Calder At Large

Peter Calder on life in New Zealand

Peter Calder: Get on the grass - the berms battle

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Some people get bogged down in the trivial and others just get the mower out and cut the grass.

Shane Rogers tends his patch every Saturday morning. Photo / Richard Robinson
Shane Rogers tends his patch every Saturday morning. Photo / Richard Robinson

The British naval historian C. Northcote Parkinson gave his name to a famous law of human behaviour. It is usually expressed as "work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion", but more wittily states that public officials exist mainly to make work for each other.

He also came up with Parkinson's Law of Triviality, which described how, for example, an organisation's management would spend two minutes resolving to authorise a multi-million-dollar plant expansion, but wrangle for hours about a reorganisation of the office car park.

His idea - that if you can get upset about something you will; if it's too big to comprehend, you'll ignore it - has been radiantly on show in the Herald these past few weeks, as letter-writers have lambasted Mayor Len Brown and the Auckland Council for their decision to stop paying for the mowing of roadside berms.

House prices are out of control; the elderly are freezing because they can't afford power; the battle against child abuse and drug-fuelled crime seems intractable; the US Government has shut down; and don't even mention climate change.

But what's really got us hot under the collar is the idea that council-paid contractors may not show up any more and cut the patch of lawn in front of the house.

"It's their land," is a common response, presumably the view of the chap up the road from me whose front lawn, behind a high wall, looks like a bowling green while his verge is a verdant 30cm. You can almost hear him grumbling as you walk past.

The profusion of alternatives to mowing the berm attests to the endlessness of human inventiveness: my favourite was a Tauranga reader who plainly doesn't know much about stormwater runoff - she suggested concreting the lot.

Opponents of the council decision say it will save a measly $3 million a year, but that's mischievously selective. Households outside the old Auckland City have never had their berms mowed, so if the service were - as fairness demands - extended across the new city, it could cost an extra $15 million a year. A mayoral spokesman says that could add 1 per cent to rates.

Mowing the berm is no great burden to Shane Rogers. He was drawn to my attention by a colleague who says he often mows her berm - and sometimes even her front lawn.

On Sunday, I drove past neatly clipped berms in Owairaka and Blockhouse Bay to Rogers' home, a spic and span townhouse on a half site in Lynfield. Rogers' berm is marine-haircut short. He does it every Saturday morning, he says. I think that if I'd asked him to leave it this weekend so he could mow it for the photographer, he wouldn't have understood the question.

Rogers has always mowed his berm. "My lawn's not much bigger than the berm and once I've got the mower out, I like to keep the place nice and clean. It's only a few minutes." He has always done the job because the contractors, who would "chuck a mower at it", were rough as guts and he's mystified by people who mow their lawns and leave the berm.

It would be wrong to say that he's unsympathetic to their belief that the council should "take ownership of it because it's their land", but I suspect that keeping things neat and tidy beats principle every time. And mowing my colleague's berm is "just being good neighbours", he says.

The karaka outside our house will be glad that the contractors have gone. They came so close to ringbarking it with their weedeaters that we had to build a brick-walled garden to protect it.

We have neither lawn nor lawnmower, but an ancient widower up the street, who comes from the Shane Rogers school of lawn maintenance, mows ours willingly. I could offer to sweep his path in exchange, but I am sure he wouldn't trust me to do a good enough job, so I drop him over a casserole from time to time. It's what neighbours do. There are many bigger challenges in my life than the lawn beyond the letterbox.

The council provides for plenty of exceptional circumstances in which it will continue to mow the berm - the inability to do so features prominently, though bloody-minded unwillingness is not catered for.

But with the rates soaring and the challenges facing the city piling up, cutting a bit of grass doesn't seem like a lot to ask.

- NZ Herald

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