24 September 2020

The magpie

I'd been sitting at the kitchen table marking assignments and wearing out my brain, so late in the morning I slung the camera over my shoulder and strolled down the driveway. At the bend I headed towards the letterbox and, as I neared the water trough in the corner of the orchard paddock, a magpie took to the air. It flew awkwardly and I had the impression it was a young bird, although September seems early. I stopped and watched it fly into the big tarata, where it scrabbled briefly before settling on a branch. I took the camera off my shoulder, and as I did so the magpie toppled backwards and hung by its feet from the branch, upside down, wings outstretched. I photographed it, twice, as it hung there.
And then it just dropped. Like the proverbial stone. I heard it hit the ground, and I stood there, waiting for it to get up, but it didn’t. Finally, I walked over and saw it lying on its back, perfectly still. I thought maybe it was playing dead. Maybe this was some kind of defensive behaviour? Magpies are complex and interesting birds, and I wouldn’t have been surprised to have seen this kind of unusual behaviour.
The bird lay on its back, just out of reach beyond the wire fence and I didn’t want to try because that would achieve nothing except further stressing it. I watched it for a minute or so, beginning to feel concerned, and then decided the best thing I could do would be to leave it alone to recover. I’d heard another magpie squawk when the young bird first flew across the drive, but since then I’d neither seen nor heard any adult bird. 
I walked to the letterbox, checked the mail, and on the way back checked the magpie.
It still lay on its back in exactly the same position, and I saw its eye had begun to cloud over. No question now: it was dead.
I have no idea what happened and felt terrible. I couldn’t escape the feeling that I was in some way responsible, even though I knew I wasn’t. But what I felt wasn’t important; what mattered was that a living, complex, wonderful bird had gone from being aware and conscious to being an inanimate collection of feathers and bone and muscle and blood. And a brain that had ceased to function, a mind no longer aware. 

Photos and original text © 2020 Pete McGregor

10 September 2020

The Hermit Marshes

The day after the deluge, I saw the aftermath — how the rough paddock beside the railway line had turned into a small marsh, the water shining like polished zinc in the quiet morning light, the low rushes reminding me of the places I found so fascinating and wonderful as a child and still do. The small marshy paddock reminded me of places I’ve never seen but want to go — places where wizened sages live solitary lives in small huts and spend their days listening to the thin cries of strange birds, fishing for eels and catfish that taste mostly of mud, watching the trickle of smoke from the small fire rise into the low damp sky, drinking tea from small cracked cups with a patina accumulated year after year after year, at night watching the moon and eating their meagre meals of rice and vegetables and mud-fish, and just sitting there motionless so anyone seeing them would think they were meditating and therefore must be wise and enlightened. But really, they just sit there.

I want to see those places and I don’t even know if they still exist. Most have probably been drained and turned into productive land. ‘Productive’ — I detest that word. To me, it connotes the taking of something beautiful and wondrous and mysterious and removing those qualities so the thing becomes merely useful. It’s like seeing a gorgeous pheasant dustbathing in sunlight in a little clearing in a small stand of scrub in a forgotten corner of a farm and seeing only a meal’s worth of pheasant meat. Productivity would argue for clearing the scrub to grow ryegrass and white clover and get one more stock unit’s worth of grazing, which of course would produce more meat than a stringy old pheasant. This, apparently, would be making good use of the land. 

‘Productivity’ values quantity over quality, and in that contest between quantity and quality, quantity will always win because by its very nature it’s easy to measure; quality, on the other hand, is far harder — and often impossible — to measure.

So, I wonder whether, or to what extent, those exquisite, unknown, lonely places still survive. Probably they don't, but I’d like to go there anyway, but now the world is out of bounds. Maybe these words, or someone else’s better words, are the only way to do that now.

I drove on past the idea of marshes and thought about why travelling, meaning the movement, the actual going from place to place, seems so appealing. I love sitting in a bus, going somewhere, and I’d be happy sitting in a bus as long as the bus was in motion, going somewhere. While I’m on that bus I can’t attend to important matters — productive tasks, that is. I can’t work in any reasonable sense; I can’t read (at least not for more than a few seconds); I can’t do anything productive in the usual sense of that awful word. For a few hours I’m free from the demands of the world.

Maybe that’s why I sometimes prefer buses over trains — on a train writing is almost possible, so I think maybe I should be writing. On the kind of trains where you sit stealing glances across a small, cold, shiny table at the person sitting facing you (who you sense is also stealing glances at you), writing would be perfectly possible if I decided to open a laptop or tablet, but buses don’t offer that option. Handwriting's even harder — far harder. The best I can do is jot a quick, short note or two when the train or bus stops, or scrawl, usually illegibly, when it's moving. The Traveler’s Notebook I carry everywhere carries a record of my travels not just in what I've written but in how it's written — when I browse through it and come across what appears to be written in Urdu (which I neither write nor understand), I know I was on a train or bus. I've seen people jot notes by hand in a moving bus, but I haven’t developed that skill and have no idea how they manage it.

But it’s irrelevant anyway, because mostly I don’t want to write on a bus or train or aeroplane because I have more important things to do, like nothing, or looking out the window at the place I’m passing through and letting my mind wander. The importance of these inactivities cannot be overestimated. For me, time travelling is time out.

Having said that, I’ll now point out I have written in aeroplanes. While they still seem like time out for me and I'd furiously resent having to work on a plane, they’re usually so smooth it’s easy to write by hand in the Traveler’s Notebook or the big Moleskine cahier on the fold-out tray table. Even that has shortcomings, though, because the person in the adjacent seat (on both sides if I’m unlucky) will inevitably want to sneak a look at what I’m writing, and even if I’d otherwise be happy to share the writing, the knowledge that someone might be surreptitiously reading constrains my writing; in fact, sometimes all I can find to write about is the awkwardness of writing about someone sneaking a look at what I’m writing, which of course makes it impossible to write.

Nevertheless, I can sometimes write while in motion, moving from place to place. Last summer I managed several times to write extensively in the Traveler’s Notebook while flying — for example, on the final flight from Kuala Lumpur to Delhi, when I glimpsed, far below between white clouds, the Andaman Islands and longed to be there and knew I never would; or between bouts of gazing out the window at the Himalaya while returning from Kathmandu to Delhi, the giants breaking through ragged cloud, gleaming with snow, their shoulders patterned with bare dark and yellow rock. I recognised the Annapurna massif, could see the Sanctuary in deep shadow, saw Machapuchare; I looked along the Kali Gandaki towards Dolpo and Shey and thought inevitably of Matthiessen and Schaller, of Tukten and the others and their journey. Somewhere where I was gazing, snow leopards were roaming, hunting, living solitary lives on the edge of the possible. If I had unlimited means, I thought, I’d do the trek all the way to Shey to see it with my own eyes and understand better what Matthiessen saw and felt. I scribbled notes and looked back out the window. The mountains went on forever, lower now but still magical. I looked down and realised we must by now be flying over Bardia. Already, that time seemed distant. The plane banked slightly and shadow slid along the wing and the snows of the Himalaya drew further away. Now I recognised the distinctive forms of Trisul and Nanda Devi — we were passing over Kausani and were back in India.

I read those notes now and the ache for India returns, and that raises the paradox I don’t understand: I long for teeming India yet also long for places like the existentially lonely, hermit-haunted marshes, which I find impossible to imagine still exist in India — if anything remotely like those marshes does exist, the fish will not only taste of mud but will probably be dense with heavy metals, litter will line the waterways, goats will gnaw the rushes, and someone not more than a hundred or so metres away will snap small branches from dry shrubs for firewood.

I don't want to think about that, though. I might be wrong and hope I am. And even if I never see the hermit marshes, I want to know they still exist; I want to know that in some almost-forgotten corner of an out-of-the-way part of this old, overwrought world, some small silent sage still sips his tea as he listens to the wind in the reeds and the thin cries of unseen birds.

Photos (all from November 2019 ‒ January 2020, before the world changed).

1. Egret at Bharatpur, India

2. Plain Prinia at Bardia, Nepal

3. Trisul from Kausani, India

4. White wagtail at Bardia, Nepal

Photos and original text © 2020 Pete McGregor