It’s not a piece that shouts out at you when you enter the Watersheds Exhibition, Ngā Wai Pupū. Rather, this piece created by jeweller Areta Wilkinson softly whispers, ‘notice me’. Inside a small glass case embedded into a wall stands six glass medicine bottles, each protruding with the stem of a different plant forged from silver. One of these looks like it could be a Kōwhai, another, a red Matipou.
Herbal Mixture III is a three-way bridge that links the worlds of Western medicine, natural medicine, and rongoā Māori, and is the artistic representation of a plant mixture that Areta administered to help overcome a personal illness. This work is both contemporary and traditional, with Ngāi Tahu values and roots, and this story represents the holistic connection between the limitations of the human body, awareness, and the environment.
When I look at this piece, it reminds me of my own story. As a child, my most vivid memories are of crawling through the tall grass in the English countryside, gazing upon the structured rows of bluebells in English spring, and sitting under the plum tree devouring the fruit that it provided. Most of my whanaunga are health professionals, and when unwell my Mum would medicate me with magical healing potions. I didn’t realise that those medications were all derived from the very thing I loved spending time with most – plants. When I moved to Aotearoa at eight, the unique smell of the conifer-broadleaf and southern beech forests was incredible. My fascination with the natural world eventually led to a degree in Plant Biotechnology, and becoming a Biology teacher.
Recently we have been teaching a program on rongoā – connected to Tupuānuku, a star in the Matariki cluster. I’m in awe of the scientific accuracy that tohunga had of the plants I am learning about: Kawakawa, Koromiko, Mānuka, Tarata, Pūriri. To ponder that tohunga could identify hundreds of these, their uses, and commit this to memory is mind blowing. And now, when I see the worrying trend of native plants turning up on the threatened list, I fear we are on the brink of losing so much of our native tāonga. Deforestation and plant disease puts plants such as Kauri, Pōhutukawa, Mānuka and Rātā at serious risk of extinction.
Herbal Mixture III helped me to rekindle my awareness of the environment, and reflect on the meaning of healing. Plants are the power of the natural world. They heal not only physically, but spiritually. It now makes so much sense why I liked plants in the first place. I feel more than good when I’m surrounded by plants. I feel whole. And we need to work to keep them whole, too.
written by Madeleine Stonehouse – Kaiako, Tairāwhiti Museum