I remember visiting a farm in the Hakataramea Valley during the crisis of the 1980s, when farming subsidies were dropped. The valley had experienced a drought and a Greenie renegade had sold his sheep after the first year because the land needed a breather. He’d  invested the money in the booming share market, then sold his shares just before the 1987 crash and returned to sheep. Smart cookie. He didn’t bother with weed control. Sheep will eat weeds, he told me. He was of the belief that the average Kiwi farmer had a suburban neat-and-tidy outlook. A lot of farming was about having everything looking under control. It’s a continuation of the need-to-conquer-nature attitude of the colonist.

Blackball has a high rainfall and back in the day, the miners dug drainage ditches along each street in order to get rid of excess water.  The network of ditches flows into the creek systems below the plateau and they work remarkably well. Sometimes they need cleaning of debris. Kids love them, for there’ll be crawlies and there’s mud. Occasionally some watercress grows. Backing out of driveways requires some caution and ‘ditch parking’ as it is colloquially referred to, has been known to occur, especially with visitors. Drunks have also had an intimate relationship with a ditch. So there is history and stories attached.

But now, with the approaching Paparoa Great Walk, the Council has decided the ditches are untidy and archaic. Visitors need to be greeted with something more upbeat as they arrive along the main entrance road, something smooth and tidy. Ranginui’s excessive tears need to be hidden. Accordingly, a team of workers have been digging out the ditches and inserting pipes and manholes. Layers of fill and gravel are compacted by diggers, graders, rollers and trucks working in a sort of frenzy to eradicate detail and story. I’m not criticising the work crew, they’re doing their job efficiently and in good heart – it’s the ethos behind this endeavour: to make it neat and tidy, to put things underground and lay the surface with tarseal and concrete, to conquer the earth so that human beings feel untouched and omnipotent.

Luckily, the exercise is expensive, $100,000 or thereabouts and will be reserved for the main road and the tourists. The rest of us will continue to enjoy our ditches and the stories of a bygone era.

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