Crossing the Plains: a journey in twelve notes
Southern motorway, 10.56 am, Saturday, August 28th
I spent part of last night in a Thai restaurant with Hamish Dewe, listening to him talk about his forthcoming visit to China, and about the corn seeds he is collecting for his many friends in the northern province of Dalian. "The Chinese asked me to bring them", he explained. “New Zealand seeds are better.” I suspect that Hamish enjoys collecting corn seeds because the ritual reminds him of a story about his favourite writer, Ezra Pound. When partisans liberated his adopted hometown of Rapallo near the end of Second World War, Pound apparently ran about filling his pockets with seeds, leaving his library and his literary papers to the mercy of the unit of American military police charged with investigating him. For all his chancy grip on sanity, Pound knew that he was likely to be deported from Italy, where he had lived through the war, writing increasingly incomprehensible poetry and making demented pro-Mussolini radio broadcasts to an America which now wanted to try him for treason. For Pound, seeds perhaps represented something like the essence of the place he loved and would soon have to leave. Words might have been misused and spoiled, but seeds retained their old qualities.
When Hamish had finished telling me about his seed-gathering, I tried to convince him to travel across the Hauraki Plains today, and help Skyler and me sift the dozen bulging antique shops of Paeroa, establishments which, with their randomly-assembled, frequently unsorted samples from the tacky, tragic, and forgettable parts of humanity's past, arguably resemble The Cantos, the epic poem Hamish's hero spent his last six decades composing, or failing to compose.
Hamish wasn't interested. "The Hauraki Plains" he announced, "is a dreary-looking place. A kingdom of ditches. I'd rather go to Mt Roskill on a Sunday. Even Shanghai would be preferable."
Highway 27, Mangatawhiri, 11.06 am
Hamish was, as usual, quite correct: the Hauraki Plains is one of the least visually interesting regions of New Zealand. The distant blue wall formed by the Kaimai and Coromandel Ranges give the eye of the eastward traveller some relief, as she crosses the flat country between Maramarua and Paeraoa, and the less spectacular peaks of the Hapuakohe and Hunua Ranges do the same for those heading west, but both sets of hills arguably only emphasise the dullness of the sodden dairy farms, scrubby swamps, and lead canals of the Plains.
The modern-day settlements of Hauraki struggle to endow themselves with some semblance of scenic and historic distinction. In towns like Ngatea, in the south of the region, and Morrinsville, on its northern fringe, well-advertised 'Heritage Trails' lead gullible tourists from barren public parks to unremarkable stands of exotic trees, and on to cursorily restored colonial cottages, functional, sub-modernist public buildings raised in the decades after World War Two, and more barren parks. The Firth of Thames, which swallows the dirty water from the canals and canal-like rivers of the plains, offers neither the curling waves nor the sprawling mangrove forests of more popular stretches of coast.
It can be argued that, for most of those who cross them, the Plains represent not a place, with its own identity and history, nor even an abstract space, but rather a unit of time. They are the forty-five minutes it takes to drive from the edge of the Coromandel to Auckland's southern motorway, or from Auckland's southern motorway to the edge of the Coromandel. The Plains are the length of the Finn Brothers album you bought at the Bombay service station, allowing for replays of a couple of your favourite tracks, or the length of an argument about the latest All Blacks line-up, or the time it takes to eat and complain tediously about the microwaved pie you picked up with the CD.
What would happen, though, if time were converted to space, as your spotless SUV farted to a halt beside an obscure ditch, or a smelly sileage heap, or an amused cow, and you had to climb bravely out of your craft, and explore the strange, banal terrain you had crossed so often? What if you were heading back to the city late on a Labour weekend Monday, doing a tonne on highway two, wishing you hadn't had the last vodka at the sports bar in Pauanui, looking for the sickly green lights of a BP station on the low dark horizon, craving a microwaved pie to take care of the munchies, and a coffee or Diet Coke to deal with the fatigue, when you thought you saw a cow, or one of the lumps of thick fog that drift from the Firth across the plains all night, and floored the brake, and were thrown halfway down the Pouarua Canal?
Highway 27, exact location unidentified, 11.13 am
Sometime in the early 1990s the botanist and prose poet Geoff Park pulled off the road between the Coromandel and the southern motorway, and launched a kayak on one of the Hauraki Plains' many well-disciplined rivers. Park was drawn to this region by a paradox. As he notes in his masterpiece, Nga Uruora, the Plains comprise at once the most artificial and the most authentic rural landscape in New Zealand. The forests of one-hundred-and-fifty foot high kahikatea which had greeted Cook's crewmen, as they made their cautious empirical way up the Piako River in a rowboat disgorged by the Endeavour, were razed efficiently, and the swamps which had fed the forests were drained like wounds, as an intricately symmetrical network of pumphouses and canals was put to work. The great swampy forest of kahikatea became the Hauraki Plains.
As he made his own difficult way up a tributary of the Waihou, hacking at overhanging ragwort and underwater weeds with his oar, and steering carefully around cow patties that floated downstream like ducks, Park realised that the only autochthonous species left in this strange environment was the eel, which had hidden itself in the mud deep beneath his craft.
The human as well as the natural history of the Plains has been elided. Park discovered that the ancient inhabitants of the region, who had used millions of seashells to raise islands in the midst of the swamp, and had strung the Waihou and its sister river the Piako with hundreds of eel and lamprey traps, were treated as little more than myths by the Pakeha farmers of the '90s. The 'towns' which Cook had described had disappeared, along with the swamp that was the resource base and highway of Hauraki iwi like Ngati Maru and Ngati Tamatera.
In his book Nga Tohuwhenua Mai te Rangi: a New Zealand Archaeology in Aerial Photos, Kevin Jones offers, after an interval of more than one hundred years, glimpses of some of the great kainga-pa of the Plains. Cook included the Waihou River kainga-pa Orurangi and Paterangi in his list of 'towns', but when the river changed course in the early nineteenth century these storied settlements were abandoned. The draining of swamps and establishment of dairy farms, complete with fencelines, sheds, machinery dumps, and cattle races, made Orurangi and Paterangi invisible on the ground, but Jones found that, from the lofty historical vantage point of three thousand feet, the fragile remnants of great earth walls and ditches could be observed amongst the fences and sheds, tucked inside bends of a long-dry river channel.
Geoff Park had a different introduction to the secrets of the Plains: walking across yet another sodden paddock with an archaeologist, and asking again about the location of a prehistoric site, he was surprised and delighted to see his companion kick the green earth vigorously, so that a swarm of broken sheels - pipi, cockle, and mussel shells, gathered at the great sea-quarry along the coast at Whakatiwai, and piled up to make a dry place to stand amidst the great swamp - flew into the air. The archaeological sites of the Plains are as ubiquitous as they are unspectacular.
Near the Red Fox Tavern, 11.26 am
Geoff Park was both disgusted and fascinated by the Plains which replaced the great forested swamp Cook's men had explored. The Plains might be the most altered, the least autochthonous, environment in the country, but does this not also make them, Park asked, the purest example of that manufactured entity known as New Zealand? Nga Uruora wonders whether the settler-farmers' experiment will prove successful, when measured in the sort of timespan used to judge ecosystems. As the natural fertility bestowed upon the soils of the Plains by the departing kahikatea forest a century ago is replaced by doses of the medicines we call fertilisers and pesticides, can the farms of the region remain viable, or will they go the way of the marginal blocks of the East Coast, whose owners eventually substituted gorse and ragwort for cows, or the steep, eroding upper Whanganui estates which were awarded to veterans of the Great War by a sadistic government?
Global warming offers a further threat to the Plains. Scientists have predicted that rising sea levels and increasingly incontinent skies could turn other large areas of drained swamp - the Cambridgeshire Fens, for example, and some of the basin of the Mekong River - into inland seas. In spite of the labours of canals and pumphouses, the Plains already suffer from floods so regular they might almost be considered ritual punishments. Are the Plains permanent, or is the new order at risk of being replaced by an old disorder as shallowly hidden as the midden Park's archaeologist disturbed with his swinging boot?
Maramarua, 11.34 am
The sky was blue an hour ago, but now a couple of raindrops cling like tiny bugs to the windscreen of our vehicle, as we pass the Maramarua Golf Course. A confession: whenever I am travelling across the Plains and a couple of raindrops cling to the windscreen of my vehicle, I wonder hopefully whether a storm might be gathering - a storm which will deserve that almost-exhausted adjective apocalyptic, a storm strong and implacable enough to burst the banks of canals and restore the region's rivers to their rightful size and speed, a storm which will carry houses down like ships to a bilious sea...
Crossing the Hapuakohes, 11.49 pm
Just east of Maramarua, on the edge of the Plains, the most northerly of the modest range of hills known collectively as the Hapuakohes has been quarried into an orange-red ridge. Last night, at the Thai restaurant in Kumeu, I unfolded a geological map of New Zealand I had just picked up from Jason's Books for ten cents. Hamish is opposed, like all good poets, to cliched representations of the landscape, and he was delighted by the strange colours - deep, intestinal red, leprous yellows, dull pinks - that covered the plains and mountain ranges to which more familiar maps award shades of green and grey.
It should not be thought that a geological map is in any way unrealistic. To look at a geological map is to perform an autopsy on a landscape - to scrape off the skin that is so familiar, and so misleading, and uncover the oddly-coloured organs and muscles which have always existed under that skin. Mimesis is not thwarted; it merely operates at a deeper level.
Cafe break, 12.01 pm
We stop at the Native Tree Company, a half-acre nursery and a cafe on the Plains side of the Hapuakohes. I stroll down a shingle path between potted plants, wondering whether this fragment of autochtonous vegeation is intended by its cheery elderly owners as a sort of liberated zone, a base from which the dairy wastlands that it borders might be reconquered, one shrub at a time. One pot offers pukapuka, the small tree from the far north which was christened, on account of its large flat leaves, with the Maori word for book. Horoeka, with their leaves the shape of helicopter rotors, cluster nearby. I can't hear any birds, but carved, carefully painted pukeko can be seen amidst the potted plants, stalking invisible lizards and worms. Seeds are for sale in the café, along with homebaked muffins.
The civilising of the Hauraki Plains was a typical feat of fin de siecle Pakeha capitalism. Unable to bear the cost of digging twenty-foot-deep canals, erecting storm-proof pumphouses, and dynamiting a clear passage through the kahikatea stumps and eel traps of the Waihou and Piako, would-be farmers and their erratic friends, property speculators, prevailed upon the state for assistance. I unfold the Herald and note the National government's intention to bail out the capitalist clients of South Canterbury Finance, as well as the new dairy farmers of the south who trusted the first returns from their unsustainable blocks to Alan Hubbard.
Near Torehape, 12.39 pm
We pass a lone kahikatea. The one botanist I have enjoyed a longstanding friendship with, the erudite and peripatetic Sebastien Bano, is an obsessive seed collector. I remember watching Sebastien ignore a large sign that read NO TRESPASSING, shimmy up the sheer trunk of the nikau that decorated the front lawn of an Epsom mansion, and rip free the palm's little round jewels. I like to imagine that whenever Geoff Park happened upon a miraculous lone kahikatea on the Plains he seized a few seeds and slipped them into his pocket, so that the miracle could be repeated, authenticated.
Torehape East, 12.46 pm
We turn down Torehape East Rd, which runs in a determinedly straight line right across the Plains, through the large reserve of peaty swamp which divides dairy farms from one another. The muddy farms and the rusty swamp-scrub are the same dull colour as the water which sits in the canal beside the road. The only consolation is the sky, which has suddenly become vast and fast-flowing, as a wind blows in off the Firth. Why hasn't the big sky and bright, seaborne light of the Plains inspired a clique of painters, in the way that the lowlands of Holland and East Anglia and Taranaki have? Who is the Michael Smither of Ngatea, the Constable of Awaiti?
Perhaps the South Islander John Collie can be considered an honourary artist of the Plains. In 2003 John Collie exhibited a series of photographs at Canterbury Museum under the title Life Blood. Collie's images represent New Zealand not as the lush, vertiginious place found in tourist posters and brochures, but as a desert created and sustained by intensive dairy and sheep farming. In Collie's colourless, carefully edited photographs, stock die and decompose on plains and low hills which are covered in grass and yet seem, with their absence of water, trees, and healthy animals, hopelessly barren.
Collie's photos should be displayed in the Information Centre at Matamata alongside the posters promoting Hobbiton, the village Peter Jackson constructed nearby for his film adaption of Tolkien's Lord of the Rings. With its setting in green pleasant fields and its stout cheery peasant folk, Hobbiton exemplified, for many viewers of Rings, a fantasy of preindustrial English life. The irony is that Tolkien's dream of a wholesome, contented English past was projected by Jackson onto one of the most radically altered rural environments in the world, an environment denuded of forest, serviced continually by canals and pumphouses, and regularly dosed with all manner of fertilisers and pesticides.
Beside a canal/Mt Te Aroha summit, 12.56 pm/September, 1919
We stop where a canal makes a boundary between swamp and paddock. A pumphouse toils silently beside the water, which is comfortably contained by a deep ditch. A couple of eels lie on the reedy canal-bottom like long slimy turds. In the east I can see Mt Te Aroha, where the teenaged Frank Sargeson liked to spend his weekends. The journey up the mountain begins on the gravel path that dawdles through the ornamental garden planted in the park at the southern end of the main street of the town of Te Aroha, then turns into a strenuous bush walk, punctuated by pauses at well-sited lookout points, before deteriorating into a scramble over the sub-alpine terrain where, gulping blue spring air and exulting in a view that reduced his hated hometown of Hamilton to a sliver of gravel beside the distant Waikato, the young Sargeson broke into a vigorous, slightly awkward 'pagan dance' designed to celebrate what he called 'the pure life of the senses'.
Kerepehi, 1.12 pm
With its camelias flowering and crumbling in front yards and its streets of mature trees, Kerepehi feels like an oasis in the middle of the Plains. On the far side of the little town we reach the Waihou, which is running higher and muddier than normal. As the road turns south, toward Paeroa, herds of kahikatea can be glimpsed in the middle distance, moving slowly through the light rain, as our windscreen mists and refocuses. A decade or so ago Environment Waikato began to identify and fortfify the 'kahikatea islands' which had survived, amidst the sea of the region's dairy farms, in the hope of protecting them from browsing cattle and encouraging back epiphtyes, shrubs, and birds. The largest piece of the kahikatea archipelago is Yarndley's Bush, a twenty-acre reserve near Te Awamutu as gloomily magnificent as the inside of a derelict Gothic cathedral.
When we reach Paeroa I follow Skyler into a large antique shop, but we are the only patrons, and the exhibits in this chaotic museum - a cracked cutlery set commemorating a forgotten minor royal, souvenir egg cups from South Island hydro towns, rare paramilitary gear manufactured in McArthur's Japan - quickly begin to seem oppressive rather than charming, an impediment rather than an aid to historical understanding.
I give up on the antiques, and head for the Criterion, a vaguely art deco pub which opened in the 1920s, at about the time TS Eliot launched a literary journal of the same name dedicated to saving Western civilisation. The place looks closed, so I duck into a nearby boozer with the curious name Fathers. I am sitting near the corner of the bar with my Waikato Draught when a voice behind me shrieks "SHRAAAAAAGH". I turn, spilling most of what remains of my pint, and come to face to face with a large albino parrot. The colourless feathers bristle, and the pink eyes bulge.
A punter wanders over and smiles at the creature. "Hello mate. Polly wanna cracker. Polly wanna cracker?"
"Polly doesn't want a cracker?"
"Can't you speak mate?"
A man with the white, carefully groomed moustache of a retired cop strides out from the shadows behind the bar and looks past me at the parrot, whose cage is listing dangerously.
"Jasper. Jasper, shut up."
"Shut the fuck up Jasper."
I finish my beer and order another.