Not everyone appreciates corrugated iron. Some people associate it with other things. Years ago I knew someone who emigrated from South Africa to New Zealand to practise as a GP for the foreseeable future. As her plane flew low over Palmerston North she looked down on the rooftops. She looked down on all those corrugated iron rooftops and burst into tears. She thought she'd come to live in a shanty town.
At Te Papa, the Museum of New Zealand, there’s a Holden Kingswood station wagon on display . The panel work is made from corrugated iron the colour of rust. To me, cars are tools, but I can appreciate a car like that.
I think it’s the texture I love as much as anything else. A corrugated iron wall can never be a blank wall. Not like the freshly painted wall I see out this window, across the street from the Wellington City Library, next to the construction site. A blank, concrete wall, painted khaki. Bland and featureless, it functions aesthetically only as a screen on which the late morning sun projects patterns of shadow and light from the glass and concrete surroundings, and as a backdrop for the found sculpture of reinforcing rods projecting skywards from the foundations like stripped sinews. Corrugated iron, however, always has texture; it’s never blank. Lead-head nails slide their shadows across the corrugations; the sun glances off the side of a shed at a low angle and every long hollow’s a line of shadow, every ridge a bright line of light. The pattern's so regular that every dent stands out, each containing a story. A world without imperfections is a world with nothing to say.
I drive the narrow road to Kuku beach, past dairy farms and ragged hedges, by old wire fences with battens leaning at random angles. The wire's still the old, pliable No. 8, not the thin and difficult high tensile modern stuff. Beyond the railway line there’s a poultry farm, every shed made of corrugated iron. Pukeko  forage in roadside paddocks, high stepping, tails flicking. One stretches its neck to inspect the car as I idle past; another slips away, head down, through long, hummocky grass. More reptile, or dinosaur, than bird. Each house has one or more sheds or garages of corrugated iron; the houses themselves are roofed with it. Haybarns, milking sheds, calf shelters, abandoned fowlhouses—all corrugated iron in shades of oxidised galvanising and faded red. That battered shed over there might once have been pale lavender, perhaps from a cheap lot of bargain bin paint; now it’s almost indistinguishable from the grey of aged iron. A shelter by a farm driveway is the simplest of structures: three sides and a roof, just enough in which to keep dry until the school bus arrives; a basic frame of weathered four by twos and a few sheets of corrugated iron banged on with left-over lead-heads. But the bus has gone, the kids have disappeared, and the shelter contains nothing but sunlight and shadows, the warmth of Spring and a few infinitely patient spiders at the mouths of their retreats. Nail a sheet of corrugated iron to a wooden frame and you create 27 homes .
The car bounces over the last 50 metres of sandy track to the carpark. I assume this is it; it’s just a flattish area in the dunes, near a line of low, salt-stunted macrocarpas. Empty of cars, empty of people. The place has that out-of-time feel, as if it’s been abandoned by the twenty-first century, left to the birds and the wind. I walk slowly, aware how each footprint adds to the line, and sit on a driftwood log in the sun and the cold breeze. A spur winged plover  calls at me until it sees I’m sitting still, then it resumes its inspection of the shallow water along the edge of the stream. On the far side, pied stilts  step and yelp and probe the water.
The whitebaiters padlock the door and drive off, and a blowfly, trapped inside, walks up and down the windowsill; a cloud passes overhead and the iron roof cools and contracts, banging and cracking. Inside, the clock's tick stops; the fly pauses, then falls to the floor, and the room fills with the sound of surf at the river's mouth and wind around the walls.
1. New Zealand whitebait are juvenile forms of our native galaxiid fishes. They're mostly diadromous and definitely delicious, with inanga (Galaxias maculatus; considered catadromous because the adults migrate to estuaries to spawn) reputedly being the best of the several main species of whitebait. In Wellington last week, 100 gram punnets of whitebait were selling for NZ$15; bad luck if you're short of money—or if you're a whitebait.
2. The work is by Jeff Thomson (do check out the link; it's an excellent essay with great examples of his work). He's well known for his corrugated iron sculptures, particularly the animals.
3. Porphyrio porphyrio. The English vernacular is “swamphen”, but no one I know calls them that in New Zealand. They're always pukeko. Or “pookackas”, sometimes abbreviated to “pooks”. A few farmers—those whose crops have been damaged or water troughs fouled—have other names for them.
4. Three rows of nine tunnels. Now, corrugated iron is rolled in all sorts of lengths and contours, but my calculation's roughly true for the old style sheets. Its propensity for harbouring little creatures is something else people hate about it. Understandable when you're sitting on the long drop at night, surrounded by the gleam of spiders' eyes, the long legs of Cambridgea reaching out from between the iron and wood.
5. Vanellus miles novaehollandiae. Rare only a few decades ago, these weird and rowdy birds have spread throughout New Zealand and are now among the most common farmland birds. Because they prefer large areas of open pasture, they're found at most airports; consequently, they're the most common cause of bird strikes in New Zealand.
6. Poaka; Himantopus himantopus.
Photos (click on those above if you want a larger image):
1. Shed and creeper; Shannon.
2. Pukeko at Lindale; Horowhenua.
3. Spur winged plover at Kuku beach; Horowhenua.
4. Jeff Thomson's Holden; Te Papa, Wellington.
Photos and words © 2006 Pete McGregor