15 January 2014

Being still

After dinner I check the spiders. They crouch in their webs, legs folded tight against their bodies so they look like ragged bundles of debris, like the mangled bodies of the prey they've consumed, the bodies they've attached to the web like a string of macabre beads. Which is the killer and which are the killed? Hard to say. Hunched up like this, exquisitely still, one of these spiders is just another bead, indiscernible from its surroundings.

The wind shakes the webs. They tremble and flex and almost touch. What would happen if two webs entangled? Spiders are not known for their interpersonal skills, with the outcome of an encounter generally being death or sex—often both—and even these colonial spiders might not suffer someone else in their webs. Action can be so swift it makes the preceding and following stillness seem even more uncanny.

At night I dream I'm walking a path through long grass in an abandoned garden. No one else accompanies me and I hear no voices from beyond the old trees and the high, paling fence, the boards of which have warped after years of weather. No birds, just the sound of wind. No dogs barking, just the sound of a branch creaking in the moth-riddled apple tree. Two spiders with gleaming, maroon bodies and long, attenuated legs watch me as I walk past. They're almost my size. I climb an old wooden box, shoulder height, because I have no other way to escape. I know this is futile but fear turns hopeless ideas into options. I look down and see the spiders walking towards me. One begins to climb the box.

Nothing is more patient than a spider waiting in a web. Nothing is more focused. These spiders, crouching at the centre of their webs, will wait endlessly until some insect becomes entangled, then they'll rush out and murder it. Another meal—perhaps the first in weeks. Another crushed corpse to add to the string. Then they go back to waiting.

If I could attain the stillness of one of these spiders, might I, too, vanish into my surroundings? Would the spider climbing the box walk right over me and down again and wonder where I'd gone?

Jimmy puts his paws on my leg as I sit trying to write; he hooks at my elbow and his claws penetrate the thin fleece of my jacket and prick my arm. I shake him off several times before he desists. He ignores the food I've put out for him and puts his head in the rubbish instead, investigating, sniffing for scraps of meat. Futile, of course: I don't put meat scraps in the rubbish. I growl at him. Surprisingly, he lifts his head out of the bag and walks away. Cats are predictable only in their unpredictability, and perhaps also their perversity, but I still love them. Maybe I still love them because of their unpredictability and perversity.

Today, though, I have the dogs to look after. Olive and Trev have gone north for the weekend so I'm looking after the farm. I took the dogs for a walk yesterday evening and they seemed remarkably restrained, noticeably quieter than their usual exuberant, almost frenzied pounding around. Hardly sluggish, but more interested in wandering—not far, but as if more interested in investigating, in sniffing out interesting things and eating or rolling in them, than in demented charging around. The spaniel with no brain followed me around more than usual—which is to say he sometimes followed me around—and once even lay down and looked at me as if wishing to be well-behaved. This is new behaviour for him. I looked at him, and remembered the other times I've seen him lying down. These comprise just two situations: when he's chewing something or when he's flaked out in his kennel. But even sleeping dogs can never attain the stillness that comes naturally to a cat, with the possible exception of a heading dog controlling sheep with the power of its gaze.

This reinforces the view that stillness is a quality more than the absence of motion. Even when a cat turns its head to look towards a sound—a door opening, footfalls on a verandah, a food bowl being placed—the cat remains still, as if its head were attending to a matter independently from the rest of its body, which remains focused on the need for stillness. True stillness is more akin to intense concentration than to the state of being motionless.

The coast of Ghana in 2007, somewhere between Agona Junction and Takoradi. A man stands on a traffic island between lanes of speeding vehicles.  He wears a rag on his head, an open, grimy shirt, loose trousers cinched tight around a hard, narrow waist.  He carries his arms slightly raised, poised as if for action—but this man is the antithesis of action.  Utterly motionless, he stands so still he might have been turned to basalt when struck by the sun's first rays.  Even in the few seconds I see him from our passing car, I'm transfixed by the sheer intensity of his stillness.  His is not mere paralysis, it is pure quality—the quality of absolute stillness, as if the components of his cells had suddenly seized, hardened in an instant.

In Europe or New Zealand or elsewhere, this man would be called a street performer or an artist and applauded for his accomplishment.  Here, I suspect, he is called bewitched.

What was the purpose of his absolute motionless, that stillness as if the part of the universe forming his body had frozen while the rest of the cosmos carried on? As if he had stepped outside space-time? Perhaps this was his way of becoming invisible; perhaps he thought if he abandoned every form of motion, including his passage through Time, the cosmos— including all those passing him by on the hectic sweltering street; including the van from which I gazed out and wondered how anyone could be so still, and why— could no longer see him? But among all the frantic activity—the people walking or running or calling out, the vehicles speeding by, the dust rising and swirling, the fierce mid-morning tropical sun melting the dark bodies crowding the street—he was the most visible. Maybe we were the ones who did not exist.

Stillness, then, can be used to become invisible or to become the only thing visible. A third and better purpose is to become part of everything: to be accepted into the world.

I sit on the verandah, very still, my old straw hat tilted slightly forward to shade my eyes. A family of swallows swoops and jinks over the long grass in the hay paddock. Two youngsters, not long from the nest but already almost as accomplished at flying as their parents, speed past. One flashes by, just metres away, then turns suddenly, flies back and hovers in front of me as if checking to see what's under the brim of the hat. The tiny bird is so close I could almost reach out and touch it. But then the spell would break.

I am bewitched.

1. Both photographs are of Cyclosa trilobata, a spider that lives in groups. Currently, I have several colonies of these spiders living in the harakeke (New Zealand flax) bushes along the driveway.
Photos and original text © 2014 Pete McGregor


Relatively Retiring said...

How lovely, and how powerful. The sense of stillness, the intensity of concentration comes through in your writing. It's akin to silence, so difficult to achieve and such strength within it.

At a different level it's good to know that the dogs are doing their best to behave, are they feeling a bit anxious about the change in routine? As for the swallow having a good look at you - pay-back time?

Zhoen said...

Some creatures simply do not have the gift of stillness, some have it in abundance. But as long as one has some, a very still one can share.

I think that is why the birds like you, they find your stillness attractive, restful.

pohanginapete said...

RR, thank you :^) The dogs seemed to revert to their former behaviour when Trev returned, so maybe you're right. They certainly didn't seem anxious though, and Jack the half-grown huntaway seems to think I'm god or Father Christmas or something — flattering, but I'm just as happy my responsibilities have ended for the time being. You might be right about the birds, too ;^)

Zhoen, interesting thought about the need to have at least some stillness. I think you might be right about the birds, too. There's an art to stillness, and animals understand and recognise it far better than most humans. I think I'm slowly learning.

Relatively Retiring said...

i really like your new layout.

pohanginapete said...

Thank you RR. Unfortunately, the upgraded template still doesn't fix the problem of the feed not updating in other blogs' blog lists — yours, for example: when I last checked, this post is still listed as the latest despite the fact that I posted a new entry yesterday. Apparently this bug has been around for well over a year and the blogger people STILL haven't fixed it.

Anonymous said...

This the writing I have missed! Glad to see you back in the blogosphere, Pete. Stillness is something that seems absent in the modern human world.... Thought-provoking essay. Maureen

pohanginapete said...

Thanks Maureen ;^) I hope to be posting more frequently, but I wish blogger would fix the long-standing bug that means the feed doesn't update reliably.

bev said...

Enjoyed reading this very much, Pete. Wonderful word portrait of the man on the traffic island in Ghana. Also uch terrific photos of the spider.

pohanginapete said...

Thank you, Bev :^)