When I lived in Japan, I took great pleasure from visiting Shinto shrines. Though I am not a religious person, there was something very spiritual and calming about these places. They were a place of solace and quietude. Shrines were sometimes only very small and simple affairs – often hidden in an unexpected corner of a bustling urban landscape. (Some are even found on the roofs of high-rise buildings!) But even in the case of these smaller shrines, it is rare that there is not a tree or two within the shrine gardens. But the larger shrines often have their own sacred groves (chinju no mori), and these groves only add to the calming “oasis” effect of a shrine. The Cryptomeria (sugi or Japanese cedar) tree is often prominent in such groves, as it is considered especially sacred within Shinto.
Such sacred groves are common in many Asian cultures but are not something I would naturally associate with New Zealand. Some would say (as I would) that they experience something like spiritual solace when walking in New Zealand’s indigenous forest. But of course this is not quite the same; this space has not deliberately set aside as a cultural artefact for a spiritual or religious purpose as a shrine has.
So it was with some surprise that I experienced a sense of the “sacred grove” a few weeks ago. The place is located in a research complex just outside of Palmerston North. Few would know of its existence, and even fewer would have visited it. I was alerted to its existence when researching the environmental history of the Manawatu for the book I am currently working on. The site is a karaka grove, which was once part of a much more extensive one located beside the Rangitane settlement of Mokomoko on the flats on the southern side of the Manawatu River. It was a deliberately planted “orchard”, one of a number that mark historic settlements of the Rangitane along the Manawatu River. The place can be regarded as particularly sacred, as it it is near the site where, in 1820, hundreds of lives were lost in a fierce battle between Rangitane and another tribe. The grove only survives because the first European settler who farmed there, J. O. Batchelor, recognised that it was special, and out of respect for Rangitane did not clear part of the grove. When the land was purchased for Massey Agricultural College, the little grove was fenced and preserved.
The carvings are in the traditional Rangitane style of stockade posts last used at the Puketotara pa in the 1800’s. The design is in the image of a pataka (food store) and part of the detail represents the taumatu atva stick used to secure rich harvests, symbols of life and growth. I felt privileged to experience this tranquil leafy oasis, and to understand more its history – and even happier that I was able to find it so near the place I grew up. I wonder how many more of such “sacred groves” there are to be “discovered”?