The Golden Seed Grove Of Lemuria

Jenny Aarts shares
nostalgic memories of the trees
at the magical farm of her childhood
in New Zealand

I really love those tree and outback stories. It's amazing how reading these experiences has stirred up some of my own early memories which I'd almost forgotten.

There were many trees special to me on the farm where I grew up in the north of New Zealand. My father took over the dairy farm from my grandfather, who had literally carved it out of thick NZ bush. My sister and I had our favourite hiding spots, secret dens and magic fairylands within the hushed enclosures of various tree canopies.

The main creek was lined with weeping willows of all sizes, trailing their long strands of leaves into the water. They all leaned forward in a long, curved formation over the water, teetering on the edge of the banks, like young girls and women trying to wash their hair without getting the rest of themselves wet. Sometimes we would see young Maori boys from further up the valley spearing eels. If we came too close, they would pick one up and scare us away with it, laughing at our 'pakeha' (white person) cowardice. Once they smoked some eel and let us taste it. We weren't all that impressed. It was muddy and gritty.

Set into a bank, alongside a small creek at the bottom of the hill behind our house, was a splendid weeping willow with a huge cathedral-like canopy, making it always dry underneath. Here, in all kinds of weather, we put on many a stage performance, concerts, weddings, coronations, as well as being pirates in our secret cave, with boxes of 'jewels' and general treasure. We buried some of it. It's probably still there! Sometimes we would be fairies, princesses and the Secret Seven or Famous Five. We would set up our dolls as the audience for our productions. They weren't a very responsive audience, but at least they didn't criticise! It was close enough to the house so we could hear our mum calling us for lunch, but I think she never knew about that place. We were 'somewhere up the hill' as far as she was concerned.

We had an enormous, shady oak tree on the back lawn. It held our beloved wooden swing, with a strong chain attached to the branch. Over time, it wore quite a groove in the wood, as my sister and I were followed eventually by a brother, and years later by another sister. But the tree didn't seem to mind. I think it liked us. In early summer we picked masses of cicada shells from its rough bark, as they emerged from the ground beneath it. When summer was in full bloom, we listened to the cicadas sing a deafening chorus amongst its leaves. They made my ears ring as the sound intensified in the heat . Later, our oak dropped acorns for us to collect and stockpile for no particular reason, scrabbling around happily in the dirt around its roots.

There were two orchards, both filled with every kind of fruit. I liked to sit in an apple tree with a book and take bites from apples still hanging there. The chooks would sometimes roost in the neighbouring satsuma plum tree, clucking and muttering companionably. Needless to say, our eggs were free-range and the fruit was organic. We just took it all for granted then. I really miss it now, when the fruit I buy from the shop often has no taste.

In between milking cows and looking after the house and all of us, Mum bottled fruit frantically at the end of every summer - great scented piles of peaches, plums, nectarines. I helped peel the fruit and chase the circling wasps away while she sweated over the stove and cauldrons of preserves, and heated up glass jars in the oven. She made chutney, jam and relishes too. We had shelves and shelves of gleaming preserves which more than lasted all winter.

There was an enormous fig tree which poured forth figs and left them rotting on the ground, so many we couldn't give them away. We gathered blackberries, covering ourselves in scratches in the process, and had blackberry and apple pies. Mushrooms sprang up after rain in the shaded places amongst the trees. Little white mounds, nestling in the grass. I loved their soft brown gills. Mum cooked them up for soup, along with a silver serviette ring in the pot. This apparently was to ensure we didn't get poisoned by inedible fungi mixed up with the mushrooms. If the ring turned black, the story went, there was some lethal toadstool in there, and the soup would have to be thrown out. I don't know if there was, in fact, a scientific basis to this theory, but nothing ever happened to us, and the soup was always magnificent - thick and creamy with succulent dark chunks in it.

The chooks laid their eggs in the orchard, in various places. One day Mum was collecting the eggs when she was confronted by our youngest and very cheeky bull, named Sebastian, who lowered his head and smirked at her menacingly. In a flash, Mum was up the trusty old apple tree still clutching the basket of eggs, yelling "Jim! Jim!' My father copped such a tongue-lashing for not telling her he'd moved Sebastian in there.

When I was about twelve, Dad bought some neighbouring land, and on it was a spooky piece of bush which we called 'Bone City' - because the previous owner had dumped dead cows and assorted other animals there and left them to rot. All that was left were the skeletons. The bush was dense and dark, and coming across those bones and skulls sent a delicious Famous Five kind of chill through ours. We'd creep through and jump out at each other from behind trees, and frighten ourselves silly. We'd never go there alone. We were sure there were ghosts of long-dead cows lurking about, unhappy with their casual burials.

When I was seven, a boy at school gave me a piece of pussy-willow tree, just a little stick with catkins on it. I shoved it into the ground near our two old orange trees, next to the house. As I grew, that twig outstripped me and flourished into a beautiful tree.

The last time I saw the farm, when we went back there in 1987on a nostalgia trail, the tree was still there, covered in catkins, looking tall and terrific. As for me, I'm covered in children, I'm still growing and learning, have weathered storms well, and, while not looking quite as splendid as the pussy-willow, I'm happy with myself as I am, laugh-lines and all!

The farm was a magic place. The trees were our friends and allies, hid us from prying eyes when we wanted to be alone, and saved us from disaster sometimes. A well-placed cabbage tree saved my brother when he was chased by stampeding cows which had gone completely mad after smelling blood-and-bone a neighbour had fertilised his field with. Steve shimmied up that bald trunk in a jiffy, even though he was only four or five years old, surrounded by 50 or so crazed cows mooing around the base, until Dad rescued him. My sister Gaylene escaped up one too, when she was hot-footing it away from Mum, who was going to smack her for biting holes in all the tomatoes.

Ah, yes, those were the days.

Thankyou, my special tree-friends.


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