I recently picked up a secondhand copy of The Penguin Book of New Zealand Verse. It's got some good selections of our best poets, and I've been particularly enjoying getting a glimpse of Ursula Bethell's work recently. Bethell grew up in New Zealand, although she was born in England in 1874, and she lived here until her death in 1945. She lived in the suburb of Cashmere, in Christchurch, which is on the hills, and she often worked in her garden which overlooked the Canterbury Plains and the mountains in the distance. She is often credited with being the first NZ poet to really express an 'indigenous' New Zealand way of writing, to write poems that weren't highly derivative celebrations of Wordsworth or Keats, to write poems that expressed the unease of a young, settler nation.
Anyhow, I particularly love this poem which I am about to display for your reading pleasure. It strikes me as particularly appropriate as we in Christchurch gaze at our city in awe at the changes nature has wrought on it over the last few months.
When I am very earnestly digging
I lift my head sometimes, and look at the mountains,
And muse upon them, muscles relaxing.
I think how freely the wild grasses flower there,
How grandly the storm-shaped trees are massed in their gorges
And the rain-worn rocks strewn in magnificent heaps.
Pioneer plants on those uplands find their own footing;
No vigorous growth, there, is an evil weed:
All weathers are salutary.
It is only a little while since this hillside
Lay untrammelled likewise,
Unceasingly swept by transmarine winds.
In a very little while, it may be,
When our impulsive limbs and our superior skulls
Have to the soil restored several ounces of fertiliser,
The Mother of all will take charge again,
And soon wipe away with her elements
Our small fond human enclosures.
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