Memories of New Zealand
Pitt Street in Wellington runs just below the crest of a ridge. It is steep. When you look up to the houses, you don’t see much more than roofs. To reach the front gates you take paths that angle up the ten-foot clay bank that was cut when the road was made. The land seems less stable than the timber-framed houses that sit like ships on a sea of clay and rotten rock that after a week of rain slides below them in slow motion. In the old days, after several wet weeks there would be landslips in the cuttings that took the tramlines down to the promontory where the line comes into the open at a point on the fault scarp (it shows on the map as a ruled line along the west side of Wellington Harbour). You are still high up when you emerge from the cutting: it was (and is) a wonderful grandstand. The land feels eager to be eroded all over New Zealand. Charles Andrew Cotton, a local pioneer of geomorphology could illustrate most generalities of what erosion does to landforms with native examples.
All my New Zealand years I lived at 13 Pitt Street with my parents and sisters. (As you walk down, the odd numbers are on the right – the east side.) My memories all gather round the house, and the roads that took you away from it: down through the cutting to the city, over the hills to Karori or out to the bays. The hilly landscape was like an illustrated map. From the living-room window I could look down or across at the houses of friends of my parents. From the knoll at the end of the cutting I could see the ferries cross the harbour and turn westward to escape the encircling hills as they made for the South Island.
The weather was not blandly seasonal. It was rarely very cold – the native bush is evergreen – but the weeks of rain, cloud and wind were punctuated by days of bright, windless sunlight, the air cleared to such perfect transparency that the distant perspective was veiled in blue mist as in much European painting. At the end of the day it could go yellowish. Sometimes a Canaletto reminds me of home. Out of town at the beach the sun heated bare sand to the point that you had to skip through it or burrow down into the cool layer below. The climate was not enervating, weather changed fast.
The ingredients of the landscape which still sit firmly in my memory are, first, the hills. Burned and cleared at some point in the past (the near past: not much longer ago than the seventy years I have lived), they had been made into farmland – sheep runs mainly. Only the steepest gullies were still the dark, muddy green of the native vegetation; the low, dense covering of ngaio and rangiora, lance wood and manuka, was a reminder of how the land had looked when first settled. As the farmland became unprofitable or unmanageable, gorse, broom and blackberry took over. There was much light and much wind. In summer gorse fires threw up dense billowing columns of brown smoke, broken by bursts of orange flame. The fire engines came, another patch of blackened hillside was born, but the houses seemed to withstand it – the thin, dry furze must have flared up and then quickly died down. When my parents gardened on the steep bank that ran down from the strip of fenced lawn (they inherited a garden roller when they bought the house: a real lawn was intended), they grew the roses, pinks, irises, canterbury bells, ixias and poppies of an English border. Some of these plants (they were not native to England after all) did rather well. The clay suited roses. But the wind cut and bent any shrub that reached up to make a pretty shape of itself. Yet my mother kept flower vases full, quite grandly sometimes.