IN A SCORCHED ROOM

Michelle Langstone finds cool relief from the fires of anx­i­ety at a bird res­cue cen­tre.

North & South - - Contents - BY MICHELLE LANGSTONE

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.

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