I went to Christchurch last weekend.
It is very hard to grasp the sheer scale of what has happened in Christchurch when you don’t know the city well to start with and you are gaining most of your information from the mainstream media. That is not a criticism of the media. It is just that the biggest and most spectacular will get covered (such as the demolition of the CBD) or the most extreme (families still living in caravans or garages). In between lie tens of thousands of individual domestic stories of lives changed forever.
I stayed in an old part of the city, immediately beside a red zoned area alongside the Avon River and my evening strolls took me down streets which are to be cleared by July. The water level in the river has risen and these residential areas are deemed too high a risk to repair. It was poignant in the extreme.
Initially there was a slight thrill of mystery and the classic children’s novel “The Secret Garden” by Frances Hodgson Burnett kept coming to mind as I peered at overgrown gateways and glimpses of houses behind rampant foliage. These had been gardens tended down the years until the earthquakes. With no humans in residence any longer, the plants were taking over and there was a sense of wild abandon.
I quelled those sentimental thoughts very quickly. Behind every one of these gates, often hanging crookedly, behind every garden wall or fence – usually broken – lay a personal story of distress, probably of hardship and extreme dislocation. I just didn’t know the individual stories but I was embarrassed by my trite romanticism.
It was unbelievably haunting. Along River Road, maybe one house in ten was still occupied (though not for much longer now). A second house in every ten had already been demolished. The remaining eight were empty. Some were clearly damaged badly, others less so. But as the people move out, the vandals move in. There was graffiti everywhere on top of damage that was not always earthquake related. That edge of lawlessness and sense of only just holding the ugly side of humankind at bay adds to the feelings of tension and dislocation.
I imagine it is like London after the Blitz. There is no quick fix here. It will take 20 years before the new face of Christchurch takes over and entire generations will have been changed forever by the experience of living through the new normality that is life in that city.
So what happens to formerly loved suburban gardens that are abandoned?
Grass grows but rather than long, rank, greenish mix of grasses that we get in wetter climates, this is tinder dry and uniformly brown. The fire hazard is such that some properties with larger lawns have clearly had the grass cut, presumably with line trimmers, as a safety precaution.
Trees and shrubs survive and keep growing and flowering. But without a garden owner trimming them back, they encroach ever further, making passage difficult.
Wisterias were obviously much favoured and will survive no matter what. Unpruned, they are stretching out their tentacles in every direction, taking control. The same is true of ivy.
Hydrangeas and roses, growing ever larger, flower on.
Only the toughest of perennials survive and probably sooner rather than later, the convolvulus will smother everything. That is if the perennial pink climbing pea doesn’t get there first. It was interesting to see gorse and broom moving back in to inner city locations. It is likely that this was the effect of liquefaction bringing long dormant seed to the surface because it must be many decades since these plants were grown in inner city Christchurch.
Formality and garden design disappears very quickly. It made me reflect that the whole notion of formal design is an imposition by humans on the natural landscape. Left to its own devices, nature moves straight back in and blurs all the hard edges before swamping them out altogether. In fact there are few right angles left anywhere in that area. Everything is dislocated and angled off the true and formerly straight lines waver, even on the roads.
The contrived water features just looked sad, tacky and derelict. They were bereft of any water. I guess the watertight seal on most had been broken when the ground heaved so violently and the long dry summers mean there is no accumulation of rain water.
It wasn’t actually depressing, more disconcerting to find a formerly pleasant and staid leafy suburb turned upside down.
To then visit the nearby New Brighton community gardens was like a breath of life with a vibrant community response to a shared crisis. Community gardens are sprouting like Topsy. I was told there are over 30 of them now throughout Christchurch but their story will have to wait for another day.
First published in the Waikato Times and reprinted here with their permission.