Living at one with nature

VIRGINIA WINDER
Last updated 08:16 27/06/2014

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A westerly wind whips down the side of Rachael and Jason Ruakere's two-piece house at Puniho Pa.

But sitting in their sun- drenched kitchen, a coal range gently warming a pot of soup, all is calm.

Their sons, Te Para, 6, and Hiona, 4, are playing in an adjoining space, their voices permeating the gaps between their parents' korero. The youngsters are speaking te reo Maori - their first language.

When Te Para was six months old, Rachael and Jason looked at their options and decided to move to the marae so their boys could grow up steeped in the language and the land of their tipuna.

They bought an old dental clinic building believed to be from Okato school for $15,000 and an old power board office from Napier for $25,000, joined them together and made them home at the pa.

Jason's roots are here. Of Taranaki and Ngati Porou descent, his father grew up on a farm next door and the spot where the old house was can be clearly seen from the vege garden.

Rachael, whose original surname is Hermann, is of Swiss descent, and her family live in New Plymouth.

Both are fluent in te reo.

"My dad was born here, went fishing here, had gardens here, caught lots of piharau (eels) and kahawai," Jason says. "It was nice to raise our family here and grow up on the marae."

He learnt Maori as a second language. "We didn't want the boys learning te reo on a course or university, but to learn it here," he says.

"So it's part of them," Rachael says.

"It's like the kids are raised by a village," Jason says. "It's not just at Puniho; it's at Parihaka as well and Oakura and New Plymouth. It's important for our kids to know where they are from and their identity. They know they are not on their own, know all their connections, know their hapu and iwi.

"This is their turangawaewae (place of the heart)."

With that deep sense of belonging comes the desire to care for the environment.

"Look after the land and it looks after you," Jason says.

Rachael says they wanted to live sustainably, but had heard that could be expensive. "The simplest thing is to reduce everything," she says.

That includes cutting down on power.

"We decided to try one year without a fridge and oven - 2 1/2 years later..."

They have the coal range and a stove top, pizza oven outside, a freezer and a chilly bin.

"We had to have a garden to have fresh vegetables. We are a little bit isolated, so can't get food from the supermarket all the time."

Heating the house and water, plus refrigeration are the top three uses of power, so that's where they looked at cutbacks and changes.

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The coal range, which has a wetback, keeps the house warm in winter. They tried using it for heating all their water, but found they were going through too much wood and sweltered in summer, so put in affordable solar panels.

"For nine months of the year they heat the water and in winter they warm it half way," Rachael says.

As a result, their monthly power bill is $35 to $45 each month.

They also have a rain-fed water tank, which is filled by run-off from the roofs of both buildings.

Their home is on the old garden site at Puniho. "We are amateurs all the way, so it's been about learning," she says.

"I planted $400 of fruit trees that got destroyed by the wind."

Putting in shelter is paramount in this wind-whipped place. "That's what I tell anybody around here now."

At first, the Ruakere whanau was focused on the food.

"But then we realised you have to look after the environment first. It's got to be everything together - that's been our learning. We are just starting," Rachael says.

The garden is her domain. "I pick the food or dig holes if I'm needed," Jason says.

She has winter and summer gardens. For six months half the garden is left fallow, but layered with compost and turned sometimes.

The gardens are also fed with a liquid seafood fertiliser made with leftovers from the marae, including fish heads, kina and other titbits. These are thrown into a rubbish bin with a lid and left to soak in water.

This mixture is then diluted with water, put in a watering can and sprinkled on the garden, especially the fruit trees.

Rachael's winter garden is a series of shapely beds formed by driftwood off the beach.

She has opted for diversity with her planting.

Instead of putting in a whole bed of one thing, she has plots of mixed veges. The results are healthy-looking gardens packed with broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, kale, spinach, bok choy and beetroot.

They also have a compost and worm farm, but these are not inundated with leftovers. "Not having a fridge, we hardly waste anything. We don't seem to chuck out things. We pick broccoli from the garden and eat the whole thing."

This ties in with her job of educating marae around Taranaki about reducing waste, looking at composting, recycling and the way people are buying things.

The programme, called Para Kore, came to the region 1 1/2 years ago and has been supported by all Taranaki's councils.

"The first thing we do is a waste audit after a hui or event at the marae."

Rachael separates out the waste so people can see what they have and then she shares information about what can be recycled.

"People have that thing that all plastic can be recycled. In Taranaki you can only recycle ones and twos. That blows people's minds," she says.

She also educates about why organic and green waste shouldn't go into bins.

"It ends up in landfill and creates methane, which is really bad."

Also, because all the waste gets squashed down, the organic matter gets trapped between plastic and other materials, where oxygen can't penetrate to help the natural composting process.

Para Kore also offers free resources, easy-to-follow signs to show people what can be recycled and how, plus three years of support from the organisation.

Jason supports Rachael with Para Kore and he enjoys the conversations that happen. "It's a two-way thing. Some of the kaumatua talk about the way things were when they grew up. There was less plastic, more bottles and glass, no Glad Wrap or tinfoil; they used sugar bags," he says.

On one marae, they learnt that newspaper is cut with intricate patterns and used to cover food.

At Puniho, newspaper is used as mulch beneath young feijoa trees. Many of these, along with karo, have been planted by Te Para.

His parents like the idea that the trees will grow up with their son and he will know he planted them.

For Jason and Rachael, everything is about teaching their sons about their place on this Earth.

Jason loves teaching them about camping, fishing, catching eels and the bush.

His paid job is with Core Education.

He works with schools to integrate technology into teaching and learning. He works in Maori and mainstream schools, helps with strategic planning and has a lot of online meetings.

That's why they have a computer, but no TV.

Educating their boys is a mixed bag at Puniho.

They are big advocates of Te Kopae Piripono, the full immersion pre-school based at Marfell School, but when Te Para turned five they opted for The Correspondence School for him.

Rachael translates all of the resources into te reo.

Te Para loves learning and gets excited when the postie drops off new school work for him.

"It's a learning for us on the way," Jason says. "It's been an adventure and that's what I want for our boys."

There are three whanau living on the marae and they have all been hugely supportive and welcoming, especially David Jones and Fay Mulligan.

Puniho is a busy place with hui, tangi and weddings held there.

"What I love is that our boys know the older kuia - they mihi to them and give them a kiss. Our boys, when they are older, are going to remember these people and it will reinforce who they are, where they belong and they will never be lost," Jason says.

"Every day the boys wake up here they see the sea, maunga, the river, the marae and the people. What more do they want?"

- Taranaki Daily News

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