Jennie Fenwick talks about life with – and without – her husband Sir Rob Fenwick, the much-loved environmentalist and entrepreneur who bowed out from his "dance with cancer" in March.
The Fenwicks have never been the kind to stand on ceremony. But after he was knighted in 2016, Sir Rob Fenwick – the grandson of an English baronet – did encourage his wife Jennie to use her title sometimes.
"He thought it might encourage me to be more ladylike," she laughs. "But it hasn't and I don't. I could be much more direct than Rob."
It would be a mistake to describe Lady Fenwick (but let's just call her Jennie) as the silent partner in either their public or their private relationship. But his name is the one people know: the charismatic blue-green businessman and passionate conservationist who was as comfortable negotiating deals in the boardroom as he was to be seen hugging trees.
It's been more than seven months since Rob died, at the age of 68, five years after being diagnosed with lung cancer. In those final weeks, the couple's two daughters, Izzy and Charlie, and Izzy's wife Rowhan moved into the Fenwicks' Auckland home with granddaughter Ruby to help care for him. Lucid to the end, he had afternoon tea with his mother-in-law the day before he died.
The tributes that flowed for Rob described him as a precious taonga – a national treasure. His body was welcomed on to Ngāti Whātua Ōrākei marae to farewell a "fallen kauri" and Green Party co-leader James Shaw spoke in Parliament of the deep sadness felt at his loss. On March 17, close to 500 people attended his funeral at Auckland's Holy Trinity Cathedral. A week later, New Zealand went into lockdown.
Jennie retreated to Waiheke Island, her place in the heart, where she and Rob had bought a derelict farm in the late-80s and set about reclaiming the bush – seeding the vision for what would become the Predator Free 2050 movement, with its ambitious goal of wiping out rats, stoats and possums nationwide.
Whenever possible, the couple had spent most of their time at Te Matuku, a 330ha block on the headland with sweeping views of the Hauraki Gulf, from the Coromandel Peninsula to the Auckland CBD. In 2002, they covenanted the land to protect it in perpetuity and later gifted a 3km public walkway. Access to private sections of the property has also become a popular part of the Waiheke Walking Festival, held in November. This year's Te Matuku Walk, paying tribute to Rob's conservation legacy, will be the first without him there to guide it.
The island has been such a significant part of her life with Rob that Jennie wasn't sure how she'd cope with his absence. "It's everything really, apart from the family," she says, when asked what Waiheke means to her. "Rob and I spent a lot of time alone together, and a lot of that time was here. As it came close to him passing, I sometimes wondered how I would ever be able to come back without him.
"Then the girls and I locked down here for six weeks and that changed this place for me. We'd been brought to our knees but the wonderful thing was that we didn't have to prove how sad we were to anyone, so there was a lot of laughter, too. Being out here was the most beautiful rounding-off of what had been a life-changing experience for all of us."
Now, withdrawing to Waiheke (where Mandy, Rob's daughter from his first marriage, also lives) gives Jennie a chance to breathe. So many people gifted trees in Rob's memory that she's created a special memorial grove alongside the trail that runs down from the house to their oyster farm, in the marine reserve at Te Matuku Bay.
Nothing can truly prepare you for the loss of someone you love, even when cancer has settled in at the table. But Jennie, who met Rob when she was 23 and got a job at his high-profile public relations firm – hired against his advice, because she didn't have a background in journalism – says he remained firmly focused on living.
"He never talked about fighting cancer, he danced with it. Because when you're fighting something, you have to put your full energy into it and that's your focus. For him, he had other much more important things to do. So he just danced around it and kept going, doing what he needed to do."
It's a glorious spring morning when Canvas visits Te Matuku. Auckland has emerged from its second mini-lockdown and there's a mood of hopefulness in the air, a sense of new beginnings.
After starting a family, Jennie taught yoga for 20 years and later trained as an NLP (neuro-linguistic programming) practitioner, specialising in the treatment of anxiety, but she's taking a break from that, until her own foundations have steadied.
In the public sphere, there has been no shortage of offers, some of which she's accepted. In the weeks before Rob died, she joined the board of Kiwis for kiwi, the national charity he chaired for 10 years that's dedicated to saving our national bird.
I ask what's next for her (and it's only later I realise how careless that sounds). What is she focusing on now? She pauses for a moment before answering. "Tomorrow," she says, quietly.
For now, she's taking it a day at a time. A beautiful new coffee-table book, The Spirit of Waiheke: Ode to an Island, is about to be published, raising funds for charity.
One of the chapters is a personal piece written by Jennie and Izzy about the return of native birds to the island and the dream for Waiheke to become predator-free (more than 800 bait stations are monitored across their property). Jennie had declined an invitation to celebratory drinks, due to be held that night but was planning to attend the public launch a couple of days later.
"I run two train tracks, really," she says. "One is my grief and that's predominantly private. Then I run my other life, which is predominantly public. Giving yourself time to work out what you're up for – that's the big piece for me."
There's another thread running through her answer to my question, though. Thinking about tomorrow is what underpins the family's philosophy. For the Fenwicks, the viability of the planet and what can be done about it has always been routine dinner-table conversation. "Time is running out for me," Rob wrote in an essay for the Listener, published only a few days before he died. "And it is with profound sadness that I consider that time is running out, too, for our precious environment."
In 2018, Rob co-founded the Aotearoa Circle, bringing together leaders in the public and private sector to shift the investment focus away from environmentally unsustainable industries. He was also heavily involved in Antarctica and the merits of investing in science on the ice. But, like Jennie, he believed real change would be driven by a younger generation. And the Fenwick women are taking up that challenge.
Ruby has moved to Wellington to work for the Predator Free NZ Trust. Charlie is an underwater photographer in Indonesia and an outspoken critic of the devastating impact the fishing industry has on the coral reef. Izzy, who specialises in sustainability design at DNA, a human-centred design agency in Auckland, is now following her father into the corporate world as an advocate for change.
In June, she spoke at the launch of the Fenwick Forum, an initiative named after her father that's exploring how Covid-19 recovery plans can support a more sustainable economy and protect New Zealand's natural capital.
Jennie describes Izzy as fearless. "Instead of being afraid of fitting into Rob's shoes or living in his shadow, she's chasing him down, really. The country sees him as a national treasure but without doubt, his greatest legacy is these children. He never laid on us the obligation to walk in his world or be anything other than ourselves after he died. But he's created this army of women, and they're out recruiting."
What the coming generations need, she believes, is to be given a sense of hope. Even Izzy admits that eco anxiety – "it's now becoming recognised as a medical condition" – can sometimes leave her almost paralysed with fear. She sees the election of Green MP Chlöe Swarbrick, who's only 26, as recognition that what's needed is innovation, imagination and a different way of thinking.
"No one fits that description better than young people who aren't fixed in their world view," she says. "I'm starting to see a shift even in some of the ways Dad and his generation operated, which was really analysing and proving the science [of climate change]. That work is done. What we need now, with urgency, is to understand what we can do about it, and to design new ways of living and working that enable people to be better guardians of place."
The loss of her father crystallised the fragility of so many of the things we treasure. "There was a moment in Dad's passing away where it felt my world had changed and it had changed so quickly," says Izzy. "There was some kind of parallel realisation that everything can be going the way it's supposed to and then life suddenly gets ripped out from under you. Our world could get changed in a similar way if the climate emergency runs away on us."
On Te Matuku, new signs have been placed along the bush walk to identify each species. Jennie says the family always relied on Rob to know the names of all the trees. On what would have been their 33rd wedding anniversary, she took his ashes down to his favourite pūriri, a place where she often sits with him and has a cup of tea. "I'm not afraid of death and that helped Rob," she says. "There is no conversation left un-had with him.
"If you observed Rob living his life, you inevitably had to ask yourself a lot of questions about how you lived your own and how you thought. The way he had an open heart to people – I was much more cynical before I met him.
"He wanted to start a culture where no one waits for legislation. If you know something is wrong or know you could change, you no longer have the right to sit back and do nothing. That's true of all of us now. We don't have to wait to do the things we know are right."
* The Waiheke Walking Festival runs from November 11 to 29 and features more than 55 guided walks. The Te Matuku walk in tribute to Sir Rob Fenwick is fully subscribed but other festival highlights include a storytelling history walk in Rangihoua led by locals, and a circumnavigation of the island on the 100km Te Ara Hura trail, spread over nine days. To find out more, visit waihekewalkingfestival.org.
* Thanks to Stay Waiheke (staywaiheke.com) for providing the use of a 4WD during our visit.