Rachel Clare learns from rongoā healer Donna Kerridge that Matariki is the perfect time to reconnect with the natural world.
The appearance of the Matariki star cluster in winter signifies a time of rest, reflection and planning. Back when we grew and caught all our own food, the crops would have been harvested and stored, and it was time to hunker down, stay warm, share kai and plan for a new gardening year in spring.
However, traditional rongoā healer Donna Kerridge says that as we’ve become more disconnected from the natural world, Matariki has taken on a new significance.
“We think of Matariki as a time to plan our gardens and learn about our ancestors, which is great, but I think we’re at a time in our evolution now where we need to rethink our whole relationship to the natural world.”
We’re at a time in our evolution now where we need to rethink our whole relationship to the natural world
She says our urban lifestyles cause us to become a bit, well, wussy when it comes to nature. “We don’t like the wind in our face, the rain in our hair, the mud in our toes feels icky and we refer to nature’s babies as creepy-crawlies. We really couldn’t get more detached if we tried.”
When I talk to Donna, she and her husband have just spent the night in their campervan in Murchison and she is feeling cold. “Even I have to catch myself every now and then and remind myself that winter is a time for the purification of the earth, and we need that period of dormancy to rest and recreate.”
Donna is one of Aotearoa’s rock stars of traditional Māori rongoā (healing), a holistic practice that considers the mind, body and spirit of the patient and includes herbal medicine made using rongoā rākau (indigenous plants), physical treatments such as mirimiri (massage), and spiritual and community wellbeing.
“My focus is always, first and foremost, to care for the mana and the mauri of people – to make sure they’re in a place where they can heal,” says Donna. “Plant medicine is just one aspect of rongoā and the richest part of that is empowering people to reconnect with nature and seeing its beauty and gifts.”
My focus is always, first and foremost, to care for the mana and the mauri of people
So, while mānuka, kawakawa and kūmarahou deserve their reputation as super healers, rongoā rākau is about more than just “green pharmacy” – the idea that a particular plant is the solution. Donna gives an example of a 42-year-old woman who came to see her looking for an alternative after she was told that the only way to treat her severe menstrual problems was to have a hysterectomy.
“I said to her, ‘We do have a medicine, but what I’d like to do is take you out into the bush, show you that medicine and show you how to prepare it for yourself so that you are part of that healing,’” recalls Donna. Six months after she showed her patient how to use the plant kohekohe, her menstrual problems had disappeared and she was pregnant. “It wasn’t as much about the plant as it was about empowering her back to health. She was part of her own solution.”
Donna (Tainui) says she’s always been interested in what makes people live well and feel better. “When I was growing up, rongoā was all around us, but our old people didn’t really call it ‘rongoā’. It was just what we did.” After a busy career running an IT company, Donna decided to devote her time to learning more about the practice. “After a while, the money IT offered wasn’t enough and I wanted to do things that were more rewarding and more impactful for me, my family and others.”
She learnt rongoā by “being a nuisance to others”, which involved attending meetings and observing kaitiaki of rongoā working with people.
She also completed a degree in health science, which has been enormously useful. “But eventually I went back to traditional ways of knowing because they felt more complete. Although the Western system is amazing and a lot of us wouldn’t survive without it, it doesn’t have all the answers and nor does rongoā Māori.”
Donna ran her own practice in Helensville, on the southern Kaipara Harbour, for around 12 years, but now much of her time is spent running Ora New Zealand, her company that promotes rongoā Māori, guest lecturing at tertiary organisations and advising government agencies on health policy.
An important part of her work is with district health boards, helping to develop mutual respect between contemporary and traditional medical practitioners. As she is away working a lot of the time, her campervan is her home away from her real home in Ōakura, on the Whangaruru Harbour in Northland. “I try to spend at least eight nights a month in my own bed. I do get a bit of FOMO though and want to play with my peers.”
Working with other healers energises her, she says, plus being able to park the campervan at beautiful sites provides her with plenty of opportunities to relax among nature.
When it comes to being in rhythm with the natural world, Donna says the maramataka (the Māori lunar calendar) is of utmost importance. Its observation of repetitive cycles and how they change can predict the best days for planting, harvesting, hunting and fishing. The fact that each day in the month has its own name and meaning shows how intricate these observations were and Donna is wary of oversimplifications.
“I hear people say that when the pōhutukawa flowers, a specific thing is going to happen. But which pōhutukawa are they talking about? If you live on a beach and you have 50 pōhutukawa along it, they don’t all flower at the same time. This is why Māori named their trees and gave them personalities. It was when a specific pōhutukawa flowered, in conjunction with what was going on in the sky, that they could then predict what was happening in the ocean.”
One of the problems of climate change is, Donna says, a result of us wanting to change the land, such as planting monocultures, instead of working with the cycles of nature. “It’s about the care and protection of mother earth, Papatūānuku.”
Her advice for reconnecting with nature is simple – and fun! “If there’s a park, go walking in it every day and notice how you feel after that. Get your hands in earth. If you can grow some of the food you eat, even herbs, then do that. Grow beautiful flowers that bring joy to people and plants that bring birds and wētā. When it’s frosty in the morning, know that it’s cleaning the earth, and when it rains and it doesn’t suit you, know that it has a role too. All our weather has a purpose.
“Walking along a seashore is one of the healthiest things we can do – that’s why sanitoriums were always on the coast. Our lung tissues absorb a lot of minerals from the sea air. But do people need to know the science behind it? No, they just need to know they feel better, therefore they do it more. Reconnecting humankind to nature will vastly improve our health and wellbeing.”