Michelle Moir

Living between mud and heaven

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Jan Styles


I’ve never been a city person; always loved the country and animals. I don’t think you’ve got enough time in the city—to just learn about life. I think you’ve got to learn to exist in the city. You don’t learn to do anything else; you don’t live, do you? You run from one place to another.

Here, I feel I could cope with anything, you know. It’s hard work, hard yakker. You go out all weathers because your animals have got to come first, but I find you can cope. It’s amazing what you can do. I think you get more time to learn what you’re capable of.

I love this life. If you want to sit down and watch TV, okay, that’s fair enough, that’s what you get out of life. But I think if you put more into it, you get more out of it. I enjoy sewing and love knitting. I love my grandkids—two just up the road is mighty handy. I believe in filling every day with love and laughter, and not waste it. They’re all God-given days; they’re all precious.

When my first marriage broke up, I applied for a housekeeping job, and actually Brian answered. I swore I would never get married again—there’s the results over there, seven grandchildren now, and one hell of a terrific marriage. We’ve been together twelve years now. He always says I was the best thing to come out of the paper since fish and chips. We lumped two families together, and it’s worked. Farm life makes a family.


Olivia Spence

Port Albert

I earned my first wages at twelve, and I from then on you paid five bob a quarter in tax. Looking after my uncle’s sheep was the job I had. Go round them every day, every evening. See there were none cast, and pick up any lambs, and see their mothers feed them. Then I was doing housework after that.

I was in Land Service for a while—Women’s Land Service in the war. A lot of my girlfriends were doing Land Service. We had to wear our uniform if we went out anywhere. After about four or five months, I ripped all the muscles in the side of my leg. I was doing farm work that girls shouldn’t be doing, probably. Heavy lifting, I suppose. The day I did it, I was only lifting a cream can, which I’d been doing year in, year out. It was heavier than the one we had at home, but still, it was only a cream can. I just lifted it wrong, I suppose, or slipped or something.

During the war I was all over the place. I went to the South Island—actually that was in ’47, that was after the war. Moved down for apple packing, Motueka. Lived at the hostel, and went out tobacco tying in the weekends. Some of them went hop picking, but that was awful; it ripped the hands to bits.

I was involved with the Country Women’s Institute sixty years. I’m still involved, but I don’t do much nowadays. I just go to the meetings, that’s all I do now. I joined at Marareti, which is about six miles from Paparoa, when I was nearly fifteen. There was nothing much else in those days—you played tennis, you played basketball, and went to dances in the truck. Incidentally, I’ll be seventy-five tomorrow.

We bought our house twenty-four years ago. Part of it was the old Post Office. Those couple of sheep’s all we got now, and the dog and the cat. We don’t like the towns, I suppose. Don’t like the town life.

I haven’t got any children. He’s got a daughter from his first marriage. But I didn’t have any.


Michelle Moir

Michelle Moir grew up on a dairy farm in Northland, surrounded by strong, capable women.

When she left her Whangaripo Valley home for Auckland, Moir realised that while a new life was beginning for her, she had also been separated from the strong web of her community and the influence of the women who had always been part of her daily life—”women who are straight up and always friendly”.

As part of her studies at Elam School of Fine Arts, University of Auckland, Moir returned home to capture and record “the spirit and dignity of country women”—women “whose voices and faces are often unheard and unseen, their lifestyle unknown to many city people.”

Throughout 1990 and 1991 Moir photographed 80 Northland country women. “First I began photographing women I knew,” she says, “and then the work grew through word of mouth. Each woman would in turn refer me on to others.

“Country women don’t mix with large numbers of people much of the time, and I think that this isolation shapes them. Many say they have been quite lonely at times, living in the country, especially when they had small children. But gradually they learn to live with their own company. And something about that process, and having to think in terms of seasons and practical matters, makes them strong.

“In this work I’m seeking to promote an understanding and appreciation of the diversity of the women who are distinctly New Zealand’s country women.”


Mary Ashby


Well, we had a bullrush house we lived in back here. You get these raupo and tie them in bundles and you throw them over the roof, so the rain don’t go through. And the rain don’t go through. It’s amazing, that. You always think it might leak, eh?

There was fourteen of us from different families. Our parents were all brothers and sisters. They were all working so we had to stay with Grandma so we could go to school. My great-grandmother was a hundred and four and my grandmother was eighty. Anyhow, these two old ladies looked after us, and they had huge gardens, miles of it. They dug it by hand, planted kumara, corn.

I went to school, but the thing is, 1 never ever learnt to read or write, for the simple reason that I was probably the smallest at the time. So if I caught the horse then I could go, but if I didn’t catch the horse then it was too bad for me, I couldn’t walk that far.

A habit of Grandma’s was prayer. When you sit down you’ve got to have prayers, and grace for meals. Early hours of the morning it’s still dark and we’re sleeping all on the floor together and Grand­ma’s sitting like that in the dark—no light, no nothing—and she wants us up. She says, ‘Are you up?’—`Yes’, and I’m still under the blankets or under the bag, and she says, ‘Are you sitting up?’—`Yes’, and nobody’s sitting up. They’re all still underneath, and she couldn’t see because it was still dark. Then she says the prayers, for, oh, I don’t know how long. Sometimes I think I must have gone to sleep, and when I woke up she was still going. Then you’d come in for breakfast again and say grace, finish grace, ‘All ready to go to school?’—`Yeah’—`Got lunch?’—`Yeah’—`Okay, stand in a row, stand in a row’, and every one of us has to say a prayer before we leave. I just know if I don’t say it I don’t know what’s going to happen. Sometimes I just want to say it as I’m laying down, and I know it’s not right unless I sit up, sit up and say it properly.

So now, this is good, this is good. You’ve got a car, you’ve got hot water, you’ve got cold water, and I feel sad ’cause my parents didn’t have it, you know.


Coral clinton

Wells Ford

We had twelve in my family, but three of my brothers died when I was little. They were older than me—I’m the youngest. But there was nine of us that lived, although they’re mostly all clonked out now. Out of nine, l’ve only got two brothers and a sister left. Sad.

I was the afterthought. Because of my sisters’ ages they had babies when I was born, so there’s a lot of them about my age. My dad was a very comical man and even ourselves, you know, we could come up with anything quite quickly. My father had a farm at Pakiri.

Poor old Dad, he really had to struggle. I don’t ever remember being rich but I don’t ever remember being unhappy or having worries or anything. I suppose he did all the worrying.

I’ll always recall when we moved to Auckland. My Mum was elderly and she needed care and what she had was asthma. We had an old auntie came and lived with us when Dad died. That was Mum’s sister, and she had gangrene and then they had to cut her leg off, so we had to move to Auckland. I had to go, I was the only one able to look after them. I was seventeen. Didn’t really like it either—hated it, used to get homesick really hard.

In Pakiri when the Power Board came around, and it was morning tea time, you gave them morn­ing tea. I worked at the factory across the road so I used to come home at lunchtime to Mum and Aunty. I can remember coming home one day and the chimney sweeper and the Power Board was there. And here’s Mum, flat out. She’s made some scones, she’s got the chimney sweeper sitting at the table. She’s yelling out, to the Power Board. I said, ‘Mum, you don’t do that, you don’t go asking people in off the street like that’. She said, `You just be quiet there, they want a feed as well as anybody’.

That was the way country life was. It’s influenced me, and I’m still like that.

I think that a lot of the trouble today is people don’t care and it doesn’t cost you nothing to care. It doesn’t cost you a dime.


Joanna Roberts


“Twenty-five years we’ve been here. I sound like a real old woman now, but when we came here, everybody knew about us before we arrived, because not very many farms changed hands in the area. Malcolm and I were just newly-weds, too. We’d only been married a few months, plus we had a sports car as well. We had a little convertible MG sports car. Now why did we sell it? Oh, I got pregnant with Guy, that’s right, and it was rather difficult to get in behind the steering wheel.

I had to learn to adapt, coming to the North, I have to say. Being brought up in the Hawkes Bay, the Hawkes Bay has a set of values, a social system which is very strong.

I used to have to ask my girlfriends, if they were coming to stay with me, which way they held their knife and fork. Because if they held their knife the way my mother deemed to be the ‘common’ way, there would be a scene at the table. So I used to ask them beforehand ‘Could you see if you could hold it, you know, like this?’

Now here was I, in the North. I usually had my string of pearls on, ’cause I can’t throw away that Hawkes Bay identity, you see. I didn’t fit into any of the categories.

always been very extroverted—some people would say I’m a very over-the-top woman. I don’t suffer fools, and I’ve always assumed that I can do whatever I want to do. And it doesn’t matter whether I’m a woman—I’m the one who’s out on the road all the time with my newspaper reporting and council work and things like that, and Malcolm’s ending up putting more time into the animals.

We’ve just got seventeen acres. It was originally just one of the paddocks on his family’s farm. I’m now able to indulge in my donkeys. Donkeys are a bit like a childhood fantasy, really. Everybody loves donkeys. Once we got one I got hooked on them, and so we’ve got five now. And I’ve been the president of the Donkey Society in New Zealand.”


Jill Parsons


I was born in Napier, and grew up on an apricot orchard. My oldest brother was farming up here, and I thought I’d come up here for a change. I was working in the bank, and I used to go out and see him in the weekends, and went to a dance one time and met Eric. I didn’t know either end of a cow.I was born in Napier, and grew up on an apricot orchard. My oldest brother was farming up

I used to go over and wash the yard down, but gradually got more and more involved as I got more confident.

It’s all dairy. In the calving time there’s a lot of work and a lot of stress, getting them through mating. You’ve got your calving—it starts on the nineteenth of July—and then you’ve got your mating which starts on the tenth of October. You’ve got to watch for the heat signs—it’s only every twenty-one days in cows. Otherwise you’ve got to wait for another cycle. If you don’t get a condensed
calving pattern and don’t get most of your herd calving in that first three to four weeks, then you’re getting less milk.

I think it’s a close-knit community. I’ve been going to Garden Club. We take our best blooms, our best cluster, a vege, a fruit, and an arrangement. We have a special flower for each month. The next meeting is three single blooms, three pieces of silverbeet, and a mandarin and a dried flower. Our farm discussion group—we meet on the fourth Wednesday of each month—we go to someone’s farm and cover a subject. Last Wednesday it was kikuyu; next month, cow condition.

Last year we had a progressive dinner while the cows were out. We started at one place and had chips and dip and a drink, then on up the road and had soup, and up the road again and had fish, then up the road again we had dessert, then up the road for coffee, and all went home about midnight.

Table tennis—I’ve been in it since we’ve been here. Last Tuesday night two of the young boys beat me, but I’m quite happy to see them—gives them a thrill. Told them it was my off night. I’ll get back at them next week.


Doreen Gallie


I worked in a shop for a little while, and then on to a factory making plastic inflatable toys and things like that. Basically that’s where I stayed until I got married. Then I came here—spent the next twenty-two years here. Milking and raising a family of five girls.

I found most people around here were a lot older than me—my mother’s generation. When we first came here I couldn’t drive, and that limited me a bit. I had no children, so there were no experiences that I could relate to, and I was a city person.

I was a shy person at that stage. I could go to a Plunket meeting, after the children were born, and say nothing all night. I’d sit and listen, and I’d be thinking some of the things that somebody else would say, but I wouldn’t have the cour­age to say it. They might have thought I was a bit of a snob or something, I think.

I gradually changed, I think, and got used to the farm. I work the morning with Lindsay, fencing, drenching, whatever. For the last three years I’ve run the farm on my own, because Lindsay’s worked off the farm for other people. We needed the extra money to keep the farm going, so he got another job milking for somebody else.

It’s tiring, very hard sometimes, especially at calving time. But, you know, I succeeded for three years. I wouldn’t like to do it for a lifetime. I’d much rather be home with the kids.

I can see the differences between my children and children who live in Auckland. When the city ones come up here they are sort of horrified at our kids, out in the muck. I think I prefer them to take their time and grow up. They have to grow up too fast in cities.


Mary Frost

Port Albert

Nick always wanted to be a huntsman, and when he got the job up here we had to buy a property in the area of the hunt. I’ve always had horses, and can’t think of anything worse than to have to travel to your horses.

This farm used to be a dairy farm, but it’s been chopped up. We’re living in the woolshed till the new house is built. We came here and scrubbed it up two years ago. There’s no running water, so if we want a bath we have to boil hot water on the stove. I do a lot of work from home—sewing saddle and show blan­kets. Some time I’ll have a garden again, I shall have a wonderful garden again.

I really can’t think of any disadvantages out here. Okay, you can’t dash down to the dairy for a pint of milk, but you always have a bag of powdered milk in the cupboard. And the fisherman next door feeds all our cats. The traffic just drives me mad when I go to Auckland. It takes me a week to recover.


Sarah Watts


It was new land that my parents went on to at Pakiri. Even I had a slasher that was my own, but it was blunt—my dad wouldn’t sharpen it in case I cut myself. But that’s the way I was brought up, to do your share. Carried the cream can right across the creek, and then again at night, when I came back from school. I milked before I went to school. I did that, or breakfast—whatever had to be done.

Later, I was involved in working on our farm. My husband and I did it together. I didn’t stay home and play ladies when our children were born. We used to take them in the pram, and go back and check every now and again. When they got a bit older the children played in the trees, and we built a pen on the back of the tractor so we could take our youngest daughter.

One by one our children left, and that left us on our own again. We moved here to Leigh more or less to retire. But instead of taking up fishing in a sort of fashion, we really got into it. So I worked with my husband on the boat as a deck hand. It was only last year that I gave it up.

The flax work is a skill that my grandma taught me. We cared for her, we had her for about twenty years back on the farm. She spent a lot of time weaving, doing the garden. She helped me a lot when I was younger, bringing up the children. This is why I wanted to care for her when she got older.

I used to sell my kete in the CML Mall in Auck­land in Queen Street. The late Mrs Greenwood and I, we used to do it when we had time, and before we realised it we would have twenty or so done, and we’d have one day in Auckland. We’d take them up and buy a few things that we couldn’t buy before. We used to do that once a month: have a trip, shout ourselves out to dinner.

I have four children, and I love them dearly. My eldest daughter is in Telecom in Karangahape Road. My son is a fisherman, and my other daughter is a nurse in Tokanui Hospital, and my other daughter is working in the oyster farm in Mahurangi where she holds the record for opening oysters.

I believe in honesty, because when that comes all the other things happen.


Toni Smith

Or Uawharo

I am forty two. I can remember the first day I started at Elam Art School—seventeen I was. I finished with a C pass for painting, and then I had other mucky jobs: car cleaning at Farnsworths, and restaurants.

It wasn’t encouraged for girls to carry on. I think it was assumed that you would be dropping it soon, that it was a bit of a hobby. I had been encouraged to think that you got carried away by a prince or something.

I got married in my second year and ran the Elam coffee bar. It was the only way I was going to be able to leave home—I was too scared. But that marriage didn’t last.

About twenty-nine I was pregnant. Then we moved away from Auckland to find somewhere in the country. With the baby it didn’t feel right that we were living right in town by the Town Hall in Auckland.

It was just a desperate move for me to get my wits together, really, and be somewhere more peaceful, more quiet. We’d lived all our lives in Auckland, being party people. Really, I needed a big lie down.

I’m a Smith, and that’s what I use, and we never did get married anyway. We felt that we couldn’t do it a second time, both of us. But we stopped having two different names on the letter box, because there’s a lot of religious people and they don’t like it, can’t cope. There’s something like seventeen different versions of Christianity between Waipu and Warkworth.

Doing art for money, it just didn’t gel in my head. You can’t progress if you’re always fulfilling other people’s expectations. You see this abstract stuff. It probably won’t sell locally. People just can’t buy it. If they are rich they are elderly and they want a pohutukawa and sunsets.

I can do occasional wheeling and dealing here though. I can swap for meat or fish or something for my art.


Heather George


I just got engaged last night. Well, we’ve been thinking about it for a while, we’ve known each other for a long time. We met over a year ago now, through the Young Farmers group. He’s from Kaiwaka.

When I left school, I knew I couldn’t do anything sitting inside, so it would have to be outdoor work. I’m almost nineteen. If I hadn’t got this job I would have had to go to a factory to work in.

This year there’s hardly any farm jobs because payout’s gone down, and people that did have farm workers haven’t got them any more and their wives are going back into the shed, so there’s been hardly any jobs.

Seeing there’s so few jobs, people are going to take boys over girls because they can do a bit more. I’ve found that the case so far. My first boss at Kaiwaka, he was a bit wary ’cause I’m not as strong as the males. But everyone’s got to learn patience, I’ve got more than the guys. The last guy I worked for, when I was home, treated me like a boy, not a girl. I did about everything. People are starting to come out of their shells that females can do it—it’s getting better. I can’t stand knocking calves on the head though, putting them down. Can’t stand that job. I’ve got out of it so far. I’ve  seen it done plenty of times, but I won’t do it.

There’s not much to do in the way of social activities living in the country. Normally the Young Farmers Club will find something to do like car rallies and barbe­cues, and going to the beach in summer, but we go up to Whangarei for the pictures quite often, ten-pin bowling, hot pools down at Waiwera.

We’re going to give Auckland a go-over when we go down there. One day.

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