ducks (or in this case, fantails, riflemen, tomtits, and so on).

Rats also damage ecosystems by eating seeds. While some seeds need to be eaten so the plant can disperse, rats are not effective dispersers of larger seeds like those of tawa (a bit like an olive). Kereru, New Zealand’s native pigeon, swallow tawa fruits and crap the seeds out, often well away from the fruiting tree (Wotton & Kelly, 2012), but a tawa fruit is too big for a rat to swallow whole. Instead, the rat will do its usual ratty thing, nibbling away the flesh and either dropping the seed without dispersing it or gnawing the seed and therefore destroying it.

I could go on about the evils of rats, particularly black rats, but a more pressing point is what we should do about them. The good news is that possum and stoat control operations both kill rats. Rats eat and are killed by the poison baits used for possum control, and the traps used for stoat control also trap and kill rats. The bad news is that these control programmes don’t cover the whole country. They certainly don’t include the No. 1 Line track.

When I returned over an hour later, past the tree where I’d photographed the weta, she’d gone. I hoped she’d climbed higher into the canopy where she might be harder for a rat to find. The very fact she’d survived and grown to adulthood comforted me. Rats might have a relatively low status in the public consciousness compared to possums and stoats, but weta are ingrained in the national psyche — so much so that the company responsible for the remarkable special effects in Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings films named itself after these charismatic insects — and the thought that weta might become rare around here appalled me. More than that, though, I’d formed an attachment to this particular weta, who had been so cooperative, calmly sitting there while I photographed her. I hadn’t seen a big beautiful weta like this for a long time. She was the only one I saw last night (although I heard a couple more), and I couldn’t bear to think she was dog tucker.

Or, more accurately, rat tucker.

1. Strictly, 'weta' should have a macron over both vowels, thus: 'wētā'. The word without macrons has an entirely different meaning, but in practice you're unlikely to be misunderstood.

1. Last night's weta: Hemideina crassidens, the Wellington tree weta. The long thing that looks like a sting is her ovipositor—the apparatus she uses to deposit her eggs.
2. ... And this is last night's Rattus rattus. Note the very long tail and large ears, characteristics distinguishing it from the Brown rat, R. norvegicus. You can see a larger version of the photograph on The Ruins of the Moment.

Wotton, D. M., & Kelly, D. (2012). Do larger frugivores move seeds further? Body size, seed dispersal distance, and a case study of a large, sedentary pigeon. Journal of Biogeography, 39(11), 1973–1983. doi: 10.1111/jbi.12000

Photos and original text © 2015 Pete McGregor