This Farming Life: Five generations on a New Zealand farm by Tim Saunders (Allen & Unwin, 2020), 272pp, $36.99
Early each morning Tim Saunders magpies words and phrases from the notebook he carries around the farm for his poems, short stories and now a memoir, he told a Manawatū Writers’ Festival session at Feilding Library in September this year. Audience members seemed more interested in his farming than his writing process, however. ‘Is lambing over now?’ asked one. Ditto on Saunders’ August Radio New Zealand interview with Kim Hill. ‘Bollocks!’ responded one listener to his explanation that lambing starts in cold weather so that lambs are weaned onto spring grass to improve their health later on: ‘They lamb now so that we can have spring lamb on our table for Christmas.’ ‘Well,’ replied Saunders, ‘I think that might be one of the reasons for some people, but for me, I think more in terms of animal health myself.’
Defending farming from the skeptics over issues of animal welfare, environmental responsibility and the ethics of meat production is a central thread of This Farming Life, part memoir, part eco-farming manifesto structured around one year on the Saunders’ sheep, beef and cropping farm in central Manawatū. A second thread is a strong sense of belonging to, and a duty of guardianship over, this fifth-generation family farm.
Myself, as a writer and farmer who feels connected to land that has belonged to my family for a mere sixty-seven years—the Saunders’ farm has been in their family for 114 years—I am interested in how the author navigates his environmental and ethical responsibilities and his sense of attachment to the land. I am interested in how he frames his farming practice in 2020 Aotearoa New Zealand, when the effects of farming on water quality and the sustainability of meat production are contested. I am interested in how he navigates his Pākehā sense of belonging at a time when Pākehā writers such as Dinah Hawken, in her poetry collection There Is No Harbour (2019), and Airini Beautrais, in her poetry collection Flow: Whanganui River poems (2017), have found ways to recognise both the achievements of European settlers and the degrading ecological and dispossessing cultural impacts of colonialism.
Saunders reveals an acute awareness of this country’s environmental zeitgeist and its scrutiny of farming. He says that since he returned to the family farm after time at university, and after working in film production and tourism and living in Germany with his German-born partner Kathrin, the ‘attitude of people towards farmers and their work’ has become ‘one of us and them’ (p. 22). He calls for change from old farming practices that ‘have now proven to be detrimental’ (p. 22). The farm employs Kathrin’s knowledge of natural animal health and acupressure but also embraces the continuance of some time-honoured practices. Possum shooting, he writes, is more humane and resourceful than poisoning because skins can be harvested and sold; water should be conserved in summer rather than supplying newly consented irrigation schemes which lower the water table; farmland should not be converted to pine forest.
Saunders often channels his eco-farming polemic in dialogue between family members who run the farm: himself and Kathrin, his brother Mark and their elderly parents. The following conversation is between the two brothers:
‘Good grazing land. It’s gone to an overseas company to offset their carbon emissions.’
… ‘Not again,’ I replied. ‘Another carbon sink; planting pine trees on good farming ground here just so they can go on polluting the air over their own countries.’
Mark hiffed another split log into the woodshed. It spun silently as it arced through the air.
‘Yeah,’ he said. ‘And they’re doing it at the expense of our rural communities. I read more schools have shut down because jobs have gone and families have moved away.’ (p. 161)
Many conversations in the book endorse the author’s view that farming has overcome a long history of obstacles, including twenty-first-century negative public perception. Saunders’ father delivers the last word on the future of farming:
Honestly, I don’t know where farming is going. You young guys have your work cut out for you, with everyone hungry and so many people against you. It won’t be easy … But then, it never has been. (p. 163)
Saunders’ deadpan dialogue supports narrative lessons in farming practices—such as flystrike control and eczema management, all of which is undercut by a John Clarke-style humour at the expense of politicians, bureaucrats and especially bankers. While his polemic can become a little weighty at times, his language is imaginative and lyrical when he turns his gaze to the world in which he delights. Autumn ‘carries with it a delicious deciduousness … a reminder that all days are temporary’ (p. 128); winter ‘is the season for spirits and memorials’ (p. 142). Metaphors are prolific and inventive: ‘the flames threw stained-glass patterns on the curtains’ (p. 141); the sun ‘opened its sleep-crusted eye’ (p. 142); ‘[a] shooting star inked a curved tattoo across the sky’ (p. 89). It is no surprise that Saunders is an accomplished poet, short-story and flash fiction writer. His work embraces a variety of themes, from childhood and domestic abuse to old age. He won the 2018 Mindfood Magazine Short Story Competition, the 2020 Cooney Insurance Short Story Competition, and was placed third in the 2019 and 2020 National Flash Fiction Day Awards. His poetry has been published in Landfall and NZ Listener.
Some of the best writing in This Farming Life portrays the gritty reality of everyday farm work as Saunders reflects on the relationships between people and farm animals. Lambing is rendered as a time for practicality and gentleness:
I carefully slid my hands through the warm liquid and into the ewe’s birth canal. I groped around for the lamb’s front legs. The ewe groaned quietly as another contraction involuntarily squeezed her muscles. I felt a constricting tightness crush against my fingers and trap my knuckles. The sheep’s nostrils flared widely, her short breaths puffed the grass by her nose. (p. 203)
A close description of killing a sheep is followed by a measured consideration of eating animals:
I wiped both sides of the blade, slap slop, on the woolly hind legs as they thrashed and kicked and weakened and died. Hi-vis blood sprayed across the ground, a stacatto spatter of colour on the concrete canvas. It oozed over the knuckled toe of my boot, fanned out into braided rivulets that flowed down a drainage hole drilled into the wall of the slaughter room.
My partner, Kathrin, is a vegetarian. She has been for several years, and I eat less meat than I used to. We hate the thought of animals being killed and wasted, and often wonder how much meat is spoiled in supermarkets because there is just too much there. (p. 46)
Cattle being drafted for the freezing works are described as ‘beautiful, curious animals’:
Dad loves cattle. He always has. ‘There’s something dignified about them,’ he told me. (p. 105)
We see the farmer as both animal caregiver and slaughterer.
Saunders attempts to deal with these contradictions through discussions of kindness, respect and human need. He throws criticism of farming back to non-farmers, suggesting it is easier for those who buy meat off the supermarket shelf to be blasé about animals through food wastage, arguing that the real care and respect for animals occurs on the farm where they are both bred and slaughtered. By realising his awareness of the sentience of farm animals and treating them with kindness and respect, he offers an answer to the question of how people should feel towards animals that are to be eaten.
His approach resembles that of Central Otago conservationist and poet Brian Turner, whose poems about trout portray their sentience even as they latch onto his hook and line: ‘the slow heave of his breathing … the shocking murk/ of pain’ (‘Jack Trout’ in Ancestors, 1981). Similarly, Saunders’ sense of belonging to the family farm follows Turner’s portrayals, in his poems and essays, of attachment to remote landscapes in Central Otago where he lives and fishes. Like Turner, who metaphorically describes his surroundings as ‘essential … like resuscitation’ (‘Van Morrisson in Central Otago’ in Beyond, 1992), Saunders portrays an affecting connection with the family farm, writing that the ‘call of the farm’ (p. 20) brought him back. And like Turner, who habituates himself in the southern landscapes—‘the country rolls through me’ (‘Tangata Whenua’ in All That Can Be Blue, 1989)—Saunders naturalises himself on the Manawatū farm:
Black clouds sometimes bruise the hills, obscure them from view, but they are always there, right where they belong. … I belong here because it is home. (p. 264)
Both writers share a sense of guardianship over colonially constructed landscapes that have replaced indigenous ecologies. Trout, introduced in the 1860s, have supplanted indigenous fish species, and farmland has replaced indigenous wetlands and forest. Saunders’ claim that ‘all we can do is take what’s given to us, make use of it, and try to leave it as we find it’ (p. 89) echoes Turner’s calls for protection of Central Otago trout habitats that are under threat from intensive dairy farming, hydro-power schemes and tourism. Like Turner, Saunders advances a Pākehā sense of belonging to an environment constructed by colonialism.
Saunders is mindful of the loss of indigenous plants and animals—‘the silent call of extinct birds’ (p. 9); the ‘ghosts of burning tōtara’ (p. 141); the ‘spirits of mataī trees’ (p. 184)—but less alert to the land’s cultural past. In a link that seems out of place in a memoir otherwise devoid of Indigenous culture, he connects his own past to Māori mythology: ‘I live on the fish Māui pulled heaving from the bottom of a nebulous sea’ (p. 264). Saunders’ sense of belonging stems from occupation reaching back to his great-great-grandfather, who bought the land in 1906 when it was ‘untamed, undeveloped, wild’, and who built a stopbank to ‘control’ the Oroua River and develop ‘productive farmland’ (p. 9). In contrast, Ngāpuhi poet Robert Sullivan, in his poem ‘Took: A preface to the magpies’ (from Shout Ha! to the Sky, 2010), recalls the previous occupation by Māori of the farmland described in Denis Glover’s classic New Zealand poem ‘The Magpies’ (1964). Sullivan explicates what he calls ‘the absence (I am tempted to say “erasure”) of explicit historical and political references in many works of New Zealand literature’ which ‘are as political and historical, when we notice, as the inclusion of them’ (Landfall 211, p. 10). Saunders’ language—‘untamed, undeveloped, wild’—perpetuates the Victorian narrative of improvement of land construed by nineteenth-century European settlers as a ‘blank canvas’ (Pawson and Brooking, p. 92). I raise this as a Pākehā farmer and writer who is working on understanding a longer view of history beyond Eurocentric narratives, and seeking fertile ways to write about the complexities of place that may never be resolved.
Saunders writes with an acute awareness of the social climate in which farming, formerly considered the backbone of New Zealand’s economy and beyond reproach, is now being held to account. His book develops his views on a range of ecological topics from the overuse of plastic, sprays and fertilisers to maintaining wetlands and replanting native trees. Alongside his father’s accepted wisdom of farming as a public good—‘people forget that without farming, they’d all be hungry, naked and sober’ (p. 23)—is his generational push towards improved environmental guardianship.
Eric Pawson and Tom Brooking. Making a New Land: Environmental histories of New Zealand, Dunedin: Otago University Press, 2013.
Robert Sullivan, ‘A Poetics of Culture: Others’ and ours, separate and commingled’, Landfall 211, 2006.
——, Shout Ha! to the Sky, London: Salt Publishing, 2010.
Brian Turner, All That Blue Can Be, Dunedin: John McIndoe, 1989.
——, Ancestors, Dunedin: John McIndoe, 1981.
——, Beyond, Dunedin: McIndoe Publishers, 1992.
JANET NEWMAN has a PhD from Massey University for her thesis entitled ‘Imagining Ecologies: Traditions of ecopoetry in Aotearoa New Zealand’. She won the 2014 and 2016 Journal of New Zealand Literature Prize for New Zealand Literary Studies, the 2015 New Zealand Poetry Society International Competition, the 2017 Kathleen Grattan Prize for a Sequence of Poems, and was a runner-up in the 2019 Kathleen Grattan Award.