17 February 2021 Day 324 in the time of coronavirus and we held our breath and waited for the 4pm announcement from Jacinda and Ashley and when it came it was good news and even the journalists seemed surprised. For there had been two more cases of the UK strain detected in the community today, both connected to the original cases, and as they were speaking, a third case was announced and yet in spite of this Jacinda declared we are dropping to level 2 at midnight. She is confident the outbreak is under control. The systems devised to halt the spread are working. The six people now suffering from this UK and nastier strain of Covid-19 — I wonder how they are doing? — have been self-isolating for several days. Of the hundreds of close and casual contacts who have been tested in the past two days all their results are negative. Even wastewater testing of sewerage has revealed no evidence of the virus. Always I admire Jacinda’s presentation. She is decisive, knows her facts and never wobbles. And Ashley Bloomfield is pretty much the same. And that is sufficient for me, to listen to the oracles and follow their guidance.
Tonight, the writing is random because I've been immersed in the diaries of Helen Garner in preparation for the journal course that can now commence next Monday evening at the Devonport Library, and her style has given me permission to write in this way. This is how she opens her latest collection of journals 'One Day I’ll Remember This — Diaries 1987 – 1995':
‘What do you write in your diary?’
‘Everything. I try to write all the worst things. That’s the hardest. The temptation to gloss it up. I force myself to put down the bad and stupid things I do, the idiotic fantasies I have.’
‘And do you read back over it?’
‘All the time.’
She’s good, very brave and spontaneous. There’s an article on the new book in a recent ‘Listener’ by Holly Walker where the author, now in her late seventies, defends the journal as a literary form. For years she says she was sensitive to the criticism that using diaries as source material was ‘somehow lazy, inferior “not real writing.”' Now, writes Holly Walker, she has 'put a stake in the ground for the diary as a literary form by publishing her own.”
I heard the saddest story recently and I've been reflecting on it today. I met a woman who has not spoken to her husband for over a year. She’s angry for the usual reasons. Infidelity. She says she stopped loving him twenty years ago. ‘Why do you stay?’ I asked. ‘For my son.’ When I asked the age of her son she said he’s at university and flatting. Yet still she continues to live with a man she does not like intent on hanging on to her lovely home.
Once that was me, or a version of me. I stayed stuck for a number of reasons, one of which was the awareness of the overwhelming immensity of the challenges I would encounter in trying to extricate myself. And I was right. It was the hardest thing I've ever done but it was worth it. Now, as I watch the glittering green water flowing in to the bay I feel my mind expanding with the freedom now granted to simply be myself and something more, there’s an overwhelming sense of gratitude and relief at having released myself from the shackles of something compromising and destructive. People talk about living an authentic life. I used to wonder what that meant.
17 February 2021 Day 323 in the time of coronavirus and this time level 3 doesn’t seem as hard as the same level last August, when the skies were leaden and temperatures cold. At the supermarket today I noted the lighter atmosphere, people were wearing masks, some of them quite beautiful. Shoppers were moving peacefully round the aisles. There was a sense of ‘we know the drill now.’ As I packed my groceries for myself I reflected on how far we have come since our first lockdown last March - April when people were shell-shocked and extremely anxious. But I don't want to get ahead of myself. We don't yet know whether this community transmission of the UK strain has been contained yet.
I spent more money than usual today. I bought stone fruit, some to eat raw and six white flesh peaches to simmer in squeezed tangelo juice with a cinnamon pod. I lavished money on ingredients for a batch of unbaked muesli— not just almonds but walnuts and pecans, along with pumpkin and sunflower seeds and some jumbo size raisins and coconut strips.
I am not long home from retreat, a time of stepping out of everyday life and sinking into seclusion and silence in a Franciscan Priory on the edge of Monte Cecilia Park in Auckland. This year I had resisted the call until the very last minute. I couldn’t see how to take five days off at the precise moment when the work schedule revs up. And yet as the Buddhist scholar teacher said, ‘now, in the midst of busyness, is the very best time to go on retreat.’
Always I find getting there stressful and this year was no different. As I drove over the silver bridge, I realised I’d not switched off the appliances, at the wall. It had never occurred to me to pay attention to this until a Maori scriptwriter told me once, in conversation before her interview, about a fire that began in a switch left on at the wall. The consequence of a fire at the tower alarmed me. It wouldn’t just be my home going up in smoke, there are 59 other apartments to consider. Only last Saturday I had experienced my first fire alarm and observed residents trooping out and assembling in the forecourt. I’d watched the fire truck arrive and thought about the cost of a callout for a false alarm, $800.
These thought tracks, which have their very own personal flavour and tone are the object of study on retreat. In the time of the Buddha’s life they were referred to as ‘the chittering of the monkey mind.’ The focus of meditation is on coming into full embodiment in the present through attending to the breath and the sense of the body, weighted on the cushion, moment by moment. When thoughts arise, as they will inevitably for it is the nature of the mind to wander and to think, meditators are encouraged to notice and attend to them kindly and mindfully. In the car I sat with the discomfort and decided not to bother my neighbour, who has my key, but to sit with the feeling and allow it to be. The odds were, that all would be well, and the iconic tower would still be standing on my return.
On this retreat I encountered all the wanderings of my unsteady mind and was often relieved to hear the teacher striking the Tibetan brass bowl to bring the session to a close. But slowly I was acquiring a level of discipline, learning to catch the thoughts and study them. There were flashes of insight and a deepening sense of equanimity helping me still the mind. Occasionaly I experienced what it feels like when the mind is quiet.
The photo featured here was taken on retreat. The goldfish pond was situated at the rear of the brick building. Leaf fall and twigs had caught in the wire mesh put there to protect the fish. Its wooden supports were old and encrusted with lichen in places. Each day I was drawn here to study the view of the pond, the effect of light and shadow on water, of orange fish and lilies in flower, glimpsed through the mesh. The wire grid seemed to illustrate what I was discovering on retreat about the quality of my own mind with all its deceptions and contortions and something of the struggle to find tranquillity in order to reach the state of nirvana, when peace and beauty and wisdom align.
15 February 2021 Day 322 in the time of coronavirus and here we go again. Three new cases of the highly contagious UK variant of covid-19 have been detected in the community with, as yet, an unclear trajectory of transmission. In response Auckland went into lockdown, level 3 at 11.59pm last night while the alert level for the rest of the country was raised to level 2. Along with the sudden and unexpected disruption to busy lives, many lovely plans for the week, gone in a puff, we are experiencing truly awful, weather in Auckland city. From up here in the tower the wind has been blowing a gale, roaring under the eaves, thumping on windows with such ill-tempered force it has infected my spirits. The mist shrouding the view — I haven’t seen Rangitoto all day — is less jarring though. Water vapour dulls the colour palette and softens forms making for an ethereal composition.
Early this morning , in spite of the weather, I dressed in my exercise gear, pulling on my waterproof as I left the apartment and walked into the storm. Down to the bay I went, through the park, along the side of the inlet pushing against the wind and rain. My skirt was drenched and I couldn’t care less. I needed the elements to shake me, stir me, help me feel alive on this first new day of uncertainty in 2021.
Life had been so good recently as summer rolled on endlessly. Each morning I had awakened to skies of limitless blue, bright light turning the water in the bay an opaque turquoise. I would look across to the volcanic cone of Takarunga/Mt Victoria sun kissed and golden in the mid-distance and Rangitoto on the horizon, the colour of blue slate and shimmering in the heat haze and wonder what will this gorgeous day bring? And then the spell of enchantment was broken dramatically. I was in the middle of chatting with my son in Sydney, when the text came through from my son-in-law. Auckland is going into level 3 at midnight. ‘What!’ I replied. ‘I can’t remember what we do in level 3.’ It has been six months since the August outbreak and in the intervening period we’ve enjoyed a level of freedom not experienced anywhere else in the world, as far as I’m aware, except perhaps Taiwan.
When I returned in from the walk and dried myself off, I began work on something that has dragged on too long, thinking I could use the time in home isolation wisely but I couldn’t stick at the task. I decided to tidy the kitchen cupboards instead and wondered about baking something but again I flitted from one thing to another and then stopped for lunch. At the table I read the column on health and nutrition in an old issue of the ‘Listener ‘. It described the bad eating habits of people in lockdown. Apparently, consumption of salt, sugary drinks, fats and chocolate skyrocketed. I then returned to the writing but very soon found myself succumbing to an overwhelming urge to lie down on the new divan in my study nook and read some more of Alison Jones 'This Pakeha Life: an unsettled memoir'. I was enjoying the section on feminism and her role in the protests of the 1970s and 1980s, clad in her dyed pink builder's overalls, badges pinned on, 'Abortion: A Woman's Right to Choose', 'Fight Inequality', and riding her Suzuki motorbike revelling in the feeling of speed. Next thing I startled awake and found the book resting on my chest.
What to do now? I needed fresh milk for my tea. At the dairy I bought the milk, which was all I needed, and then grabbed a big bottle of ginger ale, a big bottle of tonic, and surprising myself, I bought a cylinder of Pringles! Original! I haven’t eaten Pringles since the ‘seventies. But they tasted good, along with a tall glass of tonic and ice, flavoured with wedges of fresh lemon and drops of Angostura bitters, as I sat watching the miserable roll out of news on tv…
28 December 2020 Day 278 in the time of coronavirus and we have marked the first Christmas since the pandemic emerged in a seafood and poultry market in Wuhan, China in December 2019. Initially it was recorded as a cluster of ‘pneumonia-like cases’. By January it had spread, via global travel to Japan, South Korea and Thailand. On February 14 the first death, an eighty-year old Chinese man, was reported in Paris. It spread rapidly after that causing utter devastation and suffering in its wake and destroying, in the process, any belief, we might once have held during the relatively fortunate years following world war II that we were immune to plague, and able with modern medicine to control our destiny. I do think the significant lesson we might take from the worldwide crisis is that learning to live with and tolerate uncertainty in life is our individual and collective challenge.
The recent discovery of new strains of the virus that are many times more transmissible and the outbreak of the virus closer to home in Sydney, only days after an announcement of a possible Trans-Tasman bubble, has dashed our hopes of reconnection with loved ones in Australia anytime soon and reminded us of our powerlessness once again. And while, remarkably and outstandingly the scientific community have raced to produce an effective vaccine and indeed created several in record time and the first tier of people have already received an initial dose and this is surely a sign of hope, yet the scale of what needs to happen now to administer the emergency vaccines is colossal — to vaccinate the whole world, each and every one of us, and not once but twice, with the right spacing in between, to achieve this effectively and eradicate coronavirus from the planet seems an incredible goal for we don’t yet have definitive proof of the various vaccines’ efficacy and safety. There hasn’t been sufficient time, usually ten — fifteen years, to trial them and so this is the trial, and we the world’s population are its human guinea pigs. These challenges along with the upsurge of cases in the UK, Europe, Japan and the US that have lead to stringent lockdowns in those countries over the Christmas holiday period have dampened the mood this festive season.
In the lead up here, as I mixed with people in the village I noted a general weariness, a sense of fatigue felt by all. The events of this past year have left people exhausted by the stress of having to weather so many unprecedented changes to our daily lives. We want 2021 to be a better year but we dare not pin too much hope on it, for through this hard year everybody has been impacted by the fallout of the pandemic whether it has been through the repeated lockdowns and the consequent loss of personal freedoms, or through separation from family overseas, babies born and still not held and loved by their grandparents, or harder still by a parent, or through job losses, business closures, livelihoods suddenly gone and shrinking options for re-employment. The fallout continues with a housing market overheated to the point that home ownership is achievable for the privileged only and then there is the mental anguish for those already struggling with personal challenges that have been stretched thin by the additional strain of the lockdowns. For others there has been the pain of a losing loved person in dreadful circumstances, robbed of the opportunity to be present at the end to ease that person towards death. This, to me, seems to have been the worst aspect of the pandemic. I cannot erase from my memory the photojournalism essay by Jonny Weeks of everyday life in an intensive care unit in a University hospital in Coventry: those images of people suffering, faces hidden behind respirators, hooked to machines and administered to by medical staff, themselves dehumanised by their own protective suits, and worst of all people dying alone without human touch from a familiar at the end.
Which is why this year, Christmas day has shone like a bright star in amongst the grey of the ongoing worry and grind and the considerable guilt of knowing that while here in Aotearoa we gather freely in groups, bathed in sunlight and enjoying warm temperatures, much of the rest of the world is in a state of stringent lockdown, doing it hard in family bubbles, or on their own. Peace and solitude is good for stability of mind, but too much I fear is dangerous for mental health. I don’t know what to do about this. Acknowledging our good fortune and the good governance of Jacinda and her cabinet, who listened to the public health professionals and went into lockdown early and hard is important but not enough. It just is dreadfully unfair.
Every year at the end of November I take a deep breath before plunging into preparation for Christmas. Repeatedly I question the materialism of gift giving but this year I revelled in all there is to love about the festive season with its increase in social contact, the goodwill exchanged over meals and cups of tea and the music, listening to the glorious music — three splendid concerts by Harbour Voices, the Camerata Choir and Cantorum and on Christmas Eve Handel's Messiah on the Concert programme. Then on the day itself there is pleasure to be had from watching children enjoy the day — a niece lying, her long legs outstretched along the sofa, face hidden behind the cover of a book engrossed in the story — a grandson reading his card to me, (featured here) the content changing as his eye alights on things in my apartment — "I love you Mormor, I like your lovely apartment, I like the little house on the shelf, I like the beautiful cloak (a turquoise silk scarf he wears tied under his chin), I like the crystals... This year, for Christmas, my friend gave me a book of piano music for young people, collected by the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Immediately my fingers felt restless to play the old favourites and to sing: ‘I’ve been working on the railroad’ ‘Down by the Riverside’ ‘Green Grow the Rushes-O’ ‘Greensleeves’... Simple pleasures in the time of Coronavirus. They make a difference.
9 December 2020. Day 254 in the time of coronavirus and as Christmas approaches I find my mother is on my mind. I think of her most days, hear her voice sometimes saying ‘Hold firm, Deborah. Hold firm’. Recently I’ve begun to realise that she isn’t gone, that she is here, within me, that much of who she was, her teachings and values are somehow manifest in me as I carry on without her. Often with my grandchildren I have a sense of channelling the love of my mother and her mother before her, passing on their love, the sheer unconditionality of it to Remy and Sage, the loves and lights of my life.
But there are days when I long to have my mother back here on earth, and most especially in the time of Covid-19. I want to sit with her again, absorbing her steady influence while watching the tall Liquid Amber beyond the rest home window, lit up like fire on an autumnal afternoon, not needing to say anything, just breathing it in together, sighing at its beauty. I am there now in my mind’s eye acknowledging her stillness, her focus. It was like that towards the end. Sitting together in silence, my hand holding hers, in the midst of my whirlwind visits to Christchurch.
I’ve been reflecting on what I’ve learned in the time of coronavirus? It occurs to me that the period in freeze-frame offered an opportunity to discover what was really important. In the silence of lockdown, no traffic swishing on the road, no planes droning overhead, no background chatter and buzz, just the birds chorusing, their calls reverberating in the quiet, and with yards of time to think and reflect a space opened to ask the big questions: What do I need to live by? Who matters, who to keep close, who not to? How important is the work? Really? Is this enough? For many artists and writers lockdowns offered a time to reclaim our creative inclinations without pressure of deadlines and to quietly intensify the practice. For me the regular journalling, posting each entry on Facebook late at night, helped me sharpen my process, to crystallise ideas faster, to write and edit quickly and not dither over the implications of the writing going public — Can I really write that? Will I sound like a fool? Be labelled a navel gazer etc, etc? No, it was just me writing out of uncertainty and fear, naming my experience and then cobbling it together late at night and pushing the post button before there was time for second thoughts. I really value that experience now for what it taught me about the craft.
And what else? Possibly being in lockdown showed me what I need to get by on. I know I need a home, I learned that through the eighteen months of my nomadic wanderings. I need my family to love and be loved by. Growing up on a farm on the Canterbury Plains, with its expansive views to the Southern Alps on one horizon and the folding forms of the Port Hills on the other it has always been this way, I cannot do without the presence of Nature in my life. I need it in order to breathe. I need to see the tides washing in and washing out, weather passing over its squalls and mists blurring the panorama, sunlight turning the crimson blooms of the pohutukawa a deeper shade of carmine, the rainbows, the sunbursts… I need the sound of the wind shrieking on wild nights and birdsong on calmer days, and most especially I need to watch the swallows who nest in my eaves, swooping like origami darts to alight on the railing beside my kitchen table, the indigo iridescence on their wings catching the light and glinting. I think I need the seagulls too, sometimes dismissed as scavengers, and squawkers, yet when they soar and tilt around my apartment windows, their pale white alabaster bodies twirling in the round against a bright white sky, tone on tone, they are dancers in the air and very beautiful...
I need my son in Sydney staying true to his creative dream through the uncertainties of coronavirus and staying safe, please, until we can be reunited. Will it be next year? Please, again. Then we will hug and I will breathe in his familiar smell, admire the kink and texture of his wavy hair, notice the light on his iris bringing out the pale sea-green in his eyes, experience that quirky grin... Then I will feel complete.
And my grandchildren; five month old Sage sleeping on her tummy on the cot mattress in my study, waking and lifting her head, that orb of pale skin and fine hair turning, flopping down again. And 3 ½ year old Remy answering my question, ‘What would you like for Christmas?’ Um, I’d like a ‘My Little Pony’ book but we don’t just get presents from Santa, we have to give presents to other people,’ he says and then that wandering mind, ‘One night,’ pause, ‘One day-night I saw Santa out my window with Mama and Dada but Sage didn’t join in. And Santa had some candy in his sleigh.' A change of voice ‘What a silly thing to do.’ Pause. Another thought. ‘But I haven’t got a chimney for Santa,’ face screwed up in concern. ‘What will he do?’ I ask. ‘He will have to go to Grandma and GG’s and take the presents down their chimney.’ A change of topic. ‘This is a crown,’ he says suddenly, showing me his chewy muesli bar made by his mother, ‘this is a bite in a crown.’ And it was a perfect crown with the points. And then that keen, roving mind has another thought. 'And I’m a bakery.' Stop. That wasn’t right. He thinks, ‘I’m a cooker. I make dinner. I make sweet stuff.’ His thoughts run on. And what sort of sweet stuff? ‘ Um doughnuts, cake…‘ Then suddenly he's finished his afternoon tea, ‘I’m full,’ and is hopping down from the table and on to the next thing. How I love them both, just as my grandmother and my mother loved me and my children. The wheel turns and all is well.
November 28, 2020. Day 243 In the time of coronavirus and just when I was feeling despairing about the fate of the planet and the degradation of wild places everywhere something unexpected and reassuring appeared like a sign. It happened close to where I live, around a bend in the bay on a blustery, summery Saturday morning. My friend across the inlet had invited me over for a row in the bay. She’d messaged saying ‘Come at high tide for elevenses. I’ll have the kayaks ready’. Her home and its garden spill down the hill to the water’s edge.
Another friend joined us just on the full tide and we set off. This is something my friend likes to do, take a break from making art in her studio to paddle into the inlet where she enjoys a leisurely morning tea drifting on the lazy tide. Today though the wind was scooping the sea into playful wavelets and a decision was made to leave the kayaks on the bank and use the wooden row boat instead. ‘I’ll row you to the shell bank’ she said. Skirt hiked up she pulled the vessel into the sea. We stowed the thermos and picnic basket under the seat in the stern.
The boat bounced on the green water as my friend rowed against the waves, using the considerable strength in her upper arms to manoeuvre the boat while we allowed ourselves to be transported, smiling from ear to ear, me whooping when the water sloshed over the sides, warm and salty onto my legs. I was a child again, carefree, joyful, riding the swell as the boat rode up the side of one wave and down the other. Ahead I could see the tower rising on its promontory, an icon viewable from miles around. I felt, in that moment a deep sense of having found the right place to live, of being where I am meant to be, even though there are still times of disorientation and surprise at how the path through the time of coronavirus, has taken me far from my birthplace, Otautahi, in the south on Te Wai Pounamu.
Stepping through the water, we pulled the boat around the mangroves, avoiding pot holes, and into the shallows. On a patch of pale grit and shell we spread the picnic rug, placing a tea towel at the centre, for the table and then unloading the contents of the picnic basket: vegetarian sandwiches, celery and ricotta sticks, rice crackers and homemade dip and three china cups pale mint in colour, the rim featuring a decorative band of terracotta pink on a dull cocoa grid. We each had the same thought. This was a scene from 'Swallows and Amazons' as we adventurers, much older than the children of course and with more refined tastes, picnicked on the shell bank.
Just then a bird flew in breaking the reverie — a flash of tawny feathers, the white underside with its flush of coppery pink momentarily revealed as it tipped and landed only a metre away. ‘It’s a dotterel,’ exclaimed my other friend. And she was right. It was the rare and endangered New Zealand Dotterel Tūturiwhatu — apparently there are only 1700 of the Northern species left making them more vulnerable even than some species of kiwi. We wondered if there were eggs nearby for November is the breeding season. And would they be okay? Dotterel take such risks, laying their eggs in a scuff of sand that leaves them horribly vulnerable to predators. Here the concern is the high tide that can sometimes swamp the low lying beach.
As I watched the bird hopping staccato-like in a succession of quicksteps drawing an arc around us I was reminded of an experience last year while on a writer’s residency at Karekare. I had been sitting on a sea-worn trunk in the Whatipu scientific reserve, a place where the dotterel is protected, observing the sea, vast and grey and mysterious out in front when a sound broke through my concentration. A dotterel, its eyes sharp and curious, was so close it was almost within arm’s reach. When I swivelled round for a better view it jumped away sounding the alarm.
For a time, keeping still, I continued writing in my journal, aware of the bird nearby. Eventually when I got up to leave there were two birds, not one and they hectored me, working as a team, sounding the alarm with a series of loud insistent cheeps, one on either side furiously attempting to shoo me away. They were pushing me out towards the surf, when I looked inland. And that’s when I saw them, three diminutive birds, no bigger than a seashell, jumping like their parents, only lightly, their calls just peeps…
I remember feeling elated as I walked away thinking to myself 'Two parents plus three babies, that makes five dotterels to expand the dwindling numbers.' I was so pleased I told another person sitting further down on another log writing in his notebook. He looked up and I saw something like hunger in his eyes. ‘Three birds?' He'd seen the eggs only a couple of days ago. Already he was striding down the beach, this man who just happened to be the bird recorder for the entire coastline, to spy the miracle.
I love it when the cosmos offers these serendipitous experiences. I like the circularity too. For here I am exactly a year later viewing the same endangered bird only this time in a vastly different setting, on the edge of a busy harbour encircling a major city. This felt like a sign from Nature that something is going right, that the species of this planet will survive but we must play our part in protecting them.
Day 238 in the time of coronavirus and today my thoughts are with every individual on the planet presently suffering from Covid-19, for the families who have lost loved ones, in some cases more than one beloved person, for the people who have lost businesses and livelihoods and are beset with anxiety about their ability to provide and survive, for those suffering mental anguish as a result of losses and deprivations, for the current generation and for the babies coming into this world in the midst of a pandemic and a second formidable crisis, one of existential dimensions, that we cannot escape and cannot deny. Our very existence is threatened due to the warming of the planet, a situation we have accelerated with our plundering and exploiting of natural resources: oil, timber, minerals, fish, animals, land and water supplies. Perhaps the pandemic and global warming are linked. As yet scientists have been saying there is no known connection however the root causes of climate change may have increased the risk of pandemics.
Only this morning I read an article about the murder of all the farmed minks in Denmark who have contracted Covid-19, as a way of eliminating the new mutated form of the virus. Two million animals dead. They caught it from humans. We caught the virus from an animal, still they don’t know whether it was a bat, a pangolin… Looking for the source is like looking for a needle in a haystack apparently but one thing is sure the SARS virus is circulating. According to David Hayman, infectious diseases expert at Massey University, intensified farming is to blame for the mire we find ourselves in. It is also a result of man pushing into wild habitats, taking over land where, until recently, wildlife have been living in solitude and thus increasing the likelihood of viruses being passed from wild to domestic animals and then on to people. That we thought we could control our world, assumed we could take as much as we wanted for economic advantage while tipping the delicate balance of ecosystems everywhere and destroying much of what was pristine and wonderful about planet earth, how arrogant and short sighted are we.
My emotions were stirred by David Attenborough’s latest documentary, 'A Life On Our Planet.' In what is a reflective survey of his sixty years of studying and recording the wonders of the wild places of our world the great broadcaster and naturalist presents, with excerpts from a lifetime of documentary making, a graphic illustration of the rapid degradation of nature and its habitats through the burning of fossil fuels, deforestation, overfishing, and exponential population growth. It is shocking to witness how quickly the damage has been wrought, six decades only, and how monumental is the scale of the destruction. From images of lush tangled jungles of Borneo where orangutang swing languidly from branch to vine, to stills of pillaged forests, scarified earth, and an illustration of a lone animal clutching onto a denuded tree amidst piles of massacred trunks the evidence is alarming. There are underwater sequences of oceans teeming with brilliant marine life followed by dead coral reefs empty of fish. Image upon image, past and present illustrating the catastrophe. From the once vast ice shelfs and towering icebergs in Antarctica to shrinking glaciers, from snowy white expanses the home of polar bears and sea lions to eroded shorelines and bays the decline is severe.
Attenborough’s film opens and closes on Chernobyl in the Ukraine, the site, on 26 April 1986, of the worst nuclear accident in history when a reactor exploded, sending clouds of deathly atomic radiation into the atmosphere. In a haunting series of wide angle tracking shots we view a deserted, poisoned city frozen in the moment of abandonment: offices, civic buildings, streets, squares, apartment blocks all empty of human habitation. The camera pans the interiors of what were people’s homes in disarray, strange scenes where there are beds and bedding still intact while floors are strewn with masonry and glass. There is desolation in fading, peeling wallpapers and so many books lying on the floor, their pages lifted by a breeze and rippling. These abandoned homes reminded me of scenes I saw in Christchurch after the earthquakes.
According to Attenborough what happened to Chernobyl serves as an emblem for the future of the planet. Over the years since the explosion in 1986, nature has revived and forests have arisen amongst the ruins. Chernobyl is now a place for wild animals to pass through, although not stay. In scenes of mesmerising cinematography we see wolves, foxes and wild horses moving in dream-like slow motion. Putting our time in context he explains that after each of the five extinctions — the last, the Cretaceous-Paleogene extinction 66 million years ago probably caused by the impact of a massive comet or asteroid — Nature returned. The next extinction, this time wrought by humankind (he is sure of this) will wipe us out but like the time after Chernobyl Nature will continue.
Appearing tired and pensive there is a sense of finality about his address. The once vigorous naturalist and documentarian, passionate advocate for the wild places calls this film ‘his witness statement’. It is also his elegy to a beautiful world now dangerously in decline.
'A Life On Our Planet' was filmed before the onset of coronavirus and released on 17 April 2020 just as many countries, including our own, were experiencing their first lockdown. I wonder what Attenborough might have had to say about the pandemic? I doubt he would be surprised.
As for hope, he tells us if we act fast enough we might be able to make a difference. The last quarter of the film is devoted to highlighting efforts around the globe to increase sustainable renewable energy, to rescue and sustain the biodiversity of the planet, to recycle better, to live and farm sustainably… He tells us if we can halt world population growth, if we can replace our petrol powered cars with electric, if we can switch from eating meat and fish to a plant based diet we might have a future. The implementation of a no-fishing zone around the island of Palau in the western Pacific has had a dramatic impact on marine life. In a short space of time the fish have returned and the underwater sea vegetation has revived. It is possible. I take heart from this but the bigger message absorbed here is of the desperate imperative to reduce my own ecological footprint, while there is still time. If we all acted decisively, if our empowered Labour government with its clear mandate to govern could provide financial incentives to assist people to buy electric cars (it has been mentioned) and many another planet saving actions — continued efforts at reforestation, reducing waste, increasing the number of wind turbines and other natural sources of energy — then we might just manage to save our planet.
Note on photo: Stills from 'A Life on Our Planet' are copyright. Instead I have selected a photograph taken exactly a year ago while I was on the Karekare Writer's Residency. I do not know the reason for the gannet's death. It may have been from natural causes, or it may be a result of ingesting plastic in the ocean. Plastic debris causes the deaths of more than a million seabirds every year.
Day 231 in the time of coronavirus and another three weeks have elapsed since the last entry. We’ve been in level one for nearly six weeks now and with the relaxing of restrictions and freedom of movement I have found it harder to find the time to write.
The American election has been and gone and I am glad the reign of Trump is over. The endless reporting on the grotesque and repugnant, the bizarre and unconscionable that has been the Trump media circus these past four years has been harsh on the spirit. Truely it has felt like harassment. I think the worst aspect of witnessing such negative content is the corresponding sense of helplessness as Trump has sought to influence the results of the 2016 election, to avoid paying his taxes, while paying hush money to silence the women he has defiled and firing others who have called him out while hiring right wing, dodgy henchmen to stack the major influential positions of power and authority within the land, with his cronies. Again and again I have been reduced to speechlessness at what this man of the highest office has got away with and the incredulity that none of the law enforcers seem able to touch him and rein him in. There’s something very wrong with a constitution and a legal system that allows a president to be above the law and unimpeachable.
This assault on our innate sense of what is right and decent erodes our ability to trust in democratic process. Now we wait to see whether he will fall from his pedestal and finally be found guilty of his many crimes and have to face the consequences?
If I was brave enough I would have the opening words of 'Desiderata', written 93 years ago, by American writer Max Ehrmann, tattooed on my chest. 'Go placidly amidst the noise and haste and remember what peace there may be silence.'
This afternoon as I sat writing out these thoughts, expelling them on the page here in this lovely setting, doors wide open to the sound of blackbirds in the pohutukawa just below, I felt a shift in humour, a sense of contentment settling in. Further out the silent sea seeps in on the incoming tide filling up the muddy inlet with shining water.
Day 211 in the time of coronavirus and after three weeks of silence I am returning to the keyboard to tap out a journal entry. There is a reason for this. I needed to pause and think about my process. When I made my initial decision to write this journal it was done impetuously under the pressure of an unprecedented set of circumstances. I started the journal with little time to seriously consider the implications of needing to think on my feet, write on the hop day after day after day? It did cross my mind that the edit or rather its lack might be a problem when delivering entries rapidly. Ideally, for something as personal as a journal, a writer needs days and weeks to consider the impact of what has been written on a high tide of emotion before making it public.
There were other pressures I couldn’t immediately foresee in the blind panic. The conventions of the journal form, for instance, require an intimate style of writing, one where the writer is in conversation with herself mining the day’s events, exploring the inner world, trying to untangle and make sense of the confusions of the day. Although I had kept a journal in parallel with my work for many years, that was a private sanctum, a place where I could stretch out and think and truly be myself. Posting a daily journal on Facebook is something entirely different, a peculiarly 21st century activity for which there is no precedent. And so without any theoretical discussion upon which to support my process I have sometimes struggled at hammering out dispatches from the heart under pressure of meeting a daily deadline, for an audience of familiars and strangers.
There was an even bigger dilemma, something I never considered. What would happen if I didn’t remain strong both physically and mentally, for the duration and was unable to honour my commitment? I could not possibly predict the future, then nor know how my personal life might impinge on the project for I was writing in the midst of a divorce, in a kind of double shock negotiating an individual personal struggle within the context of the wider pandemic. Would I manage to protect myself and my family from any outbursts of pain? It was a risky enterprise.
Yet despite my reservations I leapt in and over the weeks the journal wandered hither and thither following the course of the pandemic globally and the lockdowns here in our land. I'm not sure how well I have done. There are passages I regret and a sense of failing as the gap between entries has grown longer.
In the meantime the search for a new home followed by the renovation of this new space with breaks in building activity as we went into level 3 again have used up time and energy. The stress mounted. Even when at last I moved in, I was not prepared for the thunder bolts of pain as I began unpacking boxes of belongings, each item with a potent memory attached to a life, a union, a home now evaporated. The stress weakened my nerve. For a short time I wobbled on the brink of falling into a dark place and then, with some support, recovered.
Finally, ensconced in this new home overlooking scenes of great beauty, I am becoming acquainted with the rhythms of this place and beginning to experience a return of equilibrium. I gaze at the bay down below, slowly filling with water and begin to breathe easier. Across the isthmus I can see more water seeping in and covering the mud and mangroves of Ngataringa inlet and I feel my body relax. When my eye scans the sky and I see against the silken sheen of an eggshell sky the shore birds soaring gracefully on wind currents, I lift with them. Tilting around the big window where I work the welcome swallows, with their forked tails, are returning to the nest they built in the eaves. Their industry is a never-ending source of delight. It feels good up here listening to the wind, watching it ripple the trees.
There were times on the path that led me here when I cried out in despair. Driving the grey, desolate streets of the big metropolis, looking at houses, none of which I could imagine a life in, and wondering where I would end up I grew weary and hopeless. If only I could have put my trust in intuition and serendipity, believed firmly that saying yes to opportunities as they arose would eventually lead me to this setting, the right place to put down roots, in the sky, and flourish again, I would have been spared some of the anguish.
Maybe for many New Zealanders there is a similar easing of the spirit now, spared, as most of us have been, from the worst of coronavirus and secure with the results of the election just past now counted. A landslide win, one that took even the Prime Minister by surprise, where the nation, or most of the nation, through the voting, thanked Jacinda and her team for their sound management of the virus. Given such a resounding election result Labour now has the mandate to roll out social reforms that will benefit many of the stricken but especially the children who live in poverty. Is it too soon to predict smoother times ahead? Probably. I think what I can say with certainty about this moment there is cause for celebration.
Day 187 in the time of coronavirus and I’ve been silent for over three weeks, ensnared in a busy distracting schedule, bobbing up and down in the flow of change and more change, trying to stay steady. But here I am back at the keyboard tapping.
There are times when the weight of many things; this confounding pandemic; the soaring of racial prejudice fuelled by divisive hate rhetoric from the most hateful person on the planet; continuing climate change falls heavily on the spirit. I've wondered whether the recent strong winds on the harbour bridge, so ferocious they tipped over a huge truck causing serious damage to a main support and major traffic disruption to our main city, are another sign of a warming planet So when an invitation arrived in my inbox to spend time on the sandbanks observing birds near the Miranda/Pukorokoro shorebird sanctuary, on the edge of the Firth of Thames, it felt like a gift falling from the sky.
The day dawned bright and still. We drove down the southern motorway, over the Bombay Hills, turned off at Pokeno and headed, briefly, towards the Hauraki Plains, before turning at Mangatangi and winding east and slightly north through brilliant fields of green towards our destination. The sky was a Delft blue, the day warm and gentle, not a breath of movement in the atmosphere. To the east the Coromandel Ranges were a beguiling shade of mauve while water in the middle ground, the Firth of Thames, provided a strip of gentle blue.
We were meeting at the home of one of my book club members. Keith Woodley is the author of the definitive book on the godwit, 'Godwits: Long Haul Champions' and he’s also the manager of the Pukorokoro Miranda Shorebird centre. On this day he would be on duty there but we knew he would be awaiting our return from the bird hide ready to supply us with all the information and stories, of which there are many, of his research discoveries and experiences plotting the flight path of the bar-tailed godwit, back and forth from Miranda to Alaska, twice a year. He has observed the birds in Alaska at the Yukon-Kuskokwim delta and on the Alaska Peninsula where they breed, and in North Korea too, one of the countries they alight in just once to refuel two thirds of the way into the northern journey. On the return to Aotearoa, the birds cover the distance in a single flight.
It’s an absolute wonder how they manage this. The mother birds have only recently hatched their eggs, and the finely sculpted baby birds are still very young when they make their first journey of over 30,000 kms from Alaska all the way to Pukororo. Truly miraculous. And here is an interesting fact, discovered in Keith’s Godwits book, the female bird is larger than the male her inbuilt design feature allowing her to produce a largeish egg and a largeish chick. Size is essential to the survival of the new bird as it makes its first perilous passage across planet Earth.
The route to the bird hide passed alongside a wetland where on this tranquil day black swans and one white heron had the water to themselves. It had the feeling of walking in a sheltered valley, located somewhere in a bible story with rising landforms on both sides— the hills to the west, the Coromandel ranges in the east. There must be times when this same idyllic place turns into something desolate, windswept and god-forsaken but today I had felt I had found paradise. We were heading, with three enormous telescopes, to the bird hide at the outermost end.
The telescopes were positioned on the shingly bank next to the hide, their lenses focussed on a sandbank, just across a muddy lagoon. Beyond, a slip of water and the deep lavender ranges formed a velvet backdrop. And there they were, the bar-tailed godwit recently returned from Alaska.
I think you have to know what you are looking at to experience the full magic. We are lucky in our book club to have in our group two experienced birders. On this day Will Perry, chairman of the Pukororo Shorebird Trust counted some three thousand godwits. There is a method he explained for counting. It involves grouping the birds in bunches of ten, then twenty, fifty, 100, 1000, 2000, 3000… The godwits stretched out in lines, ten, twenty birds deep along the bank. Mixed in amongst them were other shorebirds: Caspian tern; white faced heron; wrybill; pied stilt; variable oystercatcher and red knot. The air rippled. It was like a mirage, like footage in a David Attenborough movie. Yet it was real, this extraordinary natural phenomenon of birds on mass gathered together pecking at the sand, gorging on food, filling up the hungry void inside. I nearly fell down on my knees and gave thanks to all the Gods and to the intricate evolution process that has produced life on earth for creating this marvellous vision.
My eyesight could be better. I have the beginnings of cataracts. This means that objects in the far distance are always slightly hazy, features indistinct. Would I see the detail? I was desperate to. In breaks between viewing Will explained a diagram affixed to the wall inside the bird hide and its system of banding. Some of the birds carry up to six different coloured bands, including a white flag, on their fine legs. Do they mind? I wondered. Do the bands slow them down? They’re very light apparently. Thinking I couldn’t possibly discern any bands I put my eye to the lens. Not every bird is banded. The process by which this happens at Pukorokoro and at landing places throughout the world is dependent on humans and their volunteer efforts. It involves a clever process whereby a net is set. The birders then lie for hours in mud waiting for the tide to wash in and nudge the birds closer to shore, whereupon a canon fires the net over the birds and the birders rush forward to tag as many as they can. Lots of birds escape before the net descends.
I spied the bands on the left leg of one bird and was the first to do so. The expression of doubt on the faces of my friends was noted. ‘But I have seen a white flag, and a red and yellow band,’ I exclaimed. Will leapt forward, eye to the lens, asking at the same time, ‘Which leg?’ The left. ‘What position?’ Near its ankle. ‘What about the other leg, can you see any bands?’ A pied stilt was blocking my view. Will confirmed my sighting and then everyone jumped up to see. Of course later when I spoke to Keith he told me that, unfortunately, I’d only gained half the story of the bird's flight paths so it was invalid. I don’t care I had a fabulous time.
While we were taking turns to look through the view finder my friend Holly described the spectacle that sometimes occurs when the godwits rise up, as one flock, and fly over. Before we left it happened. Something disturbed them and up they went in a huge puff of feathers, and with a twittering and beating of wings, into the sky moving like a cloud over the water, over our heads. As they flew the sun caught on the pale underside of their bodies and turned them into gold. I wanted to scream and I did silently for it was a truly glorious sight and an epiphany. I have always been interested in birds but in that moment I became a lover of birds.