Te Henga Whispers
by Lee Ryan
On the edge, where city meets sea,
find the nearly lost symphony in-between
Find below Bethells Road Te Henga wetland,
where behind the ridge beats the Tasman Sea.
But here lies a primordial hush,
where rustling leaves of tī kōuka and harakeke
those ancient and elemental sentinels,
offer shelter and food.
There in the wintry waters:
the booming lament of the matuku
and the pāteke speaking softly once more.
asks us to pay attention
and breathe together, not alone.
She invites us into her quiet restoration,
where land meets river
past meets future
just on the edge.
Tī kōuka – cabbage tree
Harakeke – flax
Matuku – bittern
Pāteke – recently the world’s rarest duck
Below the road, before the sea
Wetlands, Te Henga, Bethell’s Beach, New Zealand. Writer, Lee Ryan. Artist, Rebekah Forman.
We are sitting in the spacious shed at Matuku Link, admiring its fine craftsmanship, twisting iron work, piles of tools and gear, handwritten labels, smells of wood and wet earth – signs everywhere of the work of many hands, and a unifying love of birds.
Our guide is John Sumich, part of the group who originally dreamed of restoring the wetland and chair of the current Habitat Te Henga conservation project. He patiently describes the history of Te Henga, treating us as if we are his first visitors. It’s a story of ingenuity, vision, and persistence, where a committed group of people successfully sought crowd-funding – and got stuck in themselves – so New Zealanders could enjoy this wetland into the future.
What remains with us from that conversation? Not just that Te Henga is alive, but that she is always adapting. Coastal sand blew in from the Tasman Sea forming the lake. Farms moved in and cut down the hardy bush that once circled it, replacing mānuka and harakeke with pasture. The thirsty city dammed the Waitākere river, and the change to the water flow all but emptied the lake. Yet Te Henga remains a wild land always in motion. With years of patient planting and weed removal, she is a rich and restorative place once again.
An hour later, we dash across the road. We climb over a fence and drop into the silent wild below. The magic of Te Henga’s wetland is well-hidden. Here, colours and sounds are muted. The winter raupō is brown against the green reeds and bush. Pāteke glide above slow-moving waters in this wild sanctuary, while pairs of black swans beat wings and rise together. The mānuka trees with their weather-beaten arms wave to greet the sky.
A second visit, we are on our own with written instructions. Our city-wired bodies miss signs, literally stumble over things. We are in the shadow of the bush inside the wetland. It takes time to attune. Te Henga holds a more ancient history within her borders. A place where time stands still, where we can wind backwards, breathe forward. We capture images of harakeke and the river.
We talk on our route home as day moves into night, about how in these darker times art provides a way of conversing about our fears for the natural world and for ourselves; what we’ve done, what lies beyond, what endures. John Sumich and Te Henga inspire us to the slow restorative work on the lands we are connected to, and to words that move people obliquely. Ursula Le Guin translated Tao Te Ching noting the idea of a dark light; this is our commitment.
Attend to Lao Tzu’s words:
“And so the wise
shape without cutting,
square without sawing,
true without forcing.
They are the light that does not shine.”