Thursday, February 17, 2011

The Importance of Land in Potiki

Some of the most vivid memories from my childhood take place at my old house, the house I grew up in until the age of thirteen when my family moved into a new development in town. Our old house sat on an acre of land, and neighboring our backyard was a forest that covered miles. My two younger brothers and I often played in the forest, imagining ourselves as discoverers, exploring distant lands and discovering new and exciting plant and animal species. We would sometimes take our dog Tanner along with us, and he would sit in for the imaginary jaguars we found in the lush jungles of a foreign place. The natural landscape around us fueled our imaginations and allowed us to think outside the normal limits of our environment. The vast expanse of mostly uncultivated land was an escape from our trimmed lawn and perfectly positioned flowerbeds, and every wandering became an opportunity to discover something new. We never followed the same path twice, mostly because there were no paths of which to speak. When my family moved to our new house in town, I was thirteen and certainly past the age of going on adventures in the forest. However, I missed the forest and the unruliness of it and the imagination it stimulated. I have always loved the environment, and I think a part of that comes from my childhood home. As someone who has not spent my entire life in a city or a suburb, I appreciate the unique experiences one can have in a place relatively isolated from man. Moreover, while we certainly had neighbors, some of whom had children, my brothers and I spent most of our time with each other, partly because we did not have many other options. I cherish that because I have valued my family’s companionship from a young age.

I connected with Potiki because of the importance it places on family and nature and the interplay between the two. Hemi and Roimata constantly say to one another, “Everything is here. We learn what we need and want to learn, and all of it is here” (38). The ways in which Hemi and his family relate to their land is admittedly different than my childhood experiences living in a somewhat secluded (secluded, I mean, from any real suburban or urban setting) back country road. Hemi prizes his ancestral heritage, and this pride certainly becomes a driving force behind his motivation to keep the land. The land and family are inexplicably connected in Hemi’s ancestral tradition of which Roimata becomes a part when she marries him. This connection between land and people actually gives life to the land, and Roimata reflects, “At the same time we could not help but remember that land does not belong to people, but that people belong to the land. We could not forget that it was land who, in the beginning, held the secret, who contained our very beginnings within herself” (110). They commune with the land not just as their surrounding, but also, in a sense, as their very life force, the land in which human life began. Their relationship with the land is a symbiotic one. Hemi wants to live off the land as earlier generations in his family did, even as his father did before his death when Hemi was fifteen. From his father he learned how to farm the land, and Hemi considers this a gift, one which is important as a family tradition and as a way of relating to the land. The land has the ability to provide physical sustenance and also to bring together families. Therefore, when Hemi loses his job, he actually is happy because “[f]or him, being out of a job meant that he would be able to get on with his real work, and that he’d be able to pass on what he’d been given” (61). Hemi finds his real calling in the land and passing on the secrets of that work to his posterity.

The yard of the old home and the forest almost overrunning it were not lands passed down through my family; we did not have that sense of pride on the land. And we certainly did not make our living off the land; my dad would go to work during the day and sometimes bring Pizza Hut pizza home for dinner, and my mom was a regular shopper at the grocery store in town. The point is though, that I connected to the sentiment “Everything is here” because, in a sense, most everything I valued was there, and that “everything” was (and still is) my family. Our isolation from town did not make my brothers and me social outcasts as we certainly had many friends. But we could never just run down the street or hop on our bikes to go play with those friends. Play dates always required a twenty-minute drive into town and therefore some advanced planning. It was in that old house and in that forest that my brothers became my best friends. That strong connection to family is something I share with Hemi and Roimata. Moreover, I learned to respect the natural world and everything it could bring to my experiences. My childhood surroundings shaped who I am today in the sense that they made me more conscious of the world around me and the toll human beings take on the land. In Potiki, I truly mourned for the loss of Hemi’s family’s land because I know that, in reality, this happens every day around the world. Global expansion is making it difficult for families to keep their ancestral lands, and even more simply than that, less and less children are able to have similar experiences to mine as a child, and it is this loss of connection to the natural world that worries me most about future generations.

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