We moved like seahorses. Two little girls in little A-line dresses, sidling through the asparagus ferns at the bottom of our grandad's garden.
In summer, Blenheim is scorched earth. The Wither Hills go yellow and the footpaths fry worms on first contact. Breathing is like eating when the air is this super-heated. Dry, dusty, the inside of a very old spice packet — all life gone.
Except in my grandad's garden.
Who knows what watering restrictions he defied to grow his military straight rows of red onion and radish. Tomatoes front and centre; strawberries under netted protection. Regimental veges with the concrete path to the asparagus patch laid exactly so. A marble placed in the middle of that path would never roll into the potatoes.
But at the bottom of the garden, where the asparagus took three seasons to grow from seed to crown to spear, it was wild.
We glided through those feathery stalks and trailed their tangles through our fingers. Grandad would have yelled at us if he'd known. Or maybe he would have boiled us an egg, cut our white buttered toast into soldiers and taken the lolly jar down from the high shelf afterwards.
The surf spews seaweed and we drag the kelp stalks home; drowned trees with trunks as rubbery as a Christmas ham. Salty and smelly, but I am 11 and don't mind the ocean sweating into my T-shirt. The kelp trails down my back and metres behind me. I am a swishing footprint in the sand. Mini Medusa.
Around the back of the house at Punakaiki, Dad has dug up the grass. The swingball set will have to go on the front lawn. In between the coal bin and the dog kennel, is a large rectangle of bare earth. Dad's dug a trench at the top of the rectangle. We slowly fill it with seaweed, kitchen scraps and horse shit. In the weekends, he digs a new trench, piling the new dirt spoil on top of our layer cake of compost. We're metres from the sea. Dad is subverting the sandy soil one loamy trench at a time. Sometimes, a rogue potato eye makes a break for it, leafy spawn barrelling skyward. Dad just lets it be. Free spuds.
He taught us to grow radishes. We must have had tomatoes, because winter is flavoured with homemade relish, chutney and sauce. We would rather have Wattie's. We would rather live some-where with more fish and chip shops and fewer weta. I still miss sleeping to the white noise of the sea crashing off Punakaiki's limestone cliffs.
My mother's mother has made pizza from scratch for her youngest daughter's birthday. The dough and the tomato paste are all her own work; the cheese on the top is mozzarella, it stretches my mother's father to breaking point. Ridiculous imported cheese, says the emigrated Englishman.
I liked it. There was no end to that cheese.
Grandpa's paradox was aubergine and artichokes, capsicum and pepino melon. Exotic fromage, no. Exotic foliage, yes.
The big house in Lakings Rd had a big garden and a tennis court lawn. A room just for breakfast. An outdoor toilet. An enormous plum tree, a copper beech and an English oak were born here. The Lakings Rd house was built for my grandmother's father. It had deep roots.
My mother thinks it was my grandmother who encouraged the garden that extended culinary horizons. Grandma was a foodie since forever, from when young men with beards were hippies, not hipsters. She sliced and fried giant puffballs in butter (they tasted like butter); she made japonica jelly from the appley fruit that grew on the spiky tree. There were redcurrants, blackcurrants and proper gooseberries. A hazelnut tree and a grape vine full of soft, black grapes and soft, black spiders.
They sold the big house. Grandma's vegetables are in planter boxes now. She makes tea from lemon verbena; the silverbeet is constant. She grows flowers in her mind and builds them from sugar. Hundreds, maybe thousands, of wedding, birthday, Christmas, fundraiser and retirement cakes have been decorated with flowers from Mary Parker's icing gardens.
How old were you when your world got small and wild animals started walking its edges? When a bush track on your own was not a good idea? When lying in the sun against a secluded sand dune on your own was not a good idea? When someone called you "jail bait" and you didn't know what it meant but jail was bad, ergo.
Once upon a time when I was grown up, my parents went to live on a deserted island that was very hard to get to. I visited them at this place where they never locked a door and it was like coming up from the bottom of the pool when you've been holding your breath for such a long time. The mainland was a scary movie. Stephens Island was intermission with homemade icecream.
It was Bruce and Carol's biggest garden yet. They grew 12,000 trees a year for replanting on Takapourewa. Gather the seed, plant the seed, prick the seedlings, transfer them to root trainers, water, weed, harden off, plant and repeat. Taupata, ngaio, pittosporum, akiraho, solandri, flax and tauhinu. Salt-hardy, wind-tolerant, nitrogen-fixing. Site specific; only what was necessary.
Conservation lore says it was February 1895 when a lighthouse keeper's cat dragged the island's last flightless wren inside. The rarest frogs live at the top of Takapourewa and there are tuatara everywhere. Precious, monstrous, cold-blooded cargo that live for maybe 100 years, maybe even longer. Slowly, their garden is growing.
In New Zealand, when you turn 45, you qualify for a free tetanus booster shot. My GP says this is important information for women. In her experience, women discover gardening in their 40s — and tetanus bacteria live in manure, dust and soil.
I plant my garden in somebody else's earth, around and between everyone else's efforts. A rented garden has an uncertain history. The last tenant let jade plants proliferate. Were the miniature roses original? I don't know. In April, you discover where the freesias are buried. One day, I'm digging and a neighbour tells me that's where a cat was buried.
When my mind is sparking like a staticky hairbrush, I go to the garden. When I hate the people in my world so much I think I might say that out loud, I go to the garden. When I have spent the entire week indoors on a swivelly chair, I go outdoors and something happens to my mind. It slackens AND quickens. Extraneousness to the edges, a single focus to the fore. Climbing dock and petty spurge and scrambling fumitory, be gone. The bucket from under the sink is filled with weeds and I am following my forebears. I am making room.