Author Airana Ngarewa grew up in Pātea, rural Taranaki. For him, living out in the wops meant living with the accusing eyes of farmers defending stolen land from the ones they stole it from.
Here he is writing about how that inspired his first novel, The Bone Tree.
When I was writing The Bone Tree, I went for a run on the rural roads of Taranaki, around the block Mum and Dad live on. The track is close to eight kilometres, a quarter of that along State Highway 3, the main road connecting New Plymouth and Whanganui, the two great cities of Te Tai Hauāuru, the west coast of the North Island.
It’s a route I’ve run close to 100 times in total. Under the midday sun, I took a right off the highway and blazed it down a long straight, only two houses and a milking shed on one side and a series of paddocks on the other.
Nearly halfway down the straight, I spotted a ute a small distance behind me and moved off the road to make room. It didn’t pass. Instead, the driver slowed and continued to follow me.
I paid it little mind at first, only checking my shoulder every now and again, and continuing on my way. You meet all manner of drivers on only-enough-room-for-one-lane-of-traffic rural roads but usually it’s only the tankers and speeders you need to pay careful attention to.
Soon enough, the ute pulled up beside me and the balding man inside, his neck sunburned red, stared me down. I kept running, neither speeding nor slowing, unsure what to make of him. The ute matched my pace, the man watching me the whole time.
After a while, he said: “You been stealing from my farm.”
I looked at him. How else could I possibly respond? My hands were empty, the only things on me were my sneakers, shorts, shirt and an MP3 player. Besides the pair of jocks under my shorts, beneath the all-seeing eye of the midday sun, I was physically incapable of concealing anything on my person.
“The alarm on my shed went off and here you are. So what’d you steal? Or were you just scoping it out?”
“Bro, I’m running,” was all I could muster through winded breath, suspecting either his alarm was busted or he was straight-up lying. “What’s your problem?”
He paused and I kept on running and the ute stayed beside me, the man’s eyes fixed on my own. “You bloody wait,” he said and took off, the ute tearing up the gravel, returning to his multi-million-dollar abode. I kept on running, five kilometres away from home, checking my shoulder in case the ute returned. The balding man was all the way out-the-gate — who knew what he’d do next? An anxious 20 minutes later, I made it home, safe but perplexed, cautious to leave that track alone the next time I hit the roads.
Everyone I grew up with has story upon story like this — a sprinkling of farmers in Taranaki high as a kite on mistrust and suspicion, fiercely defending stolen land from the ones they stole it from. My generation got accusing eyes and the occasional threat, my father’s generation got it worse. One farmer of their day, a much older woman, had a bad habit of shooting warning shots at stray kids with her trusty .22, promising much worse if she ever saw them on her land again.
Between the experiences of me and my mates, and my father’s stories, the choice of beginning The Bone Tree with a tense encounter between a paranoid farmer and two boys just trying to practise their manus at the river on the other side of an unoccupied paddock was pretty much made for me. There is something beyond grotesque about being called out, threatened and even shot at for going too near the land your tūpuna lived on and defended, then had taken from them for having lived on it and defended it.
Still, that was life for all of us who grew up on our tribal lands in Taranaki. To us, after the initial bout of fear had subsided, it was all a bit silly, because it was so far beyond the bounds of absurdity. Still, whenever we shared these stories with those outside the region, we saw in their reactions exactly how serious it all was.
The wops is thus just as much a character in The Bone Tree as the whānau at its centre. There is the grudging gorse that decorates the hills behind their house and the not-up-to-snuff number 8 wire fence which partition the paddocks that surround them, and, finally, the river polluted by runoff.
Every whānau I know has a story about a local spot once rich with eel, whitebait and crayfish, becoming more and more barren over time as farming practices intensified. Our maunga here in Taranaki has another name: te maunga tītōhea, meaning the barren mountain, for no trees grow above its base. So it goes for the mountain, and so it goes, nowadays, for the rivers and the land, which grows little more than grass and gorse.
In kōrero, we refer constantly to the many faces of te taiao, but unless you’re regularly in contact with them, it’s hard to capture the energy these multitudes contain. In the wops, the dark is not nearly as dark as you might imagine, the stars and the moon sometimes as luminous as the sun. But then there is the quiet. When no cars idle, no streetlights hum, there is a stillness, a loneliness, that tortures the spirit.
No emotion will be denied at these hours. All that is unacknowledged boils and all that is suppressed burst through. Grief, greed and blame. It is always when the stillness arrives that the whānau in The Bone Tree must confront themselves. Or, more often than not, run towards refuge or reprieve.
History is another central character in The Bone Tree, as it is in all our lives. Neither the whānau nor the land nor the farmers paranoid to keep the locals away from it can be well understood without it.
Naturally, that’s the whānau’s main motivation, to journey into the past, to figure out all that made them the way they are, and to figure out too how to save themselves. Here the title spoils some of the story: unravelling the past is no easy feat. Like the branches on the cover of the book, history braids over and around itself and every question answered raises more.
And yet, though the maunga will always be called tītōhea and the tree always called bony, the whānau inside believe that, through love and loyalty, they may find redemption. But at what cost?
Born and raised in Pātea, Airana Ngarewa (Ngāti Ruanui, Ngā Rauru, Ngāruahine) is a teacher and MMA fighter. His writing has been published by RNZ, NZ Herald, Newsroom and Landfall. He won the short story and poetry competitions at the Ronald Hugh Morrieson Literary Awards in 2022. His debut novel, The Bone Tree, was released in August.
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