“Birds know themselves not to be at the center of anything, but at the margins of everything. The end of the map.
We only live where someone’s horizon sweeps someone else’s. We are only noticed on the edge of things; but on the edge of things, we notice much.”
― Gregory Maguire,
In the mornings, when the sun is hiding behind the low hills beyond Taheke, preening itself just prior to making a Grand Entrance, I walk out onto the wet grass in front of the house, allowing its moist coolness to ooze up between my toes, and and I listen to the ever-present residual warmth of Papatuanuku, my Mother the Earth hum against the soles of my feet. There is a deep and real contentment to be had from standing barefoot on the planet, a sense of real connection to it.
My Samoan friends maintain that we should all spend at least 20 minutes each day barefoot on the ground. Concrete or wooden decking just isn’t the same. I think that every home should have a small patch of real grass, even if it is just large enough for both feet. For a moment I imagine myself going into one of those sprawling garden shops, which offer me plants that will never survive where I live, slipping past 20 types of sprinkler and pallets of dull-smelling fertiliser and sliding up to the counter. When the assistant offers to help me, I will ask for some ReadyLawn. Then, when he asks me how much, I will confidently frame an area in the air above the counter about 60cm by 60cm and say: O, about that much. I can see the puzzlement follow his eyebrows up his face and then morph into worry and suspicion as it begins to dawn that I am the first nutter in his shop for the day. I am sorry, sir, but we don’t usually get asked for so…. little. And then, perhaps, curiosity will get the better of him and he will not be able to stop himself from asking: what do you need it for? I will reply brightly: to make a small place at my home where I can stand barefoot upon the Earth each morning and ground myself. You know, Samoans say you should spend at least 20 minutes each day barefoot on the Earth. It is good for your soul. By then he will have classified me as a A Gold Star certified fruit bat, let out for the day. He will stumble over himself to serve me and get me out of his shop. He may even give it to me for free, just to be rid of me, so he can go back to selling poinsettias, azaleas and plastic punnets of vegetable plants to normal people.
I have come to love and treasure the Coming of the Light at sunrise and the Passing of the Light after sunset, when the ancestors return. These are times to be thankful, and to just Be, to give thanks for what will come and to give thanks for what has come. There is a lesson in everything and everyone contained within a day.
Somewhere along the road from There to Here, from Then to Now, I became aware of manu, of birds. Perhaps it started with the kahu (hawks) I saw on my travels in the South Island. I would see them out in the fields, circling lazily. I would see them as they drifted in above the road I was driving, preceding me for a time, then angling away unhurriedly. I would see them feasting on roadkill. Usually they would make haste to unhook from their prey and gain altitude, until finally I learned to slow down and give them time to make a dignified departure. Then they began to stay there, and would watch meunblinkingly, as I swerved gently around them. That was the best part of the encounter, looking in their eyes and seeing that fierce unyielding spirit. I would accelerate slowly away, smiling at the encounter in the rear–view mirror of my memory.
After a month I returned home to the Hokianga and enforced stasis. I began to breathe again as, little by little, day by day, I reattuned myself to the mysterious wairua of the whenua (land). Then I really began to notice the birds. In the mornings clouds of warou, or welcome swallows, would circle the house, agilely skating in and out of the garage as they feasted on insect life I couldn’t see. Occasionally they would line up in disorder on the lone powerline passing the house. I would imagine them as single musical notes and attempt to form the tune. I always failed. It didn’t matter.
One evening a Piwakawaka (fantail) flew into the house, chirping merrily as it skittered around the lounge, until it lit on the windowsill above the kitchen bench, trying in vain to get through the glass. I pushed the window open and it flitted away into the shallowing evening. I knew that in some way it was a tohu, a sign.
One evening, as the day was fading to black, a piece of shadow brushed silently and suddenly past me, startling me with its mute effortlessness, as it flared effortlessly onto the fencepost across the road. It was a ruru, a native owl. I saw its outline but no detail. It was Darker on Dark. It looked directly at me for a time, then eased its way through the night, flying up the power pole, pulling a wingover near the top, and then sliding back down to land on the same fencepost. Tena koe, Koro, I said. Hello, Uncle. Who are you? It looked back at me in silence. Then it repeated the manoeuvre. It did this several times. Sorry, I apologised, I am out of fresh, warm mice for you. I was entranced. Every night I had heardruru calling in the trees and away in the darkness. Now one had come in to visit. After a time, perhaps frustrated by my lack of understanding, it slid away, blending back into the darkness. How special, I thought as I went back inside.
The next night it returned just after sunset, as I was leaning on the fence, and the night after that. I still didn’t understand. Perhaps it gave up, for I didn’t see it after that.
Then one morning, as I was watching the day inch its way across the harbour, I heard a new sound nearby, an insistent four-note command that demanded my attention. I looked towards the source and there, perched on the power line, staring inscrutably at the sun, was a kotare, a native kingfisher. From time to time it would turn its head and look at me. I stood silent and still, and watched. Another tohu. Then another kotare joined it. And another. Lined up companiably on the wire,they all chirped merrily at the rising day. Then, one by one, as the morning built in strength and ferocity, they flew away.
The next morning, they were back on the wire. And as I became conscious of them, for I hadn’t ever seensone before except in books, I saw them more and more. I would see them during the day, as I drove around the harbour’s edge, sitting on power lines, in branches and flitting purposefully among the mangroves, doing whatever it is kotare do. They became companions, markers, punctuation marks in my day. It reminded of the strange phenomenon that happens when you buy a new car. After you have driven away from the dealer’s yard you suddenly realise how many other discerning owners are out there, who have made the same wise choice as you.
Yet again, the thought crossed my mind that perhaps I should be photographing them, but the thought of going hunting with a lens which wouldn’t have looked out of place on a battle tank, seemed somehow…disrespectful. I didn’t need to prove I could, I wasn’t aiming for any awards, since such things had become meaningless, and anyway I didn’t have one of those lenses. Or the patience to use it.
So. How do you photograph something when you can’t, and don’t want to anyway?
The short answer is: you don’t. You take a recording with your mind and heart, and then file it away for future replay in a cinema for one.
And sometimes that is enough.