The Milk Bottle Moa
Rāhui. Rāhui. Nourish the quiet earth. The call came across social media in the first days of the Aotearoa Covid-19 lockdown. Rāhui. Rāhui. Let us not call this lockdown or isolation. Let us see this for the pause it is. Let us breathe into the solitude, turn away from rush and shops and inward to our families and homes. Let us remember how to live in connection to each other and the earth.
We live in one of Nelson’s original streets, a steep run of workingmen’s cottages overlooking the port. Before it is light men walk the slope, returning from their night shifts on the wharf, the strain of the gradient pushing small hard plums of muscle into the surface skin above their inner knees. Mostly the men are walking to their homes in the narrow valley that lies on the other side of the hill.
In the 1960s the police drove Ford Zephyrs. If you rode a motorbike and needed to dodge the fuzz, Russell Street was your grail, the incline your saviour, the slugging of the police fleet hopeless in pursuit. Years before the motorbikes, a pirate named Jack Spain walked the street. One rumour has it that Jack Spain slept in the unlined tin shed that still stands in our backyard. Another says that the shed was home to a remittance man, a young man banished from his family in Scotland and periodically sent a small sum of money on which to live.
The shed is gradually leaning out toward the port. The dogeared corners of the flattened tin barrel walls curl like paper from the studding and white wisteria rolls across the buckled spouting. ‘Don’t cut the old growth back,’ our builder friend Andrew warns. ‘That’s what’s holding it up.’ In summer the corrugated roof is soft and gold with fat layers of finger-shaped kōwhai blooms.
The rethinking of the lockdown as a rāhui first entered my social media feed when my neighbour Bridget shared it. And then, like the call to prayer, it soared into the virtosphere. By virtosphere I mean the virtual-sphere and the virtue-sphere. Both apply to social-media feeds. I might also mean vertical. As in a steep unassailable surface or sheer eroded bluff. It depends on your perspective – whether you walk in clean wind with lofty views or lie fallen staring up at rockface.
The online Māori dictionary defines a rāhui as a temporary ritual prohibition – a closed season, ban, or reserve. A rāhui is traditionally placed upon an area, a resource, or a body of water as a conservation measure or as a means of social and political control. The rāhui is placed and lifted by a tohunga with an appropriate karakia.
This lockdown rāhui was not located in a physical place but everybody knew what the lockdown-rebranded-as-rāhui related to. It was a backlash against the way that we were living. The lack of time we had for connecting with people that truly mattered to us. The way that we were skittering across the surface of our lives buoyed by acquisitions. Houses, cars, clothes and holidays. Our children’s educations and future careers. Signalling our worth to others with what we owned and what we did in our hours away from home.
It was also possible that the rāhui view was itself a luxury. Our friend Andrew said that he was sick of hearing people saying they didn’t want to go back to the way it was before COVID-19. As a builder he had no wages if he was unable to turn up on construction sites. For the first weeks of lockdown he and his two teenaged girls lived on what was in the store cupboard while they waited for the Ministry of Social Development to pay a wage subsidy into his bank account.
And the Ministry of Social Development was itself making these payments from a store cupboard it had built from people’s taxes. Something was circular. If we attempted to slow the hamster wheel of commerce and lead more gentle and connected lives – to consume less and to work less – there would be winners and losers and many gradations in between. Those who own their homes and hold savings sufficient to live off and those who need wages to pay for shelter and food. And that is a very simple view of the matter. Even those who own their own homes need an income to buy food and basic necessities and if that income is to come from savings and investments, the commercial hamster wheel needs to keep on turning. For a long transition time at least. And that transition time would need to be upheld by all political factions. To contemplate the reach of commerce is to contemplate the systems of a tree within a forest.
My laundry is in the shed where the young remittance man slept. The front loader and dryer sit on a ledge of concrete raised above the slab floor which floods in all rains. I regularly drop pieces of clean laundry into the dirt as I lift it from the washing machine. The earth marks the damp spun folds with powdery traces like the chitin dust of a house moth’s wings. Sometimes I give in to re-laundering but often I just scuff the tracings away with my fingertips.
I sit in meetings at work and see shadows like palm lines on my dresses and I look at my colleagues’ unmarked shirt sleeves and imagine their clothing being carried from outdoor lines in large plastic baskets and placed for folding on laminate laundry benches with shelves above that hold packets of natural scented laundry detergent and small bottles of stain remover.
Mostly though I think of the man who slept on this floor and I wonder about his peculiar type of bad – mental incapacity, sexual disgrace, a dangerous love or some ill understood addiction. I wonder what kind of energetic residue he leached into this space, and what it means to be impoverished in exile for failing to mirror what society models.
Two years ago, in the gallery owned by my neighbour, I chose a small ceramic salt dish from a Whanganui artist and took it to the counter to be gift wrapped. Bridget removed the price sticker and then stepped aside to let her assistant complete the sale.
‘Have a look at these, neighbour,’ she said unrolling a swishing baton of blue-inked paper. ‘We’ve had an architect draw up plans for the house.’
She spread the large curling sheets on the polished wooden counter and held them flat with the sellotape dispenser and EFTPOS handset.
‘We’re going to remove the lean-to kitchen space at the back and replace it with a double-height extension and that will be the new living zone. It’ll be a replica of the existing house shape. We’re doing our best to be sympathetic to the old harbour master’s house, but it will give us twice the floor space.’
‘Wow, nice,’ I said. ‘Handy with the kids.’
‘Exactly. And we’ll put in a basement level media room and play space for them underneath the extension. And this whole north wall, the one that looks out to the port, that will be all glass so the house will heat passively.’
‘Amazing. It’s such an exciting project.’
‘You could do something like this with your place. You don’t have a lot of space.’
‘It would be lovely,’ I said. ‘But it’s just the two of us now. It’s got three bedrooms. We’re probably ok.’ I looked again at the large expanse of living room floor space marked on the plans, the separate zones it allowed, and I imagined lining one of the nooks with tall bookshelves and a sliding library ladder.
‘And the renovation the previous owners did on our place is only about ten years old, it’s all still fresh.’ I added.
‘You can do it in a really green way,’ she said. ‘We’re sourcing a lot of materials based on sustainability and eco-credentials.’
I thought of my 120-year-old tin laundry and the bare earth floor. And then I thought about our 450 square metre section and the destruction that any extension would entail. Not only the shed but also the root systems of the kōwhai and puriri trees. I also thought about the money and the years of work that it would take to pay that off.
It’s not nice to talk about money but I’m a chartered accountant and money is to accountants what secret bodies are to doctors.
Later I said to my partner, ‘I’d be surprised if they build the extension. It will cost too much and in this part of town they will be overcapitalised.’
‘Imagine what it will do to the street value, if they do,’ he mused.
Bridget and her husband Rob also own a large tract of land somewhere on which they have planted extensive runs of trees and also keep beehives.
As well as the trees, they also cycle with their children to school and drive a Model X Tesla, a black electric sport utility vehicle with rear passenger doors that open aerially like something out of Thunderbirds.
The Model X Tesla has zero emissions provided the electricity used to recharge it is cleanly sourced – and ignoring its manufacture and the mining of lithium for batteries.
In Bridget and Rob’s living room, we open a bottle of wine. Another neighbour, Rosalie, says, ‘I think it’s a lovely idea, Bridget. And very generous.’
The walls of the finished extension are covered in contemporary art and plants hang in white macramé holders.
‘I want to share what we have,’ Bridget smiles. ‘And it’s only because we own the three adjoining properties that it’s even possible. We can remove the bamboo and the hedge of flaxes and put gates into fences so you can all just come and go as you need. And we can talk about how we share the garden beds and trees once we’re closer to finishing the landscaping. But I was thinking I’d like us to grow interesting things like tomatillos, not spinach and broccoli and things you can easily buy at the supermarket.’
‘And I know you’ve wanted to have chooks,’ she says to me. ‘I’m really happy to think about having them on the section if you provide the housing and keep them looked after.’
We all tap our glasses together and look out through the double-height wall of glass across the roofs of the street and down to the port. Night is falling and the horizon of Tasman Bay is pencil grey. The illuminated port cranes swing their high steel arms and clusters of forklifts flash and rotate, small before the hulk of the moored container ships. The noise treated glass insulates us from the sound of the working port. In the garden to our right, a life-sized moa sculpture stands on the thick lawn beside the in-ground swimming pool. The moa is plump and white with densely layered feathers individually hand-cut from two litre plastic milk bottles. Each leaf-shaped quill is fringed with tiny stranded cuts as if it were real. The bird comes from an installation at a light festival and its LED eyes glow red in the dusk, echoing the glowing orange flecks of the moving forklift sirens.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Justine Whitfield comes from Porirua and now lives in Nelson. Her writing has appeared in Pantograph Punch, Headland Journal, Kiss Me Hardy, the Nelson Arts Festival and an anthology of essays from Landfall.