Topic: It's Snow Fun by Garrick Batten

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A 2013 Memoir and Local History Competition entry.

Archived version here

It’s Snow Fun


In the 1950s after a year as a junior shepherd on a King Country station I could ride a horse, drive a tractor, lamb a ewe, crutch a sheep, mark a calf and fix a fence. And learned that farm work meant being out in all weathers: hot and cold, wet and blazing sunny, sometimes in the dark and on weekends when the animals demanded it.

Then I had a new job on a North Canterbury hill farm with more responsibility and the opportunity for additional new experiences. I had started in the late summer, bringing my saddle, boots and team of dogs with me across on the ferry. It was only a starter dog team, really, with an old yard dog, a bounding huntaway, and a year-old heading dog who was still learning, as I was about working dogs.

North Canterbury was certainly different. The faded summer yellow countryside, blow-dried and bleached by the frequent nor’wester, was a real shock. I missed the smell of heat-scorched manuka that was even pronounced differently. But I could see for miles after having been restricted by washboard ridge after ridge.

I also soon noticed differences in social layers between North Canterbury and the King Country. These had developed during earlier settlement and history and persisted through family, wealth and education levels. There were subtle differences in the people and how they behaved.

No Maori.

Different standards at smoko, where the ploughman and I drank our tea alone in the shed while the boss went back to the house. The standard of dress and clothing was different. My ever-present hat was now straw in summer that changed to felt in winter.

Underneath, however, the basic patterns of rural social life were much the same.

The climatic differences between the King Country and North Canterbury were noticeable, but the principles were much the same. It never rained when it was wanted, and didn’t stop when that we needed sun. The annual farm work routine was similar and sheep still smelled like sheep.

Winter snow was a real novelty as I had never even seen it before other than in pictures. There had already been a few flurries from late autumn storms, and colder winter weather started to squeeze the land; the boss could smell a bad southerly coming. He wanted the heifers brought down from the back block to a handier paddock where they could be fed out if need be.

So I togged up in hat, bulky coat and gloves, climbed on the grey Fergie tractor, called the dogs and loaded them onto the tray. Then we drove the winter sloppy track through stream crossings, slipping around cuttings and setting gates for the return trip. I had to walk the last mile up to the back boundary, but fortunately the cattle were mobbed in a sheltered gully out of the rising wind and down-swinging temperature.

The sky started to drain of light and suddenly the snow came. A sideways-driven white curtain of hardened flakes quickly cut visibility. I’d heard about wind-chill and now I certainly felt it. I began to freeze. The cattle kept moving, but in the direction of the wind and not towards the gate. Dogs darted and barked, nipping at the heels of the bellowing cattle.

In an hour, the ground was covered in snow. The track was difficult to see and properly steer on. Coldness bored into trousered legs.

Eventually, the effort of trying to use dogs, shouts and curses to herd the cattle along, while simultaneously watching for breaking animals, steering the tractor and squinting through the ragged white screen all became too much. The tractor slipped sideways into the water table, front wheel slumping into a hole. Reversing made it worse. This was certainly different to King Country farming.

How could I get the tractor out of this? We needed it back at the homestead.

What would the boss think? And more significantly, what would he say?

There was also an important football practice that night and being late would bring rough comments from the coach and my teammates. It was going to be a long walk, but perhaps that would at least warm me up.

Rugby is an important social link in rural New Zealand. District rivalries developed from long traditions of 80-minute challenges on muddy, roughly chewed sports paddocks. The village team had welcomed my new blood, even though, as a hooker, I was locking with a former Canterbury rep in the scrum for the next match. Village spirit and commitment would have to overcome the six-stone weight and six-inch pairing difference. Now my shoulders and thoughts were bowed with responsibilities from several directions.

Trudging on, the cattle were reluctantly heading towards an open face, but at least now in the right direction. We could hardly see as the snow fell more heavily. Then I heard Bob the huntaway get badly kicked by a stroppy heifer. It looked like a broken thigh on a sadly whimpering dog. This was a quandary now, as I was concerned for a dog that needed carrying, as well as a mob of cattle still some distance and time away from the flats.

I could feel the stiffness and cold pain spreading up from feet and tired legs, and from frozen cheeks and cracked lips. The dog made a heavy warm collar on my shoulders as I lifted and settled him into place. The cattle seemed to have the sense to hurry down once they left their familiar ground, and they moved more quickly along the track.

All the while, the snow was getting thicker on the ground. The wind was, if anything, stronger.

Up out of the next gully, we suddenly saw lights coming towards us from a Landrover. The boss had realised our predicament and come to help with fresh dog power and a flask of hot soup. The tractor had to stay for later rescue. Rugby practice was cancelled by snow.

The next morning, I was absolutely astounded to wake up to a still, quiet paddock with a carpet of sugar crystal snow. Working in the drifts after breakfast quickly destroyed the pleasant image. I had to feed out lucerne hay to hungry sheep and shift a crop-break netting fence with frozen fingers, ears burning, and iceblock feet inside my boots. Even the old wives’ tale about cayenne pepper between my toes did not work.

I was even less enthusiastic a week later when everything turned to muddy brown slush in the gateways. There was still at least two months of this routine to go.

Images of brightly coloured figures scooting down white slopes on skis and boards, or scoffing pizza and gluwein on the terrace looking out at the snow-clad mountains was not reality. While they might have been paying to play, and I was being paid to work, the enjoyment balance was still in their favour.


This page archived at Perma CC in October of 2016:

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It's Snow Fun by Garrick Batten

Note:About the author: A lifetime involvement in agricultural activities in New Zealand and overseas is the foundation for Garrick Batten's writing. He has moved from technical information including numerous pamphlets and two specific goat books to nostalgic fiction, recently published, and hybrid reference book, "What Happened to Haystacks and Horses?", covering changes in the last half of last century. He is now trying to encapsulate rural life in short stories and a monthly newspaper opinion column.