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This Piece of Earth
A Life in my New Zealand Garden
By Harvey McQueen
Awa PressCopyright © 2004 Harvey McQueen
All rights reserved.
july & august
Hath seiz'd the wasteful king. O! what pity is it
That he hath not trimm'd and dress'd his land
As we his garden.
WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE King Richard the Second
A tui clucks and chortles overhead as I trim and dress my garden. Each winter, attracted first by the banksia tree next door, and then our later-flowering kowhai, he visits often, confidently fidgeting and flapping around until late spring. At least that has been his pattern for the last several years. Every now and then he whirrs across to settle at the top of our neighbours' sycamore tree. A blackbird pair considers that tree their territory, but if they don't clear off at his arrival he chases them away, to return and sit carolling his mastery. The gloss and sheen of his plumage is strikingly obvious in the leafless tree. He ignores the sparrows lower down – obviously a lesser breed.
My pleasure in the tui is the unpredictability of his appearance. That unpredictability, combined with his very presence, assists me in going positive into my old age. I'll enjoy his company while I can. It's haphazard, rather like my gardening. Of course there is no guarantee that he's always the same tui. But he seems to be, unless that raucous, guttural croak is a feature of all tui in our suburb.
From the wide ledge of the raised vegetable garden, our two cats also watch him with interest. They make those little deep-throat mewling noises they produce whenever they see a bird. Their twitching tails express their frustration. On the lawn there is no cover to stalk their prey. Thank goodness the tui's beyond their reach, and far too big for them to tackle. Not like last week when a fantail appeared, and they moved into hunting mode. Around here, fantails, like tui, are precious in their rarity, so I called the cats inside to the unexpected bonus of an impromptu meal. Then they contentedly settled down to sleep on the back of the front room sofa where they can see the street. I went back out to watch the bird's acrobatics as it snapped up little insects lured out by a wintry sun.
The sofa is the cats' favourite perch; they sit there secure and superior, watching people, dogs and cars go up and down outside. Across the road a townhouse is being built. The builder has two Cairn terriers. The cats watch intently the construction, and the ambling antics of the two small dogs. What goes on inside their little cat brains? Their names are William and Dorothy. We got them as kittens when we had just returned from a visit to the English Lake Country and the Wordsworths, brother and sister, were fresh in our minds. They are well-named. He consistently chatters and whines a lot, she is plump and placid, and they are devoted to one another. She purrs most of the time when she's awake, even when eating. He rarely purrs, is nervy but agile, an excellent mouser.
From this vantage point on the sofa they can oversee the front steps and the narrow little brick courtyard. Two large concrete urns, painted green like the front door, flank the steps. They have been there since the house was built. This winter I've put apricot-coloured polyanthus in them. The slugs love the first flowers, but a light sprinkling of pellets ends their sport. With constant deadheading the plants continue to flower, a cheerful entry to the house.
Lavender bushes line the steps. Even in mid-winter there are honey-bees at work on a mild day. On the north side of the steps jasmine twines through the lavender and up the wooden post and railing of the porch. On the south side the purple coral pea, or hardenbergia, is an even more vigorous riot of flowers, especially in the morning sun. When the house was painted I chopped it back severely. Anne was horrified. But it's a hardy Australian, and it bounced back so well I now prune it heavily every autumn and it joins the polyanthus in providing front-door cheer through the dreary winter days.
The city is Wellington, the suburb Northland, on the south-east slope of Tinakori Hill. It's named after Viscount Northland, killed in 1915 in World War 1. He was the son of the Earl of Ranfurly, who governed New Zealand from 1897 to 1904 and donated rugby'sfamous shield. The street is Farm Road, which tells its own story. During Ranfurly's tenure the land known as the Governor's Farm, which supplied the vice-regal Thorndon residence with vegetables and dairy produce, was subdivided into residential sections. Our house, built in 1904, is close to the street, just over the saddle. The front faces east, the living rooms north, the kitchen west. The service rooms and my study face south. Anne's study has French windows facing north, and a window looking out on to the back garden. Robin Hyde, journalist, novelist and poet, probably limped past the house on her way to her beloved bush and creek walks. Her parents' home was just around the corner. As a young woman Hyde had had a bad fall. Her leg was badly set and she lived with lameness and pain for the rest of her life, but still managed to become the first female war correspondent to report on China's war with Japan in 1939.
When this place in Farm Road came on the market, I fell in love with its garden. The word 'place' is interesting. It contains a much greater sense of belonging than 'section'. When I was a boy, Vanstone's place meant their farm and Stewart's place meant their township section. Pop's place was my grandfather's farm and house. Our place was our place. Now Anne's and my place is this house and garden. Although high in the Wellington hills, we have never had snow – although over the years there have been several dustings on the surrounding heights. I don't like snow: boyhood memories of assisting lambing in blizzards and thigh-deep drifts.
When we arrived here in October eleven years ago the garden was full of flowers, rhododendron, daffodil, clematis, kowhai, camellia, flowering cherry, honeysuckle, jasmine, bluebell, sparaxis and iris. We had often walked past the house and admired the front of it. We lived a few streets away, in a bigger house with a big section getting beyond my control and energy. We had talked of downsizing to a sensible modern house with a small section. Instead we settled for an older house, and a garden slightly larger than I had anticipated but still compact and manageable. It's really three small, carefully landscaped areas on different levels, paths and steps discreetly persuading the eye that much more space exists, and suggesting mystery around several corners.
The top lawn is sheltered but sunny, a difficult combination to strike in this windy city. It is surrounded by a low, scallop-shell-shaped brick wall. Between this lawn and the courtyard at the back of the house is an area I call the shrubbery. On the shrubbery's south side is a small, snug, sheltered lawn, enclosed by buildings and the hedge – honeysuckle corner.
In the front of the house there is a very narrow bricked courtyard, behind a low brick wall. Between that wall and the street there is a grass verge, with three silver birches. To the north there is an area of asphalt to park the car.
It's been a warm dry winter. The ground is not the sodden quagmire of previous years. Not until mid-July does the last leaf fall from the flowering cherry. Confused by the mild La Niña weather, the lilac leaves last just as long. We need a good frost. There was none last winter, and the summer was a bad season for insects, black spot and wilt.
A flock of wax-eyes calls frequently to give the shrubs a winter going over, cutting back the caterpillar population. Busy attractive birds, they especially like the kowhai and Judas trees, with their lichened boughs. A host of insects inhabits this small area. The wax-eyes' cleansing helps control their numbers. On a calm morning, dew-spangled cobwebs, old and new, hang everywhere, suggesting other predators at work. Pruning the shrubs – a winter chore – I often come across a cocoon. I don't know which are inhabited and which deserted, so if possible I leave them.
For about an hour the garden is abuzz with these little birds, some balancing on the thin twigs of the abutilon (the Chinese lanterns of childhood) as they seek nectar from the red bell-shaped flowers. The garden books tell me the abutilon should be pruned after it has finished flowering. The only problem is, ours flowers all year. Last year I took the secateurs to it in late July, cutting it back hard, and it was covered in flowers again two months later. When William turns up, the birds whirl away in a noisy flurry.
The bird life here has been a surprise. While the tui, fantail and wax-eye are visitors, a couple of blackbirds live somewhere near all the time. After a heavy rain they have a field-day on our lawn, the worms dazed by the downpour. The male regularly sits on our television aerial going through his repertoire. William caught him once. I heard this racket outside and looked through the window. There was the cat racing up next-door's path with a screaming blackbird in his mouth. I ran along the hall to head him off at the cat-flap. Grabbing him, I prised his jaws open and the bird flew off, minus a few tail feathers, to the aerial on the house next door, where it settled, chattering its alarm and anger. Half an hour later it was back on the grass verge out the front. William looked hurt, as if to say, 'Look, I know you are a lousy hunter, but you should know what to do with it when I bring you an offering.'
He always brings his prey inside, nearly always alive. Mice I'm pleased about, sparrows I tolerate, wax-eyes no. He eats the mice, usually after I act as executioner. We got the cats when they were young kittens and he never had lessons on dispatching his prey. In the case of the blackbird that's good news, but when it's a mouse let loose behind the dresser, or even worse a rat, I get irritated. Infantilisation is the penalty we pay for keeping pets.
Other winters a flock of travelling starlings gave the back lawn and the front grass verge a thorough going-over for grubs and worms. They haven't arrived this year. Maybe disease or poison have lessened their numbers, or maybe they have discovered new feeding grounds. Their absence has affected our lawn: we have a bad infestation of porina moth caterpillar. When I first saw the little casts of soil on the lawn I thought the worms were plentiful. I was wrong, and we now have three big bare patches. The caterpillar lives down in tunnels, so I'll have to re-sow the lawn.
A couple of magpies nest in some pines not far away, and they also like the verge. The parents instruct their youngsters on what to do and how. They add character to the street as they stride along. Dorothy sits on the inner windowsill explaining to whoever is interested that she really is big enough to catch them, but can't be bothered. Her squeaks of excitement don't fool me. Easy to be brave behind glass.
There are other birds – the odd thrush, chaffinch, goldfinch and yellow-finch, all handsome, especially the males. Once, just once, there was a flash of colour from a rosella in the silver birch trees on the verge, the first time I've ever seen one here. Occasionally a warbler calls, filling the air with his liquid notes. And there are always sparrows, lots of them, quarrelsome hooligans, squabbling and mating and generally amusing us. There haven't been as many as usual this winter. A virulent salmonella virus has spread throughout the country killing them off. I hope they bounce back.
Although July and August are the coldest months, the sun begins to rise a little earlier every day. The temperate climate means that on fine days I can work outside. It's the time I spread compost from the bins behind the shed, prune most of the shrubs and cut the north and south karaka hedges.
The first spring bulbs, crocuses and jonquils, are out, while freesias, ranunculi, daffodils and bluebells are nearly in flower. There is a promise of tulips in their pots. Outside the back door, pink rosemary is in full bloom, an attraction for the odd early bumble-bee. The indoor hyacinths are out, and the garden ones will be soon. I've tried to grow snowdrops, recalling hillsides covered with them in childhood, but our winter is just not hard enough. The warmer the climate, the less likely it is that bulbs from Eurasia will do well in permanent plantings. Wellington's relatively mild climate means crocuses and tulips are best planted with fresh bulbs each year, although daffodils and irises can be left in the ground.
Alongside the brick steps to the top lawn, with their tantalising glimpses of wider vistas, stands a milkweed or euphorbia. Its clumps of small, yellowy-green, cup-shaped flowers (they are really bracts, or modified leaves) contrast with the dark green of the leaves. A cut stem oozes a milky sap which is apparently poisonous – it always looks nasty – and I wear gloves when I cut it back from overhanging the steps. I don't like gloves. Somehow you lose the intimacy of handling the plant or the soil. But I've heard enough stories of the damage done by white-tailed spiders to think again. After the euphorbia stops flowering, its strangely sculptural leaves nicely break up the view.
This odd plant was already here when we arrived. It matches the pictures in our garden books of euphorbia robbiae, introduced into Europe in 1890 by a Mrs Mary Anne Robb of Hampshire, England. A keen plant collector, she went to a wedding in Turkey. Seeing this unusual plant, she got her guide to dig it up. As she had no other container, she placed it in her hatbox to take it home. What happened to her hats is not recorded. The plant's nickname is Mrs Robb's Bonnet.
Ever since mid-May I've been able to pick a weekly bunch of sweet-perfumed violets. The hybrid hebe, one mauve, the other white, join the native koromiko in winter bloom. These bushes grow in the shrubbery between the old barbecue and the top lawn, with a Rose of Sharon and a Judas tree, and rampant ivy. When we arrived this area had become overgrown with plants jostling for space. The arum lilies herald spring, while one lone white honesty has mistimed its season. A hellebore flowers in late winter. It just appeared where I heeled in some flag irises we had been given. Whether it grew from a seed or a fragment is a mystery.
The whole garden reflects the large amounts of sheep manure pellets I've spread on it. Boyhood conditioning shaped me to believe in sheep manure. Each winter I scrambled under the shearing shed with a rake to pull out the droppings for the adults to sack up and barrow away for their magnificent vegetable and flower gardens.
I grew up in Banks Peninsula where my Scottish, English and German forebears had settled in the nineteenth century, part of a worldwide European dispersal. The peninsula's hefty hills, steep valleys and small fertile flats were divided into small farms for grazing sheep and cattle. The ancient totara bush had been cleared by axe, saw and fire within a generation. Decaying stumps still stuck up through the cocksfoot grass, although during my youth increasingly fewer paddocks were shut up for the seed.
My grandparents all had magnificent gardens. My origins are the clues to my present behaviour. Mark, my poetry editor, comments that there is a similarity in subject matter with Ursula Bethell's: many of my poems, like hers, are based around my garden. Bethell, who is widely regarded as one of our first modern poets, wrote many poems based on her Rise Cottage garden on Christchurch's Cashmere hills.
* * *
There are some activities where I must concentrate wholly on the task in hand. You can't afford to wool-gather while weeding or cutting. Such concentration excludes the flow of anxieties, recollections, regrets, hopes, concerns and fantasies that normally clutter up the mind. But there are other times when I am pottering around and can easily and safely think about the past, present and future. At such times, memories flood in.
Five events dominated my childhood, two global, three personal. I was a Depression baby, born a week after Hitler announced the Reich would last a thousand years. The worldwide conflict he initiated was the backdrop to my early schooling. My father, John, thrown off his horse, was killed in 1939. My mother's father bought a small cottage for us – Mum, my younger brother Douglas and me – beside his farm in Little River. Pop, as we called him, was my male mentor in my formative years.
Excerpted from This Piece of Earth by Harvey McQueen. Copyright © 2004 Harvey McQueen. Excerpted by permission of Awa Press.
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