Under a Big Sky–book review

Under a Big Sky, by Tim Saunders

I’ve been back with Tim and his family for another farm holiday and it’s been great. I spent about a week in the book this time, not much has changed since I met them all in This Farming Life, but I think I will always enjoy the shepherds dragging astonished sheep from their pens for a morning shear and the way the magpies gargle with laughter when his dad tells a joke, and the big bird, Kāhu, who clutches the new day in rust coloured talons. These are the author’s expressions, of course. Who else could write so evocatively about daily life on a farm?

It’s the Covid years, but the family doesn’t need much more isolating than a paddock provides. Everyone else is complaining about being house-bound while these guys just shrug and have fun hooning around on the tractor and quad bikes. Actually, that’s just me projecting my own fancies there. They’re out doing serious farm work drenching, shearing, lambing, fencing, harvesting etc, constantly and endlessly. Sadly, Saunders senior–who for me kind of stole the limelight in This Farming Life–has health issues and is in and out of hospital in this book and left with a dodgy arm. He returns and reluctantly sits down, “his heels bulged like gibbous moons from holes in his socks”. He hasn’t lost his caustic sense of humor though, and continues to muster the boys until he’s up and about again.

This book is not a story. It’s not a memoir. It really is a trip to the farm. There is the heavy duty stuff here in spades, real-life farming concerns and tips on how to mend a farm gate. Saunders uses dialogue to farmsplain things that concern the family in the way the Archers do on radio. Tim’s wife Kathrin tells him (us) about synthetics coming from fossil fuels and how wool is biodegradable and fire retardant. Brother Mark tells him (us) about regenerative agriculture and top soil. Dad tells Tim (us) about how, in the old days, they actually dipped sheep in arsenic to prevent flyblow. I like listening in to these didactic conversations. I’m going to repeat snatches of them someday to a farmer and sound knowledgeable.

But the real joy in this book in in the poetry. Well, it’s not really poetry, it’s just every line is written by a man who looks at the world through a kaleidoscope of imagination. You can’t stop him. The harvester’s metallic guts, all cogs and rods and fiddly little pieces looks like a robot threw up. He says he found German cities overwhelming and wanted a dog to muster the crowds (when I next have crowd panic I’ll calm myself by imagining a collie circling). When the chainsaw dies, the silence of the birds is startling. I love the way the sun never goes up or down, but “daylight drained to the west” and then, later, “stars dissolved as the sun took control of the morning”.

Why say something ordinary when you can say something beautiful?

Fire, air, water, earth. Visit this classic Manawatu farm in these pages and see how it all hangs together. It’s a life that feels right, and peaceful. After a few evenings you’ll sleep like you’ve been counting sheep.

Author: Cristina Sanders Blog

Novelist, trail runner, book reviewer and blogger.

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