A favourite spot, over the past summer, has been the hills above Makara. The bottom left-hand corner of the North Island, the area is wild, open, and glorious. The daughter loves it there, I’m pretty fond of it myself.
There’s a high tensile toughness, as it looks out at the world. The plant life is not tall – under constant pressure from howling seaward winds, it sticks close to the ground, even though the ground itself is not the most fertile you would find. It’s scrabbly, rocky, and gives up its nutrients grudgingly.
Remnants of how New Zealand faced past threats are there: concrete gun emplacements built at the start of World War Two glower out at the sea.
To the north, you can see Mana & Kapiti Islands. Wheel your view around to the south-west and there’s the South Island. You’ll often see at least one of the Cook Strait ferries, possibly more than one.
‘Silver blue, the sea like sheets on a bed
At the edge of the world a ferry boat crawls away like a snail…’
…as Don McGlashan wrote in the great Mutton Birds song, ‘Along the Boundary’. I don’t think the song is actually about this spot – I remember McGlashan saying, somewhere, it was about a specific place and memory, but I suspect that place is on the other side of the strait.
But anyway. It’s off an album which came out in 1995, around the time I moved to Wellington. It’s always had a special place in my heart and I think of this particular song almost every time I go up to this place.
It’s about a child climbing a tree, and struggling to keep up with a bigger child – a friend or, more likely, a sibling or a cousin – who is ‘much older’.
The song tells of a child discovering he/she could keep up with the ‘much older’ person.
‘You never thought I could get such a long way up, but I looked straight ahead…’
And there’s the evocative memory…
‘I feel the branches move around me
I see the thistles along the boundary
Up along the boundary…’
And, from up there, the child’s feeling of, if not omnipotence, then certainly strength and potential:
‘I move patches of wind round the bay of glass
I move shadows of clouds over the grass
I’m at the controls, there isn’t a shelf or a rock on the beach
That I couldn’t reach…
The sun pulls the hills the way the tide pulls on the sea
Waves and waves of grass are breaking, rolling over to me
And the sky’s like a wheel
Like a wheel…’
It’s sheer poetry. McGlashan’s one of our best songwriters: he is certainly our best at evoking the New Zealand space – both headspace and physical space.
He’s kind of a rock muso version of Maurice Gee.
Today the threats those concrete blockhouses were built to face are gone. Behind them, the flat area dug out to house soldiers’ barracks is partly overgrown with lupins.
Sheep may safely graze there. Children play noisily and happily in the old buildings once built by khaki-clad soldiers in deadly, fear-filled earnestness of an overwhelming threat.
Just over the hills, the Makara wind farms whirl, while under them, a stream of mountain bikers, all sweaty and multicoloured exuberance, whirl their pedals in a kind of mock tribute.
So: here’s the Mutton Birds, doing ‘Along The Boundary’, live. Bit rough, but its still a great song.
Diving above the city, snorkling
Through pines and macracarpa while down
On the surface,
Wellington’s white noise waves in the wind
Muffled, the trees like depths of ocean
#mhawnz It’s been Mental Health Awareness…umm. Well… its been going for more than a week but I’m not sure it’s lasting a full month.
There was a challenge, with the hashtag #mhawnz, where you posted a different type of photo from the outdoors every day to mark the period.
The idea is, from what I can gather, to highlight the general benefits of getting out into nature.
I seem to know a lot of people going through mental health issues at the moment. And – in what now seems like a different life – I was, for five years, a volunteer on Youthline’s crisis line, which gave me a bit of insight into all this.
Personally? I’m not unacquainted with the black dog sniffing around the room at 3am, or waking with what I call the Boulder of Dread on my chest.
Anyone, I’ve learned, can hit overload. It’s not something I dwell on or go on about. I can hyper-intellectualise this by saying self-dramatisation is one of the ills of our age – and that is true, I think.
The other, probably more important reason is that I’m just, culturally and emotionally, a bit of an uptight Presbyterian about these things.
I’m okay with that, by the way. I love and accept my attitude problem.
Anyway, I started doing the photo challenge and then got sidetracked by combination of work and a viral chest infection.
But here’s two pics from the McKenzie area – Lake Benmore, from June a few years back, and just up the road at Omarama, snowing, last year.
More generally, I’ve written about how walking is kind of beaut, last year.
The old mental appetite is certainly stimulated – and fed – by books, as well as by conversations, chats over coffee, shouting matches over the Shiraz, gesticulating over the Glenmorangie.
But it is digested by walking. This is about balance, and the interaction between walking, thinking and feeling.
The full piece, which is a review of a really great book called ‘A Philosophy of Walking’ by Frederic Gros, is here.
It rained, usually.
Nothing so ambitious this weekend, just wombling around the Wellington hills. But I’m kind of happy with that.
We are all wounded pilgrims, in our own way. Life’s duties require us to pretend otherwise much of the time: it is important never to pretend otherwise to ourselves.
Our language has wisely sensed the two sides of being alone. It has created the word “loneliness” to express the pain of being alone. And it has created the word “solitude” to express the glory of being alone.’
– Paul Tillich
The world is shrinking, they tell us
As though this is a good thing.
Mostly, I suppose, it is.
But there is a need for places, far away from anything
Not just to explore
But just to be there.
|Yours truly, above Lake Wanaka, last week.|
Must confess I thought, when I saw the title in good ol’ Unity Books, that only a French bloke would find the need to come up with a philosophy of walking.
Shades of Sartre in the scroggin; Pascal in the polypropylene; Derrida in the long-drop.
‘We must really manage one day to do without “news”,’ Gros begins one chapter – one which seems to me to be the core of the book, headed ‘Eternities’.
This may sound strange for a journalist, but I know what he means. One of my favourite political philosophers, Michael Oakeshott, was dismayed to be told, by a star pupil, of an intention to go into journalism, telling the lad, after a long silence, that ‘I think the need to know the news every day is a nervous disorder’.
‘…walking makes the rumours and complaints fall suddenly silent, stops the ceaseless interior chatter through which we comment on others, evaluate ourselves, recompense, interpret. Walking shuts down the sporadic soliloquy to whose surface our rancour, imbecile satisfactions and imaginary vengeances rise sluggishly in turn….You are no longer a role, or a status, not even an individual, but a body, a body that feels sharp stones on the paths, the caress of the long grass and the freshness of the wind….’
“rejoicing in that suspensive freedom, happy to set off, one is also happy to return. It’s a blessing in parentheses, freedom in an escapade., lasting a couple of days or less.’
‘Suspensive freedom’. I love that.
The freedom in walking lies, he says, ‘in not being anyone, for the walking body has no history, it is just an eddy in the stream of immemorial life.’
He is very good on what it’s like: he slows down and notices the process of walking.
There is the ‘strange impression’ made by the first steps each day: you’ve made all the preparations, navigation, food, gear, timings, weather etc, and then
‘you head off, pick up the rhythm. You lift your head, you’re on your way, but really just to be walking, to be out of doors That’s it, that’s all, and you’re there.’
‘…the authentic sign of assurance is a good slowness….a sort of slowness that isn’t exactly the opposite of speed’
‘Days of slow walking are very long: they make you live longer, because you have allowed every hour, every minute, every second to breathe, to deepen, instead of filling them up by straining the joints…When you hurry, time is filled to bursting, like a badly arranged drawer.
‘Slowness means living perfectly to time, so closely that the seconds fall one by one, drop by drop like the steady dripping of a tap on stone.
‘This stretching of time deepens space. It is one of the secrets of walking: a slow approach to landscapes that gradually renders them clearer, like the regular encounters that deepen friendship. Thus a mountain skyline that stays with you all day, which you observe in different lights, defines and articulates itself.’
This is all gorgeous stuff.
There is, if you want it, a bit of Yer Ack-Shul Phillosophee: there are chapters on those famous, and not so famous, philosophers who have liked walking, and the book starts with a quote from Nietzsche
‘We do not belong to those who have ideas only among books, when stimulated by books. It is our habit to think outdoors — walking, leaping, climbing, dancing, preferably on lonely mountains or near the sea where even the trails become thoughtful.’
‘The climbing body demands effort; it is under continuous tension…It’s important not to weaken, but to mobilise energy to advance, to place the foot firmly and hoist body slowly, then restore balance.
So with thought: an idea to rise to something even more astonishing, unheard of, new.
and then again: it is a matter of gaining altitude,
There are thoughts that can only occur at 6000 feet above the plains and mournful shores.’