The author and his mum, 1962 (Photo: Supplied)
The author and his mum, 1962 (Photo: Supplied)

BooksJuly 10, 2021

This is how harakeke grows

The author and his mum, 1962 (Photo: Supplied)
The author and his mum, 1962 (Photo: Supplied)

Poet Ben Brown (Ngāti Mahuta, Ngāti Koroki, Ngāti Paoa) is the inaugural Te Awhi Rito, the reading ambassador. Here he writes about his parents, and his kids, and the way gnarly old flax leaves protect the new shoots.  

Mum made many things with flax, with harakeke. She had the old ways, though to her they were not old, they were simply the ways. One particular day I remember vividly, even now nearly 50 years on. Mum showed me a trick that day. No, not a trick, it was much more than that. 

She led me down to the great harakeke at the far end of the front lawn, where Tūi often dements himself chasing sparrows and finches and shadows with his carry-on and his clanging.

Tūī cracks me up with all that pomp and bluster. The little birds have got his number though. One lot keep him busy. The other lot swoop in.

When we got to the pā harakeke, Mum pointed out a blade of flax, long and broad and tūpuna old. “There son, that one there,” she said, “Pull it out for me.” The leaf was longer than I was in my gumboots, longer than Mum was, longer than me and Mum together even. “Go on then, pull it out, that’s the one I need, that one there!”

“OK,” I said, not sure how this would go. But if Mum says that one there, well, that one there it is. So I took a deep breath, grabbed a hold of the leaf as tightly as I could and heaved.

And heaved.

And heeeeeaaved.

It did not budge. Not even a millimetre, which then was new to us as a measure of something very small. “Come on, what’s the matter with you? I need a handle for the kete. Stop playing with it and start pulling.” For some reason, Mum found my struggle amusing. Well, she was laughing anyway.

Again I strained and struggled, planting the heels of my gumboots into the turf of the lawn, grasping that gnarly old leaf with both hands, leaning back with all my meagre weight and straining my legs to straighten against the hold of this great old leaf as I growled and groaned my exertions. But all I got for my efforts was sore hands and a sore backside as my grip let go and my own legs, assisted by gravity, dumped me arse over kite as my dad would’ve said, to the ground.

“You need a tractor to pull that out,” I grumbled.

“A tractor you reckon. Ha! We’ll see about that!”

My Mum was not a big woman. Some would call her small, petite or even “slight”. But slight to me is like “almost” or “a little bit”. Mum would feed you your own tongue one piece at a time if you ever confused her with “a little bit”.

She walked up to the harakeke, bent to her mahi, took a firm grip on the thicker part of the blade-like leaf, right near the ground where it emerges with its kāhui and the magic gooey gel oozes and sticks to your fingers. Put that stuff on cuts eh, stings a bit but it does the business.

She gave the great leaf a few firm side-to-side jerks and twists and then somehow – POP – out it came. Told you, eh. Nothing “a little bit” about Mum.

Old family photo of a middle-aged Māori woman, long hair in a ponytail, squinting and smiling at the camera.
Brown: “She was born at Waahi Pa in a punga and raupō whare, by the firelight, Saint Patrick’s Day 1937” (Photo: Supplied)

Te rito is the new shoot of the harakeke, the great green flax that doesn’t mind having its feet wet, with long broad leaves that are full of the muka, the fibres strong enough to plait the cord that fished up the land and bound the sun.

Awhi is to embrace, to surround, to assist and support with love, guidance, experience, and wisdom. Te awhi rito are the older, stronger leaves that grow protectively around the young shoot, giving it every chance to grow and thrive. Imagine the vast groves of harakeke clattering in the wind; they once would have been no more than a few stubbornly persistent leaves clinging to the damp earth, determined not to fail.

If you observe in your mind the small boy and his mother, the metaphor becomes humanly clear: this woman is of the kāhui te awhi rito. Today, so is her son.

One of the most beautiful aspects of te reo is the depth of metaphor, layer upon layer, as complex as geological strata and still all of it Earth, Papatūānuku, of whom we are made, whakapapa, and given our bearing as natural as breath, te hā, the wind, te hau, as water, ko wai koe, who are you? Ko wai koe. A statement, not a question. You are water. Water and Earth. Of course you are, of course you are, how do you think you could be anything else.

Metaphors. Discreet and gentle, overt and awesome, meanings rich with imagery: we are water, we are earth, we are air, we are everything. This is the essence of the wānanga, the deepest knowledge o te wā, totality of time and space, that we command with mana kupu, with the power of words.

Te Awhi Rito. The Reading Ambassador. A two-year gig. A pretty tidy stipend. Thirty years’ work to get here. Not a household name by any stretch. Fine with me. Never was the intention. The kaupapa has always been words. Learning them, knowing them, understanding them. Placing them in a certain order to a certain effect and trying to make a buck by doing it, only because that way, I can keep on doing it. But the why of it goes deeper.

Dad’s been bugging me for weeks, “You read it yet?”

Me, I’m in the Sunday afternoon dead zone of boredom and belligerence. “Naa …  Can’t be bothered reading your book!” 

I didn’t see my father’s deft little flick of a throw – couldn’t be bothered with that either I guess. My Dad had a good eye and seldom missed what he aimed at.

“Ow! That hurt!” I grizzled. “Read it!” said my father. He did not bellow. He did not growl. He did not threaten. He made no dramatic gesture or demonstration. He merely spoke from the deepest oldest darkest part of his humanity where the animal used to be. “Read it!”

So I did.

Seventeen words in, I’m starting to like this kid called Tom. Here I am in 1972, 10 years old and a ratbag myself. Māori mother from the Kīngitanga hard, Pākehā father born in outback South Australia, raised in the Northern Territory, the epitome of a self-reliant man born slightly out of his time who’d learned to live with it. Their answer to every question, their solution to every problem: hard work and stoic resolve. We live on a 30 acre tobacco farm beside a river full of fish and potential adventure in the prettiest valley in the world.

And then one Sunday afternoon I meet Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn and they remind me of me and my best friend cos we bunk off school and go rafting on the river and avoid hard work whenever we can in favour of mischief and occasional mayhem.

I was so enthralled that I read everything by Mark Twain that I could find in the library at Ngātīmoti School, and so inevitably I meet a man called N****r Jim and I don’t even know what N****r means but there’s a farmer down the road got a big black dog with that name, calls him N** for short, so I say to my dad, “That’s a funny name for a man.” And Dad says, “Keep reading son, you’ll understand.”

Old family photo of a boy aged approx 12? in an awesome tan leather jacket.
The author, 1972. “I wore that jacket to pieces.” (Photo: Supplied)

Ambassadors represent. They advocate and promote. They assert and defend. Te Awhi Rito represents reading and is there to promote and advocate for this profoundly life changing exercise; this learning, knowing, understanding and ultimately, wielding of words.The metaphor is appropriate because the world into which the new shoot rises is sometimes lit by different suns with changing energies. This is known to te kāhui o te awhi rito, the gathered embrace of wise old leaves who have witnessed such changes and so extend the wānanga as part of their awhi.

So te rito grows to learn and know and understand.

You see then that I alone am not Te Awhi, as wise as I might like to think I am. There is gathered with me a delegation inspired to the task of reminding us all, but especially our young, our rito, our tamariki and rangatahi, our children and youth, that while the road they are on is the fast moving product of now and tomorrow, the purpose of the journey remains unchanged.

The fulfilment of potential.

But how to arrive at the destination refreshed and energised, how to get there primed and ready, how to get there in multitudes and majorities across every demographic? That has always been the challenge.

For myself, I see that words are still the record we are drawn to. Words are how we measure, how we mark our progress and ascent. Words are how we remember, how we remind ourselves that we are not only capable but indomitable.

Words are how we check ourselves, wreck ourselves, resurrect ourselves. Words are how we project ourselves and reflect ourselves. Words are how we gloss our failures and exaggerate our achievements. Words are how we lie.

There are institutions bound to the duty of ensuring that these words are not only kept safe and secure but are there to be seen, scrutinised and tested, disseminated and dispersed, discussed and debated and disambiguated, sifted for jewels and flaws and falsehoods, challenged, defended, built up and torn down but surviving and telling and retelling and retelling …

We change the world with words. We make the world with words. It’s not a glib statement, it’s a self-evident truth. It happens every day. It’s happening now. Go watch any 24/7 news channel, even a rubbish one, and there it is, mana kupu writ large, behind every chaos, every triumph, every insipid banality.

Words are, without question, the greatest expression we have of ourselves. Zeros and ones have their place but it takes hardware to resolve, I’ll take a verb every time and represent it with vigour.

Words are quite possibly our only perfect invention and when we use them to their best effect we glimpse our absolute potential, just as the opposite to that supposition is true. Learning words, knowing words, understanding words, using words; this is what gives us dominion and insight and awareness. Mana kupu, the power of words, makes us the apex predator. Words define us, give us purpose, give us place, give us meaning. Meaning is Everything.

“Keep reading son, you’ll understand.”

Thirty years ago my first kids book hit the shelves. First book of any kind actually. The mother of my own two children illustrated it. We published it ourselves, sold 3000 copies. Back in the 20th century bookshop owners and big chain buyers used to look at you funny when you rolled in peddling the book you built yourself. Not all of them, just enough to make it motivating.

That turned out to be an eight-year exercise in humility and grit with four titles across 16 thousand books sold. I will say this, it was the most satisfying way of going broke I’ve experienced to date.

Started out with an 11k overdraft, wound it up in ‘99 18 grand in the hole with a two-year-old son commanding attention. Never said I was a business man but I’d do it again in a heartbeat if the groundhog said so. Nowadays if that’s your thing you’re an independent publisher and that is as it should be in a world where anyone can publish with an iPhone and a thumb. 

The two-year-old son turned 24 just a couple of months ago. He writes code now, a language alien to me but awesome in its power, reach and influence. It is the language of ubiquitous utility in our wired-up wifi web of a world where disruption is the hallmark of progress and dinosaurs like me are still trying to figure out why a TV needs three remotes to watch exponentially more crap.

My daughter, thank the stars, was born a dragon. For her part, she would like in her 21st winter, a little less disruption to her final undergrad year at Canterbury University and fewer idiots masquerading as either potential boyfriends or leaders of the world.

I tell her “Don’t hold your breath, my girl,” regarding that last little dream, but she worries about things. It comes with caring I guess. It’s a hard truth that our daughters bear the weight of worry. It seems evident to me the world can be unkind to its daughters, to the women they become, to the mothers, lovers, widows, hookers and slaves. No wonder Mum used to get shitty as hell and go to war at the drop of a hat.

To my secret pleasure and slight despair however, my daughter has expressed to me an interest in the writing arts. She loves words. She believes in their magic. She gets me to read her essays sometimes, before she hands them in. It is one of the simple pleasures of my life. It is simple because it is effortless. It’s a pleasure because I couldn’t write that well when I was 20.

My daughter writes because she reads. She writes well because she reads deeply, observes craft, remains forever curious as she seeks and searches. She loves the act, the practice, the refining of faculty. She gets it!

My daughter loves reading. That’s the trick right there.

Ultimately, that’s the message of Te Awhi Rito. Read for the love of reading. Read because you want to, not because you have to. Read because it gives you pleasure. If you don’t love reading, don’t sweat it. All is not lost. You can learn to love it. Love is like that. So is reading. Books have been written on the subject.

Ben Brown is delivering the Margaret Mahy Memorial Lecture at the WORD Christchurch festival next month, using the harakeke metaphor in talking about “building children’s imagination and confidence through storytelling in all its forms”.

The Spinoff Review of Books is proudly brought to you by Unity Books, recently named 2020 International Book Store of the Year, London Book Fair, and Creative New Zealand. Visit Unity Books Wellington or Unity Books Auckland online stores today. 

Mad Chapman, Editor
The Spinoff has covered the news that matters in 2021, most recently the delta outbreak. Help us continue this coverage, and so much more, by supporting The Spinoff Members.Madeleine Chapman, EditorJoin Members

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