Northern Advocate Column

Country music, the stuff of life

18 April 2015

eight_col_DSC_9537The twangs and rhythms of country music were etched into my childhood. It was on the radio, on the large stereo in the lounge, blasting from speakers, which as a small child were taller than I was. And on TV of course―Dolly Parton, for various reasons, was fascinating, and Kenny Rogers with his immaculately trimmed beard. 

But mostly it was in the backseat of the car on family trips. I remember a six cassette tape set with a title like Country Greats. There was plenty of the polished Nashville sound, but also darker stuff like Johnny Cash’s I Walk the LineAnd songs that told stories of another world, like El Paso by Marty Robbins, which was magic to a kid who loved watching the westerns that screened regularly on TV in the weekends. Here was a mythical America, which through exposure―and the lack of anything else very mythical―meant something to a boy growing up in suburban Whangarei. There was lots I didn’t like. A certain steel guitar sound (you know it) always made me feel a bit sick in the stomach―though that might be my musical memories mixing with my memory of queasiness traveling winding Northland roads.

As a teenager, country music was the antithesis of good music. Never-the-less when at university in Auckland, and delving deep into the alternative music scene, I still thought it would be a good idea to go with my father to see Johnny Cash and June Carter at the Auckland Town Hall. To my surprise it remains one of the best concerts I’ve been to. Great songs, slick musicians and the charisma of Cash and Carter had me hooked. Soon after I discovered Alt Country, with new bands like Uncle Tupelo and Wilco becoming passionate favourites.

The best country music is rooted in the combination of simple rhythms and melodies, with lyrics that are often about sadness, loss and heartache. It’s been said that country music is the blues for white people. It’s that balance between dark and light, joy and sorrow, that makes it sound true. 

So when I found out that New Zealand country music star Tami Neilson was playing at The Old Stone Butter Factory in town I had to go. There were three support acts whose musicianship was equal to the main act. They sung curious original songs that mixed a world and sound from a distant America with observations and experiences of life in this country in the 21st century. I guess love gone wrong is universal. 

Neilson, as one of her songs says, is a dynamite of a woman with a great vocal range. There were sad love songs, but also happy ones belted out to an infectious rockabilly beat that had people up and dancing. 

Surveying the mixture of ages in the audience I wondered how many of the younger crowd had grown up listening to their parent’s country music collections, who once knew all the words to Jolene, singing along in the back of the car on a dusty country road heading on a family summer holiday. The lyrics, a barely understood but intriguing glimpse into a complex adult world of jealously and desire. It’s the stuff of life that never goes away, like country music.  

Northern Advocate Column

Planting trees for a Restoration Agriculture

download-118 April 2015

Plant trees, trees and more trees. That should be one response to climate change and the world food crisis according to Mark Shepard, the author of Restoration Agriculture (2013). This interesting book (available at the Whangarei Public Library) is based on Shepard’s experience of implementing permaculture ideas on his 106 acre farm in Wisconsin, USA.

The first chapters layout the problems with dominant agricultural practices, what Shepard calls “the agriculture of eradication”the eradication of eco-systems, species diversity, precious water supplies and soil vitalitythe result of an over reliance on annual crops and a global food economy that encourages monoculture farming.

To maintain profitability the trend around the world has been for larger farms and plantations that use a cocktail of chemical sprays and artificial fertilisers, and require extensive fossil fuel inputs. I recently visited a farm in South Canterbury. There was one farmer, plus at least five large petrol guzzling vehicles, along with numerous other mechanised technologies, including massive irrigators spanning the land.

Faced with the ultimate dead-end of industrial agriculture, Shepard says we should act now in our backyards, on our farms, in the abandoned spaces of our urban and rural environments, to transition to a perennial agriculture that he says can feed the world. He argues that extensive planting of fruit and nut trees combined with rotational livestock management can surpass the calorie returns of growing annual crops of rice, wheat, corn and other grains (large quantities used globally to feed animals).

As much as possiblegiven the limits of climate and geographical locationShepard believes we should aspire to replicate the savannah-type ecosystem: trees and shrubs, spaced with open areas of grass for a range of animals. Our main domesticated animals (sheep, goats, pigs, cows, poultry, are all originally savannah animals). Savannahs support more life by weight than any other environment.

The fruit and nut trees not only supply food, but also maintain water in the land. Rain falling onto trees hits leaves, where some water is absorbed, before dripping down through the canopy to a ground rich in organic material, which absorbs water rather than seeing it run off the land or simply evaporating. Combined with the animal manure that’s no longer washed away into rivers and creeks, you’ve got a living soil with essential minerals maintained on the land. And trees of course remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, vital if we’re going to prevent the worst extremes of global warming.

There’s a lot of detail in Shepard’s book, but the basic principle is that we need to revolutionise food production by striving to imitate nature and create living eco-systems.Shepard believes that we can’t wait for governments, and in his words “we can’t relinquish the revolutionary power of one and wait for a hoped for perfect organisation to form.” Planting trees is something most of us can do.

There’s still money to be made from “the agriculture of eradication”but only for so long. Then the land, the communities, will have to be healed. That process, however, can start now with the digging of every hole and tree planted.

Art, Northern Advocate Column

John Foster’s ‘Four Seasons on the Farm’


4 April 2015

I actually chuckled. That was my initial reaction to running my eyes over John Foster’s large mural with many, many sheep.

How delightfully incongruous it was to see in the rarefied space of an art gallery something so seemingly mundane as life on a sheep farm. Sheep being sheared, drenched, corralled, giving birth, dying, and just milling about eating grass. 

Four Seasons on the Farm is currently installed at the Whangarei Art Museum. The artist, unsurprisingly, was also a sheep farmer on a property near Wellsford. Foster painted the work, which stretches 14.4 metres, from 1980 to 1984 in a farm shed converted into a studio.

There are 365 panels depicting events and scenes on the farm over the course of the year. Grey fence posts divide the mural into 12 months. The seasons flow from the ochre shades of late summer through to the greening grass of autumn, the greyness and mud of winter, and the rejuvenation of colour in spring and early summer.

Everything you could imagine happening on a farm is represented. It’s a narrative of life and death. In a prominently positioned panel a ram mounts an indifferent looking ewe. In the August section an extended sequence of panels shows the birth of lambs, painted a special golden yellow. 

Further on there’s a panel where lambs have bloodied ears and butts from docking and tagging. Grim, but visually dramatic, as are the pictures of sheep corpses amid scenes of idyllic rural beauty and ever changing weather.

Foster has successfully imbued life on a sheep farm with epic qualities. It’s a bit like Game of Thrones, the beauty and violence, and winter is always coming. The rain-jacketed man on the motorbike a craggy and heroic Warden of the North.

But what kept me engaged with this large work was the way it was painted.  It’s rugged and raw, as befitting its subject matter. The paint is smeared and plastered on.

The scenes are at turn cartoon-like and impressionistic. There’s no refined perspective and detailed shading. Everything is flat on the picture frame and pushing out at you. The influences of New Zealand painters Colin McCahon, Toss Wollaston and Pat Hanly is strong.

My delight in the work undoubtedly comes from the contrast it offers from the images we see on our screens. It’s got to the point that I’ve developed almost a nausea at viewing digital photographs. Such is the saturation that digital imagery has achieved over the last decade. The early 1980s seems like a distant and far simpler age.

And that’s the thing about art, sometimes it develops meaning and importance that could not have been envisaged by the artist. Times change, our experiences change and then shift the way we see things.

I recommend leaving your phones at home and taking the time to go and see Four Seasons on a Farm. Revel in a different visual experience that makes you want to touch, smell and hear the world.