Leaf Litter

A forest bird showed me where to go –
where I longed to be
tiny twinkling riroriro
They speak more often to quiet people
stepping slow
clambering over scrunching branches
over an old mast – unstepped forever now
tornado twisted – it lost that final battle
bows down in surrender
A million other life forms fall too, but they’re not dead
graveyard is nursery here
the forest scarcely knows the difference between life and death
between one life and another.

That old ent still sends sweet ent-draughts to all those greedy mouths
filigree ferns erupt from a rotten windfall
fingers of lycopodium stretch and yawn among threads of cobweb
A thousand dimming layers of leaf, feed gleaming fuzzy moss –
and seedlings throng amid random lumps and bumps
not a level surface anywhere
Hang on – look beyond what you’e assuming –
that tumbled totara isn’t dead either
The tornado was just after Easter and it’s August
It’s leaves should have browned off by now but they’re green as green!
Yet the root plate is standing almost completely in fresh air.

I’ve heard strange stories about forests
– and from actual scientists, not just Tolkien.
Listen
Trees really do talk and feel just like he said.
Let’s venture into the invisible world of the forest floor:
Under every oozy boot print is an omelet of seeds
Slosh into the unseeable –
It’s swarming with armies of bacteria, and multitudes of micro-creatures crouch in tiny tunnels
Thousands of mini-insects feast in the midden
and busy mites break stuff down for recycling.
kadaververjungen – the decomposer armada
in the dead solar panel leaves
the great, squashy, rain-saver leaf litter –
but listen to this bit
a spoonful of leafy earth contains
miles of magical filaments which are the underside of familiar fungi.

This mycelium network twists it’s strange web
round and through, purposefully weaving,
interpenetrating root-laces:
the trees are keeping in touch with their kindred
Canny, gentle old trees
old survivors
send secret messages to each other and their progeny
by fungus phone
they do it by air too – with pungent scents
tree smoke signals

Those who know such things are calling it the woodwide web
Listen (very) closely to the muddy mulch and pick up roots crackling with slow tree gossip:
“hey, fallen tree over here needs extra sugar”
“these saplings aren’t getting any light; can you spare some juice”
“Caterpillar attack! Arm yourselves!”
Actually who knows what they really say or what trees mean…

That peaceful feeling we have in an old forest
could be the good vibe of a tree family
having immeasurable quality time together
rich communal murmurings
A single tree is lonely.
City trees in hard, tidy ground are cut off –
Their phone lines sliced – no internet.
Death in our culture is formal –
signed off on a certificate
laid out straight in a box.
Here, it’s higgledy piggledy
bumpy and layered around ferny ponds
Casually cannibalistic;
blended and crosshatched bright to dark
as you dig in with a finger
then surging bright again in a myriad of new forms.

I’m also planet to an ecosystem of life-forms that I can’t see.
One day, if I avoid washing and settle down a bit,
I could start to sprout lichen;
horoeka and miro out of my ears
wriggling from my nose
tickling up from my belly button
botanic bling!
shhh – pause
We are not alone – it’s a North Island Robin –
the greatest reward of meditating scimaunderers
peck, peck   –   scuff   –   stop
Right near my elbow!
that curious tilting eye
so alive – so beautiful
The forest birds show us where to go.

 

Photograph: Dale McDonald

In a Gully at Tawharanui

In stillness so profound that even a leaf fall seems a dramatic event,
I become a tree.
My blood courses through puriri old as time
My arm curves in a sinewy twist
carved out inside like a sea-worm mollusc
My toes ooze along into mud and dead leaves where saddle-back scurry
My great knuckles grip arthritically in gnarly knots –
a sulky old toads eyes or a giant tuatara stretched down the bank,
or maybe one of his jurassic compatriots from long ago
waiting

Rearing upright now, I give a mammoth – yawn – 
revealing a gaping hollow belly.
Alongside my bulging elbow
jut lines of rib cage
left over when all else has crumbled into earth.
I still cradle the ancient skeleton
of a pre-historic bird,
Or perhaps it is the remains of a waka?

Bony and fossilised as I am, however,
the tips of my fingers still reach for the light,
sprouting tender leaves and cupping birds nests.
In my hair young bellbirds fluff up their feathers
and a tiny warbler trills so hard
that even his tail trembles.
Boundaries of life and death blur when you are a tree

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Trucks, Traffic and Numberplates

On the way down to Mt Ruapehu we play the numberplate game – just glance at the three letters and say the first thing that comes into your head. It keeps us amused in the motorway traffic. 

10:30am and the traffic’s moving smoothly south on the motorway
kindersplinder, canticle, doorknob 
Trucks cruising and lane changing nonchalantly
toting trailers of mysterious machinery
Main Freight, NZ Post, Transit Fast, Toll
Heavy metal Haulage, PB Tech
Toll … Maersk … Toll

Pacific Concrete chunters along a chink behind Majestic Horse and Brave New World
Kafka, Carlene, Gypsy
Silver tankers sleek like tombs as we merge at Mercer and sweep past a combine harvester prickly as a Christmas Tree.

We have our entrances and our exits
Off goes Pacific Concrete and a ute with a bike.
On come Fibula, Jabberwock and Blitzkreig 3 
An orange road man leans easily on his broom
– SHOULDER CLOSED –

The radio starts farting at Pokeno, spirting Bachus Interruptus,
and an alien antenna on a digger swooshes round to ladle up rocks
like a beef casserole.
Caesar Slipstream, KFC, Demon Bird
A mini pick-up truck jounces along on the raw
Bouncy bouncy bounce and dumps a load of gravel – whew!

Abracadabra man who sells Previas rides ahead with a hairy arm hanging out….
And – we slow to a crawl past Huntly, Yankee hamburgers selling from a van with stars and stripes.
An unfortunate possum and hawk have melded together in death, with the wings still lifted –
That’s one fantasy creature removed from the gene pool
Palimpsest, Has-been, Secret Agent, SAM
We hug the even camber of roundabouts and Hi 5 Bro takes the Ngaruawahia exit.
Off goes the radio, on goes Les Mis:
We’re headed for the King Country.

 

A Myna for Maree

Indigenous birds are our most treasured, but this Ponsonby identity has won a few hearts. My friend Maree raised an orphaned myna bird from a chick, and now it’s part of the family, when it chooses to be.

Peeking puppetwise over the guttering, a street urchin myna joins us for coffee one Sunday afternoon.
I think her name is Clementine, for the miner 49er, and his light-footed daughter.
She’s hilariously trusting – which is a bit of a worry,
even though the cat has no less than seven bells.

Maybe, if she turns out to be he,
he can be Gavroche – the Paris street-kid from Les Mis!
He certainly employs all that one’s cockney charm –
feet planted wide, tilted hat,
cheeky grin – a tiny David, undaunted by we tall Goliaths.

He hops after the car like a dog and right on into the house where he takes refreshing baths in the kitchen sink,
fluffing up the grey and white feathers on his breast and dipping his beak (or her one)
yellow as a traffic light pole
spatter, spatter, spatter! Oh dear, more cleaning!

Tilting her head like she’s totting up a shopping bill, she follows our conversation – drinking in voice tone
and tugging at my shoelaces in case they’re tasty.
She deigns to accept bits of jammy scone
but is too sensible to actually sit on hand –
oh, but then she jumps on Maree’s knee after all.
A loveable rogue – eyeing us up shrewdly –
curious as a crook.

I think of Ping on the Yangtze River –
or that robin that visited by my tent once to sit on my sleeping bag as I read my book, near Flora hut.
She dances and struts in front of a mirror and poses for a blurry photo
almost squashed up against the phone;
the beak appears as a slash of yellow paint.
A cocky, fragile opportunist,
of somewhat short life expectancy I fear –
All cockney rhyming slang and rude words;
she haunts the cafe on Richmond Rd
stealing the froth off cappucinos
hen hiding among legs when expelled in disgrace
(for numerous sins – especially pooping).

Already the odd feather short from a brisk feline encounter,
She’d better keep her wits about her or she’ll lose the lot.
She has her own lodgings in Bird City,
which is the phoenix palm in the garden, along with the sparrows and pigeons.
It’s such a privilege to hobnob with this little alien person;
to be trusted seems like a miracle.

She’s just young and gets tired quickly;
soon she falls asleep on my foot – and makes my day.

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Mountain Boulder on Ruapehu

I thought, if a river can be a person, why not an old boulder? And if so, what kind of person would it be? Perhaps, like us, that depends on the weather…

The fogged up ice lies moulded to the old boulder,
clinging to the grey cracks
and sliding in silver circles over the pebbles beneath like eyes of a bird

That stoic old gargoyle; what a great gnarly toad,
carved out by a cudgelling time
I feel him shivering a bit as he squats; he’s holding up the mountain,
whatever the weather
as duty requires, doesn’t have to like it,
A cold soldier.
Could be he’s remembering warmer days from long ago
Hugging his family, all nestled in close like bear cubs in the hot, pot-belly of the earth
Nice and snuggly and melty
Till that catastrophic, tectonic day when they all bust through the crust – pow!

Now, meltwater runs under his chilly icecoat
it pools erratically and wiggles down tickly
like swish-tail tadpoles and weird amoeba from before the invention of DNA
Mercurially merging and splitting between ice and rockface.

Cold stone stands his ground.
Enduring floodwater and searing wind
Avalanche and ice fracture
Burrowing roots, hail

Dour old troll with drips off your nose – you’re a craggy old Atlas!
On a nicer day, I’ll come back and cook up some hot soup on one of your flat bits.

 

River – Am I

Rivers have huge spiritual significance for Maori, and in March of 2017 the Whanganui river was given the legal status of a person. This poem celebrates this beautiful river, right from his or her beginning, running down inside a trampers raincoat high up in Tongariro National Park.

River – am I… in winter
like a loose thread from a jersey
slowly unravelling and weaving its helix tickle down a leg
I finger twist a curvaceous cutting
in the rock       mud       silt
time – I have

I am a skier on a slalom run, easing my knees into each arc,
sculpting with gravity and molecular sweep
I am a navigator swinging a compass
pivoting on an imaginary point as I dance in radial swirls and moons down my mountain.

A child am I, running at my leisure and humming as I trace a stick
In Sses down a windy beach
deep into the outer curves and lightly pulling through the diagonals  –

A lilting flute is my voice, tangled in polyphony
with oboe, fiddle and korimako –
My jewellery shall be the sparkle of ice
hanging in ghostly pendants and crystallising out over eddies
like maps of crinkly fiords –

But soon, away from glitter of sun and moon,
far from snowfall and silver alpine grass,
I am digging
peeling away like a gong
deep into shadow –
deep under black boulder and tangled root
Heavy fall of damp leaf and moss
The journey of the pit lies before me –
The cleft gorge so deep that the vein of sky, thousands of meters above
Is always sapphire dark –

I am just a painterly thread, but I know how to wait…
Other voices, songs and melodies will fall in with my theme
Wellsprings of floodwater and ooze,
seeping marshlands and spitting cataract
The spill off dying branches
and plink…

From layered veils of leaf –
All feed my song

Snowflake and hail, sleet and slurry – all join my liquid road,
sloping down to the great river – The Whanganui
And silty soft and fishy full,
we sing our songs and meander in coils through the folded valley,
through the crushy green of swaily forest,
pouring down brown into the sea itself.
My mountain was an island
on the continental shelf

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