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.
Standard
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.” 

Standard
Northern Advocate Column

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

The 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.

Standard
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 hosting 
 of lavish 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?
 
Standard
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 lazy rhythm between two 
bobbing heads. Such tranquil sorrow 
where no tears are shed 
at the looming blackness of it all. 
Our view is narrowed, 
we don't see the cliffs flipped over, 
ascending from green to orange clay, 
to rocks above
                 —a snapper torpedoes 
into the bait, a rod slams 
downwards, the line whizzes, 
the mirror smashed. We’re ejected 
from the sea and plonked 
back in our small boat, father and son, 
winding in the world we know. 
Standard
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.

Standard
Northern Advocate Column

Small and big water users on a collision course

9th September 2020

“It never rains but it pours.” Having experienced the extremes of weather this last 12 months, an appropriate re-wording of that old saying would be: “If it’s not a drought, it’s a flood.” 

Northland has always had seasonal differences in rainfall. Droughts and storms that cause extensive flooding aren’t new. But last summer was the hottest and driest I can recall, and it’s been followed by the wettest winter. Our climate is obviously changing. Climate scientists are predicting that what we’re experiencing may well be the new normal. 

Regular droughts will put a strain on water supplies and cause disputes between different water users. Those tensions are already emerging. There’s been much interest in the application by avocado growers to access an additional 6 million litres of water per year from the Aupōuri Peninsula’s aquifer. The only source of water for many Far North locals. It’s not the only area where water consents are being sought. 

A common feature is the large size of the operations wanting increased access to water. In Northland, like the rest of New Zealand, farming enterprises are getting bigger. This is a model of land use and ownership heavily dependent on scale to generate operating efficiencies. Companies are often highly leveraged to banks. Their focus is on delivering a single food product to supermarkets or for export. Leaving aside the justice of land being increasingly owned by a few, this model has a lot of risk contained in it. Prices can fluctuate, interest rates can go up, input costs can increase, or it might not rain enough. 

Too little rainfall at crucial times of the year is a risk that big agriculture wants to mitigate. These enterprises could build water storage themselves, capturing water during periods of heavy rainfall in a similar way to a householder or bach owner collects water in a tank. That would be a private cost. Companies with slim margins and an eye on reducing costs would rather access water cheaply from underground aquifers. Or have the government and local councils pick up the costs of irrigation projects or mass water storage. 

Recently the government gave $12 million for a water storage project coordinated by the Northland Regional Council. The project received $18.5 million last year. That’s likely to be only the start of public money for water storage and irrigation projects that will be essential to new large scale horticulture ventures. 

The high-cost, high-risk vision of agriculture has clearly got backing within government and local councils. It’s not, however, the only vision of farming for Northland. One better adapted to the extremes of weather caused by the atmosphere warming is small scale mixed farming producing for a local market. Of which there are plenty of pioneers in Northland today. 

Regenerative agriculture uses practices to keep water in the land. Organic material is used to maintain healthy aerated soils that can absorb and retain moisture. The emphasis is on a diversity of crops and animal husbandry. Different crops may succeed one year where others fail without destroying the viability of the whole farm. A term often used in ecology circles to describe this type of farming is resilient. It’s adaptable in the way that planting a single crop over 400 hectares is not. 

Given what we know about climate change, small scale organic farming practices producing a variety of quality food for local people needs to be our future. It’s not the dynamic that’s currently playing out across Tai Tokerau. Big is in the ascendency.

Climate change and farming intensification are on a collision course in Northland, with water access the flashpoint. Where does public sentiment lie? Is it with the big landowners and their high-risk model, or with the resilient practices of the small organic farmer?   

Standard
Northern Advocate Column

‘A Small Farm Future’ by Chris Smaje

14 November 2020

Imagine no Fonterra, no mega-dairy farms, no super-sized avocado orchards. Imagine that shiploads of rice, wheat, and—oh my god!—coffee, weren’t landing on our shores. Imagine instead that all the food we eat is grown locally on small farms, less than a few hectares. That’s the future for the world envisaged by Chris Smaje, author of the new book A Small Farm Future published by Chelsea Green Publishing in the UK. 

There’s long been recognition in permaculture and ecological circles that small-scale mixed farming is the future we need. The strength of Smaje’s book is that he tackles head-on the possible criticisms of this small farm future. Like the idea that small farms, with little or no fossil fuel inputs, couldn’t possibly feed the world. To counter that argument, Smaje makes a case study of Britain in 2050 with an increased population of 83 million (thanks to the benevolent acceptance of refugees fleeing from countries worst affected by climate change). 

He goes through the process of dividing up the land and labour of the country, factoring in conservative estimates on yields, and making choices about what needs to be grown to produce the necessary calories. There would be more vegetables eaten, including potatoes a thousand ways, and a lot less sugar and red meat. The figures he comes up with, carefully explained and justified with scientific rigour along the way, say, yes, it can be done. There might be political, economic and social reasons why Britain doesn’t immediately embrace small farm self-sufficiency. Still, this doesn’t mean, according to Smaje’s analysis, that it’s not possible. 

You often hear from New Zealand export farmers—of dairy and meat in particular—that they’re performing the necessary service of “feeding the world.” But the rest of the world, if land was owned and controlled differently, and if different social and environmental considerations reigned, could, in fact, feed itself. 

Being a small farmer himself, and with a science background, Smaje is careful about any claims he makes. It’s this sober analysis that actually makes Smaje’s book inspiring and worthy of repeated reads (he’s also a great writer). A Small Farm Future is theoretical, but it’s grounded in the limits that farming (and nature more broadly) has always imposed on the human species. One of Smaje’s common themes, bringing together economics, lifestyle and sustainability, is that accepting limits is healthy. Less destabilising and stressful of people and eco-systems than the illusion of no limits. 

Our high energy, high waste, globalised economy is clearly overreaching the limits of what the Earth can support. Cities, according to Smaje, for a host of social, economic and environmental reasons, will start to empty out. With a city exodus leading to an expanding rural population, then land ownership, Smaje predicts, will be a flashpoint political issue. They’ll be an urgent need for land reform that makes land available to small farmers to own. 

The later parts of the book are perhaps the most fascinating and also original. Smaje speculates on what a small farm society might look like. He stresses, for instance, the importance of avoiding the exploitation of women’s work by patriarchal farmers. There’s no reason why the values we currently hold dear—like gender equality—can’t be part of the legal framework of a small farm society. Smaje does anticipate, however, the eroding power of the centralised state, conceding more power to local populations to decide things for themselves. One interesting chapter is titled “From Nations to Republics.” 

Smaje has lots of good things to say about peasants, both historically and today. As someone who fancies himself as a neo-peasant (more in my dreams than in reality), I’m attracted to his unapologetic advocacy of the peasant life. Though it would have to be free of domination by colonial or financial elites. Rehabilitating the peasant as a positive term might stress them as autonomous, multi-skilled, fiercely independent, creative types, who are keen scientific observers of their environment. 

Smaje never presents his small farm future as a utopia. Without fossil fuels, whether restricted due to attempts to reduce carbon emissions or because of increasing costs over time, farming will require a lot more human and animal labour. Smaje is sceptical of a super high tech world of robots and the automation of everything. The energy inputs of such a world—truly utopian—just don’t stack up. Besides, as Smaje persuasively argues, we might find that working on a farm to sustain ourselves and our families, and generating a small surplus, makes us quite happy. That life might be better than doing a bullshit job working for someone else and addicted to whatever passive entertainment global internet-based media companies feed us. Smaje isn’t afraid to make moral judgements. 

An ever-expanding global economy requiring more and more energy inputs—which renewables can’t possibly satisfy—is the delusional future. In one hundred years (probably less), whether we plan for it or not, more people will be working on the land, cities will have declined in population and influence, fossil fuels will be scarce or non-existent. Getting started on embracing the positives that derive from necessity, and trying to make that transition as orderly, just and fair as possible would probably be a good idea. Books like A Small Farm Future are important. They’ll plant seeds in the minds of farmers and searchers for an ecologically-centred and spiritually satisfying way of life. 

Standard
Northern Advocate Column

A holiday to celebrate Matariki, yes!

12 June 2018

When it comes to our public holidays I range from passable participation, boredom, to cynical disbelief―why are we celebrating that? Queen’s Birthday definitely the latter.

A paid day off is always great, but I want something more from a holiday. I want to feel. 

Christmas and New Year come closest. Who doesn’t like reaching the end of the year and enjoying a relaxing time with family. I get that. 

Northland Anniversary Day? Meh. 

Waitangi Day? I’ve enjoyed days at Waitangi itself, but despite attempts to establish the Treaty as a founding document for this country I’m too aware that it really was a calculated attempt by the British to claim dominion over this land. Too much post-colonial guilt for it to feel like a holiday should. And not everyone in the country seems to be uniformly celebrating the day, so it feels awkward, like a work function where there are unresolved tensions between management and staff. You just can’t quite get into it. 

I like the length of Easter, but chocolate eggs and bunnies mashed-up with the biblical story of Christ’s death on the cross and rising a few days later doesn’t do much for me. 

I understand that Anzac Day means a lot to some people. It’s the kind of holiday – commemoration is a better word – that I’m looking for, something with a depth of feeling. It’s just that the nationalist myth-making, the ties it still reinforces to Western powers, the uniforms and hierarchies, don’t sit well with my anarchist-inclined tastes. 

Labour Day is an interesting one. We got that in 1900 to mark the struggle by unions to achieve an eight-hour working day. But not much is made of it, really. A symptom perhaps of New Zealand’s working-class history being so successfully removed from our everyday consciousness. A kind of collective lobotomy, as if we’ve all been playing Mike Hosking through headphones at night. 

Our line-up of public holidays just feels tired and stale to me. Traditions and continuity are all well and good, but change is necessary too. So I’m joining the chorus of people calling for Matariki, the Māori New Year, to become our newest holiday season. A chance for reflection, hearty dinners and public festivals of art and entertainment. 

It should be two days off, one either side of a weekend in June. Replace the outdated Queen’s Birthday and then increase our public holiday count by one to 12 (still behind Australia’s 13). 

I have in mind a truly internationalist holiday. Yes, with a perspective indigenous to this land, but mid-winter celebrations are common to most cultures around the world. Under the umbrella of Matariki, celebrations could reflect the full diversity of communities that have come to Aotearoa. Some by following the stars long ago, others more recently watching movies on the backseat of the airline passengers in front of them.

It should be a holiday season that combines local belonging with a global consciousness. A holiday fit for that purpose is something I could embrace wholeheartedly. 

Matariki, it’s in the stars. 

Standard