Drawing with a Digger

Tuesday morning I was working in my office when a call came in, “we’ve got a digger for a couple of days, can you pop up this afternoon?” I knew there was something in the works for this farm but with Covid-19 everything had been on hold. At Level 2 when a call comes in I can go on-farm.

Other than a sketch on a napkin I really had no drawings so this one went pretty much from mind-to-digger so I went and marked it out on Tuesday with electric fence stakes and returned Wednesday to ‘draw’. I had a great laconic digger driver who didn’t swear at me when I told him what I wanted done!

Clutha / Southland, New Zealand

Click on ANY photo to enlarge

The site is where the original 1880s farmhouse was located (long since gone) and the home site has returned to being a sheep paddock, the house itself replaced with a large heap of tree stumps that wouldn’t burn. I was asked to find a way to commemorate the old house and the first farmers – “see what you can come up with”.

I was overjoyed to hear clanking tracks and see the digger emerge from the gully. My idea was to set stumps at three corners of a rectangle, dug in as if they’d grown there and then been cut down. The fourth corner was to be a strainer post for the fence that will enclose the space. I decided on three stumps because four would be too explicit and wouldn’t look real. Using three stumps and a post also sets up a dialogue between past and present, natural and man-made.

The photo below shows the first stump in place.

This is the second stump going in with the Blue Mountains in the background. I set the stumps about 1/2-a-metre down and soil was packed up against them so they wouldn’t move.

After the site had been cleared off we placed the last stump. This was the largest of the three and they were situated so that when you look down from the hill above, they appear to be the same size but as you walk down you realise they are different. This large stump weighed about 5t and the digger moved it slowly.

Next the site will be fenced with two gates allowing for a walking track. Then we’ll plant scattered clumps of totara in the corners and fill the interior with manuka, cabbage trees and ground cover coprosmas – the latter for low-key weed reduction. There will also be a plaque placed on one of the stumps with a short history of the site. The plaque will be a ploughshare.


Text and photos by Nigel Cowburn, Growplan (2020)

10 thoughts on “Drawing with a Digger

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  1. Very cool, Nigel! I, too, look forward to seeing posts as you progress through the project.

    I’m curious about the origin of those huge unburnable stumps… clearing of the land, natural death of the tree?

    1. Thanks Ellen. They were a very old, over-mature hedge that had become 25m high trees., mostly macrocarpa around the old house site and the field was needed again for grazing.

      No great loss; a lot of exotic trees grow much faster here than in their native lands.

          1. I still find that interesting. All three are native on the Monterey Peninsula just to the south of here. Douglas fir is one of the three big trees here, along with redwood and ponderosa pine. I just recently planted a Monterey cypress out back as a memorial tree.

  2. What a fascinating project. I must confess that I have never thought of using such heavy equipment to bring a creative vision to life. Will you be able to do a posting later that shows the finished project? By the way, I love the idea of doing a plaque on a ploughshare, considering what this site is meant to commemorate.

    1. Hi Mike, Yes, I quite often use large machinery to realise a landscape. I also use farm machinery, farmer logic and livestock (very useful to tread seed in for a large area). If the client has the tools it is best to find ways to work with them rather than asking them to work with me.

      Yes I intend to do follow-up post on this, it helps that it is in my neighbourhood.

      With the ploughshare the words will flow across the compound curve of the share, just as a plough turns over the soil – in effect inverting time, so the words too will turn with the land.

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