I think of my head as having little squares inside. One square is in the present, here in New Zealand, looking around at the sights: flowers, ferns, tree ferns, undulating green hills, beaches and bays. The country is largely agricultural, with sheep, cattle, farmed deer, and sometimes more exotic animals like alpacas and fancy goats. I have not seen ostriches on this trip, but my cousin David used to have an ostrich farm here and I once ate ostrich steak at a restaurant in Queenstown. It was delicious. As I look out of the motel window where I now sit I can see a quiet bay. The tide is out revealing long beds of farmed oysters.
There are still places, even on the North Island, where native bush grows and blankets the hills. When the first Europeans came here in around 1830 they began to cut down the majestic forests of giant kauri trees. Now almost all of the kauris are gone and the remaining ones are strictly protected. The forests are full of tree ferns and ferns carpet the forest floor. There is a move afoot to change the New Zealand flag from the Union Jack with the Southern Cross to a white fern on a black field.
New Zealand has no native mammals. Of course, many have been introduced: rabbits, deer, rats and mice, and most significantly, Australian possums. These don’t look at all like the possums of the US. They have lovely soft fur and are sort of cute. But they do terrible damage, eating the young trees and plants. They also chew on electric wires and interrupt power. There are efforts to control them all over the country, and every telephone poll has a metal band around it to keep possums from climbing. That’s ironic, since they are protected in Australia.
Besides thinking about what I see as a tourist, I have been trying to understand a little of New Zealand politics. This is not a simple matter. For one thing, the way they choose their parliament is peculiar. Each person has two votes, one for the candidate they want and another for the party they like. These two things don’t have to match. You can vote for a candidate of one party, and then turn around and vote for the opposition party. Then the votes are apportioned in some kind of mysterious formula. There are 7 political parties and 122 members of parliament. The Maori Party is a powerful minority party. A lot of formerly private land has been returned to Maori ownership
The conservative National Party is in power now. It advocates things like a flat tax, aid to private schools, cuts in all other social spending, mining on government land, a balanced budget. Some of these things are incompatible with reality – for instance, they can’t both balance the budget and lower taxes even if they eliminate social spending. There is already a big deficit. So they talk a lot, and most of the news on New Zealand TV is about sports and celebrities. Tiger Woods’ marital difficulties have been extensively covered.
My mother was a New Zealander, and she grew up here, so one compartment in my head thinks about what it was like here when she was young. Her sister Pat is still alive, and my cousin Jocelyn, her husband Albert, Jerry and I visited Pat. We had dinner together with her and her son (my cousin), Michael and his wife, Maris. The restaurant was expensive and the food was terrible. Little black bugs bit me as I ate and days later I am still scratching. A good meal in a restaurant in New Zealand is hard to come by.
The next night Pat visited with Joc and Albert and Jerry and me at our motel. Most of the middle price motels in New Zealand have cooking facilities, and for Pat’s visit I cooked a good dinner of pork shoulder and roasted vegetables. This is a very standard New Zealand meal. We talked and laughed about the past.
I brought the book Annals of the Former World by John McPhee with us to read to Jerry at bedtime. It is a very thick tome about geology. A compartment of my head is in the realm of rocks and continental drift, plate tectonics, volcanoes (New Zealand has a lot of them) and time periods so vast that there is no way to comprehend them. Jerry and I walk, and as we walk we talk about how New Zealand formed, and what kinds of rocks and soil we are looking at.
After geology has had its magically soothing effect on Jerry and he begins to snore gently, I pick up the other book I am reading, and I am transported into nineteenth century England. I brought Trollope’s Doctor Thorne with me. I have read it before, but I have reached such an age that I have forgotten a lot of what I once read and so have the pleasure of reading it again.
Trollop invented a place, Barsetshire, and all its surroundings and inhabitants, and I think to him it became as real as the place he lived. It is so to me as a reader. I think there is a modern equivalent in the long lasting radio soap opera, The Archers, which most Brits follow. The Archers is set in the fictional village, Ambridge.
Doctor Thorne is about Dr. Thorne’s niece, a young woman who was born out of wedlock. She is courted by the son of the local squire. She is penniless. The young squire’s mother is the daughter of an earl and regards “birth” and noble blood as the most important thing in life, second only to money. She requires her son to “marry money”, but he persists in courting Mary, the penniless bastard. When Mary turns out to be the heir to a huge fortune, she is instantly forgiven for being of low birth, and all ends happily.
Trollope is critical of the notions of noble birth, aristocracy, wealth, and the idea that to have to work for a living at a profession is “low”. Yet all his characters believe that these ideas have legitimacy, at least to some extent. If a man must earn a living, it is best to be a clergyman, hire a curate to do the work, and as much as possible live the life of the idle rich.
For a while I was so absorbed in reading this book that I found it a stretch to switch back to twenty-first century New Zealand. I began to neglect my husband and family.
Yet another place my head traveled to was my own past. About a month ago I mentioned in a post that I had written to the daughter of an old friend, long lost. The daughter gave me her mother’s email and I wrote to her. I was disappointed to have had no reply. Last week, when I had an opportunity to check my email, I found another email from the daughter, Janna. She said, “I am sitting with Helen now, and she is remembering you. She wants to know where you are living now.” Helen is six years older than I, so she must be 83. Janna went on to say that her parents had been divorced years ago, and that her father had died in 1990 of Parkinson’s.
I remembered them as a wholly devoted couple. Ed was a friend as well as Helen, and it took some thinking to absorb the fact of their divorce and his death, even though those things happened a long time ago.
Here I am, on the third of December 2009, in Coromandel, New Zealand. My mind wanders from here to England in the Victorian era, to New Zealand at the beginning of the last century, to vast eons in the earth’s past, to Washington, D. C. in the middle of the twentieth century.
It’s astonishing what you can do with your head.