Life’s Small Epiphanies

March 9, 2020
The beach is a dynamic environment

In the first in a new series called Chewing The Cud, GARY STEEL ruminates on moments of pleasure that creep up on a person only when they’re ready for the experience.


The beach is a dynamic environment

The 5-year-old insisted that I stay by her bedside until she fell asleep tonight, and clamped her arm to mine to ensure that I did so. It wasn’t comfortable with my arm draped over the black metal tubing of her top bunk barrier, but like the old horse I am, I almost went to sleep standing up.

As I endured this procedure, drifting on the edge of consciousness, I was suddenly in the moment. The discomfort no longer mattered. I was transported into the back garden where a round of cricket song was stage-managing a superb aural sculpture. It was something better than stereo and a whole lot more seamlessly ‘surround’ than any 5.1 system I’ve ever heard, because the night chorus not only moved left to right and round but up and down, with almost infinite subtlety of gradation.

Crickets in 3D surround

It’s only now, in describing it, that I’m reduced to hi-fi-speak, however. And that’s not my point. I was listening to hundreds of crickets through glass windows, so it’s likely that my sleep-deprivation created some kind of audio illusion. My point is that at that moment, I was transported deep into the grass on my back lawn. It was happening, and I was experiencing it, and along with that came palpable pleasure.

Ever since I moved to this remote residential settlement near a 100 kilometre stretch of West Coast beach in the North Island of New Zealand I’ve been experiencing these small moments, these realisations of being, and feeling the awe of it all. I’ve heard smart friends contend that the idea of living in the moment is nuts, because it’s human nature to either be yearning for the past or hoping for the future. Less intelligent animals appear to experience ‘now’ all the time, but whether they have the ability to consciously process and appreciate their experiences in real time is hard to tell.

Magic can reveal itself in the mundane

We’re conditioned to always look for experiences that take us out of ourselves and transport us to a special place. Whether it’s mystical or religious or something like extreme physical activity (great sex, running a marathon) or listening to music, we’ve evolved to seek gratification in a range of experiences that make us forget for a moment the parts of life that are deeply troubling or simply a never-ending trudge.

But this is different. Perhaps it’s partly to do with where I live, or my age (okay, I’m a boomer), or neither, but this sense of being in the moment and experiencing the sublime is available to me in what some might think of as a mundane, ordinary environment. It’s true that where I live there’s hardly any traffic and there’s a beautiful beach just a stroll away, but I live in a fairly standard residential area. (Admittedly one with peculiar acoustical properties. The sound in the immediate area is very “live” and travels quite some way. It’s like a natural amphitheatre.)

A beach is a beach is a beach?

What I’m talking about though, is finding the sublime in the ordinary, or at least, what many would consider ordinary, and take for granted. The sound of crickets: big deal. But the crickets on our back lawn have a different choir and formation and number than the crickets on our front lawn. The grass is a different length and the contour of the land different. There are infinite variables.

I experience similar mini-epiphanies on my daily walks above the beach, and on it. A beach is a beach is a beach, and even I thought when I came to live here that I’d get bored, but it hasn’t happened. Beaches (especially West Coast beaches) are dynamic – and sometimes savage – environments, and everything changes with the weather and the seasons. One day there will be a vast stretch of sand; the next the waves will have exposed a giant rock-like formation of petrified wood/lignite in the making. There are baby seals and migratory birds tragically washed up in winter, and every now and then a tide that savagely licks the foot of the cliffs. But that’s the big stuff. The everyday stuff is just as surprising. At this time of the year, the cicadas on the walk above the beach have a slightly different pitch as their mating ritual gets ever-more intense. And although I don’t like their tinnitus-mimicking tone, the 3D sound sculptures they make as they flit from tree to tree are aurally impressive.

Small epiphanies come from the everyday

Although my senses have become highly attenuated since moving here, the process was definitely already afoot during our previous, eight-year stint in the small country hamlet of Helensville, near Auckland. We looked after former inmates of battery farms and found the chooks to be infinitely entertaining. Chums would turn up and wonder what I saw in them. I could see that they didn’t get it; thought all the hens looked identical and charmless. I could have observed them all day, and sometimes I did. I discovered that, contrary to popular clichés, hens make an incredibly wide range of expressive sounds, and while they all have certain behaviours in common (just like humans) each one of them expressed themselves as an individual with its own quirks.

Chickens do tend to live in the moment, and I certainly lived in a kind of rapture of their moments when I was watching them.

The dying of the light brings on experiential revelations

Perhaps I’m simply talking here about something that those close to the land (like gardeners) have always known: that there’s bliss to be found in bog-standard stuff, if keenly observed, and not taken for granted.

And yes, maybe it is because I’m slowly winding down in life and narrowing my vision and reducing my hopes and ambitions that I’m able to focus on small wonders. But that’s okay.

It’s a calmative from the endless snarking of social media, and the exhausting one-upmanship that the medium encourages. Life goes on, whether there are human ears to hear it with, or not.

Going gently into that good night

Steel has been penning his pungent prose for 40 years for publications too numerous to mention, most of them consigned to the annals of history. He is Witchdoctor's Editor-In-Chief/Music and Film Editor. He has strong opinions and remains unrepentant. Steel's full bio can be found here

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