Thursday, May 29, 2008

Inspiration, Mountains, and Music

I have read so many inspiring posts as of late it leaves me somewhat wordless. Ruminations on world hunger by Bob McKerrow, ecology by Pohangina Pete, the beauty and pain of life and death by both Beth and Patry Francis, amongst all the other beautiful and passionate writings and poetry on teaching, love, nature, art, and observation I have read. It is almost overwhelming as I seem to sense a common thread, a song on the wind, and I cannot quite put my finger upon it, except to write thank you to each and every one of you for sharing and helping to make my life better.

It makes me feel a bit self indulgent to write of my struggles as a man and my love for the mountains in comparison to these larger considerations. Yet last night it also occurred to me that this path I am on is only the start, and how necessary it is for me to not get ahead of myself. To tidy up my own back yard before moving on to these other issues now emerging out of the fog. These things cannot be rushed and hurried.

There are no lofty peaks in the Ruahines, no towering spires where mountaineers try to visualize a route up unclimbed ridges. Indeed, the highest point at Mangaweka lies at only 1733 meters. There is little need for ropes, crampons, ice-axe, and other equipment a mountaineer would consider essential. Perhaps in certain places in the dead of winter with heavy snow, but in general they are not a place those who seek difficult alpine climbs would bother with. I am not a mountaineer, I am simply a lover of mountains.

I have written before that had I grown up in New Zealand around the Ruahines I would have grown beyond them. I feel the dying spark of a mountaineer inside me that never was lit, and so I satisfy myself in this place offering for those content to walk, very steep climbs and descents, heading out onto mist covered ridges and tops which challenge navigation skills, and clear beautiful mountain rivers to travel upon in the valleys. It is not a place to be over confident in, no matter what level of skill one might possess. I have felt fear there more than once and maybe because I first looked upon these ranges when beyond my prime, I was able to see, feel, and slowly recognize my connection with the Ruahines in a far different light than had I been exposed to them in my youth. There was a part of me that felt called home to a place deep within my soul that I never knew was there - a place that enables me to look at myself and the world differently than I did before. When I was young the wanderlust would have called strongly, being older it instead called me home.

The simplicity of living amongst the mountains for periods of time has been a great gift. Carrying what I need to live and operate for a period of days on my back, free of any dependence or intrusion by anything electrical or even artificial, free from man made sound with only the delightful symphony of nature. And the sound of that voice deep inside somewhere which has slowly revealed itself to me, the real me, or at least the person I want to be.

Music has been a constant presence in my life, at least listening to music has been. My friend Adam gifted to me his guitar before he left to return to Ireland, and challenged me to be able to play with him upon his return. While I never could imagine myself playing in Adam's league, why should I not accept this gift and challenge and expand myself. Stay tuned!

Listening to, and appreciating music has always been essential to my being. A way to connect to the world when maybe I was not really connected in other ways. A few artists, particularly Van Morrison, have always struck a chord and connection with me, not unlike what I feel while in the Ruahines.

Two of the finest offerings I have listened to this year have been released by two former members of The Jayhawks. Perhaps the leading force behind the emergence of alternative country, along with Uncle Tupelo, in the early 1990's, the Jayhawks were a creative force until 2003 and their excellent cd Rainy Day Music. Gary louris and Mark 0lson were the primary writers and vocalists behind the distinctive Jayhawk sound, a blending of very unique talents. They also combined in another off shoot in Golden Smog, along with Jeff Tweedy from Uncle Tupelo and more recently the leader of Wilco. All under the radar music in todays strange world of "what is deemed popular, therefore is good" music culture.

Both louris and 0lson have released solo records this year. Both I have been listening to over and over, both impacting me greatly in their respective ways. 0lson's offering, The Salvation Blues, "is the culmination of a two year journey through the heart of loss and redemption", written after the break up of his marriage. Having traveled, and survived, a similar path I find such a strong connection to the songs and the journey. Strong songs of a man facing his darkest fears alone.

I woke up before the sun
Which way is the way between heart and soul
You spoke my words
Tangled up inside"
Some people come here to die
We came here to live
There's a hope in our heart
There's a future in our souls"

Clifton Bridge, The Salvation Blues: Written by Mark 0lson, Hacktone Records

Vagabonds, by Gary louris, is also on my high repeat list currently. A little bit more hard edged than 0lson's effort, maybe more Jayhawk like with his high notes very much a signature of those albums. It was produced by Chris Robinson of the Black Crowes, and in my opinion he does an excellent job. My son Charlie keeps playing track number 1, as I have it currently in my car, True Blue, and my personal favourite is track 3 To Die a Happy Man - again a connection as if singing to me directly. I love it when music does that!

It's not enough but then again
It's more than what I had
And if I died today you know I'd die a happy man

Torturous though it seems
Pouring forth bittersweet
Wrestling with good and evil
In ourselves, in our struggle
I want to laugh or say a prayer
I've never had a cross to bear so beautiful

Words by Gary louris, To Die a Happy Man, Vagabonds, Rykodisc Music

I read recently how good music lyrics do not translate to the written or spoken word, and vice versa. Both the lyrics written by louris and 0lson prove that is not always true. If you are into music check it out please.

I have shared the poem below once before but thought it was relevant to how I feel still at times, and the memory of when it came to me, where I was, how I felt, the vividness of the colours, the sounds of the river, seems to be tapping my shoulder right in this moment:

"0bservation on the River"

Your flawed elegance astounds me

Ramrod straight

As if proudly displaying your wounds

Scarred by Time

Battered by countless storms

Your very soul precariously exposed

Eroded by what also

Sustains and Nourishes

Yet possessing a strength

I cannot fathom

And you hold on living each moment

Until you are finally claimed to join

The Dance of the Endless Flow

It is me

written outside Ngamoko hut on the Pohangina river

November 2005


1. Gustav and I walking out of the ranges at Mokai Station, having just completed my first 5 day crossing of the Ruahines. We were in our own world. Nigel met us in the clouds with cold beer and food.

2. Gustav just below Puketaramea after climbing up from Maropea Forks

3. Gustav looking down the Maropea river below 0tukota hut

4. Gustav and I on the Mokai, cold beers in hand after a battle up from 0tukota

5. 0ne of my favourite Ruahine shots - Gustav and I just after emerging from a brutal bash up from the bush onto the Mokai Patea

6. A beech tree just across the Pohangina river from Ngamoko hut. Still fighting for survival


Monday, May 12, 2008

Hurihuri - Changing

The days grow shorter, the nights colder, winters presence gently, for now, taps my shoulder. The roar has run its course in the Ruahine ranges, the stags have fought their battles, have serviced their hard won harems of hinds - the lucky and dominant ones that is! And when the helicopters cream off the easy pickings of mad hungry stags and hinds feeding ravenously after this brief and brutal mating season, fattening up as best they can before winter takes over, the mountains will again fall quiet.

And even though winters grip on the mountains can be icy, cold and even unwelcoming to the unfamiliar, for me it is my favourite time to travel amongst them. My quest for solitude enhanced by winter. Not many like to travel in such country when the winds blow cold, when one is likely to encounter rain, sleet, and snow, having to traverse freezing rivers for hours in water so cold it burns ones throat when having to drink from its flow, arriving at a distant hut, wet, cold, and shaking from the days labours. When the damp coldness can settle down upon a mountain valley like a weight on your shoulders. There is no way to escape these "pleasures" in winter, and no romantic way for me to describe them. It is hard travel.

Yet, this time of year offers many compensations as well, at least enough to endure and persevere with the above conditions. First off it can rain, sleet, and snow any time of year, rivers rise and fall quickly, or slowly. The odds are simply increased a bit. Winter, in general, allows a journey into solitude, into using my experience to travel well and safely. The same cold and conditions described above, the ice cold rivers, the damp chill, all act as barriers in keeping out those less inclined to take them on. Four or five hours on a Ruahine river in winter can be quite a different experience than the same time frame on a summer day, a cold wind on the open tops in summer an annoyance, being in that same wind in winter in the wrong place at the wrong time can possibly kill a man, or woman. The winter adds to the remoteness, and hence quite possibly deepens the connection I feel in the Ruahines. The pack is heavier, more food, extra clothing, most often compensated by a longer stay at a favoured hut, enjoying the ambiance at a more leisurely pace, a day walk, tidying up the hut, chopping and sawing wood, or just ambling along a river with the hut in view, wood smoke drifting lazily from the chimney, thoughts of a cup of tea come to mind....

So the changes upon us here in Aotearoa I find stimulating and exciting, and the Ruahines call to me gently but persistently.

Just as the changes come to the mountains I feel the winds of change blowing over my own life as well. And though that can be at times a frightening prospect, for once part of me also welcomes what may come. Tara and I celebrate our 15th wedding anniversary in a few days. Two short years ago we did not even acknowledge its passing, much less celebrate, such was the state of our marriage, and more so such was the state of my own well being. As a man I just continued going deeper and further into my own place, a very dark place, irregardless of the fact I was dragging everything, and everyone I loved with me. Tara confronted me, pulling me back to a place where I could feel something, anything, even pain. I don't think she went down this path to save our marriage, it was to save herself, and looking back I cannot at all blame her for the hurt inflicted upon me. I felt completely undeserving of anything connected to happiness - except the mountains. I recall us talking about things we wanted, and the only thing I could think of was a wood fire in our home, and even saying that was like saying I only wanted to fly to the moon, which is how disconnected I was from my own life. How could someone like me deserve a wood fire? Tonight as I write this, my two boys are lying in front of that wood fire, I can hear it crackle, I can feel its warmth. Maybe it was representing my worth as a man, to find wood, chop and prepare it, build a fire and keep my family warm. I am not sure of its significance to my life, but at times when I am alone I find myself looking at that wood fire and tears come to my eyes.

I am not even sure how Tara and I survived 15 years, much less the past few years. Tara would say the past year or so it is because of changes in me, and that might be true enough. I feel her, I feel me, I can share my fears with her, as well as my thoughts, and all these things we share become more relevant. Yet I also think it is Tara who has changed as much as I have, perhaps more. I have always thought Tara was the most beautiful woman I have ever seen, even if those words choked inside me, yet this past year she has truly blossomed as a woman, finding focus and a path in her own life, which demands that I participate wholly in our lives together as partners and parents. That is fair enough. A marriage, or relationship is only worth saving if two people deem it so, and even then it is a hard road. We are, and always will be, a work in progress. I see a few forks ahead, but for the first time I see the forks as part of a whole, and not just me alone. Happy Anniversary darling, kia ora, and aroha to you and to this journey.

Winter Thoughts : Maropea Forks, 29 July 2003, 4:50pm:

Darkness falls over the valley, a blanket of cold draped over the mountains. I sit on the porch of Maropea Forks with a wee dram in hand, inside the Corker stove warms the hut. The river flows by, ice cold and crystal clear singing its song. I traveled 4 hours in its icy embrace today, and arrived at the hut cold and shaking, even though the day was clear and sunny. How do I describe the feeling of changing into a warm dry clothes, boiling the billy for hot soup and a cup of tea, and crawling into my sleeping bag and falling fast asleep? Bliss, relief, and privileged, are a few words that come to mind. Then to wake up a few hours later here at this place in the Ruahines. Only myself about to turn 43. And this valley, mountains, and river my companions for the next 3 days. We have much to talk about.

Winter Thoughts: Triangle Hut, 27 July, 2004, 6:00pm:

It is good to be back here after almost 2 years. 0n my own to celebrate my 44th birthday in this special place. The hut looks good, refurbished, painted, new wood stove, very tidy. I am a wealthy man. Still a grunt to get here, and the route from just below Maungahuia is in very rough shape, footing is diabolical. Taylor getting in here twice now before age 10 is a credit to him. How I love arriving at such a spot as this, fresh gear, a cup of tea, read the hut book, and wander about the river a bit. Just absorb the refreshing comfort of doing not much at all. I was emptying out the water from my billy full of pasta outside the hut when I heard a familiar call by the river. I looked up in the fading light and saw the sight that sends my soul soaring. A whio flew right down the straight stretch of river in front of me. It was a moment of slow motion connection with this place, and I just stood there smiling, stunned and drunk on this beautiful moment, this wonderful day.

Winter Thoughts: Sparrow Hawk Bivvy, 29 July, 2005, 2:20pm:

John and I left Sunrise at 7:30am and arrived here at noon. The weather was drizzly with a fairly gusty nor'west wind with low cloud swirling about. Yet we turned north at Armstrong saddle rather than the familiar route via Top Maropea. It is a stunning mountain environment on the main Ruahine range, and hard work to negotiate with steep climbs, big drops, narrow saddles and more climbs, not to mention route finding. A very rugged part of the ranges. The wind picked up and the rain turned to sleet, and we started noticing the cold. Having this option to retreat to was an excellent one. I never felt in danger, but I was cold and in need of a hot drink and seeing the sign to Sparrow Hawk loom out of the mist was a welcome relief. This is a very nice spot to be in, almost a micro climate of its own, above we can hear the wind howl over and see the clouds swiftly rush by, here in our protected bowl off the main range we sit and drink tea in the sun. We will still have a few days at the forks to enjoy, and to celebrate my 45th birthday, but pushing on with open top work in bad weather and short daylight is not a smart move. After some lunch and discussion of our options we have opted to stay here. This is life in the Ruahines.

Above is a photo of a Whio (Blue Duck) family. This photo has been graciously lent to me by Pohangina Pete. Pete took this photo near Wakelings hut while participating in a Ruahine Whio survey. Pete's blog is at: , and his post Danger from December 2007 has this, and many other fine photos of this endangered and rare native New Zealand bird, and an exceptionally well written and emotive piece on the state of the Whio. Changes are in store for the Whio as well. Having thrived and evolved in the clear streams and rivers of Aotearoa for thousands of years they are now under threat by man, stoats, deteriorating water quality, and are now down to perhaps six hundred pairs in the North Island, now driven to the high mountain waters which still offer the abundance of purity they require. The Ruahines one of the places holding a small population and still offering sanctuary, for now. These are not common ducks, they have evolved in Aotearoa over some 30,000 years, physically (and spiritually?) perfectly adapted to the mountain environment. To see a whio for me is a very emotional experience, a symbol of my love and connection to these ranges. To witness their ballet of interaction with the clear rivers and rapids, to be fortunate enough to watch their unerring flight down a narrow mountain river gorge, to hear that increasingly mournful call, would be the highlight of any Ruahine day or Journey. Kia ora Pete!

The first photo in the sequence above is of Sparrowhawk Bivouac, mentioned above, taken during a winter 2005 trip with John Nash. When I write of changes I think this was perhaps when I first realized that where I felt at peace and felt ANYTHING was starting to be only on my trips to the Ruahines, and that this was not a healthy way to live. Conversely, Tara was coming to her own realizations, and the next few years we worked through a series of issues with our marriage, and for me an even more important battle for my own soul. The person I was then seems far away, at least far enough to appreciate how fortunate I really am, and the worthiness of accepting the challenge of continuing that process and growth. I recall feeling fear before this trip that I would be unable to connect with the things I normally felt in the mountains, which proved to be something, the one thing, I did not have to fear.

Sparrowhawk Biv is located just off the main range, at around 1300 plus meters. It's initial presence was simply an emergency shelter, and was the back tent like part of the structure, the alcove, big enough to stand up in, and with a small shelf to cook on and bench to sit inside. Before the alcove was added, trampers, such as John and I, would have come down from gale type winds, sleet or snow, or the route cloud obscured, and happily crawled inside for a cold and damp sleep in the metal shelter. The alcove adds a certain charm, and on this day with only the wind and sleet as our foe, and out of the elements, we quite enjoyed our stay. It is a lovely area, and once the sun came out and out of the wind it was quite pleasant.

The second photo was taken by me on the flanks of 0rupu, 1475 meters, and just north of the Sparrowhawk biv location. John can be seen in the lower center of the photo as a little blue dot near the end of the slip. A very steep climb ahead of him, and ahead of us to gain 0rupu, which is the second photo on the post. Tying into this photo is the very first one on this post which is me looking north from the other side of 0rupu and towards Te Atua Mahuru -1534 meters, Maroparea to the front -1511 meters, and Remutupo-1529 meters. We sidled the flanks of Remutupo then climbed to another high point before dropping down and into the forest and right on top of Maropea Forks. I would rate this journey as one of the finest one day open top walks the Ruahines has on offer - and it has plenty!

The next photo in the above sequence is John on the the flanks of Maroparea and looking down into the head waters of the Mangatera valley, in which lake Colenso is located. After being on the open tops it was quite stunning to come across this view, which we only stumbled upon as a place of refuge to escape the wind for a bit. We stayed there and talked for some time. Not a bad spot for some realization time.

The final shot is John and I on a cold winters day outside Maropea Forks. I think it gives that sense of the heavy winter chill that can settle over the mountains. Good thing that fine Corker wood stove is waiting to be brought to life once again. As was I.