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Ko au te taiao

A reflection of our Tree Planting event at the Learning Environment, Papaiti.

“We’re planting more than just trees, we’re planting the dream. We see a better future and we’re living it today” are the lyrics to a cheesy song that our team wrote for our first planting event in 2021. Luckily the song never went public, however, the words still ring true. For us, tree planting events are way more than just planting trees. They are spaces of ceremony, opportunities to weave past, present and future together, and a chance to acknowledge our essential role as people in a deep reciprocal web with the world around us.

“We are here to reconnect together again, within te wao nui a Tane [the great forest of Tāne], and to listen to the sounds of the manu [birds] calling us together. We are part of nature ourselves"

Opened Geoffrey Hipango from Te Ao Hou Marae at the whakatau [welcoming] for our second community tree planting ceremony on Friday 25th August. “I acknowledge all those who have come and those who keep the home fires burning.”

Tree planting volunteer days are becoming increasingly popular, and we understand why. It’s one thing to commit to caring for waterways and stabilising land, and another to witness the enthusiasm of bringing community together to give back, knowing that it will be the mokopuna [future generations] who will really get to appreciate it. For us, these events are also an opportunity to facilitate a deeper connection to nature, each other and ourselves.

When Geoff says ‘We are part of nature’, one way to understand this is on an intellectual level; we are made up of water, air, and when we die we go back to the earth. Another way to understand this is to really embody it, by simply taking a breath in and a breath out.

Every breath you take is a gift received, and every exhale is a gift given.

Trees use carbon dioxide in their photosynthetic processes, a bi-product of this process is oxygen, which is essential to human life. So take a deep breath and give thanks!

“When you plant one of these trees, acknowledge that your ancestors may have walked the forests of this tree’s ancestors. That a manu [bird] that you saw fly by in the valley may have fed in the host tree, or that this tree’s parent's roots are dangling in the awa [river] you love to swim in. It’s all really connected” said Cameron Ryan, Coordinator at the Learning Environment. "I encourage us as we are moving through the planting site to engage in the depth of the process”

Facilitating opportunities for people to build a relationship with te taiao is a significant part of what we are offering at the Learning Environment and bringing the right people in from our community to support this is fundamental.

Che Wilson and Meretini Bennett-Huxtable, as part of Tai-o-Rongo, are supporting people to build relationships with te taiao through Tātai. “A Tātai is a codified knowledge in chant form”, Meretini explained.

“In this process, we are looking at how we are engaging with our atua [gods]. And in this case, how do we let Papatūānuku [Earth Mother] know that the process of planting trees is about to happen, instead of just throwing the plants in.”

Living as part of the great Whanganui Awa [river] catchment, you often hear the whakataukī, “Kauaka e kōrero mō te awa, engari kōrero ki te awa. - Don’t merely talk about the river, rather speak to and commune with the river.” Tātai is a way of communing with the natural world as part of our community. Meretini continues, “Learning tātai, and using tātai, is a form of speaking to her and the environment and everything so she understands the job that we need her to do after the planting has been done.”

As we moved together into the planting site, we held the memories of our ancestors and chanted the Tātai to speak to this place about our intentions. We called forth the family of Hinepeke [Goddess of insects] and let Papatūānuku know that we would break her soil for the purpose of planting. Energy rose as the group of 50 people young and old worked together to give back to this land. The sun kept an eye on us as the soundscape then filled with kōrero [conversation], laughter and music. Together we planted 2500 trees, ate oranges, reconnected with friends we hadn’t seen in ages and built new relationships.

As we finished up and made our way towards the awaited lunch feast, another Tātai began calling upon Ranginui [Sky Father] to bless the site, encouraged the rākau [tress] to stand tall and we welcomed the manu [birds] to call this place home as part of te wao nui a Tāne [the great forest of Tāne]. The feast was served from kai [food] primarily from the land that grounded us in the gratitude of this day.

Through experiences like these, we are constantly learning that in connecting to te taiao, we can deepen our connection with ourselves and others. So what difference do these days make for our community? As one visitor shared: “I learnt that I need to listen closely to te taiao, my whānau [family] and my tinana [body]”. “Learning about Tātai solidified my belief around our connection to papatūānuku” shared another. “Being at the Learning Environment and in te taiao is so good for my mental health. It’s grounding to be part of such a wonderful community.”

The trees planted will become the forests for the people, birds and insects to enjoy now and into the future. We are grateful to be nested in this rich and inspiring community where together we can deepen our relationships as part of the interconnected web of life. And as Meretini put it “From our indigenous worldview, we know that we are the environment and the environment is us. So having a conversation with it (and each other) to let it know what is happening, there is nothing to lose in doing something like that”.

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