The island

For three years, I watched them scrape it out of the horse paddock it once was. I saw it transformed from a place of memory and life to a leftover triangular bit of land framed by a twisting labyrinth of barricaded motorway lanes. It became a landscape of absence, a one that can now only be driven past, not wandered on foot, a place that does not merit a name nor occur on any map. It became an island.

These places are everywhere in cities, especially in Aotearoa, where we have an oversupply of space and think nothing of wasting it. It is easy to ignore these landscapes. But when you do start noticing them, they become fascinating, worlds that simultaneously sit in plain sight and yet seem not to exist. The become invisible kingdoms, much like the one proposed by the purchase of genuine x-ray glasses in the back of old comics.

This particular island has become a milestone on my drive to work. It is surrounded by traffic, jostling and swerving to make lane changes or crawling along, bumper to bumper, the sole occupants of the vehicles checking their smartphones surreptitiously. There is intensity all around, yet the triangle is a haven of peace, and through drive-by glances I have formed a mental image. Plastic bags that move to the leeward end as the wind direction changes; what looks like the remains of a shopping cart; gravel, dust. Among it all, some vestiges of life: a few scrawny lupins and a blossoming patch of broom.

It’s the forgotten bit of a carefully-designed and -constructed highway, contrived in multiple layers of computer-aided drawings. It must have suffered from cost-cutting by project managers eager to please their clients, no money left to plant it out or cover it in well-mown grass like the nicely-graded berms and drainage swales that surround it. Other parts of the roading project are just as inaccessible, but they are highly visible roundabouts and edges which would have provoked a barrage of complaints from passing motorists whose vision of the motorway picturesque would have been blighted by any hint of neglect.

These well-groomed sections of the motorway edge are officially called green spaces. They are the bits left over from all the earthworks that support the carriageways and underpasses. Only occasionally do you see people in these green spaces. We used to celebrate the end of the university year with a party on the Sockburn Roundabout. That was before someone threw a beer bottle at the traffic and it all got banned. It was a delight to see one of these grassy spaces used, even if it was only for drinking races and tackle fights.

The forgotten triangle of land on my commute was part of the first stage of the Southern Motorway, built to connect the booming satellite towns of Lincoln and Rolleston with Christchurch. After the earthquakes that wracked the region in 2010 and 2011, the population of the central city drained like water in a bath with the plug pulled out and development went scurrying to the suburbs and satellite towns. Every swampy horse paddock that could be purchased to the southwest was covered over with cul-de-sac suburbs, oversized houses and two-car garages.

I took a keen interest in the media surrounding the emerging motorway. Drawings and artists’ impressions showed sweeping bends, trees and cycling paths connecting the paddocks it had cleaved in half. The drawings also showed the new suburbs and housing developments that would line the motorway edge and offer more two-car garages to feed the miles of smooth tarmac. Looking at these images made me want to be part of it all.

In other cities of the world, with much larger populations, there is a fashion for the occupation of the more accessible of these remnant landscapes. They are given names, micro-farmed and are sometimes inhabited by everyone from activists to the unhoused. In and around Chengdu, in China, unused pockets of land serve as subversive DIY vegetable plots, while in Aotearoa the Gap Filler projects saw artists and community groups adopt empty lots throughout post-earthquake Christchurch, with dance floors, book exchanges and artworks popping up where land stood vacant.

Occupations like these have spawned a rash of academic naming by cultural geographers. Liminal space, gapscape and terrain vague are just some of them. These in turn have been amplified by the power of the internet, with the likes of r/LiminalSpace on reddit or the New Topographics on Facebook suggesting the beginnings of a sub-cult, or at least a movement.

The triangular island I drive past has not engendered a name or even a sub-cult. It had been a podocarp forest for most of its life, then a flax swamp, a horse paddock and now a non-place. But now it is easier to ignore than acknowledge. The landscape around its borders has been smothered and this slice of land had been forgotten.

Early one summer morning the road crews are doing some maintenance work. The motorway is reduced to one lane and the rush hour traffic all but stopped. For the first time, I crawl past the triangle at a pace that allows closer inspection. The snippets gleaned from those speedy glances lose their blur and settle into place. There are the plastic bags moving with the wind, end to end, end like sheep. There’s the gravel, dust and what are now definitely part of a shopping cart.

But there’s more; there are signs of human endeavour. A shovel and a rusty paint tin full of water. And there at the back edge is a man in grubby clothes bent over a hole he has dug. He is in the process of planting a young sapling, and by the looks of the vodka bottle beside him, getting well pissed.

All around him engines idle and mufflers tick with heat. The drivers of the cars and trucks look at their phones or stare vacantly ahead. He slops the tin of water onto the freshly planted tree and rises to take a swig from his bottle. He catches my eye and grins a gappy grin before slowly raising the bottle towards me in a toast. I raise an imaginary toast back. He wipes his chin and does a little victory dance, a Robinson Crusoe on an island of his own.

Words: Matt Vance

Art: Laura Williamson