with J T

It was a thrill (truly) to find myself during a recent trip to the South Island (Te Wai Pounamu) in Thomson’s Barnyard. J T Thomson was the surveyor who gave the Maniototo names relating to animals- Sowburn, Eweburn, Wedderburn, Lowburn and so on.

The Maniototo (Mānia o toto) country is stunningly beautiful with distant dark blue mountains you’d love to be able to paint or write about coherently, and vast dry windswept plains. It was freezingly cold while I was there but cleared enough one day to visit some local sites: Patearoa where we found a tiny, but famous library; Waipiata with a welcoming pub, Naseby with its small old houses and international varieties of huge conifers.

Gimmer-young ewe, Kye- cow and burn- of course -stream

Thomson, Ranfurly

There are at least three different stories about Thomson’s naming of the Maniototo area: as a surveyor in the 19th century he wished to name the country using Māori names but was quashed so used the barnyard names in a fit of pique; the Provincial Government staff were concerned that some Greek names were appearing (is Mt Ida the only remaining?) so wanted more prosaic names; there were no Māori in the area so he named many places after his homeland and the names of animals.

While Thomson may be remembered mostly for the idiosyncratic naming of the country he was also a painter and engineer – two of his bridges are still used. His surveying methods of triangulation and compass were admired.

Browse the collections at Otago Heritage to see some of his paintings, and read Mc Kinnon’s overview of names of Otago for some general information. Read about a public dispute with James Hector.

And because I believe that J T Thomson lived in Caversham, and my great grandmother owned a boarding house in Broughton Street, I walked along the road and took a photo from the old station road near the old Cavy Bush.

For details of Caversham’s history read Exploring Historic Caversham, in which I originally found the information about Thomson.

lost at home

I was reading Rebecca Solnit’s Field Guide to Getting Lost on a recent trip to my ‘home/birth’ province. It seemed apt.

While she has many thoughts and examples of what lostness is her thoughts on blueness stayed with me as I visited the Maniototo. Blueness signifies distance she says “But in this world we actually live in, distance ceases to be blue when we arrive in it. The far becomes the near and they are not the same place” (p.35). It’s true too in terms of memory.

The Maniototo is a part of northern Otago in Aotearoa New Zealand’s South Island. The part I was in is known colloquially as Thomson’s Barnyard because of the surveyor’s idiosyncratic naming. However in the distance the ranges (Hawkdun Range,  Mt Ida Range, Rough Ridge, the Lammermoors, Rock ‘n’ Pillars and the Kakanuis) seemed blue in the cold summer light, and something to be attained, although for me the glory is in seeing them.

As we drove south to Dunedin we passed through grey blue rocky landscapes of schist known as the Rock n Pillars.

The area is like an ‘enchanted realm’, an expression Solnit uses on page 34 to describe an area of the U.S.A. But it is not only the blue of distance but the blue blur of the past, made heroic by stories of miners seeking gold.

Solnit also talks about her dreams of a house from her childhood. “In dreams nothing is lost. ” she says “Childhood homes, the dead, lost toys, all appear with a vividness your waking mind could not achieve. Nothing is lost but you yourself…….” (p. 182). I often dream of a an area around my grandparents’ house and of a house they lived in near this one, also theirs. There is no trauma or significant event associated with these houses and this area, but I always try to walk around it when I am south. Just to see. And think. It’s a student flat now. How could you guess?

I thought about her lostness too, in Christchurch, much of which has been ‘lost’ due to earthquakes but which is being rebuilt. While there are still areas of ’empty’ space it’s also full of potential and I found a walkway and names that reflected local iwi (eewee in southern dialect notation) that had not been recognised before so that what had been lost to some seemed to be in the process of being found.

It was good to have Solnit with me.

Through black

Robbie Burns had, as usual, a seagull sitting on his head when I walked past him and into the old DIC building that is now the Dunedin Public Art Gallery. Hotere is home.

As I climbed the stairs I tried to picture the various shop sections, haberdashery, women’s wear..

At the top of the stairs I walked beneath the Tuwhare poem celebrating his friend Ralph. “I’m eclipsed” the poem ends.

The first works show Hotere’s testing the waters and exploring shape. These works are colourful and dance with my eye. I smile.

Then I move into the larger space. On the left is the Black Painting 1968 series. The shine on the lacquer provides a 3rd dimension and I begin to see deeper realms in the blackness. Elusive shapes in the black. Then I turn to my right.

Against the wall a long graduated work I have never seen before, although I must have.


Godwits who arrive and leave going into the new or next world. Magnificent. Enthralling. And the poem that tells the story -Ruia, ruia, opea, opea, tahia, tahia.

Colour gathers and disperses. Dappled colour.

On the wall behind there’s black. Then Manhire’s poem Malady begins to show itself. Appears and fades. Stunning.

And through a hallway I go to the Sangro works, remembering his brother who was killed at Sangro. Words of Cilla McQueen, poems of paint and pain. Sorrow, some anger and defiance of war. Death and beauty.

I’m thoughtful and sad and I turn a corner. There she is. The Black Phoenix rising. I’m eclipsed too, and look for a chair.

Memories of the first time I saw this and the people I was with.

It is astonishing. It shimmers. It rises. It explodes. It haunts.

I’ve had enough for now.

I walk down the stairs and out. Internalised.

A little lockdown

Because New Zealand is a small country and ‘far away’ there’s been a tradition since the 1960s (and before) to travel. Europeans who arrived often did not return although Pacific people have been able to hop back ‘home’

While initially those that travelled may have been rich, or artists and writers seeking inspiration, from the 1970s, once air travel became cheaper, it was pretty much all of us.

And so now it’s a bit weird to be in these little islands ‘far away’, and feel just a bit grateful.

It’s really hard to imagine how it must be in many other countries.

As we enter 2021 like a few other countries, in particular Taiwan, we have no restrictions on parties or gatherings and we are free to travel in New Zealand. We have a government we trust more than not and a people, most of whom, see the value in complying with restrictions and governmental requests and a media that, at last, seems to have forsaken reporting mad conspiracy theories.

I’m not certain that 2021 will be an improvement on 2020. Sure the vaccine is around (and already we hear of corrupt practices in the States) but I’m picking that unemployment will rise and things will get tougher for those people we once lauded as essential workers (i.e. the underpaid). Already I gather that in my city drivers, factory workers and cleaners are losing and have lost jobs. The people who do not usually travel far overseas but spend their money on rent and food.

On this second day of 2021 there are prisoners protesting inhumane conditions and an ongoing review into historical child abuse in state and church care.

But in 2020 we discovered the suburbs and communities, we talked to neighbours and realised that we could survive. We realised that less travel made the air cleaner and that just maybe there was a chance to reduce the environmental damage we have all caused.

These are ‘interesting’ times and I am hopeful that our recently re-elected government can deal with the issues of environment, inequality and racism in our country.

And as for travel. Who knows. Those hippie trails of the 1970s and working holidays in the newly Brexited UK may be gone. Career advancement in the States may not be an option for a while. Perhaps it’s virtual travel and being content in our own country and backyard.

UPDATE: the new strain has reached our shores – at the moment in quarantine. We may not feel so self satisfied after all.

kumara and cumal

It was, coincidentally, the same week taro was a topic of conversation that a Chilean friend asked:

“How did kumara come to New Zealand?”

A big question. I told her that I believed it had originated in South America and had been brought here via the Pacific islands, especially via Rapa Nui, near Chile.

“Oh” she replied,”Bolivia has many varieties of sweet potato, it must have come from there”.

And so, of course I had to find out.

According to Jenna Harburg kumara originated in Peru. Humans, she says, did not settle Rapa Nui until 1200 AD but sweet potato is found in central Polynesia before this – possibly Mangaia island in the Cooks (p.7). Harburg dispenses with the idea that kumara were self seeding and propagating because of winds, currents and growing needs (sandy soil, not wet or marshy) and eventually considers human trade. She also mentions that, unlike taro, kumara in their variations do not have the same status or mythological significance in the Pacific. Except for one place. And so she turns to linguistics.

The word for sweet potato in Peru is ‘cumal’ and the closest names in the Pacific are found in the Cook Islands and Aotearoa New Zealand. Significantly, also, the closest Pacific languages (and close to Tahitian and Marquesan). Māori and Marquesan she says, have the closest language sounds to the Quechua, in Peru. Thus she suggests, Māori (of New Zealand and the Cooks) may have been present when kumara reached the Pacific.

Harburg also says that Māori are the only group of people who show reverence for kumara, even having a god with specific guardianship – Rongo mā Tane. Harburg says that Rongo-Maui stole the kümara from the god Whanui, hiding it under his loincloth, to give to his wife, Pani and she gave birth to the kumara (Harburg, p.8).

Te Rangi Hiroa (1949/1982, p.93) says that taro were more difficult to grow in Aotearoa New Zealand but the sweet potato produces ‘more than one crop a year’. He says that the kumara arrived at the time of the Great Fleet (c1350 he says a concept currently discounted as there were many voyages and at different times) but is referred to as kao, dried kumara, and subsequent return voyages were made to collect the plant. The Horouta, Aotea and Tainui all brought tubers of different varieties. Whakaotirangi brought tubers attached to her waist in a basket, and so the Tainui name for their kumara is Te Rokiroki a Whakaotirangi. Mahuhu and Mamari also brought seeds, he says (p.62).

There are several whakatauki about kumara, the most frequently quoted being: Kaore te kūmara e kōrero mo tōna māngaro (the kumara does not speak of its own sweetness.) It is a significant plant in New Zealand and eaten by Māori and Pākehā alike, in many many different delicious ways. I’m fond of it with orange in a salad, or boiled and mashed with butter, or baked. .

It is a complex story but if you are interested the paper by Harburg is fascinating, and Te Rangi Hiroa, of course always has great tales to share. And as for the Bolivian connection. More, perhaps next time.


Harburg, J. (2004). Cumal to kumara: The voyage of the sweet potato. HOHONU 2014 Vol. 12 University of Hawai‘i Hilo https://hilo.hawaii.edu/campuscenter/hohonu/volumes/documents/CumaltoKumara-TheVoyageoftheSweetPotatoAcrossthePacificJennaHarburg.pdf

Hiroa, Te Rangi (1982). The coming of the Maori. Wellington: Whitcoulls (original work published 1949).

taro, dalo, kalo……..

There are several taro plants in my garden. Ignored.

In a conversation with a friend recently I told her about them; she said her mother had no taro plants and yearned for one.

For me it was a gift as easy as sharing rengarenga roots at work, or lavender cuttings, but my friend reports that this gift has transformed her mother who now insists that the plant is checked every two days, has reverted to speaking her mother tongue and has revived childhood memories and returned to being the lively mother she had been.

I was astonished at this and have offered more taro plants (currently declined as she is her mother’s main helper). It amazed me that such a simple gift could have such an impact.

What is it?

Taro (kalo, dalo, and many other names) is a staple in the Pacific and although it grows in New Zealand seems not to develop edible roots. Dishes like pulusami or rourou are a combination of corned beef, (or fish/shell/fish/ chicken) coconut cream and taro leaves and poi is a well-known Hawaiian dish that uses ground taro roots with water to make a paste.

While taro arrived in Japan about 1000 BC and there is evidence that it was in the Solomon and Papua New Guinea Islands 9,000 years ago. It seems to have first arrived in Polynesia about 1,500 years ago and in several places assumed an importance in a spiritual as well as physical sense. Here’s a story from Samoa:

Vaea’i up to heaven to ask Tagaloalagi who lived there for some water and also the authority to govern the country. Through the interception of Uluifuga the message became that he wanted taro so he was sent back to earth and told that Tagaloalagi’s sons would bring the taro. It appears that as well as water and taro he was bequeathed the ability to govern Samoa. You can find the story in more details on the Victoria University website. A Hawaiian story says Wakea (the sky father), and the goddess, Hoʻohokukalani (the heavenly one who made the stars), has two children, the first being still born. From the buried body of the child grew a taro plant; the plant was named Haloanaka (long stock trembling). The couple’s second child was a human boy named Haloa, from whom the Hawaiian people descended. Hawaiians then are related to taro.

I first ate taro in Fiji and found I preferred it fried the next day rather than boiled the night before. Many students have brought it to end of term functions, usually cold and mixed with coconut cream but also plain. I enjoy eating it and look forward to these events, but also find it very filling. The leaves with pulusami are a little rich for me, but delicious in small quantities.

It’s an interesting world we live in where such a small thing to one person can be transformative to another. And this touches on the most superficial of superficial information about taro.


The Global Diversity of Taro: Ethnobotany and Conservation

Hawaiian Project

An account of Samoa up to 1919. Victoria University of Wellington.

chasing George

While some of my friends claim castles and others claim hard working farmers in their histories, I’ve discovered that I can claim scalliwags.

One of my volunteer jobs provides me with time to trawl through papers past websites, and it is thus that I have found my great grandparents.

Not through prizes and wonderful deeds but through arrest for assisting an abortion (case dismissed), non-payment of maintenance, leaving a cab in a public place, bankruptcy, non-payment of maintenance, being a public nuisance, leaving rubbish in a public place and oh yes, non-payment of maintenance.

While my great grandmother was no saint, her death notice at least says she was ‘beloved’. There is no death notice for George.

Did he move to Inangahua where he eventually asked to have his name taken off a mine (unprofitable I assume); was he the George who claimed to have found a substitute for rubber and was off to London to patent it? Or did he die quietly and lie in an unmarked grave or under another name? Did he ever pay that maintenance – he was reported, after all of saying that he’d rather go to goal than pay maintenance to his ex-wife. I guess he was chased by many, not least of all his brother and mother to whom he owed money.

We imagine that our ancestors were hard working and sober folk whose faces look down upon us from museum walls, or that if they were convicts in Australia they were nevertheless poor, hardworking Irish, driven by poverty to steal bread.

I’m beginning to realise why my mother batted my questions away saying “Why do you want to dig up all that old stuff?” It does create a context for subsequent family dynamics.

walking over water

Nikau palms outside the earthquake vulnerable
Wellington City Library.

I’ve have decided that a group of archeologists is an ark. An ark of archeologists.

Yesterday I met a few.

It was on one of the walks around Wellington for Heritage Week.

It’s a tricky thing to walk and talk about part of a place that no longer exits, and our ‘leader’ was forced to show us many images of what had been. You can find some in the Wellington City Archives (about page 10 for the 1800s).

We started at Te Papa where we were told we’d be under several feet of water if it were the 1800s. And so it continued along the waterfront and Willis Street walk with variations of depth.

Like most Wellingtonians I know that the waterfront and city areas are reclaimed, and the hint is in the number of “Quay” streets, but I had not put together the impact of the Wairarapa Earthquake on the reclamation process. While there had been a Marlborough Earthquake in 1848, this latter one in 1855 was the one that changed the landscape. At an estimated 8.2 on the Richter, it caused structural changes to the land and raised the seabed, thus enabling more land for building. The water apparently sloshed backwards and forwards in the harbour for 8 hours.

One of the consequences of the earthquake was that everything, everything, was broken and much of that was used for layers in the reclaimed land. The ark of archeologists in my midst were visibly excited about all the things they had found in disused wells, layers of soil and under buildings. So, while the seabed did rise, there were decisions about adding to the land mass. The Kumutoto kainga for example, was ‘on the ridge over there’ rather than ‘just back from the beach’.

One of the interesting parts of Wellington I learned about, having only lived in the area for about 35 years, is Plimmer’s Ark. Local business and local identity, Plimmer, bought an ark which had foundered and after using it for a storage allowed it to be buried. You can see some of the wooden boards and nails preserved since the 1997 rediscovery under the ‘old’ BNZ building on the corner of Lambton Quay and Willis Street.

We stood in a mall in Willis Street where artefacts from both rich and poor houses had been found and looked at the outline of the old Customhouse relatively close to the Railway Station.

It was an interesting talk and I learned several ‘new’ historical tidbits to add to my random knowledge collection. And met an archeologist or two.

away ‘hame’

The spring weather continues and I walk less.

Recently a cousin’s request for any info I had about the relies, inspired me to have another go at sorting out what I knew. I did discover that one side of the family was thick with relations whose surnames I vaguely recognised.

But. Not so much the Scots.

And so.

My fascination has been how much I recognise names of families and places. Dunedin, in New Zealand, is known as a Scottish town – ‘hilly Edinburgh’ (I understand) and replete with streets George, Stuart, Princess, Leith, Hyde, Clyde, Forfar, Maryhill and so on and on. I was struck, however, by the emotional lurch I felt when I read names like Auchinleck, Mauchline, Tarbolton, Ardrossan, Alloway, Annbank, Kilmarnock – names of places I have never visited but which evoke a sense of nostalgia, falsely felt. It’s also the surnames I recognised of people who lived in my street, names that pepper the pages of ScotlandsPeople.

It’s made me realise how much I absorbed without knowing; how much longing and homesickness have played in the endless naming of places colonised by British (and probably other) people, and how difficult it must have been to leave a place knowing you would never see it again.

It’s made me realise what a bubble we lived in.

All those songs, the lonely pipers, the unseen lochs and the keening of the pipes.

And photos of now unknown people.

I did visit Ayr and Arran once, walked the streets, saw the bridge and pubs, wondered at the stone buildings and their similarity to some in Dunedin. Won a whisky drinking challenge. Cycled througb Arran. Felt at home. And a stranger.

agapo agapas agapaei

No more. While I used to admire the elegant stems of agapanthus that grow on our roadsides, and indeed in my garden, I have developed a dislike for them. You’ll find images of them on this Weedbusters website

Like many plants that colonise our world, e,g, jasmine, ginger plants, gorse, pampas grass, arum lilies, these grow energetically in NZ.

Having rid my garden of bamboo and ginger plants I’m working on the agapanthus.

The name is a combination of agapi (love) and anthus (plant/flower). Anthus, wikipedia tells me, was the son of Autonous and Hippodamia.

The alarming thing about these invasive plants is the way they climb on top of each other. In getting rid of one section I’ve taken 5 large bags and several smaller ones to the tip. I’ve now lost count.

When you cut the layers they look like layers of halva. In their depths there were no visible insects or spiders, although my friend the thrush, who edges closer each time, did seem to find some small ones.

The spring weather’s been its usual self so yesterday I finally got to saw under the final bunch of roots and tipped the ball over. It’s taken the best of 6 months to move about 2 square metres of the plant. I’ve sawn. I’ve shovelled. I’ve dug.

I’ll leave the other clumps for a while. This one’s been a bit of a project.

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