Archive for the ‘Nature’ Category

Pissing In Public.

May 28, 2017

 

 

I have no problem with pissing outside. I grew up on farm where the whole world is your toilet (you are 5km from any kind of civilisation so you just do as needs require. Besides, there is no one about so who is too care?). The only time you might use an actual toilet is when you are at home and even then its easier to go outside and give the ‘gift that matters’ to the lemon and feijoa tree where it will do some good rather than the rigmarole of toilets and seats and back splash and hand washing.

I remember suggesting to my newly minted 8-year-old stepson that he pee outside. “It’s easier and much more fun”. A well schooled town boy, he was visibly upset by the idea but he got used to it and hasn’t looked back. “Yes, it is convenient” he announced when he was about 10. The problem was getting him to stop pissing onto the one spot, that’s where excess piss had killed a good few square feet of lawn. “You gotta spread it around boy. It is potent stuff”.

Different rules apply when you pee outside. Hand washing is not always possible and you have to compromise standards a little. Otherwise piss is sterile and you can learn to hang your ‘willy’ out and do the job without touching anything. If you really have to wash, dewy grass is a good start.

The toilet is good for storms and impossibly cold nights but otherwise outside is easiest. Or in bucket. At one time the whole family peed in buckets and in the morning I would collect it, dilute it down with water and chuck it on the lawn. Visitors would kick off their shoes and walk about the grass marvelling at the velvety softness underfoot. “It was piss that did that,” I never told anyone.

The worst part about pissing is getting up in the night but a bucket close by makes it simple, comfortable and easy. ‘Easy’ unless you knock the bucket over which is why I switched to the bottle. I learned my lessons about peeing in bottles a few years back when I was stuck in traffic.

It was an emergency. I had no choice. I unzipped and let rip. It was one huge error of judgement. I jammed the head of my cock into the head of a bottle and forgot to leave room for air displacement. There was an explosion of urine and I was a bloody mess and the car was a bloody mess. “Fuck you Auckland Traffic,” I screamed helplessly to no one.

Growing up on a dairy farm gets one used to being pissed on and in the end its only “grass and water” (or in my case chocolate and coffee) grandpa would remind me when I was still getting used to this ‘fact of cowshed life’. After a while you stop thinking about it. Even shit becomes a mundane thing. “Grass and water, grass and water.”

I got caught short up on K-Rd the other week and damn did I not regret using the toilet at the café I left five minutes back. Three km’s till home and the pressure is building. In the end I ducked off the footpath and into a byway running through the University of Auckland and let loose against a tree. Jesus it felt good.

I finished and turned around to find a dozen people staring at me out a window, a mix of emotions on display. Some looked vaguely shocked, some offended and others amused. I waved and bowed and mouthed my gratitude for their kind attention. If you are going to do it in the daylight and in public do it fast and without hesitation and if you get caught, be gracious about it. It’ll confuse them while you make your getaway.

Piss is a miracle thing. Lawns, tress, and shrubs (including fruit trees) will benefit from its judicious application. It can be added to compost to invigorate proceedings (the nitrogen in urine is mana from heaven to the bacteria working at breaking down the waste) and used to fertilise commercial food crops. You can do a lot of positive things with urine.

We should not be afraid of piss but we are and for good reason. Historically we discovered that having a whole lot of people pissing on everything in built up areas is no good for anyone (it stinks for a start) so we developed some pretty firm strictures about the ‘where and when and how’ of pissing in places.

But when you gotta go you gotta go. Even on the verge of a busy road in the middle of the day. People are going to toot and point. Ignore them; they know not what they do. A full bladder can be distracting to a driver. Better to be safe than sorry.

I know this woman who can lift her skirt and point her stream as efficiently as any man. She’s a farm girl who does it with practiced amusement and god help anyone who takes offence: “It’s only bloody piss. Get over it”. Ah Kiwi women. Gotta love them.

 

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Grandpa, Rabbits and the Value of Non-Human Emotions.

March 18, 2017

 

Grandpa lived just down the road and would often stick his head through the backdoor of our house and say “Want to come down the farm E-Hoa (Maori for ‘my friend’)?’ Of course I did and after putting on my gumboots on we were off. First stop was the cowshed where we would collect the shovel which he would heft onto his shoulder before making that long guttural sound that meant the phlegm in his throat was being loosened and prepared for the big theatrical ‘hoik’, a kind of exclamation point I copied for years after in my quest to be just like him.

We were on the lookout for rabbit burrows but along the way he talked about many things including one of his favourite subjects, trees. “That’s a Macrocarpa” pointing up at one of the grand specimens he had planted decades before. “They come from the Monterey district of California which is near San Francisco. They are endangered there but not here. Here they grow like weeds!” he chuckled. “We call them abortion trees because if cows eat the green early on in her pregnancy she will more often than not loose the calf. Nothing worse than a branch from one of these buggers coming down in a storm and the cows getting at it.”

“See that plant there?” he said pointing at a sprawling large leafed plant with a pink flower that grew on the pasture margins all over the farm. “Yes” I said bending down for a closer look. “It’s called mallow and the cows only ever eat it after they have given birth. “Why is that Grandpa?” I asked. “Well,” he mused “can’t say for sure but I suspect this plant contains something the cows need at particular times. When they are hungry for it they will do just about anything to get at it. Not even an electric fence will stop them.”

This would bring him around to his most treasured subject, soil. “We have very poor soils in New Zealand and lacking in just about everything” – referring to minerals and trace elements. “See this one here” he says pointing to a white umbelliferous flower atop a feather shaped flower. “Yes” I said. “It’s called yarrow and we plant it because it prevents scouring in calves (a broad descriptive term for diarrhoea). It is also a good at finding selenium in the soil and New Zealand soils have almost no selenium so it is a handy plant to have around.” He goes onto explain about white muscle disease in calves (caused by selenium deficiency) and how distressing it was until they figured the cause.

Then there were the yarns. “Our neighbour was a grumpy old man and we used to tease him and one day he chased us up a tree and we couldn’t escape so we (siblings) peed on him. That got rid of him” he chortled. I must have heard this story umpteen times over the years and it was never told the same way twice. Some of my cousins held this against him but not me; I was fine with it sharing a proclivity for embellishment as we did.

“Right, here we go” he says and sure enough in amongst the waving grasses he has spied a bare patch. Bending down on his knee he scoops away the dirt with his puffy dairy farmer hands and explains that when the mother is away feeding she fills the entrance to the burrow so that it is hidden from predators. He urges me to reach down into the hole and I am always little hesitant imaging that there might be something down there waiting to bite me or worse. He is patient and taking a deep breath I do it and discover soft warm wriggling bodies laying on dry grass. A sweet musky aroma lifts from the hole. It all feels very comfortable and secure. I withdraw my arm and Grandpa takes over.

Hauling the wee bunnies out one by one he knocks their heads hard against the steel of the shovel and tosses them on the ground. The bodies wriggle for a bit and blood leaks out their noses. When he is done he puts them back down the hole and collapses the burrow with the shovel.

“Cows can break a leg if they stumble unawares onto one of these damned things” he says without affectation. I feel a little uneasy and wonder out loud if the mother will be sad when she returns to find her babies dead and home ravaged. “Can’t afford think about those sorts of things” he says, “got to stay on top of them or they will overrun the place.”

Farmers can’t afford to think about animals in that way, it’s a fact of life. Once you do you are on a losing run to nowhere. Grandpa tells me the story of Laurie Discombe. The Discombe’s were an early settler family in the district and had a road named after them. Laurie was one of those strange breed of dairy farmers who never married, just settled into a life of cows and remained that way. He was quiet and shy and a bit uncomfortable around people.

As he got older Laurie found it harder and harder to part with his cows once they reached the end of their productive lives so he just started keeping them. Eventually he has more retired cows than milking ones and then no milkers at all. He ends up losing the farm. That’s why farmers can’t afford to be sentimental about these things.

I was twenty-two when Grandpa died. He dropped right in front of dad and me while we were down the farm one day and it was the biggest shock I ever suffered. I grieved harder than I did when my sister was killed a few years earlier. He and I were close and I felt understood by him though more recently I had become aggrieved when he criticised my penchant for tight jeans saying that I looked like a homo.

I was a musician and this was my uniform and I felt a bit miffed about the comment (I was also more liberal in my attitudes than he was) so I stopped talking to him for bit. He died before I could get past it. Now I realised there would be no getting passed it. I was a bit of a mess for a while after that.

Eventually I gave the farm away. I was too sensitive and cared too much and felt ashamed for many of the cruel things I did because I did not know any better. I thought often about a story attributed to the prophet Muhammad I had read somewhere. Some boys plucked a baby hawk from a nest and seeing the distressed mother following them about the Prophet asked who was causing this mother so much pain? In the asking I imagined he was also querying if non-human emotions were any less significant than human emotions?

After some thought I realised that for me feelings were feelings regardless of the species but I also understood the practicalities of managing land. Recently I found a rat nest under a friend’s chook house and did exactly what Grandpa would have done. It was necessary given what rats do on these islands. The upset mother camped about the wreckage and made herself vulnerable. The cat found her and that was that. Bloody tragic and I am still struggling with it.

I sometimes drive past the family farm but never call in. I can’t, it’s all too painful the place being the minefield of memories it is for me. I was supposed to take it on but was emotionally ill equipped for the life and my rejection of the legacy caused a world of familial disappointment that still haunts me to this day. The last thing Grandpa and I did together was set about planting a dozen Algerian oaks he had grown from acorns.

I thought his evergreen tree was an odd choice being the notoriously slow growers they are. “They’ll take forever to be something,” I told him. He just winked then set about winding up for one of his pointed hoiks. That was thirty-five years ago. These days the trees are quite something and when I drive past I look at them and their magnificence and think about him and the lasting power of grief and wonder at life’s grey contradictions.

 

 

Feeding The Birds

November 9, 2016

 

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The Kaka, an endangered NZ Parrot.

Back in my homeland, a farm on the dead flat dairy country of the Central Waikato, you’ll seldom see a native bird bar the Wax Eye. This bird is endemic to the South West Pacific and is believed to have first arrived on these shores in the 1830’s after being swept in by way of a powerful storm. (That was the first recorded sighting but one has to wonder that for all the millennia this bird has been about that it took until then to find their way to these islands?)

The Wax-Eye (or Silvereye as they call it in Australia) is classified as a self-introduced native (the faintly comical Pukeko is another) and unlike the actual natives who have withered under the onslaught of aggressive species bought to these islands by settlers who didn’t know any better, the Wax Eye is thriving.

A springtime bird (at least where I come from) it is a delight to feed. Partial to fat, a block of NZ’s finest grass fed butter will draw them in by the dozens and much pleasure can be had watching the social dynamics on display. An otherwise slight handful of yellow feathers, the males can get pretty aggro with each other as they tussle over the best positions from which to tackle the butter.

The feeding frenzy and dominance posturing can otherwise become a bit distracting making individuals easy prey for the family cat so the butter is best placed on high where approaching predators can be easily seen. A fence post or dangling branch does the trick nicely.

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The Wax Eye

The Wax Eye has a short season and just as suddenly as it has arrived it is gone unlike the Sparrows, Myna, Starlings, Black Birds, Thrushes, Magpies and Pigeons who are always about. The country Sparrow will eat pretty much anything and are a common sight around the local cowsheds where they feast on the palm kernel and maize silage farmers use to feed the cows feed with when fresh grass is in short supply.

The Sparrows here in the city are a bit different. When they are not eating spiders and insects they are hoovering up crumbs left by people eating on the move but present them with the kind of food their country cousins will attack with gusto and they look a bit blank.

The city Pigeons on the other hand will pretty much eat anything unlike their country cousins who never stop to look at the bread and butter left out for their pleasure. From their roost in the phoenix palms outside the old homestead they head off every morning for feeding grounds unknown.

Unlike the city Pigeon which watches the street with intense precision waiting for someone to drop a crumb or two the country cousin has no truck with humans coming and going in synchronised precision without as much as a ‘by your leave’. Occasionally the cat, unable to resist the call of the cooing bird at rest, will find its way up one of these 70-year-old giants and deep into the fronds only to discover that this critter is a tough customer and that the way down is awkward and difficult.

A little wailing in the dead of night and a precarious adventure with a ladder and torch usually find a satisfactory outcome for all concerned. More amenable to the cats is the odd young pre-flight pigeons that occasionally fall to the ground. A circus ensues as wide-eyed cats gather to dab and prod and otherwise terrorise the hapless victim. An attempt might be made to salvage the wee innocent but once the feline blood lust has flowered there is little hope of a successful rescue.

As in the city, the Blackbird, Starling, Myna and Thrush will gather where there is activity and hang about in a vaguely social manner but I have seldom seen the country cousins tackle a piece of bread or butter – perhaps they are too well fed by the riches of worms and insects available on the wide open land. Their city cousins have an altogether different appetite and will tackle anything. Watching a Blackbird or Thrush gathering bread in a novel sight for me.

There are a couple of four Magpies here in downtown Auckland but they are elusive critters. Sometimes when I happen across one in a park I will stop and stare, enjoying the sight of this intelligent creature doing its thing however the moment they see you looking they are gone, disdain or maybe suspicion writ large in their expression. They seem uninterested in bread, grain and butter preferring to scratch about in the mulch for insects.

The country cousin is no less wary but will often join the other birds feeding on the lawn and nibble at whatever is on offer and with a little time to develop trust a long-term intergenerational acquaintanceship can be forged. Of all the local birds the inquisitive magpie offers some grand entertainment being the playful sort it is but the award for the most entertaining goes to a native, the rarely seen Kaka.

For a while we lived in north of the Waikato on the edge of the Hauraki plains and every year a flock of Kaka, a native parrot, would drop in to feed on the local Kahikatea trees on their way from far off Great Barrier Island to their summer feeding grounds in the Central North Island. About the size of a cat this bird is impressive both in form and temperament.

Starting its adventures with the first light of day they did not let up until deep twilight. When they weren’t practicing aerial acrobatics and screeching up a storm they were teasing the cats and stripping all our citrus of their fruit. Otherwise they might glean a little fun from chasing the odd wayward sparrow or magpie or maybe swing around and around on branches when nothing else was on offer. Both parts easily amused and bored this bird was trouble looking for mischief. Endangered as they are, I thought us very lucky to have an opportunity to see them up so close.

 

English botanist Joseph Banks out here on a voyage of discovery with Captain Cook in the late 18th century wrote of a vast cacophony of birdsong arising from these islands:

‘This morn I was awakd by the singing of the birds ashore from whence we are distant not a quarter of a mile, the numbers of them were certainly very great who seemd to strain their throats with emulation perhaps; their voices were certainly the most melodious wild musick I have ever heard, almost imitating small bells but with the most tuneable silver sound imaginable to which maybe the distance was no small addition. On enquiring of our people I was told that they have had observd them ever since we have been here, and that they begin to sing at about 1 or 2 in the morn and continue till sunrise, after which they are silent all day like our nightingales.’

Decimated by habitat loss and the introduction of predatory species against which they had no defence, the singers of this vast song have dwindled, their voice now a whisper. The dominant chorus now is one fed by the flourishing legions of introduced birds.

This is the chorus I know best and for as long as I can remember their crowded symphony has been the soundtrack against which I have lived my life. So all pervasive is this song in my psyche that I still hear it when I wake even though I am now far removed from that countryside living in a place where the birdsong is spare.

Birdsong is a vast data stream based on tone and viewed in this way it shows itself to be a thing of wonder. We might marvel at the Internet or the multitude of information rich digital signals floating through the ether but nature has already been there and done that. We are playing catch up at a game the birds have long mastered.

There is tree in the heart of the city that is a magnet for sparrows. Toward sunset they return to roost talk and themselves silly. Their chirping method can sound a bit monotonal but if you listen in carefully and you will hear much subtle variation at work in the basic framework suggesting that a wealth of information is being shared in a very economical way.

These humble little creatures with their sharp eyes are more than the sum of their parts and play a vital role in keeping insect numbers in check while efficiently taking care food waste about the streets. Once eaten this waste is nicely deposited around the trees they roost in offering the plant a neat source of fertiliser.

The city Starlings is smart and very partial to butter and bread, the country cousin uninterested. By the 1970s this introduced species was almost wiped out by the widespread use of D.D.T. Their favourite food was the aptly named Grass Grub. Native to these shores this soil dwelling caterpillar fed on the roots of the grasses upon which the nation built its wealth.

Some clever marketing based on fear mongering and the promise of increased production convinced farmers into drenching their land with this miracle chemical. The hapless Starling feed on the poisoned caterpillar ingested this most voracious of toxins and almost died out. Once the mistake was realised a concerted effort was made help the Starling along and many farms including our own invested in specialised nesting boxes. The population quietly recovered and got on with their efficient method of keeping undesirable insect populations in check.

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The Starling

The Pukeko like the Starling was heavily undone by D.D.T but since the chemical was banned it has bounced back with vengeance. They are a common sight across the nation and are often found squashed on the road. The Pukeko has no road sense at all and in its natural habitat is an elusive bird, understandably wary of humans who often single this bird out for the gun.

The closest I have ever gotten to this creature is at the peat dome lake sitting slap bang in the centre of Hamilton. Here the Pukeko has taken on a domesticated quality and will come racing when food is on offer. All legs it is quite a sight to see striding about fighting the ducks for scraps. I remember my farming days and the care that had to be taken when mowing the hay. The long grass made for an excellent nesting sight and vigilance was required to prevent multiple fatalities. These birds keep communal nests and besides the little black babies you will find mum, dad and various aunties. I don’t understand why so many see them as nothing. They are beautiful.

Ducks are a big favourite of mine and though I see few here in the city they are numerous back home. An amenable creature, the mallard duck can become a friend and as with the Magpie, a well-established bond of trust can reach out across the generations with children and grandchildren calling into feed at a place they have been educated to know as safe.

The numerous drainage channels about the landscape provide suitable nesting sites for the ducks including the ones along the roadsides. Occasionally a nested pair will fly up into the air and into the path of a car or truck. Sometimes one is killed and the other will stand over the body for days. It is a terribly sad sight. Ducks have a good intellect and their emotional response to life should not be underestimated.

The other day I came across a lone female Mallard resting in the shade of a tree. I tossed her a handful of grain and she set about an excited quacking. When she finished she waddled up to my feet and lifted her head asking for more. Later I sat on a bench in the park and while tossing bits of bread to the Sparrows was surprised by a wee fellow who landed on my hand and began feeding directly.

I carry all manner of feed about with me and everyone likes bread but it is a nutritionally bereft product and I prefer to offer something more substantial like whole grain and seeds but this is not to everyone’s liking unlike butter which appeals to a wide audience. Nutritionally dense, butter is a grand source of energy and a block attracts a mixed and enthusiastic crowd. Individuals will pull a mouthful free, swallow it then assiduously wipe their beak on the grass before having another go. It’s amazing how quickly a kilo with disappear and how much fun it can be watching it all happen. The best pleasures are found in the simplest of acts.

 

I was bought up to experience non-humans as instinct driven automatons without thought nor feelings and that is how I treated them. My friends and I prowled the countryside wrecking havoc first with our slingshots then air rifles and finally .22 calibre rifles. It was sport, thoughtless, violent and pleasurable.

I thought nothing of it at first, lost as I was in the thrill of the hunt, then after years of deeper observation it slowly dawned on me that these creatures were more complex than I had imagined. As I examined these new feelings I began to feel shame and regret for the pain and suffering I was tossing about like cheap confetti. It was a one- dimensional perspective and I am glad to have laid it to rest. These days my outlook is altogether different and I am appreciative of the wild life that flourishes despite the ravages wrought by humanities steadfast dedication to its own all consuming self-interest.

Sometimes I want to cry out “Put away your smart phones and ear pieces, put aside your cares and anxiety, let go your ambition and haste. Stop, look and listen and be amazed. Hear that bird song, see the ants darting about beneath your feet, walk around rather than walk through that Pigeon looking for food. Take moment and spare a thought and a crumb for those birds gathered at your feet watching you eat your lunch. They might like a little taste as well. Feeding the birds can do wonders for your wellbeing’.

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The Pukeko