05 August 2020

Verandah thoughts

Towards dusk I sat on the verandah drinking tea and listening to the silence and the drip of rainwater from the evening’s drizzle. The meagre runoff from the roof sounded curiously like an animal cropping grass; so much so, in fact, that I eventually stood and peered over the verandah railing in the illogical attempt to see if I could spot the miniature sheep, the one that didn’t and couldn’t exist, ripping at the grass. Of course, when I looked, it had a moment earlier stopped eating and returned to the realm of the impossible. Two indisputably real magpies prowled the middle of the far side of the paddock in front of the house, and I hoped a rabbit might appear but it didn’t. I had to admit I was spoiled; I was expecting too much, too many animal sightings. Earlier in the evening I’d seen a rabbit sprinting for cover across the damp back paddock, and at nine o’clock this morning I’d studied a pipiwharauroa at close range through the binoculars. The green iridescence of its plumage delighted me, even though the bird looked a little scruffy, as if a summer’s worth of parasitising the nests of other birds had left it worn out and under-appreciated. I guess ruining the reproductive potential of others isn’t as easy as it sounds.

   Yesterday evening I’d seen a big, reddish-brown hare wiping its ears clean on the back hill, and the evening before that — the evening of my first full day back in the valley after two-and-a-half months in India — I saw a family of pheasants hanging out with a very large rabbit, possibly the Lizzo of rabbits, right at the back of the farm near the fence that marked the boundary between the neatly shorn paddocks and the ungrazed, wild, long-grassed slip with its long-fallen pines. The windfall is almost hidden now by the long dry grass — just a few branches rising up like the snake-necked heads of sea monsters. I’ve seen wild deer feeding there, just a few metres from the fence, and that’s a sight that beats all but the very best of Attenborough’s documentaries.

   Now though, as I sat in the dusk drinking tea and waiting for animals, I was thinking about a documentary I’d just finished watching: H is For Hawk — A New Chapter. Presented by the original book’s author, Helen Macdonald, the film follows her as she trains a new goshawk, ten years after the events of the book. I was watching the documentary On Demand, so the picture quality wasn’t great, but I loved the film nevertheless. It seemed so wonderfully detached from the twenty-first century, from what we think of as contemporary society: nothing about politics, nothing about social media, nothing about economics, almost nothing about technology (even the tiny transmitter attached to the bird had a steam-punk look). Yet the characters, human and bird, as well as her narration, conveyed a sense of something not just arcane but profound, of deep knowledge and understanding, of working with something rather than on it. Something wonderful was happening, and it was focused on a bird that was beautiful and wild and more than a little mysterious. To live with a bird like that required love and understanding and acceptance as well as enormous patience and commitment, none of those at a superficial level. I’m tempted to say there’s a moral there — that the world would be a far better place if we treated not just goshawks but each other with love and understanding and acceptance as well as enormous patience and commitment — and that’s surely indisputable. But that would be missing the most important point. This film wasn’t about trying to find lessons to apply to human interactions. It was about a process and a result which in ‘practical’ terms are mystifyingly useless and in terms that actually matter are priceless.

1. I wrote this in February, a few weeks after returning from India and Nepal and before the world changed, but to me it still seems relevant.

Photo: Not a goshawk. A karearea (New Zealand falcon) that came to check me out on the No. 1 Line track a few days after we moved out of Level 4 lockdown.

Photos and original text © 2020 Pete McGregor