Poetry

The gods in my shed

When Apollo says he knows 
whether all the grains of sand in the world 
add up to odd or even, and that he knows too
the measure of the oceans, and the number 
of insects that crawl the Earth, 
and the days of cities and empires, 
or how many waves are curling now
about to break, 
or that he sees each butterfly 
flapping its wings 
and knows where every ripple goes, he is saying 
we do not know 
and that we should revere the knowing 
which is forever beyond us, 
meditate on it daily, pour water on the backs of goats 
if we must, to remind ourselves
what we do not know, and never can. 
That is the function of the gods
I still keep on a shelve in my shed.
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Poetry

Olive pressing

Seventeen years, mostly ignored. Finally, 
we learnt to press the olives from our tree into oil, 
a process which widens out 
into a world of infinite connections: 
				the universe of stars 
and dust. Such that I hardly know how to say what we did. 
Perhaps, like Homer, we’ll discover in writing 
something smarter than ourselves. 			        
						       
							First, we blitzed 
the olives in a food processor, which bounced on the bench, 
rattling and shrill-screaming, as it spun the hard stones 
and oily flesh into a khaki mash 
that smelt divine, 
like the dark loamy earth 
		between the thighs of Papatuanuku. 

Each batch 
we scooped into a large pot and heated, until 
this indelicate mixture began sparkling like morning dew
on a pile of dung. 

						You can thank the sun 
for sending water to the mountains, and for it 
								to fall 
back into our laps, 
though it took men like my grandfather wielding the levers 
to build the dams 
with steel cracked from red earth, combined with gravel 
and cement squeezed from soft grey clay; 
the hill at Portland almost gone. 
		     
						 And all this flows 
to the turning of the press 
made from ageless aluminium, everywhere and nowhere 
in the Earth’s crust, journeying now into space…
								and held tight 
in our hands, to wrench the oily liquid from its fibrous body, 
as alumina is wrenched from bauxite 
using the holding power of alpine lakes. 
		                  		  	
					            	Oil rises to the top, 
best left overnight in a jar that you can dip 
a ladle into and funnel through muslin cloth. 
What’s left behind is an acerbic liquid any gardener 
will deploy with pleasure
to cut off those obstreperous weeds in mid-growth. 

In a ceramic jug the oil will stay peppery to taste; 
a wealth stored, to be drizzled 
on the familial bread, 
		  	 and spilling over 
				    	onto the plate bounded 
by its raised rim.

With the last pieces of bread, 
we soaked up the thin pools of golden oil 
and licked our glistening fingers—
like shining Gods we are, for a moment.
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Poetry

Devotions

In the summer centre, the island on a limb,
the sun swelts the volcanic earth mixed 

with sand pushed up out of the sea. Manuka 
thrives, pink and white flowers speckle 

the near horizon. Beneath blackened boughs 
are deep pools of shade we dive into, a relief 

to skin and hot-flushed mind—such abundance, 
such hunger for contrasts given in plenty. 


*


Flashes of silver, consumed by hunting eyes,
somersault above the net, caught on our stage. 

The show, put on by the escapees, drags us 
from all over, as the watery world shrinks; 

the curtain drawn by long-shorted, dripping, 
wielders of the rope. At the wings, they hurl 

their catch of spike-nosed piper onto the beach
in a rolling crescendo of pebbles and fish. 



*


The southern wind edges the waves 
moving across the bay; white lines of static flicker 

and vanish: a jumpy picture of turquoise-blue 
blotted with shadows from dampened clouds above. 

Amidst the froth and crests of roughening seas 
birds in the distance race to a haven 

at the north end of Tokerau Beach, where the sands
curve behind the rocks marked by Maui’s net.


*


The setting sun, like a cut blood-orange, 
bleeds out over the distant hills. The beauty, 

this time, is in the far view and the silhouette. 
In front of the lamp the Manuka are scissored. 

The shape of things distracts from mosquitoes 
at my ankles. We forget that we are prey 

often enough to believe in a moments bliss, 
ale in hand, crunching chips and dip.
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Poetry

The stonewalling shag

The shag declined to be interviewed, 
wouldn’t allow a photograph, said she knew nothing
about the fish carcasses.
“Ask the throttle-and-munch-em sea riders 
who were here last night.” 

She didn't have a song,
just a certain way of puffing her chest,
of being exactly where she was:
the rock pools, the purple crabs, 
the decomposing seaweed, the curve of the bay. 

A rock higher than the high tide, an easy take off, 
these were her piper and pilchard.

“Off the record, my silence was inevitable 
considering my original disposition 
to dive down under the horizon into the quiet.” 

After a long pause, 
while still looking out to sea, she said: 
“It's like this, those carcasses were of fish I knew
in the way that you used to know the sky at night.” 

“Take what you want from that, 
I don't really care.” 

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Northern Advocate Column

New Zealand’s Climate Change Commission still puts growth before planet

New Zealand’s Climate Change Commission a few weeks ago released its draft advice to the government for consultation. The vision statement describes the future Aotearoa as a veritable utopia. This future land of ours will be “thriving,” “equitable,” “inclusive,” and “climate-resilient.” Carbon emissions will be low, we’ll have a “flourishing bio-economy,” and we’ll be “respected stewards of the land.” Transport will be “accessible to everyone equally.” Everyone will live in “warm, healthy, low emitting homes.” There will be “very little waste”, and energy will be “affordable.” Sounds wonderful doesn’t it? All we have to do is follow the advice of the report’s seven co-authors. 

Some of that advice is good, like getting heavy freight off our roads by using rail and coastal shipping. And if the government were to take up the commission’s recommendations, new road construction would stop, and spending would be immediately diverted to the electrification of rail and public transport. The more I read through the report, however, the more I started to question its underlying assumptions. A major problem is how carbon emissions are calculated, which forms the whole basis for the proposed emissions reduction targets. Our emissions are those which are physically produced in this country when we travel domestically, fire up factory furnaces, and light our gas cookers. And when the country’s 10 million cows burp. Anything we import into the country isn’t included in our emissions. 

According to the Climate Change Commission, a significant chunk of our transport emissions can be reduced by importing electric cars. They advocate phasing out the import of petrol-fuelled cars by 2032. The point is, the carbon emissions generated by the manufacture of all these electric cars won’t be included in our ledger. Though we’ll be the ones using them. Electric vehicles and their batteries are made with metals, plastics and raw materials sourced from around the world. The mining and manufacture of those materials are heavily reliant on fossil fuels, not easily replaced by renewable energy. Suppose the electric vehicles are then made in Germany, China and the United States. In that case, a substantial amount of the electricity used in the assembly will come from coal and gas-fired power stations. There are limits to how much low-cost renewable energy those countries can produce to cover the energy needs of their heavy industries. 

It’s not just electric cars. New Zealand will have to import solar panels and wind turbines to generate the increased electricity we’ll need. As a country, we’ll be shopping our way to net-zero carbon emissions, consuming products with a high component of fossil fuel use in their construction and transportation. Effectively, we’ll be outsourcing our carbon emissions to other countries, where it will be their problem. 

Another issue with the commission’s report is that our agriculture sector’s carbon equivalent emissions are dealt with lightly. There’s no call to regulate herd numbers or impose costs on our leading export earner, dairy. Farmers will largely find their own way by fine-tuning current farming practices and using new technologies. If every country goes easy on their biggest export earners, global emissions reductions will never progress at the necessary pace. 

The Climate Change Commission is proposing we do something to reduce New Zealand’s emissions, but not too much that economic growth is adversely impacted. This is spelt out in passages in the report. It’s admitted that only a certain level of emission reduction is “possible at home” and that “offshore mitigation” will be needed. That means industries offsetting emissions by purchasing carbon credits overseas or investing in “carbon sinks,” like forest plantations in Siberia. The need for offshore mitigation assumes that other countries can do better than us. If all countries take this attitude to protect their economies and lifestyles, overall emissions reduction is clearly impossible.

The Climate Change Commission’s report is an overly optimistic vision of “green growth” that relies on importing high technology products and offsetting the emissions we’re unwilling to cut. That way, our economy, the commission predicts, will still grow 60 per cent by 2050. If the world economy grows at that rate, carbon emissions will continue to rise globally as a result of the massively increased energy demand. And the worst-case scenarios of catastrophic climate change will be inevitable.

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Poetry

What are you protecting Cicero?

 Your oh-so-distaste 
 for Tribunes who incite the popular crowd,  
 what are you protecting Cicero?
 
 Your ballsy support 
 for the latest drone deployment in Thrace, 
 what are you protecting Cicero? 
 
 Your polite way with handlers 
 and a word for the homeless, 
 what are you protecting Cicero? 
 
 Your dream of heroic iambs 
 on the steps of the Capitol,
 what are you protecting Cicero?
 
 Your lavish hosting 
 of dinner parties for the argentarii, 
 what are you protecting Cicero?
 
 Your blood-clean sacrifices 
 in the race for everlasting life,
 what are you protecting Cicero?
 
 Your corpse 
 in a vault with a tag on your toe―too late, 
 what were you protecting Cicero?
 
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Poetry

Fishing a calm sea

We look into the water, 
the absence of wind and swell 
has flattened its surface, so the low 
setting sun cannot bounce light 
into our eyes, there's a rare dullness 
that we can see ourselves in
and to a few arm-lengths below. 
Our faces peak over the boat's rim 
like two cherubs looking into a well. 

Our bait, whole piper, wallow 
in the visible zone, swinging 
a dud rhythm between two 
bobbing heads. Such tranquil sorrow 
where no tears are shed 
at the looming blackness of it all. 
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Northern Advocate Column

Referendums: one tool in the democracy toolbox, not always the best

18 November 2020

I used to think we should have more referendums—the binding kind, which gave politicians no wriggle room to ignore us, the people. It seemed so sensible to me, so obviously democratic. Fair decision making simply came down to the maths. More than 50% of the vote and you had a decision. This was ultimate democracy, where everyone’s voice was heard and tallied. 

The high point for me was the 1993 referendum that gave us MMP. We made the politicians do something they didn’t really want to do. And I was on the right side of history (though only by a slim margin, 53.8% voted to change our electoral system).

But later, came a low point. The referendums on changing New Zealand’s flag got really odd. Many people on the left, who you’d expect to wish the Union Jack gone, voted for the status quo because they didn’t like John Key. And choosing from uninspiring alternative designs before deciding to ditch the current flag was the wrong way about. It all got a bit silly, so I didn’t even bother casting a final vote. So much for my enthusiasm for referendums.  

Our latest referendums, on euthanasia and cannabis legalisation, got me thinking more about this democratic tool I’d once been so enamoured with. One problem with having a referendum is that once the referendum is done there’s little likelihood of having another on the same issue anytime soon. But on many issues—cannabis legalisation probably being one—different generations can think differently. So the majority opinion may shift as the years pass. Making decisions by referendum, unless we keep voting on the same issue over and over (which no one wants) doesn’t allow for the majority view to change over time. We’re stuck with the cannabis decision for a while now. For a government to ignore it would undermine the whole point of having the referendum. This tallying of “for” and “against”, doesn’t provide the opportunity for a large minority to make change that others will come to agree with, or at least accept, later. Democracy can tolerate and should allow, on occasion, minority leadership. Referendums don’t enable this, which is a weakness.  

Another problem with referendums was most clearly seen with the Brexit vote in Britain. A narrow vote for leaving the European Union imposed a decision on nearly half the population that they strongly disagreed with. The brutal maths of a decision based on a majority vote leaves no room for compromise or arriving at a consensus. Having close to 50% of the population living with a major constitutional decision they don’t agree with is going to create problems.

It’s not just countries that grapple with how to make democratic decisions. Does a company, a school, a union or a sports club make decisions via consensus or by putting things to a vote? Having a vote leads to winners and losers. It can compromise the functionality of the group, leading to splits and unhelpful antagonism. Getting consensus is a skill, it requires a different kind of leadership than calling for a vote. Building consensus requires everyone (or at least most) in the group wanting to achieve a consensus decision. Majority voting doesn’t require that you engage with the other side to reach a position somewhere in the middle. It may not encourage carefully listening to what other people have to say. 

Now I’m not advocating that we stop having referendums. It’s just that my own view of them has evolved. Democracy is a more difficult and nuanced thing in practice than I once imagined. And it isn’t a prize on its own. It’s worth asking, what are we trying to achieve with democracy? I’d argue it’s fairness, justice and equality of opportunity to lead a flourishing life. Democracy should be regarded as a set of tools, not just a hammer. With multiple tools, we construct a house (a whare) that aims to achieve the greatest human well-being and reduce any harm and suffering.

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