Kathleen Morrison was 12 years-old when 25ha of her family’s ancestral land was signed over to the Crown to manage – and she was aged 60 when her whanau finally got ownership rights back through the Māori Land Court.
Now she and her wife, Violet Aydon-Pou, are reconnecting with this special whenua and restoring a 7ha valley to its original state as a natural seepage wetland at Te Kaha in the Eastern Bay of Plenty.
It’s an emotional project, as the pair discovered the Crown had ordered the lowland valley be drained, fenced and turned into pasture as part of a lease agreement signed by an unknown relative in the 1960s. “We are having to reinstate something that really should never have been tampered with,” Violet explains. It’s believed 98% of wetlands in the area have been drained over time for farming purposes.
Kathleen, who holds a Master of Fine Arts in photography, decided to give up her academic lecturing position in Hamilton and return home to Te Kaka 12 years ago. “Friends urged me to come back and when I got here I just started bawling. It was my mum and nanny calling to me, a very spiritual message.”
The couple packed up their lives and have spent the past decade reclaiming ownership through the court, restoring the family’s homestead, and devising a master plan for the lowlands, which is now officially called Te Kinakina Wetlands Restoration Project.
“You could see it was a naturally wet area,” Kathleen explains. “I liked the idea of restoring the wetlands and building an ‘all ability’ boardwalk to weave through it so people can access the area. Eventually I’d like to build little cabins above the swampy area for people to stay in but for now our focus is providing a home for the birds, insects and fish and returning the whenua to its natural state.”
Over the past 18 months pine and willow trees have been removed, noxious weeds, pampas grass and ginger have been dug up, and banks have been created with an excavator to form three large ponds which have naturally filled with seepage water.
BayTrust has granted $50,000 to the restoration effort which will pay for the majority of a 1.6km-long deer fence combined with a 1m-high mesh barrier to keep small animals out.
Weather dependent, erection of the fence will commence late July or early August and planting can then begin in spring. “We have to get the fence up first otherwise the local deer will just decimate all the seedlings,” Violet says. “We will do possum, cat, rodent, and stoat trapping inside the fenced area too.”
Many native species will soon be planted and there will be a strong emphasis on harakeke (flax) for weavers with three large Pa Harakeke – one to grow harakeke for piupiu and korowai; the second for weaving whaariki (mats); and the third for kete and kono (baskets). Violet says it will provide a conduit for intergenerational knowledge and skills transmission. “It’s an appropriate thing to do because weaving is still very much an art form that is done today. Traditionally these wetlands would have had harakeke but we have the opportunity to establish large plantations for local weavers. It’s a fantastic way of them coming in and helping us care for those plants and to bring other families and teach the next generation their skills.”
Violet says the wetlands will be a space for people to walk, touch, see, sit and reflect. “It’s going to be open to the public subject to health and safety regulations and guidelines.” The women also plan to put a studio in the wetlands as a wananga space for people to create and innovate. “It’s also nice when school children come to Te Kinakina wetlands to have a place to shelter.”
For Kathleen, transforming her family’s whenua back to its original state after decades of farming and Crown management, will be immensely satisfying.
“It means that’s my job done. I’m doing the right thing. I inherited this land – I didn’t buy it. I’m put here to take care of it. It’s my lifetime’s work.”