It was back in 2021 that the shared vision that has become Mauri oho began to emerge between my sisters Liz and Lucy, my husband Rod, our mother Yvonne and myself. As I began to research how to begin a wetland restoration project all roads seemed to lead to Rawiri (Ra) Smith; his name came up in nearly every conversation I had. There was no doubt he was well regarded particularly in relation to the Ruamāhanga river. Joe from the Lions knew him, Edith, our te reo teacher knew him, the botanists and the flood team from the Regional Council knew him. Our interest in working with tangata whenua went beyond the legal compliance for wetland restoration that I gathered might be required by Resource Management legislation. We felt a meaningful relationship with tangata whenua was key to developing our connection with the land and this could only be a good thing.
I first came across Ra through an imaginative interview he had done with the Ruamāhanga river. In the interview Ra had written about what the river might feel about all of the changes that settler farmers had wrought upon the land, the changing and controlling of the course of the river, the draining and polluting of the water. Not long after reading the interview, a local storytelling friend, Gaye Sutton introduced Rod and me to Ra. I can remember our meeting in Trocadero café in Masterton clearly. Looking through the café window, I saw Gaye in the reds of her storytelling self. She was sitting next to a large bearded figure in black; already I had a sense that this was no ordinary guy. Immediately on sitting down I felt welcome and comfortable. Ra knew members of my wider family. In the local area the best known amongst them have mostly been the men, strong willed and sometimes politely referred to as colourful characters. I like to think of my family as the delta of a wide river. We sometimes run in different streams and I am learning to appreciate the diversity of thinking amongst us. Without the need for too many words, Ra seemed to understand what we wanted to do. It was evident that the task of allowing the wetland to return to how it wanted to be was not just a physical story; it was also a cultural shifting of worldview and identity story. Our conversation wove seamlessly between the practical and the philosophical, future possibilities and the harshness of past realities. Ra had a humble and encouraging way about him. He generously shared something of his own heritage, particularly from his Pākehā side. He is from the Jury family who were German and English. They had been lightermen on the Thames at Wapping in London. “The English are such great storytellers,” he said. “I imagine them there on the river, hearing stories from the people who had travelled across the seas.” We talked of the upside of a pioneering spirit, the curiosity to go beyond the limitations of one’s own horizon and the desire to get away from the harsh conditions of England in the 1800s.
I spoke of my mother Yvonne and how she is on a journey too. Her traditional farming up-bringing and now working with us to explore new ways with the land, sometimes create feelings of conflict within her; she has been vulnerable and open about this. I shared with Ra some of the conversations I have had with Yvonne. I described how a few mornings before Yvonne had said to me, “I woke with a depressed feeling this morning, are we trying to push water uphill.” To which I repeated her own advice to me; “ if you didn’t feel vulnerable your work wouldn’t be good.” Ra then explained to us that in the hydrology of the Wairarapa, water is literally pushed upwards through tectonic plates, so Yvonne’s metaphor was an apt one, this is literally what we are trying to do.
I described how when I was a young woman I felt I needed to get away and live overseas. “That makes me very sad” said Ra and he went on to say that he hoped it wasn’t Māori that had made me feel that way. “Absolutely not” I said, “it was in my own heart, it was a yearning to find connection and a different sense of home. Now I feel ready to come home to connect with something that was not so available to me in my growing up years.”
“I would like to help you, to work with you. ” Ra said.
“I know my sisters would welcome that too” I replied.
Ra went on to say, “I would also like to learn from you.” This surprised me and I said, “I think Aotearoa New Zealand has had enough of approaches coming from England, surely now is a time for us to listen and learn.”
“Well” said Ra, “anyone who has made it on the mean streets of London has something to offer.” “There is that,” I agreed.
This was an opening for a glimpsed kind of visioning, what it might be if we really could weave together the best of each others’ histories. I thought again of the water being forced up through the faultline of the tectonic plates. It must be a kind of purification process. It is not about returning to the past, it is supporting the new to be born out of the lessons of the past.
“When can we meet again? Would you like to come and walk the land with us ?” I asked.
“I would love that” said Ra and a date was set. With that his strong and gentle presence disappeared through the backdoor of the café.
As Rod and I eagerly told my mother the story of what had happened, I felt as if everything before had led to those moments, and they were a doorway to so much that lay ahead. Arriving back at Ruamāhanga, the connection to the remnant kahikateas and my two sisters felt strong. Walking down the laneway, standing by one of those old trees, I called my sister Liz. Step by step, I shared the significance of what had happened that day.
Finally the morning arrived for Ra’s visit; Mum, Liz and I got up early to make cake, scones and tea. What was to be a morning visit down to the river stretched to lunch so that Ra could spend more time with my Mother. She had stayed behind making soup … just in case he would take take up our invitation for lunch. Ra described Yvonne like this, “When I hear your mother’s voice I associate the way she talks with a particular set of attitudes, however when I look into her eyes what I see is a bush heart.” Before he left he asked me to take a photograph of the two of them together.
During Ra’s visit we asked him about a name for what we are trying to do and he spoke at length of Mauri oho which means awakening of the life force. The name stayed with me, however it wasn’t until a year later that I felt comfortable to use it, more as a catalyst, work in process sort of name. What felt like permission came in an unexpected way. Joe Howells and other members of the local Lions club had agreed to help us with the clear up of branches from the Tasmanian blackwood that we were felling by the river. As we drove to the river to plan how the work would go, we shared banter and got to know a bit about each other. These were experienced, mostly retired local men. They and others come together regularly to be outdoors, to spend time with each other and to raise funds for the local community including the tree nursery at the nearby Kohunui marae . On this occasion their plan was to turn the branches into firewood for sale. I was struck by the combination of practical ‘can…doism’ and lightness of being amongst them and I shared their appreciation of trees, the future and the history of the land. In between discussing chainsaws and tractors it felt like we slipped through a portal; back to a time before people had come to the place where we now stood; a time when the land was estuarine surrounded by the sea. That was about 3000 years ago. The sea slowly receded approximately 300 years for every mile; the sea is now 30 miles south of where we were standing. As we talked we reached back further in time, pre-human, into a time before mammals when birds ruled our planet. It wasn’t hard to agree on the infancy and ignorance of our species and in that there was a shared recognition that we are not the top species as many of us have been led to believe. In that conversation, the seeds of what felt like a shared vision grew. I realised that our Mauri oho contributions were part of a movement much larger than what we as a family might do at Ruamāhanga Farm. We started to imagine the wetlands and native riverine forest returning and spreading along the river. I sensed there was much more in the good craic between us; there was a sense of possibility that felt like a whisper from a future not yet told.
Over the last year in the early beginnings of our Ruamāhanga Mauri oho work we have been growing our kaupapa. Step by step, layer by layer grounding values have been explored. This began with my two sisters Liz and Lucy, husband Rod and I, then with Ra and other local leaders and now with the many volunteers who have come to support us. Their involvement has not only helped us practically but most importantly it has brought a sense of community and confidence. For these gatherings Ra has gifted us with a number of ‘karakia , which we have shared by the River. The combination of the flowing water and the Karakia invite silence, helping us shift gear into a slower rhythm. In the conscious and collective abstinence from doing, a different sense of time seems to open up and from there the productive practical work can begin. As the poet John O’Donohue described; “The spirit and soul dimensions are not luxury items, they are the very origins and sources which will enable everything to flow and unfold in a new way.”