Possum is a glimpse into a slice of kiwi (New Zealand) culture that is at the core of many New Zealanders. Like many others from the East Coast of the North Island in the 70’s, my father Wallace Whitehead, often took up contracts fencing, shearing or scrub cutting. I guess the money was ok, but it was certainly hard labor. It also often meant staying on site away from the family during the week. I remember how excited we were with dad coming home on Fridays with a big hug and bristles on his unshaven face.
Taming the land is at the root of all cultures and New Zealand is no exception in that department. Early settlers with wagons and bullock teams faced more treacherous tracks than our trusty old vehicle did, but our Land Rover was our iron horse that carried us into the wilderness. A few scenes are set in this vehicle and driving in the back of that old Land Rover remains a fond memory for my family. We sat facing each other in the back chatting, laughing, singing or waving hands and tongues at the cars behind. It was always fun, but sometimes terrifying, riding the bumps, churning through mud and teetering on hillsides.
The bush camp scenes will resonate with some people around the world. The billy sitting over an open fire with a hot drink and food. Smoke rising up from the campfire and all feel safe and warm. The kids are out in the tent because the adults are snoring in the hut. It’s far more exciting in the tent with it’s gentle flapping in a breeze or the pitter patter of rain on the canvas. The tent was certainly a great way to feel closer to nature. Some times a little too close. You could never tell what beastie was lurking outside the cloth walls.
Morning comes and light shimmers through the trees. We prepare for the day and discover that the things we take for granted like running water or flushed toilets are luxuries that we should appreciate more. In the case of this film, my dad and many other scrub cutters around New Zealand were paid to cut down the Manuka (Tea) trees that many now wish were still standing. Nowadays some farms with their Manuka still standing, reap the benefits of Manuka honey which is some of the best honey in the world and is great for the bees and humans alike.
I can’t really remember our family going on a holiday when I was young. Perhaps the odd day fishing, but we never really travelled anywhere for no good reason. My dad was one of the hardest working people I knew. It was common for us to tag along with him and work with him during the school holidays. I was pretty young when most of this was happening and it truthfully it wasn’t much hard labor for me, but I know my brothers John and Nathan did a lot of contract work over the years with my dad. Hunting, fishing and eeling always went hand in hand with this territory and whether one liked it or not possum hunting was part of that.
I realised at a young age that I was really great at crying to try and get what I wanted. The trick was to not cry so hard that you were put to bed without any supper, but with enough feeling that the adults took pity on you. I remember being mortified that I wasn’t aloud to go up into the bush with the guys, so I gave an award winning performance, cried with real heart and got my way. Possum is the story of my induction into the ancient art of camping, bush lore and hunting.
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Happy New Year!!