With deepest winter blasting North from Antarctica. The clouds over the hills look like snow. Heavy like blankets with that odd, internal glow. I watch the distant peaks disappear as the weather storms towards us. Some of the crew are out, waterproofs on. Some of us remain in the van, watching the sky. The first droplets break over the windows before the full shower washes through. Then the chunky white flakes begin to melt on the glass. I’m not getting paid to sit here. In the next easing I pull my gear on and head out. Nobody else follows me. They got up early, came all this way to sit in the van. Those who stayed in the van get the next day off. Though they don’t get told until we get out to the block. “You boys want to pick when you work but these other fellas went out in the rain, so today I pick when you work,” Anial tells them. “Stay in the van. No work for you today.” I plant 6 boxes. Nim tells me I can do 7, I don’t know that I can. “Once I’ve finished, I will help you,” he tells me. Lucan tells me there’s a box for me over the next ridge. I don’t have a choice anymore. I keep going, keep digging. Forest Manager Dave comes by to check how we’re getting on. He follows me for a while, making sure I haven’t picked up any bad habits. He takes a few trees and plants them behind me. For the first time I’ve hit target. I’m not even the last back to the van.
Breath becomes air. A fog emerges from my mouth. The stars twinkle in the black sky above. Barely above freezing. Out on the block the ground has frozen. The shovel breaks through the frost, the soil cracks like ice over a frozen puddle. What was soft is hard. The sun rises above the distant ranges of Te Urewera. What was cold becomes hot. White shadows stretch beneath the tall pines. An empty blue sky shimmers. Gale force winds rise over the exposed hills. The dirt cut up by spades turns to dust. The air becomes thick, fills our eyes, our noses. We are pinned down, pushed back. Digging in, waiting for the next gust to pass through before the next three steps. Another hole, another tree. Josh leads a motivational speech on a wet day where we have to work. I want to work. I don’t want to come out on the weekend. I want two days where I can pretend to have a normal sleep schedule. “Look at it this way bros, the sooner we get out there, the sooner we get home.” Dave and I are keen, following Josh down into the valley. The rain never gets heavy but neither does it stop. Everyone keeps saying “this is my last box” before picking up another one. I don’t want to leave early. I want to hit target again. In my jacket and waterproof trousers I’m warm, and dry. My gloves are saturated. My cap was still damp from the previous day’s late shower. Lucan tells me he’ll stay out if I want to with the caveat, “you might get sick though.” I tell myself, “I’m English. I was born in the rain.” Might have been snow actually. I’m not going to get sick today. Maybe tomorrow when I put damp clothes on again. The jacket Anial gave me on the first day is sleeveless. My shirt has long sleeves. They’re soaked. There is no let up when I get home. Nowhere to dry anything.
The cold of wet clothes doesn’t last long in the dry sun. After a few days of doing my best, I’ve broken through the target. I planted 8 boxes. Going harder has taken its toll. I’m tired by Wednesday. Fatigue sets in. If you put your spade down, stand it up so you can find it later. In the mess of branches, another man-made metal branch disappears immediately. I run out of trees. The next boxes to pick up are down the hillside from where I finish. I head down. I pass one, seeing two more. I might as well bring them all up seeing as how I’m already down. As I approach the second box I realise I don’t have my spade in my hand. I don’t remember putting it down. I don’t remember standing it up. Oh no. Or do I? I’m sure I thought to myself “put it down next to the first box, grab it on the way back.” I’ll see if when I turn around. When I grab boxes two and three I turn around to find I can no longer see box one, or my spade. I can see another, empty fourth box. Did someone come down and grab it? Nobody else is around. Maybe I’ll see my spade on the way back up. Do I definitely remember standing it in the ground next to the first box? Nope. I clamber up, drop the boxes and turn around. No sign of the first box, no sign of the spade. Shit. I circle around the narrow track I followed down. Did I follow this track down? I don’t know. I don’t remember anything. “Chris!” Anial shouts from the top of the hill. “Did you lose your spade?” “yeah,” I shout back, embarrassed. “I can see it, to your right, down the hill.” Then Josh joins in “Come towards me bro” but Josh is up the hill. I don’t know who to trust. I start walking up. “No it’s behind you” shouts Anial. Josh starts laughing. Yeah, fair play. Then I turn around and see the handle. Upright. I did stand it up! I don’t remember doing it. I go back down, pick up my spade, rejoin the line and set my mind to hitting target.
Another morning, another forest. New roads, new turns. We drive through farmland to young pines. Forest Manager Dave is already out. We empty pods, fill three trailers and drive further into the hills. We park on a skid surrounded by old planting. We unload the boxes from the trailers into big white bags. Nim forces them down, squeezing one more in the side. I count them in. One has 28, one 19. There’s seven bags. 168 boxes. Maybe. If I kept count properly. There are no access roads on this next block. Old farmland turned into new forest. A helicopter was hired to drop the bags across the block. We’re already down the hill, deep in the valley, digging up grass when the rotors begin to spin, the white bag swinging beneath.
On the way home Ratu asks me a question. I can’t hear him halfway down the van so I jump to the front row. “Do you cook dinner every day?” “Yes, in the camp kitchen.” He goes on to tell me Forest Manager Dave brought him a couple of pigs from one of his hunting trips. “Do you want some? I can drop it off later.” Never one to turn down free food my response is obviously “yes please.” A couple of pork chops will make for a nice change. An hour later Ratu texts me to meet him out the front. He hands me a carrier bag that gets bigger and bigger the more I have my hands on it. Where I was expecting a dinner’s worth of pork, I’ve got enough to discuss opening a new pork market with Liz Truss. What the hell am I going to do with all this meat? The fridge isn’t safe. I can’t keep it in the van. I don’t even know how I’m going to get sensible portions out of this whole leg of a pig.
I push the meat into a shelf on the communal freezer. I head over to reception to ask them. Ask them what? I don’t know. We talk about my acquisition of too much meat and what to do about it. The owner tells me leaving my leg of pork in the freezer is probably safe. He acknowledges there was a problem with things going missing not so long ago but they think they’ve solved it. I don’t think to ask if he has knows how to butcher a pig, or if he has a decent knife, or a roasting pan. Trusting in his words of security, I have a few days to figure out what to do. First up, I need to defrost the meat, which means moving it from fridge to freezer. Easy. I scour the internet for instructions, realising I don’t actually know whether I’ve got front or rear leg. I hope it doesn’t matter. I buy a roasting pan. I buy a knife sharpener. The defrosted leg fits the roasting pan. Just. No point messing around trying to carve it up. Throw it all in the oven and hope for the best. I push garlic cloves and rosemary in to the meat. I lay the leg over carrots, onions and apples. I leave it in the oven for a long time. When I remove the pan, the bones fall out of the meat. The juices mix with a can of local cider to make a decent gravy. I add roast potatoes and pickled red cabbage and enjoy my first roast dinner in far too long. The last problem is what to do with the rest? A few sandwiches over the weekend. Another serving on Sunday evening. The remainder I cut up as best I can and put in a box and take to work to share with everyone after we finish up on Monday.