The Bard

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Memoir  |  House: Footsteps, yarns and little fibs

The Bard was world famous locally and in a tiny corner of Africa

Submitted: May 03, 2018

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Submitted: May 03, 2018



There had been a severe drought which made the forest crisp and crunchy underfoot when I first arrived there. The district was known for its dry climate, but it was the tail end of a five year period of especially meagre rainfall. Phil told me he had aerial-sowed fertilizer on his hill country but there hadn’t been enough moisture to activate it, so there it sat, bleaching in the sun for five years! Alan the MP had stirred the government up enough for them to fund the seeding of clouds with dry ice in the hope of stimulating rain. It didn’t work, the only thing worth reporting was that a huge chunk of ice smashed through some unfortunate farmer’s roof!

Locally we haven’t had a drought since, which might be due to changing weather patterns, climate change or whatever bandwagon you like to climb on. Between Maori settlement and British colonisation, the forest cover on the Kakanui Range was lost, burnt during one or several conflagrations. However, nowadays, from Shag Point in the south to Kauru Hill in the north there is forest cover over the hills, mainly Radiata Pine, but still forest cover. That’s a block nearly fifty kilometres long by maybe three or more kilometres wide. Trees have the ability to attract, and create precipitation, which has kept droughts at bay. So there’s something to think seriously about: By planting trees, or removing them, you can manipulate weather.

My job was to establish forest along the Kakanui Range and also to encourage farmers to plant trees on their unproductive land, but not everyone saw what I saw and not everyone is keen on trees. One such bloke was Bill. Y’know, sometimes, when it comes to names, parents get it exactly right, and by giving him ‘Porteous’ for his second name, Bill’s parents  got it dead right. William for a Christian name didn’t do him any harm either! I first ran into the Bill when he played the Lament at the local ANZAC dawn service and a good few years later, he became a neighbour when we bought old Bert Fraser’s block of land for afforestation.

Keith, my sawmilling mate was the editor of the local Lions Club magazine and he used to show me a few of Bill’s poems poking fun at other club members. People who can put poetry together impressed me and our local Bard was adept, especially when he added humour or satire, having a dig at bureaucrats or the government. I have no idea what came first for him, music or poetry but somehow they are tied together, and rhythm is just as important when playing the bagpipes as it is when composing poems. Our Bard was world famous, locally, known as an expert wordsmith.

The Bard was a little older than me and his two younger daughters were the same age as our sons, so we met up in our role of parents supporting their kids at school and other community functions. The Bard was hugely community spirited and took on roles in local government and various community committees such as water, school, hall and sports, where we would meet up.

There was a spring on the South end of Fraser’s block, it was the source of a village water scheme serving several homesteads all the way down to the coast. The Bard took responsibility for the scheme, which meant that he and I cooperated to ensure the integrity of the scheme and its water. I had told the users to be aware that the spring had a limited life because in pine forest, the water table would be altered and sooner or later they would need to make other arrangements for their water supply. It was a matter of keeping the various homesteads informed and the Bard with his poetry was good and helpful.

It turns out that The Bard is world famous also in the rural villages of Meru! I used The Bard in a story I told school kids during our environmental sessions around Mt. Meru. The basis of my story was true but I applied a good dollop of, ahem, artistic license, to impress the kids and to motivate them by demonstrating the value of tree planting.

‘Porteous, [I knew the name would impress, and it did] owned land that was right next to the forest and he knew he would not be permitted to light any more fires because of the proximity to the forest. He and his father before him, had been burning the gorse and other weeds because it was the only method of control available to him. Now that we were neighbours, he asked me what he should do with his land. My reply was that we should have a common boundary, meaning when we burn the gorse on our side, we would also burn his side. We should then both plant our areas with the same species of trees, at the same time. I told him that after twenty five years, when he sells his trees, he would be rich! I was prepared to give him the seedlings but he must be responsible to look after them. He agreed and his trees grew very nicely.

Twenty five years later, which isn’t long when you’re an adult, I was back in New Zealand for a visit, when my friend Porteous came to visit me. He had heard that I was home and he came to thank me because he had recently harvested his trees and had made a lot of money! [The kids wowed at that!]

The next day he arrived in a huge lorry. On board he had a gift for me. It was a big, big, red bull [my audience gasped at the thought of such a magnificent gift]. The bull‘s horns were as wide as my Landrover was long! [They knew about Ankole cattle from Kenya, cattle with enormous horns, which made my story believable].  The animal was so big [I stepped out four large paces and gestured with my hand above my shoulder for the bull’s shoulder height]. Which made kids clap in excitement!’

Cattle ownership is important to all the tribes of Tanzania, but of course the kids were too intelligent to take my story as gospel, so they joked among themselves about the size of my mythical beast and my ability to tell such a blatant lie. But they will remember the lesson, and hopefully a few of them will still be planting trees today.

I hope too that they remember the name ‘Porteous’ because in my perverse way, it serves as a memorial to a man whose wit, community spirit, companionship and poetry are sorely missed.


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