24 December 2018

Bending like a reed

At the City library the low afternoon sun was flashing from a sign that hung, swaying in a cool wind, over the footpath. The angle of the reflected light was such that it hit me — and, as far as I could work out, only me — at exactly the right angle to blind me, as if I was being questioned by a military interrogator who was convinced I was a spy or terrorist, or who just liked being a sadistic arsehole. I had to turn my head and close my eyes and lean to one side and trust that in a few minutes the sunlight would have slid off the swaying sign and I’d be able focus my attention entirely on Thom, whose talk, entitled Bend Like a Reed, was the reason I was sitting there with a dozen other people, listening.

I recognised three: the elderly woman who perfectly fitted the adjective I didn’t want to use because it sounded patronising (namely, ‘sprightly’); the young guy from Bruce McKenzie’s bookshop; and the dishevelled Poet, who slumped in the chair in front of me, spilling out of the ragged green jersey that looked as if it had shrunk in the wash but was still too big for him. The right sleeve had an enormous hole that must have driven him mad every time he pulled the jersey on and ended up poking his hand through the wrong hole in his sleeve. Mind you, I found it impossible to imagine the Poet being driven mad by anything, because I’d never seen him animated; if anyone wanted to explain ‘phlegmatic’, The Poet was the perfect example.

The sun did eventually move off the sign and stopped blinding me, and I could begin to concentrate on Thom’s silhouette and what he was saying. He mentioned his late colleague, Scott, whom I’d met several times and who was a good friend of a good friend of mine, and he referred to a point Scott had made about writing and the importance of ‘the abyss of mystery’, and gradually I began to understand what he was saying — or I thought I did. If I did, what Thom was saying reassured me, because I thought the same thing, and to hear Thom affirm it gave me some hope that maybe my own approach to writing — which seemed in so many ways to conflict with the conventional advice about writing — might not be as wrong as I thought.

If I understood correctly, what Thom was saying was that it’s important not to know — at least, not too clearly — what you’re writing. Perhaps what he was getting at was that good writing is an act of creation, which, almost by definition, must be spontaneous in the sense of happening at the moment of being written. If you know what you’re going to write, the writing is no longer an act of creation — it’s already been created.

The following evening (the evening I wrote the draft of this, in other words), I made my way to Barista, bought a coffee and sat down to write. I had no idea what I’d write about, so I began anyway, and soon after I’d jotted down some notes about being blinded in the library at the start of Thom’s talk, the sun slipped through the cafe windows and, reflecting from the varnished tabletop, dazzled me. I shaded my eyes, bent like a reed over the abyss of mystery, and carried on writing.

1. About Thom Conroy

Photos (you can connect them with the text if you think hard enough): 
1. Willow in wind and drizzle, Pohangina Valley
2. Waipawa River headwaters, Ruahine Range

Photos and original text © 2018 Pete McGregor

22 November 2018

Bird skull stories (2)

So you’d like to hear another story about birds and skulls, and maybe bird skulls, would you? I could tell you hundreds of stories about birds — shall we start there? Yes?

Years ago I was walking alone down the headwaters of the Pohangina River in the Ruahine Range, a place of small tough mountains and wildness; a place of snowgrass fields on mountaintops, and whole mountainsides of leatherwood, which is the toughest plant you'll ever not want to try getting through; a place that can delight you with its warmth and sunshine and lovely old kaikawaka trees all gnarly and moss-hung, and small steep creeks that promise all sorts of surprises and hidden special places, and its special birds like karearea the falcon, and titipounamu the rifleman (the tiniest bird in Aotearoa), and ruru the morepork whose call at night is one of the most beautiful and melancholy of all owl calls, and most of all, whio, the blue duck, who you won’t find anywhere in the world in the wild except in those high, rushing, New Zealand mountain rivers. Only a few thousand of those wonderful birds survive in all the world, so what sheer joy it is to see them, especially when you’re alone in those places and you sit down to watch and they begin to settle and relax and think, oh, he’s OK, he’s no threat, and they climb out of the river onto a rock and preen their feathers and stretch their wings one at a time, and then they slip into the water again and swim right past you, so close you have to put the binoculars down and pull yourself together again.

But that's a different story. Let’s get back to ours, shall we?

There I was, walking alone down the Pohangina in the early morning when the sun, still low, was making the toetoe on the slips glow gold, so the reflection on the dark pools and shallow rapids looked like molten brass. I had all day to walk down the river to the next hut, and because it was summer and the river was low, the water felt only cool, not cold, and I was enjoying wading across and back again, so I took my time walking and looking around.

At a big pool in the shade with rapids downstream and a small cliff on the opposite side, I stopped to watch the colours on the water. I took off my pack and got the camera out. In the branches of a beech tree leaning out over the cliff and overhanging the pool, a little miromiro began calling and flitting about. I photographed the reflections then packed the camera away, and then, as I began to re-tie one of my bootlaces, the miromiro came flying across the pool, straight toward me. I stood up, and it landed in the shallow water — at my feet.

I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. The little bird splashed and fluttered in the water right next to my boots, and I wondered whether it was in trouble and whether I should pick it up out of the water.

What would you have done?

Maybe wait and see, you say? That’s a good answer. I wish I could say that’s what I decided, but to tell the truth, I only did that because I was so surprised I didn’t know what to do. I just stood there, astonished, while it splashed at my feet.

Then it flew up out of the water with a flicker of sparkling drops and flew back to the tree on the far side of the pool.

Maybe it was having its morning wash? But why did it come right up to me, though? The water was shallow for several metres either side of me, so it could have had its bath further away, not right at my feet.

Do you think it liked me? I hope so.

Maybe one summer you, too, will walk alone down a river like that in the early morning, and a little miromiro will come down to splash at your feet. I hope that happens, but if it doesn't, maybe something else strange and inexplicable and wonderful will happen to you instead, and when it does, I hope the joy will flow through you the way it flowed through me, that day a long time ago, alone in a clear, bright, summer river in the early morning in one of the Earth's wild places.

1. This is Part 2 of the Bird Skull Stories
2. I know this one's not about skulls — not explicitly, anyway.
3. The facts in this story are true. This happened to me.

1 & 2. Miromiro on the No. 1 Line track (the first is a male; the second is a female). I didn't photograph the miromiro in this story.
3. The Pohangina River near Leon Kinvig hut, November 2018. Tthe pool in this story is about an hour further downriver.

Photos and original text © 2018 Pete McGregor