A Winter’s Tale

Winter but where is the snow

The weather forecast may not have received the memo, but according to the calendar, winter is now upon us. Usually such a season would be heralded by bone chilling temperatures and soul warming Mid Winter dinners to celebrate the solstice. In Methven there is another way to tell the season, without resorting to a thermometer or the date. The amount of gaudy Gore-Tex on display is a prime indicator of the highly scientific ‘ski index’ – the more saturated the town is in Burton snow clothing, the surer you can be that it must be winter.

Methven is a seasonal town, and that’s one of the things that makes it stand out for me as something different. Auckland is a clock city, where the days tick by and collect into months and years without any major milestones to mark the seasons. Sure, it rains more in winter, but as for snow… well, the one occasion when a flurry of flakes almost landed on the CBD is now related in the hushed tones of myth.

Here, snow is the lifeblood. When people talk about ‘the mountain’ no one needs to clarify which peak is in question. The first time we visited Methven, we arrived in the midst of the winter bustle. There were people on the streets, the takeaway joints were open until 8:30 at night, and the locals were grumpy. They had to queue for their groceries and were not guaranteed a park right outside the shop. Coming from Auckland, we didn’t know what the fuss was about. Having to wait behind 2 people at Supervalue was nothing compared to rush hour at any inner city supermarket.

This year, I think I finally understand. Having over-summered in Methven, I am more attuned to the seasonal changes in the town. As the days grow shorter, the queues do grow longer, and the cosmopolitan mix of the region becomes more audible. Visitors bring their skis and enthusiasm, but also their own cultural expectations, and it can take a while to adjust. For the first time I was alert to the moment when dress codes shift, and wearing gumboots to the pub (even if they are fancy, styled, neoprene gumboots) puts you in the minority. People in fluffy huts and ski jackets start trickling in one by one, until one Thursday the balance is tipped in favour of neon parkas. From there, if you’ll forgive the pun, things just snowball.

Don’t get me wrong, as soon as those Antarctic blasts start playing ball and deliver some fresh powder to the hills I’ll be up there with the best of the beanie wearers. Still, it’s been interesting to watch a seasonal town wake up as it ramps up towards the snow. Now all we need is for the white stuff to take heed of the ‘ski index’, and then there will be no question that winter is indeed upon us, once and for all.

Originally Published in The Ashburton Guardian

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Give a Dog A Bone

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The other day a friend mentioned that he had a bone for our dog. Like most pooches, our pup enjoys a good chew on cartilage and canon bones every now and then. Last time we were up in Auckland we stopped by the butcher to grab a few off-cuts, and the fist-sized chunks kept pup busy all holiday. We smiled, said thank you for the offer, and were on our merry way.

By the time we arrived home, our friend was nowhere to be seen, but he’d left a calling card that was hard to miss: one dead cow in the middle of the lawn. The carcass was midway between the dog run and the washing line, positioned like a garden sculpture, which, had it actually been more avant garde, would no doubt have been entitled ‘Lady Gaga’s Coat Hanger.’

If Carrie Bradshaw wannabes in the big smoke are said to desire a walk in wardrobe in which to store their hundreds of pairs of business stilettos, this was the canine equivalent. The cavernous ribs dwarfed the dog for whom it was intended, and she could walk in alright. In fact, once she’d done so we didn’t see her for another three days. This was actually the closest she’d ever come to anything that moos – usually she’s off in the other direction at the slightest whiff of a cowpat – but she more than made up for lost time.

The arrival of the cow also turned out to be a great lesson in anatomy for pup, but not in the scholarly vein. Instead, she slowly learnt that her eyes are bigger than her stomach – slow being the operative word. In the end we had to relegate the cow to inside the dog run and the dog to outside, in the interests of stopping our pet’s tum from ballooning out any further. One bite more and we would’ve been in real danger of losing her as she drifted up into the wide blue of a Canterbury sky.

Coming from the city, Methven remains the only place I know where a friend dropping off a ‘dog treat’ means you come home to find a dead cow in the garden. It is also one of the few places where such behaviour is considered socially acceptable. Up in Auckland, carcasses stay firmly out of sight. Dog treats come from New World and are no longer associated with the original animal, nor with the cuts of meat the beast provided for human consumers. Down here things are much more open, for better or for worse. One may question whether all this talk of death might be a bit much for a vegetarian ex-Aucklander to stomach, but I’m still leaning towards the former. The cow was definitely fresh, and we’ll not be needing any more dog bones for a good while yet.

Originally published in The Ashburton Guardian

Wish Upon Antarctica

Once upon Gondwanaland
Where glossopteris grew and dinosaurs roamed
Your wish-upon-a star was born

Or rather, became visible to the naked eye
As the gentle rhythm of day and night
Rocked loose the plates so far below

Southward bound, as we are today
They travelled to the edge of place
And the longest day, where time stood still

All wishes here are put on ice
And Peter Pan grows wrinkles too
From squinting at the frozen glare

And making out the leaves that freeze
Their memory into ancient stones
Alongside ores that don’t belong.

***

Once upon Antarctica
Where ice sheets grow and scientists roam
Your wish-upon-a star was found

Still stars rain down from far above
Scarring the ice with blackened heat
As interlopers on this white plateau

Traverse the ice to find a sign
About the universe’s once-upon-a-time
In rocks that lie so far from home

At season’s end the sun dips low
And dormant skies are seen once more
As shadows lengthen on the snow

And constellations emerge unchanged
While meteorites and fossil trees
Share shelf space behind polished glass

Home Away From Home

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This week I visited Wellington, seat of Parliament and home of winds that put even our gusty Nor’Westers to shame. Sometimes regional parts of NZ can feel like the bigwigs at the Beehive don’t even know they exist, but a visit to Te Papa proved that Mid Canterbury does have a place in our capital city. That place is halfway up the third panel of postcards on the wall outside the ‘Blood Earth Fire’ exhibition. In the midst of this collage of picturesque destinations, Ashburton’s clocktower stands tall and proud, nestled between Coromandel and Cambridge. Even the Canterbury plains get a look in, the aerial shot of their patchwork paddocks tucked away at knee height.

Around the corner is an insight into the rural life that takes place on said plains, presented to a soundtrack of the famous ‘Chesdale Cheese’ advert. Photos of wood chopping competitions and A&P Shows from the days when long socks and walk shorts were in fashion adorn the walls, while Fred Dagg has free range over the television screen. On a more serious note, time lapse maps show the extent of deforestation that led to creation of pasture in New Zealand over the last few centuries. The maps are accompanied by the sound of crackling flames – reminiscent of the burn offs of today – as a reminder of how much of the farmland was cleared to make way for livestock like sheep and cattle.

These days dairy is a big industry for Canterbury, with our milk products exported to many countries. The marketing methods have changed somewhat since the 1950s however, as evidenced by one of the displays that featured a stuffed jersey cow with a working udder. This bovine beauty with rubber plumbing and a refillable milk bladder (accessed via a zip in the cow’s neck) was used to promote NZ dairy products in the UK during the 1950s. Taxidermy is no longer the flavour of the day, but the campaign clearly did something right, as our udders and their owners are still in demand.

Te Papa boasts many more displays, but my personal favourite was the sheepcam. Have you ever wondered what the world looks like from the perspective of one of these woolly mammals? Well, wonder no more. This exhibit features footage taken from a camera mounted to a sheep’s head. The screen is interactive, with six choices of situation available to the viewer, including ‘Out to munch’ (sheep eating grass), ‘Bossy dog!’ (sheep being herded) and ‘Little lamb lost’ (a lamb that is, surprisingly enough, both little and lost). While a local version may have nicer views of mountains in the background, they would likely go unappreciated, as sheep seem to spend the bulk of their time concentrating on the pasture below.

Between the Sheep Cam, Fred Dagg, and a taxidermy cow, my trip to the big city revealed far more about small town life than expected. Wellington may be a bumpy plane ride away, but Mid Canterbury, you need not fear you’ve been forgotten.

Originally Published in The Ashburton Guardian