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

Book review: A Forager’s Treasury by Johanna Knox

cv_a_foragers_treasuryThis book is in stores now.

It doesn’t happen often enough; you come across a book that so delights and changes the way you look at the world around you; Johanna Knox’s A Forager’s Treasury definitely enchants.

I’m a plant-lover with an extensive kitchen garden, but I’ve learnt so much in reading this book. I now look at roadside verges and weedy lawns in a completely new way. I see food everywhere. Not many people get excited by the sight of onion weed. Now I can’t wait for those little white bonnets to pop up ready for use in weed pakoras or parmesan crisps. And I’m compiling a long list of all the things I’m going to do with kawakawa, from spice blends and flavouring pannacotta to perfumes and liqueurs.

The writing is delightful, full of warmth and inspiring detail. I love the stories of her less-than-successes as much as her successes. The wide-eyed aspirations of a young girl who buried a plastic bag of apples in the garden so she could surprise her family mid-winter with perfectly preserved produce. And it’s the telling details of her wide experience that I really appreciate.

“The enormous, floppy, fuzzy leaves of tree mallows are known as an emergency toilet paper substitute, but I can say from experimentation that they have a nasty, squeaky, water-repellent feel, like 1970’s velour, and ‘emergency’ is the operative word.” (p92)

The book provides a very practical framework to make your foraging dreams a reality. There is a lovely introduction to the foraging ethos and rules of engagement. A wide variety of foragable treasures available in New Zealand are described beautifully with pretty little illustrations. However, this is not an identification guide. You will need to take another book on your missions–excellent examples are listed in the Resources.

This is a book to keep safe at home to inspire, and then hurry back to with your goodies. Because, the real diamond in this book, is the artful prescription for using your foraged finds. I love the way Knox has approached the recipe section. Instead of a list of specific ingredients combined in staid ways, A Forager’s Treasury opens up the world of materials to work with and then provides the formulas to create your own culinary, medicinal, fragrant and even colour magic.

Solid methods of preserving your bounty are presented, and a wonderful selection of recipes give you the foundation necessary to embrace experimentation. ‘The Art of the Wild Salad’ is a charming example covering the mixing and matching of flavours, and then gives a table of taste groups so you can blend something incredible.

Like all good books these days, there is a website to go with it. This is a great way for the author to update any areas of the book that may have been lacking. Printable indexes by plant name and recipe have been included. The photo ID gallery is a really good add-on with very clear images. I look forward to seeing what else will appear at

Johanna Knox’s A Forager’s Treasury is a gem of a book. Beautifully illustrated, delightfully written and full of wonderful information that will be sitting pride of place on my bookshelf for a very long time.

Reviewed by Anna Butterfield

A Forager’s Treasury
by Johanna Knox
Published by Allen & Unwin
ISBN 9781877505164

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