Miller Creek (2004)
sketches by Joel Bolton
On the Buller Coal Plateaux mining, both underground and open cast, has disturbed large upland territories, and has released into the waterways chemicals and minerals which would otherwise stay locked in the rock.
Most of the creeks and larger rivers that have the Plateaux for catchment, are badly damaged by these poisons, some to the point of being unable to hold any life.
Given time, and good management, some of these creeks are able to self-heal to some degree. This is the story of one of these waterways, Miller Creek, which flows from out of the Old Dip mine, through Millerton, at the Plateaux’s northern edge.
Millerton, Buller. 2004.
Road and River
We drive on by
and don’t stop to consider
does the road cross over
or does the water flow under?
The one sees ahead
the other looks up.
Both have courses
and both have flow,
and each has a glimpse
and thinks nothing of
The road does a work
of passage and supply,
the creek has the job
of drainage to do,
and has served
has made a bed of its own,
a source and a mouth.
It shouldn’t need again
to be made or mended;
it’s best left alone
to look after itself;
it will run wild.
When I came to move into my newly-bought house it was an autumn morning.
There was mist, a mild sun behind it, and a drift of slight rain.
Then the day cleared, and quite suddenly the moors were there,
Rising from behind the house in ridge rock and valley
To a red-edged escarpment at the top, and everywhere a luxuriance of growth:
Rata yellow pine and rimu in the valleys, with here and there a patch of beech,
And out on the moors (that many think so barren) a great wealth of species, and always something new.
To the west the sea, and we at the top of the cliff.
To the north a long bright coast, the Tasman Peaks behind it.
There was a sound of water everywhere, and after I had settled in I went to look for the stream,
Which I found at the bottom of the garden, in a gorge that the trees meet over.
On the brink there’s a rough path; it cuts down a cliff to the glen,
In which I now grow ferns, and rare plants from the moors.
The bush is of kamahi and toro, with rata in rocky banks at the water’s edge.
There’s neopanax, totara, filmy ferns and moss.
Deep leaf debris lies in drifts.
Here the river enters in a natural flume, spilling out in a fall,
To flow past relics of an industrial past — dressed stone banks, a fallen bridge, a concrete ruin,
On a smooth sandstone bed.
The strata tilt down to the south, biting the creek to the opposite bank
And leaving me a narrow ledge by which I can go upstream,
Above the pool, to prospect.
There are always birds — tuis, bell-birds, fantails, finches, and kereru;
A kea will fly over now and then, a kiwi snuffle through, a fern-bird shake a bush to tease the dog,
And there are sparrows blackbirds waxeyes.
All these come and go, but from the creek I’m inseparable — I wake to it, sleep and write with it, and worry when it roars,
Though it’s not an unruly water.
The sound of it is through my house, in every shed and garden,
It’s in my soul is part of me we hardly sleep apart.
As some have traffic, others sea, a teacher — children playing,
So this is the manuscript of my life I can’t long live without.
In my mind it’s a brightness, dappled light, sun on wet rock, leaves, clear thought and purpose and a washing away.
By living here I purify.
Should the creek be muddied I’d despair,
Now it’s clean, so clean that if it were still it could not be seen.
A thin moss begins at the water; above that there’s a blue-green grass.
Where there’s ground, coprosmas grow, kamahi pungas and toro.
Here and there a grass-tree weeps but nothing touches the water.
The bush moved here when the mine closed down and the houses were taken away;
Now it’s all getting back to what it was.
Animals stay out of sight — stick-insects wetas worms and snails, transparent slugs and spiders.
I’ve seen a bat in a light at dusk, and there are rats,
No sandflies though because of the stream, for nothing touches the water.
We learn from living things, uncomfortably;
Perhaps that’s why we fell burn and hunt, to evade the lesson,
For in the shape of a leaf, of a scent, the notes of a bird, the flight of a moth
We define ourselves against the rest of the world and that against us,
That we too have shape,
And we make sound, progress, grow conscious.
Not knowing this, we colour the trees with sentiment and are ignorant,
Are helpless too, with no place of our own to grow in.
There are seasonal things in the bush — there are orchids: corybas, greenhoods, and caladenias in crowds.
In the autumn toadstools come — pink yellow green blue and red, some rarely, in dark places.
There’s much of Millerton now hidden in the bush, an invisible city;
As it once was milled and built from the bush, so the trees are now growing to cover its past.
In floods a relic comes washing down the creek: a brick or two, a post of yellow pine, some artefact of iron made for a forgotten end;
And there’s more of the past upstream —
A deserted house with its back to the water,
A hanging rail, a post or two, some sockets in the sandstone bed.
The railway to the Old Dip mine once paralleled the stream, and sometimes crossed it,
And there were other bridges:
To the surgery on the southern bank and Granny Methven’s store,
Then on the north, the Post.
From here on Miller Creek’s untroubled by the town.
There’s the swimming hole, unused in these de-populated times,
And a small bridge for a grassy road that goes to a holiday house,
And to the steps to the ruins.
Its passage through the Basin is swift on a clean bed.
There’s more rimu in the bush on the banks, some lancewoods,
And a manuka bog with sphagnum where the creek runs close to the lake,
A brightly lighted silent space, and still.
It may be a while before you note that the river banks grow little.
At their tops there’s all you might expect, but where the water touches the green
There’s one moss at the water’s edge, one grass, and further in one or two ferns,
But not the usual vibrancy nor elemental joy where earth and water meet.
Nor is there life in the creek, no koura nor eels nor native trout nor any other fish.
This lovely bright water is dead.
Here, at the back of the Basin, Miller Creek becomes an alpine stream;
Its gradient sharply increases, it’s a cataract on the moors.
You imagine yourself in the alps, amongst catastrophe:
Great blocks of rock have slid from the top and split and wait to tumble further.
Some carry turf as vegetable hats.
Through these the creek leaps in such a rapid fall
That wherever you stand at the edge to look it’s lost to sight.
A fair way up this ravine, not much below the topmost fall
Some ratas cover a tunnel
Which is blocked by timber and rock, but a strong stream finds its way out.
It’s a powerful place, overhung by precipice and the failure of human endeavour.
There are some rusted rails about, some sleepers and old iron.
Rail once spanned the gorge to a mine on the other side,
But there has been a great collapse into the creek, raising it and heightening its fall.
With a steady head and careful grip you can clamber the opposite face, by cliff and crack,
Noting the plants on this exposed and broken rock — dracophyllums, snowberries, and ferns in the crevasses.
You can cut back, once at the top, to a point above the fall,
Where the stream flows in a simple bed, its banks tree-edged, tranquil and ready to please.
There are gentians here, celmisias on the flats, white epacris, rushes, and manuka.
At the upper end there’s the gorge again, bush and boulders,
To mark the plateau’s outer edge, the escarpment.
The way in, if you can find it, is a flat run of old rail,
But this faint track soon peters out in scrub slip-scars and shattered cliff.
By then you’re confined by the gorge, and clamber upstream within the available space.
The scrub is still kamahi, with toro quintinia broadleaf beech and coprosma of several sorts.
There are dwarf dracophyllums, and a small manuka that grows as a mat on sand-banks by the stream.
There is gahnia, flax and sphagnum, smashed sleepers and worn rails.
The rocks are immense with chasms between,
The cliffs overhang and look perilous.
But there’s nothing to stop you until the end, at a precipice of coal.
Miller Creek flows quickly out from a tunnel at the foot of this face,
Out from its blackness, down a couple of steps, and into the ravine.
There are sand-drifts burnt stone and mine props.
Above, at the top of the cliff, two arid valleys hang,
Their catchments captured by the mines below.
The angular overhangs overshadow.
Seepages drip in the wind from the tunnel mouth.
There’s a smell of soot, and you think of gas.
Here is human failure, desolate in the wild.
A tunnel once given to coal is now to a stream that it’s taken and killed.
Though as it flows it’s brightened by life, this water itself gives none.
Spring is the longest season. It begins in August with the first touch of growth, the flowering of the coprosmas, and a noticeable warming of the sun, and it lasts until November.
Usually, these four months are long wet dark and cold. It is the wettest time of the year; there can be 500mm or more of rain in any one month, and fog can persist for days. Fine days are fairly frequent, but dark ones much more so.
It is in spring that we have most of our storms, of hail sleet and thunder, in alarming squalls which roar blackly out of the fog and threaten destruction. The house leaks, windows ooze, water lies or runs wherever it can, and mould does well. If you’re disposed to any sort of illness, now’s the time you have it, especially those of a neurotic kind.
Generally in Buller our rain falls at night, but in this season that rule is ignored and it rains whenever it can; There’s no such thing as a dry cloud. October is the climax, the month of wildness, and quite suddenly, at its end, the weather eases, sometimes abruptly into comparative drought. Most usually the unsettled conditions drag on into December, warming and drying appreciably but still decidedly wet, and intent on delivering our annual average of three metres of rain.
Now and then, to everyone’s joy, summer comes early, and November ushers it in from the very first week. Lawns can be mown, firewood dries, the garden can be planted again. You meet people in the street, and news starts to flow.
Through it all the bush has grown. The greenhoods have flowers, and the caladenias, clematis, the scented bush daisy, and the strange tropical-looking Parkinson’s rata. Birds nest, and the lesser animals have somehow survived. The Millerton snail, which has been restless for the last month or two, settles down, stops crossing the road, and isn’t seen for another year. Our world, now we can see it, is just as it should be, and grows on into summer as it has year after year.
Summer never lasts long enough. Down at the coast it does, and by the time it dies people long for cooler weather. Up here it can be relied upon to start by the middle of January, with temperatures over 20deg. four or five times in the season. Now and then it starts at the beginning of November, and this gives us four good months for seasonal work and recreation.
It is a comfortable time of the year, sunny with plenty of good night rains, and the bush grows tremendously, especially the pungas, which get battered about in the winter, and try to make good in this temperate weather.
Rainless spells rarely last for more than three weeks, and true droughts are very rare. Even one fine week is enough to dry the bush and raise a fear of fire, especially from the Burning Mine which is over the hill to the east, whose fire can be blown into the rushes and scrub by a dry wind, and from there spread further.
From late on a fine morning a sea breeze cools the day, and also might raise cloud on the tops with a shower or two, and mist at night. These can come quickly.
The season is used for work on the house — painting, waterproofing, and repairs, and on the grounds. The vegetable garden prospers from January on, being dry enough to work then and more insect-free. Fruit rarely sets on the trees because of the wet spring.
And the birds are about, especially when the rata flowers: the tuis return and sing in the tree-tops when the wind blows, fern-birds come into the town, young weka look for a place to live. Pigeons arrive when the broom flowers, and bell-birds are always with us.
We have the two species of summer rata — the southern and the northern, and at the end of the season the climbing white rata blooms. Around the very beginning of the year, in more open places and under manuka, the glorious blue sun-orchid blooms, and in march the hanging winika , and the easter orchid to add its scent to those others of the bush. Montbretia, belladonna, and the tiger lily bring the summer near its end.
Autumn drifts in imperceptibly, and leaves in the same style. There are bumps in its length; near the beginning there may be spells of still golden days, and there is the odd cold snap, most usual near Easter. Recoveries that follow these are never to the former state of warmth.
March is inclined to be mild and dry, and is fruitful, for the blackberries ripen (both the cutleaf and the common), the toro berries are purple for the pigeons, and the coprosmas are bright orange. At the side of the roads the kaffir lilies flower.
April is more significant: the poplars that have colonised the disappeared roads turn yellow, then slide into gold in May. There is often bitter weather near Easter, with a good deal of rain, and the toadstools appear with the wet—red mostly, but also green yellow and brown. A large edible brown mushroom grows in the grass verges near the poplars. There’s a black toadstool too, and another white and ragged like a carnation.
The first half of May belongs to Autumn, the latter half to Winter, with hail and sleet, and snow in the ranges. In early June there may be a brief recovery, for the ground hasn’t yet got thoroughly chilled, nor the house. The first half of June can be quite benign, but then the cold sets in. As a reminder of past comfort and a hint of the future, the shining rata begins to flower.
In fine weather, Autumn brings its own peace; the sky is distant, horizons have light behind them, and there are scents from the south as night closes in, with a whiff of Antarctica.
It is a directive time of the year, with power, and unless we do as it says—gather in and prepare to close against the hostile months ahead—we will pay for our negligence.
Winter comes slowly. There’s a cold snap at the end of May, when the winter rata flowers; it’s often stormy and with sleet, but the ground’s still warm, and the house. June is quite sunny until half way through, then the season starts to grip, our whole world is saturated, the hard frosts begin.
Or might do so. In some winters the weather is so unsettled there are only the lightest of frosts, and air movement at night from the high plateau to the coast allows freezing in the hollows only.
Now and then, however, this temperate pattern fails, the air stills, clouds evaporate, and the weather doesn’t move for a week or two. Icicles hang on the mossy banks and grow metres long. The frost accumulates until it’s like snow, and the road grows dangerous. In the hollows, where the cold air ponds, the soil freezes so deeply that trees die — rimu and kamahi in particular, but manuka too.
In such conditions it’s hard to run a house; the water stops running and the house is chilled in every part.
Snowfalls are rare, but snow is usually seen in a winter, driving in a southerly from over the hills, or in the hail. It’s often close, and when it comes floats in whisps across the moor, curling in the wind, and lies in thin white patches where it’s open in the bush. Higher on the plateau it quite frequently lies.
July is winter’s depth; the clothes the curtains and everything else in the house is cold and damp. Quite soon, in August, some signs of spring begin to show: birds busy themselves, ground orchids start to shoot, and the pungas unfurl new fronds. It rains all the time, and seems even colder. Strength to endure falters.
Published by Heteropholis Press
Further copies may be obtained from:
P.O. Box 367, Westport, Buller, New Zealand.
© Leicester Kyle, 2004