How do we know a place? This is a question an exhibition at the Whangārei Art Museum by Lisa Clunie and Thorsten Hoppe asks us.
Their subject, the Hikurangi repo (swamp), which I've lived next to for 20 years, tucked snuggly on the floodplain's eastern boundary, in the township itself.
I knew a few things about the large expanse of flat land to the west. Like that before being drained, it was supposed to be the largest area of wetland in the Southern Hemisphere.
I knew there were issues over how the drainage system worked and its cost.
And I was aware of how often the area flooded. Many times I've taken the kids in the car to see the great lake that incredibly forms after days of heavy rain.
But mostly the Hikurangi swamp was somewhere to occasionally ride my bike - it's a popular area for cyclists.
Where Jordan Valley Rd meets Rushbrook Rd, I've often stopped to experience this dramatic landscape, unique to Northland. Just to stand, breathe, and soak it all in.
These are things then that I knew about this place, limited by my experience and knowledge.
The exhibition by Clunie and Hoppe has expanded my understanding, deepened my appreciation.
This was achieved by the multifaceted way the subject of the Hikurangi repo was approached.
There are beautifully produced black and white photos of the landscape and human interventions by Clunie.
There's a sound recording by Hoppe, a montage of human voices, bird song and insects, and the hum of pump stations. Farmers, local Māori and others invested in the area talk about the swamp's history and their hopes for its future.
There are books to read. A wonderfully textured and lumpy topographical model of the area made in 1960, to help explain to farmers the proposed drainage scheme, is hung on the wall.
There are historical photos and paintings, maps, an old milk can, a poster produced by Ngā Kaitiaki o Ngā Wai Māori, a collective of hapū concerned for our waterways and native species, particularly tuna (eels).
It's the whole experience, the factual knowledge, the artefacts, stories and community action, combined with the artistry of Clunie's photos that make the exhibition such a success.
Within the museum space, all these nodal points represent different ways of understanding the complexity of a place.
Artists tend to see things with an eye to formal beauty, metaphor and story. Clunie's photos of the area do all these things.
One stunning photo is of a pile of branches in the water, stuck up against a fence, pushed there by flooding. A row of dead seedheads poke up out of the water. It's a confluence of line, including the horizon where the floodwater meets the distant hills. The image also tells a story.
Cows, the reason the landscape is how it currently is, don't feature often. In one photo where they do appear, they're looking towards the photographer in that way only cows can - weary, watching, perhaps curious, but not threatened.
They're small in the photo, the weeds and grasses in the foreground loom larger. They almost look surprised to be there themselves.
Another photo is of a concrete water trough, rimmed with long spiky grass. It reminds me of the famous surrealist photo by Meret Oppenheim of a tea cup and saucer wrapped in fur.
Behind the trough is the distinctive volcanic hill, where there's the remains of a crater. The human-made form and the made-by-nature echo each other. We might consider, though, which is more powerful and having the final say.
After carefully viewing this exhibition, you can't help wonder if the drainage system, enabling a particular model of farming, might not last.
Long-term, new ways of managing this landscape, giving more benefit to a wider community, will hopefully emerge.
Perhaps the most arresting image in the exhibition is from an educational poster. It shows female eels cut to pieces by the mechanical pumps.
The Hikurangi repo used to be the centre of a thriving eel population in Northland. Tuna, historically, were an important food source for Māori.
Might they be again some day?
Coming away from the exhibition, I was more aware of the conflicts and the contested future of this land, which I had previously appreciated for its supposed emptiness.
It's not empty. Rather, it's teeming with life - plants, animals and humans. It's brimming with history, politics, and of course, economics.
A deeper understanding of place leads us to confront complexities and contradictions. Art can help us get there.
wet_land is a must-see experience for people living in the Hikurangi area.
For anyone else viewing this exhibition, on until February 21, you'll gain insight into a unique part of Tai Tokerau, which may also encourage a deeper exploration of your own place.