Sarah Hopkinson, an urban farmer, curriculum designer and Te Tiriti advocate, explores the connections between being Pākehā, grief, and ancestry, and how these can provide hope in challenging times.


The garden

It’s summer and the earth below me is warm. Everything growing is bright green: runner beans, asparagus ferns, peas, rocket and lettuces. Even the baby tomatoes and cucumbers and chillis are green, for now. The garden bursts tall to the sky with the colour of growth.

I often charge into the garden, intent on the doing that needs doing and not on the being that needs being. But, inevitably, by the end of any day in relationship with my mother earth, I find myself slowing and standing still. I tend to the soil and, in turn, she tends to my soul. The sun teaches me that everything has its season. The soil shows me that there is a complex web of life at play that is far beyond my senses. The plants teach me, over and over again, that diversity is strength.

But perhaps it’s the compost that teaches me the most. It’s the compost that shows me that breaking down is not just a part of the universal force, but vital to it. That everything is circular and in a never-ending relationship. And that even as the conditions change — even as we notice familiar forms beginning to decompose — life remains persistent and tenacious.

The softness of a suited heart

I walk inside and watch the news. I hear Winston and Chris and David. I scroll Gaza and despair at COP28, watch many poisons destroy the earth, listen to news of bombing and missiles and dust. Rubble on children’s dead bodies.

I walk in protest and sign petitions and send letters. Cry and sigh and try to find meaning where there is no meaning to be found.

I wonder how these leaders, both here and overseas, grew such bleak ambition. Who emboldened them to grow such entitlement and separation? What fuels their need for violence, supremacy and domination?

I wonder about the softness of their suited hearts. I wonder if they are held when they cry, or even if they cry at all. I wonder when they last walked barefoot in a forest or connected with a wild animal. I wonder when they last had their loving hands in the earth. If they have ever talked to a tree and felt its living response.

I wonder about what happened for them to forget that they are a soft, loving being, made of simple flesh. Just like me and just like you. Just like that beautiful child over there.

And I wonder the most about how hard it is to connect the dots between all of this without sounding like you are losing your mind.

A shield of ancients

I am Pākehā, a New Zealand-born European, a mosaic of unmistakably strong colonising energy.

For as long as I can remember, I’ve been dissatisfied with my ancestral muddle. It’s hard to make sense of why our peoples all sailed across the world and took land that was so clearly not theirs. It feels so disconnected, so harsh, and quite impossible to be proud of.

But this much I know to be true: at one time my people did understand the life of the more-than-human world around them. There was a time, well before my ancestors came here — before capitalism, before patriarchal empire — when they belonged in a reciprocal living relationship with the world around them.

I am half a world away from my ancestral stories, and many hundreds of years, too, but I am slowly re-turning to this planet, spiralling around and re-membering that I belong to her.

It feels like desperately urgent work that gets practised very slowly. At the pace of a growing season. Sometimes, when my hands are deep in the soil of this, Te Atiawa ki Kāpiti whenua, or when my bare feet are walking on the land, I can almost feel the ancients reaching from the other side of the planet to me. They willow and wind their way up my foot, vine up my spine.

I am learning, slowly, and through them, that I am not only my thoughts. That being human is also intuition, and knowings that come from somewhere else altogether.

We are in a webbed experience with the ancestors and descendants of all that surrounds us. And it’s this wider spiral of connection that I am called to, the collective living experience. The ancients are bolstering my spine, giving me things to say that I never thought I would have the guts to say, but I do wish there was a way to communicate all of this without sounding like a hippy.

Sometimes it almost feels like they are whispering to each other. She’s re-membering! She’s re-membering! 

It’s not really like this, of course, but my language is hard to use sometimes. It’s hard to find words for the unwordable, but I do know that it’s worth trying.

A certain and imperfect love

As a child, I worked really hard to ignore the fact that my mum was dying.

I would push down all the hard stuff, focus on the inconsequential instead. I cultivated an emotional veneer, an “I’m fine, and so everything’s going to be fine” kind of obtuseness.

It feels like today’s government is playing the same game. They’re ignoring the big issues of the climate crisis, and what Te Tiriti o Waitangi actually promises to hapū and iwi Māori, the situation in Gaza, to focus on getting New Zealand “back on track.”

Some sort of white-knuckled attempt to pretend that greyhound racing is more important than warming ocean temperatures or that house prices matter more than tino rangatiratanga. It’s such a middle finger to the idea that we’re all connected in this mess. Such an act of smoke and mirrors.

It feels to me that many of us Pākehā are quite unable to speak out loud the yearnings and aches of our heart. And perhaps in the intervening silence, the words we might have wanted to use for belonging to our bodies, each other and this place, have simply floated right off into the ether.

Even in writing this, I’m throwing my net around for language for all of this and coming up short. I haul up words like “holy” and “sacred” and “wild” and “animal” and cast them back dissatisfied. None of them are adequate. None of them speak to the interconnected humanness that we have forgotten to tend to within our Pākehā-ness.

In the days after Mum died, I asked Dad to make sure that he would live for ages and ages, and he promised he’d try. I keenly remember the ground feeling so unsteady back then, like we were out on the open sea with just Dad at the helm.

But Dad steadied us, with his constancy and generosity and service. And while I tried to rock our motherless boat, especially as a teenager, his unwavering belief kept me going. I’m forever grateful that Dad was who we had when Mum was suddenly not on earth.

Dad lived a long life just as he promised.

In the week before he passed, we gathered around him in the hospital to keep him company, to hold his thin hand as he slept. I thought a lot about love that week — about his certain, entirely imperfect love for me and my certain, entirely imperfect love for him — about the generational hands of parent and child that go back and back with their certain, entirely imperfect love.

How we hold each other and spiral, with so much unsaid, as ancestors and descendants, over and over again.

And with all the knowledge of the connections between our pulsing bodies, this thrumming earth and our infinite cosmos long ago buried on the other side of the world, it’s only this thin familial line that tethers us here.

Maybe Pākehā leaders find it hard to practise a meaningful relationship to Aotearoa and tangata whenua because of this under-developed sense of belonging.

We don’t need to look far for what embedded connections to land, each other and the cosmos look like. Mātauranga Māori and all the practices and knowledges of the peoples of the Pacific are fecund launching pads for reminding us of what it is that we might need to unearth within ourselves.

The songs for the trees that grow around us are not yet on our lips. The stories of how we contribute to a thriving land simply don’t exist. Rituals and ceremonies that relate to here, and to us, are yet to be lived.

At one of the forum tent discussions at Waitangi this year, someone spoke about becoming suitable for Aotearoa.

They talked about the ancestors of tangata whenua arriving here and how it took 200 years to acclimatise to this new land, to figure out how to thrive. They spoke about the new tools they needed, the new practices, and how Pacific ways needed to flex and change for Aotearoa.

The speaker went on to observe that Pākehā are coming up to that 200-year mark. That it’s taken time, but he believed that Pākehā could figure out how to thrive here in relation with tangata whenua and the land, with an evolution of our tools and practices.

As I drove away, I thought more about what we might need to do to become of this place. How we might need to step out of our practised roles as coloniser, as dominator and as expert. Perhaps feel the failure of the values that have brought us to this here and this now. Orientate towards Indigenous knowledge systems and those who hold them.

Toitū Te Tiriti may be just one thread in our infinite woven cloth, but boy oh boy, is it a connected one.

Portals forward

I was listening to Dr Bayo Akomalafe, a post-humanist thinker, and my current saviour, speak recently about how we can put our individual and collective wounds to work. Treat our wounds as wayfaring signs forward — as an invitation to meet the world differently and come alive in other ways. That our earth urgently needs us to.

It’s only recently that I can feel the wisdom of my intergenerational wounds, the lessons they’ve taught me. Because, through colonisation, we forgot that life is much more than mere blood and bone. That we are the universe, organised as a human fractal, for now and not for ever. That we are all connected across time and space in ways our five senses will never fathom. And that love can conquer all.

It’s through these portals that I hope we can find fresh ways to grow as Pākehā. And maybe, in tending to these wounds, we will remember our place within a Te Tiriti-centric Aotearoa.

Maybe this country’s spring will come.

And so, this is where this wandering thread ends. With a decomposing pile of old, colonising ideas that separate and violate and compartmentalise us all. And with a great deal of love for the work that might be able to reconnect us.

Let’s grow our curiosity together and not our fear.

Let’s tend to this garden together.


Sarah Alice Hopkinson is an education consultant, urban farmer, earth dreamer and Te Tiriti advocate. She farms regeneratively at The Green Garden, a suburban farm on Te Ātiawa ki Kāpiti land, growing nutrient-dense food for her family and community, is part way through her Hua Parakore certification, is an Eat NZ Kaitaki, is a participant in The Tipuna Project and on the advisory board of For the Love of Bees, who are growing radical hope through food.

© E-Tangata, 2024

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