This review was first published in the print edition of Landfall 243
Haare Williams: Words of a kaumātua by Haare Williams (Auckland University Press, 2019), 260pp, $49.99; Tree Sense: Ways of thinking about trees edited by Susette Goldsmith (Massey University Press, 2021), 256pp, $37
Two insightful books of wisdom, beauty and knowledge from the elders. The first is a collection of poetry and prose steeped in mātauranga Māori; the second is an anthology of essays, art and poetry about trees in Aotearoa. Both are well-written, engaging and compelling.
Haare Williams: Words of a kaumātua is a collection of writing introduced and edited by Witi Ihimaera, who describes Williams as ‘one of our greatest elders, a singular bellbird among our native language speakers’, ‘the Grandfather Moses’ of Māori literature and ‘one of New Zealand’s leading changemakers’. It is evident from Ihimaera’s introduction and to all those who walk in te ao Māori that Williams is a kaumātua of great mana and knowledge, a sought-after orator, teacher and creative.
This is a beautiful collage of poetry and prose, including creative non-fiction, memoir, essays, observations, vignettes, biography, speeches, interviews, letters, historical accounts and childhood reminiscences, written in both te reo and English. The pieces weave together in surprising ways that loop back and forth along narrative lines and themes in a kaleidoscope of patterns that repeat, expand and resonate throughout. The main feeling that struck me was of being privy to a vast treasure trove of mātauranga Māori from an esteemed kaumātua.
Williams ‘grew up with his grandparents on the shores of Ōhiwa Harbour near Ōpōtiki … within a totally Māori context, primarily Tūhoe’. His grandparents’ teachings and influence are evident throughout and they make frequent appearances in the collection.
One stunning piece of narrative is an oral transcript titled ‘The Art of the Oral Storyteller’. This is a story about the kūmara—its value and importance in te ao Māori; its whakapapa and how it came to Aotearoa; the mōhiotanga (science of knowledge) of planting and harvesting; and how to cook, preserve and store kūmara. One of the most affecting aspects of this kōrero was Williams’ grandmother teaching him how to store the kūmara and how to handle it—‘be kind’.
Williams tells us that his grandparents taught him how to build a rua kūmara (a kūmara pit) into the side of a hill:
The design of the pit was an engineering feat … the design genius of tīpuna in the management and cohabitation with the environment, the algorithms and science for living with nature handed down over generations. The inside of the pit, when fully closed up, was airtight. This created a vacuum, which kept the precious tubers bone-dry.
Near the end of this story we learn of an old kūmara pit that was unearthed in 2006 with a cache of perfectly preserved kūmara that had been abandoned fifty years earlier: ‘The tubers were covered in bracken fern and mānuka brush and had remained untouched by moisture, sunlight or air.’ ‘So … the kūmara … it was not only about planting, it was also about storytelling.’
He rua kūmara tēnei taonga. The kūmara pit seems a fitting kupu whakarite (metaphor) by which to describe the mix of genres within the book, which, like the rua kūmara, is a treasured storehouse containing carefully turned and curated narratives and poems, each a perfectly preserved and rich source of intellectual and spiritual nourishment.
The kūmara also ties into one of the themes that echoes throughout the many poems in this book: the natural environment, Rangi and Papa, Papatūānuku and her importance to Māori. Many other themes weaving through Williams’ writing are based on his experiences as an activist, teacher and writer—topics such as colonisation, Te Tiriti, the Tūhoe raids, land marches and protests. As Ihimaera writes of Williams: ‘He rite ki te kōpara e kōkō nei i te ata. His kōrero is like listening to the bellbird singing at dawn.’
I recommend this book to all readers interested in the wisdom, poetry and insight of a respected kaumātua with a mastery of poetry and prose.
Tree Sense: Ways of thinking about trees is an anthology of essays, artworks and poetry by artists, activists, ecologists and advocates, each of whom has ‘a deep respect for trees’. This is a book for people interested in the environment, and—as editor Susette Goldsmith admits—to a certain extent it will ‘preach to the converted’.
I am one of the converted, and I was both excited and a little apprehensive about reading this book. Excited because I love learning about trees; apprehensive because I have some knowledge of the devastating impact humans have had and continue to have on trees in Aotearoa. The reasoning behind the legislative framework that allows the wanton destruction of trees in suburban Auckland is set out in Mels Barton’s piece, ‘Our Lost Trees’. Barton suggests Aotearoa is ‘definitely well behind best practice in retaining urban forest cover … the Tree Council estimates that we have lost one-third of Auckland’s tree cover since the Resource Management Act 1991 (RMA) reforms were implemented in 2015 and general tree protection was removed. Until this tree protection measure is reinstated, the destruction will continue.’
At times I was soothed and at other times saddened by what this book reveals about trees in Aotearoa. In this respect Tree Sense succeeds in what it sets out to do in talking about humans through the medium of trees. Part One, titled ‘Needful Dependency’—a phrase taken from Elizabeth Smither’s poem ‘Tree breath and human’ that appears at the beginning of the book—focuses on ‘the various characteristics of trees’. Here Glynn Church’s essay provides captivating facts about tree life in Aotearoa that many who live here may not know. For example, I was unaware that tree ferns like ponga and mamaku are relics of the dinosaur era. I also didn’t know that the māhoe is the largest violet in the world! Such gems are peppered throughout the book and make me want to head into the bush to find examples of these trees and look at them anew.
Many pieces in Part One are informative and uplifting. In her essay ‘A Line Between Two Trees/Observations from the Critical Zone’, Ann Noble asks the question, ‘Do trees talk?’ In an attempt to answer this question, she buried a length of photographic film in the earth in ‘the Critical Zone’—among the roots between two trees—in the hope of ‘capturing some form of tree language’. The results appear in an astonishing eight-page fold-out image that records a kind of tracery reminiscent of wood and canopy and stars. The image effectively enhances the book’s message, as do the beautiful black-and-white illustrations of trees by botanical artist Nancy M. Adams that adorn the cover and appear at the beginning of each written piece.
Part Two, ‘Greening the Anthropocene’, takes a ‘lead from the past and provides some guidelines for the future’. The pieces here contain some of the more depressing content. Susette Goldsmith’s essay ‘Burying the Axe and the Fire-stick’ examines the 1940 centennial of the signing of Te Tiriti o Waitangi. Centennial activities included the planting of more than ‘300,000 native and many thousands of exotic trees, shrubs, grasses and herbs propagated by schools’, and ‘220,000 trees by local authorities, institutions and individuals’. While those activities are not saddening in themselves—indeed, all are about rejuvenating—the worrying thing is that so much planting needed to occur in the first place. And here we connect to the legacy of 100 years of colonial settlement in Aotearoa and the advent of the ‘axe and the fire-stick’ that led to problems of ‘landslides, floods, erosion, silting, spread of scrub and weeds and serious shortage of timber’. The ‘vexed question of natives versus exotics’ is a recurrent issue throughout the collection, as is Eurocentrism when it comes to the definition of an ‘acceptable tree’, as discussed in Colin D. Meurk’s piece, ‘Think Like a Mataī’.
As the media preview says, this book is perfect for dipping into. It is a collection that honours trees, the ‘largest visible organisms on the planet’. It is a collection that talks about trees as storytellers, as ancient analogies for humans, as life-giving providers of oxygen.
I recommend this book to all who have any relationship with or interest in our environment and the trees around us. Whether you know it or not, you are bound to trees. As Kennedy Warne writes, ‘Trees are our kin. We share a sacred bond.’
Both books capture the wisdom of our elders. Both speak of the importance of the land, the natural environment and voices we need to pay attention to in so many ways.
GINA COLE is Fijian, Scottish and Welsh and lives in Tāmaki Makaurau. Her book Black Ice Matter won the Hubert Church Prize for Best First Book Fiction at the 2017 Ockham New Zealand Book Awards. Her science fiction fantasy novel, Na Viro (Huia, 2022), is a work of Pasifikafuturism.