The Farm at Black Hills by Beverley Forrester.
Auckland: Penguin Random House NZ Imprint (2015).
Reviewed by Jessie Neilson.
Beverley Forrester was a widow by the age of forty six and thus, as a country woman and farmer in rural north Canterbury, she practised versatility as shepherd, cattle woman, cook, amateur mechanic, amongst many other roles. The home that calls to her is the district of Hurunui, an area renowned for successful breeds of sheep, especially Corriedales. Her particular home is Black Hills, named for the phenomena of light and landscape. According to Forrester, when the daylight begins to fade, the hills change from the dun colour of the tussock to a deep black, despite the land still being in broad sunlight.
Rural Women New Zealand approached Forrester to tell her story of taking her wool to the world, which stretches back through her own family and that of her marriages to five or six generations of hardy settlers farming the land. She wrote in collaboration with John McCrystal, who was responsible for most of the historical research. Her story continually reflects on her place in the wider historical setting. In her words: “it’s a whole tangle of stories that are twisted around and through one another, like the Hurunui River with its many streams in its braided bed…the best way is to tell it like it is, back and forth across it like the shuttle across a loom”.
Black Hills wool is now a successful enterprise, springing from deep within farming land, as Hurunui was once the largest sheep run within the country. She leads a team which produces knitwear for national and international ventures including fashion shows under her brand name, Beverley Riverina. She is proud to export her garments, especially as she aims to farm ethically, with natural fibres, growing wool on free-range and chemical-free sheep. Like the landscape in which they graze, her ewes are a “kaleidoscope of earth tones”. The effort to produce a single piece of knitwear cannot be underestimated and highlights its integrity, for it can take forty hours to spin enough for a garment, followed by that again for the actual production. She presented a jersey for Princess Anne which had taken forty two hours in total, so no small feat.
In the broader context we read of the two main developments that changed New Zealand agriculture. One was genetic, where strong breeds such as Romney Marsh rams were mated with Merino ewes. The other was technological, as exporting meat involved the problem of distance, until 1882’s breakthrough refrigeration experiment, which opened the way for mass export.
We learn of the “swagmen” interminably wandering the landscape in the “Long Depression” of the late 1800s; governmental measures to combat problems, for instance the vividly-named Scab Ordinance Act of 1849; and of bands of small farmers nicknamed “cockatoos” for the way they flocked together.
Ongoing trials are outlined: rabbits and nassella tussock appear the bane of farming life; as well as the almost-inevitable isolation of such a lifestyle. Forrester points to the huge importance of local events such as ewe fairs, A and P shows, and the Hurunui Races which join the community. As she states, in rural New Zealand, all important decisions are made whilst leaning over the rail of a sale yard.
The tone of these memoirs is colloquial, perhaps sometimes overly so, for there are personal details of little relevance to the overall picture. However, historical research has been blended well with Forrester’s private story, and her accomplishments are well worth documenting and to be applauded.
Jessie Neilson studied English at Otago and also holds qualifications in the areas of second language teaching and library and information studies. She has taught international students here and abroad. Jessie is a regular reviewer for the Otago Daily Times and works in the University of Otago Central Library. She has broad interests in matters literary.
First published takahe 87