At the end of a year, where does one begin?
One begins, of course, most often by stumbling, by tripping over words that aren't there, or words that, like the long, wiry seedheads of ryegrass in the paddock in front of this verandah, are far too abundant (how do you choose?); far too tangled to move through easily (how do you create a path?)
A scraggy blackbird, not long from its morning bath in the stock trough, wobbles through the air and sets down among the stalks. Cocks its head, peers, hops—exaggerated jumps because it must leap the annoying stems, which to it must appear like a sparse brake of partly lodged bamboo—and approaches the scrap of discarded bread.
One begins by immediately taking an unintended path—a sidetrack—and trusting it will go somewhere interesting. Perhaps it will even meet the path one wanted to follow. Mostly, though, in an act of unreasonable faith, one trusts the path itself will prove interesting, worthwhile; that one will enjoy the exploration, even if it leads nowhere, because paths are always somewhere. Some of us go to the mountain not to go somewhere nor even “because it is there”  but because we can be there; and the more time one spends among mountains the more the being supercedes the going. The same could be said of coasts, or any place with an appreciable degree of wildness or other desirable quality—even, I suppose, of some cities. Go to Jamnagar because it's Jamnagar; while there, go to the vegetable market but don't go to Jamnagar to go to the vegetable market. The difference is subtle but enormous.
The conclusion seems inevitable. If you're focused on a destination—somewhere else, in other words—you're not where you are. So, enjoy the travelling. Eventually, you will arrive where you are. Then, you're always at home.
It's the same for a life. If one thinks of life as a path—not a particularly good metaphor given the complexity and connectedness of lives, but let's use it anyway—then the destination, while not to be feared, seems hardly desirable. Me, I'd rather take my time and enjoy the walk, and I have every intention of doing so.
On the edge of the terrace, manuka in flower looks from a distance as if it's frosted with snow. Incongruous in midsummer, but a kind of Antipodean nod to the Northern Hemisphere where this season's ancient acknowledgment of the world's turning evolved (and was appropriated) into what we called Christmas and now celebrate as the year's major retail event. I'm being cynical of course, but not without justification; moreover, I do acknowledge that among the frenzied consumerism, much of what's best about life survives. Thrives, even. One senses it even among the stressed crowds cramming the malls — perhaps, and not entirely paradoxically, particularly in those fraught places; that sense that we're all in this together; it's madness, this madness, but I understand how you feel because I feel it too and the sooner the season's over the sooner we can relax and enjoy our friends and families. (For some, though — especially mums — the respite, if it comes at all, can be slight. One meal finishes, another must be provided; kids and visitors (sometimes indistinguishable) must be entertained, households kept running. When do mothers relax; when can mothers relax?) The pressure of “the holidays” arises largely from materialism in its worst form: the induced lust to spend and buy; paradoxically, it can foster comradeship. We share this adversity and (mostly) seem more willing to make allowances for others. Someone loses it, and the response is more likely to be empathy, or at least sympathy: “The poor bugger's obviously stressed out by Christmas”. It's a trend, not a rule; exceptions abound, but it does seem noticeable. This is my experience; I hope and trust it's yours too.
But I've digressed, taken a sidetrack. The flowering manuka reminds me of where I began. Where my memories began, that is, (and if I began before my memories — even those I've forgotten — in what sense had I begun?) On the hillside opposite our house, a lone manuka flowered each year. Virtually inaccessible to a small boy because of its location within a gnarly thicket of lower, weedy scrub, it promised rare and wonderful beetles. Actually, it was G.V. Hudson, in his rare and wonderful book on New Zealand beetles who promised rare and wonderful beetles, although he actually only promised “many beetles” — my small boy's imagination supplied “rare and wonderful” . The book belonged to my uncle, who had left New Zealand for England long before I was born. He never returned, and he and my father never saw each other again. I didn't meet my uncle until 2002. A brief visit, but long enough to know he and my aunt were family in every best sense. When I left them at the train station as I departed for Bristol I thought I might never see them again, especially my uncle, whose frailty felt shockingly apparent as we hugged on the platform.
I was wrong. Wrong about his frailty — he proved far more resilient than anyone could have imagined. Wrong, too, about not seeing him again. I visited again in 2004 and the bonds of family and friendship strengthened. When, once more, I left on the train, I felt this time might indeed be the last time I ever saw him.
I was right. On Christmas Eve 2005 he left on his bike to deliver by hand the last of the Christmas cards. He never returned. He was found on the roadside with a severe head injury. No one expected him to live, and in a sense he didn't — the uncle I loved never returned to the body that survived. I guess he took another path, one none of us could follow. But, at the end of last year's travels I visited my aunt and left knowing we understood each other and could talk with each other better than if my uncle had still been alive. Now, despite the geographical distance, she's one of the special people in my life. Endings and beginnings often cannot be distinguished.
A korimako  flies across the paddock to the flowering harakeke , a slow, relaxed flight in the bright sun; flight from a moment ago towards a moment about to happen, each wingbeat beginning the rest of its life. The bird that left the grevillea a hundred metres ago now belongs eternally in the past; the I — whatever “I” might be — that saw the bird launch into flight that moment ago also belongs eternally in the past. I (the same or not?) wonder why we believe we can change the future but not the past? Is it because we remember the past but believe we cannot know the future? How does knowledge differ from memory? The semantics of those questions, I suspect, are a mire — or perhaps they're a forest where paths fork often, with the branching more than dichotomous? But, getting back to the question, which I accept is ill-formed: can we change the future, or is it just as fixed as the past?
No. A bald statement, but I see no alternative. Ignoring multiple other universes, one and only one “future” exists; if I could change it, it would become the the one future which was always going to be the one and only future.
On the other hand, maybe the future does not exist. Perhaps it's something we construct to save ourselves from going mad. Perhaps we're always and inescapably at the boundary between the possible and the unchangeable; the present is that moment at which the possible becomes the unalterable. Seen this way, the future does not exist until we create it; having made it, we can do nothing to influence it. While it places on one an almost impossible degree of responsibility (the future becomes one's personal responsibility, making us, in effect, God), this also confers ultimate freedom: let the past be the past; one can do nothing about it; all that matters is to begin.
One could go crazy thinking about these things, but would it be any worse than losing one's mind in the madness of a Christmas mall? In any case, all the world is mad except thee and me, and sometimes I think even thee is a little crazy. Leave me lost instead; at large in a world I can explore the way I want; let my beginnings take me where they will. The destination doesn't matter. And where does one begin? At the place where everything begins — that place in your life that we call, “Here, right now.”
1. Attributed, perhaps apocryphally, to George Mallory.
2. “Flowering manuka attracts many beetles...” p. 18 in Hudson, GV 1934 New Zealand Beetles and Their Larvae. Wellington, Ferguson & Osborne. 236 pp. + XVII plates.
3. The bellbird, Anthornis melanura.
4. Phormium tenax, New Zealand flax.
Photos (click to enlarge them):
1–5. Vendors at the vegetable market in Jamnagar, Gujarat, India; 13 February 2007.
6. Neither a beetle nor rare, but unquestionably wonderful. Flies rate among my favourite animals, and a robber fly (Diptera: Asilidae) like this (Neoitamus sp., I think) never fails to, er..., give me a buzz. You can't tell from the photo, but this was a male; he decided to rest on my windowsill and obligingly posed for me. Fearsome hunters (check out that proboscis), they're even thought to be major predators of tiger beetles — and if you know tiger beetles, you'll understand why robber flies impress me.
7. Like this post, the photos meander all over the place. This is the view from the Ruahine tops just before Christmas, looking out across the Pourangaki River in the late evening.
Photos and words © 2007 Pete McGregor