Polly writes a “love” let­ter in sup­port of the coun­try’s wa­ter­ways


NZ Life & Leisure - - Contents -

ON FAR NORTH sum­mer days when the air is so heavy with hu­mid­ity I can hardly move, it’s easy to sym­pa­thize with the cows standing knee-deep in our lo­cal stream. In heat like that any sane crea­ture heads for the shade or cool wa­ter. Un­for­tu­nately, our swim­ming holes are all down­stream from the wal­low­ing cows and it may be their bovine in­flu­ence thick­en­ing the stream flow and caus­ing brown­ish green al­gae to slime across the river stones.

Ever since a car­load of vis­i­tors we took to the wa­ter­hole got sick last year, James and I have lost our en­thu­si­asm for dar­ing guests to leap from the road­side into the deep pool be­low. It’s no com­fort to learn this stream could be of­fi­cially “swimmable” un­der new gov­ern­men­tal wa­ter-qual­ity stan­dards when the only thing chang­ing is the cri­te­rion for swimma­bil­ity, which al­lows for a dou­bling of the ac­cept­able level of E coli.

Judg­ing from the mes­sages of rage and grief read aloud lately on RNZ, New Zealan­ders ev­ery­where are mourn­ing the ill health and deaths of our rivers. With more than 60 per cent of our mon­i­tored wa­ter­ways now deemed un­safe for swim­ming, how many of our happy ex­pe­ri­ences in and along the wa­ter are doomed to be­come nostal­gia from a yes­ter­year?

“Aren’t clean rivers the birthright of each gen­er­a­tion?” some­one on the ra­dio de­manded to know. As a child, I drank without fear from the rivers I swam in. On day hikes, a cup used to dan­gle from the back of dad’s pack, eas­ily ac­ces­si­ble for scoop­ing up a mouth­ful from any stream we en­coun­tered in the hills. To­day, my fam­ily still drinks from a stream. Luck­ily for us, we live high in head­wa­ter coun­try and col­lect our wa­ter not long af­ter it’s bub­bled from the for­est floor. Our chil­dren know we de­pend on the health of our stream for our own good health. They may turn on a tap in the house, but they both un­der­stand it is part of the stream flow­ing out – the same stream in which we’ve found tiny cad­dis flies, fresh­wa­ter cray­fish, black eels and minute snails. Healthy wa­ter is full of life, they are learn­ing.

Māori be­lieve ev­ery river has mauri; its life prin­ci­ple or vi­tal essence. As chil­dren, camped on the banks of re­mote rivers in the back of beyond, my brother and I got to know a few of these en­er­gies well; fling­ing our­selves into their cold rush­ing songs and fall­ing asleep to them flow­ing through the night like a strange an­cient lul­laby.

In predawn shad­ows they ran the loud­est; a bur­bling, gur­gling melody rush­ing end­lessly on, singing of un­tame­able forces, im­per­ma­nence and the cease­less drive to reach some­where else. Un­able to stay away, my fa­ther would care­fully un­zip the tent, tip­toe­ing out into the sun­rise with his fish­ing rod for an­other day of los­ing him­self in the flow.

We spent sum­mers in rivers, be­side them and on them; car­ried be­tween boul­ders, splash­ing in a white churn of rapids and slid­ing into dark silken runs that mur­mured se­crets into over­hang­ing banks. These were un­do­mes­ti­cated rivers full of life and alive­ness. Un­pol­luted, un­fet­tered by stop banks or con­crete bound­aries and un­tapped by ir­ri­ga­tion schemes, they welled from the earth; clear, glis­ten­ing veins of life force to im­merse your­self in and gulp at so the joy of their chat­ter and bub­ble ran through you.

Ruama­hanga, Ngaruroro, Tauherenikau, Man­ganui o te Ao, Paku­ratahi, Otaki, Akatarawa… Like an in­vo­ca­tion, these river names sum­mon the heady sum­mer scent of dried mud and sun­warmed stone. Even the Hutt River had its magic, with deep nar­row gorges and pools of pol­ished black if you took the time to ex­plore. They were a di­a­logue you could en­ter if you cared to, although some­times they gave you no choice. Me in the Otaki River gorge in a flash flood, cling­ing to rocky cliffs as brown wa­ter thun­dered past, suck­ing my body side­ways as I inched my­self along in the tor­rent; or swept off my feet cross­ing the ris­ing Waio­hine in a storm. With heart-thump­ing ex­hil­a­ra­tion, rivers taught me that they af­firm life by threat­en­ing to drown it.

The rivers I want my chil­dren to know are the ones run­ning around us but also through us. Not just as blood in our veins but as streams of mu­sic and words and ideas flow­ing out. Rivers are cre­ative. “What is a stream of con­scious­ness?” I want them to ask. When we feel stuck, why do we de­scribe our­selves as blocked, as if a chan­nel’s not open? As above, so be­low: will our in­ner rivers dry up if our outer ones cease?

Fol­low a river, I’ll tell my chil­dren as they head off into the world. Know they are al­ways a jour­ney, a cur­rent, a road that will take you to some­where. Must our rivers be alive for the metaphors to work?

Rivers take but they also give and as a child I thought their alive­ness would al­ways be so. Who wouldn’t con­serve such vig­or­ous be­ings? So when I jour­neyed south a while ago it was shock­ing to cross so many empty riverbeds on State High­way One be­tween Christchurch and Dunedin. Equally dis­turb­ing is the chug-chug of wa­ter pump­ing cease­lessly over ver­dant pad­docks in land­scapes whose sum­mers used to be sun bleached; and my fa­ther’s sad ob­ser­va­tion that this year very few an­glers were catch­ing fish on the mighty Rakaia. “Not only were the salmon ab­sent, but more omi­nously there were vir­tu­ally no trout or ka­hawai ei­ther.”

If the Earth is a body, then of course the world’s riverbeds form its veins, car­ry­ing the life force needed for ev­ery cell on the planet. What hap­pens when we build dams, add tox­ins and re­strict flow? What hap­pens to poi­soned hu­mans with clogged ar­ter­ies and thick, slug­gish blood?

If the govern­ment’s not com­mit­ted to tak­ing the nec­es­sary steps re­quired to save our rivers, per­haps it’s up to ev­ery­one griev­ing to take ac­tion? At present my own sense of help­less­ness stems from a feel­ing of be­ing an in­ef­fec­tual drib­ble of sad­ness and anger. But as the stream bur­bling out­side the house re­minds me, all wa­ter­ways start from small beginnings, only grow­ing in strength as trib­u­taries join forces. What would it mean to protest as a river; not trick­ling but surg­ing in an un­stop­pable flow to­wards the fi­nal goal of a fresh­wa­ter na­tion that’s truly 100 per cent pure?

If the Earth is a body, then of course the world’s riverbeds form its veins, car­ry­ing the life force needed for ev­ery cell on the planet

Af­ter nu­mer­ous off­shore ad­ven­tures, Polly Greeks and her hus­band James have cho­sen to put down roots in a stand of iso­lated North­land for­est where they are slowly build­ing a mort­gage- free, of­f­grid home and dis­cov­er­ing an en­tirely new way of life.

Read more from Polly in her blog Off- the- Grid and On­line ev­ery sec­ond Wed­nes­day on thisNZlife.co. nz

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