Guthrie-Smith in New Zealand 1885
Who am I? What am I doing here
alone with 3000 sheep? I'm
turning their bones into grass. Later
I'll turn grass back into sheep.
I buy only the old and the lame.
They eat anything--bush, bracken, gorse.
Dead, they melt into one green fleece.
Who am I? I know the Lord's my shepherd
as I am theirs--but this
is the nineteenth century; Darwin
is God's First Mate. I must keep
my own log, full of facts if not love.
I own 10,000 acres and one dark lake.
On the seventh day those jaws don't stop.
Who am I? I am the one sheep
that must not get lost. So
I name names--rocks, flowers, fish:
knowing this place I learn to know myself.
I survive. The land becomes
my meat and tallow. I light my own lamps.
I hold back the dark with the blood of my lambs.
In 'Beginnings' Peter Bland revisits the life of an important colonial figure, W. H. Guthrie-Smith (1862-1940), who settled in New Zealand as a young man and leased a massive sheep-station called Tutira in the Hawkes Bay region. In 1921 Guthrie-Smith published Tutira--the story of a New Zealand sheep station, which went on to become a classic of New Zealand literature. Bland uses the figure of Guthrie-Smith to make some wry remarks about the changing face of 19th century New Zealand with its new covenant of Christianity, enlightened thinking, taxonomy and sheep-farming. (For much of the 20th century, the nation boasted about having ten sheep for every human inhabitant.).
Peter Bland was born in North Yorkshire, England, in 1934. Arriving in Wellington, aged 20, he studied at Victoria University; during the 1950s and 60s he was a key figure, with James K. Baxter, Alistair Campbell and Louis Johnson, in the Wellington Group. Since the 1970s, he has oscillated between Northern and Southern Hemispheres--and is presently based in Auckland. Not surprisingly, given the geographical shifts of his adult life, he continues to cast an incisive writerly eye over such matters as immigration, the expatriate condition and cultural identity, all handled with his characteristic wit, fellow feeling and tenderness (the latter quality is also much in evidence in his many poems about family). 'Beginnings' was included in Bland's Selected Poems (Carcanet, UK, 1998) and also appeared in his Collected Poems (Steele Roberts, NZ, 2012); his two most recent collections of poetry are Breath Dances (2013) and Hunting Elephants (2014). Peter Bland is also well known as a theatre and film actor in both New Zealand and England.