Grandma’s Gully

Ian Johnstone is a familiar name in the New Zealand television landscape. Since the early 60s, his work as a reporter, presenter, and producer has allowed him to document many key events from the first four decades of local television. Also an accomplished writer, his book Stand and Deliver was published in 1998. Ian was born in England in 1935, moving to New Zealand in 1961Here he shares a touching ode to his wife Marjorie and her hard work restoring bushland near their home.

Marjorie in her beloved gully

Our grandchildren are very keen on Grandma Marjorie, who hits birthdays with a few dollars and a cheery message, cooks excellent sausage rolls and chocolate biscuits, and readily swaps Instagrams about sport, school, friends, and adventures – all typical grandparent stuff. But there’s another side to her, probably a bit of a mystery to her mokopuna. The folk who know about it are those who use the footpath from our Newtown street down to Crawford Road then on to Kilbirnie. It takes them through an acre or so of scruffy bush with some ungainly gum trees, rotting trunks, and branches, evil-looking oleander, rubbish tossed in by passers-by, plus nasty old man’s beard and onion grass.

But changes are happening to that dismal gully and the path walkers often spot the changemaker, Grandma Marjorie – especially on wet days because she (brought up and waterproofed in Hokitika) loves working in the rain, and takes every chance to satisfy that odd enthusiasm. Every time (and there’ve been several recently) the nice woman on RNZ National says “Te Whanganui a Tara Wellington, gusty northerlies, a high of 14, showers then rain” Marjorie heads down to her garden shed,  pulls on her mud-stained blue strides, waterproof boots and hat, and the old red parka with secateurs sticking out of the torn pocket, grabs her beloved mattock/grubber and heads off to the pathway. Then she slip-slides into the undergrowth to the spot she’s chosen for the flax, rata, cabbage tree, kahikatea, totara, rimu (big cheers when one of those was proudly staked in place on her 80th birthday !) to replace the spindly half rotted tawdry plants now lying there looking ugly. What a difference her hours of careful weeding, hole digging, staking and planting have made. Where once was a tanglement of weeds, decaying trunks and branches, the passers-by now see all sorts of thrusting stripling greenery that looks really glad to be there. A few may not prosper and have to be shifted later, but generally, her seedlings and cuttings push their way upwards, keen to make the most of the chance Marjorie and Mother Nature have given them to flourish in the gully.

Now clever and hard-working though she is, Marjorie occasionally needs a bit of help, and that’s readily offered by good neighbours with a spade, slasher or chainsaw. I hope to introduce them in a later edition, but right now I must tell you about one of the women who support Marjorie in her mission. Julia is another grandma, and a botanist, gardener, photographer, walker, bush and people lover. Frequently on the phone discussing what to plant and where and when, she is also an invaluable plant and poison provider, frequently arriving with the boot of her car packed with seedlings just bursting for the chance to grace the gully. And every so often, Julia drops a wrapped parcel into Marjorie’s wheelbarrow “There you go, that’ll knock back the menace.” And soon another stretch of old man’s beard succumbs to Julia’s poison, making way for another step in turning a neglected wilderness into a green, calm, graceful grove which will delight future generations just as creating and nurturing it pleases Marjorie now. She loves it, of course, when her grandchildren cheer when she delivers a basketful of rolls and biscuits – but just think how pleased they’ll be in 40 or 50 years’ time when they stroll through the green-topped grove which – with luck –  the gully will be by then, perhaps even asking THEIR grandchildren “How do you think all these trees got here ?  That’s right…….they were planted by your great great grandma”.

Ian Johnstone


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