From a work in progress
[Marin and his brother Ivan are living in a rough gumfield whare in the far north of New Zealand around 1900. This section opens with a letter from Marin to his sister.]
A strange country, I wrote to Drusilla, they say winter is almost over, yet it has not been cold, and although we arrived in autumn, I remember no leaves falling. We do not need coats, and the people born here have never seen snow. We are living in the Winterless North, they tell us. I miss the winter.
I think you would enjoy a magic trick we have learned. We bury good but cloudy pieces of gum beneath our fragrant campfires, and when the nuggets are unearthed again after some weeks, the heat has transformed them, and they are as transparent as glass.
I did not care to spend the evening in the whare so I went outside and smoked my pipe with Arthur. He offered me a chair made from a whale’s backbone, and when I asked how he came by such a piece of furniture he began to tell me about his past. He grew up on a whaling station, he said, and lived in a house on the beach. On the sand outside stood a great cauldron of whale oil, and sometimes his mother would make little balls of dough and drop them into the bubbling pot, and he would skim the cooked doughnuts as they bobbed to the surface like lifeboats. When his father drowned, Arthur went to sea.
“How old are you, Marin?” he asked, and I replied that I was twenty.
“I thought so,” he said. “A restless age.”
When he was twenty, he had been a sailor for three years and was working on a barque transporting kauri masts from Auckland to London for the English Admiralty. The cargo included cases of kauri gum that would fetch good prices from manufacturers of fire-kindlers and varnish and fine perfumes, he learned. And the cases themselves, made from heart kauri, had their buyers: according to shipboard rumour, many pieces in the grand houses of England – costly dressing tables, Scotch chests, wardrobes – were fashioned from packing-case planks. There was money in trees, and so, at age twenty, twenty years before I was born, Arthur left the sea behind. Since then he had earned a steady living in the gum-studded North, enough to pay for his food and clothes and a sip of whisky when he felt like it. He had worked in Sweetwater and in Spirits Bay, in Waipapakauri, Awanui and Katikati, in Riverhead and on the Coromandel Peninsula. He had even dug for gum on Great Barrier and Great Mercury Islands.
Arthur emptied his day’s findings into a pile then settled himself on a packing case, arranging his knees around the wooden stake fitted to one end. Against this he steadied the nuggets of gum as he scraped them clean, and in the fading light I imagined him playing a stringed instrument, the sound of the jack knife against the gum as rhythmic as waves. He told me about the early days in this part of the country, when bushmen found flows of solidified gum waiting for them in the crowns of felled kauri, a hundredweight or more per tree. And there had been a time, he said, when you couldn’t walk through the bush without stumbling on nuggets weighing two or three pounds, and all you had to do was pick them up like windfall apples. Sometimes, too, if you walked along the beach after a storm, you found gum worn smooth by the sea. He recalled one occasion when he collected a sack of nuggets from the sand; remnants of a fossil forest that lay beneath the waves. He had kept the largest piece and fashioned it into a ship, as a reminder of a time when the sea was land.
“Now they climb the trees to get to the prize,” he said. “They scale the trunks and pluck it from the forks of the branches. That’s what I’d be doing, if I had your youth and your strength.”
I thought of the kauris I had seen: smooth grey pillars, with the first limb often seventy or eighty feet up.
It was dangerous, of course, said Arthur. Perhaps I was not cut out for such recklessness. Perhaps my best chance in the bush would be to dig around the roots of a tree or a stump.
When I returned to the whare I told Ivan that I wanted to work on my own for a while, in the bush.
“That won’t be possible,” he said. “You are needed on the team.”
“Some of the New Zealanders have had a lot of luck in the bush,” I told him, lighting the fire for our tea. “More luck than we’ve had on the ranges.”
“We do not need luck, we need loyalty,” he replied. “We can find more gum working together.”
I did not relate to him what the other men thought of Dalmatian loyalty; that we were despised for our teamwork. They called us locusts, scavengers. It galled them that we could go over ground they had already worked alone and recover good quantities of gum.
“You are becoming more of a colonial every day,” said Ivan. He took a needle and began to mend a rent in a pair of my trousers. They were still wet from washing, and I listened to the thread passing through the cloth like slow breaths.
I left a little earlier than usual the next morning; the bush was an hour away. As I spread my camp-oven bread with butter and jam and wrapped it in newspaper, I scanned an article about a fire in an Auckland warehouse where nearly six hundred and fifty tons of gum were stored.
“Listen to this, Ivan,” I said, for he did not read the paper. “They are finding gum in the heart of Auckland city now.” And I retold the story in our language for him, explaining how the merchants, believing their highly flammable goods to be destroyed, sold the remains of the warehouse and the land on which it had stood. “But when the new owner cleared the site he found slabs of melted gum two feet thick and six feet long,” I said. “Great seams and reefs of it among the ruins. He recovered four hundred and fifty tons in all, and is now even wealthier than before.”
Ivan made no response, as if he had not understood me, or as if I had not spoken at all.
Three miles into the bush I found the stump of a felled kauri. I began to clear the bracken surrounding it, exposing roots that arched from the earth like black cats. Now and then the shriek of a weka broke the stillness, and above me I heard the clear calls of birds I could not see. When I stopped for a rest I planted my spade into the ground and settled on the massive stump. It was as large as my parents’ dinner table, and as I unwrapped my bread and jam I imagined a grand meal laid out in the bush. I ran my fingers across the rough, sticky surface. It reminded me of Arthur’s whalebone chair. It was uneven in places and not quite round, the leaner side indicating where the tree’s neighbours had cast centuries of shade. The thicker side showed some sap rot and borer where the bark had been stripped away, probably by lightning, but nothing had touched the heart; it was too hard. At the very centre I discovered a tiny split, no bigger than my thumbnail. A heartshake. It was a sign of a blow to the tree, an accident that had happened when it was a sapling. It did not affect the integrity of the timber, however, and to an untrained eye it would be unnoticeable.
I had a productive day, returning to the camp with almost a hundredweight of hard fossil-gum. Some of the little pieces I put aside for carving; I had a string of beads in mind for Drusilla, for I missed our sister, and I wanted to send her something of our life at the bottom of the world.
Ivan and the team had had another sparse day on the ranges. To cheer him up, I played my accordion and sang some songs from home, but he became even more sombre.
“I do not care for music tonight,” he said.
I put my accordion away and began to carve a bead from a hard nut of gum. I thought of the rash warehouse owners, who had sold their fortune for next to nothing, and who, for weeks following the fire, could smell burnt gum in the air.
Catherine Chidgey has been awarded the Katherine Mansfield Fellowship for 2001.