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Station Life in New Zealand

Letter XXII. The Exceeding Joy of “Burning.”

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Letter XXII. The Exceeding Joy of “Burning.”

I am quite sorry that the season for setting fire to the long grass, or, as it is technically called, “burning the run,” is fairly over at last. It has been later than usual this year, on account of the snow having lain such an unusual time on the ground and kept the grass damp. Generally September is the earliest month in which it begins, and November the latest for it to end; but this year the shady side of “Flagpole” was too moist to take fire until December.

It is useless to think of setting out on a burning expedition unless there is a pretty strong nor’-wester blowing; but it must not be too violent, or the flames will fly over the grass, just scorching it instead of making “a clean burn.” But when F—— pronounces the wind to be just right, and proposes that we should go to some place where the grass is of two, or, still better, three years’ growth, then I am indeed happy. I am obliged to be careful not to have on any inflammable petticoats, even if it is quite a warm page 195 day, as they are very dangerous; the wind will shift suddenly perhaps as, I am in the very act of setting a tussock a-blaze, and for half a second I find myself in the middle of the flames. F—— generally gets his beard well singed, and I have nearly lost my eyelashes more than once. We each provide ourselves with a good supply of matches, and on the way we look out for the last year’s tall blossom of those horrid prickly bushes called “Spaniards,” or a bundle of flax-sticks, or, better than all, the top of a dead and dry Ti-ti palm. As soon as we come to the proper spot, and F—— has ascertained that no sheep are in danger of being made into roast mutton before their time, we begin to light our line of fire, setting one large tussock blazing, lighting our impromptu torches at it, and then starting from this “head-centre,” one to the right and the other to the left, dragging the blazing sticks along the grass. It is a very exciting amusement, I assure you, and the effect is beautiful, especially as it grows dusk and the fires are racing up the hills all around us. Every now and then they meet with a puff of wind, which will perhaps strike a great wall of fire rushing up-hill as straight as a line, and divide it into two fiery horns like a crescent; then as the breeze changes again, the tips of flame will gradually approach each other till they meet, and go on again in a solid mass of fire.

If the weather has been very dry for some time and the wind is high, we attempt to burn a great flax swamp, perhaps, in some of the flats. This makes page 196 a magnificent bonfire when once it is fairly started, but it is more difficult to light in the first instance, as you have to collect the dead flax-leaves and make a little fire of them under the big green bush in order to coax it to blaze up: but it crackles splendidly; indeed it sounds as if small explosions were going on sometimes. But another disadvantage of burning a swamp is, that there are deep holes every yard or two, into which I always tumble in my excitement, or in getting out of the way of a flax-bush which has flared up just at the wrong moment, and is threatening to set me on fire also. These holes are quite full of water in the winter, but now they contain just enough thin mud to come in over the tops of my boots; so I do not like stepping into one every moment. We start numerous wild ducks and swamp-hens, and perhaps a bittern or two, by these conflagrations. On the whole, I like burning the hill-sides better than the swamp—you get a more satisfactory blaze with less trouble; but I sigh over these degenerate days when the grass is kept short and a third part of a run is burned regularly ever spring, and long for the good old times of a dozen years ago, when the tussocks were six feet high. What a blaze they must have made! The immediate results of our expeditions are vast tracts of perfectly black and barren country, looking desolate and hideous to a degree hardly to be imagined; but after the first spring showers a beautiful tender green tint steals over the bare hill-sides, and by and by they are a mass of delicious young grass, page 197 and the especial favourite feeding-place of the ewes and lambs. The day after a good burn thousands of sea-gulls flock to the black ground. Where they spring from I cannot tell, as I never see one at any other time, and their hoarse, incessant cry is the first sign you have of their arrival. They hover over the ground, every moment darting down, for some insect. They cannot find much else but roasted lizards and, grasshoppers, for I have never seen a caterpillar in New Zealand.

In the height of the burning season last month I had Alice S—— to stay with me for two or three weeks, and to my great delight I found our tastes about fires agreed exactly, and we both had the same grievance—that we never were allowed to have half enough of it; so we organized the most delightful expeditions together. We used to have a quiet old station-horse saddled, fasten the luncheon-basket to the pommel with materials for a five o’clock tea, and start off miles away to the back of the run, about three o’clock in the afternoon, having previously bribed the shepherd to tell us where the longest grass was to be found—and this he did very readily, as our going saved him the trouble of a journey thither, and he was not at all anxious for more work than he could help. We used to ride alternately, till we got to a deserted shepherd’s hut in such a lovely gully, quite at the far end of the run! Here we tied up dear quiet old Jack to the remnants of the fence, leaving him at liberty to nibble a little grass. We never took off the saddle page 198 after the first time, for upon that occasion we found that our united strength was insufficient to girth it on again properly, and we made our appearance at home in the most ignominious fashion—Alice leading Jack, and I walking by his side holding the saddle on. Whenever we attempted to buckle the girths, this artful old screw swelled himself out with such a long breath that it was impossible to pull the strap to the proper hole; we could not even get it tight enough to stay steady, without slipping under him at every step. However, this is a digression, and I must take you back to the scene of the fire, and try to make you understand how delightful it was. Alice said that what made it so fascinating to her was a certain sense of its being mischief, and a dim feeling that we might get into a scrape. I don’t think I ever stopped to analyse my sensations; fright was the only one I was conscious of, and yet I liked it so much. When after much consultation—in which I always deferred to Alice’s superior wisdom and experience—we determined on our line of fire, we set to work vigorously, and the great thing was to see who could make the finest blaze. I used to feel very envious if my fire got into a bare patch, where there were more rocks than tussocks, and languished, whilst Alice’s was roaring and rushing up a hill. We always avoided burning where a grove of the pretty Ti-ti palms grew; but sometimes there would be one or two on a hill-side growing by themselves, and then it was most beautiful to see them burn. Even before the flames page 199 reached them their long delicate leaves felt the wind of the fire and shivered piteously; then the dry old ones at the base of the stem caught the first spark like tinder, and in a second the whole palm was in a blaze, making a sort of heart to the furnace, as it had so much more substance than the grass. For a moment or two the poor palm would bend and sway, tossing its leaves like fiery plumes in the air, and then it was reduced to a black stump, and the fire swept on up the hill.

The worst of it all was that we never knew when to leave off and come home. We would pause for half an hour and boil our little kettle, and have some tea and cake, and then go on again till quite late, getting well scolded when we reached home at last dead-tired and as black as little chimney-sweeps. One evening F—— was away on a visit of two nights to a distant friend, and Alice and I determined on having splendid burns in his absence; so we made our plans, and everything was favourable, wind and all. We enjoyed ourselves very much, but if Mr. U—— had not come out to look for us at ten o’clock at night, and traced us by our blazing track, we should have had to camp out, for we had no idea where we were, or that we had wandered so many miles from home; nor had we any intention of returning just yet. We were very much ashamed of ourselves upon that occasion, and took care to soften the story considerably before it reached F——’s ears the next day.

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However much I may rejoice at nor’-westers in the early spring as aids to burning the run, I find them a great hindrance to my attempts at a lawn. Twice have we had the ground carefully dug up and prepared; twice has it been sown with the best English seed for the purpose, at some considerable expense; then has come much toil on the part of F—— and Mr. U—— with a heavy garden-roller; and the end of all the trouble has been that a strong nor’-wester has blown both seed and soil away, leaving only the hard un-dug (I wonder whether there is such a word) ground. I could scarcely believe that it really was all “clean gone,” as children say, until a month or two after the first venture, when I had been straining my eyes and exercising my imagination all in vain to discover a blade where it ought to have been, but had remarked in one of my walks an irregular patch of nice English grass about half a mile from the house down the flat. I speculated for some time as to how it got there, and at last F—— was roused from his reverie, and said coolly, “Oh, that’s your lawn!” When this happens twice, it really becomes very aggravating: there are the croquet things lying idle in the verandah year after year, and, as far as I can see, they are likely to remain unused for ever.

Before I close my letter I must tell you of an adventure I have had with a wild boar, which was really dangerous. F—— and another gentleman were riding with me one afternoon in a very lonely page 201 gully at the back of the run, when the dogs (who always accompany us) put up a large, fierce, black, boar out of some thick flax-bushes. Of course the hunting instinct, which all young Englishmen possess, was in full force instantly; and in default of any weapon these two jumped off their horses and picked up, out of the creek close by, the largest and heaviest stones they could lift. I disapproved of the chase under the circumstances, but my timid remonstrances were not even heard. The light riding-whips which each gentleman carried were hastily given to me to hold, and in addition F—— thrust an enormous boulder into my lap, saying, “Now, this is to be my second gun; so keep close to me.” Imagine poor me, therefore, with all three whips tucked under my left arm, whilst with my right I tried to keep the big stone on my knee, Miss Helen all the time capering about, as she always does when there is any excitement; and I feeling very unequal to holding her back from joining in the chase too ardently, for she always likes to be first everywhere, which is not at all my “sentiments.” The ground was as rough as possible; the creek winding about necessitated a good jump every few yards; and the grass was so long and thick that it was difficult to get through it, or to see any blind creeks or other pitfalls. Mem. to burn this next spring.

The pig first turned to bay against a palm-tree, and soon disabled the dogs. You cannot think what page 202 a formidable weapon a wild boar’s tusk is—the least touch of it cuts like a razor; and they are so swift in their jerks of the head when at bay that in a second they will rip up both dogs and horses: nor are they the least afraid of attacking a man on foot in self-defence; but they seldom or ever strike the first blow. As soon as he had disposed of both the dogs, who lay howling piteously and bleeding on the ground, the boar made at full speed for the spur of a hill close by. The pace was too good to last, especially up-hill; so the gentlemen soon caught him up, and flung their stones at him, but they dared not bring their valuable horses too near for fear of a wound which probably would have lamed them for life; and a heavy, rock or stone is a very unmanageable weapon. I was not therefore at all surprised to see that both shots missed, or only very slightly grazed the pig; but what I confess to being perfectly unprepared for was the boar charging violently down-hill on poor unoffending me, with his head on one side ready for the fatal backward jerk, champing and foaming as he came, with what Mr. Weller would call his “vicked old eye” twinkling with rage. Helen could not realize the situation at all. I tried to turn her, and so get out of the infuriated brute’s way; but no, she would press on to meet him and join the other horses at the top of the hill. I had very little control over her, for I was so laden with whips and stones that my hands were useless for the reins. I knew I was in great danger, but at the page 203 moment I could only think of my poor pretty mare lamed for life, or even perhaps killed on the spot. I heard one wild shout of warning from above, and I knew the others were galloping to my rescue; but in certainly less than half a minute from the time the boar turned, he had reached me. I slipped the reins over my left elbow, so as to leave my hands free, took my whip in my teeth (I had to drop the others), and lifting the heavy stone with both my hands waited a second till the boar was near enough, leaning well over on the right-hand side of the saddle so as to see what he did. He made for poor Helen’s near fore-leg with his head well down, and I could hear his teeth gnashing. Just as he touched her with a prick from his tusk like a stiletto and before he could jerk his head back so as to rip the leg up, I flung my small rock with all the strength I possessed crash on his head: but I could not take a good aim; for the moment Helen felt the stab, she reared straight up on her hind-legs, and as we were going up-hill, I had some trouble to keep myself from slipping off over her tail. However, my rock took some effect, for the pig was so stunned that he dropped on his knees, and before he could recover himself Helen had turned round, still on her hind-legs, as on a pivot, and was plunging and jumping madly down the hill. I could not get back properly into my saddle, nor could I arrange the reins; so I had to stick on anyhow. It was not a case of fine riding at all; I merely clung like a page 204 monkey, and F——, who was coming as fast as he could to me, said he expected to see me on the ground every moment; but, however, I did not come off upon that occasion. Helen was nearly beside herself with terror. I tried to pat her neck and soothe her, but the moment she felt my hand she bounded as if I had struck her, and shivered so much that I thought she must be injured; so the moment F—— could get near her I begged him to look at her fetlock. He led her down to the creek, and washed the place, and examined it carefully, pronouncing, to my great joy, that the tusk had hardly gone in at all—in fact had merely pricked her—and that she was not in the least hurt. I could hardly get the gentlemen to go to the assistance of the poor dogs, one of which was very much hurt. Both F—— and Mr. B—— evidently thought I must have been “kilt intirely,” for my situation looked so critical at one moment that they could scarcely be persuaded that neither Helen nor I were in the least hurt. I coaxed F—— that evening to write me a doggerel version of the story for the little boys, which I send you to show them:-

You’ve heard of St. George and the dragon,
Or seen them; and what can be finer,
In silver or gold on a flagon,
With Garrard or Hancock designer?

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Though we know very little about him
(Saints mostly are shrouded in mystery),
Britannia can’t well do without him,
He sets off her shillings and history.

And from truth let such tales be defended,
Bards at least should bestow them their blessing,
As a rich sort of jewel suspended
On History when she’s done dressing.

Some would have her downstairs to the present,
In plain facts fresh from critical mangle;
But let the nymph make herself pleasant,
Here a bracelet, and there with a bangle

Such as Bold Robin Hood or Red Riding,
Who peasant and prince have delighted,
Despite of all social dividing,
And the times of their childhood united.

Shall New Zealand have never a fable,
A rhyme to be sung by the nurses,
A romance of a famous Round Table,
A “Death of Cock Robin” in verses?

Or shall not a scribe be found gracious
With pen and with parchment, inditing
And setting a-sail down the spacious
Deep day stream some suitable writing;

Some action, some name so heroic
That its sound shall be death to her foemen,
And make her militia as stoic
As St. George made the Cressy crossbowmen;

A royal device for her banners,
A reverse for her coinage as splendid,
An example of primitive manners
When all their simplicity’s ended?

Here it is, ye isles Antipodean!
Leave Britain her great Cappadocian;
I’ll chant you a latter-day paean,
And sing you a saint for devotion,

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Who on horseback slew also a monster,
Though armed with no sharp lance to stab it,
Though no helmet or hauberk ensconced her,
But only a hat and a habit.

This dame, for her bravery sainted,
Set up for all times’ adoration,
With her picture in poetry painted,
Was a lady who lived on a station.

Her days—to proceed with the story
In duties domestic dividing,
But, or else she had never won glory,
She now and then went out a-riding.
It chanced, with two knights at her stirrup,
She swept o’er the grass of the valleys,
Heard the brooks run; and heard the birds chirrup,
When a boar from the flax-bushes sallies.

The cavaliers leaped from their horses;
As for weapons, that day neither bore them;
So they chose from the swift watercourses
Heavy boulders, and held them before them.

They gave one as well to the lady:
She took it, and placed it undaunted
On the pommel, and balanced it steady,
While they searched where the animal haunted.

A bowshot beyond her were riding
The knights, each alert with his missile,
But in doubt where the pig went a-hiding,
For they had not kept sight of his bristle.

When—the tale needs but little enlarging
One turned round by chance on his courser;
To his horror, the monster was charging
At the lady, as if to unhorse her.

But his fears for her safety were idle,
No heart of a hero beat stouter:
She poised the stone, gathered her bridle—
A halo, ’tis said, shone about her.

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With his jaws all extended and horrid,
Fierce and foaming, the brute leapt to gore her,
When she dropped the rock full on his forehead,
And lo! he fell dying before her.

There he lay, bristling, tusky, and savage;
Such a mouth, as was long ago written;
Made Calydon lonely with ravage,
By such teeth young Adonis was bitten.

Then praise to our new Atalanta,
Of the chase and of song spoils be brought her,
Whose skill and whose strength did not want a
Meleager to finish the slaughter.

She is sung, and New Zealand shall take her,
Thrice blest to possess such a matron,
And give thanks to its first ballad-maker,
Who found it a saint for a patron.