Last week I took a couple days off and went with my friend Gareth up to his sister and brother-in-law’s farm near Warkworth, about an hour or so out of Auckland. There was no real reason to go, other than for a little change of pace. Gareth’s family had very kindly invited me to spend this past Christmas with them, but I declined because I wasn’t sure I would be in great shape, a month after Mom’s memorial, to meet a lot of new people immediately after having got off a twelve-hour flight. Clare and Steve run a very cool walk during the summers, in addition to farming, and now that that’s over they had time to have some visitors, so off we went.
I flew up there on Tuesday morning and met Gareth in the city—which reminded me that even though I have flown out of Auckland airport many many times, it’s been since I went up for David’s thirtieth birthday that I actually spent any time in the city. There was no time on this trip though, as we had to catch a bus to Warkworth and then it was another thirty or so minutes to the actual farm.
I haven’t ever been to a proper farm, not a working one. My mom grew up on a dairy farm near Kalamazoo, Michigan (and actually went to a one-room schoolhouse) but by the time I visited my grandparents there as a kid in the eighties they’d sold it long ago and it was just a big old house and a fraction of the land they had. Mom used to tell us stories about growing up there but they always seemed like fairy tales to me—the horses and the border collie and having to break the ice on the cow trough in the winter. Intellectually I am aware that farming is a huge part of New Zealand’s economy, and many of the conversations we’ve had about the most amazing summer New Zealand has ever known have involved someone going ‘But of course it’s bad news for the farmers…’ It’s not really real, though, for me. Food comes from the supermarket or sometimes from the weekend market by the waterfront, and that’s basically the extent of my farming knowledge.
Gareth had told me to bring clothes that I could get muddy (“But I don’t HAVE any clothes I can get muddy!” I texted back anxiously) but that there would probably be an extra pair of gumboots for me up there. When he was up there for Christmas last year he helped Steve a lot on the farm but I didn’t think that they were going to want much of that from me, to be honest. We did spend a morning helping Steve and his dad with the calves, though. They’d just been separated from their mothers the day before and they needed to be vaccinated and weighed and drenched for worms or whatever, so they were all crowded into the yard and needed to go through a bunch of fences and gates to get it all done. (‘Fences’ and ‘gates’ are, of course, extremely technical professional farm terms). My job was to encourage the calves to go through the gates by sort of…standing near them and waving my arms in a vaguely threatening manner. “Go that way, cow,” I would whisper trepidatiously when Steve was ready to weigh another batch. “Give them a good old whack!” he said with a very patient smile, and I would lean over the fence and gently pat a calf with at least three fingers. “THAT WAY, COW.”
Steve and his dad were very gracious to me (“We’ll make a farmer out of you yet!”) and I thought a lot about my mom’s stories about her childhood and where our food really comes from and how it doesn’t take more than one generation to lose certain types of knowledge. Over extremely yummy dinners during the week we talked a lot about Steve’s family history on the farm—he’s fifth generation—and how it’s changed over the years and what it’s like to work on it and what they want to do with it and what might happen in the future with it. I could have listened for many more hours, every night.
Mostly, though, we did what people do when they visit: we hung out and made cups of tea and played with Gareth’s little niece Keelin and took walks and read books. Clare and I talked a lot and we went down to where they’ve built some eco-huts for their summer walkers and we ate lots of food. Thursday was ANZAC Day and we watched all the special programming on Māori TV and talked a lot about various family members who had been in various wars, and Friday we went to a local preserve for a bit of a bush walk.
It was a nice easy walk—we saw heaps of tui and fantail, as you do, and also a saddleback,which I have hardly ever seen, and also a New Zealand robin, which I’d never seen before and which came up super close to our group. I did try to take a picture of it but it blends so well into the ground that it’s impossible to see.
We had a bit of a beach walk, too, at the end. Keelin did not want to leave! Spending the week with an eighteen-month-old made me think a lot about my nephew in Tampa and made very glad to be an auntie instead of a mom; we babysat for a morning while Clare was recording which of the cows were pregnant, and by the end of four hours I was exhausted. I leave parenting to the experts and concentrate my energies on giving cute little outfits and making silly faces; it is fortunate for me that I can make many silly faces, and that I can play the one-two-three-SWING! game on the beach pretty well.
We came back to Wellington on Friday evening, with lots of promises to visit again in both directions. Since then I’ve been to a couple of circus shows and coffee with friends and high tea with other friends, all the regular things I do in the city I love, all the reasons I’ve chosen to live here. I liked being there, though, at the farm. Maybe I will bring my own gumboots, if I get to go again.