Of Dogs and Men

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Last week something very special arrived for me in the post. It was a
grubby off-white colour, and somewhat resembled a poodle. Christened
‘fluffdog’, this crocheted bottle cover, courtesy of wastebusters, has
certainly had an interesting life thus far, coming around the world via
South Africa and Ireland. Having crossed the equator, it seemed that
Fluffdog’s next mission was to get closer to the poles. Being a dog makes
such a goal difficult.

While huskies once provided the main form of locomotion in both polar
regions, these days there are no dogs in Antarctica. They were phased out
in the early 1990s, when new rules about introducing non-native species
came into effect. Goldfish, pooches, and any other introduced animals
were shipped out – humans being the only exception. Unsure quite how to
break this news to the crocheted canine, I did the next best thing,
shutting the grubby character in the freezer overnight. This snap-freezing
served the dual purpose of ridding Fluffdog of any residual biohazardous
greeblies, and neutralising the surprisingly authentic doggy odour
emanating from the fibres.

Unpleasant as it may be, I have to admit I have missed the smell of wet dog
whilst I’ve been away down south. There’s something comforting about a damp
dog steaming by the fire as the rain drums poems on the roof. (Come to
think of it, rain is something else that has been absent all summer – and
not because of drought in my case. Antarctica is the driest continent of
all, and any precipitation falls as snow). Fluff dog was reminder of home,
where such scenes are possible, and where the dogs still come just about
everywhere with us. There’s even a hitching rail at the local pub for our
pooches, which is fair enough – when you think about the hard work that so
many dogs have put in to make NZ what it is today, they deserve a large
communal saucer of water to quench their thirst.

Now the work of one dog in particular has been immortalised in the very mid
Canterbury town where my dog currently lives. With the recent unveiling of
a the police dog Rajah, Methven has a dog sculpture to rival the best. It
puts the town in a class with Tirau, Hunterville, and Tekapo, and
offers the chance to open a conversation about the roles working dogs have
played in NZ over many years. It also offers an irresistible photo
opportunity – someday soon Fluff Dog will be back to have a portrait taken.

Originally Published in The Ashburton Guardian

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It’s Showtime!

show tomsWhen I lived up in Auckland, the word ‘show’ carried connotations of a night out at the theatre, or a laser light projection on the downtown ferry building. Sparkles and spectacular were in; tractors, not so much. Since moving south, the word ‘show’ has variously been prefixed with ‘quilt’, ‘dog’, and of course ‘A&P’, widening both my horizons and knowledge of rural necessities.  This weekend the show is back, and this year, I finally know what to expect.

First, there will be a whole range of jumping-related events, featuring horses, dogs and highly coordinated kilted dancers. The intricacies of horses and highland dancing remain a mystery to me, but when it comes to the dogs, I’ve done my prep.  Volunteering at the Ashburton dog agility show opened my eyes to the range of dogs that compete, from ankle to hip height, and the many different leaping styles that exist, from the dainty hop to the mighty bound.

Next, there will be cakes on display. Fresh cakes. Despite the fact that entries must be received well prior to the event, the baked goods themselves arrive on the day. I learnt this from the Methven show, where the discrepancy between entry date and the show itself left me most concerned that my perfectly square, meticulously prepared scones would have gone mouldy come judging.

Then there are the tractors and seeds and machinery that really put the ‘A’ in ‘A&P’. Growing is an important business down this way, and there is a huge amount of science that goes into soil preparation and improving yields.  The show is, of course, a prime opportunity to put the technologies behind new agricultural advances on display. Cue GPS integrated systems, shiny new imports, and a yard full of lads looking as gleeful as kids in a lifesize lego playground. Throw in the odd hotdog stand and you’re sorted.

The closest that I ever got to an agricultural show up on Auckland was the time I stopped by the carnivorous plants expo one Sunday morning. I have a feeling we were the first visitors of the day, because the plant-rearers waived the entry fee and plied us with specimens of NZ native bug-eaters to take home to our flat and nurture up to competition size for the next year. Which of the dozen native insect-eating varieties they were I couldn’t say, but we didn’t have an ant problem that summer, that’s for sure.

Neither did we have the carnival atmosphere that comes with the annual A&P event. Rural shows may be less cabaret and more field day, but there’s more than enough entertainment behind those gates to keep even a thespian-loving lass from the city entertained for the day. What are you waiting for? It’s showtime!

Originally Published in The Ashburton Guardian

Hand Ups

It could be said that NZ is made up of a collection of clubs and societies, all run by committee. It’s our default response to addressing any problem or project: need to fundraise for a new playground? Form a committee. Want to arrange a speaker series? Call on the committee. Can’t decide whether to bake cheese scones or banana muffins? In the case of the last example, your best bet is probably to consult the Edmond’s cookbook, but for all other decisions the power of teamwork is central to success.

It’s been AGM season for me this week, with several bouts of electing officers and discussing the chair’s report scheduled into my calendar. That may sound like a drag, but actually it has been a privilege to be involved in groups that are made up of so many passionate and generous individuals who all give up their time to try to make the world we live in a better place.

When I first arrived in Ashburton I headed to the information centre for, well, information. I was after tips on rental listings and job directories, but alongside answers to these run of the mill questions, I was also handed a book of local clubs and societies. This was no centre fold pamphlet, but a spiral bound beauty, full of contacts for an A to Z of interests, including boxing, dog training, writing, traveling, and even vintage machinery.

The list was impressive, but what was even more so was the thought of how many volunteers stood behind each of those brief black-and-white listings to actually keep each club or society ticking over. There are the hours spent poring over the nitty gritty of constitutions during the setting up phase, the evenings spent making cheese rolls to fundraise, and the community events and exhibitions that are so easy to enjoy, but take so long to pull together.

Mid Canterbury consists of a wonderful pool of generous people, many of whom work behind the scenes to make this area such a pleasant place to live. They are your neighbours, your coworkers, the person behind you in the supermarket checkout line with a trolley full of cupcake cases. And they are essentially what make a strong community. So, the next time a call goes out for help, or for nominations to the local branch of your interest group, put your hand up. AGMs only happen once a year, and a little input during the intervening 12 months can really go a long way.

Originally Published in The Ashburton Guardian

History Thawing Quietly

Having been away in Auckland and Christchurch for back-to-back Antarctic conferences these past 2 weeks, you could say that I have ice on the brain. Sure, I’m back home now, but the thaw is slow. The quiet of Methven is helping, because now that I don’t have the roar of background traffic to contend with I can finally core down into the story gems I have collected – the odd local one included.

Christchurch is full of Antarctic paraphernalia and historic sites of ice, including Sir Edmund Hillary’s trusty tractor at the Canterbury museum, and the famous marble statue of Captain Scott, carved by his widow, which is currently undergoing repair work. Lady Scott spent time in the Garden City, as did Sir Douglas Mawson. That’s is not surprising; cities are places of bustle, full of ports and people, so they have more of a chance of attracting famous figures that will later stand out in history.

Ashburton can boast a slice of that history as well, thanks to a farmer named George Buckley and an explorer named Ernest Shackleton. George Buckley donated to Shackleton in the lead up to the explorer’s 1907 Nimrod expedition, the aim of which was to try to reach the geographic South Pole. When Buckley subsequently turned up on the docks to farewell the ship, his impromptu request to join the journey south was approved. The farmer travelled as far as the pack ice, taking charge of several ponies during the journey, before transferring across to the steamer the Koonya – which had towed the Nimrod south – and leaving Shackleton’s team to press on towards the continent alone. The Koonya headed back north, bound for cows and home, and laden with tales of excitement from the edge of the world. So it was that Buckley became one of, if not the, first Antarctic tourists. These days yearly visitor numbers may top 40,000, but the modern day tourists had to follow in the footsteps of someone.

Mid Canterbury may often be overlooked when it comes to the adventure stakes, but this tale from the days when the world was black and white shows that living on the plains is no barrier to developing an intrepid disposition.

Meanwhile, Buckley’s generosity in supporting the Antarctic expedition lives on, with ‘Buckley Island’ named by Shackleton in his honour. Antarctica has strong connections to places throughout Canterbury, and it is not just the big smoke that can narrate traces of our icy past.

Originally Published in The Ashburton Guardian

On Socks and Togs

Mum recently came down from Auckland for a winter holiday, suitcase of thermals in tow. Following her frigid experience over Christmas, and having equated pictures of the ski field with out back yard, she was prepared for a real polar blast.  There were skivvies and long johns galore, gloves, slippers and a possum hat – and one pair of socks.

Small and unassuming, those monogamous stalwarts of the wardrobe are often overlooked. Not to worry, a visit to the store soon turned up a pair of magnificently fluffy socks, ‘complete with a tog rating of 2.5’. A tog rating? Yes, tog – the garish label was most insistent. Despite our initial incredulity about this supposed SI unit, we were sold on entertainment value alone.

As for the validity of the claim, our Scottish friend was quick to put us right: tog is a measure of thermal insulation, often used to indicate how well a duvet retains the warmth. In Scotland, where insulation is not a foreign concept, people pay attention to such details.  (They also double glaze their windows and shy away from building single ply weatherboard houses, but that’s another story…) This new definition of ‘tog’ was duly filed away for future trivia nights.

We had a different take on the ‘tog’: up in the North Island, where even July is balmy, togs are for swimming. We did stop off at the hot pools to give our swimsuits their moment in the limelight, but it was the newly discovered type of tog that had us in its grip. There was only one thing for it – we had to pay a visit to the sock factory in Ashburton to find out more. To get any closer to the source of the knitted footwear that graces stores throughout New Zealand, you’d have to head out into the paddock and tackle a sheep.

The local sock factory is something special. Socks of all colours and styles abound, from brightly coloured technical ski socks through to premium dress socks that would look at home on the red carpet of a world premiere – and they were all toasty warm. Mum’s frosty feet had never had so much choice. Neither had Santa Claus – my sisters don’t know it yet, but St Nick is now well stocked up, and their stockings are likely to be filled with stockings for years to come. As for us, we all headed out to the Sunday night quiz togged up in our glad rags and sporting brand new snuggly socks.

For socks that have walked right the way across Spain and carried Ironman racers over the finish line, the trip back to Auckland safely stowed away in the hand luggage compartment must have seemed quite tame. Still, mum’s new socks can bask in the knowledge that not only are they providing a valuable heat retaining service for the extremities, but the story that led to their purchase might one day mean the difference between 3rd and 4th place in a local pub quiz. That’s some power, alright.

Originally Published in The Ashburton Guardian

A Family Portrait

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There is nothing like a family gathering to remind you of who you are and where you come from. If Christmas dinner with the second cousins didn’t do the trick this year, there is always an interactive portraiture exhibition at the Ashburton Art Gallery that can help you to see yourself in a new light. Classic portraits by Rita Angus and Frances Hodgkins sit alongside photographs of All Black’s Supporters, while easels around the gallery encourage visitors to try their own hand at the artform. I took my visiting family to check it out, and while drawing your nearest and dearest may not be the best course of action if you are aiming to preserve civil relationships, we gave it a go and ended up seeing a new side of each other.

Mum’s favourite artwork was a sculpture of a man and his dog. This may or may not have been a symptom of canine withdrawal, as she left her own pup in Auckland this Christmas and has had to do make do with skype calls home rather than having a dog on the end of her bed.

Dad preferred Nigel Brown’s lemon tree, while the rest of my cohort made a beeline for the easels. The exhibition offered my man a moment away from the in-laws to try his hand at self-portraiture. Having not sketched since third form art class, the results were impressive. He was not quite game enough to try sketching me or mum however, and decided it was safest to try the light box for drawing silhouettes. Sister two’s hat looked very stylish in profile, and there was less chance of offending her by drawing a wonky nose or forgetting to add eyebrows. (Dad’s abstract version of mum did not go down so well, largely as a result of this omission).

The artworks on display would not look out of place in a city gallery, but the best thing about the exhibition was the range of questions that accompanied the portraits, encouraging the audience to think about what their own version might look like. I never thought I would be answering questions such as ‘What am I wearing’ with ‘gumboots,’ so living in Mid Canterbury has definitely changed the version of me that would be seen in a portrait.

These days I would be with my dog, in my library, with the mountains visible in the background through the window, and there would be a bunch of home grown flowers on the side table, just for good measure. In Auckland I would have chosen a beach setting, with my family in the painting. Gumboots would definitely have been out, and the only thing in a vase would have been a sprig of the impossibly hardy rosemary from under the front steps. Moving south means I have swapped beaches for a beetroot patch and mum and dad for a mutt, but I am proud to show my family this new South Island version of their daughter, in full portrait.

Originally Published in The Ashburton Guardian

Quardle oodle ardle wardle DUCK

Allenton residents are familiar with the problem, which has now been impacting upon their letterboxes as well: the magpies that have been attacking the local posties pose yet another threat to our endangered postal system. Unfortunately for our trusty team in red, magpies have very good memories and they attack the same people again and again. If you get on the wrong side of one of those flying missiles, you’d better have eyes on the back of your head.

Last week I had first hand experience of the problem whilst out for a jog. Apparently the birds don’t differentiate between those wearing red and those wearing pink, because from the moment I turned the corner they had me firmly in their sights. Next came the ominous ‘whoosh’ of a kamikaze magpie under the influence of gravity, followed by a flash of claw. That was enough to convince my tired legs that actually they belonged to Usain Bolt and were taking part in a very important race. As a result of this impressive burst of athletic prowess, I can confirm that magpies are much better motivators than any iPod track or personal trainer. In fact, based on the results of my one off and highly scientific study, magpie escape training could well form the basis of the next exercise fad, leaving zumba and cross training in its wake.

You do, however, need to ensure you have a good technique before taking part in this adrenaline fuelled cardio programme. Like any sport, this takes practice. Running down the street waving hands in the air may not look particularly becoming, but it is a natural response to try to keep beaks and talons away from cheeks and ears. A little googling reveals this is also the worst possible response. Instead, it is necessary to remain calm, don your ice cream container helmet as protective headgear, and vacate the vicinity of the fluffy foe.

Sports related injuries may make up the bulk of recreational claims, but according to an ACC spokeswoman, there have been 15 magpie-related injuries lodged with ACC in the last 2 years. Thanks to a serendipitous attack, we now have the opportunity to combine the two. With a little practice, we might even be able to take on an aussie team as well as the aussie bird.

As we know, there is no black and white solution to the magpie issue. Eradicate them? Avoid them? Use them as a sporting supplement to enhance future performance? This is no 80 minute on-pitch battle, but an ongoing exercise at surviving the siege. Don your trainers and watch your back, because as Glover’s poem suggests, the magpies are here to stay.

Originally Published in The Ashburton Guardian

Central Parking

The domain may be a ‘jewel in Ashurton’s crown’, but recently it’s been another kind of ‘park’ that’s been making headlines. Curbside credit is changing for good, with the iconic coin meters being replaced by newfangled pay and display machines that would look at home on any Auckland side street. Not only is Ashburton moving into the future, but this technological leap was broadcast into living rooms all over the country. Immediately following the TV segment I was fielding calls and texts from family and friends in the big smoke, all wanting to know more about how we park our vehicles in this neck of the woods.

My initial response was ‘without breaking the budget.’ When we first arrived in town we thought that the advertised rate of 60c an hour must have been a typo. Up in Auckland 60c might buy you 5 minutes if you are lucky, so surely there was a digit and a decimal point missing? $7.60 would have seemed like a bargain, so we fed the meter up with gold coins, just in case.  As it turned out, our trepidation was unfounded and resulted in a happy surprise for the rest of the cars that pulled into the park that day.

The introduction of solar powered, ticket printing machines spells the end of random acts of kindness like this, as there is no way to top up someone’s time allowance without breaking into their car to replace their receipt. Somehow that doesn’t seem quite as neighbourly as nonchalantly depositing spare shrapnel in the meter, and it also sounds like a lot more work.

It also sounds like a lot more work to get to a machine, with the one to one park to meter ratio now a thing of the past, but most will be placated by assurances that motorists will not have to walk any more than three parks away to get a ticket. Three parks seems to be the maximum distance away from one’s destination that the majority of Ashburtonians are willing to park anyway, as traffic volumes still allow convenience to reign supreme.  At any rate, there will be none of this business of trudging to the far corner of a parking building, only to lose your bearings and spend the next half hour looking for your vehicle, by which time the ticket has almost expired.

For those who prefer to stick to the old methods or are averse to the 40c price increase – and don’t mind walking – there is always the option of using the remaining quinquagenarian machines in the town’s side streets. With the old machines going towards bolstering the local supply of spare parts, they should keep going strong for a wee while yet. Who knows, the remaining antique machines could become quite an attraction – the only other place I’ve seen them is in the museum, next to a sign that reminisced about the ‘lovely Rita meter maids’ of days gone by.

The technological infrastructure may be changing, but Ashburton can still boast plenty of central parking – now with more options than ever before.

Originally Published in The Ashburton Guardian

Grass is Always Greener

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Local body elections are underway, and a visit to Auckland revealed that in the big smoke the top agenda issues are just as contentious as any new Ashburton build. Auckland has enough bridges and tunnels to mean that any NIMBY calls drown each other out and leave another issue to take the limelight. I touched down to the fiercest grassroots dispute the city has seen in decades: The Battle of the Berms.

The council recently stopped mowing the grassy fringes in the inner city, and the change is not going down well. It’s something I hadn’t really thought that much about before seeing the headlines on every corner of Queen Street. Forget roading, the RMA and international politics, these days the grass is all everyone is talking about.

A quick stroll through any suburban neighbourhood in my home town reveals that the division lines have been drawn: half a grass verge clipped down to a number two, the other half left to toss its pollen to the wind, an instant badge of the time to house proud ratio of any given residence.

This gives me new appreciation for both the care taken in Mid Canterbury and the average size of the yards in both north and south. Down south the dream of the quarter acre section has not disappeared and a mower, rake and spade remain essential implements for any household. The number of retired farm machines with ride on capabilities, such as the machine that lives next door to us, means that communal grass is buzz cut with military precision, no civic intervention required.

The prevalence of ride on mowers is not so high in the big smoke, particularly in suburbs with high-density housing where no one has any grass to mow. Those who do have a yard often face the logistical issues of living down a shared driveway. Our old flatmates have a flymo for their modest square of foliage, but lack the abundance of extension cords required to reach past the four other houses and out to the side of the road. Their berm currently remains wild and free, much to the chagrin of certain council candidates.

As Aucklanders have just found out, now’s the time to ask the difficult questions of those standing for election. Prospective councillors’ positions on infrastructure, amenities, consents and recommended height of grass verges all come into play.

As for me, I’ll come back down South with both a new appreciation for the work of our neighours’ regular ride on mower and a renewed interest in the issues facing my current electorate. The grass is always greener in retrospect, so I will make sure to read my own local voting papers very carefully.

Originally Published in The Ashburton Guardian

Being Blown Away

I thought I’d moved to Canterbury, not Kansas, but last Tuesday’s windstorm did its best to convince me otherwise. With winds gusting up to 250km/hr, I met the famous Nor’Wester, alright. In fact, it came barging thorough our front door without even knocking, contributing considerably to my Southern education in the process.

The first lesson was that down here it is necessary to take weather warnings much more seriously than I’m used to. The phrase ‘four seasons in one day’ is the standing forecast for Auckland, where on even the finest of blue sky days it pays to carry a raincoat ‘just in case.’ In such conditions, one just hangs out the washing once the load is done and crosses one’s fingers that the sun will come to the party. That’s what I did on Tuesday morning, which led to my sheets embarking on a very intimate relationship with the rosebush some hours later.

The second lesson was that a bicycle is not an appropriate mode of transport in 100km/hr wind gusts. As serene as Drew Barrymore looked as she sailed past the moon on her bike, the E.T. look is sure to end badly when practiced outside a Hollywood studio. Having cycled to my friend’s house shortly before the storm hit I found myself stranded there, helping to lash down outdoor furniture whilst battling constant Marilyn-Monroe moments with my skirt. The construction site fences cartwheeling down the street outside confirmed our suspicions that things were serious. The bike was stored in the shed and a car was dispatched to come to my rescue.

Later that evening, having prised apart pillowcase and plants, we were just contemplating what movie to watch – classic, action or perhaps The Wizard of Oz – when the wind joined in the debate, plunging us into darkness and forcing the romantic angle with a dinner by candlelight. It also forced us to turn back time by posing a most pressing question: how do you make microwave chocolate brownie in the absence of electricity? Use the fire, of course. Coals to the back, tray in the front, cake tin wrapped in foil on top and smoke detectors on full alert, we were ready. In fact, our makeshift oven was far less disastrous than it should have been, given that it was operated by a bunch of twenty-somethings who have always enjoyed the benefit of ‘fan bake’ and are accustomed to sourcing the majority of our recipes direct from the internet. (Lesson three for one member of our posse was that modems actually require power to work).

So, last week I learnt a thing or two about the power of the wind. Come Wednesday, twisted irrigators, upended truck and trailer units and shelterbelts lying like dominoes attested to its physical strength, but the storm also forced us to come up with the kinds of creative solutions that would make Spielberg proud.

 Originally Published in The Ashburton Guardian