Archive for the ‘Hautapu’ Category

The Creeping Scourge of Plastic

January 18, 2018




The farmland about Cambridge in the Central Waikato is flat, green and effortlessly bucolic, much like the place where I work. Some of it is in pasture feeding a small herd of Herefords some is an arboretum. A good half of it is a factory complex and the rest is in formal lawns, about 8 hours in mowing time.

Across the road is the main cemetery for the Cambridge district and after the road the next worst source of plastic pollution. The prevailing winds kicks through here and on a brisk day the air will be alive with plastic flowers and that soft nylon wrap florists like to put around their floral arrangements.

Otherwise it is pie and candy wrappers, drink cans, disposable coffee cups, bottles and fast food packaging – all but a sampling of the detritus thrown carelessly from cars and not counting the wide a selection of plastic bits and pieces from god knows where. Maybe pieces broken of the some of the thousands of vehicles that speed by on an average day?

The factory itself is well governed and the myriad waste streams go to various bins for recycling, still bits still manage to escape and most everywhere about the property will be found pieces of plastic twine and wrap, the sort used to bind goods to pallets.

When it wet the cows hooves churn up the pasture and bring to light all manner of plastic, some of which is decades old. Here is an archaeological history of plastic litter in the countryside including packaging from brands long deceased, parts broken off outdated farm implements, long forgotten children’s toys and pieces of nylon hay bale twine.

During my first week I collected two sacks of plastic detritus, the next a sack and every week for a few months after, a supermarket carrier bag equivalent. Now it’s down to pocketfuls as I traverse the property stooping here and there to pick whatever up.

After a heavy wind the ground about the arboretum will be littered with birds nests. What would once be mulched back into the lawns now requires careful disposal for woven amongst the dry moss and grasses is all manner of plastic fines. Clever birds for using what’s at hand but…….


These days plastic is an all-pervasive element and for those with eyes to see you’ll see it everywhere. It sits on the sides of roads, on beaches and riverbanks and lies caught amongst exposed tree roots. It sits amidst mulch in municipal gardens and lays about the grass in parklands. It drifts onto far-flung pastures and blown about by storms, settles into isolated pockets of native bush.

Farmers, distanced from recycling and landfill facilities burn it and bury it and tradespeople leave irretrievably minute bits and pieces of it wherever they are working. The thoughtless chuck it from cars, dog walkers toss plastic bags filed with turds into shrubs and lazy hikers toss it into gullies, waterways and underbrush. Kids partying about the countryside leave it where it has fallen and those disinclined to pay for a municipal trash sack dump it wherever.

As for the smokers, those butt ends of non-recyclable and non-biodegradable nylon fibres are tossed with uncaring fluidity into the environment to settle into soil, riverbed and estuary for the 10 years it takes nature to break it down.

We buy shoddy goods stamped out of plastic and five minutes later consign then to landfill while filling our supermarket trolleys with one use plastic packaging. Recently I watched a machine make ‘one use’ and unrecyclable plastic ice cream spoons at a factory in Tauranga. I asked the guy how he felt about being a part of this chain of waste. He looked at me blankly and not without a degree of hostility.

We have some bad habits that are going to be hard to break. Numerous times of late local bodies have tried to ban the plastic detritus that litters our cemeteries only to back down when confronted by a tsunami of outrage. ‘Who are these busy body bureaucrats dare to tell us how and how not to honour our dead’?

Strange in light of the disdain plastic flowers were greeted when they first started appearing on the market a few decades back. Now plastic flowers are an inalienable human right. And as for those florists, so much garbage to wrap a natural flower in.

But we are all culpable, we all partake and we all think we are making a difference by putting our recycling out on the street every week, so much of it destined to go nowhere for there is no where to go or it is uneconomic to reprocess.

It is a crazy problem, like acid rain and ozone depletion was crazy. Like smog and dioxin and lead in petrol was crazy but we proved that once we put our collective minds to it we could actually change things for the better.

Judging by the recent explosion of science, opinion and commentary humanity is waking up to the scourge of plastic, but no matter the positive changes the future brings, like the elemental stones of the earth, the plastic already at large is here to stay.


Feeding The Birds

November 9, 2016



The Kaka, an endangered NZ Parrot.

Back in my homeland, a farm on the dead flat dairy country of the Central Waikato, you’ll seldom see a native bird bar the Wax Eye. This bird is endemic to the South West Pacific and is believed to have first arrived on these shores in the 1830’s after being swept in by way of a powerful storm. (That was the first recorded sighting but one has to wonder that for all the millennia this bird has been about that it took until then to find their way to these islands?)

The Wax-Eye (or Silvereye as they call it in Australia) is classified as a self-introduced native (the faintly comical Pukeko is another) and unlike the actual natives who have withered under the onslaught of aggressive species bought to these islands by settlers who didn’t know any better, the Wax Eye is thriving.

A springtime bird (at least where I come from) it is a delight to feed. Partial to fat, a block of NZ’s finest grass fed butter will draw them in by the dozens and much pleasure can be had watching the social dynamics on display. An otherwise slight handful of yellow feathers, the males can get pretty aggro with each other as they tussle over the best positions from which to tackle the butter.

The feeding frenzy and dominance posturing can otherwise become a bit distracting making individuals easy prey for the family cat so the butter is best placed on high where approaching predators can be easily seen. A fence post or dangling branch does the trick nicely.


The Wax Eye

The Wax Eye has a short season and just as suddenly as it has arrived it is gone unlike the Sparrows, Myna, Starlings, Black Birds, Thrushes, Magpies and Pigeons who are always about. The country Sparrow will eat pretty much anything and are a common sight around the local cowsheds where they feast on the palm kernel and maize silage farmers use to feed the cows feed with when fresh grass is in short supply.

The Sparrows here in the city are a bit different. When they are not eating spiders and insects they are hoovering up crumbs left by people eating on the move but present them with the kind of food their country cousins will attack with gusto and they look a bit blank.

The city Pigeons on the other hand will pretty much eat anything unlike their country cousins who never stop to look at the bread and butter left out for their pleasure. From their roost in the phoenix palms outside the old homestead they head off every morning for feeding grounds unknown.

Unlike the city Pigeon which watches the street with intense precision waiting for someone to drop a crumb or two the country cousin has no truck with humans coming and going in synchronised precision without as much as a ‘by your leave’. Occasionally the cat, unable to resist the call of the cooing bird at rest, will find its way up one of these 70-year-old giants and deep into the fronds only to discover that this critter is a tough customer and that the way down is awkward and difficult.

A little wailing in the dead of night and a precarious adventure with a ladder and torch usually find a satisfactory outcome for all concerned. More amenable to the cats is the odd young pre-flight pigeons that occasionally fall to the ground. A circus ensues as wide-eyed cats gather to dab and prod and otherwise terrorise the hapless victim. An attempt might be made to salvage the wee innocent but once the feline blood lust has flowered there is little hope of a successful rescue.

As in the city, the Blackbird, Starling, Myna and Thrush will gather where there is activity and hang about in a vaguely social manner but I have seldom seen the country cousins tackle a piece of bread or butter – perhaps they are too well fed by the riches of worms and insects available on the wide open land. Their city cousins have an altogether different appetite and will tackle anything. Watching a Blackbird or Thrush gathering bread in a novel sight for me.

There are a couple of four Magpies here in downtown Auckland but they are elusive critters. Sometimes when I happen across one in a park I will stop and stare, enjoying the sight of this intelligent creature doing its thing however the moment they see you looking they are gone, disdain or maybe suspicion writ large in their expression. They seem uninterested in bread, grain and butter preferring to scratch about in the mulch for insects.

The country cousin is no less wary but will often join the other birds feeding on the lawn and nibble at whatever is on offer and with a little time to develop trust a long-term intergenerational acquaintanceship can be forged. Of all the local birds the inquisitive magpie offers some grand entertainment being the playful sort it is but the award for the most entertaining goes to a native, the rarely seen Kaka.

For a while we lived in north of the Waikato on the edge of the Hauraki plains and every year a flock of Kaka, a native parrot, would drop in to feed on the local Kahikatea trees on their way from far off Great Barrier Island to their summer feeding grounds in the Central North Island. About the size of a cat this bird is impressive both in form and temperament.

Starting its adventures with the first light of day they did not let up until deep twilight. When they weren’t practicing aerial acrobatics and screeching up a storm they were teasing the cats and stripping all our citrus of their fruit. Otherwise they might glean a little fun from chasing the odd wayward sparrow or magpie or maybe swing around and around on branches when nothing else was on offer. Both parts easily amused and bored this bird was trouble looking for mischief. Endangered as they are, I thought us very lucky to have an opportunity to see them up so close.


English botanist Joseph Banks out here on a voyage of discovery with Captain Cook in the late 18th century wrote of a vast cacophony of birdsong arising from these islands:

‘This morn I was awakd by the singing of the birds ashore from whence we are distant not a quarter of a mile, the numbers of them were certainly very great who seemd to strain their throats with emulation perhaps; their voices were certainly the most melodious wild musick I have ever heard, almost imitating small bells but with the most tuneable silver sound imaginable to which maybe the distance was no small addition. On enquiring of our people I was told that they have had observd them ever since we have been here, and that they begin to sing at about 1 or 2 in the morn and continue till sunrise, after which they are silent all day like our nightingales.’

Decimated by habitat loss and the introduction of predatory species against which they had no defence, the singers of this vast song have dwindled, their voice now a whisper. The dominant chorus now is one fed by the flourishing legions of introduced birds.

This is the chorus I know best and for as long as I can remember their crowded symphony has been the soundtrack against which I have lived my life. So all pervasive is this song in my psyche that I still hear it when I wake even though I am now far removed from that countryside living in a place where the birdsong is spare.

Birdsong is a vast data stream based on tone and viewed in this way it shows itself to be a thing of wonder. We might marvel at the Internet or the multitude of information rich digital signals floating through the ether but nature has already been there and done that. We are playing catch up at a game the birds have long mastered.

There is tree in the heart of the city that is a magnet for sparrows. Toward sunset they return to roost talk and themselves silly. Their chirping method can sound a bit monotonal but if you listen in carefully and you will hear much subtle variation at work in the basic framework suggesting that a wealth of information is being shared in a very economical way.

These humble little creatures with their sharp eyes are more than the sum of their parts and play a vital role in keeping insect numbers in check while efficiently taking care food waste about the streets. Once eaten this waste is nicely deposited around the trees they roost in offering the plant a neat source of fertiliser.

The city Starlings is smart and very partial to butter and bread, the country cousin uninterested. By the 1970s this introduced species was almost wiped out by the widespread use of D.D.T. Their favourite food was the aptly named Grass Grub. Native to these shores this soil dwelling caterpillar fed on the roots of the grasses upon which the nation built its wealth.

Some clever marketing based on fear mongering and the promise of increased production convinced farmers into drenching their land with this miracle chemical. The hapless Starling feed on the poisoned caterpillar ingested this most voracious of toxins and almost died out. Once the mistake was realised a concerted effort was made help the Starling along and many farms including our own invested in specialised nesting boxes. The population quietly recovered and got on with their efficient method of keeping undesirable insect populations in check.


The Starling

The Pukeko like the Starling was heavily undone by D.D.T but since the chemical was banned it has bounced back with vengeance. They are a common sight across the nation and are often found squashed on the road. The Pukeko has no road sense at all and in its natural habitat is an elusive bird, understandably wary of humans who often single this bird out for the gun.

The closest I have ever gotten to this creature is at the peat dome lake sitting slap bang in the centre of Hamilton. Here the Pukeko has taken on a domesticated quality and will come racing when food is on offer. All legs it is quite a sight to see striding about fighting the ducks for scraps. I remember my farming days and the care that had to be taken when mowing the hay. The long grass made for an excellent nesting sight and vigilance was required to prevent multiple fatalities. These birds keep communal nests and besides the little black babies you will find mum, dad and various aunties. I don’t understand why so many see them as nothing. They are beautiful.

Ducks are a big favourite of mine and though I see few here in the city they are numerous back home. An amenable creature, the mallard duck can become a friend and as with the Magpie, a well-established bond of trust can reach out across the generations with children and grandchildren calling into feed at a place they have been educated to know as safe.

The numerous drainage channels about the landscape provide suitable nesting sites for the ducks including the ones along the roadsides. Occasionally a nested pair will fly up into the air and into the path of a car or truck. Sometimes one is killed and the other will stand over the body for days. It is a terribly sad sight. Ducks have a good intellect and their emotional response to life should not be underestimated.

The other day I came across a lone female Mallard resting in the shade of a tree. I tossed her a handful of grain and she set about an excited quacking. When she finished she waddled up to my feet and lifted her head asking for more. Later I sat on a bench in the park and while tossing bits of bread to the Sparrows was surprised by a wee fellow who landed on my hand and began feeding directly.

I carry all manner of feed about with me and everyone likes bread but it is a nutritionally bereft product and I prefer to offer something more substantial like whole grain and seeds but this is not to everyone’s liking unlike butter which appeals to a wide audience. Nutritionally dense, butter is a grand source of energy and a block attracts a mixed and enthusiastic crowd. Individuals will pull a mouthful free, swallow it then assiduously wipe their beak on the grass before having another go. It’s amazing how quickly a kilo with disappear and how much fun it can be watching it all happen. The best pleasures are found in the simplest of acts.


I was bought up to experience non-humans as instinct driven automatons without thought nor feelings and that is how I treated them. My friends and I prowled the countryside wrecking havoc first with our slingshots then air rifles and finally .22 calibre rifles. It was sport, thoughtless, violent and pleasurable.

I thought nothing of it at first, lost as I was in the thrill of the hunt, then after years of deeper observation it slowly dawned on me that these creatures were more complex than I had imagined. As I examined these new feelings I began to feel shame and regret for the pain and suffering I was tossing about like cheap confetti. It was a one- dimensional perspective and I am glad to have laid it to rest. These days my outlook is altogether different and I am appreciative of the wild life that flourishes despite the ravages wrought by humanities steadfast dedication to its own all consuming self-interest.

Sometimes I want to cry out “Put away your smart phones and ear pieces, put aside your cares and anxiety, let go your ambition and haste. Stop, look and listen and be amazed. Hear that bird song, see the ants darting about beneath your feet, walk around rather than walk through that Pigeon looking for food. Take moment and spare a thought and a crumb for those birds gathered at your feet watching you eat your lunch. They might like a little taste as well. Feeding the birds can do wonders for your wellbeing’.


The Pukeko



November 4, 2016


 Hautapu Cemetery.

What do I remember about Hilary? I remember that she wore red boots that were once described to me by someone who should have known better as ‘Frankenstein boots’, big solid things with steel frames attached to support her frail calf muscles. One of her legs may have been longer the longer than the other and the boots designed to compensate but I am not sure but I do remember that she used crutches.

I remember that she wore a catheter and had to endure regular enemas because her bowels were improperly formed and suffered multiple operations on her spine and legs but those events are only a whisper to me. I was farmed out to my maternal grandparents through much those years so my parents could focus on the difficult task that had been thrust upon them and as they struggled to come to terms with their new situation in life I was at large the dreamtime of childhood, apart and mostly unaware of the main event.


I remember that we are lying in her bed with the covers up over our heads listening to children’s stories on the radio, laughing, acting out and having fun. It is a warm and innocent moment where there is no disability, just two siblings lost in revelry. I imagine that she of had lived we would have been very close, a feeling reinforced by other stories about us passed onto me by our mother.

There was a spare ten months between us, a fact that (in my mind at least) almost made us almost twins. We shared a similar sensibility and intellect and I wonder how different things might have been had I had her in my life, the usual kind of questions that haunt those left behind to deal with the complexities of living.

A few years after her death my mother described her to me as intelligent and wilful, the latter a quality she needed in spades to navigate the world carrying with her the burdens she did. Halfway through her ninth year she used that wilfulness to successfully lobby for a radical change in circumstance. Hilary was determined to be ‘like the other kids’ and instead of being taken to school in the car asked if she could take the bus. After much soul searching our mother agreed.

Along with our neighbours she was collected from outside our house and after school deposited a few hundred metres down the way where they would disembark and would walk around the front of the bus and wait for the driver to wave them safely across the road. This done he would put it into gear and move off. On this day everything went as normal but Hilary new to the system was struggling with crutches and schoolbag failed to keep up. She was still in front of the bus when it roared into life.

I wonder at her last moments? Perhaps there was a startled panic as she realised what was happening? I hope it was quick. It was certainly horrifying for the witnesses one of whom ran to our house yelling that a girl had been run over and to call the police. My mother knew straight away. I was already home and I will never forget her scream, a heart rendering wail of grief that ripped the guts out of everyone present. For Dad it was even worse. He was milking the cows and someone had run to cowshed requesting a tractor to help move the bus off the body. He did what was required only to find the crushed body of his second born lying under a tyre.


As for me, that day is coloured by a strange conclusion that for many years after shaped the way I perceived the world. My school reports from that time observe that I preferred to work alone and alone is how I often felt. It was not an uncomfortable state but part of me wondered at the activities of the other children and asked if I was not missing out on something important.

This need for social acceptance become something of an obsession and I had begun to aspire to be something I wasn’t. On the fateful day I got my wish and there I was throwing a ball back and fourth with another boy howling with laughter and revelling in the joy of connection. I have no idea how this came about but I clearly remember going back to class at the end of the lunch break thinking that ‘today had been the best day ever’. It turned out to be quite the opposite and I concluded that great tragedy follows on the heels of great joy. It was a long time before I felt safe enough to be happy again.

I remember the day of her funeral and the dreamlike journey from house to church to graveside. I remember looking at the small delicately padded white coffin and remember thinking that if I willed it hard enough it would open and she would rise out of it and return to us. It did not happen and by the time the vessel was lowered into the earth at the cemetery I was exhausted.


Where do you go from here? Nowhere it turns out, you just endure it, a dreamlike state of disbelief, a hundred pressing questions and a morbid state of waking confusion. You live and you endure and eventually you heal, or at least you think you do. Some wounds cut so deep that there is no proper recovery, just the semblance of one.

I look back on these memories and wonder at their accuracy gathered as they were by a child adrift in the most tragic event any family should expect to endure. A wash of images and sensations, reflections of people coming and going, awkward words, strained silences, moments of forgetting followed by the anguish of remembering. I may have gotten some of the details wrong but this is how it lives in me.

Dad is now in his mid-eighties still visits her gravesite every Sunday, his devotion a living act of love. My mother celebrates her birthday with that same unwavering fidelity. Her name was Hilary Ann Johnstone. She had a freckled face, brown hair and carried her bits and pieces about in a little blue case with a brown handle. She died aged nine and a half, 02/10/1972.

My Two Grandfathers: The Gardeners.

November 1, 2016




Both my grandfathers were vegetable gardeners through necessity. Bob because he was dirt poor for a good half his life and had a family to feed and Bill because he was a farmer in age when going to town to buy supplies was a luxury. So ingrained in their natures was the task that they both maintained large gardens until their deaths never growing less than enough to sustain both themselves and their long dispersed families.

Bob was a ‘by the book’ man, the legendary ‘Yates Garden Guide’ to be specific, and applied the recommended chemicals at the correct time of year to the sticky mustard coloured clays of the Western Waikato where he lived. His garden was all neatly boxed in straight rows in stark contrast to Bill’s which was a bit of a jungle. Bill was a soil man and the sandy loam of the central Waikato was his canvas.

“Look after the soil” he would say “and the rest will take care of itself” and it did. Both made compost but for Bob this soil building material was simply an adjunct while for Bill it was everything. Besides his numerous compost bins Bill dug long trenches in his garden filling them with leaves, grass clippings and cow manure. He also saved his urine for the fruit trees and the cabbages. Bob would never conceive of such a thing especially when you could achieve the same effect with a bag of fertiliser. I don’t think Bill ever added anything from a bag to his soil, he was an ‘organic’ gardener, Bob was not.

Bill followed a tradition his mother had bought over from the ‘old country’ (Ireland) and kept a corner of the garden “for the fairies”.  The story goes: provide a safe spot for the fairies and in return they will protect the garden. Lush with wild carrot and parsnip, comfrey, lemon balm and a whole assortment of self-sown grasses this technique was not as obtuse as it might at first appear. This untamed patch was a breeding ground for the kind of predator insects that hunted the less desirable creatures that can be a gardener’s nightmare. Bob just sprayed chemicals over everything.

Bob’s garden, as prolific as it was, always struck me as a bit sterile while Bill’s was something of an exercise in esoteric spirituality. Surrounded by a wall of wild parsnip and mustard that stood a good seven feet tall by early summer, his garden thrilled to the sound of bees and butterflies and every leaf hung low under the weight of ladybirds (the ultimate predatory insect). The soil was a mass of worm casts and fungi proliferated. His was an ecosystem, Bob’s was a carefully maintained production facility. That said, both methods worked well and the crops were abundant.

Bob’s speciality was garlic, onions and shallots; Bill’s was carrots and potatoes and when he was in the mood, watermelons. Huge juicy things of the like I have never been able to find at the supermarket. Bob’s wife Cath pickled the smaller onions and all the shallots and together they would harvest, prepare and freeze enough beans and peas to keep them supplied through the year. Bill’s wife Sylvia bottled everything until one year, fed up with the toil and grind, announced that she had had enough and put it to rest. After that they just pulled what they needed straight from the rich soil at the back of the house supplementing with store bought stuff.

I spent much of my pre-school years living with Bob and Cath. I remember the scratchy aroma of chemicals coming from the tool shed and the rich scent of garlic lifting up through the house from the vegetable storage racks in the basement. By this stage Bob was the manager of the local State owned coal mine and had a gardener tending to his crops, trimming his hedges and mowing his lawns.

Bill ploughed up a bit of paddock every year and teased sackfuls of produce from the loam. This was in addition to the garden at the house. He also grew citrus of every conceivable stripe not forgetting plums, apples and feijoa. His Rome Beauties still are the best apple I have ever had and his fig tree was a miracle. A magnet for birds he had set up a system of interconnected rattling cans and with a tug on the wire that reached in through the kitchen window, sent the birds scattering at his leisure. The contest for those florid violet beauties was intense.

In the high summer we would often sit under the plum tree eating the bird pecked fruit lying on the ground, “the birds know exactly which fruit is ripest and if it is bird pecked you can be sure it is good.” Otherwise we talked soil and nothing gave either of us more pleasure than turning over a sod and examining the worms, fungi and various wriggling insects. “A healthy soil provides” Bill would say. When I repeated this to Bob he would look at me as if I was talking a foreign language. In his eyes Bill was a bit dreamy and impractical.

Bob had no fruit trees but he knew who did and sometimes in the evening of a the late summer we would go raiding. Probably not the kind of activity a man of his standing in the community should be indulging in but he revelled in the sneaking about and the quaffing of stolen fruit. I admired Bob. He was self-made man who had endured an inordinate amount of suffering through his life. Bill’s life had been altogether easier and while both men were about as different as chalk and cheese both shared a mischievous of humour that suggested in some ways that both were still boys at heart.

Bob was somewhat O.C.D, as demonstrated by manicured perfection of his garden. Bill was anything but. Everything he touched was an experiment in make-do and delightfully ramshackle. Both men had their difficulties as husbands and fathers but by the time I rolled around they had found their rhythm and were ready to pass on what they had learned, grateful I think for a young soul eager to listen.

Both were mentors and both offered me varied glimpses of the secret magic they saw the world and later when I had my own family and set in a garden to feed them I discovered a bit of both men at work in my style. Like Bill I was devoted to the philosophy of soil and like Bob I kept it all perfectly manicured and clockwork. I maintained a wild place for the fairies staying true to ages old tradition while maintaining an interest in the orthodox. Often when I was out the back weeding or spreading compost I caught myself talking to one or another. With Bob it was all about process and organisation, with Bill it was all about ideas, invention and soil.

Both died at roughly the same age, in their mid-eighties. Bill just dropped dead in front of me and Dad while we were out on the farm one morning and Bob spent his last year or so in an Alzheimer’s facility. I remember Bob, a biblical Christian, saying that a man was due “three score years and ten” (60-70 years depending on the source) and should expect no more. Bill’s wife had done her time on the farm and was ready for the easier pace of town life. He didn’t want to go and as it turned out, didn’t have to.