untangling the aho
Our stories, too, travelled across oceans, we brought them with us. Island to island, and the whenua still holds their echoes
I duck under the motorway, tentative. Slip down along the cracked footpaths by the estuary edge. The rāhui is lessening now, lockdown levels decreasing, but it’s still quiet, and the grey May sky is cool and uncertain. I have my knife, and shells gathered from a west coast beach, and I remember the words of the karakia but I’m uncertain too. This is the first time I have done this without my kaiako, and I feel alone. Still, I breathe in. Breathe out. Breathe in and speak the karakia
to Papatūānuku, to Ranginui, to all tūpuna,
give thanks for their gifts
ngā taonga whakarere iho
I gather the harakeke with a black stripe, hoping for good muka. I make the slice, pull smooth the silky white threads – to miro, to make lace, to make kākahu. To re-weave, if I can.
I’ve been untangling the threads of my whakapapa. Trying to finding resonances across lines
that seem in constant conflict, irreconcilable. Trying to hold space for multiplicities, to unlearn
thinking in absolutes. I’ve been looking to plants to teach me, too, just as I’ve been looking to my
own roots – tending to them, in the words of a dear friend, feels like a way towards something we
need to find again. A reciprocity, a lost tenderness.
KanukĀ & ManukĀ
kānuka stands tall
with leaves that don’t scratch mānuka has thin skin
or bite or sting (a soft touch) that flakes and peels
tiny flowers (and a barbed tongue)
and scented leather bark it holds its branches small and close
and its seeds closer
see how they are as alike and not-alike as cousins?
a consistent case of mistaken identity
but they are both healers
they prepare dry earth for new growth
they hold the young until they are strong enough to stand alone
they lead the way so that when we later follow
the paths made by their roots
there is already something to come home to
Mānuka and kānuka have learned how to grow after disaster, how to clean the soil and protect
the water. Kānuka can withstand the wet, the cold, the dry: drought and frost alike. Mānuka
releases seeds after fire, a process called serotiny, though this manifests less strongly in the
plants on Te Ika A Maui and Te Waiponamu than in their cousins across the water.
We are less used to fire here, maybe. We trust in the rain, until it stops falling.
We talk about apocalypse, and post-apocalypse, as if these are ideas that haven’t happened yet,
abstract concepts that haven’t already happened over and over just not to us.
How many times has the world ended? With every banished kupu turned to word, every stolen
acre turned to profit, every poisoned river mapped and turned being to object.
Docken & iron
go straight to the roots, they hold all the power
they’ve grown down deep; dig in deeper
tear them from the earth
forget that they’re manuhiri too
hack at them until you have only slivers left
let them stand in for your own whakamā
soak them for days, boil them for hours
add iron pulled from slick dark bog mud
you’re aiming for the deepest black, a dark dyed hue,
but every time nothing will come out
but grey, grey, grey
Have you ever stood on a prickle patch in midsummer, caught
halfway between burning hot asphalt and burning hot sand? You know, like, a full sole-down
flat-foot fall into the grass so that all the tiny thorns dig in why are there always so many and grab
your skin? And you have to do that awkward swearing fuck-shit-fuck hop to remove them.
Did you blame the plant for its sting, or your foot for falling there?
It’s hard to grow a different skin, one that doesn’t catch the spikes and spines so easily. It stays
so new and tender for so long. Better to look before stepping better not to step at all instead.
Stumbling on the reo feels like a midsummer prickle-fall but the sea is right there waiting
at the edges of the grass.
In Braiding Sweetgrass, Potawatomi botanist Robin Wall Kimmerer recounts time as the sea itself, “its tides that appear and disappear, the fog that rises to become rain in a different river.” She reminds us that “all things that were will come again.” Are we all just trying to return to the sea? The sea that is time, the sea that is itself and only itself, the sea that holds the memory of our scattered tongues on the swell and pull of every wave
like how my name comes from the Hebrew ארי for lion, or gatherer of food, and found me by way of a sprite in a Shakespeare play about a colonised island
and yet when I learned more of my whakapapa recently I saw the fragments of my name stretch
back and back in time, Te Ari, Te Ari, Te Ari, to be clear, visible, evident, the eleventh night of the
moon, a name I never knew had been passed on to me.
These things happen even when we aren’t looking the sea is right there waiting
at the edges of what we know.
Over the first lockdown I read everything I could find about plant charms for safe travel, because
we suddenly couldn’t move at all. I read about yarrow and all the names and stories that unravel
to journey safely: find the flowers of the athair thalún
growing amongst the seamróg / pull off ten leaves and
throw one away / put the nine others in a white cotton
cloth and tie with a string around your neck / do not pass
an elder tree / take the flowers and simmer them / half
into a sunshine yellow / half into a healing tea
I wish I’d known these stories sooner. Wish I had been held by a plants’ safekeeping embrace
when I began finding my way back to the homes of my tūpuna. When I first travelled to Scotland
it felt like coming home, but my bones still ached for Taranaki, for Tāmaki, for here. And here,
that distance can still feel insurmountable, even when the rāhui has lifted and we can move
again. There are many other kinds of distance, voids, and absences, and so few of them can be
crossed on foot.
(over lockdown I read everything I could find but nowhere
could I find anything about
what holds you
when that long journey is a return home
or when that journey takes place over no
Over the second lockdown, I returned to yarrow. I read how Achilles used a bitter pain-killing
herb to treat the battle-wounded. How traces of the plant were found between the teeth of a
50,000 year old skull in Spain. How as bloodwort it helps blood to move through the body. How it
slows a too-fast heartbeat. How cut into stalks or held against the eye, placed beneath your
pillow or your tongue, it can divine futures.
In one future we have woken Rūaumoko and the air is hung
heavy with ash and haze, we were warned not to rest in the shadow of the
maunga, our tūpuna are not ours to own but we did not listen – and so the
maunga have wrenched themselves from their resting places again to settle
old scores and we are all caught between viscous molten lava
In one future we have coated all Papatūānuku in a thick
crust of grey-black concrete and all our memory of green is passed down
through whispered stories, all is not lost if we are willing to look beneath the
surface but instead we keep building out and up (we know Rangi and Papa
are longing to be closer but not like this, not held
at the points of skyscrapers)
In one future Tāne-Mahuta walks
the ngahere which stretches once again from coast to coast, and we are gone
but the world is not silent, not silent at all with the calls of birds and slow slide
of lizards across stone and windsong and rainhum and the rushing
and roaring of the
In one future we remembered to look back, and to listen,
and things are good, and things are whole, and things are tika,
but that future flickers and is hard to see clearly through the
Uredo rangelii & Phytophthora agathidicida
It was only a few months ago that we woke to an orange-glow world, the air all smoke-haze from fires across the sea. It feels like years. It feels like we have forgotten.
We forgot we were in a drought, here, too, distracted by other things, then caught in a pandemic.
Now a virus creeps at the edges and water leaks from broken pipes. But that’s how we got here,
nē? Forgetting? Or remembering us first, and the whenua and wai last. Remembering only when
the water can no longer quench us
and the earth can no longer feed us
even falling back into lockdown, we still forget.
When I see headlines telling us that
- diesel slicks form in Tauranga Marina, and
- untreated dairy wastewater was discharged into a tributary of the Wairau River; and the
Waihou, and the Waiotapu, and
- “Watercare” is still pulling, pulling water from the Waikato awa, and
- the Environment Court has dismissed iwi appeals against the expansion of water bottling
- myrtle rust and kauri dieback are spreading further through the ngahere, moved by the
wind, by our feet and our machines
I think back to the dream-futures
and try not to wonder which one will win
Angiangi/Feasag a Ghobhair
lichens are born from reciprocity
(stumble across this knowledge, learn in awe that
lichens are not plants, learn how they are not one
individual but two symbiotic beings, algae and fungi
entwined together, how their relationship could have
been a parasitic imbalance of power with one
draining the life from the other but instead they
learned to give, how each provides what the other
cannot create alone)
they are the ancient ones, they built the foundation for us
all to grow upon.
In the Anishinaabe Windigo narratives evoked in Braiding Sweetgrass, we are shown the opposite of reciprocity. Kimmerer tells us that “Windigos are not born, they are made. The Windigo is a human being who has become a cannibal monster […] Born of our fears and our failings, Windigo is the name for that within us which cares more for its own survival than for anything else.” Waubgeshig Rice’s Moon of the Crusted Snow digs the story deeper, warns us in subtle undercurrents that hum the horrors of how greed and weakness turn us monstrous, parasitic. Parasitic like broken promises, parasitic like whenua raupatu, parasitic like the definition of colonisation full stop –
– and the threads of my whakapapa catch in a knot again, all tūpuna whose actions
dispossessed all other tūpuna, here, and across the sea that is the sea itself, and across the sea
that is time.
But then I look deeper, past the whakamā
remember my Pākehā grandfather, raised in the care of Te Puea Herangi, who gave me my first
kupu i te reo Māori – kei te pehea koe? How’s your puku? Horoi ō ringaringa!
remember Nana’s lacemaking, European threads in Māori hands, how I was recently taught
“that’s tūpuna teaching us to weave in any way we can”
and I think again, instead, of my whakapapa as lichen, slow-growing relationship, foundational
We meet on the marae ātea in the hot November sun, with our knives and our mussel shells and our nervous eagerness to learn. It’s a few months before the rāhui, and the sun still feels new, and we don’t yet know that this wānanga is a language of closeness we will have to re-learn in time. So we stand together, together as Whaea leads us in the karakia
to Papatūānuku, to Ranginui, to all tūpuna,
give thanks for their gifts
ngā taonga whakarere iho
We make our way together, together through the pā harakeke as Whaea shows us how to recognise the best plants for raranga; the black stripe edge that will give good muka; the tangled weeds strangling the plant that we need to remove. We must give back as much as we take, and we must take only what we need
never take the mother or father or child of the plant
trim the edges of the blade and cut away the keel
return the remains to the whenua
Today is for muka; today is for learning to pull smooth the silky white threads to make the whenu for our future kākahu. The whatu comes later, the twining and shaping. First comes the plant, and the cut, and the mussel shell scrape and slide together, together, the learning
make a small slice in the flesh of the leaf
strip back the skin until the fibre is laid bare
take care of this plant body
as if it were your own body
miro the muka against your own skin
steep the remnants in fire and river water
and they will give you the first soft light of the rising sun
I’ve been untangling the aho of my whakapapa. Finding resonances across lines that seemed otherwise in conflict, irreconcilable. Learning to whatu, with muka, with words, with stories, with whakapapa, with everything our tūpuna have given us.
To whatu, pairs of aho threads are twined around the whenu, a constant exchange of fibres that weave together into a strong but supple cloth.
Whenu, like whenua; and aho, like the threads that connect us to all tūpuna before us and still to come.
When we whatu, we are essentially weaving ourselves into place.
Robin Wall Kimmerer, Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants (Minneapolis: Milkweed Editions, 2013)
Emily Parr, tending to the roots (2020). Film. 8m 31s. HD video, copper tub from the laundry of her mother’s childhood home, ferns that grow in the lands she descends from.
Waubgeshig Rice, Moon of the Crusted Snow (Toronto: ECW Press, 2018)