This farmland had not long been reclaimed from virgin bush. It had been felled, and a year later burnt. Trunks of two to three feet in diameter had survived the fire and still lay on the ground, unburnt. We used to muster cattle at full gallop round the steep sides of the hills, taking the logs as we went. I have seldom been more scared, but it was exciting.
There was a sawmill on the farm, and I used to work there for weeks at a time. I had a fine job, ‘fiddling’, which meant working away by myself with a seven-foot cross-cut saw, slicing the trees into twelve or fourteen-foot lengths so that they could be handled and moved up to the sawbench. On spring mornings I was bursting with vitality and fitness. The grass, as we rode down to the mill, would be glittering with dew, the sun shining, the tuis and bell birds singing their endless, belllike notes. There was the smell from sawdust and the burning bark slabs fed to the engine that drove the saw. Our smallest meal of the day, breakfast, usually consisted of a large plate of porridge, with plenty of milk and sugar, followed by a pound steak with three eggs on it, followed by two full rounds cut from a big loaf of bread, with plenty of butter and jam.
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Another interesting job was shearing. After some practice, I was able to shear at the rate of seventy-five sheep a day. It was hard work, and I had to tie a handkerchief round my forehead to keep the sweat from running on to my spectacles, where it left a deposit of salt and spoilt my vision. My seventy-five sheep a day was a paltry quantity compared with what the experts could do – the Australian champion had shorn over 400 sheep in a day, using blade shears. The shearing machine, like the clipper used by a barber at the back of your neck, but engine driven, required a good deal of manual dexterity. I wonder if I could shear a big ram successfully today? Here’s how: first, sit him on his tail and shear back forelocks and cheeks to the back of his head. Holding him between your knees, push the cutters down his chest, and then split the fleece open down to his tummy. Next sheer his forelegs to the shoulder, and his hind legs to the rump. Take care! Don’t forget he is a valuable ram. Then, over on to his side, with his neck against one leg and his tail against the other, and use long sweeping strokes from rump to neck until all that side is shorn. This is the most awkward position for control when he struggles. Over on to the other side, and repeat the last process, and there is the fleece lying on the floor. A boy would pick up the fleece, fold it carefully and take it to the sorting table, where he would spread it out. On our farm there were only four machines at work, but on a big station with twenty shearers the activity was prodigious. After the day’s work, our chaps used to pop into the big round tank of warm water used to cool the shearing engine.
Although I enjoyed much of the work, I could not feel settled. I was lonely, though I did not understand why, and I felt that I was in the wrong job. I wanted to be an author. I left the farm, and took a room in a country town 50 miles to the south. It was a place of antimacassars and of doilies. I struggled hard to produce a masterpiece. But I knew nothing of life and nothing of writing. I bought an American book on How to Write Short Stories but my brain was hazy after manual toil. A dreary sense of failure crept over me.
I had only one interesting adventure at this place. I was bathing in the river when a flood spate came down. There must have been a deluge from a thunderstorm in the hills, and because the country was new, with the hills stripped of their timber by the settlers, the water rushed down and flooded violently. I have seen a river, which I had crossed on foot without getting wet, become a raging torrent half an hour later, with a thundery rumble from great boulders pounding along the river bed. The spate swept me off my feet and carried me away. I swam to the riverbank, and grabbed at the boulders. The flood tore my grasp and rolled me over and over. I felt panic. My signet ring, with a cornelian stone, was torn off my finger. I resisted panic, which I knew was a killer, and kept swimming, not trying to buck the flood. At last I got into an eddy, and was able to seize a boulder and pull myself out of the water.