It took 27 years for me to come home. For years I felt the lone voice screaming “Come on the Bay” amongst the red and black rugby faithful during Canterbury’s 1980s Ranfurly Shield era. In later years I facetiously referred to the great Otago team of the 90s as the Hawke’s Bay 2nd XV, and politely declined to discuss the weather.
During those years, every time I travelled back through the Gisborne and Hawke’s Bay hills I felt my spirit lift as the land welcomed me with a smile, a kia ora and a song. The warmth
you feel is subjective; and it is real. I feel Te Mata Peak and the Tukituki River resonate with energy, though I cannot measure it.
Perhaps Carl Jung is right: the earth has a soul. Certainly there is connection, whakapapa. You can, if it suits you better, take an instrumental view. You can appease your rational side by quoting Norberg-Hodge on the utility of belonging, “More than anything, our individual well-being depends on connection: on our sense of oneness both with other people and with nature.” She goes on to point out that we lose this very basis of well-being by seeing both land and people not as connected, but as ‘resources’ within the economic machine that replaces life.
North Canterbury hill country, Nelson rivers and coasts, Otago land forms of awe-inspiring space and light; all have their deep personal and aesthetic appeal, and they provided house and income, but they were not ‘home’. There is a difference. Home is ‘Eco’, the root of both Economics and Ecology, the management and the study of home respectively.
How can you study and manage home if you have no sense of what it means?
The deepest connection to place and people is emotional, empathetic, bounded only by mountains and seas; timeless. That feeling links you to the land, to family, to stories, to where feet once walked and your own blood stood and bled, saw, sensed, smelled, fought, worked, and died. Belonging links you through the land and people to the past and the future. This is Whakapapa. Here, responsibility lies. A morality that doesn’t see self at the centre of things. It goes far beyond the material and the ‘transactional’ – where relationships are defined by self, ownership and contra-deal contracts, not by mutual community and shared purpose.
That view of the appropriate relationship of people with place is a challenge to how we act. You cannot in all consciousness exploit a ‘home’. The overriding instinct is to nurture it as it nurtures you. It involves far more than temporary personal advantage. Kenneth Clark defined the characteristics of what he called this ‘civilised’ behaviour as ‘a sense of permanence’. This place is not ‘ours’ to exploit; it cherishes us as we cherish it. Maori have the word Kaitiakitanga – which goes far beyond paternalistic stewardship by recognising the reciprocity of the people-place connection. We shift beyond two separate systems – the human and the environment – and see ourselves as a ‘socio-ecological system’.
It takes a poet to explain Kaitiakitanga.
It is about love: she loves our kneading; we love her. It is also about reverence, an awe in something that is bigger than ourselves.
Clark argued that our sense of permanence – of belonging – goes hand in hand with creative energy and confidence; the confidence to create and build legacies for a future that an individual or our own generation may not even see fulfilled. You plant trees. You build public places to meet and sing and be. You create art. You share and cooperate because that is what life is about.
When you lose these essential values, you lose what it is to be a people, and revert to a form of arrogant barbarism where it is all about you, at the expense of others. You compete with the thing that makes you whole.
You then lose the creativity, innovation and judgement of those individuals and communities that think beyond themselves. What follows is the destruction rather than creation of legacies, the loss of the resilience of both your land and your community, and eventual collapse.
Personal pride and hubris do come before the fall. The Greeks defined this lack of reverence and humility as the mark of the tyrant – above the Gods …. and doomed. Paul Woodruff called reverence ‘the forgotten virtue’ and argued that awe for things that are greater than ourselves must be a touchstone for other virtues like respect, humility, and charity. Do we need to teach the history of collapse? Does our culture have amnesia? Do we need to bring back into our day-to-day life another way of seeing? To reject the myth of progress into a certain, limitless future and replace it with the old wisdom where the Trickster rules – whether Polynesian Maui or Northern European Loki and Reynard the Fox? Expect the Coyote to surprise you; to potentially devastating effect. Know – because it is true – that you live within a place, within a community and a landscape of land and sea and sky. Have awe.
This is the opposite message we usually get from the currently-dominant creed of economics, despite the empirical evidence of Robert Putnam, Amartya Sen and others that society, mutual trust, the participation of people, and such social institutions as justice, belonging, and ethics not only exist; they matter more than contracts and the cost of things. They demonstrate that if you want a strong economy that can ride out a storm, then build a strong society and a strong place. “A thing is right,” wrote Aldo Leopold, “when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise.” Humanity is part of that biotic community.
It is not the common call to say that the best future for Hawke’s Bay is not so much dependent on ‘transaction costs’ and ‘resource allocation’ as such human values. We usually hear only about these concrete, measurable things, as if people and society can be measured by dollars and weight, or how many you can put on the back of a lorry. You can model a quantity; you cannot model the shifting and localised practical wisdom backed by experience and a view of life that involves the Trickster and belonging. You cannot model uncertainty because it is more elusive than quantifiable risk, and yet uncertainty defines much of the study of home. You cannot model awe.
The advocates of this mechanical view of life mistake measurement for meaning. They are the technocrats who would measure Hamlet by word count, not the thinkers and visionaries we need.
Allow the technocrats to lead the debate, and, knowing only numbers rather than such qualitative properties as market position, innovation, the potential to create positive system-effects down local value chains, and creative energy, they will promote a future Hawke’s Bay that thinks in commodities – because it sees people and land as commodities. The commoditisation of life and place champions ever-cheaper labour, sees a world of infinite bulk resources, allocation and trouble-free substitution, does not weigh the morality of advocating for the rights to seize, to privatise and to pollute the commons.
Commoditisation can only marginalise the potential of people and place. It is diametrically opposed to an interest in that potential. It works against long, local, high-value chains, diversity, community, cultural expression, and the environment.
An expansion of this industrial vision that desires cheap costs to maintain a margin with cheap production would see Hawke’s Bay poorer, not richer. Poorer with outsourcing of processing, loss of existing local value chains, loss of profits to absentee owners, lower diversity both ecologically and economically, the substitution of local community for cheap imported labour, a very much poorer environment, and a far less resilient Hawke’s Bay.
The challenge to get off this race to the bottom strategy of producing cheap bulk commodities is heard more and more often. But few of the technocrats are listening, let alone understanding. It is a particularly poignant debate for the future of Hawke’s Bay, because we – our land and our community – have such great potential to be a resilient, high-value, culturally-rich and environmentally-blessed region.
But for that vision to be realised we need to discuss and establish some core principles and ideas. If we do not, then someone in a suit will present a spreadsheet claiming to be the Oracle, and rather than scoff and politely decline to credit their word count of Hamlet – their ant’s eye view describing Mona Lisa’s smile – we will take our cloth caps in our hands, tug our forelocks in obeisance, and believe. That would be fatal.
Some starting questions for establishing core principles: do we look at people and community as having the capacity for creative energy, thought and judgment, or as labour costs commanded to perform tasks? Do we view the relationship between people and this land as more than mere house and job, is it a ‘home’ where we are intergenerational creators of legacies for our future? Do we look at land and water and people as a functioning whole with the capacity to create value, not a set of things in an industrial space where scale, blind functionary obedience and fixed mechanical homogeneity is all?
How should we look at our production economics? Do we act as though the future is truly certain and limitless, where commodity production ‘efficiency’ and cost-reduction is all? Or do we recognise the geopolitical realities of powerful commercial interests that exploit people and place, and treat local concerns as irrelevant; who seek to command and control through the dark glasses of industrial thought?
Do we pursue yet more industrial thought in an attempt to outcompete on price against these very powerful interests, or do we step between their slow and ponderous dinosaur legs and swinging tails and go for quality, diversity, niche, creativity, the encouragement and protection of extended value chains?
Do we seek belonging, adaptability, thinking, can-do, laughing, engaged communities with the spirit and collective intelligence to judge and foresee; do we seek local-cooperation, value and diversity because we know that our future will involve inevitable surprise, and that the nature of stability is never to rely upon one thing, however big, however capital intensive, however well-dressed?
Our future depends on our sense of belonging to community and place. It is awesome.
“Evil begins when you start treating people as things.” Granny Weathermax the Witch. Terry Pratchett
 Helena Norberg-Hodge, Foreword to Joel Magnuson (2013) The Approaching Great Transformation: Toward a Livable Post Carbon Economy. Seven Stories Press, NY, p13
Chris Perley has a background in embedding himself in our landscapes and fields, in management, policy, consulting and research relating to land use, the environment, provincial economies and communities. He is an affiliated researcher at Otago University’s Centre for Sustainability.