The New Zealand Railways Magazine, Volume 10, Issue 6 (September 2, 1935)
Pictures of New Zealand
The Old Farm Ways.
An old friend, a pioneer settler, and I were talking of the past conditions on far-back farms and the present day conditions of the husbandman—Viscount Bledisloe's favourite term. The frontier settler in the Waikato was in mind. We both recalled the fact that the farmer and his family did a great deal for themselves fifty or sixty years ago that they send to the township shops for now. The farming then was mixed, that is, root and grain crops of many kinds were grown, and there were sheep as well as cattle on every farm of any size. Candles were made by the farmer's wife from tallow; I remember the old candle moulds. Smelly candles they were, but better than nothing, especially when kerosene was hard to get. Peaches and apples were cut up and sun-dried and made into pies and preserves, and fruit wines were made. There were no orchard pests in those days.
The flax-bush was all important. No farmer could have done without it, for a score of purposes. The down or pollen (hunehune) of the raupo-flower-head was a capital substitute for feathers or kapok in filling pillows and cushions.
Harness, my friend recalled, was made, in his first farming days, from green cowhide, prepared with salt and alum. Plough and bridle reins and stirrup-leathers were manufactured in this way. Floor mats and carpets were made by Maori neighbours, and on these were often laid dressed and dyed sheepskins. The old-fashioned flail was used for threshing grain. Home-made wooden harrows did useful work on many a farm.
We have travelled far since those days of the semi-primitive life. But I question whether the excessive specialisation of the farming industry in dairying has been altogether a change for the better. The dairy-farm nowadays is often a bare comfortless-looking place.
The ground for plantations is begrudged; most of the trees are felled; there are fewer orchards. A farm in the old days was self-contained; nearly everything that the family needed except clothes and a few groceries was produced there. Intensive dairy farming means that some of the amenities that make country life pleasant and happy are sacrificed. Machinery saves labour and time; but a farmer and his family are too often slaves to machinery and cows.
I know if I were a boy again I would sooner be a youngster on a far-back Waikato farm of that era than on one of these down-to-date places where they put through a hundred cows twice daily. That, too, in spite of the speeding-up devices and wondrous inventions of this age. We were not all standardised then by radio and cinema and motor-car. But now happily there are indications that the mechanisation of rural life has reached its crest, and that the inevitable reaction has set in in many places.
Some literary folk in our midst and out of it are periodically concerned about the future of our writers and their work. “New Zealand,” said one, “may never have a distinctive atmosphere so as to give a particular character to our literature, because actually we differ so little from England.” That is essentially a narrow and ill-informed view. No country can differ from England more greatly than New Zealand in its physical character and tradition. One town is very like another, and townspeople are as alike as Chinamen. But it is the romantic frontier character, the infinitely coloured, thrilling past of New Zealand compressed into say a little more than a century that gives it its background that competent writers can use to the advantage of their work. There are distinctive types of character in the backblocks and in such a land as the long woody West Coast that the town-dwelling critic does not know. The native-born reared on the frontiers of civilisation where wild history was made has a character and outlook differing vastly from that of the English immigrant of to-day who never strays far from the city lights. Our tradition is as distinctive as our landscape. There is nothing wrong with our atmosphere. But fiction-writers who have to hunt up “local colour” will never find the real thing. It is forever far beyond their skyline.
I have remarked on the tendency to standardisation of type in the farming business, due to excessive specialisation. But there are many, many places to which this does not apply. And there is our heroic tradition, the like of which no other country has known; it is sui generis.
A Backblocks Recipe.
There was a certain hard-case old scout and bush-fighter, of whom I have heard many an anecdote from his comrades. Tom Adamson was one of three stalwart Wanganui brothers—I knew two of them well—who took to the war-path, in the ‘sixties; he wore the Maori shawl-kilt and marched barefooted. In his old age, when he was sheepfarming at Urukehu, on his Maori wife's land, he became “as bald as a billiard-ball,” as one of my friends described it. “Tom asked me, when I called at his place one day, what he should do for that pakira, or baldness. I advised him to use sheep-dip, to rub a dose of it into his scalp daily. I did not see him again for some months. When I rode up to his home next time I asked him how the sheep-dip had acted. ‘Look and see for yourself,’ he said, taking off his hat. Sure enough, his head was covered with a fine downy growth. ‘Stick to it, old man,’ I said. ‘I will that,’ Tom replied; ‘if I go on like this I'll have enough wool on top by Christmas to give a shearer a job'.”
I have not heard of any one else who experimented with that heroic hair-restorer, but I pass on the tip to my many pakira acquaintances, and eke our “tonsorial artists.”