Hymn to Central

Gisborne Herald.  18 November 2011

There is a misty eyed reverence amongst those whose hearts and souls belong to Central Otago.  In his beautifully written introduction, artist-photographer Grahame Sydney describes his book as a ‘hymn’ to the ‘unique beauty, seductive austerity and magnificent seasonal extremes’ of Otago’s heartland, so I instantly recognised him as a kindred spirit.

‘The region has symbolic quality or so many, a metaphoric – even spiritual – dimension which so many grasp and never relinquish’ he writes, I nod and avidly read on.

He talks about his childhood crib in Central in the 1960s, walking the narrow pipeline up the Arrow River and panning for – and finding  – gold, albeit miniscule golden specks.  He remembers ‘this Central was glaringly bright, the treeless fields crackling with parched grass shimmering in the afternoon heat, and vast skies of such an intensely deep blue it felt wonderfully foreign to a Dunedin boy.  I was a Dunedin girl mesmerised by Central in the same era.

Years later, from the gloom of life in London, Sydney is ‘drawn back to Central by nostalgia and some powerful undercurrent of longing…’ 

In the 1970s he becomes a fiercely protective environmentalist.  He writes of his anger and loathing for the ‘bureaucrats and politicians conspiring to destroy the magnificent Clutha’ and in the late 1970s   he becomes an ‘active member of the Clutha Rescue Group that was attempting to stop the construction of the Clyde Dam’ which turned ‘the thundering Clutha into a sullen, lifeless artificial puddle’.

He now sees an assault of a different, perhaps even insidious kind.  I agree. ‘My belief is that my generation is needlessly squandering the very qualities that make this region stand out so separately, so distinctly from every other part of New Zealand.  With irrigation bulldozing into previously inaccessible corners, Central’s colour is changing from its natural and bleak ochre’s and browns to lurid, lush artificially fertilised green as I watch – the same colour as so much of the rest of this nation.’ 

This collection of breath-taking photographs is Sydney’s effort to preserve some of the unique landscape he loves…before it is lost for good.

He captures Central in all its stunning extremes – the scorched honey-gold hues of the summer tussock land, the silver mantel of a mid-winter hoar frost, the many faces of the folded Hawkdun Range and the sheer wilderness of the Old Dunstan Road.  There is a wry humour in his portraits of local folk whose craggy faces look like they have been hewn from the landscape itself, and the sturdy, no frills dwellings built to withstand time and the elements.

I lost myself in this book – you will too, even if Central is not your heaven on earth.