A manor house for rats

May 29


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Photo: YOU SHOULD HAVE TO STOOP TO GET THROUGH THE DOOR. PHOTO: PAUL ROY

What’s in a hut.

HUT. THREE LETTERS THAT MIGHT SERVE AS A BLUEPRINT FOR PURPOSE AND COMPOSITION: ROOF, WALLS, FLOOR / COVER, WARMTH, REST. THREE LETTERS IN A SINGULAR COMBINATION, SIGNIFIERS OF AN ANCIENT NEED FOR SHELTER AND SECURITY, AND FOR SOMETHING OF OUR OWN. H-U-T. IT COULD EVEN BE AN ACRONYM.

ASBESTOS HUT. PHOTO: PAUL ROY

History. Every hut has a history, and it will wear it proudly. An old hut is like a Greek amphora stuffed with silver drachma, speaking of its time just as well. On the outside, pockmarked tin and cracked dusty windows are cherished as proof of authenticity, since rust and grime are not easily retrofitted. Nearby, look for flattened tussocks, evidence that the bodies of past adventurers rested there as they looked up and kept score of shooting stars.

You should have to stoop to get through the door. If the interior is bright, and gleaming with stainless steel sinks and plywood benchtops, you might as well turn around, pick up your pack and walk out. The best huts are dark and only feebly lit with stubby candles stuck on braces made of flattened fruit tins and nailed to the wall.

There should be no tables or long cafe-style seats, only a couple of stools, with maybe one extra on which to throw down winning hands of the greasy resident playing cards.

None of these stools should have legs of an even length. The fire will be handmade with tin back and sides and a piece of crooked wire piercing its walls, from which a battered old billy will permanently hang. There will be a large flat rock in front for drying your socks. If the chimney leaks smoke back into the living space, so much the better.

In an original relic, the bunks will be low and crooked, cut from the surrounding forest and assembled with live edges and other rustic detailing never intended to be decorative. The posts, beams and slats will all bear scratched initials and small stories, and it is these that are the heart of the hut. “W.S. Gibson, winter muster ’52.” “M. L.

Wallis froze his arse off here, May ’68.”

“A. Visitor”, writes the tip of your knife. “Unsure of what to add”, it will tell
for eternity.

CRACKED WINDOWS ARE CHERISHED. BURNT BUSH HUT, OTAGO PHOTO: PAUL ROY

Utility. A hut speaks not just of time and place, but of what went on within its four walls, what it was used or misused for. Our huts (and I say “our” because a hut really is ours, belonging to the people just as much as a road or a sign or a stinking public toilet) do not have neat, orderly pasts. They have sprung up, here and there, as need or nature allowed, as lodgings for musterers or base camps for climbers and deer cullers, as temporary homes for souls who trudged their way through icy streams and struggled over the spines of mountains.

In each one, you will find clues: a roll of wire left under a bunk by a forgetful fencer, a stack of Reader’s Digests from the seventies, thoroughly thumbed by some poor sod forced to read and re-read while waiting for the rain to stop falling and the river to drop. Spare ammunition and spent cartridges tell of the regular and slothful hunter in equal measure, who either couldn’t be bothered packing in their lead each time or didn’t want to leave the comfort of their bunk to bag an animal. The bullet holes around the door frame offer extra confidence in drawing this conclusion. With each perusal of the shelves and rummage of the cupboards, you will uncover what this place once was, and what it is now.

Tradition. History and utility together breed tradition, and this is the most sacred of a hut’s three essences. You shall, for instance, never, ever wear your boots into the hut, not even if they have been plunged in glacial waters and scrubbed with virgin moss. You may carry your boots inside, but only to set them by the fire to dry. You will always cut more firewood in excess of what you have used. Failure to do so risks not only the warmth and health of subsequent visitors, but damns your very soul, for such selfish disregard has no place in this world or the next. Similarly, you will, wherever possible, leave a small tithe of food for the nutritionally destitute. Such caches inevitably attract vermin, and if you should sight any of these loathsome creatures, it is your duty to hurl a boot, book or box of matches with the aim of, if not extermination, a very strong message of unwelcome.

You will always sign the hut book. This is not simply a matter of health and safety. Your scrawl adds another name to the hut’s history and your comments another hint as to its utility. Be sure to remark on the quality of the bunks, the splendour of the fireplace, and the now plentiful surplus of wood. This too, is tradition.

NICK AINGE-ROY


This article is even better in print.


1964: mountain culture / aotearoa is a reader-supported magazine that explores Aotearoa New Zealand’s remote places and the people who seek them out. Working with more than thirty artists, photographers, writers, woodworkers and welders, we advocate for and support Aotearoa’s creatives.

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