Witten's Christmas Letter for 1992

Tauwhare Road
New Zealand
October, 1992


Springtime. Well, just about summertime really. The lambs -- Anthony, Anita, Anja, Anna and Apple -- have been gamboling in the paddock for a month or two now. A couple of tiny calves -- Leah and Winnie -- are now cavorting there too. Baby blue herons have at last appeared in the nest in one of our big gum trees out the back. The grass is growing with a vengeance. Vegetables to plant soon. Time to get started on the Christmas letter!

So we made it to New Zealand last December, not without some heartbreaks. It was strange to be packing up for the next phase in our life while our friends were preparing for Christmas at home. Pam and the girls made a quick visit to England and N. Ireland in November to visit grandparents, and then it was full-time work on selling up, packing up, finishing up. And drinking up! -- the last couple of weeks became a frenzy of farewell dinners. We sold our house easily, but actually leaving it was terribly difficult, bound up with so many memories, the only place the children knew as home. It was such a lovely house; we were quite spoiled. We were lucky with the timing though, with the actual transfer taking place just hours before the plane left. Our van went to friends who drove us to the airport in it and took possession of it there! We had no belongings except our bags (though there were plenty of those), and our key rings were empty -- a very strange and unusual feeling which Pam found unspeakably devastating and Ian found overwhelmingly exciting. At the airport dozens of young teenagers had gathered to see Anna off and there were floods of tears all round, farewell songs, and finally we had to tear Anna away to catch our plane. However, she had not yet finished with her good-byes, for she spent every minute of our two-hour layover in Vancouver on the telephone to a friend who had recently moved out there. And thus we took our leave of Canada, sadly.

Pam's brother Graham met us at Auckland. He had brought one of his friends to the airport, for a family of four with luggage for a lifetime is no mean feat to transport. We dumped much of our stuff at his house and took off in a borrowed car for Dargaville, in the "far North." Dargaville is just a few miles from the sea, on the west coast halfway between Auckland and the top. The beach runs for miles and miles; golden sand and creamy surf. We swam in huge breakers -- more like a boisterous fight for survival than a swim. We bodysurfed. Ian caught "gravel-rash" when his face was slammed into the sand by a combination of waves, and the sea ran red ... Cousins Rod and Lorraine, with whom we stayed, own the local motorbike shop and one day we spent racing up and down the beach and sand-dunes on four-wheelers. We tried surf-casting and harvested tuatuas. You go out near low tide and stand in the shallow water, waves swirling about you, and dig with your heels -- described as the "Chubby Checkers" technique in our Christmas letter several years ago. When you feel a shell you get on your knees in the water and dig like a dog, scooping up the tuatuas. We found such a good spot that they were everywhere and we filled basket after basket with shellfish -- only to have the whole lot washed out by an errant wave and scattered again. Still, we left with enough to feed an army, or a shark.

Christmas Day is Witten day in Dargaville, with a huge crowd of the family gathering from all around for an outdoor buffet-cum-picnic. This was our third Christmas there -- the last being 1985 -- and every time we try to catch up on all the changes in the family. As soon as we get the names and relationships straight a new generation seems to come along! Boxing Day was spent picnicking by some nearby lakes and trying to windsurf, singularly unsuccessfully, it turned out -- these kiwi boards don't seem to behave like the others; maybe it's being upside-down that throws you off.

Then, after an all-too-brief sojourn in Dargaville, we left with Graham and his daughter Emily, who had both come to join us there just after Christmas. We visited a beach on the east coast and did some spectacular bodysurfing, this time on boards. When you get a wave right you come roaring in to shore like an express train, right up the sand. After a brief spell in Auckland we drove down to Hamilton, our ultimate destination.

But only for one night! The next day we left to visit some friends in New Plymouth, farther down on the west coast. Not far in distance, but steep and tortuous (though well-paved) roads, with some spectacular scenery of rolling hills, narrow gorges, and rocky coastlines. These are friends who lived just round the corner in Calgary, with several kids including a classmate of Nikki's. New Plymouth is a town with a real feeling of isolation, with an equally long journey to Wellington or Auckland, and even smaller than Hamilton. Its crowning glory is Taranaki (formerly Mount Egmont), New Zealand's Fujiyama, also snow-capped, and it towers over our friends' front door.

After a few days there we returned to Hamilton. Ian contracted (what was later diagnosed as) sinusitis, which was agonizing. We were living in a friend's small house in Hamilton while he was back home in Texas for Christmas (we were also driving his car). Between bouts of sinusitis, Ian began work. Anna got measles, measles, measles -- from head to foot, inside ears, mouth, between toes -- and all the side effects -- super-high temperature, vomiting, sandpaper eyelids -- she was in a terrible state. After much deliberation and searching we bought a van: Toyota, secondhand from Japan, eight seats but only 1500 cc, 0 to 60 in 15 minutes (with a following wind). After much less deliberation we bought a house. We moved into a motel on the same day. Anna was slowly recovering, but now Nikki got sick. Ian had a relapse. Can you imagine? Pam coped wonderfully, but stress levels were high. Finally, on 6 February, exactly a month after we had arrived in Hamilton, we moved into our new home and the nightmare began to subside. We were still camping, though; our furniture did not arrive until the end of March (while Ian was away!).

Let's try to describe our place here. We have two acres, one in the front, one in the back. The front is a huge lawn, dotted with trees of all kinds: weeping willow, a lovely copper beech, several rhododendrons, camellias of all colours. In summer the house is pretty well out of sight from the road. You drive up a long, tarmac drive, slightly overgrown with luxuriant vegetation, your car nosing its way through tropical fronds. The drive leads you to a paved yard with a couple of double garages and ends at a gate to the paddock out back, which is complete with a small stable. The house itself is a bungalow, the original farmhouse for the surrounding area, but extensively modified. One nice feature is a large wooden extension that gives a light and airy room overlooking our swimming-pool. You can sit and look out across the pool and the lawn behind it to the front garden beyond: in summer the road is quite out of sight.

At the back of the house is a garden, a large paddock, a smaller one, and a little orchard. Beside the house is a vegetable plot and greenhouse. In the back garden are the citrus trees: tangelo, orange, lemon, lime, grapefruit, and feijoa (feijoa mousse -- yummy -- can't describe it, you'll just have to come and taste it for yourself). The orchard has peaches and pears, but not in very good condition. We have some walnut trees and in season we pick buckets-full and eat them fresh. The farmer behind us keeps deer, and from our kitchen window you look out past the citrus trees to our sheep, grazing amongst the huge gum trees in the back paddock, and the deer beyond. In the middle distance are some low hills; we're lucky to have uplands in view for it's very flat round here. We sorely miss the beautiful Rockies forming a bony ridge along the horizon.

We bought six sheep with the property -- sitting tenants. One ram and five ewes. They slowly earned their names. Rambo the ram, alias Caesar for his huge bent nose. Crimpy for her curls. Shortly after we moved in one of our ewes was limping and we diagnosed footrot. A quick check revealed that the vet's callout fee is $45 while the butcher's is only $20, so the obvious decision was made. Harsh economic realities! We discovered that butchering is quite sanitary -- he comes with his van; the sheep goes in the back and out the front come parcels ready for the freezer. One morning we rounded up the flock into our little pen and separated out the limping one -- no mean feat, as you'll see. Unfortunately Pam noticed half an hour later that we'd got the wrong ewe -- so out we went again, armed with shoe-polish, the shepherd's vade mecum. We marked the beast so as not to make that mistake again, rounded them all up, and separated out the correct one. Or ... so we thought. After another half hour Pam decided that we must have had the right one first time after all. So ... round them up again, and this time isolate both suspect sheep so that the butcher can choose the one with footrot. When he finally arrived, however, they both seemed all right to him! But he'd come lusting for blood and it seemed unfair to send him away unsatisfied, so one was chosen at random as a sacrifice. That was Tasty, and she adorned our freezer for some months. The other we named Lucky.

Lucky was the first to produce lambs, in mid-August. By then we'd begun to suspect our ram of being all talk and no action, for everyone but us seemed to have lambs long before then and our sheep did not even appear to be expecting. Not that we knew what to look for. So we got in a new ram, Dopey, given to Nikki by a family friend as a belated birthday present. Dopey and Caesar fought it out with terrifying violence and had to be kept separate. Meanwhile the fruits of Caesar's loins began to appear, in the form of five bouncing babies -- two sets of twins and one singleton. But by then it was too late: Caesar could not co-exist with Dopey and had to go. C'est la vie. So just last week he and Lucky met their doom. That still leaves nine; we'll soon have to cull our flock once more.

The birth of the lambs was very exciting. One had to be forcibly dragged out of her mother, who had been labouring too long. Fortunately a neighbour came over to do the actual deed. We have had a great deal of joy from watching the lambs, quivering all over as they feed, tails oscillating furiously (giving new meaning to "two shakes of a lamb's tail"); or leaping around -- vertical takeoff, followed by a furious dash around the field and back to Mum. We now know how to de-tail them painlessly, inject them, check for footrot and flystrike, clip their hoofs, "drench" them (squirting medicine down their throats) to ward off worms, and so on. Pam, in a fit of virtuousness (if not virtuosity), "dagged" our disgusting long-haired Dopey today -- look that one up in your dictionary. We had the sheep shorn in May; yes, we do have three bags full, right out there in the garage. Want any? Last but not least, we can now round them up! This is not as easy as it looks; it's hard to emulate those sheepdogs you see on telly. Our first experience, one hot summer's day just after we moved in, took us an hour or two to muster six sheep in a small paddock, and there were five of us, running and yelling and shouting instructions and ultimately (let's admit it) swearing, including two teenagers (Anna and a friend) in bathing-suits. We certainly broke the peace of that pastoral Sunday afternoon, and had our neighbours discreetly peering round the side of their barns, watching in utter amazement. Since then we have learned a lot, but life frequently feels like the New Zealand cartoon "Footrot Flats." Indeed, we find the cartoon a good source of useful, down-to-earth, farming advice!

Not content with sheep, we've just diversified into cattle. We're hand-rearing two calves, bottle-feeding with milk powder. They're delightful. Anyone who comes near is assured of an absolutely rapturous welcome, and they suck at anything -- hard! In a couple of months they'll be eating grass and we'll have a bit of a problem finding enough to feed all these animals, but we take each day as it comes. Presently we're learning about the dreaded "scours" (diarrhea), how to get calves to eat pills (stick them well down their throat with your finger; Pam got bitten the other day and she had to go for a tetanus shot), mixing cow medicine, and so on.

A final animal story. OK, skip this paragraph if you're absolutely fed up with hearing about animals. One of Pam's more exciting adventures was a close encounter of the first kind with a neighbour's bull who, feeling bored and lonely one afternoon, decided to call on some cows down the road. Having effortlessly waded through our fence he careered around the front lawn in search of the exit. Nikki happened to have friends over for her birthday party and one drew Pam's attention to the visitor: "Mrs. Witten, there's a big black horse in your garden -- look!" (obviously not a country girl). She phoned the owner Jeanette who, it turned out, had just that minute returned from town. "Just make sure he stays on your property until I get changed." "What, me???" Off Pam goes, risking life and limb in neighbourly duty and armed only with a red sweater. But by now the bull is trotting down the road en route for his lady friends and oblivious of anything else -- including traffic. Pam seized this opportunity to practice her I-can-round-up-5- sheep-all-by-myself drill and, amazingly, managed to get him turned around and heading in the right direction. By the time Jeanette appears on the scene with her stock dog, cars are lined up in all directions, drivers watching the show from the safety of their vehicles, and the bull is wandering from side to side of the road with Pam, wobbly-kneed, making encouraging noises behind. Turns out his name is "Lollipop"!

One of the nice things about living in the country is neighbours. From ours we get (in season) tomatoes and green and red peppers, baskets of left-over oranges, and free-range eggs. One neighbour, now about 60, was born in our house! She has lived in three places in her life: our house, the one next door, and, for a few years, the one on the far side of that. We asked the man across the road if he had always lived in this area. "Oh no," he said, "not always." After a pause he explained. "I was brought up nearly two kilometers from here, to the crossing down there and turn right." Not really a local at all! We live just out of a village called Matangi (Maori for "wind"), with a garage, general-store- cum-post-office, butcher, community hall, and two churches. We're less than 10 minutes' drive, or 30 minutes' cycle, from the University, which is on the edge of Hamilton. Another 10 minutes gets you downtown. Hamilton has only recently graduated from being a "hick" town, defined for us recently as one that has the farming supply stores on the main street. It's a small market town with a lot of little businesses but no real industry. It now boasts a newly-opened cinema complex to augment what used to be the town's only cinema. There are a few small theatres. We religiously go to hear the New Zealand Philharmonic Orchestra when they visit town, maybe half a dozen times a year. Ice creams in the interval are traditional here. We're under two hours' drive from Auckland, with all the cultural delights of a city of a million or so, but of course we don't actually seem to go there for many cultural events. You know the way it is.

The girls go to a private school near Cambridge, about 15 minutes drive from home. It's a rather nice, exclusive (or at least expensive!) school with an equal mix of boys and girls and an equal mix of boarding and day pupils. With its red-roofed buildings set in extensive park and farmland overlooking the Cambridge hills, it looks like something out of a movie about the privileged classes in the 19th century. More importantly, we're most impressed with the standard of teaching. Discipline is strict (Anna would say fascist!) and sometimes a bit heavy-handed. Pupils wear uniform, of course (with great excitement on occasional "mufti" days), and high standards of presentation are expected, both personally and in their work. We have been struck by the kindness that the pupils have shown to our girls in helping them make the very considerable adjustment from what they were used to in Canada. We've seen some radical changes in attitude and level of achievement, which is perhaps worth scraping the bottom of the financial barrel for.

Days start early here. The school bus comes right past the end of our driveway (the good news) at 7:35 AM (the bad news). So we're up at the crack of dawn. Once the kids have left, Pam feeds the calves. Ian works at home for a while, in the summer sitting outside reading or working on a laptop computer, and then cycles in to work (in theory, at least in summer) or Pam drives him (in practice). The girls don't get back until 5:45 PM -- we live near the end of the bus route. It's a long day for them. Then they feed the calves, give the sheep some "sheep treats," and it's supper and then homework in the evening.

Ian's university life is quite different from what it was in Calgary. This is a department at a much earlier stage in its development, and makes Ian realize how much the department at Calgary matured during the 11 years we were there. But the main difference is that Ian is not a professor but "the Prof"! People refer to him in terms like "Have you checked with the Prof?" or "What will the Prof think about that?". It's going to take quite a bit of getting used to; indeed, he's not sure he wants to get used to it. And -- oh elevated status! -- he has his own named car parking spot! One primary goal of moving, of course, was to see if he could pry himself free from work a little bit and spend more time doing other things. It has partly worked, though it's not yet been a complete success, and he still brings work home most evenings.

There has been a bit of travel this year, but for Ian only. He was appointed this year's New Zealand computer science "guest lecturer" and therefore got to visit all seven universities in the country and give seminars there. It's a fantastic way of getting a feel for how things stand. Shortly after arriving he had to return to North America for a workshop in Cupertino, near San Francisco, a visit to Calgary, a lightning trip to Toronto, and a conference in Snowbird, a ski resort near Salt Lake City. It was a strange feeling to return to Calgary and be given the key to his office again, to use during the visit! But that's all the international travelling this year. But enough of work: in keeping with the new regime, let's move on to other topics ...

Music was one of the things that we knew was going to be very different in Hamilton. Pam lucked out: one of New Zealand's leading recorder players, previously living in Auckland, took a part-time job at St. Peter's school this year and moved to nearby Cambridge. Pam had actually been at one of his concerts when we visited last year for interview. So she has had lessons from him since not long after we arrived, and though he is an eccentric personality and perhaps not a natural teacher, he is an excellent musician and she is learning lots from him. She also plays with a local recorder group, but the standard is not nearly what she had become used to in Calgary. However, she has recently caught up with a couple of guitar players and is playing some more interesting music there. Things musical are sometimes sufficiently elementary here that Ian can join in recorder playing too -- in fact we both played (with two others) at a medieval feast a week ago, our international musical debut together.

Ian auditioned for the Waikato Symphony Orchestra shortly after we arrived here, and landed a place as deputy second clarinet. (He alternates with another player for the coveted 2nd clarinet spot.) The best thing about the orchestra is its grand-sounding name. Until recently, it has been rather a disappointing musical experience: the music is very "classical," middle of the road, and not very interesting; the conductors have been very poor; and the whole thing has been taken less seriously than he had come to expect at Calgary. (For example, the orchestra apparently had to begin one movement no less than three times at a concert the year before last.) However, the last concert was excellent because a guest conductor came down from Auckland who is principal clarinettist in the Auckland Symphony Orchestra. He was a magnificent conductor, who demanded -- and achieved -- very high standards and paid particular attention to the often neglected clarinet parts. They played a Mendelssohn symphony which was really too difficult for them, and played it well. It was very satisfying. Ian also plays in a clarinet quintet (sometimes sextet) which tackles a wide variety of music, from Bach to Beatles via Sousa and Glenn Miller. It has been going for many years as the Hamilton Clarinet Consort. They can apparently expect garden party engagements in the summer.

We're pretty well out of space in this letter now, which is just as well as not much else has happened. Sailing is one disappointment: Hamilton really is a little far from the sea (about 90 minutes drive to Tauranga, the nearest yachting centre) to make it easy to decide what to do about sailing. We have been for some extremely exciting rides in a Hobie catamaran (two-man, with trapeze; a real flying machine) belonging to some friends. To get it out off the beach you need to go through some heavy surf which can be a nerve-testing adventure of the highest order. Ian and Anna managed to invert it in a brisk offshore breeze, drifting ever further off the east coast of New Zealand. During a cold but energetic 15 minutes trying to right it Anna was (needlessly) terrified of sharks, while Ian was trying to visualize the atlas to determine whether the next stop would be the west coast of New Zealand or Tierra del Fuego.

What's the weather like in winter here? Well, yes, it does rain, and quite a bit. We found that autumn brought clear cold sunny frosty days which reminded us strongly of Alberta; thankfully we have not completely forsaken the world of skies that are blue and cloudless from horizon to horizon. Although the temperature does not show it, it gets cold. Particularly indoors (we have a wood-burning stove and a Calor gas heater). We are learning that New Zealanders heat their beds, not their houses. And wet. August in particular was full of rain; much worse than usual, so they said. But we get some sunny days at all times of year, and our garden is beautiful. The birds, and the flowers, and the feeling of year-round growth, and the outdoor smells, are some considerable compensation for the rain. For example, Ian's office window opens (can you imagine that! -- not a sealed, air-conditioned building) and outside is a tree with real birds, lots of them. And Pam has had at least one vase of garden flowers all the time.

Last year's Christmas letter unveiled two big decisions: to let Scott go, and to move to the antipodes. How do we feel now, a year on? Well, we sure miss Scott. We miss him in various ways and at unexpected times. We still write to him, though we haven't had any letters in return. On his visit to Calgary in March Ian took Scott out for a couple of hours. They walked in a park and went out for a hamburger and talked of the family and old times. Leaving was heart-rending! Scott would love our situation here -- outdoor life always suited him best and Ian does far more here of the kind of activities, like building things roughly out of wood and nails, that Scott relates to. But he wouldn't have survived the upset and mental stress of actually getting here, not to mention losing the complex, interwoven support network we had worked so hard and so long to put in place to cater for his unique needs.

And New Zealand? Well, we're purposely not discussing the future until we have been here for well over a year. Theoretically there is the possibility of returning to Calgary at the end of next year, since Ian applied for, and at the last minute was granted, a two-year leave of absence and so hasn't actually resigned from his job. Practically we're probably committed at least until the girls have finished their school -- another 5 years for Nikki. Anna would return like a shot, and says so regularly and vociferously. Nikki loves New Zealand, loves animals, loves the country life. Anna loves meeting people, shopping in malls, crowds, sophistication, and the pace of city life. Pam and Ian? -- well, their feelings are quite mixed and have nowhere near settled down to a consistent viewpoint, though for Pam having Graham nearby has taken the edge off the feeling of isolation. Who knows what the future will hold. Stay tuned!

Lots of love and Christmas greetings. May peace be with you. When are you coming over?

Pam, Ian, Anna, and Nikki

Will to survive

Nikki C. Witten

"Guess what," Mom cried as I burst into the house "Crimpy had a lamb!"

"What!" I exclaimed, "she wasn't even pregnant" Mom and I raced outside to the sheep paddock and went inside. There, inside the paddock, was Crimpy and at her feet was a small pile of wool.

"It looks sick, maybe we should call the Bennets and ask Diana to have a look." I said looking at the shivering, rabbit-sized bundle.

Soon we were inside and Mom was on the phone.

When Diana, Ann and Richard Bennet arrived, we got Crimpy and the lamb in the race. We turned Crimpy upside down and tried to get the dehydrated lamb to drink. It refused many times and we eventually milked Crimpy and fed the lamb with an eyedropper. We left Crimpy and the lamb in the race and went inside.

When I went out again, the lamb was shivering with cold and Mom and I brought him inside. We made up a box with newspaper and a hot water bottle and put him inside it. We covered him with wool, fed him some more milk and left him alone.

That night we had Kirsten and Craig over for dinner. We told them about the lamb and when we showed him to them, they fell in love with him.

Between dinner and dessert, he got hungry, and, after we fed him, we realized we were short of milk, so out we went in the pitch black of night to milk a sheep with only a flash light.

When we fed him again, he seemed to be struggling to live. We finished feeding him and then had dessert.

After dessert, we decided to leave him and Crimpy in the stable for the night and so out we went again to round up the sheep. When we got Crimpy and him in the stable, we turned Crimpy upside down and tried to get the lamb to drink. We didn't succeed but we left him and Crimpy in the stable for the night.

When we checked on them in the morning, the lamb was drinking.