Dear David Caygill,

I’m sitting in a hut in the Lewis Pass overlooking the Boyle River. Last night the wind raged and threatened to tear the roof from its fixings like a rusty can of beans. This morning it’s calm and a light rain falls intermittently across the forest. When the cloud breaks the tops burn in tawny ochre hues that remind me of Sutton’s reduced palette. These are the best colours, the base earth colours that underpin my life; the reason I came thirty years ago to live near all this.

The last time you and I met you repeated that anecdote of yours about the urbanite complaining that farmers were making a profit from destroying the environment:

“The urbanite comes to me and says, ‘David, the farmers are destroying the rivers.’ Then he pauses and he continues, ‘and they’re making a profit out of it.’ And I say to him, ‘Yes, it may well be that farmers are destroying the rivers. But the fact that they’re making a profit, well, what’s that got to do it? What’s wrong with a little private gain?’ ”

And then you chuckled and shook your head as if the sense of what you were saying should be evident to a twelve year old. Well I’m not twelve, David, I’m old, and no matter how I look at it I just can’t see how action and consequence can be disengaged in this case. The fact that you’re certain that it can really puzzles me.

When I was researching my father’s life for a biography I came across a folder of long-hand notes he’d made concerning the Parker, Hulme murder. They turned out to be a detailed construction not of the prosecution, but of the probable defence. (One of the defence lawyers was a good friend of Peter’s so he had a fair idea how they would proceed.) This trick of stepping into your opponent’s shoes and walking around in them for a time is something he taught us almost by osmosis. “Take an interest in your enemies,” he advised. “Often you will find them more interesting than your friends.” This search for motive and understanding is also an act of compassion asked of Scout by Atticus Finch in To kill a mockingbird.

I have heard you tell the story of the urbanite three times and it never varies. I have tried, like Scout, to see it from your point of view because you seem to take it very earnestly, this division of action from consequence. It is almost as if you are preparing a rationale against the day someone holds you to account.
I also remember Professor Philip Joseph testing the ECan Act in the same way, trying valiantly to make it fit the rule of law. But it was like hammering a square peg into a round hole. In the end there were just splinters everywhere and he was compelled to condemn the Act as altogether repugnant to the rule of law. He went further; he described it as an affront to the principles of natural justice, constitutional law and the Bill of Rights. Any reasonable man, especially a lawyer, who could take part in any subset of that Act, therefore, would have to be a pragmatist of the highest order.

My father was a respecter of principle. You may recall that during the Parker, Hulme case the judge asked counsel into his chambers to inform them that he didn’t intend to put the insanity defence to the jury. He was afraid the prurient details would indelibly stain the Christian minds of the all-male jury. My father replied that if that were the case he would feel obliged to seek leave to withdraw. My father believed in legal principle, that the law should not be manipulated at whim. He believed that without legal principle there can be no foundation on which to build a secure society.

Bassanio: ‘…and I beseech you,
Wrest once the law to your authority:
To do a great right, do a little wrong;
And curb the cruel devil of his will.’

Portia: ‘It must not be; there is no power in Venice
Can alter a decree established;
‘Twil be recorded for a precedent;
And many an error, by the same example,
Will rush into the state: it cannot be.’

This is Shakespeare, himself a student of the law, arguing for legal principle. It is the same argument Thomas More puts forward when Roper asks him to break the rules to save his neck. To which More answers that if, in pursuit of the devil, you were to cut down all the laws in England; then, when the devil is turned round on you and the laws all flat, where will you go for shelter? Good point. This is why, of course, the ECan Act is so damn dangerous.

Long before environment councils were invented my father found himself chairing a hearing into a case where a meat works had unlawfully discharged effluent into a major Canterbury river. I remember him recounting how amid a phalanx of PhDs, there appeared at one point an elderly man who had spent most of the recreational hours of his life fishing at the mouth of the river in question. He described the changes he had observed. According to my father, his evidence was clear and compelling. And to a large degree it was on this particular evidence that my father found against the meat works.

That of course, could not happen today. A man whose only qualification was that he had spent his life on the river would never be accepted as an expert witness. Instead a number of PhDs would face off against each other in the usual adversarial contest, experts who, having studied at the same universities, manage to conjure opposing conclusions; conclusions tailored to advance the case of their employers.

Mike Joy recently appeared as an expert witness in some water matter. The opposing counsel challenged the validity of Mike’s submission by asking him if he was fundamentally opposed to the pollution of waterways. Mike said that indeed he was. “Well, in that case,” argued the counsel, “you have come here with a predetermined point of view, in which case your evidence should be set aside.” As you know, Mike has no time for silliness. He returned with this supposition. “Tell me,” he said, “if I were to present expert evidence at a murder trial, would you have that evidence set aside on the ground that I was fundamentally opposed to the practice of murder?”

I often wonder what my father would have made of the ECan Act, the frame within which with impunity you carry out Smith’s work. I would have thought that any respecter of the law would have had nothing to do with it, and the law does seem very important to you. Do you remember the day Catherine Sintenie came to see you? You met at the café at the end of Webb Street. It’s the office you use for interviews you regard as the least important. Do you remember what passed between you? It went like this:

“David, for fifteen years we have been collaborating with farmers and ECan trying to find a compromise we can live with. And every promise made to us during that time has been broken.”
“Yes,” you replied, “that may well be so. But we didn’t break the law.”

You might have added, “And what have promises got to do with it?” As I say, I would have loved to discuss the Act and its principle actors with my father. What would he have made of Dame Margaret? On her appointment to the chair of ECan, Forest and Bird’s Chris Todd asked her to explain her job. “My job,” she said, “is to do what the government wants.” Well, what could be easier? With the law makers on her side all she would have to do is identify the obstacles to the government’s purpose and remove them.

In which case what are the other councillors doing there, other than to provide the public with the perception of representation? Are they sendimentologists, ecologists, hydrologists? Where is the expertise among them? They remind me of an observation by Yuri Solomatin, chair of the Supreme Rada Committee for Ecology Policy; Nature Management and Liquidation of Chernobyl Catastrophe Consequences. Isn’t that a great name? It was invented to inspire confidence. But Yuri did not have any confidence whatsoever in the expertise of the members of his committee. He referred to them as the blind leading the blind; a line of miserable, dirty, ragged men with their unseeing eyes turned to the sky. (He had in mind Breughel’s painting, of course.) He said the members of the radiation working party were not only uneducated, but proud of their ignorance. “This ineptitude, the lack of scientific rigour with regard to so serious a crisis of public health was,” he said, “a catastrophe of the conscience of the nation.” Very nicely put; a catastrophe of the conscience.

Take Commissioner David Bedford; apart from owning a handful of grapes among the banjo pickers of Omihi, his only other qualification for the job of commissioner seems to be his experience in the field of human resources. Now why is it, David, that when someone mentions human resources it evokes in my mind the image of a pot-bellied white man with a bullwhip standing idly in front of a cotton field filled with slaves?
That sounds unfair, I know; but I can’t shake it. The term is almost as repugnant as collateral damage.

So the rest of the commissioners, it seems, are simply superstructure; the rigging of a vessel that has Margaret and her medallioned bosom nailed to it like a wind-weathered bowsprit. She’s certainly not in charge; she is simply the glitter. Every government she has said Yes to has hung a decoration around her neck. She now has more medals on her chest than a Bolivian air vice marshal and it’s a wonder she can stand up. So I suppose if she is the glitter, David, then perhaps you’re the navigator.

In Robert Bolt’s A man for all seasons he invents a conversation between the Spanish ambassador and Thomas Cromwell that well comes close to describing the commissioners and you:
“If you are the king’s ear,” says the ambassador, “then why these Justices, Chancellors, Admirals?”
“Oh,” says Cromwell, “they are the constitution. Our ancient, English constitution. I merely do things.”

Are you Nick’s Cromwell, David; the king’s ear? Do Douglas and Prebble watch you from the wings these days with envy? Because by not having stitched yourself to Douglas’s coat-tail you got to stay in the game; the same chameleon politician you were at university jumping from ship to ship asking only that you might occasionally have a turn at the tiller.

It stopped raining about an hour ago and just now a falcon arrived to hang on a thermal above the hut. Unusual. She rose in tight circles until almost out of sight, calling all the time like a wooden carillon. Then she slipped away at high speed toward the Nina Valley. Maybe someone tipped her off about the kiwi release program.

I was surprised to see you in attendance during the ECO conference last month. For a man who professes to have the answers you seemed to be taking an awful lot of notes. What was it about Mike Joy’s presentation that bothered you? Maybe it was when he said a consent for thirty years amounted to no consent at all; something along those lines. A bit like the National Objectives Framework where at last we have a bottom line on water pollution; a bottom line that is so low that no river on this planet will ever reach it; where long before that line is met every organism in the river will have died. “Yes,” says Smith, “but at least we have rules now where there were none before.”
Trouble is; the rules seem to be written by Dairy New Zealand. And yet I remember at the time of the Rena stranding hearing an interview on National Radio where Nick cited the Deep Water Horizon spill in the Gulf of Mexico, saying; “The polluters must never be in the business of writing the environmental rules.”

I was equally surprised to see you at Mike’s presentation to the Christchurch East Labour party. I shouldn’t have been; after all, it was more or less your constituency back in the eighties when you were member for St Albans. Your office was in Hills Road if I remember, and above your desk hung a portrait of Michael Joseph Savage, architect of the welfare state. Did you know that Savage himself, before he became interested in politics, once earned a little money digging irrigation ditches? I guess that’s about the only thing left that you and he would have in common these days. What on earth would Savage say if he could see his protégé today?

Anyway, at the end of Mike’s talk you shook his hand and told him you agreed with almost everything he said. The ‘almost’ referred to the comment about consents, I imagine. But for the rest of it you seemed to have no argument. You didn’t, for example, take issue with Mike’s assertion that our children are being poisoned with cadmium and that intensive agriculture is contaminating the land so badly that when the cows come home all that it will be fit for is trees. Cows, he says, are so full of cadmium that it is illegal to sell their offal for human consumption. (Ironically, and frighteningly, much of that offal is reconstituted as blood and bone.) He also said that it is just a matter of time before a child dies from the cyanobacteria in our most eutrophied rivers. Cyanobacteria are already killing cattle and dogs. You agreed even with his economic analyses. Surely to agree with even half of what Mike Joy is saying is to admit absolute failure.

I asked you a year ago if you would fix the Waitohi River, in accordance with the principles of the CWMS. Without hesitation you replied that you would. I asked when you thought that might be. You couldn’t answer. And now you say very publically, and seemingly unabashed, that it isn’t going to happen; that in our lifetime our waterways will not be repaired. I don’t know anyone else who can so adroitly stumble from failure and call it success.

What, indeed, would Elinor Ostrom make of it all? Clearly it is Elinor’s work you are adapting in attempting to deal with the governance of Canterbury’s most precious common, the water. It is a nice contrivance; I mean, who would be brave enough to argue with a Nobel Prize winner, right? (Unless we’re talking Milton Friedman or Henry-America doesn’t have friends, it just has interests-Kissinger) But it’s not her theories I would argue with; it is the way they are being applied. It reminds me again of a child trying to hammer a square peg into a round hole. The child thinks that if it just hammers hard enough, and long enough, it’ll all come right. But you have to pause and consider again the three principles on which Elinor’s work depends; Rules, Trust and Reciprocity.

Well, reciprocity clearly isn’t working. You have all the environmental groups, supposed partners in the give and take, threatening to pull out of your ‘collaborative’ processes because they are effectively doing all the giving. What’s more, our local farming community in the Hurunui, the ‘indivisible fraternity’ you were supposedly invented to serve, is now broken into at least five factions: dairy farmers, who have everything and want to hold on to it; dry land farmers, who have nothing and want a share; HWP; the Peaks community, whose farms are threatened by HWP canals; and Ngai Tahu who, to use Michael King’s quaint term, want to subsume everyone else. When you create a Venn diagram of these groups, the intersection is very small indeed.

On top of these divisions, and possibly because of them, you have Amanda Thomas’s PhD finding that the democratic aspect of the Hurunui/Waiau zone committee is a myth. So much for trust, I would have thought. And as far as having any rules in place about taking and distributing the commons, they are so variable and so rarely and meagrely enforced that there may as well not be any.

Adrianus Sintenie, Cathy’s husband, spoke with you at the Copthorne the day the commissioners were appointed. That was the day three hundred of us stood outside in the street protesting Nick’s assault on the rule of law. Adrianus asked you how you now intended to engender trust in the community after such a brutal expulsion of their elected representatives. You replied that you were not there to engender trust; you were there to do a job. And yet Elinor’s thesis emphasizes that trust underpins everything.

She also writes about the self-regulation of communities, that when one person takes too much of the commons his neighbours will shame him back into line. But there is no shame here anymore; there are just individuals. When the dairy farmers were asked recently to share their quota of contaminants they replied, no, and not to take offence, but it’s just business. What might have worked in a Swiss village a hundred years ago pertaining to a common hundred acres of land, simply doesn’t apply to a New Zealand river. Elinor warned you about this. Watch out for rivers, she said. Rivers are difficult. A river is not a field; it’s not an alp for winter grazing.

But, nevertheless, you borrowed her tools and applied them to our rivers, and the zone committee picked up its hammer and set to work whacking away at that old square peg and no one, no one, David, is content. It is a blunt and clumsy process and Elinor would shake her head that so devoted an acolyte should misunderstand her best intentions. She would shake her head like Christ in whose name the church in all its vestments (with due respect to your father and your sister) goes blundering.

This mantra of yours; the private gain and your ability to divide action from consequence: I’ve tried it so many ways, David, and I just can’t make it work. In every case the consequence, the private gain, seems to influence the action. If a man stands to make a lot of money, or even a little, from taking river water, then he will do everything he can to convince the regulators that the river is of no value. That’s what people do. That is one of the legacies of Roger Douglas; since 1984 we have exchanged our social conscience for opportunistic individualism.

What is wrong with a little private gain? Let me take you to a summer’s mid-day eight years ago, to a bridge on the Waitohi River, our closest river, a river where the school kids used to go in the weekends to hunt for trout, to build huts in the willows and to swim in the secret summer swimming holes, the commons; a place for local families to recreate.

Kerry Burke was there this particular mid-day along with most of the ‘dysfunctional’ ECan council. It was part of a tour of all the rivers, part of an effort to get to know the subject matter of so many grievances. The council had invited anyone with any personal knowledge of these rivers to meet with them in situ. So Anna Dalzell had come. Anna, like her father, was born and raised on the river; the third generation of Dalzell’s to live there. In her arms she carried her six month old son. She talked of the long summers and riding bare-back between the swimming holes, and how suddenly, when the dairy pumps went down, it all disappeared. Then a young man, fair haired, square shouldered, a boy from up-river, stepped forward. He didn’t speak as Anna had, impromptu, from the heart. He read from a piece of A4, as if from a lectern. And what he had to say contradicted everything Anna had just said. He told the councillors that every summer the river ran dry. Anna turned away, her face shining with tears. “How could he do that?” she said. “We both grew up on this river. How could he stand there and lie to my face?” Well, the answer is simple: if the river is believed always to have been dead then there is nothing to rehabilitate, there is no reason to give back any of the water taken. What happened to the summer swimming holes? They are now squared off and glimmering in the front lawns of
the irrigators. This incident serves to remind me how once we were all so friendly. I recall barn dances here at the mill when half the guests were farmers; how they’d dance and grin and there were no divisions.

A couple of months ago Ali and I were driving down to Peel Forest for their annual Ceilidh and stopped on the way at Dunsandel for lunch. We took our coffees out to the back courtyard, stepped out into the light… and froze. There seated around us were fifteen Hawarden farmers. They looked up. The conversation stopped. And then we all laughed. It was as if a couple of chickens had just entered a coop full of ferrets. We settled in to eat our lunch surrounded by ‘the enemy’. I gazed around and wondered about it all. Enemy? How did that happen? I knew every one of them from another time. We had joked once and laughed and considered the oddities of life together. These had all once been friends. And now?

I didn’t care when I was growing up how much money people made. It didn’t matter to me. My adventure was art, and art took me to the very sap of life. I needed nothing else. The sap of life is what Thoreau discovered in those two years at Walden; it’s what Christ learned in the wilderness. I didn’t care what people did with their lives, so long as they left me and my family alone. I had no need to own property; I already did. I owned the best garden in the world; the rivers, lakes and mountains of this country; the commons. So when the farmers who used to come to my home and dance to Cathy’s fiddle began to take those commons for their own, the fun went out of things. You can understand that, Dave. And so Anna turned away, tears streaming down her face, “How could he lie to me?”

Dividing action from consequence is a very difficult thing. I think I understand what you mean; that the destruction of a river and an associated economic gain could be regarded as two separate concerns. I understand the concept.

And every time you repeat the anecdote you are careful to emphasize the pause, as if the accusation of profit-making is a petulant after-thought. “…and they pause, and then they say, ‘and they’re making a profit out of it.’ ” The first concern is the loss of the river, and then, almost in a tone of envy the urbanite adds, “…and they’re making a profit…” You see these as two unconnected concerns and you seem to say, well, let us start by addressing the loss of the river, the primary concern. If we repair the environmental infrastructure then the second concern, the private gain, will lose significance.

I asked you about the Waitohi. I asked if you would repair it and you said you would. And now you say that the rivers will not be fixed and there is no accompanying apology. You make the statement as if it is a fact beyond your control. “We can’t just shut down farming,” you said. Really? But don’t you remember, Dave? You did just that in 1984.

You and Prebble and Douglas, the ‘treasury troika’, removed the billion dollar a year rural subsidy and broke the government’s commitments to the ballot farmers, stripping a third of their income overnight. A friend of mine lost his land that way. Good men who in good faith had taken loans with the rural bank lost everything. Oh, you shut down farming alright, and only those with meat on the bone survived. And yet here you are, standing at the tiller of a new ship, pouring millions of tax dollars into Smith’s whimsical wet dream, giving back to the farmers from whom you once were happy to take so much. Bolstering the grand plan for maximum production and ignoring value, exactly what Muldoon had been doing before you took over the accounts.

I can’t see it Dave. I can’t find an example where consequence is not dependent on action. In my view they are indivisible.
And in terms of consequence; did any of the wives or children of the farmers who killed themselves call you in the middle of the night? Did they plead with you? Pushed to despair by your ‘reforms’, fifty-two of them in one year committed suicide. This is not hyperbole, Dave. It’s history.

In 1978 I was living in Fontainebleau. Art school had disillusioned me. The only thing of value I remember from those two drab years was a Friday afternoon event to which our tutor had asked us to bring a flying machine. There were the usual little paper aeroplanes and a couple of self-immolating hot air balloons. But the one I remember best was a red clay brick with a feather taped to it. It was hope without promise, it was Chagall’s dictum: Art is the unceasing effort to compete with the beauty of flowers… and never succeeding.

So I found myself living in an old town with narrow cobbled streets, a bloody wild boar slumped against the Boulanger’s door, and Napoleon’s chateau surrounded by forty-five thousand acres of forest. When it rained, when it snowed, when the winter winds hunted the streets like a ribbed dog I stayed in my room and painted. When the skies cleared I’d take my pack and head for the forest to my favourite place among the pines to boil a billy and read Mansfield who also walked that forest and took her last lonely breath there. Twelve years later I went back to visit my beautiful refuge and found it changed. I stood in the middle of the trees at my old camp site and listened. Something was wrong. What was wrong was that I could hear a distant hum of humanity. Roads radiate out from Fontainebleau like the spokes of a cart wheel; they lead to Moret, Barbizon, Paris and Lyons. But deep in that forest you could never hear the trucks coming and going on the daily grind of perpetual private gain. But now I could, distantly. Why? I walked on through the forest looking for clues, looking for the snakes, the spring colouvres that used to lie coiled under every second stone. The red squirrels were missing and so were the quick blue lizards. Then, where my path intersected two others, I came across a large sign bearing the images of three trees. A young tree, a mature tree, and one that was very old. Beneath these images was written: Pour la sante de la foret, on supprime des arbres anciens. There was the answer. There was no debris, there were no nurse logs, no more hollowed-out standing carcasses in which to build nests or nurture the biodiversity required to keep an abundant ecosystem functioning. And with the thinning of the forest, with this perpetual grooming, sounds of the madding world now filtered through and there was no place left to pause and dream of home, or imagine a time when the French king went hunting with the Italian sculptor Benevento Cellini at his side, a time when kings and artists were friends.
So there it was; the lie. ‘For the health of the forest…’ But of course the real motive was just as you say; a little private gain. It made me angry then, it makes me angry now.

It was on the steps of ECan that you and I first met. I was on my way down; you were on your way up. I had paused to talk with Rod Donald. He introduced us. Were you still wearing the gaucho moustache then? I’m not sure, it seems you were. But I do remember clearly that you were uneasy in Rod’s company and your eyes moved about like a fugitive, they never settled on mine. You were on your way to attend Richard Johnson’s farewell as chairman of ECan, one of its most notorious. Richard was chair when he cut that road from his property across railway land, across the DOC reserve and down into the Waimakariri gorge to facilitate a tourist enterprise of his son’s. He was roundly pilloried in the Press for his statement that he didn’t realise he needed a consent. Naughty man.
But Richard knew that under the magic spell of retrospection he could do just about exactly what he liked. And you had come along that day to cheer for him. Which makes me wonder, David, if this water game has not been a good deal longer in its gestation than any of us imagined.

Every time another slice of the commons is privatised it is done in the name of the public good. It’s Nick Smith’s mantra, and Adam Smith’s, and it was whooped by the Chicago Boys as they rode into Chile. And it was the mantra of Amanda Loeffen, spinster for HWP who once pleaded its case before a consents panel in the following way:

“…the signs if economic hardship (are) recognised in the dwindling school
numbers, the closure of the doctor’s surgery, the lack of activity at the rugby club,
and the general air of abandonment as young people go to school elsewhere or
grow up and move away to find work. The contrast between (Culverden) and
(Hawarden) is stark. It is the difference between a thriving community centre of
shops and cafes, versus a ghost township with everything starting to close down.”

Sounds good, but complete bullshit, of course. We don’t have dwindling school numbers; those who do go away to other schools are fulfilling a quaint family tradition or succumbing to a sense of cast. Contrary to Amanda’s thesis, when economic times are bad, the school role increases. And the doctor’s surgery certainly has not closed. If it were to close it wouldn’t be anything to do with community wealth. Rex Yule, who for a time was running both Amberley and Waikari medical practices, put it very simply;
“Miss Loeffen,” he said, “is talking crap.”

If there is a lack of activity in the local rugby club it is set to get a lot worse if intensification comes in; I mean, gee, I think Philipinos prefer football. To call Culverden a thriving community of shops and cafes is like calling a bedpan an ensuite. Jesus, talk about gilding the bloody lily! Try driving through Culverden on a sunny day with the window down; it’s like driving through a urinal. The town hasn’t changed in the thirty years I’ve known it. No one in their right mind would chose to live there.

It was also mentioned along the way that HWP would bring 200 million a year into the community. Unfortunately ECan were obliged to contract an independent review of HWP’s optimism. Lincoln’s associate professor Geoff Kerr did the job for them and came to the unhappy conclusion that if the farmers were to pay the true costs of the scheme then the scheme not only stood to earn nothing, it threatened to impose a cost on the community. You had to dig deep to find this report, of course, and very few of the community knew anything about it. Nevertheless, when Amanda made her request to the council for a loan of six million to further the stuttering progress of their ‘community project’, the community turned her down. For all her sibilant siren ways the Hurunui ratepayers had been rendered vertiginous by ten years of spin and grown weary of forking out cash for no return. The last I saw of Amanda she was escaping through a council back door in a flood of tears.

(Susan Goodfellow is doing the same job for CWP, of course, suggesting the public and the environment simply can’t survive without it. Which sort of belies Treasury’s assessment that it will make no money for the farmer shareholders whatsoever. The only money to be made, says Treasury, will be by those who build the schemes and, of course, people like Susan Goodfellow.)

If Amanda wasn’t the best salesperson for HWP, neither was Mike Hodgen the best choice as chairman. Mike is a pugilist and built like a boar. In the old days anyone opposing his particular point of view was likely to get thumped. At water meetings any conservationist argument was invariably met with a kind of porridgey bucolic sarcasm that passes in this part of the world as wit. One by one the conservationists just stopped turning up, and Elinor’s ideal of a collaborative self-administrated commons blew away like topsoil in a norwester. It took a heart attack to slow Mike down. It’s rumoured that the surgeon used pig valves to fix his broken pump in the belief that there’d be very little chance of rejection.

I’ve just been down to the creek to fill the billy. There were three huge gallaxiids amid the boulders. Nice. Nice also to be able to drink the water raw from a river again. I used to drink from all of Canterbury’s rivers. I used to drink from the Waitohi. It worries me that if Christ came back tomorrow (and being somewhat of an open air preacher he’d probably come as a Methodist; which would piss mayor Winton Dalley off no end) where’s he going to find a river to baptize the faithful without having to raise them like Lazarus immediately afterwards?

When Cathy died it broke my heart. It broke a lot of hearts. She was a mother, a teacher, a musician and a mountaineer; and she deeply loved her adopted country. That the water killed her is disputable, you say. You also said that you didn’t need to continue testing Canterbury’s water, that you know what’s in the water. An employee of ECan came to Waikari about fifteen years ago and interviewed Henry Searle, grader driver for the council. She wanted to know the location of all the historic dumps. He told her and then she went away. I took someone from ECan to the Waitohi and showed him where the old council dump was and how when the upstream dairy gallery overflows it filters through that putrescent graveyard and back into the river. All the families downstream take their water from the aquifer. The dump is where dipping contractor Doug Morrison took his old drench barrels. Doug died of a brain tumour in his fifties. High school teacher Wendy Kamo who lived just downstream of the dump died the same way. There are not many people living on that river and yet six people I know personally have developed cancer and four have died. The dump is still there.

And the great Opuha dam, the diamond in the irrigation crown: Either it failed to do what it was supposed to do, or too many people made demands on too slender a resource. It was always rumoured that under the dam there was a dump containing DDT. Last year when the waters parted the dump was revealed. Whether it contained any hazardous chemicals is again disputed. But what we clearly have here is the practice of using waterways as dumping grounds coming back to haunt us, potentially with deadly effect. And it must be remembered that there are more than fifty thousand historical sheep dips in rural New Zealand, a great proportion of which are set like time bombs amid the porous soils of Canterbury.

Cathy’s husband raised the prospect of pesticides from these dips coming to life due to the changing water tables in the irrigable areas. He raised this point at a zone committee meeting. ECan commissioner Tom Lambie sat up like a meerkat, the afternoon sun filtering through his expansive ears and turning them a translucent pink: “This,” he said, “is a can of worms we dare not open.”

Returning to your anecdote and the division of action from consequence: The dairy industry imports a quarter of the world supply of palm kernel. If we stopped buying the stuff today it would not halt the destruction of the Indonesian rain forests. So I think, in this case, your anecdote may hold true. The rain forest has fallen, and will keep on falling, and there is nothing we can do about it. Palm kernel is just a by-product that is of little account to those who set the fires. But surely there is a moral point to consider here, a kind of double standard. I mean, we were all highly amused by ECan’s invention of smoke police to patrol the evening streets of our rural towns. One can only imagine:

“Allo, allo, allo! Looks like number forty-seven’s laying it on a bit thick tonight,
Bert. Give ‘em another ten minutes and then we burst in with threatening looks.”

ECan, your ECan, would punish heavily anyone in Christchurch whose fires produced anything like the amount of particulate threatening the health of Indonesians today. And yet we’re happy to participate in an industry that forces school children to wear dust masks every time they step outside their homes. It feels like racism actually; as if Indonesian children are somehow less important than our own.

(If, as with cadmium, you wish to plead ignorance of the whole issue, then I suggest you take a few moments to view this video)

Mike Hodgen wanted a great big concrete dam for a headstone. I wonder how history will remember you, David. Nicky Wagner appeared last year at the unveiling of my sculpture of Graham Condon. Graham was a man who was loved; a man who demanded and gave only the best. (Some are born with greatness, some achieve greatness; people like Nicky snuggle up against it and hope it’ll rub off) I dug the 3.8 tonne foundations by hand, in the rain. Many people passed while I was at work and every one of them had a good word to say about Graham. So there was Nicky at the opening, without a blister, sliding into the frame of every picture taken. I put my arm around her and gave her a squeeze. “When they decide to make a sculpture of you,” I said, “tell them to come to me.” For you, David, I’d do it for nothing.

I can hear my daughter and her friends coming back through the trees, so I’d better close. She’s fast as the wind now, bursting out of her seven year calyx, thrilled by her first wiggly tooth. She’s just as beautiful as any of your grandchildren, David, just as loveable. You may remember how the inventor of public relations, Edward Bernays, was once the tobacco industry’s greatest champion. You might also remember that when his wife died of lung cancer he spent his remaining days trying to undo the damage he’d done.

The damage you are doing to our rivers will take a long, long time to repair. You won’t be there to help, of course, you’ll leave that job to my daughter and her companions. You’ll be somewhere else; probably with me, in Hades. I can imagine you now, wandering about with that distracted look, searching desperately for a bucket of water. And then, with a start, you spy the boss himself astride a barrel of the stuff. “Come on Roger,” you’ll say. “Just a demi-tasse, for old times’ sake.”
And he’ll grin and those pudgy eyes of his will close to a slit as he croaks, “It’ll cost ya.”

“Oh, come on Rog, you got it all for nothing.”
“That may be so, Davey, that may well be so. But what’s wrong with a little private gain?”
And the angels upstairs with their ears to the floor, despite their best efforts, will start giggling.

I look forward to our next cup of coffee.

Kind regards, Sam Mahon.

Sam Mahon is a New Zealand author, artist and freshwater activist living in North Canterbury.

If you would like to donate to his latest sculpture of Nick Smith defecating in a glass of water which will be 3x life size and to be toured up the country in protest against the latest freshwater standards, details can be found here.

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