23 Aug 2020

John Bluck reads his series of essays about the pleasures of mowing the lawn

From Smart Talk, 4:00 pm on 23 August 2020
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Photo: Pixabay

Chapter 1. An ordinary thing

A red motor mower cuts the grass

Photo: Pixabay

It is the most ordinary thing anyone can do, next to washing dishes and taking out the rubbish. And much more fun.

And it’s the easiest thing to do. Any Kiwi can. No qualifications required. And not much skill. It doesn’t earn an NCEA credit.

And no licences needed. There are no government regulations to govern lawnmowing, no agency to promote it or ensure quality control. You’re even allowed to do it during pandemics.

The technology you need for it can be sold to anyone. An enterprising twelve-year-old in the village where I live has set up shop as a lawnmower for hire at $12 an hour. There are no electronics to go wrong, nothing to programme. Not that that would be problem for a twelve-year-old.

The basic push mower with cast iron wheels you can still buy is pretty close to the one invented 160 years ago. The model a Mr Shanks perfected back then was one you pushed on foot. Hence the term Shanks’s Pony. So think of those humble beginnings on your next walk.

Manual mower in action

Photo: Pixabay

It would be over-egging it to say that wars have been fought over lawns, but they have certainly divided families and broken reputations, made fortunes for some and turned others into paupers, spawned ecological disasters, prompted revolutionary social reforms, measured us morally, inspired poets and woven great romance. We’ll look at those themes as we go, all springing from something as ordinary as mowing the lawn.

But before we get too serious, let’s just acknowledge the pleasure that lawn mowing can bring.

Once you have managed to start the mower that is. If you flood the motor, if the spark plug is dirty, if the blades are clogged with grass, if someone has borrowed the earmuffs, it’s not a good way to start a day.

But when the motor sings and you’re rolling across the lawn like a boat through the waves, and the smell of fresh-cut grass fills the morning air, and the controls you clutch respond to your lightest touch; well, that’s about as good as it’s going to get today.

And with any luck, the mowing experience creates a kind of bubble to think inside. The task itself demands little concentration, once you’ve established the cutting track to follow, and that takes some time. You plot your course with the care of a harbour pilot. Is it going to be circles or swirls or straight lines today? If so, dead straight, please. Wiggles are unforgivable.

Closeup of immaculately cut lawn

Photo: Pixabay

Once the course is set your mind can wander to other things; other people, clever things you might have said if you’d been able to think of them at the time, braver things you might have done. But never mind, for you are doing something useful now as you turn the lawn from scruffy mat to smooth carpet.

Vicki Hastrich talks about the satisfaction that lawnmowing provides through completing of a definable task. Few other activities offer as neatly contained and framed a challenge as a lawn. The borders don’t change, you can time the job pretty carefully and apart from picking up the odd cabbage tree leaf or buried dog bone, nothing much will slow you down.

And when it’s done, whether it’s a backyard pocket-handkerchief patch or a rolling half-acre, the job affords a sense of achievement out of all proportion to the skill and effort you’ve invested.

The positive vibe of a nicely-cut lawn spills over to all that surrounds it, and into the mood of all who see it. Food and drinks taste better on the lawn, the air smells fresher out there.

An idealised illustration of suburban life in America during the 1960s

An idealised illustration of suburban life in America during the 1960s Photo: Retro Suburbia

Vicki Hastrich calls this “the joy of transformation... taking a domestic space and bringing it to order. Making it inviting, hospitable, comfortable, beautiful for those you love, as well as the world at large”.

You have done something worth doing. In the midst of all the other tasks that stay messy and incomplete, despite Covid-19 raging around the world way beyond your control, you have managed to mow the lawn and there it spreads, as a testament to your ability and your value. You look at the grass you have so neatly reordered, as you hope others will too, and you stand a little taller.

Tomorrow will be different. Soon it will lose its tidy trim and the effect will wear off, like last month’s haircut, and you’ll have to cut it again

But for now, savour the moment. You’ve done good and the world smiles and the sun shines brighter.

Chapter 2. In the beginning

A medieval garden illustrated in a Book of Hours, Paris, c. 1470

A medieval garden illustrated in a Book of Hours, Paris, c. 1470 Photo: Morgan Libary

What’s a house without a garden and what’s a garden without a lawn?

We might be forgiven for thinking that lawns have ever been with us, especially if you believe that gardens date back to Adam and Eve. But there is no mention of a lawn in that story.

Whatever God is said to have walked on in the cool of the evening it wasn’t what we would call a lawn.

The word didn't enter the English language until 1548, borrowed from the French, and defined simply as a “place devoyd of trees as in a park or a forret”. No mention of how neatly trimmed. But lawns in medieval times weren’t necessarily very kempt; more likely to sparkle with daisies and violets, trefoils and speedwell.

They offered a walk on the wild side, in the romantic sense, and featured large in paintings, tapestry and poetry. William Chaucer’s The Legend of Good Women has the ladies disporting themselves “upon the small, soft grass that was with flowers sweet embroidered, all of such sweetness and such odour all”.

But even earlier, back in the ninth century, St Benedict’s monks enjoyed a kind of lawn in their cloister gardens, designed as an aid to meditation and holiness.

View from the cloister of the Dominican priory in Bologna

View from the cloister of the Dominican priory in Bologna Photo: Flickr / Fr Lawrence Lew

It was the monasteries that drove the earliest lawn industry. In 1260 they produced the very first gardening book, De Vegetabilis. The author, Dominican abbot Albertus Magnus had firm ideas about how to create a lawn.

“First clear the weeds, flood with boiling water, lay turves (or sods), beaten down with mallets upside down, then trodden in.”

For more detail on all of this than you’ll ever need, read Tom Fort’s book The Grass is Greener – our Love Affair with the Lawn.

Croquet players on their lawn

Croquet players on their lawn Photo: Wikimedia Commons / pschemp

He’s English and a very English affair it is. By the 16th century, the lawn was established as a symbol of English superiority over their European neighbours, and an essential platform on which to play bowls, croquet, later cricket and golf. Sir Francis Drake is said to have been playing bowls on the eve of the Spanish Armada, on a lawn not of grass but camomile; think of it as an early alternative to Astroturf.

Scholars and poets rather smugly sang the praises of the English lawn that made their English gardens so elegant and beautiful. “Nothing contributes more to that elegance,” wrote Sir William Temple, than “the gravel of our walks and the fineness and almost perpetual greenness of our turf.”

Essayist Francis Bacon joined the chorus: “Green kept finely shorn, at the entrance to a garden, nothing is more pleasant to the eye”

The dishonesty of this claim to English superiority was bad enough, pretending as it did, not to borrow heavily from French designs and expertise. That smug state of affairs couldn’t last; nor could the stranglehold that rich aristocracy had on the lawn and garden business.

The garden at Vaux-le-Vicomte chateau, France

The garden at Vaux-le-Vicomte chateau, France Photo: Flickr / Jürgen Mangelsdorf

As wealth was shared with the spread of industry and the expansion of empire, more and more people wanted to grow their own flowers and plants and fruit trees. So lawns shrank, along with gravel walks and grass plots designed for royalty to walk. Such indulgences, wrote John Rea as early as 1665, were “immoral nothings.”

But whether they were moral or immoral, small or large, someone still had to mow the lawn, and the traditional way of doing that with a long-handled scythe was an acquired skill. Not something you could readily do on your front lawn.

A scyther cuts grass on a hillside

A scyther cuts grass on a hillside Photo: Flickr / lyap

Maintaining a lawn was a complicated and costly business. John James writing on the theory and practice of gardens in 1713, borrowing once again from a French translation, summarised grass care like this: “Beat it when it gets too high, roll it with great cylinders of wood or stone and scythe it at least monthly.”

There had to be a better way if the middle classes were to ever enjoy a lawn. They needed a machine of some sort. And luckily the industrial revolution came along just in time to solve the problem and in the process shifted the lawn from exotic accessory for the rich to an essential feature of every house and garden. And even more dramatic, mechanisation helped the lawn become not just something beautiful to look at but also a measure of our moral worth. As we’ll see in the next episodes, that got us into all sorts of trouble.

Chapter 3. Mow me down

Three scythemen in the UK in the 19th century

Three scythemen in the UK in the 19th century Photo: Flickr / Charles W Bailey Jr

We’ve been talking about the history of lawns and lawnmowing and the problem our forebears faced, when lawns became popular, of trying to keep them under control.

The preferred method dating back to 500 BC and widespread in the Middle Ages was a scythe. But to wield its elegantly-curved handle and a long-tapered blade that required constant sharpening was an art form in itself. Scythemen were much sought-after but you needed real money to afford them, along with the sweepers who came behind them and gathered the cuttings into baskets.

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Photo: Mapio

More often sheep did the job instead; especially on big lawns that surrounded places like Downton Abbey (though the four-legged mowers don’t ever feature on telly), and you don’t often see them on cricket pitches where they once grazed in abundance.

I was startled to learn that the fielding position called the slips dates back to the days when sheep droppings made the pitch slippery. Imagine the laundry bill for the cricket whites that they wore.

But that didn’t deter them from using sheep to trim up some of the most famous pitches.

The President of the MCC right up ‘til 1844 preferred sheep to manage the grass for a big test match. I’d like to be able to tell you that the Black Caps began on well-grazed paddocks, but I can’t. What a great story we could have spun for NZ Cricket and the wool industry.

It’s the sort of silly detail that abounds in the tale of lawns. If you want to know more, read Clive Gravett’s delightful book: Two Men Went To Mow – The Obsession, Impact And History Of Lawn Mowing.

Inevitably, sheep and scythes were bound to become redundant. And they did, as lawns slowly spread beyond the reach of the great and the good. Ordinary folks were put off enjoying them because of the cost of maintaining them.

Horse-drawn mower in Hagley Park, Christchurch, 1910.

Horse-drawn mower in Hagley Park, Christchurch, 1910. Photo: Alexander Turnbull Library

Mechanical lawnmowers didn’t arrive till the 1830s and when they did, the landscape changed forever. Edwin Budding invented the first one, surprisingly similar to the ones we still use today, though the machine was pulled as well as pushed, by a boy or a pony; or even, believe it or not, a camel, which had the advantage of wide padded feet. Ponies had to be fitted with special leather shoes to stop them spoiling the turf.

Sales soared when lawnmowers were made easier to push or pull. Green’s Silent Reaper added a chain drive; the American model Archi-median added ball bearings and the mower industry rolled up, up and away.

Advertisement for Ransomes petrol motor mower

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

A brief flirtation with a steam-powered model went nowhere at the end of the 19th century, proving too heavy for the job.

Petrol engine models took over and companies became household names through their products. Dennis Bros, for instance, also known for their fire engines, and Royal Enfield, who also made guns and motorbikes.

Gang mowers, no thanks to the Mongrel Mob, were developed to cut big areas like golf courses, parks and airfields, with several cutting units towed in tandem behind a tractor.

Electric mowers were available from the 1940s and the orange Flymo arrived from Sweden in the mid-‘60s, floating on a cushion of air like a hovercraft, and promoted by young blond women dressed up like someone out of Abba. The Flymo’s marketing slogan was “It's a lot less bovver with a hover.” To which it’s chief competitor, the Qualcast Concorde, retorted, our model is “a lot less bovver than a hover.”

Woman with Morrison's lawnmower

Woman with Morrison's lawnmower Photo: Hawkes Bay Knowledge Trust

Much of this mid-century rivalry was promoted with women rather than men doing the modelling and the marketing. The gender bias of lawn mowing in this most masculine of worlds was under fire. Women were shown to mow with more grace and ease. The first-ever ride-on mower, the Ranger Esimow emerged in 1953 with English film star Diana Dors at the wheel.

Mowers keep evolving. You can buy remote control ones now that require no work from you at all, just sit back and watch.

And for something completely different there are lawnmower races. Formula Green. It’s the cheapest form of motorsport available. All you need to do is disconnect the cutting blades and borrow a crash helmet. A South Island competition is already underway.

The mechanisation of lawn mowing, and the computerisation no doubt, continues. I’ll be sad if it heads in the direction of driverless vehicles and we lose the feet and hands-on control, the feel and the smell that makes mowing as much fun as a ride in a dodgem car. To make it worthwhile, mowing needs to be up close and personal.

Chapter 4. The moral lawn

Perfect lawn

Photo: Flckr / Bob Jenkin

A friend of mine ran a successful business that relied on hiring good staff.

When I asked him how he chose them he said one of his favourite tests was to drive past the home address of applicants and check out how carefully their lawns had been mowed.

It took me a while to recover from learning that, arbitrary as it was. What if the applicant’s mower had broken down, or they’d had a busy week? Or they preferred to put energy into the vege garden or model trains rather than the lawn.

Can your care of lawns ever become a measure of your morality you’re your reliability? Seriously?

I’m afraid it can.

The English and even more enthusiastically, the Americans have long used lawns as a moral test. The Coldwell Lawn Mower knew that and marketed their machines with this catchy tag line: “The character of a homeowner is judged by the care that is given to the lawn.”

And the Better Homes and Gardens magazine went even further: “Not to mow is an attack on one’s neighbour, lowering the value of their home and calling into question, the integrity of the street.”

How did we get to this overblown state of affairs? There is a strong political undercurrent at work here, driven by the hunger for democratic rights.

Wrest House - Wrest Park, Bedfordshire

Wrest House - Wrest Park, Bedfordshire Photo: Flickr / bvi4902

What used to be the exclusive preserve of the rich and aristocratic up till the 17th century became a pleasure that every property owner could aspire to by the 19th century. In colonial New Zealand, no quarter-acre section or country farmhouse was complete without a lawn.

Every man and eventually woman too had a right to look out on a green lawn, and with that democratic privilege came the moral responsibility to look after it and be judged by it.

A well-manicured suburban lawn was a sign of respectability, and households that neglected the task soon felt the disapproval of their neighbours - Te Ara.

A well-manicured suburban lawn was a sign of respectability, and households that neglected the task soon felt the disapproval of their neighbours - Te Ara. Photo: Te Ara

The roots of all that date back to the early Victorian days and writers like John Loudon, known as the father of modern gardening.

His 752-page book The Suburban Gardener and Villa Companion laid down the rules that we’re still living by. To garden and to mow, he argued, is good for the body and the soul.

“A man… who sows a grass plot in his garden lays a more certain foundation for enjoyment than he who builds a wall or lays a gravel path… and enjoyment that consists in working (and mowing) in his garden must be higher in the scale than that of him who amuses himself… with sports like bowls.”

Well, there you have it.

A hierarchy of moral worthiness. Though he’s a bit tough on the bowlers, who after all play their game on the most immaculately manicured of lawns.

Somewhere in that hierarchy is a basic instinct for order and control over the natural world. The garden or the paddock beyond may have gone wild, but if the lawn is kept trimmed, it can be a bulwark, a kind of cordon sanitaire to protect you from the chaos beyond.

A former miner's cottage in Blackball

A former miner's cottage in Blackball Photo: Google Streetview

When l lived in Blackball on the West Coast, I was always intrigued by how neatly the old miners kept their lawns, trimmed short back and sides, like their haircuts, right up to the edge of the encroaching bush and undergrowth that threatened to swallow everything left unattended. They didn’t fuss about flower beds but the tidy lawn was a good investment to come home to, especially after a dangerous, dirty day underground.

You can also add patriotism to that checklist of moral worth. It took nothing less than a war to put lawnmowing on hold for a while. World War II saw thousands of lawns in Britain and around the Empire dug up and planted in potatoes as part of the war effort. And to save manpower, President Woodrow Wilson during World War I kept the White House lawns mowed by a flock of sheep as an example to his fellow Americans.

Those who mow and tend their gardens meticulously, and keep the weeds at bay, they will have their reward. Maybe not in heaven, but should they ever get there, they can be sure they’ll find the lawns will be immaculate.

Chapter 5. Lawn dreaming

Mowing the lawn in 1970

Mowing the lawn in 1970 Photo: Te Ara

For something that takes so much work to maintain and produces so little, apart from being nice to look at, it’s very strange that our lawns are as important as they are.

Why do we treat them so reverently and put up authoritarian signs in public places to Keep Off The Grass, as if they should be treated like some sort of shrine?

Which is exactly what Life Magazine said they should be. As far back as 1969, it wrote, “The American front lawn is a holy place, constantly worshipped but never used.” Look but don’t touch.

The Scytheman by Ilja Jefimovitš Repin

The Scytheman by Ilja Jefimovitš Repin Photo: Wikimedia Commons

To understand this well-rooted mystique, we need to recall the expectations we’ve laid on lawns through the centuries, and the way we have romanticised them for so long, the mowers as well as the lawns themselves.

Right back to the scytheman; the stoic but heroic figure, who rose early when the grass was still damp and easier to cut.

The poet Andrew Marvell wrote dreamily about such a man:

who threw his elbow round
depopulating all the ground
and with his whistling scythe does cut
each stroke between the earth and root.

It’s romantic stuff indeed because we’re not only expressing our need for order and control over nature, and our desire to impress our neighbours and show we’re fit to belong in this street.

Above all and beyond all that, our lawn is something beautiful. It’s a portrait of the way the world could be and we’re the painters.

Living as we do in a messy, dirty, cluttered, often ugly world, the lawn remains a constantly tidy, clean, smooth and pretty place to view.

And we keep it that way as a sign of hope, however small, that maybe, just maybe, our lives could be neat and tidy too, one day.

Wrest Park, Bedfordshire, UK

Wrest Park, Bedfordshire, UK Photo: Flickr / Karen Rowe

That theme of lawns encapsulating something beautiful has been there from the beginning, from the cloistered gardens in medieval monasteries where monks sat and dreamt of God, to the parks of the rich and royal where lawns held fantasies of courtly love and feudal power, to the gardens of the new middle classes where the lawn was a statement that the owners had finally arrived, socially and morally. The magic of the lawn lies in its claim to hold something more, something intangible, something that is simply beautiful.

No wonder the romantic poets waxed so lyrically over lawns. None more so than William Wordsworth:

This lawn, a carpet all alive
with shadows flung from leaves
– to strive in dance,
amid a press of leaves.

In all the literature about homecoming, nothing matches the nostalgic drawing power of a lawn, right up there with old lovers and mum’s cooking. Lawns are remembered as fondly as the houses we grew up in and our favourite dogs.

The quiet order of a well-mowed lawn is a profoundly reassuring image to hold onto, a symbol of a peacetime tranquillity worth fighting for. The House Beautiful magazine in 1944, as part of its war effort, wrote, “wherever the G.I. is, he dreams of velvety lawns and beautiful flowers and he wants to come home to them.”

Suburban houses in postwar Levittown, USA

Suburban houses in postwar Levittown, USA Photo: Library of Congress

What loving parent, preparing for the homecoming of a son or daughter, wouldn’t be sure the lawns are well mowed before they arrive? It’s right up there with baking a chocolate cake and putting a leg of lamb in the oven.

The mystery of this power a lawn has over us runs very deep. How can something so ordinary, no more than a patch of shorn grass, work such magic on us? Part of the answer lies in the colour.

Lawns are always green. Brown doesn’t compete. It depresses us. Green refreshes us. Green is an ancient symbol of rebirth, resurrection, fertility and happiness, rooted in our Celtic past and across all cultures.

The Great Lawn at the San Francisco Botanical Garden

The Great Lawn at the San Francisco Botanical Garden Photo: Wikimedia Commons / Stan Shebs

The 18th-century poet Thomas Addison wrote: “the rays that produce in us the idea of green fall upon the eye in such due proportion that they give the animal spirits their proper play.” No wonder looking out across your lawn in the morning livens up your day.

Modern gardeners invest millions to green up their lawns with chemicals and water by the tankerload. This beauty has a high price tag, higher than the cosmetic industry.

But the money and the work green lawns demand have little to do with common sense and economy. We need them most when we can least afford them. They are really all about creating a little oasis of hope and dreams.

Chapter 6. The future lawn

Dry lawn in drought in front of Sacramento Capitol, USA

Photo: Flickr / Kevin Cortopassi

Will we even have lawns in the future? In a water-starved, overheating and overcrowded world, are they already becoming an ecological luxury and a moral indulgence? Is the oasis of hope they create in fact a mirage?

The droughts we’ve been experiencing recently gave us a taste of a country without lawns, unless you like them brown and dusty. They bounce back with the rain but the memory of those dried up spreads of emptiness remains. If you can’t keep them green and lush, why would you want to waste that space? And how can you justify irrigating lawns when we have to restrict water for growing food and livestock?

Sally Blundell write a cover story for the NZ Listener that summarised the case against lawns as we know them. They contaminate groundwater, create more greenhouse gases than they soak up, and when you cut them they create nasty things called green leaf volatiles that form ozone and unhealthy aerosols.

Lawns cover over about 70% of urban space worldwide, 800,000 sq km of the earth’s surface, an area the size of Pakistan, and create what she calls a “weirdly quiet biodiversity desert”.

Mower shot from drone 3

Photo: Consumer NZ

And they are costly. Aucklanders alone spend about $130 million a year on their lawns. And their Council much more, which is why they’ve given up mowing berms and creating a public furore in the process. The Christchurch City Council tried a no-mow policy on selected river banks to improve biodiversity and spawning habitat, then in response to public outcry, shifted to a minimal cut policy.

The politics of shrinking lawns are ferocious but the future direction is inevitably towards less fuss on lawn care and more alternative uses of open spaces. So expect to see messier urban landscapes, more “spontaneous vegetation” as it’s so coyly called, more native plantings and wildlife habitats, wildflower reserves, herbs and vegetables replacing close-cropped clover; and look for vertical gardens up the sides of buildings.

Cricketers and lawn bowlers will still insist on short back and sides underfoot, but the rest of us need to get used to a more unkempt look. Maybe untidy will become the new normal.

No Pesticides / I love my family and the environment more than my lawn. Sierra club window sign in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada.

Photo: Wikimedia Commons / Tony Webster

This will certainly be kinder on the planet. Lawn care carries a shameful history of chemical excess. It declared war on all sorts of creatures.

Leading villains included the Japanese beetle grub, moles (in the UK they gassed them like some horror story from 1917), even the innocent earthworm was under siege because it left unsightly bumps in its wake.

Arsenate, mercury, cyanamide, potassium cyanate and DDT were sprayed on copiously.

The cost of all this to our biodiversity was enormous.

And fewer lawnmowers will make for a safer society because not everyone is skilled and attuned to the art of mowing. I’m thinking of a cello-playing friend of mine, who put his hand under a rotary mower while it was running to clear the blades. He doesn’t play the cello any more.

But he still mows his lawn, hopefully not adding further costs to the national ACC bill of $8.6 million on mower payouts, 7000 of them annually. My friend should get a contractor to do the job, but it's a hard thing for a man to let go of a lawn, much harder than buying in firewood.

As lawns shrink, become less fashionable, we’ll have to find kinder and more respectful ways to manage the natural world. Before it’s too late.

Dog playing with hose on a lawn

Photo: Pixabay

So next time you mow your lawn, take a moment to wonder what it would look like if you reduced it by half and planted out the free space with groundcover plants, with a water feature or two, and some native grasses growing up the walls and fences.

A retired editor of one of our well-known gardening magazines, once a true believer in the natural look, has converted her back lawn into artificial turf which looks real enough to mow. And she’s bordered it with plants that never need watering.

I can’t see my children ever aspiring to mow lawns. They’re more likely to turn the ones they inherit from me into wetlands.

Living wall of plants in commercial interior

Photo: Urban Planters

And the new mega-mall in Auckland where they’ll go shopping is already dripping with ferns and greenery hanging above the escalators. I’ll swear they are real plants, but they’re probably not, and they’re too high out of reach to find out. What’s more, there’s not a lawn in sight anywhere in that vast complex.

So welcome to the future, if you can bear it.

Lawn seen at sunset

Photo: Pixabay

Other talks by John Bluck

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About the speaker

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Photo: RNZ / Paul Bushnell

John Bluck

John Bluck was born in Hawkes Bay, educated at Napier Boys’ High School, the University of Canterbury and the Episcopal Theological School in Cambridge Massachusetts. He's had interwoven careers in journalism and ministry for the Anglican Church, spending time as a reporter in Boston, USA.

A former journalism tutor and chaplain at the Wellington Polytechnic, he has edited a number of publications including the World Council of Churches’ "One World" magazine in Geneva.

His ecclesiastical career started in Gisborne and took him to posts as varied as Director of Communications at the World Council of Churches, Professor of Pastoral Theology and Communication at Dunedin's Knox Theological Seminary, and Dean of Christchurch Cathedral. He was the 14th Anglican Bishop of Waiapu.

After resigning his See in 2008, he left moved to a rural setting near Warkworth from which he has continued to write and publish.