Live at the AM podcast: Humannature series – Alice Te Punga Somerville
Alice Te Punga Somerville, University of Waikato, gives her talk, 'Taupata, taro, roots, earth: the (Indigenous) politics of gardening'.
Drawing on scholarship and activism connected to cultivation by Indigenous peoples, this talk - examines texts by Indigenous writers alongside historical and contemporary media texts about gardens and gardening to explore the diverse ways in which relationships (human and non-human) are mediated and nurtured through acts of gardening.
This event took place in the Hallstrom Theatre, Australian Museum, Sydney, on 14 June 2018.
Tanya Goldberg: Welcome to the Australian Museum. I'm very happy to welcome you this evening. I'd also like to acknowledge the traditional owners of the land on which the Australian Museum stands, the Gadigal people of the Eora nation, and pay my respect to their elders of the past, the present and the future.
And I'd like to welcome all of you to the fifth of nine talks in the inaugural Human Nature lecture series. This is a landmark series that marks the collaboration of four major universities with the museum and with academics from around Australia and the world who are leaders in the field of the environmental humanities.
The museum is the custodian of a collection of more 18 million objects, and it provides a record of the environmental and cultural histories and diversities of the Australian and Pacific regions. Its scientific collections and its ongoing research informs understanding of some of the most pressing environmental and social challenges facing our region, including the loss of biodiversity, the changing climate, and the assertion of cultural identity.
I really believe that the museum is the place where the past meets the future, and where understanding and care for our world is inspired by the researchers and scientists and cultural specialists, by our exhibitions and really significantly by events just like this series. This lecture series is striving to investigate and communicate the relationship between people, culture and the environment.
So I hope you'll also join us for the remaining talks in the series. We have a terrific line-up of speakers. It's really an extraordinary group still to come, and tonight's lecture will also be available on the AM Live podcast, so you can share it.
And yeah, I guess we should get going, so to introduce tonight's speaker please welcome Associate Professor Thom Dooren from the Department of Gender and Cultural Studies at the University of Sydney. Thanks.
Thom van Dooren: Thank you very much, Tanya. Thank you all for coming. It's a pleasure to have the opportunity to introduce Alice Te Punga Somerville tonight. Associate Professor Te Punga Somerville is a leading scholar of Maori and Pacific Indigenous Literary and Cultural Studies at the University of Waikato. Her work takes up important questions about indigeneity, identity, colonisation, place and storytelling in Aotearoa-New Zealand and beyond.
She is interested in the stories that are told about and by the diverse indigenous peoples of Oceania; stories that narrate lives, pasts and possibilities. These stories she shows us are incredible resources, not just for understanding, but for thinking and living otherwise.
Associate Professor Te Punga Somerville is the author of numerous essays and articles, and of the book, Once Were Pacific: Maori Connections to Oceania. Tonight she'll be presenting to us on the topic of Taupata, taro, roots, earth: the (Indigenous) politics of gardening. Please join me in welcoming her.
Alice Te Punga Somerville: [Greeting and acknowledgment to country in language] I'd also like to acknowledge the people who have invited me to be here, the [??] this lecture series.
Thank you for the invitation, Thom, and thank you for the people at the Australian Museum who have brought us together.
Where I come from we also like to acknowledge what we call the [language] the people with warm hands who have made sure that we have full tummies and we're nice and warm and comfortable, and all of our physical needs are met. So thank you to the bloke pouring the drinks and all the people that have made sure that we're well looked after tonight.
I have my daughter with me today, and she's 10 months old and she probably thinks that you've all come to see her. Hopefully she will not dominate too much, and my husband will take her out. I hope that she doesn't put you off. I have an ability to tune out the baby, and I hope that you guys are all cool with that. In indigenous contexts it's kind of how we roll, but I just wanted to acknowledge that my babbling little child over there, Titilia, has travelled with us as well. So that's why she's here tonight.
I'd also like to acknowledge—I spent a couple of years living in Sydney, we did as a family, and it was a great couple of years and we met some really great people, and it's really nice—I have a sense of coming home for a bit of a family reunion tonight, which is pretty cool. So thank you to friends and colleagues who have come along tonight.
What on earth could be political about gardening?
In 1994 the foundational Maori writer Jacqui Sturm spoke in an interview about a metaphor she engages in her poem, 'Splitting the Stone'. The metaphor is about what she describes as the 'green space', which is the space of artistic production that can be found—for her at least—'between/ The roses and the taupata.'
Sturm clarifies in the later interview that taupata, an indigenous New Zealand plant that grows as a shrub or tree and has many shiny, fat, green leaves (these are the leaves here) stands in for the Maori side. So for her, taupata stands in for her Maori world, while the roses are the English side.
She means the plants to refer to cultural background, but also respect of the [??] tradition. Her point is about the productive creative work that can take place when one manages to find space between the taupata and the roses.
Taupata is known botanically as Coprosma repens, and in English it's often known as the mirror plant. Taupata is very familiar to me because of its presence on Matiu Somes Island in the middle of the Wellington Harbour.
Matiu Island was returned a few years ago to my tribe and we had this house on its top, with a giant dining room table, which is my favourite place in the world to write and to be. I spend a lot of time being near taupata when I'm on the island, because it's been used strategically as what's called a 'pioneer plant', in conservation-speak. It's extremely hardy and salt-resistant, and so is used, along with another couple of species as the first plants in a process of gradual replanting and rejuvenation of an island that was almost completely cleared.
Matiu/Somes is a very small island in the middle of the Wellington Harbour. You can walk around it in about 45 minutes, and that's if you stop to enjoy the view and take a few selfies as you go. Our island is to Wellington a little bit like Alcatraz is to San Francisco: very near a major city, but cut off by water. After being 'acquired', to put it politely, by the Crown in the 19th century, the island has been used by Europeans as a prison, a human quarantine, an animal quarantine, and a scientific laboratory.
Over a century of these various uses left it completely barren and in dire need of life. Over the past few decades the island has been gradually and lovingly replanted. Currently under the domain of the Department of Conservation, the island has been brought back to fruition by them as well as volunteer groups, including Forest and Bird, and the Eastbourne Forest Rangers.
This process of replanting involves the deliberate use of gardening in order to turn back time. But what is the time we're trying to turn it back to? And who is the 'we'? 'We' here, means the New Zealand Crown in the form of the Department of Conservation (DOC) and community groups which tend not to include Maori.
On the Forest and Bird website you can read about their contribution to the island and they describe their work as 'A grand task to revegetate Matiu Somes with a native cloak. Around 130,000 natives were propagated in three nurseries on the island, and planted. So successful was the project, the island has been designated a scientific reserve.'
There's no question that the long-standing and ongoing work of this volunteer group has made a positive and tangible difference to the island. But in 2009 the Crown apologised to my tribe for its many assaults on our people and our places. And one of the things they returned to us, one of the tiny little crumbs they flicked off their well-stocked Wellington table in our direction, was the island.
We now own it outright, fee simple. But the ownership is restricted by a co-management arrangement between DOC and our tribe. We get to own it, but only on the terms set by DOC, including the continuity of the scientific reserve and the historic reserve, which is code for retaining a bunch of concrete and wooden buildings and emplacements from various European activities on the island.
We own it. And the significance of Maori historical connection to the island is officially, in signposts and Treaty Waitangi findings and all kinds of exciting places, officially recounted and understood. But on the Forest and Bird website there's no mention of us. Their acts of gardening have replaced ours, and they have been so successful with the gardening, that they returned the island to a state that is so good that now yokes us to the Crown.
All that taupata. All that native cloak. But what about the natives? Forest and Bird's history of connection and even access to the island since 1982 reigns supreme here. Also on the website where they advertise the availability of their lodge on the island for hire, we find, 'The island was once covered in farmland, but Forest and Bird members have been restoring the island since 1982.'
I do respect and have cups of tea with the people who for years have cut their sandwiches and filled their thermoses and put on their sensible shoes and paid for their own ferry tickets to the island to work in the nurseries.
But it also makes me sad. It's a double punishment to lose an island and then to have someone else restore it. How would you feel if you went home this evening and found one of those TV redecorating shows had thrown out all of your things and remodelled your house? Some people might say, 'But they did a lovely job. Why would you complain about getting a free reno?'
But how would you even begin to account for what you'd lost? Not just the things but the projects and dreams that you had in your mind for your place that you wanted to undertake in the future? A new paint job loses its shine if it smartly and prettily covers up lines on a door frame that marked the heights of your growing children.
Why would Maori people not be involved in this kind of restoration? What does it mean to restore something? One day I was sitting outside the building allocated to our tribe—and don't get all like 'cultural house' ideas in your head; it's like a three-bedroom, suburban-like house with a lounge and a whatever that looks like it's been Photo-shopped in from the suburbs—with my sister and my cousin, we were basking in the summer sunlight. And if you know anything about Wellington you know we were enjoying every moment of the five minutes we were out there. And someone connected with replanting stopped by for a chat.
We ended up talking about how one important element of a replanting program had, after such a long period of time, turned into a plant removal program, because some of the trees and the other plants that had arrived on the island, either during the early phase of deliberate replanting or by accident, weren't actually indigenous to it. We asked which plants didn't really belong here, and the person said they were looking at some pine trees. There was like a stand of pine trees, and we weren't surprised at all about that. And then she said, 'Oh, and there's also the pohutukawa.'
Now, the pohutukawa is the iconic New Zealand Christmas tree, with bright red blooms that appear in early summer, and has relatives all around the Pacific region, as well as elsewhere in New Zealand. One of its cousins is the southern rata, which apparently belongs in the Wellington region. But we were confused. Wasn't pohutukawa indigenous to New Zealand? Like the pine trees, sure, but pohutukawa? We understood the foreign pine trees.
Well, the person explained. The pohutukawa doesn't naturallyoccur south of a horizontal line about halfway up the North Island, which means it's out of place down in Wellington, further south. The problem here, of course, is the question of what 'naturally occurring' means. I understand what 'foreign' means. But 'naturally occurring' in this case means without any human meddling.
And humans had meddled here. The pohutukawa appeared south of its line of natural occurrence because of Maori. We picked it up over hundreds of years and took it places south.
And so restoration, reversing the impact of foreign plants on the island is a good thing, right? But it necessitated, from the point of view of the person we were talking with, the removal of all human agency. Restoring nature to its most natural form, according to this logic, prefers an ecosystem free of human intervention, free of individual or collective acts of deliberate cultivation. Free of gardening.
Free of Maori gardening, but propped up and maintained by non-Maori volunteer gardening. The island that had been stripped bare of plants had become itself an argument for stripping the land bare of humans as well. We would've turned back time, as Cher would say. Always nicer to quote her, I say. More interesting than Foucault most days of the week. But we would have turned it back not just to prior to the European theft and devastation of land, we would have turned it all the way back to a time prior to human arrival.
Speaking of human arrival, what on earth could be political about taro?
Matiu/Somes is a double-barrelled name for our small island that's now forced to wear its post-colonial history in triplicate—as Matiu, as Somes and, since 1997 as Matiu/Somes. The island is named after Matiu, a granddaughter of the great Maori voyager, the explorer Kupe, and nearby to Matiu there's another, smaller island, Makaro, which is named after Matiu's sister.
The island is also named after Joseph Somes, a boat-builder in the UK who never made it out to the country that named an island after him. What a missed opportunity for him.
Kupe named these harbour islands when he had first arrived in our not so tropical islands from actually tropical Polynesia, and he and his travelling party enjoyed using our small, protected harbour as a base from which to explore the gigantic, cold islands—unlike anything they'd seen for millennia.
As he left the harbour to finally sail home, he named the islands as a prophecy and promise that his descendants would return and populate this place. And they did. We did. And over time we became Maori.
We're the babies of the Pacific. The last to arrive in our home islands after a long, complex, and if I might say so myself on behalf of Pacific people, incredibly impressive journey from Asia in the west all the way across the massive body of water that covers a third of the Earth's surface, through the central Pacific and finally to eastern Polynesia and the major departure points of Samoa, Taputapuatea in French occupied Polynesia, and the Cook Islands. The last three places for Pacific arrivals were Hawaii, Rapa Nui (Easter Island), and Aotearoa.
I do just want to—this is in brackets to remind myself to do this—I do just want to take a moment here to note that when I recount this particular version of what's sometimes referred to as 'the peopling of the Pacific', with its feats of navigation and thousands of years of relatives saying goodbye to relatives and moving on to the next place, I want to take the time to gesture towards our simultaneous understandings of ourselves as people who have clear and ongoing and back to infinity connections to the landscapes and their various gods and the respective places we currently call home. As I've argued before, in the Pacific we find no contradiction between arriving from somewhere and having always been there. We're like, yeah, we can do that. We can like always have been there and arrive from somewhere. What's contradictory about that?
So here we are, at the peopling of the Pacific. Every once in a while some outsider decides we couldn't have been clever enough to have deliberately navigated so impressively. But these racist critiques have generally been put to bed for a while. There's general acceptance that our ancestors travelled carefully, methodically, and skilfully. No accidental drift or winning the navigation lottery. More like thoroughly prepared expeditions—including careful selection of plants: taro, coconuts, yam, breadfruit and the whole gang to be carried on each journey.
We talk quite a bit at the moment about the scientific skill of our Pacific ancestors in relation to navigation. But we've actually also always been gardeners, propagators, seed savers, planters, weeders, irrigators and innovators upon arrival in each new Pacific site.
All Pacific cultures include a wide range of expertise connected to gardening. In every Pacific place there are calendars, knowledge about indicators between different species in an ecosystem, ways of managing soil and water, and so on.
Gardening practices in the Pacific reflect the sheer diversity of the region, including the experiences of some Pacific people as voyagers and adapters over a very long period of time, and the experiences of other Pacific people living and gardening in the same place for thousands of years.
Which brings us to taro. Taro, one of the oldest domesticated plants in the world, has been distributed through human and natural means for millennia. In the Solomon Islands, an early stop on the pathway from Asia to Aotearoa, excavations at a specific cave that are dated between 20,000 and 28,000 years old yielded stone tools on which they found taro grains. I felt quite relieved to read that. I'm glad to know that my tendency to not remember to clean off my gardening tools is something I can now claim is an inherited trait from my long ago seafaring ancestors.
And so we've had taro in New Zealand since Kupe's descendants arrived and took up residence in our islands. The taro has been carried from island to island, planted there, stored, brought to the next island for millennia. Although like the paper mulberry which is the source of bark which makes tapa or masi or siapo siapo, and which could only survive in the two warmest spots of the North Island. Taro does struggle to grow in New Zealand's cold.
In my book about Maori connections to the Pacific I wrote about the paper mulberry tree, which we call the aute, which we continued to grow, despite only being able to produce tapa strips big enough for earrings and decoration—unlike the rest of the region where it's really warm and they can get these massive sheets of tapa and wrap themselves in it, decorate rooms. We're like, we have these nice earrings. They're very lovely, with a little dangle of tapa right here.
Writing about the aute in his 1923 discussion of Maori clothing, Te Rangihiroa cites an account from 1880 recalling the aute in the far north had been nearly destroyed by the cattle of the Europeans earlier that century. Te Rangihiroa follows with an observation that, 'the plant is now extinct in New Zealand.' So we managed to keep preserving that plant which didn't like the temperature at all, but we really had to make sure we could still make our little earrings over all those many, many generations.
And then along came the cattle. This tragic final turn of events for the aute was therefore brought about by the introduction of European farming. They were figuratively but also literally trampled to death.
Along with the taro and paper mulberry, our ancestors brought in and cultivated hui, or gourds, ufi or yam, tipore, cabbage tree, and kumara, sweet potato—although kumara's a bit of a special one because we went over and picked that one up from South America.
Samoan writer, artist and teacher Albert Wendt published a poetry collection called From Manoa to a Ponsonby Gardenin 2013.
And his collection uses gardening to explore the relationship between the peopling of the Pacific, specific Pacific places and, in one poem, taro.
The collection's split into two sections. One focuses on Manoa, the valley in Honolulu in which he lived with his partner Reina Whaitiri while they taught at the University of Hawaii, whose main campus is in Manoa. And then the second section, is called A Ponsonby Garden, and that's made up of relatively domestic poems that describe his and Reina's garden and their home in Ponsonby, an Auckland suburb, to which they returned after their stint in Hawaii.
The collection is a thoughtful reflection on moving across space—in the first section with time spent in Hawaii, but also moving through time as Albert reflects on ageing. A humorous and very cute link between the two sections is that Albert and Reina have a cat in New Zealand called Manoa who likes to spend a lot of time in the Ponsonby garden, and whose name appears in each poem of the second half. So if you're familiar with the Manoa as a valley in Hawaii, you might giggle as you read the poems that tell you that Manoa is now lazing in the sun, avoiding an over-keen grandchild and hunting insects. But this is Albert Wendt's style. He kind of puts little things in there to keep you guessing. Another link is repetition of the word lanai, the word that's widely used in Hawaii to refer to a porch or balcony.
The poems in the Ponsonby garden section tend to focus less on describing the flowers and other plants and more on the work required to keep them alive and flourishing. The garden in Ponsonby takes a lot of work. Each poem notes different tasks, like pruning, planting, mowing, chopping, digging, weeding—and this work draws attention to the workers. Not often Wendt himself, who's often observing from the lanai, at everyone who's looking after his garden. Then in various poems he names his children, his grandchildren and his partner.
So as he describes the work in the garden, he also is building up the family tree (excuse the pun). In this way gardening is not merely a product-focused or kind of individual leisure activity, but is tied up with the nurturing and affirmation of human and non-human relationships.
Wendt opens the first section, Manoa, with a poem called 'Ko'olau'. The Ko'olau is the name of the mountain range that sits at the back of the Manua valley, which is in turn defined and enclosed by its many peaks. After describing his own repeated attempts to depict the Ko'olau in sketches (because he's a visual artist as well as a poet), he reflects on what he calls 'the other mountains in my life.' Vaea and Mauga-o-Fetu in Samoa and Taranaki in New Zealand because he went to boarding school there.
The region of Taranaki, a mountain from which I am descended, incidentally, was the site of vicious colonial violence in the 19th century, and Wendt notes that the local indigenous people were, 'driven eventually / from their lands but not from the defiant struggle / their descendants continue today forever until victory.'
Having brought himself, and us, to acknowledge the ongoing presence and struggle of indigenous people, he moves his focus back to the Ko'olau.
'The Ko'olau watched the first people settle in the valley / The Kanaka Maoli planted their ancestor the Kalo / in the mud of the stream and swamps / and later in the terraced lo'i they constructed / Their ancestor fed on the valley's black blood / They fed on the ancestor / and flourished for generations.'
You can see here the painting he did in Hawaii, which includes specific sections of this poem, and which he presented to the Department of English there before returning to New Zealand.
I had the privilege of teaching this poem to Pacific Lit students in that department, and each semester we'd all trot up to the department lounge and spend a class talking about the poem and looking at this amazing painting. Wendt is thinking through what it means to write and paint and be present in Hawaii when one is from the Pacific but not Hawaiian. He describes his inability to capture the Ko'olau on paper, but he also demonstrates his respect for persistence—to keep trying to get it right.
However, in the context of this evening's discussion one of the things that strikes me about this section of the poem is that he doesn't merely acknowledge land and then people attached to the land, he slows down and he traces the specific engagement of the people with the land through planting and gardening.
The first act—the first act by which Kanaka Maoli, or Hawaiian people, assert permanent presence and make the valley their home—is the planting of their ancestor, the kalo. Kalo of course is the Hawaiian word for taro, and Wendt mentions the complex, unique and very efficient wet irrigation systems the Hawaiians developed in their islands, a terrace system known as the lo'i. In this stanza, the concept of land is rendered in Hawaiian terms, because the Hawaiian word for land is aina, which means 'that which feeds'.
'Their ancestor fed on the valley's black blood / They fed on the ancestor.' The black blood here is the rich volcanic soil, and so the act of gardening provides the mechanism by which the blood of the land can nurture and is connected to the blood of the people. So the aina feeds the people by definition, and also in practice.
But why does Wendt refer to the kalo, that go-between which feeds off the land and then feeds the people, as the ancestor? Well according to Hawaiian history, the first offspring of two of their primordial parents was Haloa-naka, who was stillborn.
When the child was buried it grew into the first kalo. The second child of the same parents was also called Haloa, and was the first human. And so Hawaiians understand that the kalo, the taro, is their ancestor. It's their nurturing elder sibling that will always look after them and feed them. Taro continues to travel around the Pacific region, feeding the people who plant it in gardens wherever we go.
When my daughter was born a few months ago, a friend of mine brought her a taro plant. It was from my friend's grandfather's garden, and it arrived in a nice concrete pot with a fashionable geometric teal pattern on it. It was for us to plant for our girl, but seeing as she was born in August and we live in New Zealand it wasn't a good time to plunge it into the icy soil. Funnily enough, my friend and her daughter brought it over to our house just a few days after I'd sent in the abstract for this talk—in which I of course included a reference to taro, and I thought, Oh, and here it is. Exhibit A coming in the front door in a nice pot.
I was thinking about it when I was writing the abstract, as a Pacific crop and a symbol as well as material evidence of the gardening knowledge and practices of the region. I hadn't been thinking about it as a plant we also still tend in New Zealand, and I admit, I was kind of surprised when she explained its source.
What we brought from tropical Polynesia and gardened for many generations changed rapidly once Europeans arrived, with their new crops, their new agricultural methods, and their appetite to cut us off from our food supplies. Our diet has shifted dramatically, and our tongues have been colonised not only by changing the language they speak, but also the tastes they recognise and enjoy.
Things we used to grow and eat as staple foods are no longer on the menu for most of us. I can probably tell you 50 ways to prepare potato or kumara, but I didn't learn to cook taro until I married a Fijian. We eat less taro now, and when we eat it, we think about it as a Pacific but not Maori vegetable. In New Zealand's cold soils, after all, the taro struggles to grow its hearty, nourishing corm—the nice fat part of the root system that we generally think of when we imagine eating taro. But the plant can still grow its leaves. Migrants from the Pacific who have made their homes in New Zealand over the past decades have figured out ways to continue to innovate the gardening practices that they've been innovating for thousands of years. And—to mix my metaphors, maybe this is a crazy way to put it—they've been making taro leaf lemonade out of too-cold-to-grow-roots, lemons.
Taro continues to be a crop that sustains Pacific migrants to new environments. And even though it's extremely rare to find taro leaves available as part of the cash economy through shops or markets in New Zealand, taro plants in an underground, mostly Facebook organised economy, they are thriving in New Zealand back yards. Last Christmas saw us lined up on a suburban street in South Auckland, along with other Pacific families, while we waited for the bundles of fresh taro leaves to be picked by the members of an entire extended family we could see working away hurriedly in their garden—that took up almost all of the back yard of their rental property. This is about innovation and resilience, and accepting that leaves without roots are better than no taro at all.
Over winter in New Zealand the taro plant dies off, and what you can see here is my daughter inspecting her dead taro plant, her dead-looking taro plant.
It appears to have been lost to the weather entirely. But the corm of the taro, that very bit that seems to under-perform in our cold soil, stays alive, and in spring new shoots will come.
Now, this seasonal die-off doesn't actually happen to taro plants in the tropical Pacific; they just keep on growing because it keeps on being warm. This is a new thing for taro to be doing down in our neck of the woods. And lack of edible roots makes the New Zealand-growing taro a somewhat unbalanced or incomplete plant. But it does mean that my daughter will grow up in the Waikato eating fresh cooked taro leaves, even though all of the taro flesh she will eat in New Zealand will be imported, either fresh or frozen. She will eat the leaves of her gifted plant, but never the roots.
What could be political about roots?
In her poem [Ha'ena?], Hawaiian teacher and poet Mehana Vaughan links the desecration of lo'i terraces with the expansion of US military control over specific Hawaiian sites, and also names the particular violence enacted on roots.
[Approximate transcription only] 'How can they ask, no, take, more aina, start bombing again, ancient lo'i terraces of Waikani, radiate further from [??]. Fill the place between watchful volcanos, tanks crushing lava, namani leaves quivering, stirred up dust, Palila home striker brigade. National security, whose homeland? Twenty-tonne vehicles unleashed, smashing trees and roots, burrows and webs, nests and homes, scattering pohaku, spreading seeds, pounding dirt.'
Roots, of course, are both literal and metaphoric here. In her 1999 story 'Te Wa Kainga: Home', Sydney based Maori writer and artist Jean Riki describes a young Maori man as 'an indigenous child on foreign shores cut off from your roots.'
Roots—he's not cut off from physical roots, but from the kind of non-physical sustenance that cultural roots provide. There's a reason 'roots' works as a metaphor for culture. They're unseen, but they convert the environment into nourishment and stability.
Gardening is about providing nourishment, but it's also about preserving and passing on knowledge. We readily use the term 'roots' to refer metaphorically to one's connections to place and to community, and land and the garden becomes that which feeds—in but also beyond the physical realm.
The significance of the garden is related to all the bits you can't see—the roots. The restoration of lo'i has been a significant strand of the Hawaiian sovereignty movement, and educators in Hawaii have identified the significance of working in the mud of a karo patch. The lo'i have become a classroom for schools all the way through to universities over there. The act of gardening and the literal reconnection with the land that it involves can be profound.
Following on from the stanza about desecration and violent upheaval, Vaughan describes a remedy to all of this imbalance:
[Reading not transcribed]
Here an elder is restoring life to the land through gentle steps. The opposite of how the military mistreated the land.
But rather than the removal of footprints being a symbolic erasure of humans and our activities, it's to prepare the soil for human interaction.
At the Sydney Environment Institute workshop I attended yesterday, (I didn't write the entire paper last night but I just thought I'd pop this in) our conversations turned to the question of what it means to clean up. In this poem Vaughan opens by talking about teaching her students to clean up after themselves and contrasts this with the way the US military leaves land littered with leftovers of its activities.
In our discussion yesterday, we talked about how maybe the physical or indeed legal act of cleaning up isn't by itself enough in the context of colonial injustice, because it hasn't put right the relationships that were ruptured through the act of making things in need of cleaning. Last night as I read through this paper to make sure it didn't run for three hours—and I assure you it doesn't; it's all good—I realised that this helped me think more about what's happening in this poem.
It's not a form of restoration that stops with the removal of particular footprints. There's another step that's required that restores relationships and balance.
Gardening in the next stanza of the poem, after all, is educative and healing.
[Reading not transcribed]
The heaviness and weight and chaos of colonialism is countered by gentleness and the students are, by the end of the poem, not only instructed in good behaviour, good gardening skills and Hawaiian values, but they are also returned to their right relationship with each other but also with their ancestors, their roots. The poem ends with the students 'between the rows of your kupuna'—kupuna here referring to the ancestor kalo, and also all of their elders and ancestors.
The garden is a site of physical activity but also a site of instruction and reconnection. Rows of kupuna brings to mind the tracing of genealogy. The students take their place between rows of ancestors before them and descendants that will follow behind. This is what restoration looks like. This restores what matters. Restoring people to their position and the rows of kupuna by working with plants and earth.
What on earth could be political about earth?
Gardening can seem like an incredibly unpolitical activity when you're wandering round the local garden centre, popping some tomato seedlings into the trolley, or when you're quietly weeding or scraping mud out from under your fingernails. There's a reason that gardening is understood in relation to meditation and the relieving of stress. But gardening involves soil, dirt, earth, land, fenua. In the Maori language land is referred to as fenua. I'm calling it fenua even though where I come from we call it whenua, but I know there's some coasties and other crazy Maoris here, so for everybody's sake I'll say it like the standard Maori way.
Land is referred to as fenua. And once we say the word 'fenua' we can't help but consider the famous pun—fenua also means placenta.
The land provides all of the sustenance we need in the way that the placenta provides for an unborn child. But more than this pragmatic parallel, fenua is an act of love between the mother and the child. Papatuanuku the earth mother loves us by allowing us to be nourished from the land. And at the same time, as vulnerable humans who actually really don't stand a chance when we're left out in the elements or beyond specific resources like water or food for very long at all. We can trust without needing to consciously think about it, like the baby in the womb, that the fenua will provide for all of our needs. We are in her embrace, and the land is the interface between ourselves and her.
Gardening involves soil, dirt, earth, land, fenua. It's only the privileged person who gets to talk about gardening without thinking about land. It's only the person who hasn't had their land stolen who gets to talk about gardening without needing to consider the impact of an abrupt disconnection from food security and knowledge transmission.
All around the Pacific gardening and cultivation is shaped by colonial impacts on the relationships between people and earth. What happens when the fenua can no longer nourish? In her poem 'Bad Coconuts' the recently departed and cherished poet and scholar Teresia Teaiwa writes about the devastating impact of weapons testing on the soil on which Pacific people have grown their food:
'An apple a day keeps the doctor away / but a coconut a day will kill you / if you live on Moruroa / if you visit Fangataufa / return to Enewetak / resettle Bikini / a coconut a day / will kill you.'
The poem was sung-chanted on the album of poetry Terenesia, which she recorded with Samoan writer Sia Fiegel, and I can't read the poem without putting her little rhythm into it.
It draws attention to the impact of weapons testing in the region. They have contaminated the earth to the point that gardening on some islands now is a fatal act. Nothing grown there can be eaten, and all must be imported.
The politics of food—a massive discussion and not one we have time to talk a lot about this evening—are connected to the politics of land. Eating cultivated crops from these contaminated islands is necessarily replaced by the importation of foreign crops.
When he was growing up in Suva my husband and his father, along with other members of their neighbourhood, kept a garden from which they fed their families. It was a large stretch of land, partly under a very tall communication transmitter. I thought it was a power pylon, only when I checked with Vula that it was okay for me to share the family story about the garden, he was like, 'That was a communication transmitter.' And they practised gardening techniques that each of the members of the neighbourhood had learned in the village prior to migrating to the big smoke of Suva.
A few years ago the US erected a large, shiny, new embassy, which is surrounded by an enormous system of fences, concrete and security measures. There's no room for a garden now. The site has been reclaimed—actually renationalised, given how embassies work. And the families that formerly had gardens, just over the back edge now of the US embassy, are forced to enmesh themselves more closely with the cash economy of town.
Capitalism seeps into earth from so many directions. In her poem 'Citified', Hawaiian poet [??]is less hopeful than Vaughan when she reflects on her childhood being instructed in the taro patch. Because you can't talk about the mud, the earth of the lo'i without considering the astronomical cost of land in Hawaii. She says, '[??]generations, no one lives there anymore, who can afford it?'
I sat with an uncle of mine who explained that a popular food court in central Wellington was pretty much exactly the same spot as a garden where my great-grandfather and his family would have been involved in the growing of food for the small, remnant local community in his time. What used to be a family space is now a frantic, plastic-wrapped, everybody space in which we hunt for a spare table, along with everybody else. We eat, but the food is not from our fenua and we have to hand over money to do so. My uncle saw the funny or at least coincidental side of the strikingly similar yet incredibly different uses for the same bit of land. But usually when we think about these things as funny, it's because if you didn't laugh you'd cry.
Gardens require land. And in a colonial context, land is highly politicised. The events in Taranaki that Wendt referred to in his poem 'The Ko'olau', relate to Parihaka, a robust pan tribal settlement that threatened the colonial government to the point of a full-scale invasion in November 1881.
But leading up to that 1881 moment, the active militarised wars of the early 1860s resulted in the Crown passing legislation that punished those tribes who fought against its extension of control into our territories. There was a mass confiscation of land. When I grew up, in primary school, when the teacher confiscated something from you, you got it back at the end of the day. That's not that kind of confiscation. There was mass confiscation of land, which meant suddenly every Maori person in Taranaki and other specific regions was living on their own land one day and then magically the next day they were living on someone else's.
How did we fight back?
By acting as if the confiscation never happened. By refusing to accept that Crown legislation could perform such a magical act, our leaders at Parihaka, Te Whiti and Tohu, Wendt references in his poem, proposed that we would fight with passive resistance rather than violence. And so for week after week, month after month, members of our community would go out on to the land that had been marked out by government surveyors, and pull out the pegs. But more than this.
More than just dismantling the colonial apparatus, they planted gardens. Gardening as a passive form of warfare. Literally turning swords into ploughshares but not, it has to be said, to mark the end of war as much as to mark a new phase of fighting it.
Jacqui Sturm, the senior writer whose comments about roses and taupata I opened with, has famously written a poem, 'He waiata tenei mo Parihaka' which includes the lines:
'Have you heard of Parihaka / Where Taranaki iwi / Gathered / Seeking a way to keep their land?
'Non-violence was their choice / Peace their aim / Raukura their badge / Ploughs their only weapons.
'They pulled down fences / Pulled out pegs / Then ploughed whatever / The settlers claimed was theirs.'
This is the politics of gardening. Hundreds of men were arrested without trial for gardening. They soon filled up all the jails in the colony. And so the leftovers were put into caves, into work camps, sent further and further away.
Forty years ago last month, and almost a century after the storming of Parihaka, another Maori community publicly and peacefully asserted their refusal to accept the Crown's account of its own acquisition of their land. It turns out they didn't believe in the magical acts that turned land from ours to theirs either.
The Ngati Whatua community at Bastion Point in Orakei, a suburb of Auckland, occupied a specific area of land the Crown was determined to control. They stayed there for 507 days, and on the 507th day over 200 were arrested—similar numbers to the number that had been arrested 90 years earlier at Parihaka.
In a recently published recollection from Andrew Robb, a Pakeha person who was part of the occupation, he described a deliberate act of gardening. He says:
'She showed me a photo in the Herald, a terrific shot from a low angle looking up across blades of grass and the tines of a rotary hoe, to the serious face of Eruini "Eddie" Hawke, as he ploughed a garden on Bastion Point. I thought: "Gosh, this is serious. They're planning to be there for a while."
'But Mere couldn't suppress her laughter. "It's not even …" Her voice trailed off into giggles as she tried to explain why it was so funny. "It's just a … THING!" she exploded, gasping for breath and dabbing the tears in her eyes.
'What she meant was that it wasn't a proper garden. She knew it was far too late in the year to be planting kumara. It was actually a challenge to the authorities. A very Maori assertion, that the land provided sustenance to Ngati Whatua: physically, culturally, spiritually, and now politically.
'Mere was in a good mood because she knew that Eddie Hawke and his whanau were sticking it to the government, on behalf of all Maori.
'Over 40 years later, just over a week ago (this account was published last month), Joe Hawke's daughter, Sharon, told a crowd on Bastion Point that the late great Denis Hansen had derided Eddie. He said the garden, and perhaps by implication, the whole protest, was too late.
'At the end of the season, Eddie presented Denis with a box of kumara from the garden. The kumara were so big that three of them filled the box. Denis wept. Perhaps he saw a sign that Rongo, god of peace and agriculture, blessed the occupation.'
Gardening requires land. The act of gardening claims that you have a relationship with land, not just today, but a projected future relationship. And this is why gardening in a rented property can be quite disillusioning. Gardening is about asserting your right and need to live.
[Reading from poem not transcribed]
You plough for the future. Ploughing is the breaking up of soil in order to prepare to return and plant again. Gardening is a deeply and enduringly hopeful act. No wonder it threatened the super colony that aimed and still aims in many ways to achieve our disappearance. What on earth could be political about gardening? What indeed.
Thom van Dooren: Thank you so much for such a wonderful, rich, multi-threaded talk. We have time now for a few questions.
Audience member 1: [Inaudible]
Alice Te Punga Somerville: There is a tradition of brewing alcohol from pineapple. Can you brew it from taro? Yes. There you go. No? Just pineapple. Hawaiians do. I don't know. I'm keen to find out more. I confess I can't think of any off the top of my head.
Audience member 2: [Inaudible]
Alice Te Punga Somerville: I'm really glad you brought that up because I had another move that I was going to make in my paper, and I was just saying on the train on the way in, I was like, 'I regret taking that out.'
One of the reasons I wanted to talk about taupata is because when I lived here in Australia I was intrigued to discover that taupata is in fact a noxious weed in New South Wales and Victoria. And I found it really intriguing to think about that for me, coming from Matiu/Somes, taupata is about my connection to the place. It's the super Maori plant, according to Jacqui Sturm's poem, it's like her Maori go-to touch point.
But the problem is that when taupata comes over here—apparently people have brought it over here because it makes nice hedges—the problem being that it crowds out indigenous Australian species. And I reflected on this, thinking about what it means to be a Maori person in Australia. And it can be really problematic to start comparing indigenous people to flora and fauna.
On the other hand I think we can be prompted to think about the ways in which sometimes our assertions of being indigenous people on our own terms—even if they're coming out of what we think of as a good place and a culturally intact place—can, regardless, in Australia, actually do the work of crowding out those voices, those indigenous voices, that really should be in the soil here.
So it's a struggle for me thinking about taupata as being something which is super Maori over there and then a problem over here. I don't think that my solution is to say that the 20% of the Maori community that lives in Australia needs to move home. It's not about saying, 'Oh great, well eradication works for noxious weeds. So it's round up all you people and bring it…I don't think that's where this metaphor takes us to. But I think it does take us to a place of thinking about the ways in which when one's used to asserting indigeneity in place, it can be defamiliarising to then find that one is actually the settler in another place. So thank you very much for asking me and challenging me to think a bit more about that.
Audience member 3: [Inaudible]
Alice Te Punga Somerville: … it has that potential. We kind of joked about it. Again I want to be really clear that our tribal house on the island really is a three-bedroom house from the suburbs which has been plonked on the island.
There are five of them on one ridge that's from when the island was a science reserve and all the scientists got a house. And all their wives wanted houses. The houses were so engineered for these particular scientists that the different houses, the kitchen benches are at different heights, because they measured how tall each of their wives were, and they got the bench height that would work for them.
When you go to Matiu/Somes and stay in our tribal house you're not having this, like, beautiful, deep tribal experience that you might have if you're in one of our carved houses, in one of our whare whakairo. So there's these very cultural spaces, and our house over there is not one of them in those terms. And yet something always happens when people come to Matiu for the first time who are connected to that place. There's something profound. And we kind of joke about it when someone comes for the first time they have a detox sleep. That's weird but true. Any of our cousins or relations that we bring there for the first time, they will just have this very long—not like years on end, it's not like fairy tale land, right? But they'll have this very deep sleep, and there's a profound connection that happens just from being on the land.
Because our land was so lovely, the Europeans really liked it and turned it into a capital city, and what that means is that just about all of our land is covered in concrete. What that means is there are very few opportunities for my tribe to get to go and engage with land in certain ways. We're not allowed to garden on the island. We thought it would be nice to have a garden. We're not allowed to garden because we would be bringing introduced crops.
We thought it would be nice to have like lettuces and stuff so we could have a salad with your sausages on your Friday night barbie or whatever when you're staying over there with your cousins.
We're not allowed to garden because the Department of Conservation determines which plants come on to the island and which ones don't. And yet there's just something about being on that fenua. Yeah. It's profound.
Audience member 4: [Inaudible]
Alice Te Punga Somerville: I don't have an answer I'd want to share immediately, because that's quite a big question, and it has a lot of strands to it. But I will say that one of the things that has really struck me has been the stuff around the colonisation of the palate. We talk so much about our tongues aren't speaking the right language anymore, but we're also not eating the right kai anymore.
We know what that's doing for us. We still have such short life expectancies and we know what that's doing for us physically, but it's doing something else for us as well.
So in gaining this passion, I don't want to decolonise my tongue's heart out, because I still quite enjoy your old fried bread, you know… the old give and take, bit of golden syrup, you know, lovely. But there's something I think—and there are things happening of course at the kind of grass roots level at home around people who are going let's small-scale think about food security and food sovereignty and…
There have been a couple of moments in my life when I've walked into a supermarket and seen a Maori food item. I don't know how they got it, but one supermarket for a while was selling these Maori potatoes. I haven't lived in New Zealand all of my life, but I've lived in New Zealand enough of my life that I would like to think that Titilia will be able to walk into a supermarket and buy foods that come from our fenua. Our diets need to change. And I guess I'm more interested in conversations about what we can eat rather than just what we have to give up. And if that requires science to help us out—bro, we've been scientists for millennia, right? It's just about—that's just how I see it—it's just about finding the right ways to manage issues around modi and so on when it comes to GMO stuff. Those are conversations for people with much bigger and more culturally rooted brains than mine.
Audience member 5: [Inaudible]
Alice Te Punga Somerville: Probably not a lot. Because a lot of the stuff that's happening in New Zealand is quite localised. There are networks. One of the things that—and also I've lived outside New Zealand for a few years and have just moved back last year, so the nature of these kinds of networks—and I've also moved to a part of New Zealand that I haven't lived in before, so my food sovereignty buddy networks are not in the area that I live in anymore.
But there is an increasing kind of conversation around the relationship between kai—food—and sovereignty. And thinking about what that means. Some of the things that that means in a Maori context relates to manaakitanga. Manaakitanga is how you look after people. Hospitality. So some of this conversation at home is around people going, 'How do show hospitality to our visitors when they come to our marae, what kind of kai do we give them. So there was recently a very large gathering of people around [??] I think it was and they decided—I think they had all vegan food or something. I don't know if everyone had to go and dowse themselves with McDonald's afterwards or what. But it was sort of described as an attempt to think about what manaakitanga looks like. So I guess what I'm thinking about here is the way that sovereignty takes many forms, and one of the forms that it takes in a Maori cultural context is manaakitanga. And so there are people having these conversations around how do we provide for our guests? So marae gardens, thinking about the kai that we provide that we eat communally.
Audience member 6: [inaudible]
Alice Te Punga Somerville: As soon as I said 'supermarket' I was like, 'Do I mean that?' Because I think one of the things that actually also kind of strikes me and I talked about it a bit in my talk was the way that capitalism just kind of seeps into this stuff all over the show. And I think the taro leaf market, the taro leaf green-slash-black market in the top of New Zealand is hilarious. We were like driving around, it was a part of [??]in the east that we didn't know and we were like, 'Oh, that must be it. 'All the cars were going there so that we could have our volo for our Christmas dinners, you know. And volo was on Facebook, and there's something really I think important about keeping this stuff outside of the reaches of capitalism, and that's why I'm interested in talking about gardening and the profound thing that happens when you grow your own kai—to be balanced with the reality of more Maori people over time are homeless and not home-owners.
And so how do you garden when you don't just not have food security but you don't have other kinds of security as well. Because there's a class element to this, right? There is a class element to this. Who has the time, who has the resources, who has the land to get to garden? So by the time Titilia's an adult, then I think I'm cool for the supermarkets to start coming on board. What I wouldn't want was for it to be like a new cool Maori thing that we can commodify and then suddenly it's all been kind of swept away from us again.
Thom van Dooren: Can I ask a question? I thought that the connection you made to voyagings was so interesting.
And I wonder when so much of the way that voyaging has been thought about and recovered in places like Hawaii, it's about trans-oceanic connections and knowledge-sharing—do you see similar connections already taking form around food sovereignty? And how do they negotiate, I guess, some of the really extreme differences in climate as you've spoken about?
Alice Te Punga Somerville: Yeah. Part of me wants to say I don't know. I think there probably are some networks. You head into problems when you start trying to do stuff like take foods from one country to another, when you've got countries like New Zealand that won't let people bring different items in, so there are questions of how do you on a practical level without smuggling things in your pockets and hoping the Border Security—like TV show—isn't on that day. There are those very practical implications of the colonial imposition of state boundaries that we used to be able to navigate in certain ways. Metaphorically and literally to one another. And I think we have these kind of state boundaries now getting in the way of that sort of thing.
I think the thing that will become interesting is—as some people have always moved around the region but we kind of have this new era arising as people are starting to think about different kinds of foods and gardening that's possible given climate change is happening and given that people are having to move to other places because their home islands are—either the water has become salty or the land has shifted to an extent that they can't grow those crops anymore. In a lot of places in the Pacific at the moment people are saying, 'We used to understand the ecosystem as a system,' so you knew that when that thing sprouted there, that kind of fish was running there, that was the time you could dig that root up there that would be the perfect pliability to make the tool for that thing over there.
Now with these changes in temperature that we already are experiencing, those kind of alarm systems of like, hey, I'm flowering, go grab the fish—that stuff is all out of sync. And so the implications of that for thinking about what gardening means are kind of huge. They're enormous.
HumanNature is a landmark series of talks by a stellar line up of leading Australian and international scholars. They will share with us their insights from history, literature, philosophy, anthropology and art to examine the significant interplay between the humanities and the environmental crisis we face today.
Alice Te Punga Somerville (Te Atiawa, Taranaki) is an associate professor at the Faculty of Maori and Indigenous Studies at the University of Waikato, where her research and teaching sits at the intersections of literary, cultural, Indigenous and Pacific studies. She has taught in Indigenous Studies and English in New Zealand, Hawai‘i, Canada and Australia. Her first book was Once Were Pacific: Maori connections to Oceania (2012). She is currently working on a multi-stranded research project titled ‘Writing the new world: Indigenous texts 1900-1975.’ She also writes the occasional poem.