Monday, November 28, 2005

I Wouldn't Normally Do this But..

feel compelled to comment on recent pieces by two of New Zealand's "talkback radio in print" newspaper columnists, Rosemary McLeod and Joe Bennett.

Ok, so Bennett is not as bad as all that. It's just that you wonder why his rather banal whimsical musings should get published in a regular column, rather than anybody else's.

On this occasion, however, he makes some pertinent observations about how gardening acts as an outlet for the sublimated desire for order, power and the ruthless destruction of the Other.

Even those who have no experience or competence at the nurturing aspect of creating a garden have found themselves caught up in the manichean struggle which is weeding. Bennett's description of becoming intoxicated with slashing, cutting, tearing and uprooting exactly matches that of Simon Doherty, Mark Johnstone and I when we had to clear up the back garden before moving out of our flat in Church Square, Christchurch.

Amidst the mowing, cutting and digging, we got carried away, inspired by our discovery of what appeared to be a "lost" little brick patio behind the vegetable patch. Determined to bring civilization to the jungle, we ended up doing far more than was really necessary. As Simon Doherty said sheepishly "It was kind of like drivign back the heathen hordes".

McLeod is rather harder to find common ground with. Normally I would dig a "bitter and twisted" attitude, as it's one I tend to drag around too (friends have told me I'm well balanced--a chip on both shoulders). But if you're going to do b&t, it needs to be served with a side of humour, or at least a dash of self-deprecation--i.e. "look, I may be bitter and twisted, but...". Also, if you're going to do ad hominem, it's fair game to attack someone's pomposity, but not their weakness. Mcleod mostly ignores these rules--she simply serves b&t on the rocks.

Her most recent column also pronounces on matters of flora, in this case the planned regeneration of New Zealand native plants. Could this be rampant political correctness? You bet, says Rosemary. It's a conspiracy of "zealots":

"In Wellington they've taken over, like some rampant weed, dooming us to a future of khaki.

"We're supposed to be in ideological raptures about it, because it's the "natural" colour of New Zealand bush, and it goes with the organised tundra that currently passes for landscape gardening. Chuck a few rocks about, sprinkle with gravel, poke in a spot of some foliage resembling overgrown underarm hair, and wait for the passing dogs to bless it. Exquisite.

"The Tinakori Hills have always been one of my favourite vistas in this town, wonderfully ink-green and solid-seeming; beautiful on cold and misty mornings, when they're like a backdrop to some Grimms fairy-tale. But they're covered in pine, and pine is a foreign, and therefore bad, thing.

"Yes, the huge trees there have reached the end of their natural life, many of them, and there's an excuse to chainsaw. But the pines are being replaced with natives, khaki and sludgy green, and that dark visual drama is going for ever.

"Something like it will happen on Mount Victoria, too, before long. The giant eucalypts must already offend the taste fascists, and the very hills here have to be political. "

I guess the "foliage resembling overgrown underarm hair" is an implication that the zealots are probably also radical feminists?

In any case, apart from her rather subtle distinction between "ink-green" (good) and "khaki, sludgy green" (bad), McLeod has neglected to consult with reality. Here is what is actually happening on Tinakori Hill (which in misty or rainy weather has always made me feel like I'm in Twin Peaks).

Many of the pines were not only reaching the end of their natural life but were severely damaged by the series of extreme storms which have hit Wellington over the last couple of years, most recently in spring 2004. Some of the pines were felled by the storms, while others were unstable.

These have now been cut down, sawn up, and were lifted out by helicopter a couple of months ago. The trees that will go in their place will be southern rata. This is a cousin of the pohutukawa and, like that tree, produces beautiful red flowers in summer. Anyone who has seen them at this time of the year in one of the places where they grow wild, such as the Otira gorge area of the West Coast, will know that they produce spectacular splashes of vibrant colour spread across the hillside. Unlike the pohutukawa, which is introduced from futher north, they also grow naturally in Wellington.

If by any chance I am living here when the rata reach maturity, the prospect of them flowering in summer will be something I will look forward to, and its occurrence will brighten up my life. A reaction I am certain is entirely unpolitical.

McLeod goes on to mention the lupins in Central Otago,which she says are also under threat from the plant fascists. I'm also rather a fan of lupins--quite apart from their natural attributes, they were a cult favourite of Matt Kean, Paul Rickerby and I because of their link with Monty Python's Dennis Moore sketch ("your lupins or your life!"); driving down to Central during summer holidays we stopped the car and took photos of ourselves with the lupins.

I don't know anything about the situation she mentions, so can't really comment. But given her total misrepresentation of the Tinakori Hill case, I suspect that the lupins, along with the other ubiquitous and loveable introduced flora of the South Island drylands such as thyme and wild briar, probably aren't in danger of eradication.

In linking the preservation of indigenous flora with attitudes to immigration, Mcleod again misses the point. Protecting something unique doesn't imply a value judgement that it is superior, rather the reality that it doesn't exist anywhere else and if you don't preserve it, it will be lost forever.

Worked up into a lather by her straw man fascist greenies, she writes:
"...this country has a vast hinterland of bush, while we behave as if we've destroyed everything and must panic. Does no-one ever drive out there? Is that the problem? Don't we know what this country is really like?"

Her flippancy here suggests that perhaps she doesn't understand quite how comprehensively this country has been trashed--which is something I've only start to become aware of recently. Actually, people who aren't well-to-do enough to get well into the back country probably won't have much of an idea "what the country is really like". And even those who do won't see the bits that are gone forever. Apparently the Horowhenua used to be covered in lowland warm termperate forest. Today, not a jot remains in its natural setting.

The southern half of the North Island copped it particularly severly. In the race to slash and burn to make room for the all-important cloven-hooved animals, not a lot was spared. Wander into the hills around Wellington--mostly steep, unproductive land--and what you find is generally windswept grass, scrub and gorse. Taking the back roads between New Plymouth and Taumarunui, you pass through a huge, desolate area with nothing but grey shrubs, land in the first, ugly stages of regeneration. Here the volcanic soil was too acidic for pasture--but that realization was too late to save the forest.

Well before you get into value judgements about indigenous vs. introduced plants, we're due for rebuilding some of what was destroyed. In their "driving back the healthen hordes" approach to gardening, our forerunners did rather too good a job.


Susan said...

The rata sounds fantastic and I can't comment on the Tinakori Hills issue. However, Rosemary McLeod has a valid point, even if she isn't very well balanced about it. It's quite true that zealous environmental types want to eradicate the lupins in Central Otago - a ridiculous notion as they are hardly replacing natural forest there. It would be tussock, matagouri and the like in its natural state I guess, and that is hardly in danger of eradication either. The lupins grow in dry shingle river beds and have lifted the spirits of hundreds of thousands of people. I for one would be devastated to see them go - I suspect it would be pretty difficult anyway. The same thing has been suggested for the willows along the rivers in Christchurch because they are not natives. This is also ridiculous -it's a city now, for goodness sake. We're not going to regenerate native forest along the banks of the Avon and Heathcote rivers in the Christchurch suburbs. Unfortunately people with views right out on the end of the spectrum one way or the other tend to get credence to a far great extent in New Zealand than in countries with greater critical mass. And this doesn't just apply to natural vegetation. Look what happens in education - to take one example.

soph said...

As regards the Christchurch river banks, I was under the impression that much of the work being done at the moment (replacing older willows in some places with native plants) is spurred by an effort to maintain a healthy waterway - I could have this wrong however.
Rosemary McLeod has always got right up my nose. She seems to feel that voicing some of the ill-informed and often bigoted attitudes held by (probably) quite a few New Zealanders is a brave and worthy cause...even when she really doesn't have any idea what she is talking about and often confuses several issues in the same column. I always imagine the reader (Outraged of Fendalton, perhaps) getting as far as the first paragraph, heartily agreeing, thinking it was about time someone said whatever it was and stopped being so PC and then going and making a cup of tea without reading any more.
Wish I could think of some good examples.

Simon Bidwell said...

Well, I did a little poking around, and in respect to the lupins I found this report form DOC,which had the following to say:
"Native wrybill plover, banded dotterel and black stilt
are specialised users of braided riverbeds. Brushweeds
such as broom and Russell lupin destroy the open
nesting and feeding areas in these riverbeds and provide
cover for introduced predators."

So there's at least a prima facie case for their actions beyond a simple "introduced is bad" eco-facism.

Many of the lupins which you see driving though inland Canterbury and Otago grow by the roadside, and I imagine would be unaffected by concerns about native birds.

Some digging around the Christchurch City Council websites suggests that the "willows" which are slated for removal are in fact grey willows. The grey willow, which is classed as a noxious weed, is not to be confused with the iconic weeping willows which grace the cityside stretches of the Avon and Heathcote rivers. It looks like this. As Sophia says, objections to it seem to be related to the health of the waterways.