The Lizard Man
In times of crisis, there are those who dart about, frantic,
those who bury their head in the
proverbial, and those in your backyard
who do the heavy lifting,
The lizard man observes the Poa cita,
Carex buchananii and tetacea’s new growth,
orange fingers stretched in glee towards
the giving sky, and he nods.
The lizard man slashes boxthorn
and weeds gorse.
The lizard man picks out polystyrene pieces,
bottle tops and foil packets
left over from the specious development
next to the Heathcote river. He places them
in his threatened ‘single-use’ plastic bag
each time he bow-legged walks
the length of the track
he built with a friend.
The lizard man rubs his weather knee.
The lizard man studies Muelehnbeckia astonii,
Coprosma rotundifolia and other complex
berried shrubs on his aging
laptop. The lizard man plans a planting list
for the grass skinks of Canterbury
he carries heavy stones
to build homes.
The poet owns she holds
the lizard man in her hand. For an instant
when she lifts the rock –
for times to come.
The week before lock-down
Pachystegia insignis (Malborough Rock Daisy)
Every day I check the daisy
I planted outside the lounge window
because it’s been so dry
and I planted it in summer
and there’s a good chance
it could die
because its roots aren’t yet established
even though it catches
water droplets really well
in its leathery hands
and this morning
I met my friend
and she said she was the most
she has ever been
as we walked the circumference of Hagley Park
and the soft autumn sunlight
caught the colour of the leaves
and we talked about
how this was nature
having her own way
it felt strange
the streets were quiet
with people staying home
and the sense of something global
shrinking its fold,
the sound of far-off gasping
Poet’s commentary: Leaves open to catch the sun
These two poems, ‘The lizard man’ and ‘The week before Lockdown’, were written for a project I’ve started this year to both honour and draw awareness to the native flora of the places I love and call home, specifically the native shrubs and grasses of Canterbury, including Arthur’s Pass, Banks Peninsula and along the Heathcote River that runs through Christchurch city itself.
Usually we come across these plants in a botanical sense – in a book or website to help us identify the plant or to describe its taxonomy. But I want to reach beyond the guide books and present each flower or shrub through the lens of poetry or story to allow readers to see the flora as I do, as silent and ubiquitous friends, each bringing their own personality and flavour to our community and lives. Raising awareness, an environmental goal, yes, but also a personal goal that comes through writing poetry, an opportunity to learn more about the shrubs I’ve always been drawn to as a tramper and lover of mountains.
I like to write about little things, the voices that might be overlooked or underheard, and I adore the understated beauty, resilience and cleverness of our tiny native flora. Hence: shrubs and small flowers.
And the significance of 2020? After many stressful years bringing up children and seeing them into adulthood in a period that has includedthe Canterbury quakes, the rebuild and the 2019 mosque attacks, a lot of it has been, really, just living in survival mode. I felt as though my family might be finally resurfacing at the beginning of a new decade. I’ve always found solace in the mountains, and I spent a few glorious days over New Year in Arthur’s Pass with friends photographing orchids, mosses, lichen, mountain daisies and the like, and the idea grew as fast as a harebell opening to the moon. I began to write. My community of plants grew, as I took in the reserve my husband managed on the Heathcote River, and spent days walking with him on the Port Hills and Banks Peninsula over summer. As we walked, we too renewed our friendship after so many years with our heads down.
And then Lockdown.
People began noticing the sounds of birds again; families rediscovered the tracks near home, lined with community plantings. How significant and dear to us. How essential for our well-being – this diversity in all things. Diversity. Black Lives Matter. Environment. The Beirut Explosion. All of these as related as roots connected through soil. Climate change threatens everything.
My project seems to have become both more urgent and harder to write. On a personal level, my teaching load has increased two-fold since the beginning of Lockdown, and I’m struggling to find the space in my head. But poetry has an enduring quality, and it urges me forward. I’ll take a leaf out of the hardy Marlborough Rock Daisy’s survival book and keep my leaves open to catch the sun, and the rain, when it comes.
Gail Ingram is author of poetry collection Contents Under Pressure (Pūkeko Publications 2019), and editor of two poetry anthologies. Her work has appeared in Poetry New Zealand, Landfall, Cordite Poetry Review, Manifesto, Fib Review and others. She won Caselberg International Poetry Prize (2019) and NZPS International Poetry Competition (2016). She is an editor and creative writing teacher in her home town Christchurch, Aotearoa. In her spare time, she tags along with Mick to plant a few tussocks with him at the local reserve on the Heathcote River. Her website is here.
In 2018 Mick ‘Lizard Man’ Ingram took his plan to create a lizard sanctuary to the Christchurch City Council, which would be located along the Opawāho Heathcote River track, and adjacent to a Forest and Bird Reserve he also managed. The council agreed. He organised community working bees to plant the first stage with the idea of increasing biodiversity in the area as well as raising awareness of the local lizards and the plants you might use in your own garden to attract lizards. In 2020, he was working on Stage two when the country went into Lockdown. Nevertheless, he ploughed on, mostly by himself, to plant almost all of the 1000 plants he’d organised. Families used the track everyday in Lockdown, waving and smiling at the Lizard Man as they passed.