Flat chance – Farming our environment

Rotopiko / Lake Serpentine, Waikato, May 2013

Rotopiko / Lake Serpentine, Waikato, May 2013

Domestic flights (when the opportunity comes up) bring the landscape back into focus, and help stitch together visual fragments collected from road travel through the region.

The absolute flatness of farmland in the Hamilton Basin is stark when viewed from above, its uniformity overlaid by a double grid of fences and drains. Gullies scribble across the greenness draining a landscape leaking with springs. Exotics mostly – ubiquitous pale scatters of willow and a smother of vines (blackberry, honeysuckle) envelop gully floors and sides, right up to the flat acreage of pasture. Exotics meeting exotics.

Farming may be described as the-backbone-of-the-country, but looking down it’s more of skin. On the one hand, early pioneers could be commended for their single-minded desperation to reshape the land, turning reed, rush and wood into raw protein. What a thorough spade job, ex-gumdiggers deployed to excavate an endless network of bisecting channels to dewater saturated soils. Once common, impenetrable fogs rising from the wet landscape are now only occasional while peat fires smouldering for weeks, months, years have all but disappeared. So does the land itself. The peat silently oxidises, cracks, sinks as drains are cleared, dug even deeper to restore a negative water balance.

Maps tell the story from a developer’s perspective. Does overlaying a word like PLAIN onto a pattern of reeds and rushes somehow justify the future morphing from wetland to dry land? That’s the case with my AA map, PLAIN printed over a remnant part of the Kopuatai Peat Dome. No mention that it’s even a wetland let alone an internationally significant one.

In a similar vein, a colleague working in Northland was once reminded by a farmer that the Hikurangi Swamp (what’s left of it) is ‘the Hikurangi Plain, actually.’

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