Ko au te whenua, te whenua ko au (I am the land and the land is me)
By Justine Skilling
A recent stay at a marae in Te Urewera has got me thinking (and feeling). I’ve been working as a waste minimisation facilitator in Mangere/Otahuhu for several years now, trying to do my bit to fight the rising tide of waste in our communities through education and the finding of practical, local solutions. But something’s been missing.
The words of Lorna, a Tuhoe woman born, raised and intimately connected with her whenua, Te Urewera, have had a powerful effect on me. “Who is Te Urewera?”, she began, as we sat in the half darkness of the marae one evening. “Te Urewera is my mother, my home, the place where I feel at peace, the place where I feel most comfortable. Without her, I am lost. She is the source of my language, my food, my health, my spiritual wellbeing, my medicine cabinet. She is where we (Tuhoe) are who we are.”
Her words have stuck with me and bring tears to my eyes every time I recall them. The intimacy of her connection with her place gets to me. It speaks to my heart. It’s not something that I’ve experienced, having moved around a lot, my ancestors hailing from unknown places in Scotland, Ireland, England. My connection to my own iwi a type-written family tree on a page.
Did my ancestors once have a deep connection to their place? Is this something we all yearn for and have a genetic memory of, deep in our bones? I don’t know. But the tears make me suspect we do.
I come away from Te Urewera inspired and challenged. What would our world look like if we all truly believed that the earth was our mother, our home, our source of nourishment? How would we live? What would we do differently? It’s much easier to imagine this in a place as beautiful as Te Urewera than in the middle of suburban Auckland.
But even this area was (and still is) a place loved and cherished as a mother. Underneath the concrete and tarseal lies her fertile soil and the life blood of her waterways. The small patches of bush remind us of the mighty forests that used to cloak her. The mountains that have escaped quarrying testify to the dynamic forces at work below the surface.
Can we regain a sense of this connection? I believe we can, and we need to. Papatuanuku is groaning from the stress we’re putting her under, demanding that she sustain a lifestyle she isn’t able to sustain. Her climate is changing rapidly. She’s running out of room to absorb all the waste we’re creating. Our loss of connection to her is making us sick. Without this connection, we are lost.
My challenge, to myself and to all of us, is to work on recreating a connection with the place we call home. I’m going to start by looking for people who still have this connection and to listen to their stories. I’m going to spend more time on my local mountain, walking by the harbour and along the streams in my suburb. I’m going to care for them as if they were my mother. And I’m going to try and live my life with all of this in mind, and heart. I want to encourage you to do the same.