Earlier today it was hot, really hot. The wind barely moved on the plot of earth where I worked. I rhythmically drove a spade, pitch fork and pick axe into the ground in the scorching heat, salty water seeping over my brow into my eyes. I wrestled with the ground, a mix of topsoil and clay, asking it to open its bounty and food-giving potential to me, stopping to save the lives of the worms as I went, tossing them into the compost bin we had constructed earlier out of scraps of sheet iron, recently felled gum trees and hand-dug holes. Near to me was a strong-jawed man in chaps and wet t-shirt, hacking the sharpened blade of a worn machete at the base of the head-high Wild Ginger. He cleared the tropical nuisance to extend the flat piece of land we were working on. Blisters formed and muscles burned as much from the work as from the heat in the sun. I dug. He swung. We tamed the land; readying it for its first garden. I have pioneer blood – I love this shit!
Now, I rest on a lumpy torn couch situated on a balcony 50 metres directly above the Thames harbour. The house to which the balcony belongs has the ethereal smell of Cyprus, is without power or kitchen, the water runs cold, the carpet is torn, wrinkled and loose. Animal traps, boots and stained clothes accompany me on the balcony to air in the evening breeze. The sun is setting, burning the sky orange and ocean a brilliantly speckled royal blue. The ocean sings its sloshy rhythm on the rocks below, the cicadas scream, and a warm summer wind is in my hair, up my skirt and in my breath, salty and clean. This is just another perfect moment among a billion similar perfect moments. I love New Zealand. I love my heritage. I love being here.
I am a 5th generation kiwi born New Zealander. I want to give a resounding thanks to my ancestors who brought me here, whose blood I share.
Dear Ellen Jane Dillen
You were brought to Nelson in 1840 as a founding settler as a one year old. You and your younger brothers grew up as the very first European kiwi kids, where having mud on your shoes, sand in your belly button, healthy lungs and strong bones was ‘normal’, unlike your poor cousins back in England where childhood death from disease remained their ‘normal’.
In Picton you helped your mum run a male boarding house for early settlers, and later travelled the country in what I can only imagine as trying conditions as a lone woman. You even worked for George Grey’s, the Governor General’s, wife as her hand maiden in Auckland. You would have gained insights into the world of what it was to be an early European New Zealander, from the optimistic young men come to mine gold, to the railway gangers, to the policy makers and their political concerns of the time.
Surviving as an attractive lone woman in a world both beautiful and harsh, and male dominated you had to be independent, strong and resilient. Thus, with woman like you in our genetic heritage it is no wonder that New Zealand woman were the first woman in the world to gain a political vote.
You died 91 years before my birth but I know your stories, passed on down to me from the independent woman before me. I have always felt a deep connection to you, and want to thank you in particular, as my life came at your cost. My life brought you death, along with the birth of your only child, my great grandmother.
Thank you for your legacy. Thank you for my life. Thank you for my heritage. Thank you.