Wellington poet celebrates Backyard Tāonga

Photo of Wellington poet Laurice Gilbert
Photo of Wellington poet Laurice Gilbert

Wellington’s nature loving poet Laurice Gilbert, has lived in the same house in Northland since 1973. Over the years she has raised children, rabbits, and a good number of native trees in a wild and tangled patch of bush that grows on her property just beyond the house.  Last month, Wellington City Council ecologists paid a visit to confirm what Laurice has long suspected – that she has something special in her backyard.

“When we arrived here it was a let-go lawn” Laurice explains.  “We spent our youth taming it but have long since given up.  Most of the backyard has self-sown, I’ve brought in lancewoods because I love them, but the ponga and other natives are there by their own device,” she says.

A personal favourite is the well-established whau growing confidently out through the garden shed’s front door.  Arriving by accident, who’d have thought it would do so well.  “My husband said to me once, ‘I thought you said it was temporary?’ I reminded him that I said it was ‘short-lived.  It’s not the same thing.  Natural life is around ten years, which sounds pretty short lived to me!”

Laurice enjoys the kaka in the ponga, and talks warmly about how the children grew up exploring their very own ‘forest’.  Her place is frequently visited by tui, grey warblers, silver-eye and fantail.

Wellington City Council is in the process of talking with landowners about Backyard Tāonga as part of a nationwide project aimed at preserving biodiversity.  In Wellington there are around 160 separate areas with about half of these on private land.

Project lead Onur Oktem says it’s about looking after those things that can’t be replaced.

“As we make room in Wellington for another 50,000 to 80,000 people in the next 30 years it’s critical that we have things in place to protect our natural environment,” she says.

“Lots of people don’t know what they have.  What looks like green bush might actually be home to rare and endangered native lizards. We have precious karaka and kahikatea standing tall amongst regenerating native bush.  Some of our south coast bays and estuaries are nationally renowned and hugely important to fish like the at-risk giant kokapu (mature whitebait), and seabirds like the reef heron and northern blue penguin,” Onur says.

Laurice says she’s thrilled to learn she has Backyard Tāonga.

“I love living in the bush. All those years when I thought I should do something there but never got around to it, to find out it is good for the city.  It’s exciting to see the native bush regenerating."

“I actually jumped for joy that someone has noticed my garden.”

Over the next two years, the Council will be looking for feedback on the sorts of help and measures people would like to see built into the District Plan to care for these places without getting in way with day to day use.  The plan is to work together to try and get that right balance between protection and practical use.

Watching The Wind

Wax-eyes ride the horoeka roller coaster.

The cypress swirls, the tip in one direction,

the lower sections in several others.

Last summer’s broom sweeps uphill

and the astelias point southeast,

the prevailing direction of the garden.

Even the light travels north to south,

blown off course in its good intentions.

Sometimes the wind sneaks round the house

via the Antarctic, mischievous, conniving,

uprooting insubstantial supports on the lee side.

Branches break, stems lean counterproductively,

ponga fronds alight in unexpected places –

temporary setbacks until the wind corrects itself,

whhisshing from my left, whispering to my right.

I’ve been here – tending, gathering, composting –

for forty years. Sometimes I am surprised.

It was never my  intention  to  remain  grounded.

Dreams of adventure,

catalogues of possibilities came and went

like the seasonal offerings of mail order nurseries.

The children,

hardy and flexible,

matured in fertile soil,

blow in and out as the need arises.

The Antarctic chill asserts its will from time to time:

random health scares;

early retirement/low income;

the loss of loved ones, old and new.

Though the wind, for days (sometimes weeks) on end, pushes, gusts, buffets, shoves, nudges, squalls, propels, bursts, resists, drives, jostles, thrusts, bends, folds and mutilates, flourishing plants learn to give.

- Laurice Gilbert

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