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Miekduu: An Island of Ingenuity

Miekduu: An Island of Ingenuity

Like most people in the days before easy transport, Young and Edwin Evans preferred the fishing spot closest to home. Undeterred by the 30 metre sheer cliff face down to the shoreline, they found a solution: a 30 metre pine growing parallel to the cliff. Balancing along a pine branch until reaching the trunk, they’d climb down the branches, and then shuffle their way down the trunk like human caterpillars. Using periwinkle or crab for bait, the men would catch their fish, then climb their way back up the pine and onto the cliff. The word that Norfolk Islanders use for this sort of behaviour is ‘miekduu’ – making the most out of the means available. In earlier times of scarcity on Norfolk Island, necessity was the mother of invention and ingenuity.

Think of Julie Andrews in The Sound of Music, staring wistfully at the green curtains (before making them into clothes) and you have a mental image of ingenuity. Speaking to Norfolk Islanders above the age of 50, stories abound in clever solutions to everyday problems. A common thread is that they ‘naawa hiiw enithing aut’ (never threw anything away) because chances are it would come in handy. Whether they were recycling the Marsden matting from the old airstrip for fencing, or shaving knitting needles from pine using broken glass; these were the kind of people you’d want to be stranded with on a small Island.

Take a look at the humble corn. For most people the process is simple; cook and eat the kernels then throw the rest away. For Norfolk Islanders, however, the gift was in the wrapping, the silk decoration and the edible food inside. Most families would dutifully save their finished corncobs, for dipped in kerosene they made fantastic firelighters. The husk would be used to make beautifully soft plaited hats or for mattress stuffing. Combined with horsehair and chicken feathers, cornhusk helped to make comfier – although noisy – bedding. Young girls in particular would cherish the corn silk, as it made lovely hair for dolls. Young boys found their entertainment in the bush: carrying a knife and some string for a bow and arrow, or strips of tyre tube to make a slingshot. Slabs of pine would be used as sleds, and old iron mower wheels were great for billycarts. For the artistic, carbon from inside the size ‘D’ batteries were used for drawing. And if all else failed, a sturdy stick made a lovely horse, and a vine a great skipping rope. The most important thing though was to be home before sunset – or parents might get creative with their flogging method!

Kerosene drums and the wooden boxes they arrived in were valuable items. The kerosene was used to rid hair of louse, and the drums were recycled for a great number of uses such as bush ovens or for measuring palm seed bushels – a piece of kerosene tin has even been used to patch the floor at Number 10 Quality Row. The bags that flour and sugar were imported in became the most widely recycled items on Norfolk, as families found ways to stretch the life out of each acquired material. Hessian sugar bags were hardy floor mats or aprons, but more commonly had strings attached and were used as bags – for fishing, school, lunch or work. Bleached flour bags had the appearance and texture of calico and so were used for curtains or clothing. They were also used to strain cherry guava for jam, and were the original ‘plastic bag’ for shopping. An elderly Island woman remembers her friend falling off a chair and accidentally showing her knickers – written on her backside were the words ‘Bruntons Anchor’.

The Islanders lived predominantly off the land, relying on the ocean and the earth to provide. Fishing rods made out of bamboo and old ‘billy tins’ were taken down to the rocks to catch and cook the ocean’s spoils. Local historian Arthur Evans recalls his father Owen making an ingenious fishing jig from a flax leaf. Stripping down the flax to one piece of line, he would then twist it up, place the hook in the middle, then let the flax go – the twirled up flax strands working like a jig to lure fish. Arthur and his family were involved in the bean industry on Norfolk, which meant long laborious days sorting beans. To speed up the sorting process, Owen cut off one side of an old kerosene tin, and then punctured carefully sized holes that would allow only cracked or weeviled beans to pass through. Of course, all the discards were not thrown away: Arthur painfully recalls eating beans for breakfast lunch and dinner. Beans boiled in cream were such a common dish on Norfolk at the time it was given the name of ‘Cascade Meat’.

Nothing was thrown out if they could help it. Jeanine Brown speaks of a large meat plate in her family that split diagonally. Holes were punctured on both sides of the plate and fine thread wire was used to tie it back together. Glass bottles were always salvaged for future use – some were even cut using hot wire to make vases and ashtrays. Leather was never thrown out as it was always needed to patch saddles, harnesses or shoes, and old salmon tins were ideal for digging out postholes. Perhaps the ‘softest’ form of recycling was the collection of tissue wrap from gifts or purchases. These would be saved for visitors needing to use the long-drop toilet (instead of the regular tobacco leaf).

Ingenuity is defined as being a mixture of imagination and cleverness. When Eddie Yeaman bought a local sawmill on Norfolk, he cleverly imagined the 60 tonne winch from the abandoned whaling station being attached to his truck. In the days without bulldozers, Eddie would tie his truck to a tree and use the bolted down winch to haul logs out of valleys. This winch is currently on display at the local Bounty Folk Museum. Frankie Christian is another Islander whose inventiveness resulted in a collector’s item – he devised a ripper and cable layer out of an old gas cylinder, which attached to the back of a bulldozer. The apparatus allowed for easier laying of telephone cables down the back of Mount Pitt in the 1960’s; the device was even copied by visiting workers for their Australian company.

Perhaps the greatest difference between recycling and ingenuity today compared with yesteryear is the necessity factor. In the past, being resourceful was essential to survival; yet today it is a more matter of choice. After the initial excitement of modern conveniences that made life so much easier, it seems the time has come around to be clever with resources again. Leaning how to ‘miekduu’ is a skill which only practice can master, so to give yourself a headstart you might want to heed Arthur’s advice:

“If something needs doing, then do it, and if you don’t have the right thing for it – then make something up!”


Image Credit: Robin Nisbet


Article content disclaimer: Article first published in YourWorld, Volume 02 Issue 03, 2012. Please note that details of specific travel, accommodation and touring options may be outdated. References to people, places and businesses, including operating days and times may be have changed. References to Government structure and Government businesses/entities may no longer be applicable. Please check directly with businesses and/or Government websites directly rather than relying on any information contained in this article before you make travel arrangements.



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