Taha whenua: land, roots.

Te Taha whenua, connection to land, is the last part of my 5 part series talking about Te Whare Tapa Whā, a holistic Māori model of health that I LOVE.

Like most whare, our whare hauora has four standard walls, yet what would it be without it’s foundation, the earth on which it rests? Here we come to an aspect of wellness that has traditionally been excluded from Western medicine, but yet goes so far to explain why and how we may be struggling to maintain good health given our increasingly urbanised lives.

To say that our connection to land underpins our health is an understatement. In the past, all of our ancestors, Māori or tauiwi, were connected to somewhere in the world. They could not only confidently state their tūrangawaewae, or where they belonged, but they had a real tangible relationship and connection to those parts through hunting, foraging, gardening, fishing, and kaitiakitanga, day to day guardianship of said lands. Their lands sustained them, nurtured them, and kept them healthy.

‘Ko au te awa ko te awa ko au’ - I am the river and the river is me.

This famous pepeha from Whanganui area illustrates this perfectly. The river is not just something one lives next to, but in fact is a part of one’s self. To many Māori, the connection with land and it’s natural features deepens to become part of one’s identity, part of one’s whakapapa (genealogy).

Growing up Pākehā in Aotearoa, I had a distinct sense of dislocation and disconnection from this land. Yes, I have always identified as a Westie due to growing up in Waitakere, West Auckland, yet when my Māori friends, or even friends from other countries would talk about where they were from, they’d describe their places in such detail and with such pride that I felt a bit jealous, like something was missing for me.

Which of course it was. And when I went to learn to speak te reo Māori in 2009, this feeling only deepened as we were encouraged to research our own whakapapa, our own marae, our own tūrangawaewae. In not being able to fill in the gaps on my pepeha sheet, I went through a sort of grieving. Who was I if I didn’t really know where I was from, or where I belonged? I can tell you it got worse before it got better.

“Ki te maumahara kore ki ngā whakapapa o ōu mātua tīpuna, e rite ana ki te pūkaki awa kāore ōna hikuawa, ki te rākau rānei kāore ōna pakiaka.” - To forget one’s ancestors is to be a brook without its source, a tree without its roots. Know where you come from. Te Wharehuia Milroy.

I dug a little deeper and asked my family about where we came from. My siblings and I were all born in Waitakere, but my mum was born in Mangere, and my dad in Te Wai Pounamu, the South Island. Further back my grandparents on my dad’s side both grew up on family farms in Otago, and Martinborough, and my grandparents on my mum’s side grew up in suburban Tāmaki Makaurau, Auckland. Their great/grandparents all arrived here from England, Ireland, Scotland, Canada and the Shetland Islands around 1850-1870’s. So my people moved around a lot. This made finding my ‘roots’ even harder.

I wasn’t alone though. Most of my classmates also grew up in the city, not on their whānau land or on the marae. And the process of reconnecting to tūrangawaewae was challenging for them too. Some stepped foot on their ancestral marae for the first time that year, a humbling but deeply restorative process. I saw them grow through their journey, in confidence, in mana, in who they were.

As I continued in my reo Māori journey this hollow, dislocated feeling never went away. And for the first time in my life, I now had a desire to visit my own tūrangawaewae in Great Britain.

So my sister and I travelled to the Shetland Islands together on an overnight ferry from Aberdeen, Scotland. On arrival into the pea soup foggy harbour of Lerwick with the swirling waters and tree-less hills, something clicked within me. I was home! Not in a present-day sense, but an ancestral one. I felt closer to my tūpuna than I’d ever been, and over the next few weeks of exploring the islands and our ancestral croft houses/ruins, this feeling sort of grew till I felt less hollow, and more complete. This confidence in knowing who I am where I come from has stayed with me since then and can’t ever be taken from me.

Fast forward to 2021 and I’m a whole ocean away from my whenua tūpuna, my ancestral lands, yet I still feel really grounded and healthy in my taha whenua - connection to land. This is because while I may not be living where my ancestors lived, I make an effort to respectfully connect with the land around me, starting with my backyard.

That’s why I garden. That’s why I take my gloves off and put my hands in the earth. Knowing where our kai comes from is deeply fulfilling and enriches our lives. It’s also a practice our ancestors relied on for survival. I saw the stone kale yards in Shetland where my people grew their gardens, and felt comforted that I’m carrying on a family tradition.

The whenua upon which my partner and I live is his through whakapapa, it’s not mine at all. But that doesn’t mean I can’t create a relationship with it through caring for it, through feeding it, as it feeds us.

That goes for all of us, Māori mai, tauiwi mai. No matter where you come from or where you find yourself living, whether you are living near your tūrangawaewae or half an ocean away, taking small steps to reconnect with whenua, with land, can make a huge difference to your overall sense of wellness and wholeness.

It doesn’t need to be growing a garden. It could be learning the history of the land on which you live or where your people come from. It could be exploring local maunga (mountains) or other natural spaces. Or visiting your tūrangawaewae, if that's possible right now. Start small, and see what a difference it make to your hauora, your health. You have so much to gain, and nothing to lose.

Tīhei mauri ora x

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