Written by Jane Riddiford
Catching the train to Wellington, I remember to look up and catch a last glimpse of the Wairarapa Moana before we head into the tunnel that takes us through the heart of the Remutaka’s. I had just come from our weekly te reo class. We began the class by sharing our pepeha. Over the months I have been in Aotearoa, Sandy Ngamoki, our teacher, has been gently introducing us to the important role of the pepeha. This is a traditional way of introducing one’s place through relationships within the land; particularly mountain, river and sea.
The train journey to Wellington always feels special and in many ways personal to me. It starts with the Remutaka’s and finishes with Whanganui a tara, known by me for most of my life as Wellington Harbour. In between the train flashes past the silver tail of Te Awa Kairangi, the mighty waters of the Hutt River. The history of my family is interwoven with these places. I was born in a nursing home near what was known by most people then as the Hutt River. My ancestors arrived on a sailing ship from England at the mouth of that river. My husband Rod and I live over the Remutaka ranges with my elderly mother at the southern end, and in the middle of the Wairarapa valley.
I often have the sensation of being held by the basket of hills that surrounds our farm. Early that morning I saw the layered hills as two long smooth bands, lying like sleeping eels on the horizon; one green, one brown. An hour later on our drive to Featherston the hills were full of folds, cascading down towards the valley floor. Naming and sharing these landmarks, through a pepeha, not only helps others place me; they help me place myself, especially when times are turbulent. I take in the dark green cloak of the mountains before we dive into the darkness of the tunnel. Speeding along the edge of Whanganui a tara, I put down my phone. My attention is drawn by the dark blue sea. Engraving the image inside me, I am aware that I might need to draw on it later that day. It’s an almost ritualised act in preparation for the next chemotherapy treatment that I was on my way to receive. Fifteen months of treatment with surgery and radiation along the way. As I write about it I feel a sea of emotion bubbling to the surface; there is exhaustion and relief, but mostly there is gratitude for the alive and reflective space that working with a cancer diagnosis has opened up for me.
I began to write this piece during the hour or so of infusion. Towards the end the alarm went off and the nurse inspected the ominous black bag that held the liquid cytotoxic drug.
“I will give it one last squeeze” she says, “we don’t want to waste it.”
“Will a few drops really make any difference” I wonder. At that moment I decided to think more about the hills, the trees and the sea.
“Ok my dear, six minute flush.” The nurse says.
A picture of the mist we have been experiencing on these cold Wairarapa mornings, fills my mind. Rising out of mist are the three kahikatea in the oxbow 1wetland we are restoring.
1 The oxbow on our farm, is a previous meander of the Ruamāhanga river.
We call these trees the three sisters, a recognition of the commitment that Liz and Lucy, my two sisters and I have made along with Rod and my mother Yvonne, to find a different way with our family land. Today and on many other occasions, these three trees are my anchor. I think about my friend Kirstie. She wrote to me from Wales saying, “funny that just at the time we re-connect, you are at the end of a journey and I am at the beginning.”
All those months ago, through my conversation with those trees I got what might be called a message, a faint but strong feeling that a marriage between the mythic and the scientific was a helpful way for me to ride the health challenges that I was faced with. Kirstie is at that same tricky place of making sense of cancer treatment plans; having just decided to go ahead with a chemotherapy regime. Another new friend, Justin messages me. He is also in the Wellington hospital. It’s nice to think of him here at the same time as me; an excuse to share a little bit more about ourselves. Ron the chaplain comes by and offers me more tea.
I am amazed the three sisters have survived, they like company and yet they have been lone sentinels, standing, waiting and watching as the land became shaped and stripped bare over the last 100 years or more. Last Sunday, we had a community volunteer day and planted more than 100 trees and grasses around the three kahikatea. I took my mother out on her new mobility scooter. As we made our way along the farm track she looked up and said, “I think the three sisters look happier now.”
“Count to three,” the nurse says. I breathe in whilst contemplating the big buttressed roots of the kahikatea that can withstand both floods and drought. I imagine their roots like veins spreading through the earth. I feel the sharp prick as the end of my drug line is pulled out of the rubber port that sits just beneath the skin. “Do you have an appointment for your next treatment”, the nurse says. “No this is the last one” I reply, half expecting she might offer some kind of celebratory response. “Ok that’s fine,” she mutters and walks away.
Despite this seemingly flat response, I was left with more than I could have asked for that day. My attention was far from being a body filled with toxic chemicals. During my treatment, through focussing on my pepeha, I experienced the restorative power of identifying with my mountain, my river and my sea.