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Settler Kaponga 1881–1914 — A Frontier Fragment of the Western World

‘Gunpowder's’ Bush Fire Ballad

‘Gunpowder's’ Bush Fire Ballad

The Star of 10 March 1894 devoted well over a column to a doggerel ballad that appears to be a settler's off-the-cuff reaction to the fires that gave the Kaponga settlers ‘a warm time from Wednesday until Sunday’, 21–25 February 1894. ‘Gunpowder's’ ballad seems to be a deliberate imitation of Kipling's Barrack-room Ballads (first published April 1892). He first sketches the frontier clearing on a Saturday morning. Settler Jack and his wife Jane dispatch their ‘little nipper Ben’ to the store six miles away, then complete the morning's chores and are sitting down ‘a-takin' of a spell’ when a bush fire rages down upon them. In telling of the tremendous fight to save their house and shed Jack highlights his wife's courage:

I've heard tell o' deeds o' soldierin' an' bravery done in war
But a woman workin' in a bush-fire is somethin' to adore.
It mayn't be woman's work but one who'll help her husband guard the home
She is to be beloved an' loved and famed in a stirrin' Kipling poem
You townsmen don't know what it is hemmed in by fire an' smoke
An' a-beatin' out the fire by woman's hand's a very ghastly joke,
But one who'll do it is a martyr, an' a heroine as well
An' as brave as the bravest red-coat that e'er in action fell!

The poem's last words show the link with the recent bush fires: ‘Jane an’ me that Saturday '94 fire we never will forget.’ We will examine the earlier part of the poem before sketching briefly its further incident concerning the boy Ben.

A Bush Fire
(Ignited by ‘Gunpowder’)
The Settler's Tale

We'd about a-finished milkin', an' the time was just on ten,
An' I sez to Jane my wife, 'We'll send to the store our little nipper Ben,
We're nearly out o' sugar, an' I want a pound o' nails,
An' the weekly STAR besides, to read the reg'lar auction sales.'
'Don't forget my baccy, lad,' (I likes my pipe jus' now an' then)
An' he trotted off jus' joyfully, and sez, 'Dad, I'll soon be back agen.'
Ben 'd bin gone an hour or so—the store was six mile away—
An' wife and me had fed the calves, an' fixed 'em for the day.
We'd worked hard on that section, a-choppin', burnin' wood,
An' we'd a sort o' got things ship-shape, as well as what we could.
page 184 The house, it warn't much—'twas slab an' shingle top;
But 'twas all we could afford, for at debt we'd allers stop.
Our fencin' was dog-leg—not very han'som, true—
We hadn't the money to buy wire, an' we made the stick-fence do.
She helped to fix that fence up, an' in the dwellin' built the hobs,
An she'd allers have her hand in a-doin' little handy jobs.
She it was as planned the cowshed, an' me as carried 'em out,
An' the architect, she was handy round to see 'em fixed up stout.
An' them there instalments, too, at times they bothered me in a mighty way,
But she'd allers show me, in her style, how we'd find a means to pay.
An' now we'd things a kind o' straight, an' a pound or two we'd got,
(But we'd worked hard for it, an' we was allers on the spot);
An' to-day we was a-sittin' down, a-takin of a spell,
An' there came a sound upon us, an' both our spirits fell.
‘Good God, the bush is a-fire!’—our clearin' was in flames—
The fire had kem from that bush jus' felled by neighbor James.
The smoke kem down upon us, and the fire at lightnin' rate it sped,
An' the wind was blowin' the flames straight onter our seed-shed.
In it we had our cocksfoot stored, safe from wind an' rain.
(But we never reckoned on that fire to rob us of our gain.)
Jane sez to me, ‘Jack, take this bag, an' don't think o' havin' a spell,
An' knock the fire out, an' I'll bring you water from the well.'
She gev me one look an' I felt I had the power
To knock creation out o' sparks (even if they fell in a shower).
I set to work with the heart of a lion, an' pounded with that bag,
An' I sez to the fire, ‘You fiend, this time you've struck an awk'ard snag!'
She brought the water to me an' I threw it first on house, then shed;
Then with the drippin' bag I welted till my sight it a'most fled.
The fire it was all round us, ravenous without sham,
For it had the awful hunger of a six-foot-four hired man.
We worked like fury for two hours a-drivin' back the flames,
But they went on gleefully, a-carryin' on their fast-destroyin' games.
Jus' then the wind turned round, an' it drove the fire away,
An' it scooted down the road—it seem'd it had some debts to pay!
I rushed to Jane when the wind turn'd round—she was an awk'ard sight:
She was burnt an' singed, an' her dress it looked a second-hand pedlar's right.
‘We beat the fire this time,’ she said, ‘an' saved the buildin' an shed,’
An' my thoughts ran back to the day when she an' me was wed.
Our fencin' an' grass were ashes, an' all around was black,
An' what with smoke an' my losses, my head with pain did rack…

It is plausible to take this as based on the writer's own recent experiences, with the storyline somewhat hyped up. If so the setting is probably the Kaponga district's northern fringe, possibly in the Mahoe area. It seems page 185 these settlers are not supplying a factory or creamery. Following a late finish to milking ‘just on ten’ (though the 10 o'clock finish may owe quite a deal to the rhyme with ‘Ben’) the couple feed the calves and then work on clearing, with no mention of carting the milk away. The primitive pioneer stage is further indicated by the dog-leg fencing and the slab and shingle house. Besides the house they have a shed for their cocksfoot seed, and a cowshed. Though it is not indicated, we probably should infer butter-making. Since no dairy is mentioned part of the house must have been used for setting the milk and churning the cream.

A striking feature of the ballad is Jack's deep admiration for Jane's contribution to their enterprise and his acceptance of her leadership. She helps with clearing, fence-building and milking. She has built the hobs in the house, and no doubt uses them to set the dough out to rise for a weekly baking of bread. But she also has an important management role, handling the finances and designing the cowshed. When the bush fire strikes it is she who gives the orders and directs the strategy. Why has this amateur poet broken with the custom of seeing the world from an adult male vantage point? Perhaps he has been moved by the example of Kipling's giving ‘credit where credit is due’ in such Barrack-room Ballads poems as ‘Fuzzy-Wuzzy’ and ‘Gunga Din’.

The poem's second incident begins with Jane suddenly remembering their son:

I never'll forget her look an' words ‘God help Ben—we'll never see him more,
He'll be comin' home now, an be more'n half-way from the store!'
My headache left in a flash, an' I thought o' that poor boy
A-comin' home with his packages, an' allers full o' joy.
‘God grant he'll not be caught,' I prayed, then started down the road…

There follows a sentimental account of Jack's battle through smoke, flames and falling trees hunting for his ‘darling boy’. At last he hears a childish cry and finds first old Lucy the horse, who has died after falling upon a rimu limb, and then:

A yard or so behind her a little bundle lay of a heap—
My boy—my Ben—my pride! I picked him up. He seemed asleep.

Jack carries the unconscious Ben back through the fire to their hut, where Jane is waiting at the door:

An' she took Ben from me an' sez, ‘Thank God, you've saved the child!'
We put him on the sofa, an' softened his skin with cream
An' we waited, wonderin' how long he'd be, a-comin' out o' his dream.
He breathed so soft at first, and then it harder rose,
An' he opened his eyes an' sez, ‘Dad, the old mare fell on her nose,
I got the sugar, baccy, an' nails, an' EGMONT STAR as well,
An' I 'spect you'll find 'em ‘bout the place where poor old Lucy fell.'

page 186

So all ends happily. This vivid glimpse inside frontier life calls for a number of comments. It should help to warn us that it is unwise to carry the period's adult male dominance of the public record into the daily experience of farm and family life. Jane, Jack and Ben interact as team members on an equal footing, with deep mutual affection and loyalty, and with the location of initiative and leadership emerging from the changing situations, related to individual gifts and skills. We must be wary of taking a priori views on family relationships to our study of this rural world. However, the story is told from Jack's viewpoint, and the ballad thus reflects issues that were dominant in the mind of this settler father.

Clearly economic realities were a major concern. ‘Them instalments’ that bothered him will have been the recurrent deferred payments due on his land. When the fire swoops upon them Jack's most vivid simile for its raging is an economic one—it is ‘ravenous’ with ‘the awful hunger of a six-foot-four hired man’. The fire battle won, his head racks with pain as he considers his fire losses. Through shifting to the Ben episode the ballad fails to explore these losses. It does not tell us how the cows and calves fared in the fire. With grass and fencing in ashes the husbandry of the section must be facing a dire crisis. But the ballad's shift to Ben, and the prominent place given to Jane throughout, show that family affection carries equal weight with the economic struggle in this settler's mind. Of course, in terms of lived reality, these two profound concerns—farm and family—are deeply interwoven. Each member of the team expresses their affection for the others through their commitment to the common enterprise. Thus Ben's words that end the poem express both his satisfaction in a task carried through under great difficulties and his affection for his father.