I have been painting the gable end of our house. It’s not a very large area to paint. When the man who hired me the belt sander asked how large the area was I guessed it was four square metres. Actually it might be less than this, but it’s a gable end which means it is a triangle-shaped area and putting triangles into square metres was never something my brain could do.
To get up to the gable end of our house you have to fold the ladder out and lean it against the wall of the lean to section at the back of our house. This part of the house contains the bathroom and the kitchen. It has its own sloping roof line. You climb to the top of the ladder, clamber onto the roof of the lean to and then walk across the corrugated iron to the gable end of the main structure. I hate ladders. I hate heights. I also hate deep water. Deep water feels to me like being suspended at a great height. A fear of heights is rational. Unfortunately it makes you behave irrationally. Actions you could perform with complete calm while you are on the ground seem suddenly filled with nervous peril when you are perched on the upper rung of a ladder. Being frightened of ladders has led me to spend quite a lot of time on the roof sitting down psyching myself up and admiring the view.
The view hasn’t changed much in 100 years around here. A couple of weeks ago I found a picture of my suburb with my house in it taken in 1910. Our house was built in 1898. While there are a few things that stand out as being different between 1910 and 2009 the overwhelming impression is that things have mostly stayed the same. Sitting on the roof of my house I can still see the buildings that in 1910 had a painted signboard proclaiming that they were a Swiss Bakery. I can still see the school that is still teaching the children of south Wellington (although in a different building), and I can still see the houses that make up my neighbourhood. Admittedly there aren’t quite as many horse turds on the streets in 2009 as there were in 1910, but you can’t have everything.
I had to go through a few layers of paint when I was sanding. Our house has been painted white, yellow and red in the past. Underneath all of the paint is the warm brown of the original wood. In the past when I have stripped something back to the original wood I have always hesitated before covering it again with paint. Wood is beautiful. Looking closely at the grain is somehow very satisfying. It is like looking into the past. There is always that exhibit in a musuem where they show a cross section of a tree showing the rings and then label different rings with key events in human history. It is sobering. Against all the tumult of human existence is this single line in a tree’s growth representing what? Representing the days of sun and rain, the dumb movement of leaves in gale and breeze.
Our house was built in 1898. What kind of wood was it that I was admiring as I sanded back the paint? Where, I thought, did the wood for this house come from? Where was the tree growing when the axe found it and it fell to the earth to be dragged by bullock to the mill, to be sawn and carted to Wellington? How old was that tree when it was felled? It must have been a reasonable age. Shall we say fifty or sixty years before it was a sapling, shall we say 1840, or 1850 when the seed head pushed though the soil? In 1840 Wellington was a line of tents and raupo huts on the beachline of Petone, and Thorndon Quay. In 1840 the Hutt Valley was swampy, dense bush and there were pa at either end of Petone beach, at Ngauranga, Kaiwharawhara, Pipitea, Kumutoto and Te Aro.
By 1910 an area that had previously been swampy and patched with scrub looked like this. I can see the lean to at the back of our house and the gable end that I am painting now in 2009. In the back garden of 1910 there is a clothes line hung with white sheets flapping and snapping in the wind. My mother when she saw this photo thought it was probably taken on a Monday which was always washing day in the town where she grew up in the 1940s. This is in the day when doing the washing was a job done by hand over a morning. There is a house at the end of our section now, but in 1910 you could climb the back fence and walk down a grassy slope to the shops. The buildings that the shops were in are still there.
Even in a country which my students breezily tell me has no history, how small and ephemeral is a single life. In the blink of an eye the tree that stretched it’s limbs against the salty winds blowing into the Hutt Valley has been cut and trimmed, and nailed together to make a house in a makeshift town that has turned into a city, that has turned into the home of a little girl who is two in 2009, and will be three, and twenty three and sixty soon enough. All this in the country without a past. Who are you and I my brother against the life of a single tree? We had better get on with our living, because sure enough it will soon be over with.