Saturday, December 5, 2009

With Ample Rainfall

A recent book, Crest to Crest, an anthology of Canterbury prose and poetry, has two pieces of my writing. The first is Uncle Charlie which was one of the first pieces I put on this blog. Here is the other - slightly longer in that the published piece was edited for reasons of space.

'With ample rainfall, the Banks Peninsula hillside soils a combination of wind-blown loess and weathered volcanic rock were fertile from the ash of the burnt bush and the rotting stumps as well as sheep and cattle dung. The river flats were formed from flood silt. Small one-unit farms, very dependent upon the wife's labour both in the household and on the farm, were indeed the norm, a conscious political decision of the Liberal Government of the 1890s. As the children grew their labour was put to use. Sheep and beef cattle grazed the hills, dairy cows the flats and lower heights; most farms a mixture of both. Mainly Romney Cross, the sheep provided fat lambs for the English market, with wool as a supplementary source of income. The beef cattle were either Hereford or Black Poll. The sheep and cattle farmers worked to nature's rhythms, tailing, dehorning, (both bloody and noisy events) shearing, drafting, bursts of hectic activity interspersed with maintenance tasks.

Dairy folk faced a harder life; tied to the cow-bails for nine months of the year. A continual source of disagreement amongst cockies was whether Friesian or Jersey were the best breed for milking, while the few herds of Shorthorn had their own devotees. Most of the milk went to the co-operative cheese factory, though a few farmers separated and sent the cream churns through to Christchurch by train. At the factory they met and yarned each morning as they delivered milk by truck or cart and loaded whey for their pigs. Unless they were working at the vats, (suppliers were rostered as part of the cheese co-op), they could take the day off to go over to Akaroa Harbour to put out the flounder net, join a working bee at the Church or school, replace fences or repair yards.

John, my father, farmed in Pigeon Bay. Shortly after World War 2 started and I turned five, he failed to arrive home on time for the hot midday meal. His back was broken in the fall from his horse. He lingered for a few days before dying. Except for Mum's distress, I remember little of the blurred events after that. Ever since then a woman's tears reduce me to helplessness. She and her two sons shifted back to live with Pop (her father) at Little River. Uncle Tom's old whey-eaten truck laden with our furniture stalled near the top of the Pigeon Bay Rd. Pop’s Oldsmobile was right behind. A rope was attached. Mum, Doug and I were left on the snow-covered bank watched by curious heifers as the rope took the strain. After towing the truck to the Summit Road. Pop came back to collect us. The writing of this memoir has proved a rescue operation - events long forgotten suddenly resurrecting vividly back into the mind. The day of John’s accident remains clear, but the day of his funeral is completely cauterised. Obviously there was little discussion about it. Granny Lee told me years later that Dick, who became my stepfather, came home from the service talking about the two poor fatherless boys but whether that was her myth or truth, I do not know. The event must have been traumatic to an imaginative child, an unexpected ambush of grief and loss. It welded a strong sense of insecurity on to me - an obvious grounding for a life in education, an occupation that attempts to bring some order out of the chaos.

If at school I learnt the 'three r's'; back on the farm I learnt other facts of life. One was the simple fact of killing animals for meat. All three men in my life killed the fortnightly mutton, as well as old sheep for dog tucker. They cracked the neck as they cut the beast's throat. Pop alerted me to the pig's shrill dying scream when a knife was struck through its heart. Mum beheaded chook, duck and goose with one quick decisive axe blow - a clean execution. She refused to let the beheaded birds flap round headless as several neighbours did. Men skinned the sheep and scalded the pig, women plucked the poultry - constants of life.

All three men managed large vegetable gardens. I helped, probably hindered, them as they planted and hoed. Each milked a house-cow. Although Pop had two separate cow-bails he often used to carry the three-legged stool out into the paddock. As soon as the small Jersey heard his call, udder swinging, she’d run to him. He would feed her hay, and sitting on the stool milk her. Every now and then he would squirt some milk straight from the teat into my or a dog's mouth. The pet Canadian goose, wings clipped to prevent it flying, waddling up to survey the scene once got the jet of milk aimed for me. Great hilarity. Thereafter the stupid bird expected this as one of the milking rituals.

It was not all idyllic - I also recollect Pop coming in from milking with his sou-wester and oilskin dripping wet and warming his hands before Mum's stove. He'd leave two large billies for us and go on over the road to Uncle Charlie’s wife Thora. One billy was for drinking milk (it was unpasteurised). The other Mum set for skimming. We had rich thick farm cream on porridge and pudding, and plenty left over for home-made butter. Mum gave her butter ration coupons to Thora who made shortbread for the two households. The dogs drank the skim milk. Pop kept a pig once, it also drank the skimmed milk but he hated killing it, he'd made such a pet of it. Childhood lore was that skim milk pork possessed more flavour than whey-fed.

Across the creek from our cottage was Pop's hay-paddock, full of red clover and drowsy bumblebees. Cutting created great excitement. Two big Clydesdales pulled around the cutter in ever decreasing circles. Anxiety dominated while the grass dried, Pop surveying the sky, fretting at the least sign of rain. Until it was stooked he worried. Before and after they were covered by the tarps it was great fun to slide down the stooks, no-one seemed to mind though we were warned about the dangers of pitch-forks. Before long a tractor replaced the horses and a baler the stooks. One crop got damp, so Pop had to keep shifting the bales around to let them cool. Haystacks and haybarns frequently caught on fire - spontaneous combustion people explained, it seemed one of life's wonders to me. Pop's survived, however. Shifting the hay meant mouse-hunts, great fun for boys and dogs, and a grandfather. The hay - winter food for horse and house cow, and insurance for cattle and sheep if there was snow, otherwise stock was left to take care of itself. Breeding ewes got first attention if a cold snap set in, they carried next year's income. Quite a number of Peninsula farmers had a form of winter transhumance, they drove their sheep to farms on the plains where they wintered over on turnips and lucerne. Dick, my stepfather, did this, but Pop didn't, his bottom farm countered his two in the heights.

Farm work was seasonal. - cattle being dehorned, calves castrated, lambs tailed, all bloody and noisy procedures. Fat lambs needed drafting - the frenzied call of lambs separated from their mothers is an omnipresent memory. Sheep with footrot needed to have hooves cleaned with bluestone. The way they winced suggests a painful process. Dipping was great fun. Pop possessed a tip-dip, a rare thing then. The sheep loaded, Pop pulled a lever and the pen tilted throwing the sheep into the foul-smelling dip, with a large splash. Occasionally one would balance precariously on the narrow ledge, Pop would use his stick to push them in. He’d duck their heads under to make sure all the ticks were killed. The chute gate opened, the sodden animals clambered out, the dip streaming off their wool, to shake themselves dry in the draining pens. The rams provided great fun, they hated the place. It took all the skill of Pop's dogs to get them up the ramp to the tilting pen. They would turn on the dogs, stamp their feet, "Back up", Pop would tell the dogs. Sometimes the rams charged, the dogs nimbly jumping over the rails out of the way. "Heel" Pop would say and Jill or King would go for the nose or ankle - the ram would hurry up the ramp, the dogs bouncing gleefully behind. Pop would pull the lever, the rams would splash into the dip, the dogs surveying over the edge, carnivorous mastery over lesser herbivores.

Once as Pop went to duck a sheep it swerved, he missed and fell in. Luckily I was there to pull up the gate to let him clamber out spluttering and choking, otherwise he could have drowned. When Granny berated him he said he always made sure he had someone else there when he dipped. “That daydreamer” I overheard.

Each night before school Mum made sandwiches for our lunch, mutton, jam or marmite. As we got older Doug and I took over this chore. Mum spoke longingly of oranges and pineapples, but despite the war there was plenty of seasonal fresh food. We called our meals breakfast, dinner and tea, eaten off the oil-clothed drop-leaf table. If guests came Mum put a cloth on. Breakfast in the winter was usually porridge, Creamota from the packets with Sergeant Dan on them, in the summer Kornies, "everybody's breakfast" the radio ads told us. Most meals consisted of mutton, either hot or cold, mutton soup all winter, fried chops often, neck stew. Always with mashed potato except for the Sunday roast. People ask if such a daily diet of mutton and spud wasn’t monotonous. Certainly at the time it did not seem so, it was what people ate. Uncle Tom killed a pig for Christmas and Easter, so pork became for me the symbol of celebration. Mum made brawn, chopping the cooked pigs-head apart with a sharp tomahawk. Pop always ate the trotters. When the young roosters got three-quarter grown it was axe time for them, Mum and Granny saving the feathers to stuff cushions. Sausages were a treat, whenever Pop or Mum went through to town, as was corn beef.

In late spring Uncle Tom's black-currant bushes would be laden, for a couple of days we couldn't use the bath, Mum would be making jelly, the juice oozing through the muslin bags hung over large basins. Other neighbours possessed gooseberry bushes. In autumn we would collect large field mushrooms in a bucket while during the summer we would harvest watercress from the creek margins. At school they told us to dig for victory. Pop and Mum did their share with their big vegetable patches. Each autumn Mum would plant lupin and each spring she would dig it in to add nitrogen to the soil. She planted three apple trees, granny smith, red delicious, cox's orange, lovely names.

When Mum married Dick we shifted to a farm at the top of Okuti valley on the east side of Little River. The house was large and old weatherboard with a verandah running along its western front, and the inevtiable red corrugated iron roof. Scattered behind it was a garage with a haybarn on top, store-sheds, an earth-floored stable and saddle room full of old harness and other paraphernalia not sold at the clearing sale, a fowl-house, a cowshed and a pig-sty. Beside it, the large orchard had pear and apple trees and a rampant raspberry patch. The first apple to ripen was an Irish Peach - a pile of tree-ripened fruit and a good book was boyhood bliss. The woolshed, sheepyards and dip were on the next ridge. The farm was well-watered, well-sheltered, stocked with 650 Romney cross ewes, a small Southdown pedigree flock (rams and ewes), some Hereford cattle, and a large flock of noisy geese. Several paddocks were full of bracken. One paddock which I christened Foxglove Knoll blazed with colour - I have never seen so many foxgloves in one place. The divide at the top looked down on French Farm on Akaroa Harbour - Dick had 150 acres over that side.

Mum says this was the best time. For that Dick must be given the credit - plus her own resilience and courage. She loved being out with him. The widowed woman blossomed again. I am pleased life treated her generously then - for Dick also died young.

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