We feature each fortnight Nicholas Reid's reviews and comments on new and recent books.
“MEET YOU AT THE MAIN DIVIDE” by Justine Ross [with Geoff Ross] (Harper-Collins, hardback $NZ40)
Subtitled “A Family’s Story of Life on Lake Hawea Station”, Meet You at the Main Divide is in many ways an admirable book. Its author (or authors) is/are deeply concerned with climate change, carbon emissions, ways to mitigate these problems, and finding methods of conserving land and restoring the environment while at the same time balancing this with the reality of working in a competitive market. Nowhere does Justine Ross advocate veganism or vegetarianism, given that she and her husband Geoff stock merino sheep and agree to have a lessee who raises cattle on their land. At the same time, Justine Ross’s enthusiastic prose does sometimes stumble into self-praise – but not enough to mar the detailed narrative.
As she tells us in her opening chapters, Justine was raised south of Auckland with a father who built up his own garden by filching indigenous plants from the bush. He was halfway towards being a man of the land. Geoff Ross came from a farming family, and his parents raised deer. Justine and Geoff met in high-school. She admired farming boys, the couple soon bonded and have stayed that way ever since. Geoff’s family expected him to take up farming, but he defied their expectations and went into business. Both Justine and Geoff spent a number of years working in advertising agencies in central Auckland. They made a big splash (and big bickies) by inventing the vodka they called “45 Below”. They were able to market it internationally, ultimately sold it to a European company, and were able to buy properties, including the mansion called Wairangi.
And then their thoughts turned to conservation. They searched the South Island and decided that the Lake Hawea Station, all 6500 hectares of it, in the Main Divide near the great mountains, was what they wanted. Here they could practise what they preached about conservation and regenerating the flora. After much bargaining, and having to pay great sums (partly raised by selling their mansion Wairangi) they acquired the Lake Hawea Station in 2017, and settled there with their two growing sons Finn and Gabe (Gabriel). They did not give up all their Auckland investments – they still had interest on some Auckland restaurants. They researched the history of the station and the work of previous farmers there. They understood that merino sheep had long been important there. They began their plan to reafforest the station by planting kowhai – hoping eventually to plant 10,000 of them. They put fences between the lake and the cattle that were run by the lessee, knowing that bovine excrement was a problem polluting New Zealand’s waterways and lakes. At first they had major problems with the old, decaying house that was in place, but they were able to smarten it up before their new house was built on site. There were also problems with pipes that had to be fixed (for water as well as for sewage). And as in many rural areas, there was the matter of how much they could allow access to their property. With an eye to welcoming tourists, Justine Ross remarks: “Access is a word with enormous currency in tourism, entertainment, hospitality and recreation across the planet. Backcountry access is now as sought after as backstage access. This is heartening – people no longer wish to be insulated from remote experiences… From the comfort of a four-wheel-drive or ATV, you can behold terrain usually the exclusive domain of choppers, trampers or hunters.” p.48 (Chapter 5) There were some problems with poachers working illegally on the property.
To begin with, in settling in, the Ross family got great help from the Department of Conservation. But Justine Ross writes: “As a hiking and hunting family, we all respect DOC and its mandate enormously. The tracks, wardens and huts matter to us. Geoff has even worked on some tracks. As DOC are our neighbour on three sides, we set about meeting the local team and accessing their wealth of knowledge. We wanted to hear about their regional objectives and see what we could collaborate on. They were superb, and the first two years were wonderfully collaborative, constructive and mutually beneficial. Then, like a river run dry, the willingness to collaborate on anything ended and our hearts broke a little for our patch on the Main Divide.” pp.81-82 (Chapter 8)
One struggle came when the Rosses had to work out who had water rights to the streams around Lake Hawea. There was a problem when the lessee’s Hereford cattle came down with tuberculosis and the lessee had to “extinguish his herd”. Often there were problems with farmers who had different views on how farms should be run, and saw the Rosses as interlopers. The Rosses were opposed to the dropping of “1080” on their station, the poison designed to wipe out pests like rabbits. With their concerns about carbon emissions and biodiversity, they engaged a mentor to give them advice, Professor David Norton.
Merino sheep, however, became their greatest care. Relatively early in Meet You at the Main Divide, Justine Ross describes vividly the nature of the woolshed they had: “It’s the smell that people comment on first when they enter our woolshed. Ancient floorboards, lanolin, ammonia, shit and decay. It is a whiff of nostalgia. Over a hundred years old, the shed is the subject of artist impressions and paintings, its exterior steps leading up to big doors on one side with a wobbly chain as a barrier. Here trucks dock and 200-kilogram bales are loaded from the shed to begin their journey from us, the source, out into the world.” p. 62 (Chapter 6). Later though, in Chapters 11 and 12, the two most informative chapters in the book, she gives a full account of how they handled the merinos. They cleaned, updated and partly rebuilt the old decaying woolshed. They learned to understand how valuers worked when they assessed the worth of fleece. Valuers were sometimes tricky in their negotiations. They discovered that their flock was infested with lice and some were tormented by foot-rot. It took them three years to reduce foot-rot to only 10% of the flock. After many interviews, they hired a shepherd and a farm manager. Drawing on her understanding of advertising, Justine Ross insisted that their flock be marketed under its own special logo, which is LHS, often accompanied with a statement such as “Merino”. Later (Chapter 18) she speaks of taking a more humane way of handling sheep – such as rewarding shearers not for their speed in shearing a flock, but for their care in not cutting or otherwise injuring sheep.
Elsewhere (Chapter 13) there is an odd passage in which she says she doesn’t like the inhumane ways of dealing with cattle when they are about to be slaughtered. Indeed she visits a slaughter-house and is appalled by what she sees. But then she adds “Once, Geoff asked me what, if anything, I liked about farming. ‘I don’t like farming,’ I said. ‘I like eating’. Farmers are farming food – meat and crops. I believe all farming families should follow their stock to the slaughter. It’s not an easy thing to do, but it’s honest. In taking responsibility for food and fibre production beyond the gate, a farmer is respecting his or her own work.” p.170 (Chapter 13)
Justine and Geoff go to England and Europe, marketing their brand of wool with great success. They also embrace tourism, welcoming guests to the station. By 2023, Conde Nast lists the Lake Hawea Station as the only great retreat in New Zealand. Even more important to them, though, is to be registered as “carbon positive” – that is, to produce as little carbon output as possible and to nurture as many carbon-suppressing plants and trees as possible. They adopt the “regen” (regenerative) system to revive pastures by the use of a diversity of seeds. They regenerate forests by planting 21,000 indigenous trees. In due course, Lake Hawea Station becomes the first certified “carbon positive” farm in either Australia or New Zealand. Justine is so wedded to this status, that she gets annoyed when her husband is about to do some chemical spraying (of glyphosate) on one of their fields. She acquiesces only when she is assured that the spray is a watered-down version.
In telling their story this way, I have not mentioned the many detailed anecdotes about her family that Justine Ross relates, especially those concerning her two sons Finn and Gabe. Both have followed their parents’ example and become conservationists and ecologically-aware activists in the matter of climate change. Nor have I logged the illustrious people who have visited, or been met by, Justine and Geoff. I do note that the Rosses are wealthy (in New Zealand terms), but I do not see this as a negative. Justine herself does suggest that some nearby farmers were envious and regarded the Rosses as rich and easy-living townies. As Justine tells it, their five-or-six years has been a struggle, but also a triumph. And this, I dare to say, is where some of the self-praise creeps in. As told by her, she and her husband were always on the right side of any dispute.
Then there is the matter of (as she writes it) unpleasant neighbours. She speaks disparagingly about what she calls “heritage” farmers who still try to farm in old-fashioned ways. There is hostility and suspicion from the locals when the Rosses try to engage with them in the local hall “The four of us arrived and immediately felt like the defendants in a landbank robbery. The curious, the well-wishers and the protagonists shuffled about, but not many people fronted up, so we spoke briefly about our family and our hopes for the property… It was a funny vibe and possibly a waste of time. ‘The gathering wasn’t very useful, but we tried,’ Geoff says. ‘Not many people turned up’… There were also the people who wanted to keep shooting rabbits on [their newly acquired property]. And there was no representation from any of the community groups (many of whom are self-appointed) that have subsequently asked us for money every year, without once paying us a visit or offering support. Gossips will gossip and no matter how many trees we plant or what improvement we make, no matter how much access we provide or how many charities we support, it will never ever be enough for some who are just anti-change, bad-mannered or both.” pp. 89-90 (Chapter 8)
Sweepingly she states :“There were proper tribes here once – Waitaha, Kati Mamoe, Ngai Tahu – and they fought, of course. These days there are other local ‘tribes’, too, and it took us a while to figure them all out. There were the retirees who were very good at joining committees, blocking progress and minding other people’s business. There were the hippy commune dwellers sifting on he outskirts who seemed super chill… unless they were trolling on Facebook. The hippies, like the landowners, seemed to have intergenerational connections, I suspect, because the area is just too cool to ever leave. Actual do-gooders were around too, and we were in awe of their dedication to bettering the region… By the time we were five years deep, it was clear civil discourse, petty disputes and even spiteful quarrelling were and always had been prevalent – more so than we had ever encountered in the city.” p.103 (Chapter 9)
Most outrageous in when television’s “Country Calendar” does a favourable account of the Rosses’ enterprise… and on Facebook there comes a tidal-wave of abuse from [largely anonymous] locals insulting them. “Country Calendar” is deeply apologetic for this.
Meet You at the
Main Divide is interesting in many
levels, but it is not without contention.
Pedantic Footnote: Here I am annoying everybody with my pedantry, but I am calling out the misuse of one of Shakespeare’s most misquoted and most misunderstood phrases. On p.91 (Chapter 8) of Meet You at the Main Divide, Justine Ross writes “In Troilus and Cressida, Shakespeare wrote, ‘One touch of nature makes the whole world kin’, but that certainly wasn’t the case for us.” She clearly thinks that this phrase means we all gather together harmoniously if only we follow nature. We’ll all be buddies and friends. This is not at all what the phrase means. In Troilus and Cressida, in Act Three, Ulysses says
One touch of nature makes the whole world
That all with one consent praise new-born gauds
Though they are made and moulded of things past,
And give to dust that is a little gilt
More laud than gilt o’er-dusted.
“Nature” here means “flawed human nature” So the meaning of “one touch of nature makes the whole world kin” is that one small characteristic is common to everyone in the world: they like flashy novelties and disdain worthy antiquities, although the former are often merely reworkings of the latter. Ulysses means that we are not bonded in fellowly love. Quite the contrary.