Johanna Knox

I have ordered some plants for our flat. I think I should keep them in pots rather than plant them out, in case we have to move. Some of the saplings seem happy with this, but not the two young kōtukutuku. Within a fortnight, despite gentle sunlight and plenty of water, the leaves on their branches hang like dark rags of mourning – brittle, ready to disintegrate in my hands.


My sister and I had a ritual. Restless and nauseous, after an hour or more squirming on the sticky vinyl back seat of our family’s Austin Maxi as it barrelled along SH 1, we would begin to recognise shapes and colours out the window, and we’d ready ourselves.

First the sign: Welcome to Sunny Ōtaki!

Then that house: defiant purple stucco in a neighbourhood of cream weatherboards.

And now coming up, big breath, the turn.

I can no longer see it in my mind’s eye. Over forty years on, I can’t even recognise which corner it was. All I recall is the cry that my sister and I let out in unison every time: ‘Ooh yay! We’re nearly there!’

From there on, the road felt smoother. Just a few more minutes and we’d arrive at the salt-cured house by the beach.

The smell of the beach seemed stronger then; the sea’s roar louder. We made drip towers from the mudsand of the estuary, wrote with driftwood on the self-wiping slate of the shore, and gathered pipi to take home for lunch.

I knew that Dad’s parents had lived in the heart of the town when they were younger, keeping a full house of friends and relatives. You might think it was quiet now that they’d moved out to this long, duney beach that slow-danced with the winds and tides. But there were visitors, and trips to town, including to the marae that I later understood was Te Pou o Tainui, where some of my tūpuna lived in the old days. Above all, there were stories, told on repeat by my grandparents, father and aunt, building pictures for my sister and me of the town and the community, past and present, and our place within it. These stories swirled through the rooms like the steam from Gran’s roasts and puddings, offering just as much promise of sustenance.


Grandpa’s hair was short, well-combed, while Gran kept hers contained inside a fine net. Strange what you remember. Year by year, as their clothes slackened around them, their hair stayed neat. Even when my grandfather retreated for good to a rocking chair, with a brown woollen blanket across his lap and the handle of his spitting jug in his fist, his hair sat like soft seagrass swept by a current from widow’s peak to crown.

I have no photos of him from that time but, still tucked into an old album on my bookshelf, is one he took of me: it’s small and square, in black and white, with a white border. I stare out at the viewer, solemn and anxious.

For years, whenever I looked at that photo, I could feel him right behind me, lifting the old camera to his eyes so that we were looking at me together.  


I can’t remember hearing that Grandpa had died. Nor can I recall how it was decided that Gran would shift to Auckland with my aunt.

It seemed then that a mist moved in, winding round my hands. And under its cover came a wind that tugged at threads I hadn’t even realised I was holding. By the time I felt them slipping away, it was too late. The mist cleared and my hands were empty. I tumbled away from Ōtaki and into the rest of my life.

My parents never lived or stayed by that sea, or any other, again. My father, a passionate gardener, wanted salt-free air and soil.

Sometimes, I would meet or simply overhear someone who spoke with my Grandpa’s timbre, or his intonations, and a hook would catch in my throat. It was, for a short time, as if I were being reeled back to an old home, open mouthed and willing.

Keep winding. Keep winding. If I shut my eyes will we get there?

Of course it didn’t matter how close I stood to eavesdrop, or how long I smiled and nodded to keep them talking. They couldn’t transport me anywhere, or even take my hands and fill them with lost threads.

I tried to find other ways back. There were abandoned te reo courses, letters and emails – full of blunders – to barely-known relatives, and clumsy but heartfelt support of tino rangatiranga from an ostensibly Pākehā ally, too gagged with shame to admit what I’d let go.

I didn’t notice that all this time, I’d had one tiny, indefatigable thread left. It unwound only from pens, and only when an official form asked:

Ethnicity (please tick all that apply)


At the start of last year, I began a Masters programme and, a few weeks in, I met with the convenor in her office. We discussed my goals for the year and, as I got up to leave, she said, ‘By the way, the Māori group’s going to start meeting soon.’

Should that mean anything to me, beyond a little pressure on a buried lump of longing?

‘So you’ll get an email,’ she added.

Right there, outside her office, in the corridor by the photocopier, the waves of Ōtaki Beach came thundering down around me.


I met people last year who I will always be grateful to. They’re the ones who convinced me that it doesn’t matter if you’ve let go of every thread you ever held; your fingers are all you need – your fingers with veins looping through them that carry the blood of all your tūpuna, every single one, up to their tips and back, over and over again. And look: those fingers can reach, grasp and weave through other fingers. At first, I thought that was a licence. Then I saw it was a directive.

One of my ancestors was sent here from England to teach soldiers for the Crown to sabre-fight, but another ambushed Crown soldiers at Gate Pā.


I used to open the Te Wānanga o Raukawa website, browse courses and wonder if I could find time for reo classes or even Heke Rongoā. But it was as if I was stuck in a thicket of trees, turning one way, then another, swiping feebly at branches and then giving up. Where was the path? Quite suddenly, at the beginning of this year, I saw it.

I knew I’d be tripping my way along it, falling, knocking into others, apologising too much or too little, falling again. But it was take that path or stay in that thicket for good.


I’m back, barefoot, on the sand at Ōtaki beach. I’m one of fourteen rongoā students lined up, facing the sea, gulping and shivering despite the high sun’s heat.

We link hands tightly as our pūkenga wades into the waves in front of us and begins her call to Tangaroa. We follow, our wide line a reply to the horizon. The further in we push, the harder the waves press back against our thighs, our pelvises, our chests, until there is only the cold sea, the karanga and us. The hands I hold on either side of me shake harder. Some of us have begun to weep. The second pūkenga is behind us, ready to catch whatever we shed into the tide.

For weeks, I can’t talk or think about what happened then or afterwards without crying. But when I return to Wellington city, I feel new. Unbent.


I’m dismayed by the way the two kōtukutuku are failing, but my father has always told me not to give up on a plant too easily. If you can coax even a flicker of green from it, there’s life inside.

As a last resort I take the saplings down the bank behind our house and plant them in a patch of waterlogged soil encircled by sycamores. However, within a few days the leaves have fallen, and only two bare, shocked sticks protrude.

I leave for noho again – hui rūmaki reo. When I return, a week later, it’s been raining. I head down to check on the saplings, because I still haven’t given up. At first I see the same two sticks, but I kneel down in the mud, checking for budding leaves the way my father has shown me, and there they are: the tiniest green flames, bursting from the twiggy branches, ready to lick upwards and show the world they live.

Kia horoia tāku porokakī ki ngā wai o tōku ake whenua.

Tīhei mauriora!

Read next

Permanent link to this article: