How should we live in order to ensure health for ourselves and our natural environments?
When I was 21 my curiosity took me to a job at a native plant nursery. I got to work with plants for the first time. I was introduced to Tōtara, Nikau, Kauri, and Kahikatea. I saw thousands of young plants come and go. I wanted to go where I imagined they were going. To grow in the forest. I took the long way round via a Bachelor's Degree majoring in Biodiversity Management. But always in my heart was the desire to be part of a positive role for humans in nature.
The science of ecology spoke of relationships, dynamic flows, symbiosis and competition. These concepts brought life to the forest. They also spoke of human relationships. But unfortunately for me, the actual practice of conservation lacked a positive narrative of humans. We were destructive pests. We needed to be excluded from the pristine natural environment. I understood the need for protection. But I still yearned for a better understanding of how to interact with nature in a positive way, how to live within its limits, to be a part of the ecosystem, not its curator.
After graduating, I applied my learning through a hands-on conservation job. It was focused on forest revegetation. It was exciting. I enjoyed being outdoors, planting trees and witnessing forest returning. But the competitive nature of the industry meant everything was performed at pace. This left little time to connect.
There were so many contradictions in the way we approached this work. We waged chemical warfare on every species that was not native, regardless of their potential utility in healing the degraded landscape. These methods were detrimental to human and soil health, slowed the landscape healing process and were very expensive. Also, our daily use of herbicides required us to wear full length clothing, thick gloves, respirators, earmuffs, and safety goggles, further disconnecting us from our surroundings.
I felt I was no closer to understanding my place in the ecosystem. It wasn't until recently, working closely with Te Pu-a-Nga Maara (TPNM) and the Awa Rangers on the Puhinui that I started to find the wisdom I’d been looking for all along.
One of TPNM’s purposes is to revive maatauranga approaches to mahi tiaki taiao (nature based work). As grateful collaborators, our team has been introduced to stories and songs that personify natural phenomena. They teach us about them through dramas played out in the landscape of our imaginations. I’ve also been slowly learning tikanga, protocols which inform behaviour towards reciprocity with te taiao and more broadly towards wellbeing.
When applied on the whenua, these concepts and tikanga manifest as practices that regenerate te taiao, as well as those involved. The place of revegetation is considered by TPNM to be the healing edge of the old forest, regenerating the whenua from its degraded state. Simply being in that space has wellbeing-inducing effects, if treated property. TPNM ensures this is the case by intentionally making this a healthy space. No herbicides are used, so there's less detriment to the health of the kaimahi (workers) as well as the soil and its diversity of life. Stillness, reflection and observation are encouraged, helping with connection and mental health. A host of other micro initiatives, or tikanga, are applied to ensure that, as much as possible, the Awa Rangers are regenerating themselves as well as regenerating the taiao.
I took the very long way round to finding this wisdom. I’m now a keen advocate for others to begin discovering it.