This separation from nature is behind many of our modern ailments, Rongoā Māori practitioner Donna Kerridge (Ngāti Tahinga, Ngāti Mahuta) believes. She talks to Emma Clifton on how we are all either bush people, sea people or mountain people and how getting back into nature can help us our mind, body and soul.
There’s something about the slow and steady way that autumn announces itself that makes it such a beautiful season to live through: the leaves gradually darkening, the way the sunlight changes. In the early days of the pandemic, nature-related headlines ruled the global news; dolphins returning to the Venice canal, the peaks of the Himalayas being visible above parts of India for the first time in decades, due to a reduction in pollution. The human world was taking a break and it seemed the earth was exhaling a sigh of relief.
A growing awareness and appreciation of the natural world has occurred hand-in-hand with our knowledge of what we might be losing in 10, 20, 30 years’ time as climate change gets worse. But there’s more to it than that. The Royal New Zealand College of General Practitioners released a study last year that found that 1 in 4 Kiwis are living with more than one chronic health condition, and this increasing amount of ongoing health problems has meant people are now looking at collaborative health treatments to complement the western medicine model. Our modern way of living has also removed many of us from the elements: we have air conditioning to control the summer humidity, we have heat pumps to keep us cosy in winter. We can move from car to office, then from car to home.
This separation from nature is behind many of our modern ailments, Rongoā Māori practitioner Donna Kerridge (Ngāti Tahinga, Ngāti Mahuta) believes. “A lot of our illnesses come from disconnection – disconnection from our community, disconnection from nature. A lot of us are born and bred city folk, and we definitely don’t like mud in our toes and we’ve forgotten how to jump in puddles. We’ve forgotten the vibrancy that comes from jumping into cold water. All of those things that help build our immune system, because reconnecting to nature lifts our immune system for lots of reasons. We feel included and we have hope for a better future, once we start to reconnect to nature.”
Being in nature just makes us feel better, she says. “It’s really hard for someone who’s voluntarily gone into the bush, to not come out feeling better for the experience. It’s really difficult to sit by the sea, and come home grumpy. It’s the energy of nature’s innate life force that helps restore our own life force. So being in nature has a physical and spiritual impact on all of us.”
Rongoā Māori is traditional Māori medicine and it comes in many forms, but the belief at the very core of it is that humans are part of nature, rather than at war with it. “A Māori world view, our way of seeing the world, is nature based or what we call whakapapa based, which is that we all derived from the earth,” Donna says.
Nature as a form of medicine is finally hitting the mainstream in Western countries. In Japan, forest bathing (shinrin-yoku) has long been a health practice, being added to the national health program in 1982 but it’s now something you can be given a prescription for by a doctor in the United States. Numerous scientific tests have been put into place to prove the efficiency of this as a treatment and the results show lower blood pressure, blood glucose levels and stress hormones.
The idea of what makes a healthy person is shifting away from purely being about our physical wellbeing, Donna believes. “It’s also about the balance between our social wellbeing and our spiritual wellbeing. And for me, our spiritual wellbeing is very much about our connection to the world, be that to the bush, the mountain, the sea. We’re all one of those things – we either have a water connection, a bush connection or a mountain connection.”
With her own work running Rongoā Māori workshops around the country, Donna says she’s seen a ‘500% increase’ in interest for the public; and their workshops are now booked out in advance. The medical community has also come calling – Donna is teaming up with Leukaemia & Blood Cancer NZ for a series of roadshows around the country to talk to health professionals about “how we can complement care, for those people who want it, with Rongoā Māori.”
Time spent in nature works for everyone, she says, because nature is there to help us. “From a Māori world view, there is an energy that we refer to as mauri – it’s the life force, it’s the glue within the physical and the spiritual. When you go into the bush, the mauri of the bush, the mauri of Papatūānuku (earth mother), will heal us, if we just sit and be.”
A lot of her work is helping people embrace the importance of that connection to nature – and it’s often a very emotional connection. Donna tells the story of a man she worked with at the end of last year who was dying.
“The day before he died, he looked at us and he said ‘take me to the beach’. So we bundled him up in the care and we took him to the beach and he sat and he watched the waves. And then he asked us to drive him to a hill, where he could look over the ocean. He asked us to take him to all his special places in nature, so we did that for the whole day. And we took him home and we put him in bed and he looked at me and he said ‘that’s it, Donna. No water, no pills, no food. That’s it, I’m happy.’”