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Settlers and Pioneers

2 — The Bush Settler

page 12

The Bush Settler

The crisp chop of the axe sharply echoing from the wall of bush is the first note of settlement in a new land. 'Feel my blade,' says the axe. 'It serves notice to you tall trees, towering there in your pride and strength. You block the way; down you come. Man is here knocking at the door. Down you come! Make way for the spade, the plough, the grass-seed and the food crops.' The axe was the newcomer's first weapon in this North Island of New Zealand, timbered as it was to within a few miles of the coast. In Southern parts the settler seeking pastures for sheep and cattle began by firing the scrub and thick, high, coarse grass, a tangled growth. Axe and saw were not their tools of attack. Here in the North was the forest-edge, where fern and glossy-green foliage of tupakihi and rustling flax-bushes soon gave place to the unpierced barrier of lofty trees.

The height and thickness of those trees and the density of branch and leafage amazed the stalwart stranger who stood gazing at them, axe in hand. page 13Their boughs stretched far overhead, they were looped together with a rigging more intricate than a ship's; cable-like grey ropes, round as hawsers, and as strong, hung down from the hazy ceiling, like ropes in some woody belfry.

The stranger's axe was new; he had been eager before even getting his camp sweated down to try its edge against these pillars that propped up a new sky. Most of them were thicker through than the masts of the ship from which he and his family had lately landed after a voyage round half the globe. He had taken a chip or two out of one of the small trees. The blade sank into the tawa trunk with a chunk that gave him a strange pleasure. The cut in bark and tree-flesh released a cool, moist pungency, a fragrance new to him. It was that smell of newly-cut wood and soon the fragrance of burning twigs and branches that were to hold him captive for life. He plied his sharp axe again until his vigorous and straightly-directed blows brought the tree crashing down to the ferny ground. He picked up a chunk and smelt it, as a primitive man landing in a new country might sniff a handful of soil. It touched a primeval sense of adventure and exploration.

The axeman walked out from the bush fringe to the tents gleaming against the dark of the tall timber. In the little camp there were two tents and a tarpaulin shelter for piles of baggage trunks, shipboard chests, and boxes of food stores and a hundred supplies. page 14While he had explored the bush edge and tested the tree-temper with eye and nose and axe, his family had reduced the miscellaneous loads from the bullock-dray to some order against the night. The older boys gave promise of a strength and sturdiness to equal their father's. Two big girls, bonny farm lassies, urged their mother to rest awhile. 'Sit down on this trunk, ma,' said Betsy. 'We can't do everything at once. There is always another day.'

'Good sound philosophy,' said a man who came up at that moment to speak to the head of the family, a generously-whiskered fellow of bush-settler cut and dress. He was a farmer from the fringe of cultivation a mile away, who had arranged to cart the newcomers' loads of baggage and stores into their raw new section. His bullock-team stood at the edge of the space of cleared ground, where the low bushes and fern-clumps had been slashed away to make way for the camp. The good-natured and kindly neighbour gave the assistance without which they would have been rather helpless in that beginning of a new life where everything was strange. The pound a day the immigrant had offered him to take them on to their land and see them settled there for the beginning of the new life was not excessive pay for the considerable service he gave.

After the business at the Land Office, from which the immigrant emerged with his papers of title, the old settler who knew the ropes had smoothed the page 15way as far as it could be smoothed for the start on New Zealand soil. The selector, having successfully struggled with the official preliminaries—the fees, the survey, the map—found himself and his family in possession of a hundred and eighty acres in the Hunua bush, near Papakura, twenty-five miles south of Auckland—forty acres free grant for each of the three adults in the family, the parents and the eldest son, and twenty acres allowed for each child under age. It was more than enough for the present. Most of the land was covered with standing bush—a tall forest of red and white pine, puriri, rata, kohekohe, on the hills the great kauri; but timber of no use to the pioneer after enough had been pit-sawn from it for the home buildings. The rest would have to go up in smoke, and add to the fiery pall which would presently cover most of the bushland sections.

The settler, still grasping his new axe, gazed hard over the forest landscape, rising into a tumble of bush ranges, a rugged upswell of shouldering hills, one above the other away to the horizon. The farmer, whose neighbour he was now to be, guessed the tenor of his thoughts. He smiled as he said:

'Yes, it's a tough job you have before you, old man. But you must bear in mind that the heavy bush land makes the best farms when it's cleared. It's ten times better in the long run than the easy-looking land that's clear of big stuff, and only tea-tree or fern to get rid of. In a few years this will be grass paddocks page 16and fields of potatoes and wheat, and you will have a home to be proud of.'

Sitting there on one of the ship-trunks, the man of experience expounded some of the wisdom of the bush country, and the business of setting up a home in a land that seemed at first sight a barbarous wilderness. But it would soon be sundown. He jumped up and laid hold of the trunk to get it under canvas. 'Come along, I'll have to see you all ship-shape before I get away with my team.'

The little camp had taken on a face of orderliness before the teamster was under way, with eloquent appeals and whip-cracks like pistol-shots. 'See you in the morning,' shouted the bullock-driver as he plodded round a bastion of tall timber.