Digging up the past: what secrets lie beneath your vege garden?

by | Jun 9, 2023 | Opinion

We tend to look at our backyards as unremarkable plots of soil. Good for growing a bit of fruit and veg, a few flowers if we’re fancy, a tree or two. Pakeha New Zealanders like me have a tendency to think of the land we live on as being a product of recent history: converted from scrubland, sheep or cattle farms; subdivided; our houses no older than a hundred years, usually much less. But what lies beneath our 60s suburban lawns and our vegetable planters? What stories do these fraction-of-an-acre plots have to tell?

As part of research for a novel, I visited a Kirikiriroa archeologist, Dr Warren Gumbley. As I walked into his office I had that quintessentially kiwi experience of realising that this stranger I’d been emailing was someone I already knew from another context: I used to make his morning coffee. Warren is an expert on the history of the land in central Waikato and just the man I needed to talk to.

I was interested in a small plot of farmland just to the south of Cambridge. Some significant events from my childhood had happened out there and I wanted  to know more about the history of the land. The farm is pockmarked by pits, about  two or three metres in diamentre and a metre or two deep. They had been there for as long as anyone could remember and there was no way they could have formed naturally. The farm was on Redoubt Road and I assumed they served some kind of miltary purpose, the farm lying only a few kilometres from crucial Waikato War sites like Rangiaowhia and Õrākau and almost right on the aukati line that marked the division of land confiscated by the Crown.

I assumed wrong. The holes were in fact barrow pits or quarries created by Māori well before the invasion of the Waikato and perhaps before colonisation. The pits are a common feature of the landscape around the Waikato. They were dug to extract gravel and sand that was then transported to other locations. This gravel and sand was mixed with rich alluvian soil to create a ‘made soil’ that was neccesary to grow tropical plants like kumera in a temperate zone like the central Waikato.The gravel and sand allowed rainwater to drain freely from the kumera mounds and retained heat for much longer than a finer, richer soil typically would.

The Māori farmers of the Waikato had engineered a very complex solution to the problem of growing a revered crop that had been transported by their ancentors from the tropical Pacific to the frosty soil of the central Waikato.

Fascinated by this information I asked Warren to take a look at my own neighbourhood. Turns out where I live was once a huge market garden, stretching for kilometres out from the banks of the Waikato. Once home, I started doing some digging. Actual digging. In my own back yard. And sure enough, just under the top soil was a yellowish layer of soil, sand and gravel.

I am living on what was once kumera growing gardens. Gardens that formed part of a vibrant agricultural indigenous economy. An economy that, pre-invasion, produced enough wheat to export to Auckland, New South Wales and even California. Māori-owned ships carried the grain from Kawhia across the Tasman.

As exciting as I found this as someone interested in history, in food, and in gardening, it also brought home some difficult truths about my town, my region, my country.

I grew up on stolen land. I live on stolen land. I own stolen land.

I don’t know what to do with this information.

A once-flourishing economy was destroyed by a military invasion in the 1860s that was formented by land speculators in Auckland. The effects of this invasion can still be felt to this day. A quick look at the economic inequality suffered by modern Māori living in the Waikato and the King Country (where many were forced to flee in the wake of the invasion) will tell you that the history told by the soil in my backyard is far from over.

I would encourage you to do some digging of your own. You might not be comfortable with what you find, but terrible truths (like gardens) need sunlight.



About the Author

David Wrigley

David is a writer and musician from Kemureti/ Cambridge. He has been published in Noble Rot, Nourish Magazine, Turbine|Kapohau, New Zealand Poetry Yearbook, and is currently working on his first novel. He has done his time in restaurants in Aotearoa and the UK. Oh, yes. He has done his time.

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