Life, lakes and farming: historical perspectives on a special landscape

Pat Turney at home_April 2016There’s nothing I like more than having a good yarn. An idea I had, as a teenager living in Auckland, was to travel around New Zealand, exploring the landscape and talking to people. The point? Being an urban dweller I wanted to gain insights into how people related to the land, and how they made use of it. Far from being an idealistic dream, this is what I have ended up doing over the last three or so decades: as semi-structured interviews under the auspices of university research; as studies associated with biodiversity and sustainable land management projects, and just out of sheer curiosity, as random opportunities to have conversations have arisen.

My friend and colleague, Karen Denyer, Executive Officer of the National Wetland Trust asked me if I’d interview a farmer, Pat Turney, whose property wraps around one of the most well kept peat lakes in the Hamilton Basin. Lake Rotopiko (or, Lake Serpentine, some 20km south of Hamilton) is in fact three lakes (unimaginatively called East, North and South), a legacy of land drainage to expand farmland. It’s also the proposed site of a National Wetland Centre. The reason for interviewing Pat was to gather some of his personal history and viewpoints, for eventual translation into centre interpretation panels and so forth. Engaging centre visitors will rely on this: stories whose narrative content brings life to a part of the local landscape.

Pat’s a great talker, and that’s always a joy for interviewers. His family once had a strong presence in the area, with three generations living a stone’s throw from one another. He is the last Turney in the area, his own children having pursued careers elsewhere. Although Pat has traveled, he returned to New Zealand following the death of his father. Financially crippling death taxes meant that Pat had to work for decades to regain ownership of the family farm, doing so out of a filial and moral sense of duty. Are the bonds to land and family still so important for the current generation?
lake Serpentine east Dec 2007 005
A keen sense of adventure
The lake with its distinctly tannin-tinted waters, dense stands of rushes, manuka (Leptospermum scoparium), fringe and nearby stand of mature kahikatea (Dacrycarpus dacrydioides; deliberately preserved by Pat’s father), were Pat and his siblings’ playground. His memories of growing up in the 1950s are vivid:

[The lake was]… better than a swimming pool – until one afternoon… I had my hand on the raft [in East Lake] and my legs were dangling in the water, next thing, something gripped me on the thigh… well, I leaped out of the water like a rocket! You’ve never seen anything move so quick! When I got my senses back, I had … 24 razor teeth marks [on my thigh] – an eel had had a nip at me! …it only happened once… give you a helluva scare!

I was a very adventurous kid… [in the early 50s] I used to go out on my own… somehow or other a peat fire got started [close to East Lake] and it went for months and months and months, smouldering away… I stepped on to an area that had been undermined, and slipped. I spun around and got my claws on to the ground, clawed my way out, but by then I had two boots full of hot ash, which was no joke…. Kept away from then from then on – that could have been the end of me.

His mother remained oblivious (thankfully), to much of the goings on down there.

The earliest aerial photo inside the house dates from the 1950s. It became an important reference point during the interview, because of landscape level changes in the interim. The lake is now much smaller, and the fenced riparian margin much wider. Highly invasive willows have been removed (today it’s almost impossible to find any lowland wetland without willows in the Waikato), yet in the photo, there’s not a single willow in sight. The willows must have spread rapidly – Pat couldn’t recall when this change took place. Likewise, the flax we associate with the wetlands are not present in the photo; the swards seen today are also a new arrival, planted around 25 years ago via an employment scheme.

In Pat’s time the isolation of the area has dissolved. ‘Townie’ friends from Te Awamutu used to stay and were initiated into rough and tumble rural play. Bi-weekly deliveries of meat were dropped in the letter box, and bread into the bread box. Now it’s just a short hop to the supermarket. State Highway 3 passes within a few hundred meters of South Lake. As a 100km zone, blink, and you’ll miss a slice of the landscape and all of the history that goes with it.

Pat still remembers fields being ploughed by horses. From his perspective, not only has the pace of farming radically changed, but also the philosophy and understanding of environmental impacts:

I don’t believe in going hammer and tongs introducing the flashest new [grass and clover] species into the ground, pouring fertiliser on; listening to all these advisors… I don’t hold them in high regard… Nutrient run off… wasn’t even known. You dig the drain and the runoff disappears, and there’s never any thought to where it goes after that. Until Nitrogen became the fashion – they call it a tool for farming, but it is actually… a pollutant… if you overdo it; most of them [farmers] do.

Serpentine Nth1 June 09
Into the future
I asked him what he saw for the future of the Rotopiko complex. He’s been around for long enough to witness significant changes: lake levels dropping; the thick peat deposits that characterise the area shrinking; the land being farmed far more intensively than ever before and the inevitable creep of peri-urban development. He sees a future that continues along this trajectory with the lakes eventually drying up – they’re only a few meters deep at best. In all honesty, I was hoping for something, well, rosier. My view is shaped by my limited relationship to the area – but a decade isn’t much to go on. Being part of a multi-generational thread of inhabitants shapes your understanding of the land, and the impacts of humans and the climate in quite different ways. This history inevitably shapes your view of the future, and what that may hold, too.

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