It was a picture-perfect day when we visited Jane Riddiford and her husband Rod at the Ruamāhanga Farm — a family-owned block located beside the main bridge as you drive into Martinborough.
For the past two years, Jane Riddiford has been working together with her two sisters Liz and Lucy and her husband Rod on the Ruamāhanga Mauri Oho project, which is based on the farm beside the Ruamāhanga River. Collectively, they bring a passion for native plant restoration, a commitment to values-based work that brings different parts of the community together, and a recognition of the importance of working with children and young people in ways suited to the uncertainties of our times.
As Jane gave us a tour of the property she explained her vision for the wetland and riparian forest restoration project. It soon became very clear that our goals are very much aligned.
Later, as we sat drinking tea and eating homemade cake beneath an ancient stand of tī kōuka cabbage trees, I asked Jane to elaborate on her plans for restoring parts of the farm and developing educational activities for local schools and the wider community.
Campbell: What’s your vision for the Ruamāhanga Mauri oho project?
“For me, vision is something that I can’t already see, rather it is what grows in the footsteps of shared commitment. Coming together with my two sisters Liz and Lucy, and my husband Rod in the belief that we could do something different with our family farm was the starting point, and making space to find out what might emerge between us over time is at the heart of the work. For us, this means not only working together as a family but also creating opportunities for others to come and join us.
Mauri oho is a working title name, gifted to us by Ra Smith who is the Kaumatua for the Ruamāhanga river. The name which means awakening the life force is guiding our actions, our way of working and our aspirations. We hope our contribution here will demonstrate ways in which the local community, including the tangata whenua, can work together in the restoration of wetlands and riparian forest. In this way, we believe we will support the health of both the planet and people. We sometimes refer to the three interwoven dimensions of the work as; ‘I, We, and the Planet.’
Campbell: What made you realise that there was a need for this?
“I lived in London for 25 years and on visits back to New Zealand I began to feel more acutely a sense of sadness in the land, particularly in the wetland parts of the farm. I thought about how the oxbow of the river was at that point little more than a ditch and how it would have once been a thriving wetland. Along with my sister Liz, I began to pay attention to the few remaining native trees. They seemed like sentinels providing glimpses of how the land once was and how it might again be. Meanwhile back in London, thanks to our work with environmental education charity Global Generation. Rod and I knew that working with nature could provide a healthy foundation for growing community amongst people of all ages and circumstances. During that time, I was also finding my way with breast cancer. Connecting to the wider body of land has been an important part of my own healing journey. I wanted to learn more and also give others the opportunity to listen to what the land might have to say.
When Rod, Liz, and Lucy became excited about taking these ideas forward, I knew that between us, we could make something positive happen.”
Campbell: What do you see as some of the most pressing environmental issues that we and the river catchment itself is now faced with?
“There’s a pressing need to learn more about how rivers want to be. This calls on us to shift our perception that rivers should be neat fast flowing channels engineered primarily to suit the demands of our industrialised world. I think we have to do whatever it takes to enable rivers to become wider rather than forcing them to become deeper.
On so many levels, both practical and philosophical we need to prepare ourselves for the uncertainties that lie ahead. We are so often predicated towards control, but it seems to me we have to learn how to be more comfortable with not already knowing what the best way forward is. It’s an often-confusing picture, as there are huge issues that do need controlling like the increase of possums and other native plant predators in the valley.
I feel that the polarisation between people who have different experiences and different and sometimes divisive views is an environmental issue. Collaboration is key to unearthing the kind of creative response that is needed for the challenges that lie ahead. This is why I think it is vitally important to support children and young people to become not only familiar with the natural world but also empathetic listeners and critical thinkers.”
Campbell: What are the next steps for your project and what level of support do you need to help make it happen?
“Over the coming year, we will establish Ruamahānga Mauri Oho as a charity. We are on a journey with the name, and it may change. Our monthly planting sessions to revegetate the wetland and riparian areas of the farm will continue with the valued help of our expanding core of local volunteers.
We will continue to develop our Nature Restoration walks. These are an expanded version of some of the storytelling and qigong-based activities we already ‘bookend’ with the practical work of our volunteer sessions.
We are collaborating with Enviroschools and the Ruamāhanga Restoration Trust in a range of activities, and to that end we are developing the basic infrastructure to enable us to host groups, including overnight. These include the Little Green Dunny we have just installed by the river and a Gathering Shelter. Of great importance to the project, we recognise and respect the scientific and other knowledge of the river and land that tangata whenua holds. As our connections and trust builds, we hope to strengthen the initial links we have made.
“Building on our initial self-funded planting efforts over the past year we’ve already successfully raised a total of $15,000 from Trees that Count and GWRC. We recently held a family and community event which raised a total of $3000. Over the next three years our plans include raising around $120,000 for a combination of planting, plant protection, and education and community-based workshops.”
Then, with one wave of the hand, everything in that split-second moment seemed possible. After all, helping to restore the health of the Ruamahanga River is a collective action that requires the support of landowners and a greater understanding of Nature amongst our youth and future decision-makers. Seconds become lifetimes.
It was for this reason that the Ruamāhanga Restoration Trust agreed to support the Ruamāhanga Mauri Oho project and help Jane and Rod (and their family and volunteer community) with the restoration work and hosting of school and community groups at this magical site.