Boundaries, People and Places of Central Otago, by Brian Turner (Penguin Random House NZ, 2015), 351 pp., $45
Travelling into Turner territory is invariably breath-taking and thought-provoking. This new collection of prose, poetry and Steve Calveley’s photography does not disappoint, but these qualities are merely the surface shimmer on the long reach of a Central Otago river. Boundaries is an intense focus on the essence of place. In his introduction Turner raises considerations about how and why we end up in certain places and how we ‘look after’ them. While our sense of identity and belonging is frequently connected to ‘our place’, we don’t all have the freedom to choose where we want to be. This book, as Turner advises, is about making the best of what we’re faced with.
He challenges the commonly articulated mantra that ‘you can do anything you want to do’, and that a failure to succeed economically and materially is because you haven’t grasped opportunities that came along. Turner astutely observes: ‘Elements of truth don’t make a truth.’ So, do the conventions that govern where we live incorporate elements of truth more concerned with economic progress, or is there an over-riding concern for the future of our place and our community?
To aid in discussion of his questions and propositions, Turner gathers information through a series of interviews, reflections and contributed chapters. His respondents live in Central Otago, particularly Oturehua, a small town near the head of the Ida Valley with a population of around 30. If readers are unfamiliar with the area, the photographs illuminate text and mood.
Turner allows us the privilege of entering the life of a rural community as it struggles to uphold traditions, maintain a functional population, and retain its naturally occurring environmental balance. In so doing he immediately surpasses the boundaries of mere reportage. The introduction to his first chapter ensures this is established with the acknowledgement, and therefore influence, of a personal yearning for peace, for succour.
A haunting sadness and searching seem to be prompts for some of his poems, as in ‘Evening walk, Oturehua’:
In the hope of silencing confusion’s
cacophony you go for a stroll
in the twilight seeking peace and quiet.
By voicing his need for an internal place of peace we see that the sublime characteristics of his external place of being – Oturehua – offer opportunities for Turner’s search to at least pause. In ‘Clarity’, he writes of the clear blue sky as summer approaches:
Look at that, your heart says.
Look at you in the heavens
the sky says. Yes, you say,
that’ll do for me, that’ll do.
It’ll also do as a place for Turner to keep cycling, even in winter when he wears a balaclava under his helmet and several layers of insulation, including newspaper between his singlet and jersey. Winter ice at Oturehua has been severe enough to necessitate crawling as the safest means to cross the road after a card evening at the pub.
A balance of the lyrical and the light hearted adds colour to the linguistic landscape of Turner’s beloved Central Otago. Who could fail to enjoy the commentary of the 2004 annual rugby match between Becks and St Bathans? At stake is pride and the prized Wooden Cup. Turner goes off to spy on the opponents (Becks), generally leaner and taller in matching rugby jerseys. St Bathans are a collection of ‘young bucks and oldish codgers in tired, multi-coloured tops’. Turner calls them the Dreamcoats. Spectator comments are delivered in the Kiwi banter of a former generation. On a rather mature-looking centre from Invercargill: ‘He’s a bloody handy bugger to have dragged in,’ and on the ref, a portly jovial joker from Omakau: ‘Old Keith’s put on the beef over winter. Do you think he’ll be able to keep up?’
The combination of a poetic sensitivity and a reflective, logical disposition results in ‘Of places and people’, a pivotal chapter of definitions and cross-overs on the topic of love. At the centre are Turner’s individual experiences and accumulated wisdom. Each point of discussion widens and embraces those it follows. Loss of love leaves us lonely and desolate. Loss of place can have a similar effect, but it need not. With a passion that love evokes, Turner highlights the dichotomy of positions between those who don’t want a continuing free market free-for-all and those who believe such is essential if we are to ‘progress’. He reminds us that ‘change’ and ‘progress’ are not synonymous. Turner transgresses the local boundaries of Central Otago, travelling to a national and international relevance.
Closer to home, the concerns of a shared love of the Ida Valley and its surrounds bind together those who appear in Boundaries. Their voices consistently air the same concerns: greening of the land, eradication and alteration of natural water systems, proliferation of wild pines, and the deconstruction of rural townships.
For John Breen, who manages one of the longest-running building and contracting firms in Central Otago, the internet has a major part to play in decreasing rural populations, in some cases removing the need for a town at all. He’s hot under the collar about land intensification and the bringing in of thousands of hectares of new land. ‘Don’t try to take it where it can’t go, don’t try to make it farm what it can’t farm.’ What we do, he believes, should never be at the expense of one’s responsibility to people and place.
For those who still run stock on family farms, the land is imbued with a value greater than the financial. It is the receptacle of history. Generations of stories provide an extra protective element. Trevor and Judy Beck took over their farm when Trevor’s mother and stepfather retired. They share concerns over the escalation of dairy farming in the area. For cows the area is simply too hot and too cold, and cultivation encroaching on the high country removes tussock, causing erosion and loss of topsoil. Snow tussock retains and releases moisture. Turner convincingly captures the degree of local frustration and disbelief. It is difficult to avoid similar personal reactions.
The individuals we meet are informed and innovative thinkers. Their monitoring of flora and fauna, significant understanding of decades of land response and active concern for current use and governance echo Turner’s own anxieties. Together they create a community who advocate a sustainable and resilient path to follow for the common good. Here is a social and environmental model to follow. Turner has outlined a future direction. What more can he give?
Boundaries is a geographical, sociological and philosophical study, in which Turner is participant observer, collector of qualitative data and literary collaborator. His is a generous sharing of intimacy with his own place in the world. He gives us a totality of truth that spreads beyond the boundaries of Central Otago, to ensure that the wild heart of natural life remains and that somewhere, those who need it will find a place to be: a base of stability, a timeless land.
JENNY POWELL is a Dunedin-based writer, poet and teacher. Her most recent poetry collection is Trouble, published by Cold Hub Press.