“I am now going to put up a V hut on the country that I took up on the Rangitata, meaning to hibernate there in order to see what the place is like” - Samuel Butler
In 1860 almost all the land in Canterbury was completely bought up by new settlers. After months of searching Butler laid a claim on what he called Mesopotamia at the headwaters of the Rangitata. Here he fantasised about the founding of a new utopian civilisation in the middle of nowhere. Erewhon (Nowhere spelled backwards.....almost) was born here. But like many fantasies of utopia there was a dark reality, and eventually Butler like his protagonist desired to escape - "My plan was this - that Arowhena and I should escape in a balloon together".
Was Butler as "hard-headed" as the few men he worked alongside in these lonely reaches, far away even from the closest settlement of Peel Forest where he spent many a night playing the piano at the Tripp homestead? Were there aspects to the "hard men" of early European settler Canterbury that unsettle our myths about them and our requirements of these men today? Butler writes that "men here are much fonder of cats than they are at home". Mrs Tripp however found his “peculiar nature and wild theories upsetting” and “did not like it when Butler tried to convert the maid to his ideas”. These ideas probably included the revolutionary new theories of evolution espoused by Darwin and Butler's reasons for fleeing to the other side of the earth to escape his father's plans for him to become a Clergyman.
“I am forgetting myself into admiring a mountain which is of no use for sheep. This is wrong” - Samuel Butler
Malcolm Prouting whose family has owned the station for three generations flew us up Forest Ck to the site of Butler's first hut and over the remarkable rock formations that surely inspired his protagonist's dream of an organ which "seemed to grow and grow amid a blaze of brilliant light, till it became like a golden city upon the side of a mountain, with rows upon rows of pipes set in cliffs and precipices, one above the other, and in mysterious caverns, like that of Fingal, within whose depths I could see the burnished pillars gleaming. In the front there was a flight of lofty terraces, at the top of which I could see a man with his head buried forward towards a keyboard, and his body swaying from side to side amid the storm of huge arpeggioed harmonies that came crashing overhead and round".
Afterwards we talked to Donald Aubrey long time resident and former Manager of Ben Mcleod Station whose religious views are mirrored in utopian Christian vision of Butler's protagonist upon his discovery of Erewhon as an "expanse as was revealed to Moses when he stood upon the summit of Mount Sinai”. Mesopotamia is a spiritual birthplace for Aubrey. Sheep farming has changed a lot since Butler's time he told us and while some may rightly "eulogise" him as an artist "he was no farmer" in the eyes of those who farm there now. Aubrey explained that this is because back then it was in the farmer's economic interests to "rape and pillage" whereas now farmers look after the soil with the intention to make it profitable for future generations.