Lawrence Patchett’s 2019 novel, The Burning River, imagines the prospect of a rebuilt New Zealand after an unspecified crisis. In this short piece commissioned by Britomart, entitled Protected, he contemplates separation and connection, and the delicate balance of the natural world.
Get into the garden, they say, at times like this. It’s good for your health.
But our garden isn’t great. It’s got dog-holes and oxalis. The dog-holes are deep and multiple. You could lose your gumboot in the deepest one. And the soil isn’t flash either. It’s mostly just sand, and it dries out quick. Any time you plant something, you have to surround it with cardboard and thick mulch, which also helps to push the oxalis back.
But we’re lucky to have some space. So many people don’t. And round the perimeter of the dog fence, beyond the range of her manic sprints, we’ve got a few trees coming up. Kānuka and lancewoods and harakeke, which all grow well here in the old dunes and swamp. It’s a good place to catch a breath.
And it’s true that, at times like this, I turn back to trees. I always have. When things go bad, I head into some nearby bush, and let the crowding fear and stress leak out between the trunks. I learnt this from my parents. When something big happens, turn to plants.
So when the virus talk was getting serious, but before the full lockdown, my daughter and I snuck up to a stand of local nīkau for a walk. The nearby quarry and dog kennels were quiet for once, not jarring the birds and branches with their racket. A pīwaiwaka chirped above the path, doing fancy airborne twists. It sounded like it was laughing at us, but not out of spite. The joke was more inclusive than that.
Lockdown has combined with a big deadline for me. Far from the real frontline, I’ve got my own little hill of work. It stresses me out.
For breaks, I walk outside, into our trees. Hang out with them, talk to one or two, mulch some beginners around the house. Rebuke the ones that won’t grow.
Wander back inside. Try to make another sentence work.
It sounds middle-class and privileged, the pastimes of a protected life, and that’s because it is. Trees and their exploitation have always been central to my Pākehā comfort. Some of my ancestors burnt the bush to get farms going on the contested land beneath. But sometimes they planted and saved too, protecting trees in places where they couldn’t be chopped. And others worked with wood—furniture, joinery, carpentry—turning it into beautiful things for humans, and got their kids into schools, universities, trade certificates, on the back of this work.
For more than a century the people in my family have done this—planted and nurtured, but also chopped and burnt and lopped off bits—but still when I hang out with trees I have this amazing feeling of being protected.
This great living thing, tall and old, and here I am, tiny underneath it. Like a little kid, who kicks an older brother, but still runs to them when they fall off their trike.
I was back home on the South Island for six months. Doing different work, and living close to family for a bit.
On Sundays my dad and I headed out to the patch of bush that he and Mum and the rest of the family are trying to establish. It’s a replanting project. A group called Te Ara Kakariki are guiding it. A lot of unglamorous maintenance work is needed.
So on Sundays we mulched round the plants, and freed them and fenced. Pushed back the weeds and hare damage. Sometimes as a treat we got to plant new trees. Mataī and kānuka, which grow well there too, and kahikatea, which once towered in clusters in that place.
Gorse got into our gloves. It got hot. The wind beat across the plains, wearing us out. Once I watched a hare leap nimbly over the hare-netting fence we’d only just finished. So next week Dad had to go back and double its height.
But we had some good talks while we did it. About how to protect the trees into the future, and who’ll be doing that work—but also about the grandkids, and the cricket.
One of the hardest parts of the people-protecting work we’re all doing right now is distancing from people like our parents. It’s difficult to hold back the fear for them, as the warnings and numbers of infected go up. But there are phones and video calls. Lots of easy ways to stay in touch.
And on Sundays I can go into the garden, into my own tiny fringe of forest, knowing that at the same time Dad is working on that bigger, more ambitious patch down south. I can think of him while I work, and of others who are doing the same stuff.
Giving the trees some mulch. Saying sorry for the neglect, for letting the dog disturb their roots. Keeping it local, to save a life. Trying to pay back.