Where I come from …

11 January 2023

… the hills are conceived
in the late evening’s afterglow
and grow slowly through the night

and they are there
wet and shining in the wondrous mornings.

Part of a poem written by renowned New Zealand poet Brian Turner (Elemental, Central Otago Poems. Random House New Zealand. 2012).

We have just visited his beloved Central Otago. His words and the images of his artist friend Grahame Sydney came wonderfully alive. And best of all, we came across him in the small town of Oturehua, population 30 – 40, where he lives. We were in the general store, itself a wonder, when in he came to buy his Otago Daily Times. Later the same day when I wandered along the road, Brian was in his garden, into which he invited me for a chat. He told me he was tackling the weeds by way of taking a break from other things, by which I assumed he meant writing poetry. In our brief conversation, I managed to mention how much I admired his work and that I had enjoyed hearing him speak at writers’ festivals. This wasn’t idle flattery – he is a spare, evocative wordsmith and I have long wanted to experience Central Otago as a result of reading his work.

The landscape, rolling hills and higher peaks, some bearing a little snow even in the height of summer, plains patterned by sun-bleached tussock grass and turquoise viper’s bugloss, and valleys enlivened by the ripple of the burns, was a dream come true. Brian says “It’s not picturesque, it’s essential, almost grand and it aches like the rhythms of truth”. The stories of the 1860s gold rush, teeming towns and overflowing taverns seem far-fetched in this sparsely populated expanse. But the Blue Lake at St Bathans, the result of vigorous sluicing for gold, and the Vulcan Hotel, where tourists follow in gold miners’ footsteps, drinking a pint and downing a feed, are there as proof.

Once in a while
you may come across a place
where everything
is as close to perfection
as you will ever need.

Fragility

30 September 2022

Readers of this blog will know that we live next door to a free-range chicken farm*. The chickens make uninhibited use of the garden around our house, which can be annoying, despite the occasional gift of eggs laid behind the garage. They scratch deep holes in the grass, they get into the vege garden given half a chance and when it rains, they shelter in our doorway, leaving noisome deposits all over the entrance. But in many ways, they are endearing with their beautiful plumage and their ditzy meanderings, and their fluffy, chirping chicks are adorable. We have had a mother hen and her brood in and out of our garden this spring. She started off with eight, which reduced to five in the first couple of days. These chicks have survived for a couple of weeks – every morning, we count the fluffy heads and are relieved when there are still five …

… till this morning when the mother hen and one of her chicks were flattened by a truck on the road directly outside our house. When I saw the feathers flying around and heard the remaining chicks, who will now not survive, cheeping frantically, I felt first sick and then sad. My thoughts since then have been overwhelmingly about the fragility, the uncertainty of life.

People who grow up on farms often say they are more realistic about life and death than others who are not confronted with it on a regular basis. After my sickening experience with the hen and her chick, I saw a herd of cows and their calves running into the paddock behind our house. They had just been let into this expanse of lush green grass and they all ran around joyfully for a while before putting their heads down to graze. Life on one side of the house and death on the road on the other.

If you have not experienced profound grief, it can be difficult to fully sympathise with someone who has. Though sad, it is normal to lose one’s grandparents and parents. However, those who lose their parents when they are children, or a long-lived and much-loved partner, or that worst of all losses, a child, suffer profound loss, which perhaps can only be fully understood by others who have experienced a similar loss. Queen Elizabeth memorably said that grief is the price we pay for love. It may be that, after losing someone we love deeply, we can eventually feel gratitude for having experienced the great love that engenders the overwhelming grief.

*Since writing this, we’ve moved from the farm into the city – perhaps fortuitous given the subject of this piece!

Just sometimes it feels worthwhile

I work in a support role for a trust dedicated to research into breast cancer. A large part of my work involves entering patient data into a national breast cancer register. This is an important research and policy-making tool.

Massive advances have been made in the last 20 years thanks to research, in which the participation of breast cancer patients is a vital component, even if they do not benefit directly. Death rates from breast cancer have halved. If the cancer is detected through screening (i.e. the cancer is found earlier when it is smaller and much less invasive), there is a 98% chance that the patient will still be alive in five years. Other improvements include less drastic surgical procedures, better drug treatments and improved quality of life for people living with breast cancer.

These are the things to bear in mind when entering the data of a patient who does not have good outcomes. I have to take a break when I’ve entered one too many patients who have presented with metastatic breast cancer and can only be offered palliative treatment.

But this week I entered the data of a patient whose experience made my heart lift. At 94, she presented with a self-detected lump, which turned out to be a breast cancer. The clinicians were reluctant to refer her for surgery immediately, given her age and other medical issues. One does not get to 94 without at least some complicating factors! However, after they’d done several further tests, they offered her an excision (much less drastic than a mastectomy). She made an excellent recovery and five years later, after annual check-ups and screening, is cancer-free and has been discharged from the breast care service. On leaving after her final follow-up, she left a donation for the trust at the reception desk. A good outcome indeed!

Hope …

… springs eternal, or so they say. It has been difficult to be hopeful during a Covid-19 Delta lockdown and then another vile terrorist attack in New Zealand on Friday. It is tempting to say, along with die-hard pessimists, that things are bad and getting worse. But on my walk today, I saw this – a pohutukawa tree about to burst into flower – and suddenly I felt hopeful. In New Zealand the red pohutukawa flower is synonymous with summer, sea and sand. So along with the perhaps misguided optimists, I look forward to freedom from lockdown, summer and the season of goodwill to all.

Peace amidst the chaos

Opito Bay (Coromandel, North Island, New Zealand)

Today in Washington DC, armed protestors stormed the Capitol and disrupted the normal business of their democratically elected Congress at the behest of the outgoing President.

There were 7,200 new coronavirus cases in Arizona.

1,041 people died from coronavirus in the UK.

Northern Ireland’s food supply chain was disrupted due to incorrect or absent Brexit-related documentation.

More than 50 pro-democracy figures, who have the best chance of winning legislative council seats in an upcoming election, were arrested in Hong Kong.

Te Waikoropupū Springs

Near the town of Takaka in Golden Bay (South Island of New Zealand) are the Te Waikoropupū Springs. Though we’ve visited Golden Bay before, we hadn’t seen these spectacular pools. They are very close to optically clear water, with visibility to 63 metres, and are surrounded by native bush with prolific bird life. Alerted by his distinctive call, we saw a grey warbler flitting around in foliage right beside the walkway – this is the closest we’ve been to this tiny elusive bird and it was thrilling. It is easy to see why this place has been a taonga (treasure) for Māori since they arrived in the area over 700 years ago. It is also wāhi tapu (held in high cultural and spiritual regard) so there is no contact with the water at all – you just look, listen and marvel.

Cable Bay

On a recent visit to the top of the South Island, we went to Cable Bay for the first time. Though it was the middle of a New Zealand winter, which is often grey and rainy, we were there on a gloriously clear day, as you can see in the photograph. As we edged our way along the narrow road to the bay, we came across a couple persuading a pair of cows into a paddock – apparently the cows were in disgrace because ‘they’d already munched their way through Grandma’s garden’. When we got to the bay and parked on the shingle, we noticed two more people bundled up against the cold wind, sitting on canvas chairs holding fishing rods. Then we put on our jackets, scarves and beanies and braved the elements ourselves, walking up the steep incline to read the information board. The bay was the site of New Zealand’s first overseas cable link – via Australia – and was opened in February 1876. It revolutionised the lives of settlers who could now get a message to their families in Europe in four days, instead of the six weeks it took a letter. The cable station operated till 1917, after which it was moved to the North Island, at Titahi Bay near Wellington. I’ve just checked the track details on the DOC website and noticed an alert – the track is closed for lambing. How much more Kiwi could it be? Cows, fishing, lambs and splendid isolation!

Freewheelin’

Bicycles for hire – Penang, Malaysia

We took up cycling during lock-down thanks to the gift of second-hand mountain bicycles by a friend. It was liberating to ride around mostly traffic-free country roads during those restricted weeks and it reminded me of the feeling of freedom a bicycle can bestow. It’s also true that you never forget how to ride a bike – I hadn’t ridden one for at least 40 years but had no problem at all, except for getting the hang of all those gears! We went for a ride this morning after a long break. And it seemed to me that the slogging up hills and the freewheeling down the other side was a metaphor for the ups and downs I’ve experienced recently. New Zealand has all but rid itself of the coronavirus and we’re at level 1, which is normal life but with closed borders. This has been cause for great satisfaction among the five million of us who live on these beautiful islands in the south Pacific. We’ve gone back to work and re-connected with family and friends – so good it feels like freewheeling down the hills on my bicycle, wind whistling past and sun on my face. But I’ve also experienced loss alongside family and friends – Jackie who lost Trevor, Simone and Ollie who lost Rachel, Rosanna who lost Chris and Jo who lost Jonathan. These sad losses have irrevocably changed lives and seem unbearable for those left behind. Lying awake in the long watches of the night thinking about them feels like slogging up an endless hill in the rain. It is almost always the first thing I think about when I wake in the early morning, wishing that sympathy could change anything for any of them.

As much sense as a chook

We live on a farm where there are plenty of free-range chickens, some of which wander into our garden. This is fine with us, especially if they lay us some eggs, which they do from time to time, and stay out of the vege garden. Today one of the hens was out on the road with her four little bundles of fluff. They were feasting off insects, oblivious to the danger from cars and trucks. It seems like a metaphor for those of us who rushed into the supermarkets as soon as the lock-down was announced and bought enough groceries in one day to feed 10 million New Zealanders, oblivious of the official announcements that the supermarkets will remain open and the food supply will be maintained. We need to be smarter than that! We have at least four weeks of lock-down ahead so we’ll need to pace ourselves and use our common sense. I’m happy to report that the hen and her chicks survived (by wandering back into the paddock beside our house) and so will we. Stay home and stay safe

Going green

For months we’ve relied on our indoor plants for greenery. It hasn’t rained properly for weeks and outside plants, trees and fields are dry and brown. But yesterday and today it has rained off and on continually and one can almost watch the paddocks going green. How welcome this is when one is isolated – all New Zealanders are now working from home unless they are in an essential business. All our indoor plants have new green shoots, which seems like a welcome act of optimism, and helps counter the grey skies and feelings of impending doom. Stay safe everyone and be kind to yourselves and others.