Josie laughs as she recalls, ‘I didn’t realise I’d hit him in the face.’
Lucky for us, she did.
Nine hundred kilometres south, in a garden in Ōtautahi, is a Kauri tree. Fifty year-long rings of life enclose its woody beginning. The man who planted it helped set up an urban community, a small stand against the ‘progress’ taking place around them. A big red brick house, a smaller bungalow and some cottages, linked by a big garden. The Kauri roots took their tender hold in the earth. Three rings in from the surface of the trunk, Josie and the Kauri meet when she moves into the cottage in the garden.
The man who planted the Kauri had gone on to chair the Waitangi Tribunal, watching the country grapple with a history of broken promises, the guttural cry of cultural genocide too loud for most of us to hear.
An online search for the mental health crisis in Aotearoa brings up 14,300,000 results in less than half a second: ‘The definition has been expanded to refer to problems in community mental health and in mental health services (MHS) as a whole. A mental health crisis has been widely used to describe the state of New Zealand’s mental health.’
It’s the river that wandered through your childhood that isn’t there anymore.
With each ring of light and water turned to wood, the community came and went from the big red brick house in the garden
Josie rolls a cigarette.
‘I wasn’t always going to become a nurse. I was working in England and heard about what was happening in Sudan and decided I wanted to help people. My boss at the time suggested nursing. I don’t like biology or maths or needles or blood, but I flipped a coin and the coin said yes. It’s the coin I use for all big life decisions.’
She takes a coin from her bag. 1933. ‘I found it when I was peeing on the side of the road in Port Levy. After I did my training I kept getting in trouble for spending too much time with patients, having big yarns with them when I was only meant to be taking their blood pressure. So it made sense for me to become a mental health nurse.’ She laughs. ‘I like talking with people.’
In the garden, the Kauri edged slowly wider with each long breath. Pushed into the soil, stretched into the sky. People in the community gave birth to others and buried placentas at the foot of the trees in the garden.
It’s the land of your soul giving way. The soils of the psyche loosened when the trees were stripped back.
‘We have ten suicides a year in hospital. One of my patients was standing with a noose around her neck so I started singing Beyoncé’s “I’m a Survivor”. And yeah…’, Josie chuckles, ‘it worked. She’s still alive.’
With each ring of light and water turned to wood, the community came and went from the big red brick house in the garden. In an early ring of growth, the community hosted early meetings of the anti-apartheid movement. To the Kauri, their movements are fleeting as the rustle of leaves in a north-west breeze.
It’s a mountain removed. The peak of joy in your heart levelled flat. You’re nowhere you know. And nowhere knows you.
Josie shrugs, puts the cigarette in the corner of her mouth and reaches for a lighter. ‘The majority of mental health issues come from colonisation. And Māori get treated differently in every single health and social service. I had one Māori patient who called the police because her partner had just beaten her up. She ran away from the house and when the cops drove past they saw her hiding, and arrested her for an unrelated crime in another part of town. It took ages for them to work out that they’d made a mistake. She lost all trust in the police after that, of course. And that’s a standard day,’ Josie pauses. ‘Imagine trying to navigate that system without anyone to advocate for you – even with someone to advocate for you.’
In 2019, Josie let off a flare on parliament grounds.
In the garden, 11 rings back in the memory of the Kauri tree, there was a shake. The community shook. The big red brick house shook. Everything shook. The Kauri roots gripped the liquefying soil and held, as the earth shook the city from its foundations. In the red brick house, cracks appeared. Slowly, the cracks grew through the community too. The big brick house is too costly to make safe again and there’s talk of selling up and leaving. The Kauri goes on growing.
It’s a forest burned down. Your mind’s canopy ablaze, neural pathways smoking.
Josie flicks her lighter, inhales.
‘I love that Kauri. It made me feel connected to the history and the lifeforce of the land, part of what we call the mauri. It holds a bit of the essence of all those who have been there, in my mind it’s a badass anti-capitalist mauri. A young girl who lived in the commune many years ago died of leukaemia, and the community wrote messages to her and placed some of her special treasures under another tree in the garden, the golden totara. That tree holds part of her memory.’ She flicks ash into a glass tray on a wooden barrel. ‘During the first lockdown I had to isolate because of being a nurse, so my only companions were the trees. I sat in the garden and watched the birds and wildlife that call them home. When I’d come home from work I would talk to the trees and tell them about my day. Over time I’ve watched them grow, and grown to love them.’
Josie presses herself to the bark. Time that passes through the community settles into layers of the Kauri’s trunk. With each brush of a hand across bark, each tread in the soil above the root tips, each drip of sweat flicked towards its trunk. Somewhere amongst those early wooden rings is the one where the community hosted the first meetings of the anti-nuclear movement. A few rings out from the centre, the first meeting for Women’s Refuge was held in the red brick house, while the Kauri grew gently nearby
Our mental health crisis. A flood with no ark waiting.
Josie lets out a long exhale. ‘The thing that led to me becoming an activist was a patient of mine. She’d been raped and was trying to get through to the helplines but nobody picked up. After her seventh call didn’t get picked up, she attempted suicide. That happened because the National Party cut funding to rape crisis and domestic violence services. That’s when I started getting political.’
In the beginning, Papatūānuku Earth Mother and Ranginui Sky Father were bound in a tight embrace.
‘But yeah, I love that Kauri. I used to hongi it daily.’
There they may have remained, love-locked, if it weren’t for a tree.
‘Then one of my patients killed themselves…’
The Kauri tree pushed apart the entwined lovers.
‘…and two weeks later another patient ended up… I can’t talk about it.’
And, as it grew, light streamed into the world.
‘And I couldn’t do it anymore.’
When the Kauri tree pushed Papatūānuku and Ranginui apart, freshwater flowed into the world for the first time.
It’s night time in the garden. The city noises are far away and the grass is silver with dew. A Kauri tree is held by a human in a long embrace. The rough of the bark against her cheek. Fifty years of life hold solid in her arms. Fifty years of roots spread beneath her feet in the soil. The branches grow out above her head. Point to the sky. Tears run down the trunk.
Inside the Kauri’s core it’s dark. The middle made of light, where light no longer exists. What exists there, in the dead centre. What’s it like there. Can we be there? In the centremost thread of the Kauri, woven into its beginning. Still. Surrounded by time turned solid. No light to touch us until we are laid open. By decay or by windfall. Or chainsaw.
Our mental health crisis. Losing the person who gave colour to your life.
Josie looks away. ‘I took a couple of weeks off work but decided I couldn’t go back. So I applied to be the nurse at the local marae. It’s a few minutes’ walk from home. And I got two ducks. They’re a bit of happiness in my world.’
She takes a drag of her smoke. ‘Finally I can practice mental health using Māori methods. There is one woman I see who’s severely psychotic, and we figured out it was a spiritual issue, so we got her spiritual healing, and it has massively reduced her psychosis. That’s unheard of without medication. At my old workplace we’d have been expected to medicate her heavily.’
Josie stubs out the cigarette. ‘I dunno if this is relevant, but before I see a patient I check in with the universe, to make sure it’s not just me.’
Some members of the community decide they want to sell the garden, the trees, the big red brick house and the cottages. The earth the Kauri holds in its roots. The ring upon ring of its history. The living outer layer of its present.
Our mental health crises are threads of life undone, yet to be woven back into the fabric of the world.
It’s a mountain removed. The peak of joy in your heart levelled flat. You’re nowhere you know. And nowhere knows you
We get drunk in the big red brick house by candlelight. A small heater struggles to heat the ballroom, with its wooden floors and high ceilings. Shadows flick over the peeling walls.
‘All that history has created a mauri. A lifeforce in the land. That’s what makes me feel connected. I don’t live on my ancestral land. It felt special to find land in Ōtautahi that I could feel that connection and belonging to. That’s why I’ve found the process of a predominantly Pākehā group strongly pushing to sell the land so hard.’
Josie takes a spray can from her bag.
‘They want to move on and get the most money they can from selling. Which means it will go to a developer and the whole thing will get bowled most likely. Even though one of the founding principles of the community was that it would be anti-capitalist. Even though this place has all this activist history.’
She shakes the can and traces on the torn wallpaper:
Loves i tenei kainga
‘It’s the trees I care about. If the land gets sold they’ll be gone so quickly. I think it’s pretty special to have a Kauri tree that old in the heart of the city. And all those people whose placentas are buried underneath the trees – they should probably be told that those trees could be cut down, maybe it will affect them? But at the community meeting I got told that I was trying to use my Māori perspective to get my own way.’
The morning comes late. Grey and dusty. Josie groans.
‘I should go apologise to the heritage building I graffitied.’
The human hugs the Kauri. The tree that grew through five decades of community comings and goings from the garden, a garden that knew them. The Kauri, so quiet to quick listeners. So slow to fast movers. So old to the short-lived. Relatives of this Kauri have lived a 50-year-long life 50 times over. She packs her belongings and leaves.
Our mental health crisis is land let down. And people.
‘That’s why they call it the fight with no end,’ Josie gestures. ‘But you’re not alone. You’re part of a huge thing.’
When Josie Butler threw a dildo at Steven Joyce it hit him square in the face on national television. It was 2016, on Waitangi grounds. Josie was a mental health nurse and Steven Joyce was a member of parliament. The National Party was in power, and Josie did what many in Aotearoa might have dreamed of doing if only we’d had the imagination.
She laughs as she recalls: ‘I’d wanted to throw it at John Key but he never showed up. I was ready to go to jail and everything, got my flatmates to show me how to make a shiv out of a toothbrush.’
If anyone deserved to be hit in the face by a large flying rubber cock in 2016 it was Prime Minister John Key. His government repealed protection for trees in urban environments. They fell in their thousands, still falling.
In the beginning, Papatūānuku Earth Mother and Ranginui Sky Father were bound in a tight embrace. There they may have remained, love-locked, if it weren’t for a Kauri. The tree pushed apart the entwined lovers and, as it grew, light streamed into the world.
Trunk toppled and rootless. Roots clinging to the earth with no body to hold steady. Our mental health crisis is a tree cut down. Tree that held the sky aloft. Tree that stopped the earth rushing up to swallow you whole. Earth and sky collapse with us between them.
With each tree fall we edge towards the dark.
If you take out an annual subscription to Dark Mountain you can buy this issue for a reduced price.
To celebrate Dark Mountain: Issue 22’s release, do join us for an online launch on Tuesday 25th October starting at 19:30 BST. To book a place on board just follow this link. We hope to see you there!
IMAGE – Rainey Straus
Nest / Fire Clearings #1
These artworks are artefacts of my desire to know the land. My process involves walking sites repeatedly and producing multiple images at points along a trail. I use the cameraless cyanotype process to make images and, later in the studio, combine these impressions into larger compositions that express the hidden energies of a site. Nest was created at my home in California and Fire Cleaning #1 at Point Reyes National Seashore.
Rainey Straus has shown artwork at the Yerba Buena Centre for the Arts, the San Jose Museum of Art, and the Canadian Design Exchange Museum. Publications include Aeonian Magazine, Unpsychology Magazine, and Sculpture Magazine. She holds a BFA from SUNY Purchase and an MFA from the California College of the Arts.