I thought my poor old dog was dying from the heat, says Joe Bennett. Photo / Getty Images
For three days now this town of Lyttelton has been on the equator.
To step outside has been to step into a wall of heat. Heat during the day and heat during the night. Heat as in Singapore or Manila or Bangkok. Heavy, sweaty, sapping heat. Oppressive, slow-you-down and tweak-you-tongue-out heat. Everyone at the supermarket checkout speaks only of the heat. It is as if we had never known heat before.
• Northland weather hotter than usual but temperatures expected to drop
• Northland sweltering but it's the place to be in this heat
• Weather: Hot temperatures and a fine weekend ahead for many
• Balmy weather to continue in Northland for the rest of this week
And of course when it goes we will forget it. We'll forget not only how it was, but even that it was. For this heat is not our niche and when we go back to that niche, that temperature range, that place where we feel comfortable, we will sink back into it with a sigh.
For though we like to see ourselves as the species that has gained some mastery of time, that remembers, that plans, that thinks ahead, the truth is that like all the rest of the teeming earth we are creatures of the moment. And the moment now is hot.
I pegged clothes on the line this morning starting with a handkerchief. By the time I'd pegged the shirts out, the handkerchief was dry. And my forehead, armpits, crotch were sodden.
A wise wardrobe consists of jandals, shorts and a singlet, a wiser one of nothing at all, and the least wise of a fur coat. Yesterday I thought my poor old dog was dying. He is 12 now and slow even in mild weather. Yesterday he could not get into the car unaided.
And down by the lake where I took him to cool off he walked with the tottering steps of the not-long-for-this-world. Flies fizzed around him and he did not snap at them. Nor when I brought him home did he want his food. He just lay and waited for the future.
Today it is a fraction cooler and he is a little brighter. But if this went on for a fortnight I think it would kill him.
My garage has become an insect trap. They fly in and never fly out. They bat against the windows. They dance in little clouds. They perch uncannily on walls and ceiling. They turn old webs into mausoleums. And one by one they join the piles of predecessors from other summers, their corpses wispy papery things that have blown into drifts in corners.
But these insects are not the ones I see the rest of the summer, the great brown blowflies, the frantic moths. These insects are heat-generated beasts that hatch to breed and die only when the temperature reaches this cruel extreme. Here are bright little black flies, long-legged dancers, shiny winged beetles.
Do they all have names? There's a lifetime's work for an entomologist just in the births and deaths in my garage on this one day in February 2020. Profligate, heat-triggered life on earth.
The insects feasted on me last night. Though I had doors and windows closed against the heat and fans spinning they found their way in, and while I half-dozed in the hot night they sank tiny needles into the softest whitest plumpest parts, the inside of the elbow, the back of the knee, the under-fold of belly flesh and they sucked at the good hot broth of my blood.
The evidence of their raiding is a rash of little tumuli, immune responses to the violation, tumuli that itch. I rub them and they become raw and tonight no doubt they will be targets for some other whining six-legged predator. I am not suited to this heat.
The Anglo-Saxon frame evolved to fit a temperate latitude, halfway between equator and pole, a region with seasons. Equatorial people are small people. Walking in Bangkok or Manila I see over the heads of most of them. I weigh as much as two of them. Their small lean frames are adaptations for dispersing heat, rather than for retaining it. On the equator there is never winter.
The paddocks behind my house are the colour of wholemeal toast. The land is drained dry, is baked and cracked. The grass has seeded, died and withered to straw. It would need only one spark, one stab of lightning, one dropped cigarette and everything I own could go in minutes.
Our tenure on this world is no more permanent than any other creature's, and every bit as contingent. Look what one virus does to whole cities in China. Just three days of heat and we know our vulnerability. But we'll forget.