Plains Folk

Rammed Earth


I have been getting some scolding from people close to me on account of a recent adventure in New Zealand—not quite a misadventure, but just a stumble away from one. It has to do with a panoramic video I shot, standing inches from the precipice under my left shoulder overlooking gold-mining spoils, and panning around to the precipice under my right shoulder. I guess I didn’t really think about the instability of the narrow, silty ridge under my feet. Oh well, I’m home safe now.


Which means my Suzzanne and I are home from another research expedition in the grasslands of Central Otago, on the South Island of New Zealand. For years we have been studying a district of Central Otago known as the Lindis. We go there as historians of the American prairies, asking questions about commonalities between the two places, but prepared to discover profound differences.


For instance, the Lindis, a semiarid grassland, has been colonized over the past quarter-century by viticulturalists and become one of the world’s great regions for production of Pinot Noir, the queen of red wines. This means we are required to investigate the subjects of grape growing and wine making, and to try to convince others that as we go around to storied wineries, we really are working. Perhaps I should explain that the larger part of our viticultural investigation is devoted to archival research on the establishment of the wine industry.


Grape growing is an enterprise that requires close engagement with the environment; grape growers know the land in an intimate way. Another of our current investigations is even more earthy.


Over the past couple of weeks we have located and documented a number of pioneer buildings of the Lindis constructed of earth. Some of them are cob, meaning the walls were formed freestyle, by hand, from clay. Others are rammed earth, with soil being pounded into forms to build up walls, layer by layer. Cut sod, the common earth building technique on the American plains, is unknown in New Zealand.


So we hiked into a historic mining town dating from the 1870s called Stewart Town. There we went over the ground, examining ruins of what once were lovely rammed-earth cottages housing gold miners. We figured out the system of water races that not only washed out the gold but also watered the miners’ orchard of apricots and pears. We tasted a windfall pear that took us back to the nineteenth century.


Now to get a little nerdy—we were inordinately excited when we discovered the remains of a rammed-earth corral, with earthen walls two feet thick, and a rammed-earth cooling house we figure was used to hold milk and cream.


After which we hiked over to the rock-walled Menzies Dam, a reservoir constructed to pool water and gather head for washing out gold by hydraulic mining. This was when I made my way out onto that precipice to peer down into a manmade badlands of mine spoils.
Which, really, was the only sketchy thing I did while in New Zealand. Everything else was methodical, even staid, scholarly research. That’s my story, and I’m sticking with it.

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