It was man against the forest. Pa was methodical in turning the tropical forest that was our new Waibau Farm into a market garden. He never gave up until every bit of our 21 acres was cleared. He won the battle against the trees after 5 years of hard work.
Starting over again in the fifth decade of life, 20 years after he shipped himself to a foreign Fiji from his famine stricken village in Canton, Pa never complained. He just enlisted help.
He built a house for our first full time worker. Joeli was a family man and Pa knew that he had to house him and his family if he was to lock in a key worker.
I learnt the importance of keeping blades sharp from Joeli.
We left our farm in Wailoku where there were only 3 decent sized trees – to a farm that was virgin tropical forest surrounding the little bit of level cleared ground that allowed the farmhouse to be built. We were confronted with huge trees – too many to count. And they all had to be cut down to make way for vegetable fields. And the only way to cut a tree down was with an axe.
Pa was not very good with the axe, and he instantly hired Joeli after the first decent tree was cut down.
Even modern-day professional axeman don’t come across 1 metre diameter tree trunks very often. Joeli was not the typical well-built Fijian. He was Pa’s size (not very big) and there were no bulging muscles to be seen. He just looked at this huge tree with the glint of challenge in his eyes and started sharpening the axe.
Wood chips started gathering around the base of the tree. Joeli would stop and clear out the chips. Then he sat down and applied file to blade for a few minutes. Then more wood chips – as the chopping cycle repeated.
We left him alone with the axe, the file and the tree. We had other things to do. We heard the THUMP… THUMP in the distance as we went about our work. After what seemed like hours, the chopping sounds stopped. Then a triumphant yell echoed through the valley in the prelude to the following huge crash that shook the ground.
Another tree down.
After years of axe work, there were no more forest trees. Only a handful of planted trees survived. My favourite one was the “UTO” (breadfruit) tree beside our farmhouse. It had the rare yellow flesh and sweetness that the common white fleshed utos lacked. And it was a climbing challenge.
In out Wailoku farm, the only trees to be climbed were guava trees. Fijian guava tree are so flexible that we made bows and arrows from the branches. We would swing on the skinny branches with abandonment. The first time I tried this on our uto tree, I heard the crack, and followed the branch down to the ground. I still spend countless hours climbing out uto tree because it was so big and had so many climbable branches that challenged me to judge the solid from the brittle…
I was frequently alone.
But never felt lonely.
Teenagers gravitate into peer groups and grow up as members of gangs. I was not allowed that opportunity. Three activities anchored my teenage years. Travelling to and from school. School. Helping in the farm.
We had never seen helicopters and besides, that style of parenting was not an option because Ma and Pa had to spend every available hour working against the weeds that threatened the health of their plantings. Even when we were weeding together in the same dalo patch, we had our own rows to take care off and would not see each other for hours on end. Whether they had no option or they had the confidence in leaving me alone, I will never know. But they gave me independence.
In the heat and humidity, Ma and Pa would have a nap after lunch. I couldn’t wait for lunch to finish. It wasn’t the nap that I was looking forward to. It was the river.
The pair of swimmers goggles was custom made. So was the rubber band that powered the thick wire fashioned into a spear. It was almost a sprint to the spot of river where I spotted the prawn and the fish the previous day.
Two hours later when the cold shivers overcame me, I would drag myself out of the water and return to the row of weeds where my hoe was waiting. I would pass Ma or Pa as they did their own rows, and they would look at me shaking their heads. Why they gave me such a long leash is a question I have no firm answer to.
If the water was muddy from the regular rains, I would do the forest.
Our farm was no longer a forest, but a quarter of the perimeter still bordered the rainforest. Armed with my recently sharpened cane knife, I would go exploring the forest and its streams. All alone. I did see some girls bathing in a creek once. But they must have seen me too – because they were never there again.
To be continued….