Book Review: Guardians of Aotearoa, by Johanna Knox, photos by Jess Charlton

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_guardians_of_aotearoa‘Sometimes it feels like our living world, our cultural knowledge, our people and communities are under siege’ reads the dust jacket of Guardians of Aotearoa: Protecting New Zealand’s Legacies. This first line cuts straight to the zeitgeist and the current cultural climate where opinion is favoured over fact, nationalism is on the rise, inaction in the face of a beleaguered natural environment continues and discussion in the public sphere is so often reductive, perhaps another symptom of the competitive nature of modern life, where all feel that their way of life is under threat.

Guardians of Aotearoa, by Johanna Knox with photography from Jess Charlton, is a timely and welcome tonic. It is part documentation, part celebration of the people whose values and efforts Knox admires, in addition to the legacies they seek to uphold. The book also speaks to a shift in the political landscape: a move from a focus on GDP and material goods to that of values and wellbeing, which is intertwined with health, environment and education.

Initially Knox was commissioned by Bateman Books to make a book about New Zealand’s environmental heroes. But, as she writes in the introduction, this didn’t sit quite right: ‘How do you divorce the natural environment from people and culture? We’re part of a whole.’ This is reflected not only in Te Ao Maori and the principles and practices of kaitiakitanga, but also in the impact of human actions, or inaction as the case may be, on the world around us.

Those profiled span a diverse range of practices but common to all is their care for what they do. Their ‘work rarely fits one tidy category’ – indeed cross disciplinary approaches are common. The legacies included traverse ecologies of all types – cultural, community, environmental – and, accordingly, people of all types to foster them: from shoemakers to the founder of Rockquest. There is Graham O’Keeffe – head of the MOTAT print shop, who is ‘not just educating, but keeping a vanishing art alive’; ecologist Catriona Gower, who by sharing her passion for bats has brought together communities; Lloyd and Joan Whittaker, who have dedicated their lives to maintaining a rich collection of heritage instruments and making these accessible.

Care and interconnection come through the book as the essential ingredients to addressing the challenges that face us and preserving the things that matter to us. Niki Harré, author and psychology lecturer, says that ‘unless we face climate change with a strong sense of love: for each other, in the broadest sense, it’s not likely to go well’. Tina Ngata, the environmental and indigenous rights advocate, affirms that we cannot talk about guardianship, or kaitiekitanga as it is known in the East Coast dialect, without looking after language, child rearing and other rights too. Thinking of these connections across time is also fundamental – put simply, as Ngata says, we need to think of how we can be good ancestors.

This is a handsome and satisfying volume, which underlines a belief in the power of individuals’ stories to inspire. By gathering them in this book, Knox also captures an ecology and community of action. The challenge in front of us is widening this sphere of influence.

As one of the guardians, freshwater ecologist Mike Joy, states: ‘Go to the people that aren’t converted. That’s the hard stuff. That’s where you’ll make the difference.’

Reviewed by Emma Johnson

Guardians of Aotearoa
by Johanna Knox, photos by Jess Charlton
Published by Bateman Books
ISBN 9781869539023

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