Reaching for the Moon
From Tokyo to a Martinborough olive groveNIKKI MACDONALD
It's been a rough couple of weeks down at the olive farm. The paddocks are steeped in blood and spilt memories. And the big-city boy from Michigan, via Tokyo, has morphed into a Skellerup-stomping Kiwi farmer parading his kill - the mother of all ferrets that exterminated his favourite chicken.
Well, almost. Real farmers, of course, don't have favourite chickens. And they eat the animals they raise. Despite trading GQ for New Zealand Lifestyle Block magazine, and Tokyo nightlife for evenings rubbing vaseline into chicken legs to prevent scaly mite, Jared Gulian and partner C J haven't quite mastered that farming fundamental after six years on their Martinborough olive grove.
"That would be a milestone, if we ever get there," admits Gulian, a 45-year-old public servant who has drawn on his popular Moon Over Martinborough blog about life with 500 olive trees and countless farmyard characters to write a book of the same name. "In theory, I like the idea of raising your own food. You know it has had a good life, you know what it has eaten, how it has been cared for. In practice, it takes a real disconnect that so far I have been incapable of. They each have individual personalities."
There's impotent rooster Old Man Henry, Old Lady Lucy the kunekune pig and her punk-rocker toy-boy Kowhai. There's Evil Cow and Jack the baby lamb, Sweetie the chicken-feed-obsessed sheep and Francoise the underdog hen who lays blue eggs.
It's those personalities, described with Gulian's comic touch, that help make Moon Over Martinborough a delightful journey of discovery. It invites readers to see anew the most banal of Kiwi experiences, and farm life, through the wide eyes of a self-deprecating urbanite who takes on an olive grove despite having never tended a vege patch.
Nothing sums up the comedy of their situation quite so well as Sunshine the Tractor, parked up in the hay shed beyond the chicken palace (think garden shed plus double-garage-sized run). When the property's previous owner offered to sell them the little tractor, they pooh-poohed the idea, and the neighbours bought it instead. That, says Gulian, was their first, possibly worst, farming mistake, rectified only last year when they bought it back off the neighbours when they moved.
"I realised that if our neighbours were going to have a problem with us, it wasn't because we were gay," Gulian writes. "It was because we didn't have a tractor." That, together with producing store-bought biscuits for morning tea, and buying in wood. Yes, admits Gulian sheepishly, that is bought-in macrocarpa awaiting stacking.
As in any good epic, with comedy comes tragedy. The first blood spilt in the traumatic past few weeks was that of Blossom the neighbours' cow, who features in the book and who Gulian adopted when the neighbours moved north. Gulian looks sadly at the salvaged horns lying on the deck ready for when Aussie Bronwyn and John come to reclaim them to be ground up for their biodynamic farm. Old body, young soul, he says. He found her dragging her back legs behind her, unable to stand. The vet put a bolt in her head then slit her throat.
"I sat with her, witnessing this creature leave the world. Because I felt like this is part of it. Whenever you have livestock you have dead stock."
And then there was Francoise, who disappeared while Gulian was in Bahrain for work. When C J broke the bad news on his return, he traipsed out with a flashlight (some Americanisms endure) to chicken palace. All that was left of his beloved Francoise was a pile of bones. With her tufty head feathers, he reasons, she would never have seen her killer coming.
"It feels like the end of an era," Gulian laments. "She was the one who gave us our first egg. The one that got the [complicated silver monster] feeder to work ... She was very dear to my heart."
The marauding ferret did save them from another looming farming fail. The last time they tried to raise food, the pair charted pig ovulation cycles, before deciding they couldn't eat the babies of their pet kunekune. So when C J decided they should farm frankenchickens for meat, Gulian was skeptical. When four of the five frankenchickens were wiped out by the ferret, C J cradled the traumatised sole survivor, promising to look after it, before giving it back to the breeder.
It's also the end of an era for Gulian, who is finally the published writer he has spent his life, and thousands of hours of early-morning scribbling, aspiring to be.
The son of a computer programmer and medical secretary, Gulian's childhood was about as far-removed as imaginable from a peaceful olive grove in rural Martinborough. He grew up among strip malls in the suburbs of Detroit.
He thrived on a diet of books - The Velveteen Rabbit, The Phantom Toll Booth, Robert Louis Stevenson's A Child's Garden of Verses - and was allowed out of bed after lights-out only to write poetry.
There followed creative writing courses, progression to short fiction, and the beginnings of an engineering degree. He switched instead to English literature when he remembered that he's terrible with numbers.
Gulian had always wanted to live overseas so, once he finished his undergraduate degree, he signed up for the Peace Corps and shipped off to Congo (then Zaire). "I was only there for three months. I freaked out, quit and went back to the States."
He sees, now, that going straight from living with your parents to Third World Africa was maybe a step too big. Something akin to buying a property in Martinborough when you're terrified of driving the Rimutaka Hill.
But it became this "thing I didn't do", so after meeting C J and finishing his masters in English at the University of Chicago and Illinois in Chicago, he suggested moving to Japan.
Warm, friendly but publicity-shy C J was about as keen on that idea as the idea of appearing in Gulian's book. But he did both, which is why the pair have been together 19 years.
Gulian joined the JET scheme teaching English in northern Japan, but moved to Tokyo so C J could find work. Ironically, says Gulian, C J got a job he loved, helping multinational companies set up office spaces. "I couldn't get him to leave."
Gulian didn't want to settle in a country where you would always be regarded a foreigner. So they moved to Wellington, on the strength of Kiwis they'd met and Americans who had travelled here.
"What was so weird for me, going from living in Tokyo to living in Wellington, was that I would meet people and the next day I would see them on the street. That was really jarring. In Tokyo you'd never see people you'd know on the street."
As if that contrast wasn't great enough (they joke that you could fit the entire population of New Zealand on Tokyo's Yamanote line), they then moved over the hill to Martinborough, population 1326.
That was November 2006. To see how far they've come, you can read Moon Over Martinborough, which charts their progress, the trials and tribulations, the smallest triumphs.
Or you can wander past the garden, where they've planted grapefruit and feijoa trees, native grasses and ferns, grab three granny smiths from the bin to feed the kunekune, and carry on through the olive grove that was neglected and -high in grass when they bought it. Now the trees are heavy with their oil-rich harvest and the grove is now almost -sufficient, with their olive oil stocked by Moore Wilson's.
Moon was Gulian's third book attempt. The first - a terribly serious vaguely autobiographical novel with literary pretensions - he wrote in Japan over seven years. "When I started out I gave myself permission to write a bad novel. And then I went about doing exactly that," Gulian says, laughing.
The second was a comic novel about a gay drag queen. Too niche, publishers said in their rejection letters. The idea of writing about the place where he lived came from American writer Curtis Sittenfeld, who he invited out for lunch while attending her creative writing course at Victoria University.
He started with the blog, with the aim of turning it into a book. What he didn't bank on was the amazing reservoir of instant feedback that his blog readers would provide. He realised he got the best response when he made people laugh.
"Nobody laughed at all at my first novel, it was so serious. I was trying so hard to be literary. I was astounded that anybody would find anything I wrote funny. I learnt it was OK to have fun when writing something you love."
And so long as it continues to be fun, Gulian will continue to rise daily at 4.30am to write, before heading off to his day job in Wellington looking at how government departments can better deliver information online.
And at weekends, he will drive over the terrifying Rimutaka Hill to be an olive farmer. Just so long as the olives don't develop names and personalities.
Moon over Martinborough by Jared Gulian, Random House, $39.99
- The Dominion Post
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