We had a little cottage on the Moenui Inlet in the Marlborough Sounds. The cottage was owned by a German woman who made pottery. The pottery was mostly quite nice cups and bowls with some lumpy, deformed dolphin or snail stuck on the side. Having forked over more than a few hundred dollars for the cottage we didn’t, in the end, feel like buying any cups or bowls with dolphins on.
The cottage was… cute. This is pretty much what you have to say about cottages I think. Saying the cottage had an inadequate bathroom, or a cramped kitchen would be unkind, because it really was cute, and surrounded by trees and birdsong and all that. The main thing that was good about the cottage for Eleanor was the swing hanging from the oak tree out the front. Eleanor spent quite a few hours on that swing, and I spent quite a few hours pushing her. She had two heights she wanted to be pushed up to: (1) “Up to the leaves, Daddy!”, or (2) “Up to the sky, Daddy!” I obliged as much as practically possible (a long way short of the leaves, a tremendously disappointing effort for the sky).
If you walked down the gravel drive to Queen Charlotte Drive and then scurried across the road between passing campervans and SUVs towing boats you came to a fringe of bush between the road and the inlet. Through the fringe of bush was a walking track that took you along the edge of the inlet under the ferns and the evergreens until you came to a little beach. We usually walked down to this little beach once a day.
Quite soon after you started down the track you came to a tree that had been stripped of all its leaves and was filled with nesting shags. There must have been twenty nests in that tree. Each nest was constructed out of fairly solid looking twigs and each nest was fairly liberally coated in white guano. As was the ground under the tree. Every time we walked (ran) under the tree Eleanor would say, “it smells like a toilet”. Eventually it became known as the toilet tree. Shags, as well as having an unfortunate name, are not the most beautiful of birds. They look a bit like they just rolled out of bed and haven’t had a chance to do their hair, a bit… shaggy.
On the last morning Eleanor and I went down early and caught the shags still asleep on their nests with their heads and bills buried against their chests. By the time we had walked around to the beach and were looking back at the tree along the shore one of the birds had woken up. He (ok, so I didn’t check the sex of the bird, but you didn’t either and it’s my story, so the bird is a he), suddenly plunged off the tree, spread his wings, and skimmed across the glassy surface of the inlet in one long, gentle arc. When he got to the other side of the inlet, perhaps two kilometres away, he swung about and shot back across the water and landed back on his perch. For him it was a morning stretch, for me it was a simple act of beauty.
Eleanor and I spent quite a bit if time down on that scrappy shoreline. When the tide was out the pebbly shore extended into mud flats where birds came to probe the shallows for food. At high tide the water washed right up leaving lines of broken branches and smashed oyster shells. Across the inlet were steep, bush clad hills; the trees and ferns growing thickly right down to the waterline.
On our side, washed up on the shore was a large tree trunk. It was Eleanor’s main attraction on the beach. She liked to climb over it, run across it, and ask me about it.
“What’s that, Daddy?”
“It’s a tree.”
“But it’s got no head.”
“Why has it got no leaves?”
“It’s dead, it fell over and washed into the water.”
“It might have been old.”
I’ll spare you the rest, you already know the pattern (“why, why, why?”) and the the result (“Because!”).
Mainly because of the books I was reading I think I paid more attention to my holiday surroundings than usual. Two things struck me. Firstly, that all of life and death was on the beach for me to see if I opened my eyes and looked at it, and secondly, how ignorant I was of how life worked. By life working I don’t mean that you have a jaded middle class view of politicians, and become pragmatic about male pattern baldness, I mean how the thing called life on Earth works.
All nature… is at war. When one views the contented face of a bright landscape… one may well doubt this…. Nevertheless the doctrine that all nature is at war is most true. The struggle very often falls on the egg and seed, or on the seedling, larva and young; but fall it must sometime in the life of each individual.
We behold the bright face of nature with gladness… we do not see, or we forget, that the birds which are idly singing around us mostly live on insects or seeds, and are thus constantly destroying life; or we forget how largely these songsters, or their eggs, or their nestlings, are destroyed by birds or beasts of prey.
Whenever we walked under the toilet tree it was possible to see that there were a few nests that had fallen out of their branch and had smashed on the ground. How many more would fall before the nests were abandoned, and how many of the young would perish as they struggled up from the shell to adulthood? Even on the shore of the beach you could find the seed pods of lupin lying on the pebbles. Some must fall on the soil, some on the salt washed stones, some to be picked up by birds, some to sink under the sand.
And below it all? Underneath the elaborate machinery of life? Stone. Broken, shattered, rolled and rubbed smooth on the shore under our feet, or immense and intact, shouldering up into hills and mountain ranges.
Suddenly all of this seemed before me again. As if I were newly minted and seeing the Earth for the first time. Beautiful and frightening.