There’s a Buried Forest on My Land
Illustration by Ashley Goodall.


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Rural Week NZ

There’s a Buried Forest on My Land

What it means to be Māori and a guest on your own land

In May 2012, my father, my youngest daughter and I turned off Eltham Road and into a farm gate. We were looking for our ancestral Taranaki iwi land. Our whānau has owned this land for many generations but none of we Buchanans had ever walked on it. Just inside the gate, there was a modest house and a big shed. A tractor and a ute were parked out the front of the shed. A thick-set, bald man in a checked shirt was leaning against the ute. He was smiling and relaxed. A silky brindle dog did circles at his feet.


I felt nervous. Dad was nervous too. Dad parked the car, hopped out and shook the farmer's hand. The dairy farmer's name is Karl Mullin. Dad went to school with Karl's dad John. Both of them were boarders at St Joe's in Masterton. Much later, in early middle-age, the two men had met again when my father, a paediatrician at Taranaki Base Hospital, had treated one of John's sons, a boy of two or three with a life-threatening condition. The baby had subsequently died. "I remember you," Karl said to my father. "You cared for my brother." No doubt John Mullin had remembered all this too, when Dad had phoned him the week before to ask for permission to visit Orimupiko Block 22. Dad had not mentioned the sick child to me at all. Medical ethics would prevent it.

But the dead child was there with us now, just for a moment. Karl's face softened. I saw a shadow of something, sadness or fear. I don't know what. My father said nothing. My daughter, Frances, just six, put her plump wee hand in mine and looked at her feet. Her white-gold hair was tied back but pieces had escaped and the Taranaki damp had frizzed these strands into a fuzzy halo around her dear pink face.

Karl offered to show us around. "That's your land," he said. "It runs from the fenceline down to the river."

Our eyes followed Karl's finger, taking in the paddocks, the fences, the ditches, the small stand of remnant native bush and the lovely curl of the river—the Waiaua—wrapped around the southern edge of our small patch of Ōpunake. This bit of land was excellent, Karl said. The best in the district. It was flat and fertile and free from lahars.


On a clear day, the mountain would loom up over the farm but today he was covered in clouds, from foothills to summit. "The mountain doesn't come out for visitors," Karl said pleasantly. It was time to get moving. Frances and I sat in the back of the ute and Dad and Karl hopped in the front. Karl's dog Oscar panted up the back. The dog leapt up to try to lick Frances' soft little neck. Frances giggled happily. I looked out the window as if in a dream. Karl knew everything and I knew nothing. Karl knew the boundaries of our block and the boundaries of the other Māori blocks too. The rest of the farm had been West Coast Settlement Reserve land too, he said looking over his shoulder back towards the mountain, but his father, John, had "converted" it some time ago so the Mullins owned it outright.

I was less than nothing. I was an invited guest on my own land. The tenant was the host. The land that was 'ours' was, manifestly, 'his'. The land was an orphan, adopted by his family, abandoned by ours.

I did not have the words to explain what I felt. Perhaps I was happy. Or maybe I was meek and grateful. Certainly there were other sensations too: anger, sorrow, rage, total disbelief. There is certainly no term in the English language to express my situation. I was less than nothing. I was an invited guest on my own land. The tenant was the host. The land that was 'ours' was, manifestly, 'his'. The land was an orphan, adopted by his family, abandoned by ours.


We bumped along down towards the river then back up the hill again. On the top of an incline, just above the bush and the rusted rim of a car, a tattooed man chopped up large, black rātā logs. Karl used the logs for firewood. They burnt really well. 'If you dig down deep enough here, you'll find natives,' Karl explained.

Similar trees lay beneath the entire block, making it difficult to dig ditches or lay drains. "Something came through here," he said. "A big landslide and it pushed all of them over." The trees all pointed in the same direction, seawards. There's a buried forest beneath our land. Later, when I mentioned the day to Frances, she was enthusiastic about the time she spent "on farmer Karl's farm". Oscar the dog made a big impression but so did the hawk we saw as we left.

Where are they now?

The accountants in Whanganui had sent the slip of paper to Dad and seventy-one others. The slip said: "Attached is a list of owners in Orimupiko 22 Trust that we do not have addresses for. If you know where any of these people live could you please send us their details in the enclosed envelope. Thank You."
When I looked at the twenty-one names on this list, I saw birds pattering about on a wet, windy beach. The birds were all very far apart. The weather was so bad that they could not see further than their feet. The rain had played a trick on them. First the birds could not see the flock and then they forgot that the flock was even there.


"All pieces for a puzzle that we can no longer complete because there are too many bits missing, whited out, emptied out, alienated, confiscated, sold.

Spicks and specks

Go to the Ministry of Justice. Then go to the Māori Land Court. Then go to Māori Land Online. Type in Orimupiko Block 22. A map will pop up. The block is shaded dark grey. To the north, the map is white, just as Karl said. Look left, more grey. Look down, grey again. Roll the mouse back and still more grey appears in varying forms: fat rectangles, skinny oblongs, boxes with deckle edges, a triangle, a block shaped like a beak, tiny dots and squiggles right by the sea. All pieces for a puzzle that we can no longer complete because there are too many bits missing, whited out, emptied out, alienated, confiscated, sold.

My cousin Paul Walker met my grandmother Rawinia once. It was 1975 and Paul, his mum Doreen, and Flossie were three of the owners of Orimupiko 22 who had been summoned to Wellington for a meeting about the block. Everyone had to come, apparently. If people failed to show up, then the land would be sold or taken. 'I remember the day quite well,' Paul told me, 'because it was the day the land march arrived in Wellington.'


The 1915 Partition Order for Orimupiko Block 22 was issued under Section 21 of the West Coast Settlement Reserves Amendment Act 1913 and 1914 and the Native Land Act 1909. I have counted up all the relevant legislation for Block 22. My list begins with the New Zealand Settlements Act of 1863 and ends with the Māori Reserved Lands Amendment Act 1997. The list is very long but almost certainly incomplete. My land is a play in twenty-one Acts. Stop playing with my land.



Robert Hamerton was the first public trustee for the West Coast Settlement Reserves. He had arrived in New Plymouth, from Lancashire, in 1854, aged sixteen. Six years later, he became an ensign for the Taranaki Rifle Volunteers, rising, eventually, to the rank of captain. The New Zealand Settlements Act of 1863 confiscated most land in Taranaki. Māori were never given any of the promised reserves, a failing that the non-violent activist community at Parihaka attempted to highlight and address. In 1880, the recommendations of the West Coast Commission led to an Act that awarded 201,395 acres to 5289 individuals. The former soldier, Hamerton, was put in charge of the reserve land. He held a pen instead of a rifle but the result was quite similar. Some land was leased in perpetuity and other parcels of land—such as Orimupiko 22—were subject to shorter term arrangements. These leases are little land mines embedded in Taranaki Māori families, including my own. But they are also a rope that links us, intimately, with Parihaka and its revolutionary leaders whose simple message was: Land, Mine!

The writer's block

I have made my living from writing since I was eighteen. I often find writing a challenge but two careers—journalism and academia—mean that writer's block is not a luxury I have been able to afford for too long. Until 2012, the year I discovered my very own Writer's Block, Orimupiko 22, and a block order file to go with it.


Block order files are kept at Māori Land Court offices. The court is unique; it is the only one in the world structured around whakapapa. There are booklets to explain how it all works: trust, succession, leases and all the rest. The opening paragraph of each booklet is the same. The second sentence says: 'The special bond between Māori people and the land is recognised by the Māori Land Court, and the records held by this Court form an invaluable part of the whakapapa of all Māori.' A special bond is a phrase that describes the relationship that a grandparent enjoys with a favoured mokopuna but is certainly not a phrase that describes the feelings I had when I visited my land in Ōpunake.

In its discussion of the impact of raupatu and 'land reform' in Taranaki ( The Taranaki Report: Kaupapa Tuatahi, 1996) the Waitangi Tribunal observed that: "Ancestral laws on how lands were held, allocated and inherited were displaced by Government laws that brought Māori into the Government system."

While my Pākehā ancestors were building up a farming dynasty in Southland, my Māori ones in Taranaki were prevented from making any decisions at all about their land in Ōpunake, land they had occupied for hundreds of years. My mother, Mary English, grew up at Rosedale, the English family homestead in down-country Southland. Mum told me that the farm was set up five generations ago 'when my great-grandfather bought the land from Mr Rose'. It has been handed down from father to sons ever since. With every generation, my mother's family built their wealth and their attachment. With every generation in my Māori family, wealth and attachment diminished. As the Tribunal put it, in the Taranaki report:
"A more particular prejudice was caused by the increased alienation of Māori land, multiple land ownership, fragmentation of title, title dispersal, absentee ownership, uneconomic interests, missing owners, unbankable titles, tenant farming, rent dispersal and administrative control by Māori Land Court, the Māori Trustee, and, later, the Māori Affairs Department. In social and cultural terms, Māori land has been made an illusory and meaningless asset."
This statement induces a kind of writer's block in me. What do I do with it? Is it true that Orimupiko 22 is an illusory, meaningless and under-performing asset? Am I prepared to let this statement be true?
To escape the injustice of the recent history of Orimupiko 22 and the 27,000-plus other blocks of remaining Māori freehold land, I can take a longer view of historical time. For example, I can step back 7000 years to the moment when the southwest section of Te Maunga Taranaki's summit collapsed. Volcanic ash and debris poured down the side of the mountain. Forests were felled, hills destroyed, rivers filled and still the lahar kept flowing, out on past the present coastline at Ōpunake. This eruption felled the forest on Orimupiko 22. Volcanologists describe it as a 'new' event. The time of history is a shimmering slick on the surface of the time of the volcano. A comforting thought.


Like so many other blocks of Māori freehold land, Orimupiko 22 is just a speck but put it together with the 27,307 other specks and you have 1.466 million hectares or 5.66 per cent of New Zealand's land mass. This land is now under intense political and economic scrutiny. In 2012 the National Government announced a review of Te Ture Whenua Māori Act 1993 and flagged its intention to "improve the performance and productivity of Māori land". The government says 80 per cent of Māori freehold land is "underdeveloped or ignored by some disengaged owners".

My research into Orimupiko 22 illuminates some of the reasons for this owner "disengagement" and it has posed profound professional and personal challenges for me as a historian and a Taranaki uri. The chaos created by the Taranaki wars and their aftermath has knifed time, split it apart, hazed everything up and the more research I did, the foggier things got.

The war stories that link real tangata to actual bit of whenua can be excruciating, sad and tortuous but they can also reveal persistence and vision. I remain hopeful that the fog will clear. In the meantime, I have become a farmer, too, digging through records, letting some air into them, waiting to see what might pop up. This is one way, at least, that I am able to care for my land.

A version of this essay was previously published by AUP and the Journal of New Zealand Studies. It is republished with permission.