December 21, 2020

To mark the major change that has just taken place with respect to our website (thanks to Inhouse Design, who undertook a complete redesign of it), it only seems appropriate to write about one catalyst (beyond idle chat at various events) that brought Arch MacDonnell (of Inhouse) and I into each other’s respective orbits.

Taking plant nerdery on to an entirely unexpected plane, Arch and Adam Ellis have erected many enigmatic structures over the years in worship of rātā – with Adam the agitator-in-chief, and Arch the unquestioning disciple. When discussing these growth structures (some highly refined, others deliberately naive) with Arch and Adam, they have informally referred to them as shrines to Bartlett’s rātā and northern rātā (and their distinctive life cycle, whereby these trees start life perching on other trees and send their roots to ground).

Whilst looking at these with Adam and Arch in Wellington and Auckland respectively, the manner in which these altars to rātā growth are embedded within their gardens/landscapes reminded me of natural objects that function as loci for worship for the Sami people of northern Scandinavia – called sieidi. My interest in these subtle sacred points within the landscape was stimulated when I attended a concert in Auckland years ago, in which a piece bearing the name of ‘Sieidi’ (by the Finnish composer, Kalevi Aho) was performed.

The notion of natural objects or organisms (such as unusual rocks, hillocks, outcrops or trees) representing markers within landscapes (especially for sacred places) is fascinating on the basis of their quietness – a quality that requires intimacy with the landscape (and cultural continuity) to guide one in recognising them. In Japan, yorishiro occupy a similar role within landscapes, and consideration of these two examples from abroad (both connected to animist belief systems) made me wonder about how similar objects to sieidi acted formerly as markers (both sacred and profane) in our land.

Before moving on to that, I’ll return to the subject of the very small sub-culture (membership = 2; new members welcome) currently actively engaged in the cult of rātā worship. The MacDonnellisian sub-culture explores divergent approaches to these growth structures, with some of them exhibiting a much greater degree of thought and craftsmanship – as in the example of the magnificent concrete cruciform stand pictured above and below at Arch’s house (shown quite clearly at the time of planting in the latter image).

Adam has designed and built several impressive ‘plypod’ structures erected in Wellington and at the Inhouse studio in Auckland (the top of one can be seen in the image below, left), which operate on a similar principle to the cruciform stand shown in the previous images (which was built in 2007).

From the perspective of the trees, the key attriibute of all of these structures is that they provide internal corners (or crevices) for the rātā roots to track their way to the ground – as they do in the wild when establishing themselves on other trees. As opposed to the permanence of the concrete stand, the plypods are intended to disintegrate in the long term, leaving the shadow of the structure as the sole evidence of the act of making.

Other structures are far hastier and more improvised in nature, in a more direct proxy for how these plants establish themselves within natural ecosystems. Adam demonstrates this ably in the image above, right, whilst Arch presents another example of this naive approach in the image below, left.

Which brings me to the subject of whether subtle interventions of a different nature have played a traditional role within our landscapes. The title of this journal article, ‘Ahu’, alludes to this, for this is the root of the word for sacred structures called tuahu that traditionally played a significant role within Māori culture. However, ‘ahu’ also simply refers to the act of mounding/heaping (sacred structures were frequently raised up, in a similar vein to the form of altars), and has the additional meaning of ‘tending or nurturing’ – both of which are important aspects of the ‘ahu rātā’ that Adam and Arch have patiently developed over many years.