March 10, 2006
Halfway around the world, about as far as you can get from Canada, I was suddenly brought home by my mother. On Christmas day, this was in 1994, I was at remote general store near an organic farm I was working at somewhere on the east coast of the southern island of New Zealand. I had walked down early in the day to get some supplies, usually tea and cheese, and maybe bread, to bolster the salad and weeds we’d have for dinner most nights. And as I walked by the pay phone next to the store it started ringing. This was weird because there was literally nothing else around and hardly any people in the area. I’d seen maybe 6 different people in 2-3 months.Why would this pay phone in the middle of nowhere start ringing as I walked by it? Bizzare.
So I went into the old red phone booth and picked up the ringing phone. And it was my mom on the other end.
It was X-mas for her, and Boxing Day for me. She said that she’d called twice that morning, because she thought I’d be down there. She found the number on her own, I had never given it to her, and never actually even knew it myself. I had called from that phone once before, sometime in the previous 2 months, to say all was good. She had found the place on a map, a really good one, and somehow worked out the phone number.
She did the same thing on my birthday 3 months later, finding me in a pub in Australia, stuffing my mouth full of kidney pie and lager, part of my ‘salary’ for working nearby. I was 20. In Australia you get the key to the city at 20, ’cause you can do whatever you want.
I didnt get the key to the city, but I got a pie, a pint, and that phone call. And that was pretty good.
March 9, 2006
I worked on a farm in New Zealand for awhile. Well, it wasn’t quite a farm, so much as a place to pass time. It was pretty remote, on the farthest crop of East Coast land on the Southern Island, literally perched above the ocean on a bluff. As I remember it there weren’t a lot of paved roads and very little traffic on what was there. The nearest phone was a half-hour walk, down a dual track road, and located in a small general store.
The little house we lived in was off the electricity grid, and had a windmill. We mostly ate what we pulled out of the garden, plus a lot of tea, and cheese and bread whenever it was around. I became very good at dressing up the cheese bread with different condiments to increase it’s variety. Salt and pepper were a given. BBQ sauce, ketchup, and whatever herbs lay in the back of the cupboards soon followed. Oh how delicious a piece of cheese bread garnished with Worcestershire sauce, thyme, parsley, and cayenne pepper was after two straight days of dandelion salad. The place was owned by a taut and wrinkled man named Bill. He was old and British and had settled into this remote part of the country after the Second World War. We would play chess at night, with just candles for illumination, and Bill would talk about his life, he would talk a little bit about the war. He said that the house, which was was built on a fault line, would slide down to hell and take him with it one day.
The night skies there were brilliant and foreign. There was no light pollution, no other houses, no buildings, just us. Thousands of stars I had never even imagined existed, let alone witnessed. There is nothing more able to create that strange excited dissonance that comes with being far from home, with a pack on your back and boots on your feet, than to look up and be greeted not with the same comforting shapes and patterns you grew up with, but with an umbrella of constellations that tell different myths, different stories, and are scattered here and far in different skies.
Early morning I would be up with the sun to start my chores for the day. For my working there I received room and board, and I did whatever was asked of me. Fixing and tinkering with things, painting; I built a fence, hauled stuff, tended the gardens and mended a leaky roof. I got my hands dirty. Every day, at about 5:00 am, I would lower myself down the steep path to the ocean below the house, and cut bull kelp from the waters to use as fertilizer. The stuff was impossibly tough, like rubber, but if you got a knife to it at just the right angle, about 45 degrees, it would pop apart like rubber bands under tension. Bill showed me this, and warned me to keep the knife handy, as it was easy to get tangled in the stuff when swimming for its harvest, “We’re gathering the kelp, not the other way around”. Bill was a strong swimmer, but he had been caught once and nearly drown.
I would dive down, cut a bunch of it, swim it back to land, and go back out again. You needed a ton of it for fertilizer, as once it dried and withered, there wasn’t much left for composting. I would pile it up for a few hours on the beach, and then haul it all up to the farm house. It was heavy stuff, and the path was rocky, wet, and steep. Once up there, I would mix it into the compost bins, turning it over and over and over, and then take some of the old stuff to spread on the gardens, mulching it in with the very fertile soil. Bull kelp is incredible fertilizer and we grew some pretty green spinach on that plot of land.
I ran a lot there, on the beach, I was young and fast. You could skip over to the wet stuff and sprint, kicking up sand behind you as you knifed through small pools of seawater left behind by the tide. There were all kinds of little spots I would trek to and hang out at, alcoves and caves and beaches. I would lie there and just look at the sky, eyes pushing into blue infinity, albatross wheeling perfect circles high above.
One time, alone, I was caught out by the tide. I was out of my element and not cautious enough, not even thinking to be cautious enough. The equivalent would be an Aussie or Kiwi guy getting blown off some serac high above Canmore, or smothered in an avoidable avalanche. An accident of inexperience. I must’ve ran a ways out on some slightly raised beach, it was bone dry. Eventually, after about 7k, I came to a bluff that was not climbable, and exploring ahead and around, found the water too deep to continue. I turned around to head back, ran about 30 feet and *splash* was in seawater knee deep. I thought it merely another tidal pool, but after plunging along for 4 or 5 minutes realized that it wasn’t a tidal pool, it was, in fact the tide. The whole of the ocean was coming in fast and I was forced to half swim back, scared as hell. I never thought to consider that with the tide coming in, I was assured of getting to shore eventually, if I just stayed calm and afloat. But you don’t think these things and I thrashed my way to shore. I was more careful after that, and later on, in Australia and civilization, noticed the extent that the gov’t went to educate tourists on rip tides and other baddies of the oceans, like box-jelly fish and sharks.