Today was like a time warp to The Way Things Used to Be. The current American New Year’s tradition consists of sitting around an electronic box of flashing lights, eating synthetic food and drinks imported from far-off lands. But long ago the tradition was probably more like this: men in skirts tooting on bagpipes, or shooting at clay pigeons, families running relays, women tossing bags of hay with a pitchfork, children dancing, runners running, cyclers cycling, choppers chopping and sawyers sawying.
After seeing my in-laws off at the Invercargill airport this morning, I headed over to the Tuatapere domain, where a community festival had brought a thousand or so people out on a cold day to watch their friends and neighbors and a few ringers compete.
A man with a long gray beard ran an antique merry-go-round. Another guy had hauled in a weird clown game from the 1940s. The scouts had a roulette wheel with raffle tickets and prizes of cherries and chocolate. Kids could take jetboat rides on the Waiau River or race on four-wheelers.
People ate “hot dogs,” a kind of Kiwi corn dog, and ice cream, and hot chips, and drank fizzy drinks and booze. I watched a family relay, a married couple’s race, a bunch of bike races, and lots of wood chopping, which was my favorite.
Some of the choppers were national champions who come to Tuatapere every year to wield their axes and saws. The “Jack and Jill” was a two-person sawing race with a man on one side and a woman on the other. There was an underhand chop and a sideways chop, solo sawing and team sawing for men.
In the most exciting event, they climbed a 20-foot upright pole by chopping a divot and inserting the end of a board, climbing up on the board (which careful chopping and leverage kept from falling), then chopping another divot, inserting another board, and so on, until they were near enough the top to chop halfway through the log. Then they climbed down and repeated the exercise, climbing up and chopping through the other side.
All that has been exchanged in my homeland for a TV parade and a football game, which most of us watch in isolation from the elements and our fellows. As a species, we may be chopping and climbing our way up an evolutionary totem pole, but as a society, progress doesn’t seem that great.