new zealand electronic poetry centre

Ursula Bethell



A Poet's Garden

Alison Mary

Originally published in New Zealand Historic Places 40 (March 1993): 9-10.

The city of Christchurch is flat, built on the raupo and harakeke swamps of Te Patiki Whakatekateka o Waitaha (the Canterbury Plains). Rising steeply above the city are the hills of Banks Peninsula, which was a volcanic island when the raw rock of the Southern Alps rose more recently from the sea. For aeons, the nor'-west wind raged across the plains, blowing before it loess, finely ground by the great glaciers of the alps, which was plastered over the flanks of the extinct and eroding volcanoes.

The Maori used the fertile volcanic soils of the Peninsula for gardening, growing kumara on carefully cultivated warm slopes. Some years after Christchurch had been established, discerning European settlers raised their eyes to the hills and began to build dwellings and create gardens on the slopes above the city. The Port Hills, with the dramatic peak of Te Heru o Kahukura (the Sugarloaf) and the rocky crag of Te Tihi o Kahukura (Castle Rock), have a Maori history of tohunga power and mythical patupaiarehe (forest folk). They also have their own European poet, who created her garden on a steep slope and who lifted her head as she worked to see:

                            . . . the mountains, the mighty, the white ones
rising sheer from the cloudy sea, light-crowned, established.
            (‘Souhterly Sunday’)

Mary Ursula Bethell is acknowledged as one of New Zealand's leading poets. Finally settling in New Zealand in 1924, after several journeyings to and from England, she chose a warm, northerly-facing slope on the Cashmere Hills as the site for Rise Cottage. With her close friend, Effie Pollen, she designed and had built a weatherboard bungalow, sited for a view across the plains to the snow mountains. Then she began to garden, and as she gardened she composed poems which vividly show us the dramatic landscape and which share, with humour and perception, the joys and tribulations of gardening.

My garden has a declivity of one in ten feet.

How easy when I go down in the morning
To visit the vegetable marrows and perpetual spinach!

How steep when at evening, my labours concluded,
I collect all my implements and climb up to my bed!


The steep slope, with all the difficulties of steepness, was also ‘Unceasingly swept by transmarine winds’ (‘Pause’) and the first task was to plant macrocarpa hedges on both sides of the section. These hedges, tall now and smoothly cut, still shelter the garden of Rise Cottage. Jenny and Ray Shave, the present owners, care lovingly for their historic home and garden. Ursula Bethell's orange tree, Omi-Kin-Kan, its difficult early growth recorded in poetry sixty years ago, died recently despite all efforts to save it. The olive tree, planted to conceal the garage, ‘a structure of excessive plainness’ (‘Detail’) still survives. Changes have been made by succeeding owners, but the feel of the garden also survives, one of ‘Our small fond human enclosures’, contrasting with the wide view (‘Pause’).

Thin lines of snow recede on the high ridges;
The plains are spread out brown under a blue haze;
My pinched zinnias rejoice with the marigolds and verbenas,
They burst out into the colours of a rich eastern carpet;
And Michael sleeps deeply under pinus insignis in cool shade.


Michael, the cat, was an important inhabitant of Ursula's garden, rolling in bidi-bid which had to be painfully removed, expected to share in the rejoicings when the orange tree first blossomed, scrambling up rose-posts and making his ‘lair where tender plants should flourish’ (‘Garden Lion’). He conflicted with another garden dweller, the riro riro (grey warbler) whose song entranced both Ursula and Effie.

Any gardener today, looking at the smooth lawns, the brilliant azaleas, the rock walls, the careful arrangement of colour, will be aware of the hard labour that has gone on and is still going on. Ursula wrote:

But the Horticulturist is deprived of the experience of dullness;
When he is not labouring in physical toil,
Or attempting to alleviate ever-recurring hunger and thirst,
He is working out a succession of vegetables,
Or engaged in agreeable speculations
Relating to the prospects of four or five years hence.
[ . . . ]
He has never accomplished when the sun goes down
More than a small portion of what he had intended to do.

( ‘Sinensis’)

Ursula's happiness at Rise Cottage, in home and garden, was dependent on her happiness with Effie and this came to an abrupt end with Effie's sudden death in 1934. Both her gardening and her poetry, her two loves and her lasting memorials, lost meaning for her. She wrote:

You were laughter, my liking, and frolic, my lost one,
   I must dissemble and smile still for your sake,
   Now that I know spring time is heart-break,
Now you have left me to look upon all that is lovely, alone.

(‘October 1935’)

The garden at Rise Cottage is an historic one because of its age and because of its first gardener. It is given added meaning by the recording of its early history in poems which will gladden any gardener and give insight into the hearts of gardeners for those not yet ensnared in this most rewarding of passions.

All quotations are from Ursula Bethell, Collected Poems edited by Vincent O'Sullivan, 1985 [1997]. Rise Cottage has been classified C by the Historic Places Trust.


© Alison Mary

Last updated 22 May, 2005