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

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

DIY Lumberjacks

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I recently arrived back in Methven to crisp autumn days, chilly nights and the first roaring hearth of the season. With kindling stocks running low, I was also just in time for the annual wood chopping chore. Usually that means getting outside with the axe and settling in for the long haul, devoting many hours to the solitary company of the rhythmic swing. Not this year, though: Inspired by the lumberjack events at the A&P show we decided to make an event of straightening out our own pile. Up went the marquee, in came the log splitter, on went the checked shirts and gumboots and we were ready to rumble.

First up was the safety demonstration. Lesson number one: Under no circumstances is it a good idea to reach under the blade of the log splitter to turn the machine on or off. Lesson number two: As long as you keep lesson number one in mind, you should be sweet as.

From there on in, we were like a team of worker bees: lifting, cutting, stacking, and repeat. The wheelbarrow was a welcome addition to our arsenal of arm power, but only short lived: once a certain member of our party realised how comfortable it was to sit in, it was repurposed into an artistic piece of garden furniture, right beside the brazier. The brazier was, of course, kept burning the entire day, with the logs that were prematurely sacrificed acting as the equivalent of the batter that doesn’t quite make it into the cake tin.

Of course, traditional kiwi snacks were a must – cue the green onion flavour chips and Louise Cake. Buttered scones were an oversight, but the spirit of Monty Python was kept alive by playing the lumber jack song at full volume whilst replenishing our strength.

The wood got cut alright, but the events of the day have made an impression that is sure to last longer than our neatly stacked rows of pine: it made me really appreciate the friendships we have formed since living in Mid Canterbury. Their generous help meant the task was done in a fraction of the time we expected, and the banter throughout made for an event that rivalled any A&P exhibit in the fun stakes. While our Auckland mates might laugh at the idea of a wood chopping party with a gumboots dress code, it’s an experience I wouldn’t swap for a dozen inner city heat pumps.

Originally Published in The Ashburton Guardian

South and South-er

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This week I find myself writing from a location that is far further south than I ever bargained for when I moved to the Mainland. Forget Canterbury’s balmy 43 degree latitude:  these days I have become intimately acquainted with the Antarctic Circle, thanks to a summer stint lecturing on a cruise ship that is South Pole bound.

Now, I’m no stranger to sea air. Auckland is the city of sails, with harbours and islands galore, and the one thing I have missed most whilst living in Methven is the ocean. Getting on board a ship that spends four out of ten days out of sight of any land appears to be the perfect antidote to any salty cravings I may have experienced whilst living in the mountains.

Nevertheless, living in a ski resort town has primed me well for Antarctica in several regards. First, the snow. Winters in Methven have toughened me up enough to be able to face icebergs with pluck and only one pair of gloves, purchased from Four Square at the end of the ski season. It’s been great to get up and personal with the kind of tabular icebergs on which our local ovine hero Shrek was shorn some years back. Not even sub zero temperatures can detract from the delight I gain from seeing guests’ faces when I tell them this anecdote from my homeland.

Secondly, wide open spaces. Both Antarctica and the South Island are renowned for their photogenic nature and their wide uninhabited expanses. Down here there is a distinct lack of sheep, famous or not, but the glacial valleys are reminiscent of an icier version of the Milford Sounds. The seals that lounge around their fringes more than make up for any woolly deficit: with several million such seals to a human population that numbers in the thousands, they far outdo the efforts of their four legged friends in the mammal to man ratio.

Thirdly, living in a small community. When I first moved down from Auckland I could not have imagined living in a town of 1000 people. Working on board a ship with just over 100 staff, a four digit population count starts to sound like the busiest of bustling metropolises. Having visited several Antarctic Bases where the tour of duty exceeds two years and the population count barely makes double figures, I have come to appreciate the new blood that floods into our area with each new ski season. Our small town will never seem small in quite the same way again.

I’ve swapped sheep for shags and pigs for penguins as I get up close and personal with the source of our biting southerly winds, but I would not swap this experience for the world. There are so many new sights and sounds to experience every day, from breaching humpback whales to the unmistakably fishy smell of penguin guano. Heading south off the map to a place where the sea and the mountains come together under snow has put life back home in perspective and made me appreciate both latitudes all the more.

Originally published in The Ashburton Guardian

A Frosty Reception

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So far I’ve enjoyed the South Island so much that I’ve decided to take things to a new level. I’m heading as far South as possible, to a place that makes Invercargill look positively tropical: Antarctica is in my sights.

When my partner first suggested I return to the frozen continent, my first response was ‘am I really that terrible to live with?’ As it turns out, I had been bringing it up rather often in conversation, so he thought it must be time for a fix in order to allow other topics to penetrate the sphere of scintillating dinner time talk every now and then.

It wasn’t always this way. A few years ago, my contact with Antarctica consisted of little more than wrestling with the part of the blow up globe where you put the bung in. Since moving to the South Island that has changed. On my first flight from Auckland to Christchurch I found myself sitting next to an Alaskan cook who was en route to McMurdo Station to work for the summer, and he was just the first of many people I’ve come across who have an Antarctic connection. There’s the husky dog driver whose father used to be a dog handler at Scott Base, the anesthetist who also does summer jaunts South as a doctor on tourist vessels from Bluff, and the engineering student who spent a summer restoring Scott’s hut at Cape Evans (As it turns out, he was also neighbours with my partner’s Godmother in Timaru – but that’s New Zealand for you). Having spent a summer studying the continent at Canterbury University, I was well and truly hooked.

Canterbury has strong Antarctic ties, with the United States Antarctic Programme (USAP) basing its South Pole logistics out of the city, and their off casts often found in surplus stores. My man’s distinctive red USAP jacket is not the only one in town, as we found out last June when we ran into his doppelganger on the main street of Methven. Perhaps they should have headed through the snow-clogged streets for a beverage together at the aptly named ‘Shackleton’s Bar and Grill’?

Right now it’s the wrong time of year for snow and ice: All the window dressers have scrubbed of the fake snowflakes to make room for the cheeping birds that symbolize Easter and Spring, bang on the dot of Autumn. Still, last year’s ski season has reawakened a hunger for the cold that not even a raft of unseasonal southerlies can sate. (Said southerlies have meant that my ‘Antarctic’ tomato plant, which is suited to colder weather, has done very well over Christmas…)

So, as I write this I find myself Southward bound – again – but the latest experience has taught me that there’s nothing to shy away from, only millions of moments (and perhaps an old neighbour alongside the odd penguin) gathering at ever-higher altitudes and waiting to be discovered.

Originally published in The Ashburton Guardian

Wallpaper music of the Great Outdoors

There are some things in life that slip by unnoticed for years until they are explicitly pointed out, at which point they glare you in the face at every turn. Background music in the supermarket is a prime example, but it is not alone in being chronically overlooked. Between hosting travellers down here and visiting rellies in Auckland I discovered that I had been missing more than the soundtrack to the freezer aisle.

Living in the city or in the country you become attuned to certain things and learn to block out others. Last year we took a hitch-hiker over to Tekapo, and he was so stunned by the mountains he had to stop talking in order to take in the view. ‘Is this normal for you?’ he asked. Initially it wasn’t, but there are only so many time you can pull over on the Ashburton to Methven route to admire the snowy ridges before you realise that they look the same as they did yesterday, and will probably still be there tomorrow. This is still a beautiful place to live, but if the breath taking nature didn’t become somewhat normalised then we would all have succumbed to asphyxiation long ago.

Returning to Auckland, I realised I had been doing exactly the same thing up there. Traffic noise, vibrant signage and throngs of people had all faded out to become the invisible background to everyday life. Heading back up, it was these things that jumped out. Suddenly the four lanes of traffic, road cones, motorway exits and right turning arrows were all jostling for my senses’ attention: It was only after becoming accustomed to their absence that I really noticed them for the first time. Such realisations are all well and good if you are a passenger in a car that is crawling through rush hour traffic, but pulling over on the side of the motorway in order to read the fine print of the billboards is not really the done thing…

Neither, apparently, is obeying the speed limit. Down this way a judiciously placed temporary 30 sign is a good indication that loose gravel, a slip, or a herd of stock are around the corner. In Auckland, it is just a suggestion. Perhaps there is a different conversion system up there that I have missed in my time in the South, because 30 seemed to mean 60 and 80 seemed to mean 100, if the volley of beeps from behind was anything to go by. Having become accustomed to narrow country roads with not a car in sight, I found the aural assault to be most pronounced and began to long for the low of a cow to break up the commuting chaos.

These past weeks have shown me that paying attention to the background sights and sounds that we take for granted can provide a totally new perspective on a place, and there are always new things to be discovered. Coming home again I made sure to give the mountains a second glance. As for the motorway billboards up North, the conditions of the sushi deal will just have to wait…

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