My marriage was over. I had taken the sewing machine and the cooking utensils, and he kept the lawnmower and the barbecue. I had bought a small house to do with as I liked. It had a lawn. It had a garden and it had an outdoor space where we could eat outside on fine summer evenings. If only we had a barbecue…and something to cut the grass with.
I discovered the delights of the local hardware store. My first purchase was a barbecue which came flat packed in a box which with much sweating a swearing only just fitted into my tiny hatchback. Unloading it at the other end was similarly accompanied by a single woman’s sound effects – groaning, swearing, huffing and yelling when the bloody thing landed on my foot. The afternoon was spent putting it together with a series of Allen keys (look them up, I had to) and finally ta-daaa, it was ready. I had gas, salads, paper plates, sauce, sausages, steak, kebabs and my own set of barbecue tools.
My mannered male guests uncomfortable at the sight of a woman in command of her own barbecue, offered to relieve me of my tongs, my long handled spatula and the thingymajingy but I was having none of it. I suggested they set the table or check the salads and could they grab me a beer while they were at it. The hand that turns the meat rules the world.
Next I bought a lawnmower, a hammer, nails, screws (both types), picture hooks, drain cleaner, a plunger, a set of screw drivers(all types), paint brushes, gib-stop, hinges, and the piece de resistance, a power drill. A pair of overalls and I had become a weekend handy-woman, tackling the fun stuff around the house, the repairs, the odd jobs. Repairs and maintenance chores are way more rewarding than vacuuming the same floor over and over again, or cleaning the fridge, or polishing the table, or worse cleaning windows. An odd job done once, done right can be a source of perpetual pleasure.
It is many years later and I still live alone. I have mellowed and am not so strict about barbecue etiquette. The children have grown up and left home. One can sew, three can cook and not one of them has ever mowed a lawn, raked two oak trees worth of leaves in autumn, painted a room, trimmed a hedge, cleaned out the guttering or dug a border. None of them know how to use a power drill, much less invested in one of their own. None of them know their way around a hardware store.
The guns are quiet. For now. Who knows when they will start again. I get a fright when they do. I jump then check my watch just in case someone has been murdered in the village and the police will need a witness to establish the exact time of death. I note the time on a scrap of paper and then forget where I put it.
The guns have no respect for the dark or for sleep. They blast randomly through the night. Visitors wake shaken if they got to sleep at all – shocked to realise they have landed in a war zone and not the bucolic Wairarapa promised by posters of beautiful people picnicking in sunny vineyards.
The guns blast throughout the day competing with conversations in restaurants, with bargains in shops, ceremonies in churches and lessons in schools. We who live here have grown accustomed to the battery. To being at war with birds.
The countryside is transformed with swags of white guarding grapes from the flighty.
Hawkes circle overhead searching the grassy avenues for mice and rabbits, unflinching in the battle of the blanks. House cats indifferent to boundaries and ordinance patrol the verges lying in wait for unsuspecting free loaders.
All this to preserve grapes nurtured on vines through the frosts of spring, the dull days of summer, the droughts of early autumn to get them to the harvest.
When the nets come off, it is every creature for themselves. The guns stop.
The harvesting machines rumble to the year’s conclusion.
New Zealand is a long thin country with mountains forming a rugged spine down the middle. This means you are never far from the coast or one of the rivers draining the high country on their way to the sea. Water is all around. The further away from the cities and towns you get – the more likely the water will be clean and clear and the more likely you will be to come across the creatures which inhabit that water.
Michelle, an old friend, dropped in last week on her way north – her visit, perfectly timed to coincide with the onset of ten consecutive days of summer.
Yes she was crowing!
The South Wairarapa has one of the most beautiful coastlines in the country – the one lane gravel road narrow, rocky and dusty skirting towering sandstone cliffs. The sea on a good day – a flat Aegean blue – on a bad day a roiling sickening green flecked with spumes of white. Twenty shipwrecks over as many years led to the erection of the Cape Palliser lighthouse in 1897 and it still stands watch today. It was too hot to climb the near vertical staircase to get to the light- that’s a tourist chore for winter days. Instead we pootled down to the fur seal colony at its base.
Seals have camouflage down to a fine art as I found out when I nearly stood on a cub, the bleats of outrage from under a bush making me jump back.
The rocks were festooned with seals of all ages, barking and biting irritably at their neighbours. They regarded us as nuisances to be tolerated at a distance, and to be charged at if we got too close. In the bay below flippers and tails kicked up in the swell, as the seals dived through kelp in search of food.
‘A good start to a tour of the North Island,’ said Michelle.
We drove home to lie in the sun and read books. She left a day later and I went to a conference about the environment. I learned a lot about the incineration of rubbish (better than landfills, produces useable energy, doesn’t pollute the ground water and cheaper), how we dispose of packaging in NZ (about 80 to 90% of glass and paper waste is recycled already) power generation (we will need more), trees to offset carbon emissions (not as good as not emitting carbon and we are nearly at peak tree now) and the amazing fact that each person in a developed nation currently uses the energy/work of 12 slaves to prop up their lifestyle.
I’m not sure the speaker meant me because I don’t use all 12 slaves at the same time. There are times when I may well use more, but generally I’m a 10 slave kinda gal – I compost. I grow basil. What the hell am I going to do without the energy/work of 10 slaves to keep my life in order? What are we all going to do if to reduce carbon emissions we have to drop back to 8 slaves or lord help us … less than 8 per person? Or worse – 7 and 1/2.
The green vibes of denial induced by the nature walk the following day muddy the prospect facing us all – lower carbon … less energy expended to keep us in the style to which we have become accustomed. The smugness of being in nature meant we were doing our bit. We could put off the day of reckoning. We went by bus (6 slaves per person at most) to Pukaha, a reserve not far from where I live and worth a visit. Apart from the native birds, like the resurgent and charmless kaka- and the back-from-extinction takahe- a mainstay of any good reserve in NZ, there were insects and reptiles
and eels – water creatures who unlike seals – loves humans.
These monsters of the creek slithered into position right on 1:30 pm to be fed chicken from a spoon. Old girls and old boys; 60 to 80 year old long fins (differentiated from the short fin because they wrinkle when they bend) were fattening up before making their way down the river to the sea and then on to Tonga where they discharge 21 million eggs … only to die and leave their young to make their way back across the ocean, unaccompanied (three thousand kilometres) to the exact same creeks and rivers their Mummies and Daddies had just left …
dodging the grumpy hungry seals with big teeth hanging around on the coast on their way home.
Nothing beats drinking a cold beer while standing in a hot shower as you wait for the anti-inflammatories to start working. Nothing!
But I get ahead of myself which may have been the problem all along.
‘I’ll take you fishing,’ he said. He; being an old friend from Medical School – a man who has been outrageously fit throughout his life, a man who regularly goes into the back country, skiing, fishing, tramping, mountain-biking and generally communing with nature. ‘Kate (his sensible wife) is going to visit her mother,’ he said. ‘We can go up the Waiohine Gorge and do some fishing. It’s only a short walk. Easy’. He said.
The words, ‘gorge’ and ‘easy’ used blithely by aforesaid MM in the same paragraph should have been the first inkling this might not be such a good idea. Pride and falls being what they are. Supremely confident in my ability to tackle the most difficult landscape, I took no notice of the great bronze bells peeling their warnings in the background. After all, I’ve run marathons, half marathons, run up hills and down dales, I swim every day, walk the dogs every day- what could be so hard?
I donned my fishing vest laden with tackle, over which I shouldered my back-pack stuffed with a jacket (bright yellow- much to MM’s disgust) lunch and a thermos of coffee, and over all this I slung my rod in its case. MM carrying only a tiny foldaway rod in a small velvet pouch and wearing his back-pack forged ahead up the first hill, and down it and up the next one and down the next one. I’m talking sheer drops. Tree roots – nature’s hand-holds – needed on both the way up and down. Loose shingle treacherous underfoot, the track giving way in places over drops down to the river. I made slow progress. Now and again I would catch sight of MM in the trees on the other sides of valleys as he waited patiently for me to catch up.
The first time I fell, I only bruised an arm and my right knee. Gash is probably too strong a word to use, but there was blood when I peeled off my leggings later that night.
The second time I tripped, I pitched head first into a tree trunk. Today, the resulting haematoma is threatening to slide down the left side of my face but the aforementioned anti-inflammatories did eventually relieve the splitting headache after I got home.
MM kindly stopped. We had chocolate brownies and a coffee.
We carried on. MM insisting I go in front. Self preservation, he explained. He did not want me falling into him when I tripped the next time going down a steep hill.
An hour and half later we were at the first turn off which took us down to the river bed.
Beautiful. Clear clean water, shallow (ish) and warm. Each rock with its own different ankle bending shape unique to itself. MM negotiated the river bed with ease. Needless to say the klutz didn’t.
MM gets his rod ready and with a few flicks of the line on the water proceeds quickly upriver. I wave him on. And he disappears behind a bend to what I imagine was welcome peace and quiet away from me.
I’ve come all this way I reason. No point sitting and waiting. After untangling the line on my reel I surprised myself by remembering how to attach the fly, then wearing my Polaroids to see into the river, off I went. A joyful half an hour of casting and not catching anything and I was starting to wonder where MM was. Turning around a foot caught under a rock. I face plant into the river. Luckily only half of me got wet ( the half lying in the river) and my ankle didn’t hurt that much. Not really.
A sandwich, another piece of chocolate brownie and no MM. I set off upriver, hoping nothing had happened but checked my phone just in case. No service. Excellent. Reassuring even. Not. After an hour negotiating boulders, noting the deer footprints at the edge of the water, the possum droppings, the pig rooting signs and with only the cicadas to keep me company, I was starting to get worried. Silly I kept thinking, but how come I hadn’t seen him. We were in a narrow valley, the river the only highway. How was I going to tell Kate I’d lost her husband? Silly. Could I make it back in time to call in search and rescue and would there be enough daylight for the helicopter to find him? Less silly. I turned around and started back concentrating hard so I wouldn’t fall and bugger up the rescue operation I was about to set in progress.
MM was sitting on the side of the track (I hadn’t seen it) waiting for me when I staggered back down the rocks on my way to get help. As I pointed out to him after I stopped yelling, living alone means I use language not usually heard in polite company. He said he understood.
The track back was as bad as the track in, only in reverse. In the interests of us both getting out before nightfall MM relieved me of my rod and wet fishing vest. My left ankle went first. And then it did it again. Twice I collapsed into the undergrowth as my joint betrayed me. I staggered on. I’m not sure if the bee stung my finger before or after I sprained my right ankle. The last hour had become a bit of a blur.
Surprisingly today I don’t feel too bad. My knee is swollen and hurts, but the bleeding has stopped. My head is tender and my vision is only slightly blurry. My right ankle is puffy and aches but the left one is as good as gold. The bee didn’t manage to empty his sting into my finger so that’s fine.
I have never been to Cuba. Some of my friends have and they loved it. Mostly. Sort of. It was interesting, they said. I love great coffee, great beaches a warm climate, 1950s architecture, Latin music and an intelligent health system (considering the money they have at their disposal). The home of Hemingway (one of my heroes) is a place I may not get to. (She thinks wistfully).
I’ll talk about cars instead because cars got me thinking about Cuba in the first place. Every year, our little town in the Wairarapa hosts Cruise Martinborough a festival of American cars from the 1950s and 60s. Men (they are usually but not exclusively men) arrive several days before the Saturday parade of cars – the deep thrum of engines driving over the hill and into our valley announcing their arrival. The bars and cafes are full of grey-haired men, their stomachs slack with age talking about makes and models, engines and spare parts, paint jobs and hood ornaments.
On Saturday morning, the streets are closed. The cars form up in an orderly manner (revving not only permitted but encouraged) at the rugby grounds. From there they proceed to the centre, loop the town square and park for the day in their allocated spot where the public can ooo and aahh at the work of the American twentieth century automobile industry. The style, the excess, the sheer inpractibility of these machines can take your breath away.
I hate to think how many miles to the gallon, these cars need to get from A to B, but the local garage owners are always pleased when Cruise Martinborough rolls into town. So too are the local retailers, and the public who turn up in increasing numbers for a dose of wonder.
In the fifties and sixties few New Zealanders had access to American cars. We ( by that I mean very definitely – my parents ) drove British made cars. Occasionally we would see one of these on the roads. Too flashy for my father to entertain ownership.
Mighty great tanks, their top speeds around 60 mph, no seat belts, bench seats front and back, no safety glass, no airbags and no air-conditioning. They had temperamental engines and delicate tires, cornered atrociously, and had next to no shock absorbers. What’s not to like?
The stuff of culture, these cars. American culture. The culture we envied and aspired to back then. Movies, TV, magazines and songs. The car of the Beach Boys; the T-Bird which no one’s gonna take away gunning it down the freeway to Malibu, loaded with suntanned youth, surfboards and Gidget.
The cars of the last century, collectors items in New Zealand lovingly restored by their owners are similarly cared for by their owners in Cuba. A hobby in New Zealand. An essential means of transport in Cuba.
I live in Martinborough, a village surrounded by vineyards and farms in the Wairarapa (meaning in Maori, glistening waters). Rivers; the Ruamahanga and the Tauherenikau run through the plains of this lower Eastern side of North Island of New Zealand, emerging into Lake Wairarapa at the coast. The Ruakokoputuna river is smaller and runs through the magnificent Patuna Chasm but more of this in later post.
Every morning, rain, hail or shine – Cookie, Buster and me walk the roads around our home on the outskirts of the village. Cookie and Buster are Jack Russell terriers – wonderfully loving dogs, stubborn and wilful – they are my companions in this age of the coronavirus.
Cookie starts getting excited about her walk as soon as it is light. Buster and me – not so much. We are not morning people. We like to sleep in.
By 07.00 Cookie has usually had enough. Using her teeth she drags back my duvet, does her tail catching circles, and bounces against the bed occasionally achieving sufficient height to actually land on it and me – to the surprise of us both. At 07.20 I get up.
It is the 21st of January 2021 and today the sun is shining. The playful gusts of gale force winds (40-80 mph) which have plagued us for the last week have gone away and by 07.40 it is already hot.
Cookie happy nosing through the long grass, disappears under hedge rows inhaling the smells necessary for her daily existence and is generally enjoying herself. Buster is sulking. Two reasons. He doesn’t like the heat and we didn’t walk where he wanted to go.
Buster likes to start a walk at rat corner. Where the rats are.
This is a photo of Buster hunting rats in the agapanthus at rat corner. The rat has gone already but the thrill of the hunt (along with rat smells) remains and according to Buster, ‘this is his favouritist thing in the whole world to do’.
Consequently when a walk does not start at rat corner, well, it’s not really a walk. Is it? It just something to tolerate and some days he doesn’t even do that. Like today for instance. We walked half a kilometre past the Colombo winery set up for the arrival of the lunch crowd …
then another half kilometre to Puruatanga Road …
to see the vineyards and the sunflowers…
up close …
Buster was having none of it. He sat down his face pointing back the way we had come. We came home.
Some days walking in the Wairarapa with dogs can be better than others.
18/03/2019. After the Christchurch Mosque Massacres of the Innocents.
I was young when I first read East of Eden by John Steinbeck but his words changed my life: more than a Presbyterian upbringing with weekly Sunday School attendances, more than being brought up by an academically expectant (read desperate) mother or an alcoholic father and more than all the other books I ever read. I read a lot. But this story based on the myth of Cain and Abel and which explores evil in all its forms, temptations, responsibilities, and outcomes affected me the most. It doesn’t mean I am perfect, it just means I know what I am doing. The Bible (and by extension the Koran with a different but similar interpretation) tells the story of two brothers both seeking to gain favour from their father. One gives his best, the other not quite so much and the parent notices (don’t we though?). Sibling rivalry erupts into murder and denial. The father adjudicates, leaving the living brother in an eternal state of damnation and by extension anyone who tries to put him out of his misery, the dead brother in grace. Rough interpretation, but good enough. In East of Eden, Lee, the father’s Chinese servant and the only person to bring up the brothers with love, looks at the old Hebrew texts to determine why the murder (aka evil aka ignorance) takes place and how judgement is made. Lee, comes up with the word ‘timshel’, a word as old as our world. “But the Hebrew word timshel—’Thou mayest’—that gives a choice. For if ‘Thou mayest’—it is also true that ‘Thou mayest not.’ That makes a man great and that gives him stature with the gods, for in his weakness and his filth and his murder of his brother he has still the great choice. He can choose his course and fight it through and win.” (East Of Eden, John Steinbeck). If there is a God, and at times of massacres of innocents as we have recently experienced in Christchurch, then he (she) gave us choice. We know that. But do we always understand the burden of this word, this concept? Not only on those that do wrong, often many times, but also on us as to how we then choose to deal with those who have done wrong. The Koran tells us: Because of that, We decreed upon the Children of Israel that whoever kills a soul unless for a soul or for corruption [done] in the land – it is as if he had slain mankind entirely. And whoever saves one – it is as if he had saved mankind entirely’ The Talmud: Therefore, humans were created singly, to teach you that whoever destroys a single soul [of Israel], Scripture accounts it as if he had destroyed a full world; and whoever saves one soul of Israel, Scripture accounts it as if she had saved a full world.
There were people in the two Christchurch mosques who saved a full world.
This is a follow-up born of wonder… more than a blog post.
The plums are starting to ripen and the cat still basks in the heat under the tree. Every morning I check for colour and ripeness and yesterday seeing a few pecked and discarded plums on the ground I started to harvest. I have laid them out on the kitchen bench in the sunshine, hoping the green bits will go away. Jam? Sauce? I haven’t decided.
Every time I’m in the garden, my thrush appears. Without fail. He (could be she) bobs along the top of the wall. He flies low from the wall to the peach tree and looks at me from behind the leaves. He sits near the strawberry plants as they flower for the second time this season and he watches as I pour Louie his cat biscuits into a little bowl beside the tomato plants.
In winter, I feed Louie, the cat, in the garage, the door open just enough at the bottom to let him in but low enough to protect him from the wind and rain. Many is the time, I’ve come out early in the morning to go to work and opened the door only to have a bird fly out. A bird which has been eating the cat biscuits. A thrush bird.
In the garden, my thrush (yes mine) appears with such regularity, I have started talking to her/him. He/she listens and watches. Louie ignores both of us. Louie and my thrush clearly have an arrangement.
This evening it’s hot. Sweltering hot. I am sitting on the sofa, the dogs, asleep at my feet, all the doors and windows open and the fan going full blast behind me. I am eating my salad. The news is on TV. I am taking no notice because its only talking about hot it is and that’s not news.
My thrush hops into view. He/she proceeds to come into the living room. Past the big sofa, past the fire place, hopping and looking sideways at me from the carpet. At the sound of my voice, saying Hello to my thrush, the dogs wake and rush the bird who flies off out the open door and across the lawn to the wall. My thrush sits and looks back.
It seems this thrush likes arrangements. First the cat. Now me. I am assuming it won’t take long for the dogs to become similarly enamoured.
house three and half years ago. Upped sticks and moved over the hill from
Wellington to the rural charms and heat of the Wairarapa. Child-free and time
rich (apart from work) I haven’t regretted the move for a moment.
the selling points of my new house, (to me anyway) was the area of wild land,
unused except as a tip for old clotheslines and lumps of concrete, lying
between a large macrocarpa hedge and a wall at the back of the garden. My Wellington
homes had been perched on windy hillsides of clay soil, any plants I attempted
to grow inevitably in shade for a good part of the day. This area provided
shelter, space, sunshine and soil- the perfect place for an edible garden.
The Wairarapa usually has sun and heat aplenty. Not this year. Cloud covered days interspersed with rain have made the farmers as happy as the proverbial pigs in manure. Paddocks usually flattened by now to a crispy brown stubble are this year awash with green grass, tall and luxuriant enough to allow two cuts of hay. Round bales complacently dot the landscapes, the animals assured of feed for the next year.
good for my edible garden then. Well, Yes and No.
tick. Cucumbers-tick. Strawberries- tick. Tomatoes- tick. Basil- tick.
Courgettes- tick. Beans not so good this year. I will plant a different variety
next year. Peaches- recovering from leaf curl but the crop should be okay. And
that brings me to the plums.
Damson plums. Damsons are an ancient variety of drupaceous (great word isn’t it?) plums. The Romans brought them to Britain – ancient! Sweet and tart- they make great jams and sauces. Which is why I planted my tree. You can’t beat a good spicy plum sauce with everything.
has been in for three years and already has lots of fruit.
Ha Ha to the old gardeners rhyme:
“He who plants plums
Plants for his sons.
He who plants damsons
Plants for his grandsons.”
good gardener am I. I thought.
Last year- year 2- the crop was smaller. The sun was hotter and the fruit seemingly ripened over-night. By the time I got back from work at the end of day, they were all gone. Birds can strip a tree in less than a day. And not many birds either. They wait. They check. They wait. And then when the sugar levels are just as they like them, they swoop, beaks at the ready and a year’s work is gone. Disappeared. No sauces, no jams. Nothing.
This year, it’s going to be different. I thought. Me and my armoury against the birds. I have hung CDs from the branches- their silver surfaces reflecting light unpredictably are supposed to act as a deterrent. They don’t.
I have put a mirror underneath so the birds supposedly on guard against perceived movement from below don’t feel safe enough to eat the fruit. Useless. I have draped a net over some of the branches covering the fruit and all that has done is to catch the unripe fruit the birds have tested and found wanting. And I have a cat. A cat who sleeps under the daisy bush right beside the plum tree. Not just any cat. A hunter. Rabbits- tick. Rats- tick. A lethal death machine of a cat. The birds don’t stand a chance I thought.
say birds, I mean one thrush. A fat brown speckled big brown eyed thrush to be
exact. A thrush who has staked out the garden and been there for every daylight
hour of the past week. First to arrive in the morning and last to leave at
night. Its big brown eyes fixed on my damson plums. Watching. Waiting.
I check the plums, ready to haul them off the tree and into the kitchen as soon
as they show the first signs of ripeness.
They weren’t ready this morning. Their colour is changing, to be sure. Purple is gradually replacing the green. They aren’t quite as hard as they were yesterday. Any day now. Just a burst of sustained heat and sunshine and they will be ready. The heat from Australia is on its way. Soon I think. Soon.
I reached down to give the cat an ear tickle and he lay there in the warm earth and meowed in response. I looked over him to see, nestled onto a wooden sleeper, the thrush, its speckled breast plumped out against the warm wood.
feet off the ground, three feet from the cat, the thrush looked comfortable.
I recently heard an Independent Bookseller describe herself as an ‘ambivalent capitalist”. She was addressing a group of everyday authors – none of us stars in the literary firmament. We are just people who write stuff which people will hopefully enjoy reading.
Since the advent of e-books, life has changed for aspiring authors. No more brown envelopes of thick manuscripts sent off in the hope of, at the very least, a kind word six months later from agents and publishers. And no rejection slips with which to wall-paper the loo. Now we can do it ourselves. Publish – not wall-papering. We can write and let the market decide if a book is worth buying- online.
It’s tougher to get new books, hard copies of books onto the shelves of actual bookshops that have overheads and staff to pay. Often the reading public has no idea a book even exists because without the marketing departments in publishing companies, why would they? Word of mouth is great but even in the age of social media – slow. There is, SO MUCH CHOICE and tempus fugits… fastus. Fastus than the next postus.
The gatekeeper to the hardcopy market is the Independent Bookseller. These are the brave, ‘ambivalent capitalists’ who put their shelf space on the line for aspiring authors without the benefit of a publisher’s comforting presence. They are the ones who invest their resources in the hope that a book will succeed for the sake of …well books. Literature if you must. Art if you absolutely have to go there.
The ambivalent capitalists take a punt on unknown authors because they love books more than money – a punt that the chain stores never take.
This week a friend bought ‘Hot Flush’ in Wellington having tracked it down to the home of the ‘ambivalent capitalist’. Tauranga does not stock Hot Flush. (Yet). (Call me). Thank you friend. Thank you Ambivalent Capitalist.
Please support an Independent Bookseller near you…oh and buy Hot Flush- it’s a good read. People say so. But if it doesn’t take your fancy, buy a different book. The shelves are full of them.
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