Yesterdaze column: James Elliott watches in horror as a treasured NZ institution is trampled, disrespected and misappropriated
Like most New Zealanders I was shocked and dismayed this week at the callous destruction in Wellington of a treasured national icon, the Parliamentary lawn. If there’s one thing the protestors don’t understand – and there isn’t, there are many things the protestors don’t understand – it’s this: if you want to lose the room in New Zealand then trashing a lawn is a surefire way to go about it.
New Zealanders revere grass, especially grass cut into mown strips with neat edging. Grass powers our economy, enables the 4-stroke soundtrack to our Sunday mornings, and has borne the imprint of some of our finest achievements. On January 27, 1962 at Cooks Gardens in Whanganui Peter Snell broke the world record for the mile, running on grass. A week later at Lancaster Park in Christchurch he broke the world records for the 880m and 880 yards, again running on grass. On June 20, 1987 the All Blacks won the inaugural Rugby World Cup at Eden Park, playing on grass. And in June last year we won the inaugural World Test Cricket Championship, albeit playing on someone else’s grass.
The best thing about the original quarter-acre section was that it was three-quarters lawn, freshly cut grass consistently tops the list of our favourite smells, and we happily mow berms even though they don’t belong to us.
We love lawn.
Of course, the parliamentary lawn is no ordinary lawn. It’s the lawn that slopes gently upward in symbolic aspiration from the hubbub of Wellington’s city streets to the steps of our Parliament. It’s the green pasture of promise presaged by Psalm 23:2. It’s hallowed turf – not the most hallowed turf in New Zealand which is of course Eden Park – but it is hallowed turf nonetheless. Or rather it was hallowed turf. Now it’s a hallowed bog, a slippery slope from order to chaos.
First and foremost in my thoughts this week was the welfare of those most affected by the protest, Parliament’s grounds’ keepers. So naturally I reached out to them to find out more about our beloved lawn, and I’m indebted to my Newsroom colleague Jo Moir for her assistance with this pastoral outreach.
Here’s what you need to know. The Parliamentary lawn is sown with perennial ryegrass (Lolium perenne) which should come as no surprise given its noted wear resistance (it’s been the official grass of the All England Lawn Tennis Club in Wimbledon since 2001) and its ability to regenerate. Ryegrass also has a deep root structure enabling it to withstand heat and dry weather better than, say, your bent grass or fescue. The Parliamentary lawn is fertilised with Bio Booster and Rooster Booster (both organic) and is typically mown (Yates.co.nz recommends a 4cm cut) about 65 times a year, including twice a week during the peak growing season.
The only time in living memory when the Parliamentary lawn has suffered trauma equivalent to this week’s trampling and gouging was when it was dug up during World War II to install a bomb shelter. Now it resembles a bomb site. Of course, Sir Russell Coutts is happy to stand in the mud of the lawn that was. He’s a sailor, what does he care about lawns? Even if he does care he’s probably a fan of kikuyu (Cenchrus clandestinus), introduced here from Africa in the 1920’s and the most divisive of all the grasses in New Zealand. You either love kikuyu grass or you hate it. If the Government’s Covid-19 response was a grass it would be kikuyu. And how much do the haters hate? Well, consider this unattributed quote on the Encyclopedia of New Zealand website, believed to be from the 1960s:
“Almost everyone in Northland hates kikuyu – farmers, because it has poor feed value and crowds out better pasture species; orchardists, because it can climb up and partially smother trees; gardeners, because it can invade lawns and gardens.”
So here’s the key thing about kikuyu grass, there’s only one group specifically dedicated to trying to deal with it, the Kikuyu Action Group (more info at www.mpi.govt.nz if you’re interested). You won’t find other groups like ‘Kiwis Against Kikuyu’, or ‘The Patriotic Front For Pasture’, or ‘The Freedom Alliance for Subtropical Grasses’. Moreover the Kikuyu Action Group has consistent and sensible messaging like – “Keeping kikuyu short in the autumn will encourage ryegrass to grow through kikuyu as the soil temperature drops in winter”. You won’t find wayward messaging like “The Nazis Grew Kikuyu”, “Jacinda’s In The Pocket of Big Kikuyu” or “You Can Braid Kikuyu Into A Noose, Just Saying”.
And don’t get me started on paspalum. That’s really going to dilute the messaging.
Have a peaceful weekend.