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My First Eighty Years

Chapter 7 — Levin Block

page 103

Chapter 7
Levin Block

My mother and I returned to Wellington well satisfied. Beyond the thrill of its beauty, the clearing on our section gave us the special advantage that we might occupy at once, whereas every other settler on a bush section had to wait till his bush was felled, left to dry and then burnt before he could as much as walk about his land. This is how it happened that two women were the very first settlers in the Levin Block.

We decided to leave Wellington as soon as we could find anyone to build us a house on the land, for boarding in town was an expense we would be glad to avoid. I will own to a certain secret reluctance. I was a shy, unsophisticated girl, hurried from school to school-teaching in the country. I hardly knew anything of the life of young people of my own age. I had seen a glimpse of things in Wellington of which I would fain have learnt more. However, we had come to take up land. We, or rather my mother, interviewed builders, and studied estimates for some days. But it appeared that the boom that was taking place in land had induced a corresponding boom in house-building and though builders were eager to take contracts we found none prepared to start work at once. Perhaps they were more scrupulous in those days. I have known modern contractors promise to start half a dozen houses at once.

Our furniture was stored at the sawmill near Levin and we thought we might be more successful in finding a builder on the spot.

We remembered a little cottage built by a Danish workman towards the south of the Levin Block, on a stony clearing. Taking the Public Works train, we went to see page 104 whether his wife might be induced to board us. Mrs Petersen was willing to board us and let us her two front rooms for a moderate sum. I forget what she charged and I fear you would not believe me if I could remember.

We lost no time in moving to these lodgings from which, every day, we could walk up to our section. We bought two billhooks, armed with which, a billy and some sandwiches, we set out every morning to attack the clumps of spikey bush-lawyer, which were the only green things on the section we could bear to exterminate. In an amateurish way we must have done pretty good work. We slashed and hewed the springy piles to pieces, burnt stalks and leaves, sowed grass-seed on the large, round, bare patches we had made and purred with satisfaction to see the down of green blades appear.

I remember that the wild horses made sad havoc of some of our patches of new grass. They rolled in the soft earth, apparently danced and held midnight revels so that they made shallow basins where we had raked the earth smooth and flat. An examination of the clearing showed nine of the primeval giants of the forest still standing, their clean, stately columns seeming to soar to the skies, and their branches, freed from the struggle for light and air, flung wide and bushy, but still out of proportion to the enormous trunks. They looked like green parasols hoisted on tall masts.

Still more attractive than the giant matai and rimu, because they met the eye without the effort of gazing upwards, were the trees of medium growth — miro and matipo. These, when space had been cleared, had spread like huge weeping willows, and as never leaf or twig was allowed to push downward within reach of a horse's outstretched neck they were trimmed straight as a ceiling, every tree at exactly the same level.

The clearing was apparently circular with a slight but distinct rise in the centre, providing a perfect building-site. The encircling virgin bush had developed a natural edge of page 105 ferns and shrubs that protected the bush and gave a finish to the clearing. A house built on that rise would be standing in natural grounds such as a millionaire might envy. How were we to guess that surveyors take no heed of fine building-sites and that the boundary line of the block ran straight through that rise?

Mrs Petersen proved the kindest and cleanest of landladies but, oh! the fleas! The place fairly heaved with them, inside and out. Men and dogs had camped there and left a legacy beyond control. The strange thing was that neither she nor her husband or son seemed to feel them. One morning when I had caught and killed so many that I felt as gory as a butcher, she said with surprised admiration, ‘Haf you r'ally gotten one?’ The wallpaper, clearly hung by the most amateurish of amateurs, was torn and hanging loose from the scrim. One could hear fleas all night, flop, flop, flopping like frogs on the sounding paper. We had to get away somehow, even if we had to buy a tent. Then came a decrepit old Swede who said he was a ‘push carpenter’ and could build us a shed for our goods where we could live until a house was built.

We had learnt by now that timber was no problem. We had already had rough boards and bits for firewood thrown off the tram-line and we knew we had only to ask the trolley driver and we could have as much as we liked. So far we had asked for ‘facecuts’, the first slices off the logs with the bark adhering, but even the second sappy boards were practically for nothing. I do not remember the exact cost, but I know that four years later, when we built a house, the price of heart of rimu was four shillings and elevenpence per 100ft. and matai flooring the same.

The structure built by the bush carpenter was about 12ft. by 12ft. We purchased nails, hinges, a lock and one window and we sat down on the short cropped lawn to watch the wonder take shape. Presently I exclaimed, ‘Why! There's nothing in this building, I see how it is done. If I had a page 106 hammer and saw I am sure I could do it,’ and there and then we decided that as soon as the man had gone we would try our hands at this ‘push carpentering’.

On the advice of the builder, the roof, as well as the walls, had been weatherboarded. He had said, without much conviction, that if he made the pitch of the roof high enough and overlapped the boards well it should be watertight. We reasoned to our own satisfaction that one board placed over another must throw off water. It seems incredible now that we knew nothing of, or gave no thought to, that blessing of pioneers, corrugated iron. So many things had proved easy that were supposed to be impossible that we trusted to our luck.

We had brought a miscellaneous collection of what we called furniture. We had been careful to pack everything that we thought necessary for a primitive life. We had packed as well as our lares and penates certain things precious to us because they had been hard to come by and we feared would never be acquired again. Thus, after much hesitation, we had brought a piano. We saw, now that our goods had been brought down, that it would be impossible to store them in the new structure and live in it too. So, after a few days of impossible congestion, when one had to climb over the piano to get into bed, we made ourselves an alfresco dining-room. A splendid matipo, with a spread like the largest weeping willow, grew behind the whare. We strewed sawdust under it as a carpet. Three really valuable carved oak chairs that we had not been able to find it in our hearts to part with we wickedly put out there, saying that we would cover them with sacks if it rained. A small iron garden table and a colonial oven we had bought in Wellington for the prospective house stood upon two kerosene boxes to form a sideboard. This last was invaluable, for food could be kept in it safe from wekas, whose curiosity led them to make a great nuisance of themselves. They did not seem to fancy any of our food but they would run away with small page 107 objects, spoons and lids of tins and teapots. One had to be careful, when one went out and shut the door of the whare, that there was not a weka hiding inside, for if shut in it would flap about, upsetting everything. Once we came back to find one of them had dashed itself to death against the window. The rats were the blue New Zealand variety and gave no trouble at all.

Almost any morning we could find lying on the tram-line, where a morepork had evidently found room to do his work, a skin looking like a glove turned wrong side out. The skin was always quite whole, yet every scrap of flesh, even the brain, had been picked from it. The grey-blue fur was long and silky and as soft as chinchilla. It is a pity if this rat is extinct. As late as 1911 my husband caught one in Levin; all the bush rats I have seen in the King Country, however, were the ordinary grey vermin.

We had certainly achieved a charming dining-room but dining-rooms do not necessarily provide dinners. Where did these come from? There was no butcher, baker, milkman, nor any way of obtaining eggs, butter, fish or vegetables. Those things leave a big gap in the commissariat.

There was no real train service, but the Public Works' train ran daily as far as Levin, and certain Wellington firms sent a man on it to take orders from the mill-hands. If we had cared to walk two miles to the sawmill, where the train stopped, and give an order we should have had to walk it again the next day to receive the goods, there being no railway store where it could be kept. We might, had we cared, have got over some of these difficulties but we determined — as would most lone women — to subsist upon such things as could be ordered monthly from a grocer: flour, tea, sugar, oatmeal (without milk), rice and such preserved things as were known in those days. Our staple diet was ship's biscuits and rice. There were luxuries in the shops. but we seldom included them in our orders.

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Bread and butter were the commodities we missed most. We had them for a few days after the order came, but home-made butter does not keep long. Dried apricots had just come on to the market. They were little brown things, the size of a halfpenny. We liked them and sucked them raw as sweets. They cost fourpence a pound! I do not like to think what the modern dietitian would say of our fare, but I can state positively that, though in the South Island my mother had suffered from bronchitis and I had been anæmic, we were both at that time in excellent health.

One day we looked out to see an old Maori man walking casually round our garden. Horrible! What to do? My mother, who never deigned to show nervousness, strode out to him and said firmly, ‘What do you want?’

He smiled benignly, saying, ‘I look roun'. You t' widow?’

We both drew a deep breath and wondered what the next move should be, but it soon dawned on us that there was no guile in the old man. Quite a long conversation followed, of which I hope he understood more than we did. At any rate he called the next day bringing us a large pumpkin. What a treat it was!

It was our custom to work outside, my mother gardening and fencing or digging till lunch time, then, as neither wanted to go in, we took it in turns to prepare the meal. ‘In’ is a euphemism, for our fire was outside and so was our dining-room. The day after our Maori visitor came my mother cooked pumpkin and made it into a tasty dish with butter, pepper and salt. The next day, when my turn came, butter was off so we dined cheerfully on pumpkin. I might not have remembered that trifle but when writing to my sister in Melbourne we must have made a story of it and she always afterwards referred to that autumn as our pumpkin-and-pepper period.

It was some time after we moved into our whare that rain tested the roof. There was a drip, drip, drip, right on to page 109 my mother's bed. She got up, hammered out a sardine tin and, while I held the light, pushed it into the crack and returned to bed triumphant. In about half an hour a drip developed over my bed. There were no more sardine tins so I took a ship's biscuit, prized up the board and pushed it in the crack. There it did the work required until morning. But, we were worried, for it had been but a shower. What should we do in the winter rains?

We had arranged that day to go to see some people called Retter who had farmed for years near the Maori pa, on the other side of Lake Horowhenua. The idea was to buy a cow or perhaps some fowls. It was a long walk, some four or five miles each way I should think, and when we arrived the Retters were all away. We heard later that they had gone to the Otaki races. How strange it seemed that people were really holding races so near to us who seemed to be lost in vast loneliness. We walked home hungrily, having found nothing but some watercress to sustain us. On our way home we passed a young Maori who, in good English, told us that if we took the track further to the left the going would be smoother. He seemed to be engaged in slicing a log of white wood into slats. We enquired and were told that he was cutting white pine shingles for roofing. Shingles! We remembered that houses in Timaru were sometimes roofed with shingles. The Grangers' had been. That would solve our problem. We asked some questions about their use and ordered six bundles to be delivered the next day.

I was on the roof, busy with hammer and shingle-nails, when the man who was to be my husband came to see us. I went on working, expecting it to be a business interview, till my mother called me to have a cup of tea.

‘This is Mr Wilson. He has brought us a joint of wild pork.’

While drinking the milkless tea, he told us of the wildpig hunt and of the number of cattle they had seen in the hills, and explained that he had a camp two miles away. page 110 He called himself a bushwhacker. He had a contract to supply logs for the mill as far as the head of the tram-line. For the work he employed a team of bullocks and a couple of men.

Some recollections of my first impression of the man whose life was to be linked with mine for nearly half a century seem in order. But it is not easy, unless the reader is prepared to discount such a description, for it would be strange indeed if the fuller knowledge of the long, happy, anxious years had not coloured and distorted these early memories. Concerning a few factual matters I am on firm ground. He was of medium height, stockily built, broad-shouldered, strong-jawed, blue-eyed, and had a wealth of fair, wavy hair that grew attractively from the forehead. Alas! This feature did not stand by him long. At a remarkably early age he began to grow bald, but his row of even white teeth was practically intact to the end.

It was my mother who first remarked on his unusual buoyancy and cheery disposition. She christened him Mark Tapley. We both noticed how skilful and dexterous he was in handling delicate things. I was chiefly interested in his first-hand knowledge of the bush, timber trees, birds, ferns and insects. Even so, I was far from realising that it was exceptional. I supposed that a man who worked among these things must needs know all about them. I found later that it was he who had supplied the special local knowledge which figured in the prospectus of the Levin Block, and in which each official of the Lands Department took a proprietary pride. He was pre-eminently a man of action and a keen observer. Having spent his early years on a farm in New South Wales, he had first-hand knowledge of Australian plants and animals and could give especially interesting comparisons about bird life. Walking along a bush track he would say casually, ‘There's a morepork's nest up there,’ and he would surely be correct.

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His speech was vivid and full of jocular exaggerations, descriptions and similes, all his own — ‘As cunning as a wombat’; ‘The thick matai trunks standing like a field of oats.’

Describing a neglected farm, he said, ‘Grass! Not a blade. Scrub, fern and moss are racing which shall grow the highest and the moss is winning.’

Sometimes his descriptions were whimsical to the point of being farcical, but were always amusing and original.

On this occasion, when he found that we had no means of cooking a joint, he said, ‘Then I must cut it into chops for grilling.’

He seized a piece of fencing-wire and with a few twists produced a gridiron, the extra long handle of which was the greatest boon. We learnt to place our frying-pan on the gridiron so that we were able to fry without being almost cremated. I forget whether or not it was on this first visit that he taught us how to make scones on an open fire. You mix the dough as usual and, sharpening a stick at both ends, wrap the mixture round one end like a furled flag. Then you drive the other point into the ground so that the scone is held at the right distance from the fire, which should be glowing embers. Turn the stick from time to time. The dough will swell up like a tennis-ball. When done, draw out the stick and fill the hole with butter — if you have any.

We have often found this useful and amusing at picnics or camping expeditions. We had already learnt to make what we called damper, a thinnish batter cooked in a frying-pan. This can be quite good if you have milk and the odd egg. It is much like a pikelet. But we learnt now that this was the height of luxury compared with the Australian swagger's damper, which is merely flour and salt and water mixed very thin and poured on the hot hearth whence the fire has been raked. We tried it but it did not find favour.

Our new friend (his name was Charles Kendal Wilson, and to me was later Ken) assured us that if we meant to page 112 stay in the bush for the winter we certainly could not do without a fire in our whare. We had been deceived by the long, warm autumn into believing that the North Island knew no cold. He offered to help us build a wooden chimney. We had seen this phenomenon. All the mill shacks had them and we marvelled that they were not constantly in flames. He assured us that they were quite safe as long as you packed earth or clay round the fire itself, though of course you could not build a bonfire or it would catch at the top. He showed us how a wooden chimney is built. (In fact he built it for us, for he was one of those people who handle things so easily that it seems a pity to do anything but hold the other end.) These curios are constructed on the ground and hoisted up against the wall, where a hole to fit has been already cut; then you flash it with tin round the join to keep out the rain. Our new friend brought along two iron bars on which to stand pots and pans (these had been part of a bullock yoke) and my mother modelled a most artistic fireplace of clay. It cracked and cracked again for many weeks but we filled up the deep rifts and washed it over every day. It did not occur to us to go to the expense of a brush. We washed it with a rag dipped in thin clay mixture. The chimney drew beautifully and did not smoke. What, never? Well, hardly ever. We felt thoroughly comfortable for the winter.

Above all things, we desired to catch a wild horse. My efforts at taming them had proved worse than useless.

You will remember that we put in an application for those particular sections marked on the Government map as having permanent water. This consisted of a well dug in a swampy place by the mill for watering its bullocks. For that purpose a twenty-foot white-pine trough stood before the well. There was no other water for the wild horses except in very wet seasons. Poor things! Our coming must have been a great blow to them. You could watch a furtive head poke out from the thick bush and quickly page 113 withdraw. They played this game of advance and retreat as the agonies of thirst and fear alternated; then, after many false starts and dashes back to cover, they would take their courage in all their hooves and march to the trough in single file behind their leader.

I would fill the trough and stand concealed nearby. I could see their terror-stricken eyes roll round vigilantly as they sucked greedily at the water, their bodies ready poised to dash off at the least sound, even the moving of a twig. I am inclined to doubt stories about the sense of smell that is supposed to guide and warn horses, for my hiding-place was not three yards from them.

Mr Wilson — as he was to us then — told us how horses were caught with a rope noose hung across their regular tracks through the bush.

No, he had never caught one. They weren't always worth the breaking-in. The young mares had already been caught and the young colts were always killed or driven away by the old stallion. However, there were a couple in the mob that might be worth catching. He would set a snare some Sunday.

When the Sunday came we watched eagerly for the horses to come for their daily drink. They were beginning very gradually to show less fear. From concealment we saw them, their thirst quenched, turn and canter off to regain the bush. A slight movement was sufficient to divert the leader from his place and to create enough confusion for a big chestnut mare to dash first down the track. The noose closed on her and pulled her up with a jerk that we thought would dislocate every limb. Her captor, keeping clear of the flying legs, went to her head, loosened the stranglehold and pressed the straining head firmly to the ground. She could no longer plunge so wildly.

‘I know this old girl,’ he said with disgust. ‘She's not worth a damn.’ He opened her frothing mouth. ‘Come and look at her teeth. You can come round this way. She can't page 114 kick forward. Look, she hasn't a stump.’

I can't say I saw much. I had no eyes for anything but the writhing, agonised creature.

‘She's the great-grandmother of the bunch. Our luck's out. Shall I let her go?’

‘Yes! Yes! Oh, quickly.’

We did not want that or any other wild horse, now or ever.

‘But can you? Is it possible?’ we asked, looking at the tangle of horseflesh, rope and branches. We never expected to see her all in one piece again.

‘Easy as falling off a log,’ and he cut the end of the rope near the slip-knot.

The old mare struggled to her feet in remarkably short time and galloped off.

The following spring he caught us two foals from the wild mob. By then we had acquired a cow and we brought them up by hand, on cow's milk. One turned out a handsome beast. The other was sold, for if its rider should dismount and allow it to wander, as many men will with an easily caught nag, it would deliberately seek out the milking-bail and drink any milk it found in a bucket. The man who bought that glutton thought it a great joke. I am not so sure if a farmer would see the humour, or his wife, who might be awaiting the evening milk.

We saw wild pig but once. I had gone to the potato patch to dig a root for lunch It was fenced. We thought ourselves great fencers. From the timber sent by the mill we selected scantlings for posts, to which we nailed rails of four-by-one battens, partly mortising them for extra strength. On these rails we nailed boards close together. The appearance was satisfactory and they felt firm, for each board was buried a foot or so in the ground. But — and it was a big but — the sappy wood had no lasting power. Before three years were over they were rotting away.

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Well, the potato patch was not finished with boards, but merely with posts and rails because, as far as we knew, we were fencing against wild horses only. But, as I stooped for the potatoes, a tiny black piglet ran by me. I threw myself upon it, but the sow, a huge brute with its red mouth wide open, rushed to save her squealing baby. I climbed the fence with the thing in my arms and she stood below, telling what she'd do to me if I would only come down. I wondered how long I was going to be there, but the rest of her brood came squeaking about her and perhaps she couldn't count. At any rate, she marched off with them.

We thought we had a great treasure, and we laboured long and hard to make an enclosure and a shelter for our piglet. We would have sworn that nothing without wings could have escaped. In the night we heard the mother pig making contact with her baby, and in the morning our fine pigsty was a heap of matchwood tossed all around.

But I have blundered years ahead. Neither foals nor piglet were caught till after we had bought a cow. We had now reached only May of our first autumn, 1889, a particularly beautiful season. Day after day and week after week were so warm and still and sunny that we were tempted to believe we had come to a land of perpetual summer. My mother suggested that, as it was my birthday, we should take a walk to Lake Horowhenua which lay about two miles to the west of us. We crossed the railway and entered the bush beyond it, and found without difficulty a surveyor's line, clearly defined, that was the northern boundary of Levin Block. It was not too bad walking in single file if we lifted our ankle-length skirts to prevent their catching on the supplejacks and small growth that had been cut some six inches from the ground. Presently, from the dim bush shadows, we came out into blazing sunshine on a grassy sand-dune overlooking the lovely lake. It was wonderful to look at the open sky and wide horizon after our enclosed existence in the bush clearing. We enjoyed page 116 watching the sun exhibit his brilliant, age-old box of tricks as he set over the low sand-hills. Then we turned to go home. We were amazed to find it had grown dark — unbelievably dark.

However, the tips of the cut supplejacks shone white in the gloom and we thought they would guide us. They did, until we came to a place where a tree had fallen over the line. Coming, we had been able to walk round the head of the tree quite easily and as easily find the line again. We could no longer do so. It was dark, quite dark, and we never found that track again. We were lost.

In a bush settlement there is always considerable talk about ‘getting bushed’. We knew that people are apt to walk in circles and become lost in a few acres. From time to time the mill-hands would go pig or cattle hunting and be missing for a night or even two. The train was often asked to whistle loudly and frequently to guide someone who had been away too long. But no soul knew of our having left home, or would dream of enquiring. We might have taken a trip to Wellington for all anyone knew. We began to think our plight serious. We knew there were fifty miles of standing bush between us and Palmerston North. We must avoid going north at all costs.

My mother said, ‘We've only to find the Southern Cross, follow where the Pointers point and we'll come out in the clearing where the Petersens live.’

But how, through that canopy of leaves, could we ever hope to see more than one star at a time?

We blundered on. It was incredibly rough going. That part of Levin to-day looks perfectly flat but it seemed to us then that we were continually falling through leaves and branches into deep ravines where surface-water frightened and wet us. Once we saw a patch of sky showing a few stars. My mother said she recognised them but I doubted it. The train came up and its roar, reverberating through the bush, sounded very near, but my mother thought the sound came page 117 from our left and I was sure it came from the right. We discussed the very remote possibility of our new friend Mr Wilson guessing where we had gone because it was he who had given us the directions by which we found the cut line and who also had spoken of the lake as worth seeing from that viewpoint. I was for making ourselves as comfortable as we could and waiting for daylight, but my mother feared her bronchitis, so we blundered on, scratched and torn and not at all sure that each yard we fought did not take us further north.

At last we came to almost impenetrable undergrowth and no high trees and, after a final fight, we were in the Petersens' clearing and the Southern Cross hung low on the horizon in front of us.

Day was dawning when we reached home.

* * * *

My mother may not have taken my building ambitions very seriously but I was full of enthusiasm, so, as soon as the shingling was finished and had proved satisfactory, I set out to build a room on to the whare — a kitchen. It was wonderfully easy going, for our Mr Wilson had loaded the timber on the truck at the mill in the right order for use, all the scantlings together for framework, flooring and joists came first, and then the boards, carefully selected. Hitherto we had just a huge pile of mixed boards, blocks, beams and firewood which, when laboriously sorted, never provided enough of one kind of timber to finish one job. He helped us with a second big wooden chimney, in which my mother set, in puddled clay, the colonial oven that had served as a cupboard. We could now bake bread and roast the game that was sometimes brought to us.

Next, for my architectural blood was up, I built a bathroom. (We had had only a zinc washing-tub.) The bath was a wooden trough made of five 12in. by 2in. white-pine boards. With a borrowed auger, we made a hole and carefully rounded a piece of wood to fit it as a plug. I carried page 118 the water from the well and, when it ran out, it simply ran through a hole in the board floor and drained into the garden.

After that — perhaps a year later — we built another bedroom for my sister, who was due from Melbourne. We lined, ceiled, scrimmed and papered that room. The paper was only newspaper, but it was washed with whiting and tinted pink with a tube of crimson lake, out of my mother's Winsor and Newton water-colours; we were very proud of that effort.

But the triumph of the structure was represented by the two porches. The first was purely utilitarian. We found outside drips from the shingled roof very annoying in the doorway, especially when frost was melting. We had made a wooden spouting but it gaped in fine weather. So we thought that extending the roof by a porch might help. This, when finished, added so astonishingly to the appearance of the shack that I grew very aspiring, and designed a much finer one for the main door. Its hipped roof was supported by posts from the bush, straight and bark-covered; the sides were latticed, and there were benches on each side to sit on. The garden table stood there at first, but soon my mother conceived a new use for it. Along the trolley-line on the way to the mill was the stump of a huge rimu. It was quite five feet across. Passing along the tram-line we had often remarked on the slaughter of that noble tree; for the early settlers who destroyed so much valuable timber were yet keenly alive to the pity of it. What my mother desired was a horizontal slice, about two inches thick, sawn off the top of that stump, and placed on the small iron table to make a sizeable dining-table. When we had achieved this we thought it beautiful.

It was a queer room, that kitchen-cum-living-room. We had whitewashed the walls, finding out — or being told — that a slab of glue, melted and added to the wash, made a smooth surface that did not rub off. The chimney was like a small room, with whitewashed hobs and a high mantel-piece. page 119 When, as sometimes happened later, more guests came than there were chairs, the young fry would have to sit in the chimney.

There was the incongruous piano, the unheard-of table, the mixture of carved oak chairs and deal boxes and the window merely a rectangular space in the wall, with a penthouse eyebrow outside and shutters fastening from inside.

* * * *

We heard now the history of our holding and how the phenomenon of a clearing, with no access nor any means of approach, had come to be hidden away in the midst of miles and miles of virgin bush apparently never trodden by man.

The story is a native tragedy.

In the early years of the nineteenth century the natives living round the lake were in deadly fear of the terrible chief Te Rauparaha. They had reason to be. Neither peaceful behaviour nor even submission was any protection against his ravages. He raided and killed for killing's sake. Even the open sea did not deter him. The Muaupoko tribe, whose home was beside Lake Horowhenua, determined that their best safety lay in fortifying themselves against him by building islands of refuge in the lake itself.

The Herculean task was said to have been performed chiefly by the women of this tribe, who carried baskets of the sandy soil on their backs. (To-day, you can see the escarpment on the side of a hill that provided that soil.) The men drove long stakes into the bed of the lake, throwing timber, flax and toi toi to act as a foundation. At last, basket by basket — we can hardly imagine the toil — two islands were formed, which, as far as I can remember, were about three chains in diameter. (In my day, they were covered with rank vegetation: and Maori geese used to nest on them.)

The islands were protected from canoe attack by a system of underwater stakes, with a secret passage, on the page 120 same principle as a minefield of the present day. They were conveniently near the shore but well out of range of the strongest spear-thrower. No doubt the tribe's spirits rose as they looked on their prodigious handiwork. They were certain that their fortification was invincible, so certain that they were emboldened to challenge the Ngatitoa chief in the correct method by eating his two daughters. Then they waited, exultant, for the coming of the native Attila.

In due course he came but, alas, the Maoris had not heard of the new devilish ‘bang-stick’, the weapon of the pakeha. Not only did Te Rauparaha come armed with muskets, but he also performed a feat considered impossible. He managed to haul his war canoes up the raupo-choked Hokio stream. His war parties arrived by land and by water, completely surrounding the island forts. The men and women crowding on to them were penned up for slaughter. The tribe was all but exterminated and the lake red with blood. A very few saved their lives by throwing themselves into the lake and swimming for the bush-clad shore on the east. The survivors ultimately came together in this spot we had christened Cashmere. Like ourselves, they came there because of the permanent water.

Their existence must have been the last word in wretchedness. Imagine felling, with stone axes, enough space in the virgin bush to plant a crop — the soil thick with tough roots and not even a spade to cultivate land. Here were we, enjoying the benefit of their clearing, fed by the produce of civilization, sheltered by sawn timber, clothed in wool, and thinking that we were roughing it and we were pioneers. We decided that they could not possibly have lived through the first winter if some of their kin had not secretly befriended them. We liked to imagine a captive Maori maid of their tribe stealing away secretly to bring them the first seed potatoes or a smouldering brand to light their first fire. We were told that they dared not light a large fire lest their relentless enemies, the Ngatitoa, should spy the page 121 smoke. Eventually this remnant of the Muaupoko tribe was chivalrously protected by a chief of the Ngati Raukawa who ‘threw his mantle’ over them and, incidentally, was most scurvily repaid. But the story of Te Whatanui will lead me too far from our lives at Cashmere. Still, it is worth reading.

By this time we were beginning to realise that the world in which we had buried ourselves was now not entirely devoid of people. Two beautiful girls, on excellent horses, side-saddled, and properly equipped, rode up one day to see us. They were the Misses McDonald from the coast, some seven miles away.

Mr McKerrow of the Lands Department had told us of this family and had enjoined us, when a road had been made between the bush and their home, to go and see them; and he had promised us a true Highland welcome. He had written to them about us and they had found their way without a road. There was an immediate affinity between us and, later, this family became an immense interest to us.

The original Hector McDonald had been a whaler on Kapiti Island. He had eventually bought land on the mainland from the natives, established a store and a trading station and built an accommodation house at the mouth of the Hokio stream. He had seen and talked with the monstrous Te Rauparaha and had seen the transition of the Maori race from veritable savagery and cannibalism to a considerable degree of civilisation. He had now been dead some years, but his widow, a very fine type of Scottish woman, was a prolific source of wonderful stories of the old times.

The beach had been their only highway and what a busy one it was. Travellers in incredible numbers — distinguished men, foreign as well as English, scientists, artists, explorers, traders, pedlars, entertainers in great variety, vagabonds, runaway sailors and convicts as well as many official parties page 122 — had stayed there. There was hardly a name known to New Zealand history but Mrs McDonald had entertained the bearer in her accommodation house, and had some little anecdote about him. Many, like Mr McKerrow, had remained her friends. When the Manawatu railway began to take the place of the beach as a highway, the McDonalds moved a mile or so inland to the centre of their holding. There, the Maoris, who held the family in great esteem, built them a house such as they build for great chiefs. The wall and roof were of thatch, but the rooms were lined with elaborately patterned toi toi reeds, obviously a laborious process, but a work of art and of love as rare as it was interesting.

This family, when we met them, consisted of five fine, tall sons and two charming daughters. They knew and understood the Maori as well as any pakeha possibly could. They were exceedingly fond of them and were uneasy as to what effect this new white land-settlement in the bush country would have upon them. Clear sand-hill country stretched along the coast of which the Maori had sold a certain proportion, enough to give the natives some contact with European ways but still to leave them as much as they could cultivate or graze. The McDonalds owned the most densely populated area, that surrounding the Horowhenua Lake. This was ideal for the native and the last half century had been for him a time of growth and unchecked progress. He had acquired and learnt to use the benefits of civilisation, iron tools, implements, cattle, horses, sheep and pigs, and was farming in his own way with reasonable success. There was sufficient incentive for them to farm, for Wellington provided them with an ever-expanding market. Indeed, Wellington depended very largely on the produce that came along the beach from the Manawatu coast.

The Maori lived, or thought he lived, entirely under his own chiefs and customs. He was proud and independent, for the pakeha government held a light rein and interfered page 123 only when tribal disturbances threatened to become serious. Small frays took place continually. The McDonalds told us of a time when two hostile tribes saw fit to engage in battle, one on either side of their homestead. The bullets were flying freely over the house and falling with dull thuds in the thatched roof.

Do? Oh, one of the sons stepped outside and told them all to go away, that they were alarming his mother and sisters! So they found another battleground and after the fight both sides brought their wounded for Mrs McDonald to doctor.

The relationship between Maori and white settler was ideal. The latter was regarded not so much as a welcome guest, for a guest is a temporary resident, but as a cherished tribal possession, a source of strength and power.

The wealth, status and generosity of ‘their pakeha’ was something to boast about. In early days each tribe had been eager to secure as many pakehas as possible; more pakeha, more blankets, more tobacco and axes. Now they each recognised certain definite obligations, certain mutual aids. The Maori provided the McDonalds with any labour they might need. They gave them obedience and deference without servility such as they gave to their own chiefs. On the other hand, Mrs McDonald mothered them all. She was legal adviser, doctor, scribe and judge, with as much need for wisdom as had Solomon. Her quiet voice and tranquil manner quelled anger before it flared too fiercely, and had saved much rioting.

The eldest son, Hector, had married a Wellington girl, built himself a wooden house, and lived with his wife and two little girls not far from the old homestead. He took no part in the management of the farm; indeed, I never knew him do anything except garden. But his wife was a bright spot to us. She was considerably tied, for where there are no roads there are no vehicles, and a young family is hard to transport on horseback. She was, however, remarkably page 124 hospitable and even after Levin had become a town and had social aspirations, evenings at Mrs Hector's were regular and enjoyable features.

Her young brother, Mr W. Rigg, who sometimes stayed with her, came one day to take us across the lake in a canoe to see his sister and, as we had expressed an interest in the Maori, he proposed that we should stay on the way and visit the pa, to see a ‘tangi’.

From our own side of the lake we heard, across the water, the infinitely mournful wail.

‘Oh!’ demurred my mother, ‘we surely must not intrude upon such grief.’

We were assured, with a laugh, that it would be all right, that the Maori expected strangers. We were surprised and slightly shocked to be taken to a scene of feasting and merry-making. A whole pig was hanging over a fire, those who tended it were quarrelling fiercely with those who were trying to snatch the best-cooked pieces from the carcase. The mother of the dead woman was trying on the deceased daughter's dress. Suddenly a visiting canoe-load of relations was sighted; everyone left what he or she was doing and hastened to meet them with loud, anguished wails and freely-flowing tears. Then all would be joy again while the guests were feasted.

I said I was shocked. That was the narrow-mindedness of youth. Now that I know more of human sorrow I can see that it is the natural expression of grief, more natural than the habit of our own people who, at that time, used to swathe themselves in black and, for a certain period, never smile after a bereavement. A sense of intolerable loss comes to most of us, as to the Maori, in surges, and mercifully does not hold us in a steady grip. Still, we don't know why Maori tears flow so freely at the demand of etiquette.

The history of the unique old McDonald homestead was sad. The handsome six-foot, sons developed tuberculosis and died one by one. Three of them in rapid succession were page break The Author and Husband
A black and white image of Helen Wilson as a young girl.

In 1873

A black and white photo of Charles Wilson.

In 1924

A black and white image of Helen Wilson.

In 1938

page break
‘Cashmere’, Levin (Built in 1891 for £200)

‘Cashmere’, Levin
(Built in 1891 for £200)

Bushwhackers (H. H. Ostler standing on the left)

(H. H. Ostler standing on the left)

page 125 laid in their own burying-ground on the estate. The doctors attributed the infection to the old house and it was burnt. However, Hector, who had not lived in the grass house for years, died of the same disease soon after his brothers. So one wonders.

It was fortunate that Roderick, the third son, who farmed some bush land near Levin, dictated his memories and some incidents of his father's life to Mr F. O'Donnell who published them under the name of Te Hekenga, a valuable book and an authentic history of the coast.

When we first knew the McDonalds they were afraid for the welfare of the Maori. The bush — the useless bushland, hitherto regarded as a nuisance, a place where stock strayed and were lost — had suddenly become valuable and saleable. The Maori soon found that he could prove ownership to the new asset and large sums had been paid and were still to be paid for it to the chiefs.

We were told by Mrs McDonald that the last time money had come in this way to these tribes they had wasted it in a sort of religious revival. A prophet called Te Whiti had arisen. His message was as obscure as that of all prophets. It was hostile to the pakeha, yet he invoked the God of the missionaries and seemed to be an imitation of the Prophets of Israel. The natives sold everything saleable and went to Parihaka to join him. When excitement simmered down the natives returned to grinding poverty. The McDonalds were anxious lest the same thing should occur again.

Towards the end of the winter of 1888, which must have been an exceptionally mild one, for I never remember either of us even mentioning cold, timber felling on most of the sections of the block began. It was a new thing in our quiet retreat to hear the ring of axes, and the thud of falling trees. We began to take an interest in it all for he who was to be my husband, though I did not dream of it then, kept us in touch with this new world.

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‘D——had a good gang on his section’, or ‘The roughest gang of cut-throats you ever saw went up to A—'s to-day’, or ‘They are making a first-class job on B—'s’.

We learned that in felling a section the undergrowth must first be cut. If this is not meticulously done the ‘burn’ will certainly be a failure, for the green supplejacks and other creepers will not only live but flourish and will resist instead of helping the fire. Contracts for felling were invariably let with the condition that no trees should be felled until the under-scrubbing had been passed. In this the owners were often very unfair to the contractors. They would delay in sending a man to inspect the under-scrubbing, so making the contractor keep his men idle for days. On the other hand the contractors sometimes cheated the owners, because these, being town-bred, were unable to recognise uncut growths.

The Government had already cleared the main road to allow a space to pitch tents. Previously it had been indicated by nothing but surveyor's pegs. In the very centre of Levin, in the dense bush, where the hotel now stands, a surveyor's peg had announced, ‘Corner of Oxford Street and Queen Street’. Some wag, struck by the grandiloquent directions, had under-scrawled, ‘Corner of Hyde Park and Marble Arch’. Now (in 1888–89) Queen Street at least took no finding, but it was strangely unlike a street.

The contract had specified that the undergrowth, everything but the timber trees, should be cut at ground level and carried to the distance of a chain, leaving the timber trees for the mill to take. The gang of Jugoslavs to whom the contract had been let had carried it out meticulously. No branch, trailer or twig littered the carpet of tiny, delicate ferns and orchids on which, at dignified distances apart, stood the great trees. Imagine it! The long, shadowy vistas between those majestic red-brown columns, rising from the living carpet, the hundred-foot-high ceiling of foliage, mellow, green light, sun-pierced, patterning the green carpet with vivid points of gold.

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The Jugoslavs, wearing bright-coloured scarves twisted round their heads, called to each other in musical voices. The birds above sang lustily and the axes rang rhythmically. Sight and sound were one perfection. I have lived a long life and most of New Zealand's beauty spots are known to me, but for solemn, impressive, rapturous beauty nothing has ever impressed me so deeply as Queen Street in the making.

Very few people saw it. Perhaps no other stretch of bush was ever felled in that way, so I have always been thankful that I have seen and am able to recall that green cathedral.

Does everyone react to extreme beauty with sadness, intolerable sadness? Or am I peculiar, fantastic? That day I explained away the feeling as due to my belief that trees are sentient beings, that I had been witnessing the death of a hundred-year-old creation, that anyone who understood could not be other than miserable. Since then I console myself by reflecting that nature does not develop a highly sensitised system unless acute sensation is necessary to the survival of the species. So, perhaps, though the tree may feel the axe, its feeling may not be comparable to pain as we know it, for pain, which is necessary to mobile things, is no use to a tree. Probably reason had no part in the sadness — it was pure, overwhelming beauty.

However, we were resolved that no tree should ever be felled on the whole twenty acres of Cashmere, not for any fantastic reason connected with the sentience of the vegetable kingdom, but because the beauty of the clearing depended upon the shelter of the surrounding bush. We soon found, first with indignation and later with resignation, that we were unable to keep that resolve. The neighbours who had no clearings wanted to fell their bush. Indeed, it was forced upon them by the terms of purchase to fell, burn, grass and fence their holdings within a specified time. How could they do this if our boundary was in standing bush? We succumbed to such arguments, and agreed to fell a page 128 chain-wide strip all round. It was as we feared. Fire crept in and the wind, the inveterate enemy of the bush, thinned the vegetation. Stock did the rest. In three years our park, though still admired in the treeless waste of burnt timber, had lost its peculiar charm, and some three years later still a north wind (unusual in the locality) caught the nine great giants of the forest. I was married and away then, but my mother and sister described the horrible sight — the staggering, the rocking and recovering, the bending and heeling as the mighty trees succumbed to the mightier wind.

When the spring came, we had acquired some poultry, two horses and a cow. Then we felt there was nothing lacking for comfort in life, except the delicious leisure and irresponsibility we had known in the era of scarcity.

In November the mosquitoes appeared, almost with a bang. We had suffered from bites the year before and now hardly had time to acquire mosquito nets when the plague was upon us in full force. In that sheltered clearing they attacked day and night with equal voracity. We had been warned about them.

‘They would put out your lamp or candle.’ ‘You could cut the air with them.’ ‘You couldn't take a bite free from them.’ These assertions were not strictly true but no words could exaggerate the misery of the plague as it fell upon us. We had come in January and if their season was not then over, we had evidently mixed them up with the misery of the Petersens' fleas. Now, they truly poisoned us. We rubbed and scratched and tore at the lumps they raised. The old soldiers talked about leaving them alone —as well ask a thirst-parched man not to drink. We would have fled before them to Wellington, but conditions were changed. We had now a cow, a calf, two foals from the wild horses, a kitten, five hens, and some ducks hatching. We were anchored by our new amenities.

We papered our legs under our stockings, we made ourselves sun-bonnets, starched the hoods and fixed a veil page 129 of mosquito net over our faces. Yet they despised our defences and tortured us. Our eyes were half shut, our faces askew, we were covered with bleeding bites. We rigged up well-made square nets over our beds and tucked them under the mattresses after we had squeezed into bed. Then (it was wickedly reckless) we took a lighted candle inside the canopy and burnt off all that had come in with us. It wasn't quite as dangerous as it sounds. You put the candle flame just below the insect as it sits on the netting; its wings ignite and with a ‘pouf’ it falls into the candlestick. Then we slept in absolute peace. How foolish we thought the people who told us that we wouldn't mind mosquito bites soon. The only relief we found was in scratching the lumps till they bled, and dabbing them with vinegar. The sting counter-irritated the poison. To our surprise, towards the end of the season we were able to endure without rubbing, and, being inoculated, we had no trouble from insects the following season. And, in spite of bush fires, mosquitoes continued a fierce life in Levin for many years.

* * * *

More than half the sections of the Block had been felled and the forest lay heaped in sun-browning masses with vigorous green shoots here and there that spoke of uncut undergrowth. The settlement was holding its breath in expectation of the burn, the great event which, to each man, meant the success or failure of his venture.

The shouted message, ‘It's off! It's off! Started down at Prouses’, hits the nerves like an electric shock. Everyone downs tools and runs to some vantage point to see the thick, curling smoke and shooting flames, to hear the crackling and spitting and the shouts of the ‘firing squad’. These men are so bold that we venture nearer — much nearer. They are running about with flaming brands, spreading the fire. The old hands tell us that ‘It needs more wind’. Sometimes, leaving unburnt patches behind, the flames leap half a chain ahead and, scampering madly up the trunk of a standing page 130 tree, seize on its foliage with vicious crackling and spluttering. When some succulent growth is exploded by the heat a shriek so human pierces the air that one's heart stands still until it fades into the reassuring hiss of escaping sap. Nevertheless, we look about us apprehensively and move further back. The sun, hanging apparently just above the tree-tops, is reduced to the size of a blood-red shilling and sheds, not light, but a murky glow so unreal that it helps us in the grandeur of the holocaust almost to forget the myriad living creatures who are perishing in terror and agony. At night the world is bright, immense, exciting. Every standing tree is a pillar, holding aloft dozens of flickering lamps which keep falling to the ground in a shower of sparks. There are thousands of these torch-bearers, for every contract that is let exempts a certain number of trees, and ratas are almost always left standing. If rain keeps off the fire continues its work of useful destruction for days, even weeks. The billowy white ash remains hot and shifty with here and there a hole where the fire has burnt a dry root. Then the weather breaks and the countryside changes in a night to a black battlefield. It is seen then that very little timber has been burnt, not one sizeable tree is charred. The trunks encumber the earth and the larger branches writhe and twist in an impenetrable tangle. But the rain has firmed and blackened the coating of ash and men enter the labyrinth, climbing under and over the logs, to sow grass-seed. In no time, aided by the artificial warmth, a soft film, like a baby's hair, of tiny green blades covers the black earth, and farming on bush-country has begun.