This Piece of Earth: A Life in My New Zealand Garden
Awa Press, $34.95,
Reading Harvey McQueen’s account of a year’s engagement with his garden has confirmed what I’ve thought for a long time: you have to be resolute and stubborn to be a gardener. One could say, too, that the green-fingered retreat to their gardens in search of illumination or consolation. And that gardeners are very territorial as well as proprietorial. It’s no wonder, then, that McQueen calls his book This Piece of Earth: A Life in My New Zealand Garden. Ignore “of”, “a” and “in”, and there’s room to seriously discuss the significance of every other word in his title.
Resolute and stubborn, but also tolerant, inquiring, industrious and patient, mostly. That’s the gardener in McQueen for, as he points out often, sometimes with amused exasperation, whether he likes it or not he has to share his piece of earth with both welcome and unwelcome visitors. By and large he accepts them all, native or introduced; tuis and blackbirds; waxeyes that “cull caterpillars”, hedgehogs …. And even frosts can be “good” to kill off pesky insects.
McQueen lives in Northland, a suburb of Wellington. He was born in the 1930s – a “Depression baby” – and brought up on a small farm at Okuti on Banks Peninsula. His father was thrown from a horse and killed in 1939. In 1946 his mother remarried, and she and her returned serviceman husband bought another farm in Okuti. McQueen’s accounts of episodes and people who enriched his childhood are scattered throughout the book. Many of his recollections are vivid, poignant, amusing; for instance, they had an ugly sow called Princess Grace who would feign sleep then jump up and scare ducks and geese. There was a good deal that was right about post-war New Zealand.
When living at Okuti, McQueen watched his grandparents sack up and barrow away sheep pellets that were the mainstay of “their magnificent vegetable and flower gardens”. This, surely, is where McQueen’s belief that gardens are meant to provide food for the table as well as pleasure for the eye comes from. McQueen coyly says that his “recipe instructions” are “a bit vague” because he’s a “haphazard cook” as well as a “haphazard gardener”. Bull; he shows he knows more than enough about both to act on instinct allied with knowledge.
“In the Victorian language of flowers, lilac represented memory,” he tells us. His text is full of such snippets. And I liked reading of the way his “resident tuis” repeatedly attacked his “black and white Canadian loon wind-sock”. Oh, who doesn’t detest a rival, real or not?
There are sections on McQueen’s career in education. In general he agreed with Picot’s 1988 report that summed up New Zealand education as “Good people, bad system”. Which was why McQueen was for David Lange and “Tomorrow’s Schools”. I think it can be argued that we still have a bad system and that “Tomorrow’s Schools” created a whole new set of problems. McQueen was an enthusiastic teacher who introduced more poetry in schools. Alas, one of the results of the strings of aberrance streaming through our secondary school system as a result of the so-called reforms post-Picot is that fewer students now are choosing to answer poetry questions. Even worse, teachers are being savaged to the point of exhaustion by stupid non-teaching requirements, ill-informed trustees and aggressive, anxious parents. Teachers have far less “freedom” than McQueen had when he last taught. Cruelty to teachers is one of the sad legacies of “Tomorrow’s Schools”. Perhaps McQueen alludes to that when he writes that over time he has decided that “the word ‘progress’ has been replaced by ‘change’.”
There’s something else. McQueen says that there were more gardeners decades ago than there are today, but that New Zealanders now are more environmentally aware. It has long struck me as odd that, given gardening’s appeal to so many here, we have been such bad stewards in this land. At least McQueen is savvy enough to see his gardening as “part of a small rebellion against the excesses of the consumer society”. How many gardeners are active in protest groups? Tilling our own gardens hasn’t stopped the destruction.
I would like McQueen to have discussed educational and environmental issues in more depth in order to throw more light on his role as a gardener and educationalist in New Zealand. Nevertheless, he has written an appealing book, and we can be grateful to him for raising those important issues. “All gardening is a compromise between the ideal and the practical,” he says. Much like life, one might add.
Brian Turner’s most recent poetry collection is Footfall.