When I was very young, my family took an annual vacation. There was never a destination, no Disneyland at the end. We travelled by car, leaving at dawn, my mother riding shotgun with the big road atlas spread open next to her on the bench seat of the Rambler, the Buick, whichever hand-me-down car my father was driving. We drove through places whose names had mythical echoes: The Black Hills, The Smoky Mountains, The Dells. Along the way we stopped at burial mounds and battlefields, my mother gripping carefully copied notes, reading aloud, reminding us of how history and geology informed not only our route, but the land itself and all its inhabitants.
My mother carefully planned these excursions months in advance. She scoured the library, brought home piles of books, and filled her evenings poring over them and taking notes. The talk at dinner was of the effects of glaciation or wind erosion on the landscapes we would traverse — the Loess hills and the Kettle Moraine country. She talked of the footprint of early inhabitants, the cost of “opening the West” to white settlers in covered wagons (my mother’s ancestors), the cost of skirmish and conquest. We learned how each successive wave of human habitation changed the landscape, how the tide of Western expansion made prey of everything: people, prairie, forest, and most of all the animals. My ears pricked at talk of animals: which wild creatures lived where we were headed? Buffalo on the prairie, Black Bears in the mountains, the Pileated Woodpecker in the Ozarks?
There were always birds. My mother loved them. She was a sucker for a gaudy red Cardinal, spied at the backyard feeder in winter, its dense red coat, black mask and peaked feathered cap flashing against the snow. Crossing Iowa, we made a game of counting Redwing Blackbirds, with their glossy black feathers and distinctive red and yellow shoulder markings, clinging to cattails in the ditches along the roadside. She helped me identify the soft, restive cooing of a mourning dove — following the purring sound, we found her nesting in dense ivy on the windowsill of an uninhabited room in my grandfather’s house. My mother instilled in me a lifelong interest in knowing where things come from, and why.
Many years ago, driving along the 280 freeway south of San Francisco, commuting to a job I had long stopped caring about and trying to let dark thoughts settle into the kind of numb that helps with accepting the things you cannot change, I saw a dog running scared along the concrete barrier at the heart of the freeway. Four lanes of traffic separated her from the scrappy, litter-strewn bank and the tenement houses below. There was no way I could stop; traffic was heavy on all four southbound lanes and it was moving fast. As I passed, I realised it was no dog. It was a coyote, desperately thin with heavy teats. She was running the barrier, pressed hard up against it with only inches between her visible ribs and the vehicles thundering past.
Her whole story burst into my imagination. Somewhere there were pups. On that bare undeveloped hill, perhaps, or in a dry culvert. She was hungry and so were they. She was taking the fastest route to the dumpster behind the burger joint or the taqueria. How she would dart across the traffic and drop unseen into the neighbourhood was a thought I couldn’t stand to think, and yet I couldn’t stop thinking it. It played like a loop in my mind for weeks.
Months later, I quit the job. The vision of the coyote wouldn’t leave me. It hung around and relentlessly gnawed at the edges of my conscience. I tried to write about it and couldn’t. At work, one of the creatives, a director, had asked to see my writing, which I had probably talked about a bit too much. He was trying to be kind, but I felt like he’d ripped back the curtain and everyone could see the sham: I had nothing much to show him. Fragments. A few poems.
23 years later, to the month, on a blustery and unseasonably cold day in Aotearoa, I am commuting from the suburban home I share with my husband to the little farm where I spend most of my days. As I come around a long curve on the new expressway, I see a mother duck with three tiny newborn ducklings in tow. They are waddling up the middle of the highway, hard up against a concrete barrier that rises between the north and southbound lanes. The barrier runs for nearly half a kilometre as the new road spans a huge interchange, flying over a major local road and a river. Déjà vu.
I still have nothing much to show. One manuscript, another in a drawer. Several false starts. A few essays and one or two rants. A few more poems. Once again, I can’t stop for the mother duck, knowing full well that if I do, I’ll cause panic in the ranks and they will run into the oncoming traffic. They are wild and I am not of their world. I am a predator. I feel desperately sad and it hangs like a yoke around my shoulders for the rest of the day.
The manuscript, which has taken me fifteen years to set free, is with the book designer. I’ve had input into the cover, discussed the look and feel of the pages. My publisher is organising the ISBN and, later, the Library of Congress submission. I am terrified and thrilled in equal measure.
Here at the farm, we are having the most prolific season of ducks. Perhaps the dogs have run off the pukekos and stoats which predate on ducklings, or perhaps we have an exception on our hands. One mother duck started early, parading a string of eleven ducklings while the wild spring rains pelted the paddocks. One duckling vanished in the early weeks, but here we are on the doorstep of summer and this mother is still parading her ten offspring. Only now it’s difficult to tell which one is Mother. The ten ducklings have grown into fully fledged ducks.
It’s a truly exceptional feat in a plague year, and I secretly wonder if that halcyon moment that lockdown provided—the quieted world, the absence of machine noise, all the jostle and thrust of human endeavour truanting—has given our mother duck the edge.
Our little farm sits aside a country road flanked by Totara trees. Huge and timeworn, their brittle branches dense with needle-like foliage arc over the road and form a tunnel half a kilometre long. Walking in the tree tunnel is both soothing and electrifying—dark and deeply shaded, softly dappled by fingers of light that penetrate the canopy here and there. Logging trucks, milk tankers and school buses all have to drive straight down the middle of the road to avoid scraping their vehicles or, heaven forbid, breaking a Totara branch. The tree tunnel is protected by a special heritage status.
One evening last week, an unfamiliar car backed into the driveway and parked diagonally, completely blocking the entrance and exit to our farm. I was already inside, sitting in one of the comfortable chairs, trying to muster the energy to get up and make myself a meal after a particularly gruelling day of physical work.
Jen was still outside finishing the last of the evening chores — hanging the soaked hay nets for Daniel and putting on his rain sheet. The weather was changing, yet again. I could feel it in my bones, or more specifically, in the joints of my hands which were swollen and sore. I knew it would be raining by morning, and I sighed deeply anticipating another wet and muddy day with the horses.
Jen came to the door, agitated. She said, “there’s someone parked weirdly in the driveway, totally blocking it. He’s been there for at least 20 minutes, and I’ve got to leave.” I grabbed the dogs and Jen and I went out to the gate. I called out, “can I help you?” A man leaned part way out the window. He said there was an oversized load being driven up the road, something about a house in three pieces and a convoy of trucks.
“I wasn’t notified of this,” I said, a little sharply. “We have someone here who needs to leave.”
The man’s irritation was palpable. He told us, gruffly, that leaving wasn’t possible.
“How long is this going to take?”
He shrugged, and opened the car door, swinging to face me. “Oh … it’ll be another 10 minutes, maybe. Could be a quarter of an hour, half an hour, maybe longer. Hard to say.”
Right then, I should’ve backed away and invited Jen inside for a drink while she waited for the road to clear. Instead, the ugly side of my nature flooded to the surface, along with the blood in my cheeks. I snapped, “that’s totally unacceptable. We should’ve been notified about this …”
He may not have said “now simmer down, missy,” but I felt sure he was thinking it. His old-fashioned, blokish non-specificity, his “she’ll be right” when it’s obvious that she really won’t be, got my hackles up. Ugly always leads with Us and Them.
“You’ve been sitting here blocking my driveway for half a f—ing hour,” I snapped. “If you’d tooted your horn and told us what was happening when you first got here, my friend would have had ample time to leave.”
The man unfolded himself from his car and stood over me. He was tall, elderly and his face was stone hard.
“Look here,” he growled.” I’ve lived here for 84 years.”
This isn’t the first time I’ve heard this refrain. Not long after we moved here with the horses, we tried to go out hacking along our road. Because the visibility in the tree tunnel is so poor, I walked on foot wearing a fluoro vest and moved to the middle of the road to slow the oncoming traffic in an effort to keep the horses safe. Most drivers obliged, and I smiled and waved as I stepped out of their way, calling out a thanks as they drove slowly and safely past. One driver came full speed at us, stopping only when I stood my ground. He wound down his window and said, “Look here, I’ve lived here for 37 years.” I knew the rest of the sentence was going to be something about his right to drive however he pleased, but that day ugly didn’t appear. I leaned down, flashed my biggest smile and said, “Wow, you’re a lucky man.”
Back at the gate the tall man loomed, pointing a bony finger at me.
“I know who you are,” he said. “You’re from Wellington.” This was pure accusation, delivered with intense disgust. You need to know that Wellington is the nearest city, just an hour’s drive down the road. Technically, this rural area is in the Wellington district.
“No, I’m not,” I said, or lied, depending on how you look at it.
“Yes, you are. I know. You’re one of those people from Wellington. One of those film crew people.”
Well, he certainly had done his homework. Technically, I do live in Wellington. My husband lives in Wellington and works in the film industry. But I don’t feel like I am from Wellington. No more than that I am from San Francisco, or Boston, or rural Vermont, or Illinois, or Ohio, or even New Hampshire, the state in which I was born. I countered:
“I am not from Wellington. For f—’s sake,” I shouted, dodging his jabbing finger. “Listen to me. Where does it sound like I’m from?”
To this, he simply repeated the accusation: “No. You’re from Wellington. I know!”
It was then that ugly boiled over. I told him to get the f— out of my driveway. I pointed to his car and said, Go! And off he drove back up the road and out of the tree tunnel where he pulled into another driveway.
Meanwhile, the convoy of trucks was now visible at the far end of the Totara tunnel, and though their progress was excruciatingly slow, the drivers were magnificent. They had side-walkers and pilot vehicles and they shimmied their big loads – a house cut into 3 pieces – up the tree tunnel without breaking a single branch. My fuming anger gave way to awe and relief as they passed our driveway.
And then it was over.
But, of course, it wasn’t over. I’ve had an anger hangover ever since, and now I have a neighbour somewhere up the road who has ample reason to despise me. I suspect that the curse of being from Wellington has something to do with his frustration at the way the world is changing. The man who has worked this land for seven decades sees me as a wealthy urbanite carving up productive land for frivolous purposes. I understand this. But mostly I am ashamed of the uglier side of my nature.
Sure, we should’ve received advance notice of the operation. It’s dangerous to block a populated road that has no other access. Our road winds up into the foothills of the Tararuas and ends in a recreational campground. There’s only one way in and one way out. Police should’ve been on the job. But as nothing bad came of it, my anger is just a tempest in a teapot.
I am the outsider here. I can’t expect locals to behave differently than they do. It’s up to me to fit myself in and try to be a useful member of the community. I like to think of myself as a decent person. And most of the time I am. I’ve opened my gates to the local community in a variety of ways and shared the bounty of my good fortune. I have cultivated relationships that I treasure with several neighbours. But I really screwed this one up, and I can’t shake the feeling that I did more damage than just swearing at an old man. At the very least, I solidified his opinion of people “from Wellington.”
And that’s a shame because around here, we’re really all from Wellington.