• Suzy Costello, workbooks

Te Ao Taiao and the bioenergetic landscape


Te Hono ki Muka - 3. John Bevan Ford, 1986 (source)



Te Ao Taiao - the environment that contains and surrounds us

As I spend time drawing the forest along its boundary, there are moments when I find myself engaging in a rather Zen-like contemplation of what is before me and a metaphysical reflection on my inner experiences. I wonder why my reflections feel as if they are less informed by Eurocentric notions of subjective embodiment and existentialism, but by an Asian culture that has emerged in a land so far away? [more on this Asian influence in another blog]


I wonder too why, as a Pākeha European/New Zealander, my reflections of this nature experience are lacking the influence of Aotearoa's indigenous Māori knowledge based system with its notion of Te Ao Taiao, where everything living and non-living is understood to be interconnected? I know so little of Aotearoa's indigenous culture but somehow appreciate it is a holistic connecting to the natural world which contrasts markedly with my European heritage of anthropocentric and constructivist orientations.


These influences, and lack of, show how the plasticity of thought forms and enlightens our notions of belonging and identity; I learnt this last year as I explored the natural world in which I live. My art practise seemed to open up a crack, and in the words of Leonard Cohen 'That's how the light gets in' ...


During the year I tried to understand Te Whanganui-a-Tara's mountains, forests and sea; their connection to each other and my connection to them - how we are all living things sharing this place together. As I listened to the land I slowly felt the imprint of others who had lived here before me, and rather belatedly, this led to an appreciation of Mana Whenua and an understanding of myself as Pākeha.


Amongst all my readings of embodiment I found particular inspiration in this whakataukī -


Te toto o te tangata, he kai: te oranga o te tangata, he whenua


While food provides the blood in our veins, our health is drawn from the Land

(Māori whakataukī of unknown source)


In contrast to the cerebral experience of existentialism, this whakataukī felt deeply rooted in the realness of living, of me being here and now. It helped anchor me to, and within, this land on which I live. It placed me in relation to nature and reminded me I was only alive because the land was feeding me.


In his 2020 MFA exegesis Kia Tūhono i te Taiao e ngā Toi anō: Re-connecting with the Natural World via Experiential Multi-Disciplinary Assemblages, Warren Maxwell explains -

'Māori epistemologies acknowledge the reciprocal relationship and balance of interdependency between all living things; there is no separation. In the Māori world view, man does not have dominion over the beasts and the birds as states the Christian opus, but instead, upholds a symbiotic balanced relationship that must be acknowledged, rekindled and celebrated' (Maxwell p14).


Sensing the world through the lens of Te Ao Taiao resonates with my experiences of belonging in nature. I am especially intrigued by the notion of people as integral in the land and the land within them. This is so different from the Euro-centric notion of people being divisible from the land, of being entitled to conquer and subjugate nature. The deep connection between all things is illustrated in this quote from Te Taiao- Māori And The Natural World:

'In traditional Māori knowledge, the weather, birds, fish and trees, sun and moon are related to each other, and to the people of the land, the tangata whenua. It is truly an interconnected world – a vast family of which humans are children of the earth and sky, and cousins to all living things.'


Te Ao Taiao resonates strongly with contemporary scientific research into the Earth's biosphere - 'an extremely thin shell that surrounds our planet...from the depths of the oceans to 32,000 feet in the air' and which sustains all life forms on Earth (Mencagli and Nieri p118). Current findings describe the inter-connectivity of all living things through electromagnetic vibrations contained in a bioenergetic landscape pulsing with life processes. It is this electromagnetic mechanism that sustains both animal and botanical life through the process of receiving, resonating, and emitting electronmagnetic fields particular to each thing. Electromagnetism allows 'humans and plants to relate instantly with the world around us within the biosphere' (Mencagli and Nieri p117).


Finally, here is a personal perspective on Tiaki te taiao (taking care of nature) offered by Raukura Hoerara-Smith -

'Connecting to our land and our whānau is my primary source of nutrients. The seed that was planted generations before has affected and benefitted the soil that we grow in today. Why is this so important? Why should the land be so important to us? ,,, Now, in terms of indigenous knowledge, Papatūānuku (Mother Earth) is the giver of life, the mother of all beings. Throughout time she has fallen ill, as a result of greed, pesticides, erosion and pollution. A big chunk of her mauri (life-force) has been stripped away and her life-giving properties are gradually fading away...Since we’re a product of and we all whakapapa (descend) from our environment – if Papatūānuku is sick, we need to focus on healing and bringing her back to health to give ourselves and our families the best shot too' (Hoerara-Smith).


As I explore and embody the East Harbour Regional forest - Tane's children, my cousins - I would like to follow a path that is inclusive of Māori perspectives.



Māori artists illustrating Te Ao Taiao

i) John Bevan Ford -

John Bevan Ford, Maui, Ancestor of the Pacific


ii) Hemi MacGregor




Links -

  • Maxwell, Warren. Kia Tūhono i te Taiao e ngā Toi anō: Re-connecting with the Natural World via Experiential Multi-Disciplinary Assemblages. 2020. Massey University https://mro.massey.ac.nz/handle/10179/16678

  • Te Taiao- Māori And The Natural World. Tracey Borgfeldt, 2010. Te Ara-The Encyclopedia of New Zealand. https://tepapastore.co.nz/products/te-taiao-maori-and-the-natural-world

  • The Secret Therapy of Trees by Marco Mencagli and Marco Nieri

  • Raukura Hoerara-Smith. Tiaki te taiao – Take care of nature. https://www.museumswellington.org.nz/tiaki-te-taiao-take-care-of-nature/