Sanctity of the soil with Maanu Paul

Maanu Paul has been a kaitiaki of organic practices his entire life discovers Sue Allison in her new book on inspiring gardeners and gardens of Aotearoa. 

Photography: Juliet Nicholas
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Maanu Paul feels two responsibilities keenly and they are intertwined: to provide food for his whānau, and to do it with the utmost respect for Papatūānuku, Mother Earth. 

In a garden by Ōhope Beach, near Whakatāne, he grows vegetables and fruit using organic methods rooted in mātauranga (Māori knowledge), being mindful of his human role as a kaitiaki (guardian). 

Maanu is a community leader and strong advocate for his people. He has chaired the New Zealand Māori Council and supported Waitangi Tribunal claims relating to indigenous flora and fauna, the land and the seabed. He has taught in schools and tertiary institutions, has tohunga status in education, and wrote the constitution for Te Waka Kai Ora, the Māori National Organics Authority. In 2019, he was made an Officer of the New Zealand Order of Merit for Services to Māori. But Maanu’s thoughts are never far from the land, and his hands are happiest when covered in soil. 

“My father told me that it was the role of our ancestor, Moewhare, to provide food and sustenance for the tribe,” he says. A carving in the Apa-hāpai-taketake wharenui on the Ngāti Manawa marae in Murupara depicts Moewhare with a large-eyed dog. “It’s a hunting dog, and it’s got big eyes because it is always looking for food.” 

Maanu’s father grew vegetables in a 16-ha community garden beside his hapū’s Moewhare wharenui at Waiohau. “My father and his family would prepare the ground and the people would come and plant their potatoes and other vegetables. He would look after them, and at harvest time they would come with their sleds and carts and take their crops away.” 

Maanu grew up in Murupara, one of 10 children. After his mother died in childbirth when he was seven, he went to live with his paternal grandmother. “My father’s mother taught me how to grow things. She taught me that the soil is like a mother. You must feed and respect her, and she will feed the family.” He learned how to plant and harvest according to the maramataka (lunar calendar) and how to read the land’s signs. 

“I have memories of my father hopping on his horse and riding around the farm looking for the right valley to grow our vegetables. He told me that where the fern is as high as a horse, the land is fat. Ki te tipu rarauhe kia orite ki te hōiho he momona te whenua.  

“When he found a good spot, we would cut a fire break around it, then burn it, disc and harrow it, and plant pumpkins, potatoes, watermelon and kamokamo. The fern would come up at same time as our veges, letting in the light and rain and keeping the ground cool.” 

“My father’s mother taught me how to grow things. She taught me that the soil is like a mother. You must feed and respect her, and she will feed the family.” 

When Maanu was sent to live with his mother’s family in Whakatāne for his high school years, his horticultural education was broadened by his other tupuna. “My maternal grandmother taught me how to grow food on the coast where there is a different lunar calendar,” he says. The maramataka is interwoven with influences from the sea and wind and seasonal reminders for food gathering from endemic trees. The locals knew that when the kōwhai trees started flowering, it was time to harvest mussels. 

In 1962, Maanu married Gwenda, a teacher and social scientist who had also grown up in Murupara. The couple spent most of their working life and raised their four children in Hamilton, but Whakatāne always felt like home. In 1975, they had bought a 2-ha piece of family land at Ōhope Beach that was otherwise going to be taken over by the district council. 

“We are the tāngata whenua, the people of the land. We are the land, and the land is us,” says Pembroke Bird, kaumātua at Maanu’s tribal Rangitahi marae in Murupara. It is telling that the same word, ‘whenua’, means both land and placenta. “After a baby is born, we put the afterbirth back into the land and plant a tree on top. Respect and reverence for the whenua and Papatūānuku is everything. Everyone suffers when there is a disconnection.” 

With the wider family numbering in the hundreds, ownership and rates payment had been complex. Maanu’s solution was to take it over, but in his eyes it still belongs to whānau and he sees his role as growing for them just as his father did so many decades earlier at Waiohau. 

In 1990, Maanu and Gwenda moved permanently to Ōhope Beach. They bought an abandoned kiwifruit orchard that had been wrecked in the 1987 Edgecumbe earthquake, and, with the help of horticulturalist Sandy Scarrow, converted it to an organic venture. Maanu attended field days and listened to other orchardists, but he also applied his own thinking. 

After discovering that leaf-roller caterpillars, a bane of orchardists, were breeding in the shelter belts, he cut down the willows despite being advised not to do so. They never had a problem with the grubs again. To protect the kiwifruit vines from wind damage, Maanu pegged them to the ground, emulating their natural growth habit. 

While orchardists all around were netting their vines and setting off cannons, the Pauls left the birds alone. “The finches nip off some buds, but not all of them. They literally prune the vines and also eat insect pests,” says Gwenda. “Nature has its own way of balancing everything out.” 

They also introduced pigs to the orchard, as Maanu’s father had always done, to clean the land. The animals both rid the soil of the debilitating fungal root disease armillaria and fertilised the vines. 

Not only did the Pauls win the prize for the longest-keeping fruit every year, but their orchard was never affected by the Psa bacterial disease that decimated the industry. “When the disease came, we didn’t get it because our plants weren’t stressed,” says Maanu.  

When Maanu started to prepare the land at Ōhope Beach to grow vegetables, he found the remains of old kūmara pits and large shellfish middens left by his forebears. But the soil was dry, sandy and deficient in potassium. Over the years, he has enriched it with composted green waste and homemade liquid fertiliser. Fish guts, seaweed and potassium-rich kina are the key ingredients of Maanu’s potent brew, which ferments in a 44-gallon drum by the garden. 

Each vegetable plant is individually cared for. It has its own hole, dug into a small mound with a moat around it. Before planting, the hole is filled with rotted lawn clippings and a bucket of liquid fertiliser. There are no hoses in the garden. Every third day, Maanu carts buckets of fresh water down from the house on the back of his old Massey Ferguson tractor, and each plant gets a 10-litre drink. “Bucket-watering gives me a chance to look at the plants.”  

They thrive under his scrutiny. Colossal red onions, enormous pumpkins and rhubarb with leaves the size of gunnera grow among lettuces, cucumbers, chillies and tomatoes. Beetroot, kūmara and other root crops grow fat in the well-fed soils, while beans clamber over teepees made using bamboo poles grown on the property.  

All around are native trees. Pōhutukawa, kahikatea, karaka and kawakawa, which they use to make tea, grow among banana palms, oranges, avocado and fig trees. Apples, persimmons and peaches are abundant, and there’s not a curly leaf in sight. Flowering penstemon bring the bees, while detrimental insects and caterpillars are deterred with spray made from boiled rhubarb leaves. 

In winter, Maanu covers the beds with a thick layer of lawn clippings, suppressing any weeds and ready to mulch the following year’s crops. Gwenda and Maanu have 18 mokopuna, an ever-increasing brood of great-grandchildren and large extended families on both sides. Whānau are free to help themselves to the bounty of the garden. 

But Maanu’s concern is for more than providing food for his family. It is for future generations. At the heart of mātauranga are the principles of tikanga, the physical and metaphysical values brought by the ancestors who island-hopped across Te Moana-nui-a-Kiwa (the Pacific Ocean), adopting and adapting the ways of the people with whom they interacted. “When the Pākehā came, we adopted too many of their ways,” he says. 

Tikanga literally means ‘right practices’, and it is humans’ responsibility as kaitiaki to ensure they are maintained. “The kaitiaki role is a dynamic one which requires constant monitoring” says Maanu, who decries the economic forces that put ‘money-whenua’ ahead of mana whenua. “We are paying the price for putting chemicals on our land. Surely we will learn some lessons? We now need to reimpose our way of doing things. We need to go back to the organic way of growing, the Māori way of growing that respects the sanctity of the soil.”  

This is an edited extract from In the Company of Gardeners by Sue Allison, photography by Juliet Nicholas (Penguin Random House, $55). 

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