Erica Sinclair

Matariki rising

There’s a new holiday on the calendar: Matariki, the Māori new year. It’s the first indigenous celebration to be formally recognised in any colonised country. It brings with it a focus on the resurgence of the maramataka, the Māori environmental calendar. And it might just be the best thing that’s happened to New Zealand’s environmental conscience in years.

Written by       Photographed by Erica Sinclair

Ngā whetū. The stars. Where to begin? With a story Tūhoe’s Rangi Matamua likes to tell.

Once, there was a Ngāti Pikiao man named Te Pikikōtuku, from the Rotoiti region. He was a leader and a tohunga kōkōrangi, an astronomer. He had a son, Himiona Te Pikikōtuku.

Himiona travelled to Ruatāhuna, in the heart of Tūhoe country, and married there, and had a son, Te Kōkau Te Pikikōtuku.

Te Kōkau had a son, Rāwiri Te Kōkau.

Te Kōkau and Rāwiri Te Kōkau were also tohunga kōkōrangi. They spent clear nights craning upwards, tracking the stars and planets, reading their passage, telling time, marking the seasons for sowing and harvesting, husbanding the endings and beginnings of years.

In 1897, a Pākehā bloke came to visit them. Among his possessions were a massive fold-out naval star chart, spangled with Western constellations and star names, and a blank 400-page ledger. These greatly interested the tohunga. He agreed to share astronomical knowledge with their guest. After a few days of conversation, the man departed, leaving the ledger and star chart as thanks.

The visitor, whose name was Elsdon Best, went away and wrote a slim monograph called Astronomical Knowledge of the Māori. It concludes: “The available data concerning Maori sky-lore is now exhausted, and this account must be closed. The knowledge gained by us of this subject is meagre and unsatisfactory, but it is now too late to remedy the deficiency.”

That was that. A curio from a dying race.


From 1898 to 1933 Te Kōkau and Rāwiri Te Kōkau, then Rāwiri alone after his father’s death, filled the 400-page ledger with kōrero relating to around 1000 stars—all from memory. They wrote the origin of the stars’ names, their rise and set, associated waiata, whakapapa and karakia, their English names, how to read them, how they interrelate. On the chart they inked 103 Māori constellations. Thirty-five years in the making. It was important knowledge, linking space and time in measurable ways. Their ancestors had navigated the world’s largest ocean by those stars. On land they’d used the same principles to navigate the seasons of kai, triangulating cycles of life on land and in the ocean with the wheel of the heavens above.

Tuia ki te rangi—written in the heavens.

Tuia ki te whenua—written on the land.

Tuia ki te moana—written on the sea.

On his deathbed, Rāwiri Te Kōkau wrapped up the chart and the ledger and gave them to his grandson, Timi Rāwiri, who was just a young boy.

Timi was petrified. The old man was a powerful tohunga. He thought: I’m going to get rid of that book.

But he was too scared. It sat in his cupboard for 50 years.

One day, Timi’s grandson, working on a uni assignment, came to ask if he knew anything about Matariki. Timi left the room and came back with a lot more than his grandson bargained for: the book and the chart.

Professor Rangi Matamua outside the wharenui Te Whai-a-te-Motu, at Mātaatua Marae in Ruatāhuna. “Matariki is also calling us home, and reconnecting to your people, and your environmental identity—taking responsibility for where you’re from,” he says.

That grandson was Rangi Matamua, of course, and rather than feeding an undergraduate essay, the book has fed his life’s work. Now a professor at Massey University, Matamua has spent the past 25 years travelling New Zealand learning and teaching tātai arorangi—Māori astronomy—working with other knowledge holders and champions, spreading the word, giving endless talks. (When I first heard Matamua speak, in a packed Melbourne theatre, he opened by saying: “Welcome to Matariki talk number two thousand, three hundred and thirty-six.”)

Other tohunga like Rereata Mākiha (Ngāti Mahurehure, Te Aupōuri, Te Arawa) and Ockie Simmons (Raukawa, Ngāpuhi)  have been leading a resurgence of the maramataka, the traditional Māori lunar-stellar calendar. Academics like associate professor Pauline Harris (Rongomaiwahine, Ngāti Rakaipaaka and Ngāti Kahungunu ki Wairoa), chair of the Society of Māori Astronomy Research and Traditions (SMART), have been working at the intersection between mātauranga Māori and traditional Western science.

To date, the public face of this work has been the constellation Matariki, known to many as the Pleiades. Its winter rising in the north-east, immediately before the sun, marks the Māori new year. With the summer harvest season over and kūmara pits and pātaka stocked, the year is done. Whānau who’d spent raumati, summer, dispersed across harvesting camps returned home bringing news of life, births and deaths. It was a time to rest, celebrate and feast, to remember those who had died in the previous year, and anticipate the bounty of the year to come. Most of all, it was a time to honour te taiao, the natural world: fresh and salt water, the bounty of earth and sky, rain and wind, aspirations for the future—and death. Each of these elements was represented by an atua, personified as a star. These stars were a whānau, hanging out in the same constellation: Matariki.

Mataia Keepa kneels to eat kai prepared in te umu kohukohu whetū, the star-steaming oven. Once the tapu part of the hautapu ceremony is over—the karanga and recitation of karakia—everyone must eat to render themself noa, free from tapu.
Rereata Mākiha says advanced study of tātai arorangi requires a deep understanding of te reo.

Knowledge that isn’t shared turns to dust. Perhaps the opposite of dust is stars. Part of Matamua’s dream has been for Matariki to become New Zealand’s own, unique equivalent of Christmas or New Year’s Eve. The Māori Party pushed for it to be recognised in 2009, to no avail. “Never in my wildest dreams did I think it’d happen,” Matamua says. “And then I got the call from the Prime Minister: did I think it was a good idea? And I was like, yeah!”

On June 24, 2022, the nation will come together for the rise of Matariki. It’s the first time an indigenous celebration has been put back on the calendar in any colonised country. And it brings with it a new focus on tātai arorangi and the maramataka, and the ideas and values they contain.

So, what is Matariki? How and why do we celebrate it? What other knowledge is it helping bring into the light? And why does a celebration of the stars invite us to take better care of the earth?

[Chapter Break]

Matariki. It’s the time of frozen rising before dawn, of the wet-dog fug of old blankets, of puffer jackets rustling and the clunk of car doors. Bleary faces in headlights; greetings called into the night. Muddy gumboots stamping icy ground. Beanies and gloves and warm hugs.

Matariki. It’s the time of plumed breath quickening with the climbing of hills. Distant car lights streaming below and the net of Te Ika-whenua-o-te-rangi stretching above: huge, infinite, the same brilliant sweep our grandparents saw, and theirs, and theirs, back to when Kupe left Hawaiki, back to the first arrivals who carried the totality of Polynesian star lore in their minds.

Matariki. It’s the time of blokes wielding shovels, digging te umu kohukoku whetū, the star-steaming-oven. Kindling sparked, then the bigger logs. That old pallet? Chuck it on, and those ones, too. Heft the umu stones on top. Firelight and starlight, silhouettes in smoke. Tāwhirimātea’s winds lifting and scattering sparks.

At 2.30am, Rangi Matamua lights the fire for te umu kohukohu whetū.

It’s the time of fresh green kete full of kai going into the earth, from the ocean, the river and the garden, laid down with superheated stones. Sacking spread, wai poured, sods piled on. The ringing thump of the shovels’ blades sealing the deal. Plumes of smoke and steam tamped down. A volcano sealed.

It’s the time of waiting and watching the slow turn of the earth among cousins and aunties and loved ones and friends, and of remembering those who’ve died. Hoods up, shoulders round ears. Waiting and watching the set of stars to the west and their rise to the east, hoping for the distinctive pucker of Matariki to show while the mind hurtles onwards at the speed of broadband, of 35 tabs open, emails pinging in, phantom calendar notifications in your pocket—until it’s time to let go of that version of time.

Matariki rises.

Karakia. Heads bowed. Here we are: the mud on our boots, on this earth, in this season, hōtoke, winter, in the Tangaroa nights.

The umu is opened. Who will this feed? The atua. Te iwa a Matariki, nine stars.

Slice the earth and lift out the kai. The hautapu rises to the heavens.

Everyone’s frozen and everyone’s stoked.

The new year has begun.

[Chapter Break]

At Ruatāhuna, in Tūhoe country, Matamua and his relations rekindled this celebration in 2015—the first time the hautapu had been carried out since 1934. It’s short for whāngai i te hau tapu, offering up kai as thanks for the bounty of the coming year, and it’s “a revival of a spiritual practice that reaffirms your bond to people and the environment”, Matamua says.

For those who celebrate Matariki in a traditional way, festivities will include watching the skies across several nights. They will study each star in the cluster as the tohunga of old did, looking at clarity and brightness for signs of what the year ahead will hold for fishing and planting, wind and rain. But as the celebration goes mainstream, these traditional practices have been shaped into three intertwined ideas to reflect the constellation’s nine stars.

First, Matariki Hunga Nui: the gathering of people. Simply put, getting together with friends and whānau, in an echo of how the end of summer reunited those who’d been away harvesting and gathering kai. It also means taking time to remember and mourn those who have died in the past year. In the old days, when Matariki was first sighted, people would call the names of the dead and cry a final farewell, at that moment when the dead were said to became stars. In our society, public grief is really only acceptable for an hour at a funeral. Embracing this practice could help people come to terms with loss.

Whaea Ata Kopa weaves a kono basket for ceremonial kai to be cooked in the umu.
Whānau cover te umu kohukohu whetū in preparation for the hautapu ceremony, where steam from ceremonial kai will feed the stars. In the 21st century, this ancient practice includes photographers and film crews, as interest in renewing the practice grows nationwide.

Next, Matariki Ahunga Nui is about the environment and kai. It means cooking up a feast, especially of local produce, and sharing it with friends. In affirmation of the Matariki stars that relate to wind, rain, freshwater and saltwater, and the fruits of earth and sky, this is also about connecting with where you live: getting out to the forests, lake or coast, observing, listening, celebrating what’s there, and taking note of the environment’s health.

For some, like Ngāi Tahu tohunga kōkōrangi and language expert Tori Campbell, that also means celebrating food sovereignty, and returning to ancestral roots. Since commencing serious study of Māori astronomy, Campbell and her whānau have swung away from life in the city and bought a block of land in Te Manahuna (the Mackenzie Basin), on the inland plains not far from Aoraki. There’s room for produce and whānau to grow out there. “I realised that Te Manahuna is the place we go to rest and rejuvenate and live our best lives, by being by the lakes, mountains and rivers, and having the best stars ever,” says Campbell. “Long term we’re trying to become self-sustainable. I’ve realised that wasn’t the childhood I got exposed to, so the goal is to ensure lots of other people get that chance.”

Last, there’s Matariki Manako Nui, which is all about hopes and desires for the year ahead. The critical difference between the Western new year and the Māori one is that at Matariki, you make resolutions for the natural world instead of yourself. Rather than committing to going to the gym, you commit to doing something meaningful for your own back yard. Matamua suggests everything from beach clean-ups to riparian planting to bush regeneration. Even planting a tree at home with the kids is a good start.

So far, you’d be forgiven for thinking Matariki is a celebration of the earth rather than the night sky. Why is that?

[Chapter Break]

Often, before dawn, funeral director and hauora worker Rikki Solomon (Ngāti Kahungunu, Ngāti Kahu ki Whangaroa) goes for a walk. He cuts a distinctive figure in the dark South Auckland streets: tall, well-built, with a neatly barbered bushranger beard and a suave flat-cap, like you might see in a British gangster movie. He climbs a small hill at Flat Bush, east of the airport: there’s a spot up there that’s free of streetlights. He notes the stars to the east, to the west. He figures their alignment with surrounding ridges and hills and trees: a suburban star compass, fully formed in the mind for a moment, then gone.

As a patchwork of house lights flick on across the city, and the traffic and the birds wake, Solomon descends the hill and heads to a lush wedge of native forest at Murphy’s Bush. Which plants are in flower? What’s dropping seed? What birds are around?

“We’ve got kererū, ruru, tūī, pīpīwharauroa, they’re just there,” he says. “This is in the middle of Auckland, in a little reserve that takes ten minutes to get around.”

More than stretching his legs before work, Solomon is telling the time, and the seasons. This is the maramataka, the Māori calendar, at work. It underpins the celebration of Matariki, and it’s all about marking time by triangulating observations between stars, land and sea.

“To study the maramataka is to know where you live, and to know where you stand,” Solomon says.

Tori Campbell and Rikki Solomon are part of the next generation learning and teaching the maramataka and tātai arorangi. Both advocate grounding these in local knowledge and cultural identity. “I’ve been speaking to a lot of [Ngāi Tahu] mahika kai [traditional food harvesting] practitioners,” Campbell says, “as I’d picked up early that our mutton birders are meticulous diary keepers. That’s baseline data, man!”

The maramataka operates on general principles to create locally specific calendars. Matamua likes to say with a cheeky grin: “If you’ve got your own version from your whānau, kei te pai. I respect your right—to be wrong!”

Jokes aside, this is what makes it so localised: different stars are visible at different latitudes, and the tohu and rhythms of the environment vary depending on where you live. Some iwi celebrate the rising of Puaka/Puanga (Rigel) instead of Matariki, for example; both rise at a similar time.

So how does it all work?

If I was to go to bed right now, I’d be well placed to get up before dawn, go outside and climb something—a hill, a tree, my neighbour’s roof—to observe the heavens. At the horizon where the sun will come up, I’d see stars. They’d look random at first. If I came back a week later, and a week after that, and so on throughout the year as the seasons shift, I’d notice a succession of distinct stars at the eastern horizon, each seemingly pushed into the sky by the rising sun.

Each of these stars is named. Each moon phase has its own name and attributes, too. On Whiro, the new moon, the star that rises before the sun gives the coming month its name.

Detailed observation of the environment provides a cross-reference for the changing seasons and months: by night I’d watch stars, and by day I’d note what’s happening at sea, on lakes and in rivers, and in animals and plants. Do this year by year, and patterns emerge. The same stars appearing at the dawn horizon mark the same shifts in te taiao, the natural world. The calendar takes on a predictive power: next year, when this or that star rises, the whitebait will run, the kūmara will be ripe or the kina fat, the pōhutukawa in flower. Now, you can plan your year.

Tuia ki te rangi—written in the heavens.

Tuia ki te whenua—written on the land.

Tuia ki te moana—written on the sea.

The maramataka came here with the first explorers from the Pacific. They imported Polynesian knowledge earned from millennia spent observing the behaviour of living things in relation to the phases of the moon. This gives the maramataka a further predictive power: each day of the month specifies certain activities to seek out, or avoid. This day will be good for fishing. That day will be fair for eels. Those days? Don’t bother. Rest.

Such moon phase predictions have been viewed sceptically in the West. But according to University of Auckland professor Michael Walker (Whakatōhea), in a talk from 2015, “the maramataka is like the periodic table. It’s highly abstracted. There’s a huge amount of information underneath it that people need to know if they want to be able to interpret [it].”

Back at Ōwairaka Rāwhitiroa Marae, helping hands prepare mussel fritters for the breakfast hākari (feast).

Walker is an expert in how animals use magnetic fields to undertake long-distance navigation. As a young child he spent summers on his grandparents’ farm, where he was put to work weeding the kūmara garden—and absorbing mātauranga. Half a lifetime later, he went fishing on a full moon, and merely snagged rocks. Three days later, while teaching a marine biology course, he and some of the participants went fishing again despite poor weather. They did well, which put Walker in mind of something his grandmother had said: the full moon can be a bad day for fishing, but the third day after that is often good.

In Walker’s academic field, lunar rhythms were considered relevant only to reproduction. That simple experience gave him the idea that the moon might also be related to appetite, and to when it was safe for animals to feed.

“What that suggests is that there is some kind of clock, and these plants and animals know about it. These will be clocks that are organised in the same way as the day-night clock that we live by. This gave us an experimental handle on the lunar rhythm. Instead of reproduction, we looked at appetite. Could we experimentally demonstrate that they respond to the lunar cycle?”

Walker’s research suggests that marine organisms do have an innate lunar and tidal clock. The light of the moon and the rhythm of the tide regulate their behaviour across a 14.7- or 29.5-day cycle, in much the same way that the sun regulates our own across 24 hours. Studies on the slater-like isopod Scyphax ornatus, which is found on beaches around New Zealand, showed that by manipulating these cycles, researchers could alter the creatures’ behaviour in predictable ways.


“It’ll be in us as well,” Walker said. “Every living cell has a day/night, tidal, lunar and annual clock. Life has had these things since the first cell stage of life.”

This speaks to the maramataka’s fundamental principle: that there is a meaningful relationship between human behaviour, lunar phases, and the underlying cycles of the natural world. The maramataka is ordered by te taiao, putting human life into rhythms of activity and rest, taking and giving back, moving from field to forest to sea depending on moon phases and seasonal cues.

“If you were to follow the maramataka you wouldn’t turn up at work on time, you wouldn’t be able to catch a plane, you’d miss the bus,” says Solomon, “’cause that’s not the type of calendar it is. This is an environmental clock. The environment gives you the time, not us.”

[Chapter Break]

For over a century, knowledge of the maramataka and Matariki celebrations was largely lost from view. For many Māori, rediscovering it is a revelation, as it provides a direct link to our ancestors’ worldview. It can also help make sense of things we already know.

Rikki Solomon was raised at Te Hauke in Hawke’s Bay, where his Ngāti Kahungunu people are expert gardeners. As an adult he started hearing talk of Matariki and the maramataka, but had no idea what they were. He was simply used to his koro giving him terse instructions on the farm: dig this, plough that; down tools, we’re going to the moana today. No explanation given. He wondered if the old man was dodging work to go fishing.

Kaliko Baker and George Kingi fill their plates the night before Matariki is due to rise.

The light went on when Solomon attended a maramataka wānanga with Rereata Mākiha. “I thought, ‘Gee, I know what that is.’ We’d grown up around it, but we just used different language. We didn’t look to Matariki for the new year. For us it was the waka known as Takitimu, and Matariki was the tauihu [prow]. Then it all made sense.”

Mākiha has been responsible for a lot of these aha moments. The tohunga kōkōrangi, veteran broadcaster, and 2022 Senior New Zealander of the Year has been voluntarily running maramataka workshops for many years. He’s a deeply knowledgeable and generous teacher; his phone chimes regularly with questions and messages from his students nationwide.

Mākiha’s father had poor eyesight, so from the age of 18 Mākiha became his dad’s driver, ferrying him to and from meetings. Those meetings weren’t of the local darts club. They were of a Hokianga whare wānanga, or traditional house of learning, that traces its origins back to Nukutāwhiti, captain of the waka Ngātokimatawhaorua. It was one of the original places where imported Pacific knowledge of stars and seasons was adapted to suit the southern ocean.

As a young man, Mākiha spent hours, days, and ultimately eight years hanging out with 80-year-olds. That gave him a direct line to the songs and chants brought here from the Pacific—waiata, pātere, poroporoaki, kakī—that contain these ancient templates for understanding te taiao, the natural world.

“These teachings had been dismissed and actually demonised,” Mākiha says. “They did not become part of our education system because the education system didn’t understand the depth of knowledge that sat behind what our old people knew about the environment, and how it shifts and moves over time. They understood the birds and the waterways, when the fish were coming in—stuff that we grew up with, that you had to know, because there were no supermarkets at the time. Your supermarket was your understanding of te taiao.”

Having received this knowledge, Mākiha knew he had to pass it on. Decades ago, he was on the phone with his mate Ockie Simmonds, who’d also absorbed the maramataka from his old people. They were discussing its relation to the Gregorian calendar. Simmonds, a specialist in weather and surveillance radar, lamented the fact that the two calendar systems wouldn’t line up. “Mate, they never will,” Mākiha said. “One’s lunar, the other’s solar. Night and day.” Struck by the implications of this disjuncture, Simmonds went straight to Wellington Airport and flew to visit Mākiha in Auckland. The two stayed up all night talking. “Bro,” Simmonds said, “if we don’t do something about this it’s going to get lost.”

Mākiha and Simmonds were among the earliest members of the Society of Māori Astronomy Research and Traditions. Chaired by Pauline Harris, a high-energy particle physicist, SMART has been another key player in bringing tātai arorangi back into view. Its members span traditional mātauranga holders like Mākiha and Simmonds, and masters of oceanic waka navigation like Hoturoa Barclay-Kerr and Jack Thatcher. The 1970s renaissance in Pacific star navigation prepared the ground for tātai arorangi’s flourishing today, and the revival of te reo has also been vital, enabling a new generation of scholars to engage with the field’s complex and sometimes archaic language. Other members, like Harris and Matamua, act as bridges between mātauranga and academic science.

You don’t need much to celebrate Matariki. Here at Rangiātea early risers bring little more than deck chairs to observe the rise of Matariki, below. And Rangi Matamua would like to keep it that way. “We’ll get up one day and there’ll be the Matariki Possum to match the Easter Bunny. What will be the Easter egg, something that people can sell? I’m worried we’ll move away from pure elements and values.”

Those bridges have led to some unexpected and fruitful collaborations. Harris invited Simmonds to join her at an international astronomy conference in Hefei, China, in 2014. Simmonds presented on how the maramataka could be used to date key events in the history of the Kīngitanga movement. Afterwards, he sat in on a paper from Kiyotaka Tanikawa, from the National Astronomical Observatory of Japan.

Tanikawa related a Japanese legend about a woman taking refuge from a monster by hiding in a cave. He laid out a compelling argument that this was a stylised account of a solar eclipse. Then, through cross-referencing other sources and astronomical data, he proposed a Gregorian date for the underlying eclipse. “It completely blew me away,” Simmonds says.

Afterwards, delegates boarded a bus to visit a sacred mountain. Simmonds slid into the empty seat next to Tanikawa-san and introduced himself. “I asked him where the cave was. ‘There isn’t one,’ he said. ‘That part’s just a legend.’ I said: ‘We have the same story, only it’s a woman chasing a man into a cave—and the cave is real.’”

Simmonds was talking about the famous story of Hatupatu and the bird-woman Kurangaituku (recently retold by Whiti Hereaka in her award-winning novel Kurangaituku). Hatupatu was the brother of the captain of Te Arawa waka, Tamatekapua. When they made landfall at Maketū in the Bay of Plenty, Hatupatu went exploring inland. He was overtaken and captured by Kurangaituku, a giant who was half-woman, half-bird. Hatupatu escaped, and was pursued across the central volcanic plateau, and for a time took refuge in a cave. Finally, the pursuit reached the volcanic springs at Whakarewarewa. Hatupatu jumped over a boiling pool, while the monster fell in and was burned to death.

Tanikawa was excited. Given his long study of oral traditions, he thought the story could also refer to a solar eclipse. He was even more intrigued when he learned that Simmonds was a direct descendant of Hatupatu, and had access to his whakapapa: potential evidence to support a Gregorian date.

There are ceremonial fires, and there are fires to keep yourself warm. “It was freeeeeezing up there,” says photographer Erica Sinclair. “After a few hours standing around my feet were stinging with the cold, and I had two pairs of thermal socks on.”

Simmonds also knew other traditional history from that period that seemed consistent with travellers being overtaken by a solar eclipse. Two other members of Te Arawa’s crew, Hatupatu’s brother Tia and the great navigator and tohunga Ngātoroirangi, were also out exploring the central North Island plateau at the same time. Just as Hatupatu was overtaken by the supernatural creature Kurangaituku, Ngātoroirangi and Tia were overtaken by the sudden darkness of a supernatural storm. Ngātoroirangi was starting his ascent of Tongariro when it struck. He named the area Rangipō, meaning “dark sky”. Another traveller, Hapetuārangi, died in the storm after “great banks of dense, black clouds rolled by and all became dark as night”, according to one source. Tia and his party were nearby at Lake Taupō. Simmonds says Te Arawa and Tūwharetoa histories give the lake’s full name, Taupō-nui-a-Tia, as meaning a great and strange darkness settling over Tia.

When Simmonds later sent these points to Tanikawa, the team at the Japanese national observatory plotted the shadow paths of solar eclipses that had affected the North Island from the period 1350 to 1450 (a range suggested by the whakapapa of the parties involved).

Of four possible candidates, the afternoon eclipse of November 9, 1409, was a direct hit: anyone in the central volcanic plateau at that time would have been overtaken by total darkness. All four parties in the traditional histories were in this zone. Working backwards using the maramataka, and retracing the travellers’ routes on the ground, Simmonds and Tanikawa proposed an arrival date for Te Arawa and Tainui in Aotearoa: mid-December 1408.

[Chapter Break]

This historical work is ongoing. Mākiha, Simmonds and the Japanese team are also working on dating ancient poroporoaki (eulogies) that, based on the stars mentioned, look to have been composed in Tahiti. Pauline Harris’s various research projects include a major study looking at verifying historical maramataka observations. However, much of the current focus is on how we can use the maramataka, and the ideas behind Matariki, in our everyday lives.

The Gregorian calendar we live by, imposed worldwide by 19th-century colonisation and trade, makes no allowances for natural rhythms. Echoing the idea of the enclosure of the commons, environmentalist George Monbiot has referred to the imposition of the Gregorian system as “the enclosure of time”. It has clear benefits for economics and empires, but takes a toll on everything else. Summer to winter, we have significantly less daylight but are expected to work the same hours. Each working day of every week of every year follows the same rhythm: be more productive. Weekends and holidays are defined in relation to work. Mobile phones have further eroded our free time. The alarm goes off, up we get. Who cares what’s happening with the birds?

For Harris, the implications are profound. She argues that by decoupling time from the rhythms of the stars, moon, weather and environment, we have decoupled ourselves from te taiao. “We don’t notice the health and wellbeing of our environment, or other species. We don’t notice ourselves as the hungry caterpillar: chomp, chomp, chomp—only we don’t turn into a lovely butterfly. We just waste our environment.”

Superficially, the new official Matariki holiday offers New Zealanders one less day at work—a temporary reprieve from the Gregorian calendar. But it could offer us a different relationship with time.

To learn the maramataka invites us to become close observers of the birds and plants and fish and stars in the specific places where we live; to notice what’s there, and how it shifts and changes: to have an embodied experience of time. (Even while writing this piece, I’ve found myself noticing the phase of the moon each night, and pointing out to my son what’s in flower. He’s too young to know how to roll his eyes—yet.)

Key is using the maramataka as a tool for balance. It assumes that we need periods of rest, and will have periods of uncertainty, and periods of high energy and productivity, over a monthly cycle.

Making allowances for this can be as simple as giving yourself permission to have slow periods, or to leave days free of meetings. Schools have taken to using the maramataka to track how children are feeling on different days, with teachers adapting lesson plans depending on the kids’ energy and mood.

Suicide rates among Māori men are high. Mākiha and Solomon have been working with district health boards in the North Island to interpret data on suicide within a maramataka framework, and design programmes in response: ones that Māori recognise as their own.

“Ōturu is a special day,” Solomon says. “Soft waves are coming in, it’s almost the full moon, and the day means calmness and beauty approaches. It means nature is moving…but we found that the day before Ōturu is called Atua Whakahaehae, meaning there’s a battle going on, a war. So when our rangatahi and our tāne are having a battle between the tinana and the hinengaro [body and mind], the day after is known as Ōturu: calmness and beauty approaches. That’s when they see themselves out of this life. Most suicides every year happen on Ōturu.”

Atutahi/Autahi (Canopus) is regarded as highly tapu. When Tāne went up to the heavens to adorn his father Ranginui with stars, he carried them inside a basket—all except Atutahi, who was too tapu to mingle with the others. Here he sits apart from the other stars, outside the Milky Way, with his two puna, or pools, represented by magellanic clouds.

Solomon runs his own funeral home, Te Rangikahupapa, along kaupapa Māori lines. In his hauora work, he takes people who have suffered trauma into the bush, or to the beach, depending on the rhythms of the maramataka. He teaches people how to observe nature, and knows he’s making progress when people plant gardens of their own. He teaches the stories that sit behind the maramataka nights, which reflect the spectrum of human emotion, the ebb and flow of tides, the patterns of weather. The march of Gregorian time and the culture of toughing it out loosen their grip. We can all learn from that.

The maramataka also sets aside days each month for what Mākiha calls “reciprocity days”. These explicitly direct our attention to looking after te taiao: Oike, giving back to Papatūānuku; Ōuenuku, dedicated to Ranginui, the sky father; Huna, a day for Tangaroa, atua of the sea; Ōtāne, giving back to Tāne, atua of the forest.

“We live in a society now where we’re continually taking,” Solomon says. “We need these days set apart according to the maramataka to give back.”

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