Waiting for their red-stickered house to be demolished, Bryan and Colleen Fairbairn were frequent visitors to what had been the residential Red Zone left after the 2010 and 2011 Canterbury earthquakes.
“We wanted to see the bulldozer,” Bryan explains, “but every time we came I would growl at Colleen, ‘look at that long grass.’”
Then Bryan heard an interview with Sam Johnson, founder of the Student Volunteer Army who had mobilised more than 11,000 people to help with the quake cleanup.
“He said people were talking about what to do. But he went out and started doing it. And I thought, if he can do it, I can do it!”
So that Sunday, near the end of 2013, the retired insurance underwriter took a push lawn mower down and started mowing.
“A car pulled up. Someone jumped out and said ‘what are you doing?’. I explained, and they disappeared. Then on Monday, a car came back and someone said, ‘you are not allowed to do this.’ So I explained we were doing it anyway. And he said, ‘we’ll go back and have a talk about it.’ I think they’ve been talking about it ever since.”
Since then Bryan has spent about four hours a day working, either by himself or with the help of Colleen. He’s now cleared and maintains about 13 hectares.
He keeps things tidy rather than perfect: weeding, trimming back trees and shrubs. And of course, keeping the grass down (his original push mower has been replaced, and he’s now on his third ride-on).
As well as spending time, he’s spending money. He estimates his efforts have cost about $80,000 over the years, and while he’s received support and donations from various quarters, more than $30,000 of that has come out of his own pocket.
But it’s worth it, he says, when people who previously lived there thank him.
“They left because they had to,” he says. “Because of Mother Nature. They didn’t want to go. And often they are just so chuffed because somebody cares and that’s pretty much what it’s all about.”