IN A SCORCHED ROOM
Michelle Langstone finds cool relief from the fires of anxiety at a bird rescue centre.
Actress and writer Michelle Langstone finds cool relief from the fires of anxiety at a bird rescue centre.
It’s a fever you catch. It’s a heat that ignites in the closest cells in the absolute heart of you and bursts into flames, incinerating every atom in a second. It’s the kind of heat that, a hundred-odd years ago, prompted people to exchange cautionary glances and cross themselves when they left the room, murmuring softly under their breath about funeral arrangements. It’s a fever nobody should withstand, and yet it comes every time, that wall of heat, and I am still here.
Once I took all my clothes off in a bathroom stall and lay down on the cool tiles, just to try to put the fire out. I rested my face on my folded blue jeans, because inside the furnace I still had the presence of mind to consider germs, even if this was my demise: death by nerves on a cold toilet floor, burning alive in the middle of winter at a restaurant in Mt Eden.
When I was small, I had a grave fear of being misunderstood. I remember writing cards to my parents and drawing hearts all over the cardboard, telling them how much I loved them. Dozens of cards, just in case they forgot.
After my father was diagnosed with cancer we cleared the house of years of clutter, and I found manila folders full of my school things in the cupboard – reports and notebooks and art. Tucked among them were the cards I’d made for my mother and father. One of them apologised profusely for doing things wrong and reiterated my love, over and over, every alphabet letter a different felt-tip pen colour. I felt sad when I saw that card. Sad that someone so small should be worried already, anxious that love might run out. My parents have always loved me like I was a hot air balloon; I am full of their love and elevated by it.
Even as a child, I imagined bursting into flames mid-air. Lying under a gooseberry bush with my sister, popping the sour fruit from their papery skins with
an ear out for the neighbours, whose bush we were robbing, I felt my body run quick like an electric current. Even then I could feel that the tension was disproportionate – they’d said we could help ourselves, and the sneaking was a game, but I could not match my feelings with my sister’s gleeful excitement. I got so hot I thought I would faint, or set fire to the bush and the house, and then the whole street would burn, and everyone would know it was me, the fire-raiser.
The arc of my youth was a punctured bow. Many moments of happiness, absolutely, but many moments of hot anxiousness and tight palpitation. School became more and more difficult as I tried to navigate friendships under the strain of shyness and nerves. Every single morning I would shout and fight to try and get out of going. I got so anxious I could bring on a fever, which proved helpful in the sick bay on days when it got too much and I just needed to go home.
Much of my 20s were a haze of smoke and embers. I remember nothing of an industry awards ceremony – in a gown, in make-up, in the midst of celebration – save the white linen napkin in my hands, and the way I lined the seam of its hem along the line of my palm, and how I looked at it again and again, like a touchstone, to draw me back into the room. The napkin white, my dress white, my palm on fire, my insides blazing. I had the sense of being absolutely wrong: in the wrong place, in the wrong time, in the wrong body.
At some point, at a loose end and feeling hollowed by fire, I reached out to a bird rescue centre and asked if I could volunteer. I was alone in a big house in Bronte, Sydney, and had just received a recriminatory email from an exboyfriend that had sent me into absolute panic. It was cool outside, rainy and wet, and it was hot inside, everything molten and running away from me.
On that day, a New Zealand musician I followed on Twitter had retweeted a photo of a bird being cared for at a rescue centre in Auckland. I looked through their account, enchanted by all the birds in various states of wellness. It reminded me of the times after storms when my sister and I would climb over the fence at the end of our road and search the farmland for nests and baby birds that had been shaken from the trees by the wind. We cared for so many as children, never with great success, but with a huge sense of importance and tenderness.
I turned up several weeks later, on a wet Sunday morning in autumn, to a place near Green Bay in Auckland, to put myself to work. The two-storey house was perched on a hill up a wide driveway, and was home to a woman who dedicated all her time to caring for birds. A ranch slider door downstairs dragged open to a room crammed with cages and cacophony. You’ve never been greeted the way a room full of birds greets you when you’re first to arrive in the morning. It’s a rowdy, joyful thing – some birds are delighted, some are very cross and muttering in their halfasleep state, and many are just pleased that something is happening.
In the beginning it was my job to care for the caged birds. I learned to clean their cages by hand, to change the paper or soft towels that lined their boxes and crates and metal houses, to wash their food and water bowls in hot water, to bring them little treats of fruit, or a toy to play with, and to tend to their specific needs.
They were many parrots. Some had been abandoned. One was surrendered after his owner passed away; others had escaped their homes and were waiting to see if anyone missed them. Some had been bought for ceremonies and just let go into the sky in a flash of colour, lost in a world they had never met, a world that held no shape or safety for them. Many of the birds were anxious, their sharp eyes on me and their beaks ready to bite my new hands.
One lorikeet had deformed feet with claws that curled over, which made it hard for him to perch. His cage was full of platforms made from donated gauze sheets with plastic backing, which covered the metal wire so that his feet wouldn’t get caught. Whenever I opened the cage, this little bird would hop onto my hand and loll about, not quite standing, not quite keeled over, but sort of stumbling on his misshapen feet. His eyes were keenly bright, and he watched me intently as I made adjustments to his home. When I would move to put him back he would resist, because he liked my hand, and he liked my company, and it would always take a moment to get him settled and reacquainted with his ladder and his platforms, as if he had briefly forgotten where he lived.
There were cages with native birds, too. A juvenile ruru turned his beacon eyes on me when I lifted a tea towel to look in at him in the dark. An orphaned baby pūkeko was in an incubator, keeping warm while he grew his tiny indigo feathers. A pīwakawaka missing feathers from his fan tail hopped back and forth on a beam, impatient. Every bird needed to be cared for by hand.
We had ducks at Bird Rescue, picked up in parks because they were gravely
ill with botulism, most likely from eating mouldy bread thrown by wellmeaning people. When a bird has botulism its muscles get very floppy and it cannot hold up its head. A duck with botulism is a duck in absolute despair. It was my job to bathe them in the outdoor sink, to keep them clean and comfortable. I would lower them gently into the water and rest their heads on a rolled up towel that kept their beaks and nostrils above water, or I would lay their soft heads over my forearm. There, in the cool water, their tired bodies would float and sway while they closed their eyes and seemed to drift away inside. Sometimes the water would revive one of them enough that they would be tempted by a piece of fresh white bread roll. Those were very good days for my heart.
Eventually I graduated from the indoor birds and began to include some outdoor birds in my care routine. Outside around the property there were huge wooden and metal cages for birds that needed more space. There was a “swoop coop” for a clutch of kōtare babies that were learning how to fly. Their croaking radio static commentary would begin the moment they saw me approach the cage, carrying the smushed-up, stinking food I had prepared for them, and they’d watch me from beneath their baby feathers and flat heads with suspicion. They were so small and so misshapen, it was hard to imagine the sleek creatures they would become. As they grew braver, they taught each other to fly. One bold bird would tumble from the perch and catch itself and land somehow on the other side of the cage looking surprised, and the others would follow.
Nearby, one of their relatives, a kookaburra, had an old wooden cage to himself. It was taller than I was, the front entirely wrapped in mesh, with a little door to the side for giving him food and changing his water. He’d sit on that branch, alone, ruffled and seeming confused, and I would walk by and meet his gaze and think, Same.
When I met those birds, my experience of anxiety started to change. They were so much more exposed than I was, and caring for them made me feel stronger. It lifted me, being able to help. I have always been good in a crisis, so long as it belonged to someone else. Over time I discovered that in protecting and nurturing these animals, I was somehow protecting and nurturing myself.
Weeks passed, and a mild autumn let go into a heavy, cold winter. My hands were red raw from the scalding water and soap of clean cages. Battle-weary seabirds began to arrive at the centre, their wings askew, their bellies empty and their internal compasses swinging wildly in disorientation.
A fisherman turned up one morning carrying a box that was thumping and swaying in his hands. He’d found a gannet in trouble out on the rocks. We kept him quiet so he could recover, in an opaque white box by the ranch slider door. The lid was made of mesh, and as I passed by I could see him, sitting very still in a corner. Even standing at full height he would not have been able to glimpse the wild he had come from. The lines along the sides of his beak looked like instructions for making paper planes, and he smelled like his home. He was a fishy, salty, unhappy wildling. I could feel his panic whenever someone moved past his cage; I could discern that anxious jolt through my own skin, as if my proximity was a conduit for transference. That gannet and I had the same urge to run, and in him I recognised the leaps and jumps of nerves that mark an anxious spirit. He was out of place, and so was I. I don’t know why that brought me comfort, but it did. He waited it out in his cramped quarters. He got stronger and sleeker and stroppier, and then he was set free. I cried when I came to work and found that he was gone. I cried in triumph and a kind of blazing fierce rage because he had endured and had been rewarded. He taught me something, that bird. I could hold on, and after the fire, there would be a new landscape.
I couldn’t stay at Bird Rescue forever. Work took me to other places; Sundays became filled with other things. The need to protect and nurture did not leave me, though. In Sydney, I looked after a little stray cat, fattened her up and found her a home. I left water out on my balcony for the birds and possums in the high summer, and spied on them through the bathroom window when they came for a drink. Some days I would just move snails and worms into safer places when they’d used the footpaths as motorways after rain. Tiny things, but acts that refocused my thoughts outside of myself.
I have learned to nurture the fragile life that is closest to me. In the middle of a round of radiation treatment, when Dad’s body was starting to break and he shook violently with convulsions, I wrapped my whole self around him and held him until it passed. We lay on the bed in our pyjamas – a tangle of bathrobes and flannel – and I didn’t let go until it subsided. I heard Time get his coat and search for his keys, and let himself out. Everything stood still. I told my dad to hold on, and I told him he was brave and was doing a good job, and I told him that I loved him. It was one of the saddest moments I had with Dad around that time, and one of the most tender, but there was no panic in it. I felt the flood of a tide come surging through my body, cooling the heat down so entirely, that for the first time in my life, it seemed as if my insides forgot they were a tinderbox at all.
I don’t think the “why” of anxiety matters to me anymore. I know that it comes when I feel I can’t communicate or I am not understood, so I try to speak bravely, I say how I feel and I ask for what I need. And then I look outwards to see if there is anyone else I can help. At times the heat starts to return, but more slowly now – like an old element on a stove that resists a little as you turn the knob, warming reluctantly. What matters is how I move it, and where I allow my focus to land. When I manage it right, like that gannet, I can wait it out and be free again. When I manage it right, I no longer land in a scorched room.
*Extracted from Headlands: New Stories of Anxiety, edited by Naomi Arnold (Victoria University Press, $30).
But since 2016, it’s what he’s been doing with his own rebuilt topsoil that has put him on a much larger agricultural map. On a sliver of his farm, Roebuck is developing a thriving vegetable business: intensive, chemical-free – and profitable. It’s put him at the international vanguard of a new way of market gardening. And it’s a small model that could have a big impact on how we think about food security, climate-change resilience and nutrition in the very near future.
Out in the garden proper, Roebuck shows me a narrow, 14m-long lettuce bed, just harvested: plants not pulled out but shaved clean, their crunchy stumps still in the ground. It’s a demonstration of his bio-intensive business in stark relief. From this bed alone, the morning yield – which Tobi had washed and dried and was halfway through bagging when I arrived – is 25kg of leaves. And that was the second cut from the same plants. The first, a few weeks earlier, had yielded 40kg (roughly $900 worth of salad) – all of it spray-free and grown in actual soil rather than a hydroponic system, which means more flavour and structure to the leaves, and a far longer shelf life.
The garden is a highly concentrated, tightly managed system built on solid permaculture principles. For several years, Roebuck worked alongside Kay Baxter at Koanga Institute, which holds New Zealand’s largest collection of heritage food plants, when it was still based in Kaiwaka. (It has since shifted to Wairoa.) Alongside Baxter, he acquired a deep understanding of permaculture and a flair for education; he still teaches occasional classes at Koanga, as well as regular workshops at home on Roebuck Farm. But restorative grazing and seed harvesting were his real passions. Then, in 2016, came his epiphany, delivered in the form of two Canadian market gardeners, Curtis Stone and Jean-martin Fortier.
Stone and Fortier had made their international reputations on opposite sides of Canada, in completely different climates. Fortier’s farm in Quebec, Les Jardins de la Grelinette, established in the early 2000s, brought him note because of his ability to generate around C$140,000 (NZD$165,000) from 0.6 of a hectare (1.48 acres) of bio-intensive vegetable production. Stone, in Kelowna, British Columbia, set up Green City Acres in 2010, a completely urban farm using other people’s land – essentially, leased backyards. And just like Fortier, he put up staggering numbers, grossing at least C$75,000 on around a third of an acre (0.13 hectares).
Despite the different settings, their principles were extremely close: grow intensively and sustainably in permanent beds, on a small scale, producing nutrient- dense food that’s sold fresh and locally, with minimal external inputs and high profit margins. In 2016, Roebuck hosted the pair for a gardening workshop at his farm. Since then, he’s been on a relentless drive to put their systems into action here in New Zealand.
His own garden currently has 90 permanent beds, adding up to about 900 square metres of cultivated growing space. He moves between the beds with the yogic smoothness of a former serious surfer, but the energy and bounce of someone hellbent on eliminating any semblance of inefficiency or sloth from his systems. He is, in this sense, a perfect, buzzing embodiment of the model he, Stone, Fortier and a handful of others around the world are pioneering, in which organic values collide with a “time is money” ruthlessness.
Stone’s “Crop Value Rating System” is essential to this. “That’s just massive for us in assessing what we’re going to grow and identifying the weakest link on the farm,” Roebuck says. “For us, it’s fast turnover, high value, multiple cuts, long harvest, and what’s popular.”
For a small-scale farmer, Stone’s system means making some obvious choices. Crops such as cauliflower, cabbage and broccoli are out, because they take up so much space and result in a relatively low-value “single-cut” product. So too potatoes and onions, which need to be stored for a long time. But things like microgreens, salad greens, kale, spring onions, cherry tomatoes, radishes, baby beets and some cucumbers all mature quickly and come with a premium if they’re marketed right. Even carrots work, because they’re high yield and cheap to grow. They also attract a premium if they have their tops on, with customers paying more because they seem fresher.
Rather than hardcore permaculture
It’s a small model that could have a big impact on how we think about food security, climate change resilience and nutrition in the very near future.
ideologues, then, these guys are a new kind of hybrid farmer: organic pragmatists. “That’s a good way of describing it,” Stone tells me, from Canada. “I do a lot of consulting around the world, and I’ve been to farms that get these permaculture ideas, and it’s a disaster to undo them. I still think a lot of permaculture principles are fantastic. It’s just that there’s some wishy-washy stuff in it.”
All three men, though, readily acknowledge the influence of older farmers, including organic heroes Eliot Coleman and Joel Salatin, and the bio-intensive innovator John Jeavons. That earlier generation forged their beliefs and farming systems in the face of industrialised agriculture and multiple environmental scandals – such as Rachel Carson’s exposé of the pesticides industry in her 1962 book Silent Spring; the smallholder-crushing force of agricultural giants like Monsanto; and the devastating defoliation caused by the use of Agent Orange in the Vietnam War. Growing naturally and holistically was about more than healthy food, it was an essential plank in a counterculture that questioned systems of power which put profits before people and the environment.
Jeavons’ influence is particularly – and, in Roebuck’s case, profoundly – important. In the 70s, after observing just how inefficient corporate farming was in the United States, Jeavons developed an enclosed, sustainable gardening system that made it possible for communities to grow all of their food and calorie needs in small spaces, in permanent beds. To make this work without any external inputs, farmers need to plant 50-60% of their total crops as “carbon crops” – things like corn, sunflowers, amaranth, alfalfa and sorghum, which produce enough mature plant material to become carbon-rich compost for the higher-calorie foods like root vegetables.
Carbon, in the form of decomposed organic matter, is the absolute key to the system because it improves soil structure, enabling plants to take up the nutrients they need efficiently and effectively. The roots of previous crops are part of this, too. Rather than yanking them out of the ground when the crop is harvested, leaving the roots in allows them to break down, feeding the soil and its microbial life.
In 2003, Roebuck interned in Califor- nia with Jeavons for seven months, where he developed, he says, “what I now take for granted, which is a skillset to transform and deepen a soil”. But growing mature carbon crops in a half-acre market garden that depends on clever space utilisation for its profits would be “super labour-intensive, and those crops take over part of your summer season when you’re doing everything else. That’s good for the planet, but it’s not good in terms of seeing your wife. So the trade-off is sustainability versus profitability.”
As a result, Roebuck buys in goodquality compost. Alongside seeds and tools, it’s his only external input. Stone takes the same approach. He acknowledges the vital importance of Jeavons’ work but sees it as being more useful in the developing world, “because he was really looking at a very low-tech way of farming, which is very valid in that context. But it’s not valid in my context. It doesn’t make sense [for me] to make compost piles by growing a bed of alfalfa. It makes sense if you don’t have any resources.”
There’s another technique that Roebuck and Jean-martin Fortier use near-
we learn from small farms and apply them [to larger farms]. For me, the small farming model is all about quality of life for someone who wants to live on a farm, have a family, and craft a nice lifestyle, where they’re working the land and connected to their community.”
Then there are the realities of the customer base. Right now, most small-scale market gardeners sell to buyer’s groups and restaurants, and at farmer’s markets – proof that produce like this is still largely a middle-class luxury. “Of course it is!” Stone says. “I have no problems with that. I have no problems with going out and selling food to the highest bidder. Frankly, if you’re in business and you don’t do that, you’re not going to be in business for very long because somebody else is going to do it.”
In 2018, money talks. But Stone has also sensed a shift in the nine years he’s been doing this. “There’s a growing interest in the products, and a growing interest in the culture,” he says. “I don’t want to say a back-to-land movement, but something similar… Because of the amount of information we have out there [on the internet, where Stone is a successful Youtuber with around 250,000 subscribers], I think there’s a little less naive romanticism than there was in the 60s and 70s with the back-to-landers.”
Roebuck may share Stone’s business focus, but he still strikes me as an idealist at heart. And if he does have a mission, it emerges in the educational workshops he runs at Roebuck Farm, which are often more for home gardeners than people who want to grow vegetables full-time.
“For me, the home garden is closely connected to resilience and selfprovision,” he says. “In New Zealand, maybe there are 500 people who want to be small-scale market gardeners, yet there’s probably half a million who want a backyard garden. We’re all time-poor, and we still need to set up our backyard so it’s efficient and we can get as much as we can from it. So that’s what we’re helping people with.”
Resilience is a word Stone uses, too. And reconnection: the idea that most of us have become divorced from food production – not only from the plants, but the growing medium itself. At its most basic, small-scale intensive vegetable production is about the pleasure and fundamental importance of caring for soil.
On one of my visits, on a cold July day, Roebuck fixed a late lunch after we’d spent a couple of hours outside. He pulled a few carrots and a handful of radishes from their beds as we headed to the house, where the shoulder of a hogget from his flock had been in the slow-cooker all morning. He joked about getting fat from carrots because of the amount of butter he likes to cook them in.
He joined me at the table, and I realised it was the first time I’d seen Roebuck completely still; this wiry, busy, intense gardener, talking about his goals for his business and looking out the window at where he was reshaping the future, for him and his family. But perhaps reshaping things beyond that half-acre, too. +
boyfriend, married him, lied to him about being pregnant, got beaten up by him for lying and then – spoiler alert – bludgeoned him to death in the aftermath of an earthquake. When Carla’s “Bernie-bear” was knocked on the head by a falling pewter candlestick, she was delighted to see he’d been killed. But joy turned to rage when she saw Bernie stir, so Carla finished him off with the candlestick – just like a game of Cluedo.
Of course, there were extenuating circumstances. When Bernie (played by Timothy Bartlett) first came round, he groggily told Carla to “move your fat butt”. I’m not saying he deserved his fate, but fat shaming is never acceptable.
To avoid jail, the devious Carla tried to frame her new boyfriend and if it hadn’t been for that meddling nurse Tiffany Pratt (Alison James), she might have got away with murder. And I might still be on the show, instead of Carla being dispatched to a Hawke’s Bay asylum after trying to knock off Tiffany too.
This was a golden era for Shortland Street. In 1995, the programme declared financial independence from NZ on Air, and also drew its biggest audiences, with an average 660,000 viewers turning in each night.
Apparently, the episode that still holds the record for the show’s highest-ever ratings aired on 31 May 1995, when Carla spiked her sister’s pizza with cannabis – causing Ellen to fail a random drug test, which led to Carla taking over as head of nursing at the clinic while simultaneously blackmailing nurse Tiffany about her hepatitis C diagnosis. All in a day’s work.
Looking back, it’s hard to know exactly how Shortland Street changed my life. It’s sure to have closed as many doors as it opened. When cast in a nappy commercial in 2007, I promptly lost the role when one of the ad execs realised who I was and declared it unthinkable to have me play a mum after I’d played a murderer. (Happily, the creators of the Countdown commercials didn’t make that same connection, and I played the mother in their Coleman family ads for some years.)
But I’m proud to have had such a memorable role in a Kiwi TV phenomenon. I enjoyed being paid to dress up and be naughty, and I look forward to the day Carla returns to the clinic.
I imagine she’s been studying psychiatry while locked away and, once rehabilitated and released, I expect she’ll get a job at Shortland Street, because everyone deserves a second chance. Now, where did I put that candlestick? +
• Shortland Street: The Musical, directed by Simon Bennett with music composed by Guy Langsford, makes its debut at Auckland’s Waterfront Theatre 14 November-9 December, then will tour nationwide from next March (short land street the musical. co.nz ). Sadly, Carla didn’t make the cut.
Michelle Langstone gets a smooch from Zambesi, a rainbow lorikeet at the bird rescue centre. “When I met those birds, my experience of anxiety started to change. They were so much more exposed than I was, and caring for them made me feel stronger.”
One of Roebuck’s assistants prepares the soil by hand before a new crop is planted.
Roebuck is a huge believer in the potential of soil carbon sequestration and its effects on healthy food production – it’s a key factor in both his gardening techniques and his sheep grazing.
A harvest of radishes from Roebuck’s market garden. “For me, the home garden is closely connected to resilience and self-provision,” he says.
Opposite: An early scene featuring original cast members (from left) Martin Henderson, Andrew Binns (standing), Temuera Morrison and Lisa Crittenden. This page: Elisabeth Easther as Carla, the soap’s first killer, in hospital after a beating by her husband Bernie. She gets him in the end.