Healing homegrown herbs: the Catholic priest turned Maori medicine man
As a former priest, Rob McGowan is at ease with the concept of mauri (life force) which he acknowledges when entering our native bush. He does the same when handling native plants and notes matter-of-factly he always asks before he takes anything for his practice of rongoa (Maori medicine).
"Sometimes the answer is 'yes', sometimes 'no' and sometimes I'm quite clearly directed to another plant – the same – but over there," he says. "If you stand quietly and listen, it's all there."
His initiation into rongoa came when he was sent by the Catholic church to Whanganui to learn te reo. "I met Aunty Rua (Henare) who was making piupiu (flax skirts) for the culture club, a very respected elder and somewhat feared. When it came time to go up the river to collect flax, it turned out I was the only man available to help her," he recalls. "On another trip we went into the bush to collect bark for dye and later I found out that once you begin making the dye there are some strict tapu, one being that a man can't sleep with his wife, so I suppose a priest was handy to have around."
Still widely known as Pa Ropata, Rob says "at some point", Aunty Rua decided to teach him rongoa, although she had taken her time sizing him up. "She was testing me to see if I would learn properly and keep the knowledge safe," he explains. "You can ask to be taught, but they choose who they will teach."
Rob's mother, the daughter of Dalmatian gum diggers, used herbal medicine for her family based on rongoa knowledge shared through the marae next door, so as a child he spent much time in the Northland bush. "So Aunty Rua would ask for something and I could go and get it. That helped her open up to me."
When Rob was transferred to Hastings in 1977, Auntry Rua instructed him to share his knowledge only with those who could trace their whakapapa back to the Whanganui River. She connected him with Paul Mareikura who continued Rob's education in Hawke's Bay, an introduction that was doubly valuable when Aunty Rua was killed a few months later.
"They said, 'We don't have to teach you anything. If you get to know the plants, they will teach you everything.' I always thought it was an excuse not to tell me something but actually that's how it is."
After moving to Te Puke to tend to Catholic Maori in the Bay of Plenty, Rob found himself burning out and in 1989 took sick leave before finally deciding to leave the ministry.
A short time later he met Vic Smith, a leader of Ngati Hangarau in Bethlehem, who urged him to share his knowledge with young Maori. So Rob went back to Whanganui and sought permission, which was granted.
Since the opening of the hapu's Ngamanawa Lodge in 1992, Rob has taught there regularly, seeing it as a chance to reconnect the people to the whenua (land), as well as taking courses open to everybody. He also works for Nga Whenua Rahui, a unit within the Department of Conservation which provides funding for the protection of indigenous ecosystems on Maori-owned land. There is now more than 170,000ha under covenant (kawenata).
Rob – who lives on a 2.4ha rural property in Welcome Bay near Tauranga with his wife Lyndel Crisp, a medical herbalist and former nurse, and 17-year-old daughter Ella – was delighted to be made a life member of the New Zealand Association of Medical Herbalists at their annual conference in May.
He also helps run a small nursery for the neighbourhood Waitao Landcare Group, and he and Lyndel participate in the fortnightly planting bees. Last year the Waitao Stream won the Morgan Foundation National River Story award.
A founding member of Tane's Tree Trust in 1999, Rob is helping the bush on his land regenerate and has also planted a rongoa garden on his property to help students learn plant identification. "Most New Zealanders see the landscape as a blur of many shades of green. They don't notice the incredible diversity that's present," Rob says. "Taking people into the bush is often like teaching blind people to see."
Many important rongoa plants grow on the fringes of the bush, he says, or in regenerating bush. "They buffer the forest from wind, suck up heavy rainfalls and stop the forest floor drying out. They keep the forest safe and strong. The plants that heal the land are also the ones that heal the people on the land."
Rongoa Maori: A practical Guide to Traditional Maori Medicine by Rob McGowan is a 70-page book of rongoa practice (no recipes) and is available from Karen Tindall, firstname.lastname@example.org.
- NZ Gardener