Frost Secrets in the Wetlands

Hairy whiskers grew inside my tent last night
There they are  – sprouting all furry from my orange balloon
and shedding like dog hair onto my sleeping bag
as I shift to find my water bottle
Mmm – it’s frozen too.
Spiky air prickles my nose like nettles but it’s warm in bed.

Unzip the world –
A line drawing develops in the first light
twiggy bracken and twisted webs sketch discrete silver outlines
Parabola tussocks draw random spirally doodles
while birds talk quietly about cold.
The old matai filters the first glints of lacquered dawn
and I squeeze on cold-stiffened boots.

Sudden hints of colour spark into existence and my fingers freeze –
a dragonfly lightshow; fireworks of shattered light
I think the swamp is talking in light-code
playful grasslands glittering with chromatic chatter
green red orange argent and gold
My swamp is exploding into spherical diction
precise as insect wings
Can you decrypt ice-speak?

Soon the grasses are nodding and shrugging
as the sun warms them
Rainbow marbles wheel down arcs of grass blades
some roll in
some roll out
dripping conversationally
Some will seep into little ponds and streams
and some will rise as mist

frost gone –
message erased

 

Kokako encounter at Tunawaea

Christine and I take the Tawa line –
This weekend we are rat trappers in a hidden valley
Lovely Tunawaea, nestled behind the folds of back blocks King Country
and guardian to an elusive bird…
We pursue a wiggly web of markers and bait stations
the pair of us at sea on waves of ridges,
like Pericles setting out from the island of Tyre –
Off we go trustingly following from point
to numbered point
and matching them up with our chart
Christine does the odds and I’m the evens –
Where on Earth is north in all this waggle?
I can tell when the sun comes out

We stop for sandwiches, Christine and I,
in a tawa cathedral
We pause to gaze up the dim columns
ethereal and vanishingly tall,
hazed with a fresco of leaves against light
Dripping banks of kidney fern glow green in candlelight
like a cloak of blown glass fragments
wrapping the soft logginess of the damp sponge floor
But this place has an extra gift for us;
This cathedral has a choir:
Kokako

Ghostly divas in an invisible circle
weaving gentle magic
It feels like eavesdropping on mellow love songs from a lost world
It sounds like the haunting creak of an old swing
Strangely resonant, languid and drooping out of key
Sighing wine glass harmonics heavy and full
Low modal voices leaning into each other
to sing in otherworldly harmony,
the plangently intimate conversations of forest beings
who are utterly indifferent to us on the ground –
beguiling bells that would taste, if they could,
of dark plums on the edge of overripe.

Perhaps they are like gleams of sunlight concentrated into sound –
Energy escaping from one form to another –
Light fall distilled into eerie oboe antiphony
Pooling light, pooling water unspool in sound –

Who can spin the golden sunlight into song?
Who? Who? Who?
Kokako can!
And who can gather the loose skeins of silver rain and give them form again?
Kokako can, kokako can!

The richness of the trees
and the fullness of the earth
combing out the mist and weaving matter into music
teasing out strands of energy into soft waves
belling, welling…

Days later, I’m still open-eared for reedy tubish sounds but there’s really nothing like it.
For me there was a sense of grace but also of loss.
Our kokako choir was an evocation of a past I was born too late for –
remade in imagination as if through curtains of mist,
from fossils, stories and bones –
a dream of an ancient untouched Aotearoa
like a great beached waka,
Alive with vast forests and giant eagles
loud with bird song,
Once were moa
Once were huia
Please don’t leave us, kokako

 

Photograph: Jacqui Geux

 

Skinny Dipping in the Heaphy River

Wading out of the irk of endless chatter
Escaping nutrition advice and gear talk into the salty air
I step down white bookshelves of sand,
grainy as parchment – creamy as snow

I pass driftwood scarecrows and gnomes,
the pre-historic beak of a dinosaur bird
and taniwha with following eyes.
In the soft moth-light of late summer dusk
I walk into the sea-change
There’s a subversive prickle of risk,
illicit delight and fear of discovery –
Beware the fearsome nipping sandflies and the clothes collecting swoop of current…
No hesitation – gasp

Oh but it’s delicious! like cold whipped cream
pillow slip soft and pure as a magic flute
I’m dissolving!
The candour of clear water!
How far down into Earth does the river seep?
breathing as the pale earth breathes –
She sends the mist of the day’s end
from mountains out to sea –
cool calm resurges and peace
singing the lunacy of tides in witch-light
and turning the birds egg stones –
I share the space with a solitary shag,
dipping like a teapot –

Memories surface of other swims and swoosh together,
imagination sinks through sand to other swimmers
in other times and seas and waves
Solitary solace wells into togetherness
sliding into the universe
Surrendering weight, surrendering separation,
like a temporary death,
brimming with the fulness of the tide –
and then to bed!

The Vanishing House

 There is a house on Grange Road, near the bottom on the south side.
Number 100.
I think that’s a clue that herein lies a secret…
one hundred what?
A hundred-year-old witch?
A princess asleep for one hundred years?
one hundred years of solitude?

Meanwhile, a forest is growing
A tall frangipani is tangled to the top
in wisteria, jasmine and rose.
A great dark puriri leers
The brown wooden gate has been pulled off it’s hinges by ivy
and mixed vines half smother the peeling garage.
The hedge is so weedy and overgrown that I’d need to be riding a horse to see over it.

The garden path forks as you step down round a corner.
One way is clearly more travelled –
the other, houses the bins, but used to go round the back.
Once tidy hydrangeas and lasiandras, now wild and wonderful,
almost obscure everything.
but peering through like a wondering prince
I can still see sturdy brown posts
and much mildewed cream weatherboards, fret work and finials splotched by lichen.

Two rough brick chimneys tower like turrets
on either side, the other houses carefully pretend nothing is going on
Their hedges are trimmed ship-shape,
Their stone walls are chiselled to weedless perfection:
“We don’t hold with that sort of thing”, they say.
“Not in this demographic!”
So of course, princess and all, it simply doesn’t exist.

 

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

 

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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