It is five years since my mother died, and i decided it was time for a pilgrimage of sorts. Her childhood had its difficulties. The place where she felt best was her aunt and uncle's farm near Heriot, in West Otago. Last week i made my way there.
i thought there would be nothing left of Heriot, that it would have emptied out with the urban drift and the drive to agribusiness. But i was wrong. There is still a street, and the old buildings such as the Bank of New Zealand still stand, now used as shearers' quarters. A transport company has its headquarters there. The land rolled out green and steers play-fought in the field next to the Margaret Fergusson Plunket rooms.
i visited Todd Cottage, the birthplace of the Todd industrial dynasty. The Todds are still a wealthy and influential family and owned transport companies and auto manufacturing. They renovated the cottage and let it to an old couple for a peppercorn rent. In return, they welcome Todd family members and employees who come looking for their roots from time to time, and even the occasional random tourist like me. The couple spoke highly of the Todds. They were known for equal opportunity employment and for educating their workers. No uber-capitalists in those days.
The old couple also remembered my great aunt, mostly for drinking them under the table. i had no idea. The area was dry during the war, when my mother visited them for her school holidays. she remembered the men driving to Rae's Junction, 20 kms away, and the women sitting and worrying about their return. She remembered dancing the Lancers and the Gay Gordons, and the movie nights. Back then each town took turns in hosting these events - Crookston, Kelso, Moa Flat - all gone now. There was rivalry between Kelso and Heriot. when one town got a street light the other one had to get one too. There was ferocious rugby rivalry, even more recently between Heriot and Tapanui, the main town in the district (pop. 500, about 15 kms away). They had to bury the hatchet when the two combined to make one team, because there were no longer enough players to go around. i wonder how they did that.
i was told that Tapanui people are very different from Heriot people, not like us at all, much less friendly. i spent two nights in Tapanui. It is a hard headed little town, and seems like a great place to buy farm implements. i walked in the long southern evening, and passed Tapanui's jeunesse doree hanging out in the playground, as they taunted each other and made out.
They say in West Otago that if you can see the Blue Mountains it is about to rain, and if you can't see them it is already raining.* i went walking in the Blue Mountains. i will say here i am not proud of my ancestors. They had an unequivocally positivist view of the bush - cut it down.Some of my ancestors owned a saw mill deep in the bush, and they had an almost native understanding of bush life and flora and fauna. But they still cut it down. i don't know how they would have viewed the idea of bush walking for pleasure. Simon Schama in his excellent Landscape and Memory talks about the development of the romantic view of nature. The Wordsworths almost started it, in the Lake Country, and they were considered a bit mad. By the end of the nineteenth century nature rambling was respectable at least and the English countryside was simply swarming with birdwatchers and butterfly collectors and amateur geologists and bright eyed members of the YMCA. It was a wonder any farming got done - no wonder they all emigrated. i still think my ancestors would have thought i was bourgeois.
For me it was a fairly technical walk. i am afraid i am used to boardwalks for the swampy bits and steps for the steep bits. This walk was more fun.It is a shaggy old forest, with a lot more messy ground cover than up north. The birdlife was a wonder. The sound of streamfall and birdsong. i ttried to contribute by whistling 'A walk in the Black Forest' which seemed appropriate, but the tuis were merely contemptuous.
The next day i drove out, and it was morning, and the mist was rising from the silver fields, and forming little gentle clouds among the trees, and drifting skywards. No drama. Good living.
* They say that everywhere. On the planet Zog someone is saying that if you can see the Needles of Artroggi'a it is about to precipitate Nurgle. And if you can't see them it is already Nurgling. Some things just have to be said.