The Hurunui, born in a nest of shale…

I have just finished reading The Water Thieves by Sam Mahon. Sam Mahon is an artist who lives in renovated flour mill in Waikari, North Canterbury. He was recently in the news for his bust of Environment Minister Nick Smith, made entirely of cow dung. The bust was created as part of a campaign to stop the Hurunui River from being dammed for irrigation.

The Hurunui River originates in the eastern flanks of the Southern Alps, flowing through northern Canterbury to the Pacific Ocean [click here to view map – the balloon shows the general location of the source]. Its waters are much contested – by those who want to use it irrigate the dry Canterbury Plains for farming and horticulture, and by others, such as Sam Mahon, who want to maintain the river for its ecological, landscape and recreational values. In 2006, an application for a Water Conservation Order – the highest form of protection for a water body – was made for the Hurunui River. A final decision on this application is yet to be made [see The history of WCOs – the national parks of our rivers].

The Water Thieves is a very personal narrative of Mahon’s interaction – through countless tramping and other adventures – with the Hurunui and the surrounding Canterbury uplands and plains, and how his passion for the river led him to become involved in a campaign to get more conservation-minded candidates on to the Environment Canterbury Regional Council.

Reading the book, I was struck by Mahon’s passion and humour, but perhaps most importantly by his moral integrity – he is clearly a man for whom a spade is a spade – even if it loses him a few “friends” along the way. But some of the most striking passages were the poignantly lyrical ones which described the environment he obviously so dearly loves. The following passage describes the formation of the Hurunui River and what Mahon sees as its violation through irrigation schemes for farming (pp. 65-6):

The Hurunui River is born in a nest of shale, wrung from the dripping grey beards of mountain beech and scraped from the hulls of tattered galleons as they drag across the Southern Alps. It falls from rock to rock, finding its blind way under wrecked canopy of wind-blunted beech. It settles and spreads, a bird on its back, a fish in its throat, and slips beneath the quilt of a glacial lake to mingle with itself, a million years old. It is original, this river, a pure remnant of what was always here, what shifted and flowed and formed the farmland that now surrounds it. And when the plains were set on fire, it was the one thing that survived entire; like all rivers it is hard to burn.

It flows, an unquenchable vein, through long straight rapids, quiet pools and broken gullies. It ambles across shingle flats freckled with wings, slips through the silent gorge, green and heavy, its slumbering, silver skin pricked by swallows. Then waking, mature, roaring, sheeted, torn and flecked, it surges and hefts its bed into new patterns with every new season, dividing the thousand-acre forest to the north from sundry clumps of wild willow to the south …

…One day the grey and yellow summer grass was torn apart by diesel-fired machines. The drowsy hares woke from their bouldered slumber and loped away. The earth turned and river stones were lifted out as fruit stripped from a tree, and these winnowings they shovelled tonne by tonne into the empty riverbed, I suppose for the sake of tidiness.

Pits were dug, the pumps went in and soon they spread, steel arms of pivot irrigators stood against the sky and now the peace has gone and diesel oil stains the stones…

Source: The Water Thieves (2006), by Sam Mahon.

Photo: A mountainbiker crossing the Hurunui River upstream of Lake Sumner (Alan Liefting).

See also: A short history of regional government in NZ; The history of regional government – part 2: are we entering a new era?; The history of WCOs – the national parks of our rivers.

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