Wallpaper music of the Great Outdoors

There are some things in life that slip by unnoticed for years until they are explicitly pointed out, at which point they glare you in the face at every turn. Background music in the supermarket is a prime example, but it is not alone in being chronically overlooked. Between hosting travellers down here and visiting rellies in Auckland I discovered that I had been missing more than the soundtrack to the freezer aisle.

Living in the city or in the country you become attuned to certain things and learn to block out others. Last year we took a hitch-hiker over to Tekapo, and he was so stunned by the mountains he had to stop talking in order to take in the view. ‘Is this normal for you?’ he asked. Initially it wasn’t, but there are only so many time you can pull over on the Ashburton to Methven route to admire the snowy ridges before you realise that they look the same as they did yesterday, and will probably still be there tomorrow. This is still a beautiful place to live, but if the breath taking nature didn’t become somewhat normalised then we would all have succumbed to asphyxiation long ago.

Returning to Auckland, I realised I had been doing exactly the same thing up there. Traffic noise, vibrant signage and throngs of people had all faded out to become the invisible background to everyday life. Heading back up, it was these things that jumped out. Suddenly the four lanes of traffic, road cones, motorway exits and right turning arrows were all jostling for my senses’ attention: It was only after becoming accustomed to their absence that I really noticed them for the first time. Such realisations are all well and good if you are a passenger in a car that is crawling through rush hour traffic, but pulling over on the side of the motorway in order to read the fine print of the billboards is not really the done thing…

Neither, apparently, is obeying the speed limit. Down this way a judiciously placed temporary 30 sign is a good indication that loose gravel, a slip, or a herd of stock are around the corner. In Auckland, it is just a suggestion. Perhaps there is a different conversion system up there that I have missed in my time in the South, because 30 seemed to mean 60 and 80 seemed to mean 100, if the volley of beeps from behind was anything to go by. Having become accustomed to narrow country roads with not a car in sight, I found the aural assault to be most pronounced and began to long for the low of a cow to break up the commuting chaos.

These past weeks have shown me that paying attention to the background sights and sounds that we take for granted can provide a totally new perspective on a place, and there are always new things to be discovered. Coming home again I made sure to give the mountains a second glance. As for the motorway billboards up North, the conditions of the sushi deal will just have to wait…

Originally Published in The Ashburton Guardian

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