Thursday, April 06, 2006

Garth George: Eyes and ears opened to wonders of natural world

Deborah Coddington's piece in the Herald on Sunday about the widening divide between urban and rural New Zealand struck an immediate chord with me. It was brought home to me powerfully just before Christmas when I flew down to Golden Bay to spend a week with my daughter.

She is the partner of a farmer who is into dairying in a big way - as was his father and grandfather before him - and lives in a home built on a hill overlooking hundreds of hectares of magnificent pasture, much of which has over decades been reclaimed from scrubby bush.

The valley in which this highly productive farm lies is surrounded by brooding hills covered in dense and lovely native forest, but in which far too many introduced pines give offence to the eye. (Where's the Department of Conservation when you need it?)

I hadn't been there more than a day before I began to feel refreshed, to shuck off the cares of modern city life and instinctively to take on the tranquillity about me as a protective cloak.

I say instinctively, because there was a time when as a child, a youth and a young man I availed myself of the liberating restfulness of such rural serenity.

But oddly enough it was in leafing through a multiplicity of farming journals - some of which I used to write for - that brought home to me starkly that there are two separate societies in New Zealand - rural and urban.

Straight Furrow, Rural News, Countrywide, the NZ Farmers' Weekly, the Dairy Exporter and other newspapers and magazines were crammed with news and advertising which today's average city-dweller would make as much sense of if it were written in Chinese.

Yet there was a time when much of such information would have routinely appeared in the nation's city newspapers, for the farm editor and his staff were a key component of every paper's news-gathering team. Not so today.

Don't think I'm blaming the press for the widening urban-rural divide, or that the main reason is the burgeoning of cities, particularly Auckland.

Neither is it all that much to do with the fact that most of our politicians these days are schoolteachers or lawyers or accountants or businessmen when once a large proportion were farmers.

The other day I received a letter from an Auckland chap who is obviously a long-time reader of this column, for he sent me a copy of one I wrote in 2000 in which I suggested that we New Zealanders had lost sight of the simple things of life.

And that, I think, goes a long way towards explaining the increasing rural-urban divide.

We in the cities seem to spend much of our leisure glued to televisions, computer screens, iPods, PlayStations, and Gameboys or whatever, our ears covered by cellphones, ensconced in movie theatres, video game parlours, casinos, pubs, cafes and restaurants; and all of our working lives trapped in our cars and our office buildings.

And all the time out there, not far from our urban fringes, is a veritable paradise of natural phenomena, of richly productive farmland, of animal, bird and plant life, of wide open spaces - to all of which we are intimately connected, whether we like it or not.

I wonder if our loss of contact with the natural world we live in- confined as we let ourselves be to the artificial environment that all big cities by their very nature become- hasn't contributed to a significant degree to our sense of ill-being as a society, to the sense of lostness that seems to afflict so many of us - children and young people particularly - and to the urban-rural dichotomy.

I remember my own childhood, youth and young manhood, which were filled with the simple delights of exploration, from netting tadpoles in the local creeks as a child to hunting rabbits in the hills of Central Otago and deer in the mountains of Fiordland as a young man.

I could tell you the difference between a Hereford and an Aberdeen Angus, a Jersey and a Friesian, a Romney and a Southdown, recognise clover and fescue, shear a sheep or milk a cow, tie on a fly and catch a trout, and drive a tractor.

I swam in lakes and rivers, dams and the sea, searched for crabs under rocks and toheroa under the sand, could clean a fish and skin and gut a rabbit, knew where to find and watch birds' nests and how to feed hens and open oysters.

All this was as natural and normal to me as going to school, sitting in church, listening to the radio, attending a movie or preening for the Saturday night hop.

In the world I lived in I was part of a whole - urban and rural, man-made and natural - and I instinctively knew that I had a legitimate place in it.

In spite of spending more than 35 years in Auckland, I have seldom lost that sense of belonging.

What I seem to have mislaid, I said in that 2000 column, was my sense of wonder and joy at the simple things of life, and my reader wanted to know if I had recovered them.

The answer is that I found them not mislaid at all, but put on a mental shelf until I can escape from this increasingly ugly, noisy and smelly metropolis to a South Island place which doesn't take an hour or more to get out of.

And, incidentally, when I came home, that wonderful sense of peace and serenity I acquired in Golden Bay lasted all the way from Auckland Airport to Avondale.

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