Monday, December 3, 2012

Brown Shavers are nowhere near as evocative...

Rained off Project T.Sawyer this morning, instead I took my usual airport route across the city and disconcertingly stopped short in a nearby suburb to get some more hens, since the incumbents are getting on a bit and a couple of times recently I've had to buy eggs. These are Light Sussex, one of the world's oldest breeds, in England since the Roman conquest in AD 43. So they should know a thing or two about laying eggs, I hope. Sussex is one of the two counties that featured in the books of my favourite children's book author, Monica Edwards, and her love of the countryside infected me so intensely that I was determined to go to England as soon as I could:


...Though I lived in suburban Christchurch, meadows, streams and woods were the landscape of my childhood. The kowhai and cabbage trees in my own garden were less substantial than the oaks and elms under which the characters in my favourite books played out their adventures. I yearned to see badgers and foxes as they did, to jump into the harbour from the deck of a fishing smack, to spend a summer in an old stone Martello Tower.
But I was stuck in New Zealand at the bottom of the world, where nothing interesting ever happened. I grew up thinking I was missing out and, as soon as I could, I left. I went to England, where I lived in the countryside and rode horses through the fields and along the narrow lanes between high hedgerows, listening to robins singing in the hawthorn bushes. Christmases were cold and sparkly, and at the cosy pub along the road nearly everyone knew my name. The year was divided up by seasons and festivals, and I was enchanted to be part of it all.
There was something, though, that was the opposite of missing. I didn’t realise it until I took my English husband to explore the country I had come from, and we arrived in Queenstown. Of course we were both dazzled by the glamour of the lake and mountains; but it wasn’t until we started walking the Greenstone Track and got hands-on with the bush that I understood the value of emptiness. In England, wherever I went there were people, busily making their mark on the landscape, as they have done since prehistoric times.
In the Fiordland bush there was no-one, and nothing to show of people at all apart from the path we were following. Everything else was pristine: the fresh green ferns, the black-trunked beech trees, the snow-capped peaks peeping through them. For three days we followed the trail, sleeping in huts that had been helicoptered in, little oases of civilised comfort surrounded by untouched wilderness. Each morning we shrugged on our packs and set out into a day that felt truly new, every brow crested bringing a view that was ours alone.
And even when, on the third day, we spotted horses being ridden across the river flats, catching up with us from behind, the spell wasn’t broken. They were stockmen on their way to the Glenorchy Races, making a week-long cross-country trek to an event they looked forward to all year. It seemed gloriously rugged to us, a direct link to the olden days, and we were captivated.
So beguiled, in fact, that we went to the Races too, steaming up to the top of the lake on the Earnslaw with a good chunk of the Queenstown population. It was down-home entertainment of the very best sort: grandstands set up on utes and flat-bed trucks with sofas and tarp sunshades, the PTA sizzling sausages, kids and dogs everywhere, and of course the horses, numbers spray-painted on their rumps running forwards, and backwards too, dumping their riders or racing and bending with fierce concentration. It was chaotic and casual, there was both fooling about and intense rivalry, and everyone there was having fun.
It was a wonderful day, and as we chugged back again afterwards it was like being part of a family. There was singing round the piano while the sky turned saffron behind the mountains, and as we neared Queenstown an old man stood at the bow and played the bagpipes. It was real, it was ours and I missed it.
So I came back home again...

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