Topic: EcologyExisting in Kinship with Everything

The plant lives of Aotearoa (and the myriad meanings they embody) have long been threatened by Western colonists, facilitated by a belief that an ecosystem’s importance is defined by what it offers humans. Hana Pera Aoake describes a very different Māori worldview – one that emphasises the deep, non-linear interconnections between the people and their plant-relatives, and that continues to resist and flourish in the face of eco-cultural imperialism. Edited by Jackson Howarth.

By Hana Pera Aoake

In my garden I am always struck by the way that plants grow and decay in different directions, reaching upwards and downwards, criss-crossing and curving across the garden beds. In English there aren’t many words that can express this non-linear, multidirectional nature (perhaps slightly closer are the French and Portuguese ‘sens’ and ‘sentido’, which mean both ‘meaning’ and ‘direction’). Tyson Yunkaporta of the Apalech Clan in Western Cape York, Australia describes this conundrum as such:

‘English inevitably places settler worldviews at the centre of every concept, obscuring true understanding. For example, explaining Aboriginal notions of time is an exercise in futility as you can only describe it as “non-linear” in English…. We don’t have a word for non-linear in our languages because nobody would consider travelling, thinking or talking in a straight line in the first place. The winding path is just how a path is, and therefore it needs no name.’[1]

The philosophical concept behind the word ‘whakapapa’ in Te reo Māori is the best way I know to express this non-linearity while resisting such forms of colonialism. Whakapapa isn’t limited to thinking about plants alone; it refers to the way all lifeforms exist in kinship with each other – interconnected and multilateral. In one sense, whakapapa could be taken to mean genealogy, but the concept extends far beyond this simplistic definition. A better approach involves exploring layer upon layer; the word is made up of the causative prefix ‘whaka’ and the stem word ‘papa’, with a literal meaning of ground and layers, which calls to the Earth mother – Papatūānuku.[2] Whakapapa could be described as a way to ‘make layers’ or as being ‘generative’, like a web or takarangi (double helix) of ever-expanding connections between humans and non-humans. This multidirectionality is visible in the way that soil, plants, sunlight and water are all interconnected and collaborative parts of life for all living and non-living beings. Whakapapa can be summarised in the Māori whakataukī (proverb): Te toto o te tangata he kai, te oranga o te tangata, he whenua, he oneone – while food provides the blood in our veins, our health is drawn from the land and soils.

Yet the plant life of Aotearoa (New Zealand) – which bears and embodies the concept of whakapapa – has long been threatened by ‘ecological imperialism.’ Ecological imperialism is a way of understanding the environmental, cultural and socio-political destruction spread by European colonialists. This was both a central dimension, and a consequence of the imperial project, as colonists brought diseases that devastated local populations (people, plants and animals) and new invasive plants, animals and human inhabitants.

Complex ecosystems that sustained a swarm of plants, animals and cultures were seen as being in need of ‘improvement’. The once abundant wetlands that covered most of Aotearoa were depicted by Joseph Banks, the colonial explorer and natural scientist who accompanied Captain James Cook on his first excursion into the South Pacific (1768-71), as a ‘waste’ that needed to be ‘tamed’.[3] Moreover, as the wetlands weaved across the country into rivers, streams, lakes and out to sea, they presented a problem for colonists, who came from a culture accustomed to its rulers using legal boundary lines as means of asserting governance and making classifications between ‘water’, ‘land’, ‘plant’, and ‘animal’. As such, Banks advocated for the mass drainage of wetlands. Māori saw these wetlands as being a part of an interconnected series of waterways and among their most important resource environments; the ecological impact of swamp drainage was akin to a major organ like the heart being ruptured and removed.

As they attempted to destroy the very landscapes that bore ideas such as whakapapa, colonisers also attempted to supplant this, and other Indigenous plant-related concepts. Western colonists such Banks were informed by a canon of philosophy that has long argued that plants generally exist without any purpose beyond propagation for food, clothing or other utilities. For Aristotle, plants did not breathe and so lacked a soul, living but not sharing. Not unlike Aristotle, Hegel saw plants as being somewhat incomplete – growth doomed them to strive towards exteriority (sunlight) without establishing any kind of inwardness.

Yet both Aristotle and Hegel lived before Western scientists were able to develop theories that increasingly line up with knowledge inherent in Indigenous praxis – such as a Māori worldview whereby everything is connected and sentient, via whakapapa. For instance, a study in 2018 of corn seedlings determined that they send signals to communicate the proximity of other plants. Studies have also shown that stressed plants correspond more frequently, for instance a 2013 study using broad beans showed that plants warn their neighbours of incoming aphid attacks through a network of fungus that is connected to roots. In 2017, another study showed that playing white noise to an Arabidopsis, a flowering plant in the mustard family, triggered a drought response. In his book, What a plant knows, botanist Daniel Chamovitz posits that plants can see, feel and smell: ‘Plants can tell when there’s very little light, like from a candle, or when it’s the middle of the day, or when the sun is about to set into the horizon.’For some, evidence of complex communication signals is obvious, plants are able to feel and express pain; the smell of fresh cut grass is grass communicating a pain response and a warning. Others maintain that there cannot be pain without a brain to register the feeling.

Being Māori, none of these findings come as a surprise. Indigenous Peoples have always known that plants not only communicate, but are capable of much more than we could ever understand. Māori have always been aware that we are a part of, and therefore must care for the environment – which in turn cares for you, your community and your descendants. Since the arrival to Aotearoa on the great voyages across the Pacific 1,000 years ago, Māori have used Harakeke, known as flax – a native perennial plant containing fibre – for ornamental and practical uses ranging from clothing, rope, sail making and mats. The harakeke represents the whānau (family), with, rito (shoot) is the child and it is protected by the surrounding awhi rito (parents). The outside leaves represent the tūpuna (grandparents, ancestors). This way of thinking about harakeke represents not just the pillars of Māori society, which is whakapapa, but also how to care for harakeke when harvesting it, where you cut leaves from the outside to protect the plant’s future in the centre. Māori see plants as being a part of us; not something that can be quantified, measured or categorised.

An image of Arielle Walker's Tongapōrutu River Map, 2019, plant-dyed, woollen blanket, cotton thread
Arielle Walker, Tongapōrutu River Map, 2019, plant-dyed, woollen blanket, cotton thread

When describing their whakapapa, Māori name themselves as being a river, mountain, an entire tribe or ancestor: Ko au te awa, ko te awa ko au – I am the river and the river is me. In Arielle Walker’s (Taranaki, Ngāruahine, Ngāpuhi, Pākehā) ongoing River maps (2017-present), the artist gathers plants from around specific rivers that they have whakapapa (genealogic) ties to, to form a patchwork of belonging and all the complexities that this entails. Walker’s practice incorporates the histories of the women across her whakapapa, from Shetland, Scotland to Taranaki, Aotearoa. The artist is constantly thinking through different skill sets, ranging from lace making, whatu (single pair twining), knitting, quilt making or looming. The River maps provide a physical botanical map showing the collections of plants that gather around a particular place. Using cotton fabric to distinguish different plants and their homes, Walker boils the plants to extract colours and dye the fabric. This patchwork of places is then sewn together into a ‘map’. In doing so, Walker subverts colonial mapmaking, showing that the waters and plant roots that stretch out across the land and aren't easily tamed or categorised. Plants are an intricate part of what makes up a person's whakapapa, which is non-linear – never straight. The ecological imperialism that has shaped not only plants but all living organisms in all settler colonies is not successful in severing the relationships between Māori people have with the natural world. This is because whakapapa cannot be tamed, it is wild, porous and incapable of categorisation; it exists in kinship with everything around us.

[1] Tyson Yunkaporta, Sand Talk: how Indigenous Thinking can save the world, 2019.

[2] Georgina Tuari Stewart, Māori Philosophy: Indigenous Thinking from Aotearoa, 2021.

[3] Geoff Park, Swamps Which Might Doubtless Easily Be Drained, 2006.

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