Out of Town: Writing from the New Zealand Countryside
ed John Gordon
ISBN 0 908704 95 X
An Australian friend of mine, an anthropologist, has a particular thing about “country”. From her studies with Aboriginal people, and the friendships that have come from helping them defend their lands against mining companies, she has developed a definition of it which starts with the idea that country, to use the philosopher’s term, is a nourishing terrain, a place that gives and receives life. It derives from country in Aboriginal English being a proper noun as well as a common noun. People talk about “Country” in the same way that they would talk about a person: they speak to Country, sing to Country, worry about Country, feel sorry for Country, and long for Country. They say that Country knows, hears, smells, takes notice, takes care, is sorry or happy. It is a living entity with a consciousness, a will toward life; with a yesterday, today and tomorrow.
This is not quite the country of John Gordon’s Out of Town: Writings from the New Zealand Countryside. Gordon’s country people “have a childhood, get a job and experience, take up a block of land, battle the odds in developing it, have a few encounters with recalcitrant animals, withstand the observations of others and, finally, realise that their ‘bit of dirt’ is not only theirs by title, but part of them”. They are, as the blurb says, the pioneers who cut scrub, drained swamps, sowed swedes and strangled tears (or “teats”, as the proof-reader left it saying).
John Gordon calls his collection “rural writing”. But “Writing from New Zealand’s Farms” would have been a more accurate subtitle. For Out of Town is far less about country than the farming of it by the harbingers of change: the settler farmers and their children. Its domain is where human activity controls nature, or has all the intentions of doing so. It ventures into the other country, where nature tends to control us, only as far as Frank Anthony’s cattle wander for winter feed into the supposedly off-limits forests of Egmont National Park or musterers’ dogs work sheep down out of tussocky high country gullies. Its emphasis is on the taking up and battling odds and encounters with recalcitrant beasts. It reminds me of books I first met, a generation ago, on the shelf of holiday literature at the lakeside bach of the dairying family I married into. Indeed many of its selections are from them.
Out of Town reminds us too of the stark evidence persisting at many sites of the battle against the odds – “the desolation which had once been a forest”, as Amelia Batistich puts it in “Roots” – that in the Latin word colonia farming and colonising have the same linguistic origin. That is not to disparage it. Passing Out of Town around some of the young, seasonal visitors to that same bach this summer, I was more than aware, in the passages read back to me, of a history being received; a history whose most precious quality was the first-person experience that the formal process of history-writing seems so determined to deny. So I will be keeping an eye on my copy.
Out of Town is pervaded by the past, but John Gordon prefers to call his anthology a collective memoir rather than a history. He allows the latter, however, in the prospect that it is as much “a preamble to a social history of rural New Zealand”. One though which is as unsustainable as it has been – dare I say it – sentimentalised.
This is a fine book, an imaginative gathering of fragments by a lover of rural New Zealand; one of those rare pictureless books about country and landscape in which you don’t ache for images because the writing, in most cases anyway, gives you the picture. A good book to leave around to watch others pick up, open, and not straight away put down. Its Achilles heel though is that very sentimentalising of country that has become faint memory, whose social context, political power, economics and ecology will never be with us again. As an intimate observer of rural New Zealand, conscious from his broadcasting days of the ever-outnumbering urban mob to whom the country encounter is from car windows only, John Gordon is not unaware of the risk a book of this kind brings. Some of the watchers from the cars are going to be entertained by the wry tales from country their parents could visit but which they can’t. Others in this day and age are more likely to be offended by the easy rapaciousness of it all: Frank Anthony’s notion of leafy national park forests as “winter feed for the herd” being a good example.
Out of Town begins with the colonial business of “Starting Out” and “Settling In” and proceeds to a final section headed “Belonging”. Belonging, as I understand it, is the sense of wanting to stay where you have settled, and as such is one of the “environmental values” in which Maori and Pakeha New Zealanders are actually beginning to have something in common concerning the land. One in which emotions overwhelm economics, in which “progress” can be genuinely, painfully regretted by thoughts of the true, native life of this country that the smoke clouds of colonial “burn- offs” took out over the Pacific with them. Belonging is a quality that I detect more and more in the folk I meet in my country work. But it is the one section heading of Out of Town that failed for me, simply because so few of the selections actually expressed it.
Nonetheless, Out of Town is packaged to appeal to people moving in the direction of belonging and who are aware that they are doing so; the only problem being, though, that so many of the landscapes of John Gordon’s selection, and affection, have been so violently rendered. In a nation getting used to looking again at history, the growing green constituency is no longer as easily humoured as Me and Gus’s dairy farming fraternity were when Frank Anthony penned his yarns in the 1930s. Notwithstanding the national prosperity that came from shifting across the world as much primary produce as our hills could yield, there is a pervading sense that the country of John Gordon’s regard is one of tragically diminished bounty.
John Gordon is ready for this from the outset. “Like it or not,” he says early into his introduction, “land clearing was the basis of New Zealand’s development for, in its wake, grew the meat, wool and dairy industries that have underwritten this country’s growth over some four or five generations”. Like it or not also, though, in the same brief span of time, countless acres of New Zealand hill country – the objective that so many of Out of Town’s subjects like Rewi Alley struggled to achieve: English pasture grasses thriving where native forest did – have vanished under new forests. With them – gone to town, Australia or wherever – are the country people at Out of Town’s heart. It is a point ironically made in the cover image – Dick Frizell’s Tarawera Rest Stop – of once-cleared hills now solidly back in scrub and bush.
Out of Town has all the appearances of another new book on that great New Zealand subject, the land. In the nature of things, its title and cover will draw readers like me who frequent bookshops, who tend to use words like “sustainable” and “environment” when they talk country, and to whom gorse- or manuka-covered hillsides in bloom mean quite the opposite of despair. But few who dream of a sustainable future want a bar any longer of the ways with land that are the subject of so many pieces in this collection.
Read at a time when our calendars say 2000 and not 1950, so many pieces seemed to me to have a jadedness, a sadness about them. Likewise the frailty of their compiler’s philosophical reach to the land as a domain of belonging and emotional, spiritual connection. It leaves Out of Town, in the end, more a collection of yarns than what I suspect the effort of juggling Baxter poems, Dan Davin essays and extracts from Witi Ihimaera’s first novel aimed at being. Format a book about the land around its settler history these days, and no matter how wry the humour, you take on a difficult task. Especially, it seems, if you depend on rural writing. The “crazy old Taranga” in Roderick Finlayson’s The Totara Tree who stays sitting up in her tree to the very end, while a Pakeha government inspector rails below, does her best to persuade us that there is more to country than the deforested farm or the pylons of progress. But the limb she is out on in Out of Town’s set of “Belonging” pieces is not simply that of her totara tree.
Geoff Park is the author of Nga Uruora: The Groves of Life and lives in Wellington.