Raising a bush baby

Polly ponders the joys of raising babes in the bush

Issue #58 December/January 2014

If there’s one thing seemingly guaranteed to send a young adult hurtling towards the bright street lights of an urban landscape, it’s an off-grid upbringing deep in the bush. Certainly that’s been the experience of numerous neighbours who’ve watched their now grown children rush from an intimate relationship with the natural world into a headlong embrace with city living and its accompanying contrivances and comforts.
Judging from her current play, three-year old Vita will be following suit just as soon as she can. Idealism a little dashed by her preferences, James and I watch as she packs her toy car with possessions before clambering on and announcing she’s off down to Auckland to live. Yet, despite metropolitan inclinations, we’re optimistic her bush beginnings will be a magnificent foundation on which to build a free-range life.

Technically speaking, it wasn’t quite the au natural start on the land I’d hoped for her. Romantic notions of birthing Vita beneath our giant kauri were quashed by the chilly season as well as by our midwife. For a while she agreed to deliver the baby in our caravan home but that was before she’d actually inspected the four-and-a half-metre cabin and inquired with a certain politeness where exactly I imagined I’d be performing. Besides, access was also an issue, she declared, a point proven on Vita’s due date when, thanks to unexpected heavy rain overnight, the streams rose over the road and blocked us in.
When a local woman heard we had nowhere to birth she kindly offered her house but, as it happened, Vita’s entrance was heralded by emergency rides in both a helicopter and an ambulance before she arrived in Whangarei Hospital. On the day we were discharged, a nurse came over to help me pack.
“Now you have a nice home to go to, don’t you?” she stated, more than asked. Obviously living in a rumpty caravan, where amenities aren’t activated at the flick of a switch, isn’t everyone’s idea of domestic delight and there were wistful moments when it wasn’t mine either, but despite certain shortcomings I’m glad this is where Vita’s story has begun.
Even now that we’ve graduated into the first room of our mud-brick home, ours is largely an outdoor existence, dictated by natural rhythms and turning seasons. While the small space of our quarters means we’re close by default when indoors, the expanse beyond the doorway fosters a sense of independence as we disperse across the land.
Watching Vita disappear barefoot into the forest on an adventure sometimes makes me wonder if I should be a little more restrictive with her wanderings, but she knows to ford streams only under parental supervision and instead heads uphill, tunnelling through thick bush with our family dog into realms untouched by adults. Emerging unscathed, she’s usually bursting with news of some discovery or an exploit involving her imaginary companion Bumba.
It’s true she doesn’t have daily contact with other children and her birthday parties aren’t attended by hordes but, for now, the natural world is both toy box and teacher and James and I watch with pleasure as her imagination and sense of wonder for nature keep growing.
When we first shifted onto the land, a sister-in-law sparked indignation by referring to our new life as a sort of ongoing picnic. In reality, becoming established off-grid is hard graft. Perhaps one day this workload will help drive Vita’s exodus from the bush but, for now, she participates in domestic chores with a sense of purposeful pride: gathering kindling, loading the wood basket, watering the garden, harvesting and helping with food preparation.
Meanwhile, James and I appreciate why rural families the world over historically produce a DIY labour force of children and, while we’re calling it quits with two, we’re eagerly awaiting the day our newly arrived second baby can totter along with a wheelbarrow.

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NZ Life and Leisure This article first appeared in NZ Life & Leisure Magazine.
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