21 June 2016

Waiting for winter

Four days out from the winter solstice, the trees still hadn't finished dropping their leaves. Some were still far from it, smothered in yellow and russet, some even with a few green-tinged leaves, as if they knew mid-winter hadn't officially arrived so were hanging onto their leaves because, hey, it's still autumn. Officially they were wrong, of course — winter had begun two-and-a-half weeks ago — and they should have fallen into line with the other, season-compliant trees that had scattered most of their leaves on the damp ground like golden dandruff, but who doesn't like a rebel?

I'd wandered along the edge of the terrace, stopping to look out over the valley. The scene looked bleak and grim: the river mud-grey and deep enough to slide unbroken over the now-drowned rapids; the paddocks the dull blue-tinged green of a fading bruise; the bush dark. Even the poplars still clinging to their leaves offered little relief, needing sunlight to glow golden, and the heavy cloud had no intention of letting that happen. Nothing could even cast a shadow, and I almost wished to see the paper wasps, for no other reason than to be cheered by their bright yellow-and-black and the energy and grace of their slender bodies as they trailed their slender legs through the heavy air.

But the cold and damp had proved too much for them. If they'd even survived the recent heavy rain that had in all likelihood turned their paper nests into papier-mâché, they certainly weren't keen on working in this weather.
For three days the laundry had hung on the line beneath the verandah roof, slowly getting damper. I reasoned that if the socks and towels and the fleece and merino had been sucking moisture from the air, the air must be getting dryer, but that reasoning seemed neither logical nor comforting. Meanwhile, the laundry had also been absorbing the smoke drifting from next door's chimney, so my damp clothing now not only smelled damp but also smelled like creosote.

I carried on, skirting the fallen sycamore. Uprooted and cast onto its side by a storm a few years ago, it had somehow survived, a reminder that even when life skittles you, uproots you and bowls you over, not only is survival possible but you can become more interesting precisely because you survived. A standing sycamore can be a beautiful tree (notwithstanding that here in Aotearoa sycamores are often considered weeds), but a fallen sycamore that flushes with new leaves each spring and continues to flower and set its helicopter seeds is an inspiration — and it's beautiful, too, in its own damaged way.

I'd expected the chainsaw to come out and dismember the tree soon after the storm toppled it, but only one broken limb had been amputated and sawn into firewood-length logs, and even they, still littering the ground and rotting quietly among the grazed grasses and mouldering leaves, added a little character.

Damp from the recent rain muffled the soft rustle carpet of alder and sycamore leaves underfoot. A rabbit materialised a short distance away on the far side of the old road cutting, and while it watched me, I managed two photographs. A rabbit; the scattered yellow and brown leaves; the old fence with its rust-tarnished barbed wire and weathered battens; the indistinct blur of the paddock in front of my house: every element of that photograph had been introduced to New Zealand within the last couple of hundred years. Nothing obvious was native, yet I still loved the feeling it evoked.

Now, looking at it again, I wonder what would ruin it. The answer's clearer than I'd have guessed: a new, tight, fully functional fence in the background; a tidy, leafless, ryegrass-and-white-clover pasture; a white plastic electric fence standard. Anything modern and efficient. Anything giving the impression of neatness, of tidiness and efficiency, of human domination (and you can count out that old fence, whose days of dominating anything had long passed).

I wandered on, wondering why I dislike well-maintained, efficient farms without rabbits. I knew those places — places like the farm across the valley with its tree-less, lawn-like, weed-free, highly productive paddocks enclosed by professionally-strained netting deer fences — and they seemed so sterile they horrified me, but that was just another way of saying the same thing.

Maybe what I needed was the possibility of being surprised. I walked on, hoping a pheasant rooster might suddenly burst into the air from a patch of long grass in an explosion of wings and colour. It didn't, but it might have, and that, for the moment, was comfort enough.

1. The cloud broke in the afternoon and the sun dried the laundry. No rewash necessary.

1. Morning, late autumn, in the valley.
2. Asian paper wasp on another old fence at the edge of the terrace.
3. Rabbits along the old fence earlier in the year.

Photos and original text © 2016 Pete McGregor


Avus said...

A thoughtful meditation, Pete. I agree about the "rape of the land", with its agrochemicals, wire fences, etc.
Here in the UK we have an excellent organisation, The Countryside Restoration Trust (http://www.countrysiderestorationtrust.com/LarkRiseFarm2.php) which identifies suitable farms, buys them when possible and puts in tenant farmers to run them according to its ethos.
The above link provides a video which shows its work. A small but growing organisation and "it is better to light one small candle than to rage against the dark".

Roderick Robinson said...

Look, I'm with you on your earlier point: yes the world could use more horizontal trees, they offer more bangs for your buck when it comes to ground-cover. But this thing about tidiness sounds like an affectation. We are, after all, talking about NZ here, not the Home Counties. I accept that Canterbury Plains can appear somewhat manicured but the scale of many NZ farms surely overpowers tidiness, distance converting primness into yet another - almost natural - landscape feature.

Visiting Pom, you say (assuming New Zealanders use the word) and it is true that as well as gasping at the islands' repetitive beauty I also took secret delight in the way UK detail, notably concerning architecture, has travelled 11,000 miles to be moulded and modified into something far more fitting for the Southern Hemisphere. Also amused when slapped (very lightly) on the wrist after quite innocently raising the subject of corrugated roofs. "Classic NZ roofs," corrected Norm of Glenofen, Tauranga, one of our loveliest hosts in a very competitive field.

OK, I take your point about the living things that help compose the background. As I move about less I am heartened by the presence of even the most commonplace birds, which seem to give relevance to the artificial effects of our plotted plants. I like too the way blackbirds become "territorial" about parts of the garden we have created, chasing away anything they feel to be a threat. Our guardians.

The laundry that hung for three days, drying a bit, then wetting rather more; there is an expression of priorities there and the heart of a short story which I may write.

robin andrea said...

Ah winter there and summer here. Our earthly orbits do provoke such stories. Here we are celebrating the high sun and crazy long hours of daylight. The gardens full of veggies and flowers are in bloom everywhere. Our neighborhood, though, quite the display of grassy lawns and manicured spaces. We pulled the grass out right away when we moved in and have been planting perennial flowers. Wildlife and wildflowers make even a suburban street seem alive. Happy winter there.

pohanginapete said...

Avus, the CRT sounds like something that would certainly help look after New Zealand's deteriorating environment (the intensification of agriculture, particularly dairying) has been clearly linked with the deterioration of our waterways). However, I doubt it would get any traction under the current government. I don't want to start a political rant, but the case for the dairy industry's capture of government environmental policy has been made cogently by many experts, including economists.

Roderick, maybe you're right and I'm spoiled, living here. But to argue that most of New Zealand is still spectacular is to adopt the same argument used by Federated Farmers and other vested interests, who say our rivers are clean 'by world standards', the inference being that it's therefore OK to degrade them — presumably to the point where they fall in line with the rest of the world's rivers. That's like saying that because you're fit and healthy, it's OK to abandon exercise and eat junk food until you're about as unhealthy as the average punter.

I've seen this process — the gradual erosion of the very qualities that make Aotearoa so attractive — happening many times, not just during the change of ownership of the farm across the valley (and it does usually happen with a change of ownership, when the new, enthusiastic owners want to demonstrate their competence and efficiency by 'cleaning up' a supposedly run-down farm). In fact, many farms are apparently efficient only because they've offloaded much of the true cost of their operatiions (I'm talking about externalities like the cost of mitigating nitrogen run-off and greenhouse gases).

I strongly agree with you about the small, living things like birds, though. They're essential to me, and their scarcity in Almaty (as I mentioned in the previous post) left me feeling slightly uneasy there.

Robin, I'm delighted to hear you replaced the lawns with perennials — a much friendlier environment for most animals. Lawns, or their less manicured cousins, pastures, do offer important habitats for some animals (I'm thinking in particular of some of our birds here, like European blackbirds and thrushes), but at the cost of diversity. I admit I see lawn maintenance as something of a political act, too: a point made in very entertaining fashion by a colleague about a month ago.

Zhoen said...

Ah, well, you know how I am about this. Even in the city, I grew a little wild space.

pohanginapete said...

Zhoen, having seen the photographs of your garden, I have no doubt you understand the importance of creating interest and the potential for surprise. Your garden also makes another important point I overlooked in the post: namely, that creating that kind of interest can be deliberate and isn't necessarily a consequence of untidiness. Wildness and disarray are not the same.