Feathered Friend

The vast majority of the birds in our yard are non-native invasive pests—English sparrows, European starlings, blackbirds, goldfinches and song thrushes wreak havoc in the garden. They eat fruits and vegetables, dig up seedlings, spread mulch all over the lawn, and strip young plants of leaves. If I could net the entire yard to keep them all out I would.

But some of the avian visitors to our place are welcome. The fantails that flit in and out of the house snapping up flies are a delight. The silvereyes picking aphids off the trees are both adorable and helpful. And the magpies may be noisy and aggressive, but they are quite entertaining as they dive bomb the cat or squabble with each other.

The tall trees across the road from our place are home to a host of white-faced herons. They croak and grumble among the branches like modern pterodactyls, and I love to watch them winging home in the evenings, landing awkwardly before settling down for the night. 

They rarely give our yard a second glance, but for the past week, a young heron has taken a liking to our porch and front garden. 

There’s something wrong with him. I say that not because of his interest in our porch—it is a nice place to hang out—but because his legs are oddly splayed and he wobbles when he walks. Still, he seems to be holding his own, and he has no trouble flying out of range of the cat when he comes stalking. It’s possible his flight is impaired as well, and that’s why he’s foraging close to home in our garden. Or maybe he’s discovered our soil has lots of worms to offer. Either way, I wouldn’t mind if this bird stuck around.

The Little Things–Hakatere Conservation Park

As usual, I spent most of the long Labour Day weekend in the vegetable garden. I weeded, prepared garden beds, and planted my cucurbits in trays.

Lake Clearwater with mountains
Lake Clearwater was a mirror in the morning’s still air.

But as they say, all work and no play … I didn’t want to spend the whole holiday weekend sweating in the garden.

So on Monday my husband and I went to Hakatere Conservation Park and sweated on Mount Guy instead.

The Ashburton Lakes region is a glacially formed landscape dotted with lakes and tarns. The land around the wetlands is largely tussock grassland studded with spiny matagauri bushes. An unforgiving, windswept landscape that can feel downright bleak.

That was my impression the first time I visited. Fifteen years ago, I was hired to develop an interpretation plan for what was then a proposed park only. I had the great fortune to tour the area with a Department of Conservation ranger who had worked in the area for decades and had a great love of the landscape. He showed me the little things—not necessarily obvious at first—that set the region apart. Rare insects (including an aquatic moth!), waterfowl and lizards. Unique and diverse plants. Historical use of the land, and massive changes over geologic time. There’s a lot more than meets the eye.

One of the many skinks we saw.

On Monday, we were treated to a glorious day—sunny and calm at first, with a brisk breeze kicking in just when the day began to feel too warm. We parked at Lake Clearwater and hiked the track to the summit of Mount Guy. On our return, we followed the tussocky ridge down to a saddle where we picked up Te Araroa, following the track back to the edge of Lake Clearwater where we completed our large, loopy circuit of the lake.

mountains and river valley
View from near the top of Mount Guy. Mount Sunday is a small mound in the river valley, just to the right of centre in the photo.

The hike afforded stunning views of jagged, snow-capped peaks, and a view of Mount Sunday down in the river valley.

Oddly, out of all the “mountains” in the park, Mount Sunday may be the most famous. The hill was used as the location for Edoras in the Lord of the Rings movies. In the enormity of the surrounding landscape, however, it is an insignificant lump of rock.

Perhaps, like the hidden insects, birds, and plants, it is the little details that are the interesting bits.

Living With Earth

Coes Ford–open…just.

Nature is bigger than we are.

That’s been clear from world events the past few weeks—flooding in Indonesia, earthquake in Mexico, multiple hurricanes in the Atlantic.

We can pretend the natural world doesn’t affect us. We can do our best to engineer human structures and our daily lives so that, most of the time, we forget we are an integral part of Earth. But I think this is a terrible mistake.

On my way to and from town every day, I cross the Selwyn River. Normally, I do this at a spot called Coes Ford.

The Selwyn River floods. It’s simply part of the hydrology and ecology of the river. The low bridge over the Selwyn at Coes Ford acknowledges flooding. The bridge was never meant to allow passage over the river during a flood. It was meant to survive floods intact, and provide passage during low water.

The ford has been closed for several weeks, but reopened yesterday. The bridge itself is still underwater, but it’s passable.

To me, there is something right and good about an infrastructure that acknowledges the forces of nature and doesn’t try to control them. It is good for us to accept that, while we have great influence, we are not masters of the planet. At Coes Ford, we will be inconvenienced by floods. This is part of the natural order. It is part of what it means to live here. And if we are inconvenienced by floods, we will notice when the pattern of flooding changes. We will feel that something is amiss. Hopefully, we will do something about it. It’s not a coincidence that when the Selwyn stopped flooding and dried up last summer, the focus of the worry was at Coes Ford—that’s where the locals understand the river’s pulse the best.

If we are separated from the rhythms of the planet, we won’t notice when something is wrong, locally or globally. When we are separated from the rhythms of the planet, we may not notice problems with our life-support system until it is too late. Separated from, and ignorant of the rhythms of the planet, it’s easy to deny that there are any problems.

And so, I embrace the inconvenience of Coes Ford. I thank the engineers who chose to accept the Selwyn River for what it is. I hope that, as human technology advances, we continue to remember our interdependence on the natural systems of Earth. We must live with the earth, not on it.

Impossible Sky

I couldn't capture today's sky, but it was something like this...

I couldn’t capture today’s sky, but it was something like this…

It was another of those drive-off-the-road-gorgeous skies this evening. The kind that is completely impossible to capture in a photograph, and is more likely to be seen in a cheap painting for sale alongside velvet paintings of Elvis.

I can get lost in one of those skies.

Ripples and waves of grey cloud surging across the sky. A break just big enough to illuminate the edges, just big enough for the sea foam-salmon pink-blue of evening to peek through. The ragged shreds of dark cloud caught in shadow. And far out across the plains, a shaft of brilliant sun lighting sheets of mist shrouding the mountains.

These things only happen in bad paintings.

Or so I thought.

But the New Zealand sky is like the Andes Mountains. As a child, I was obsessed with the Andes–so impossible, so improbable in the National Geographic photos, I couldn’t believe they were real. And then I went there and climbed them, and I knew they were not.

It is the same with the New Zealand sky. To see it is to know it cannot possibly be real. It is a storybook caricature of a sky. It is a fantasy sky. It is a sky so dense with colour, you think it must have drained the rest of the world, casting everything else in black and white.

And I am so profoundly humbled and honoured to be able to call it my sky. My home.