Rob McGowan is worried we have already forgotten one of the great lessons of the Covid-19 lockdown – how to be a community that looks after each other and the natural world.
McGowan, now 71, is also known as Pa Ropata, revered as a Pakeha with fluent Te Reo Maori and an intricate knowledge of traditional Maori medicine, or rongoā. He lives on a 2.5ha lifestyle block in Tauranga covered with native trees, shrubs and plants – many of which are intended as treatments for various ailments.
A former Catholic priest, he also works with Ngā Whenua Rāhui, a Department of Conservation unit supporting the protection of indigenous ecosystems on Māori-owned land – and he has travelled New Zealand, teaching and running rongoā workshops, since 1993.
A fascinating man, his connection with the land, forests, waterways and people of New Zealand provides the basis of a lifestyle governed by the principles of what he calls Tiwaiwaka – where the whenua (land) is the mother of all life and human beings should not act as if we are the centre of the universe but a mere part of it.
He understands the need for initiatives like the one Te Hiringa Hauora/Health Promotion Agency and partners are undertaking to encourage New Zealanders— especially those in older age-groups – to reclaim the life that kept them busy and healthy before the pandemic struck.
The lockdown, he says, taught us a lesson which many are already in danger of forgetting: "It was all about love your neighbour as yourself," he says. "People forgot their personal concerns or saw them in the context of membership of a community they belong to. It really was a family of five million.
"People had frustrations and difficulties, yes, but the overwhelming sense was that people noticed things and acted on things they were normally too busy for – like those who spoke to neighbours for the first time even though they had lived next door to each other for many years.
"People were saying, 'Gee, haven't we got a lot of birds'; they took notice of the native birds, the life and the trees because they had time to do so. My biggest concern now is that we have forgotten what we learned in that time."
The lockdown wasn't easy for McGowan, wife Lyndel and 20-year-old daughter Ella Mae. As a member of the demographic most at threat from Covid-19, McGowan pretty much stayed at home, travelling mostly only to his beloved bush to collect and clean seeds during seeding time.
Living on a 2.5ha block means social distancing wasn't a problem but McGowan worried about a 96-year-old aunt in a retirement home so comprehensively locked down she couldn't see anyone from outside. "Other than that," he says, "I was still working seven days a week seed collecting, writing, going online and God knows what.
"It was much harder for Lyndel. Her mum is 80 and her mum's partner in the mid-80s and neither of them was well. She is also a carer for a severely handicapped girl and all that put a lot of pressure on her – especially as Ella Mae had fragile health too. So it was a lot of pressure for her."
Out of lockdown, McGowan is maintaining his Tiwaiwaka vigil, exemplified by the saying "Ka ora te whenua, ka ora te tangata" ("When the land is well, the people will be well").
"That's why we put so much emphasis on restoring our water quality and the health of the land," he says. "It's fundamental to New Zealand's future. We need to make that more important than business development.
"Humans are not masters of the universe; we are just part of it. I have a rock at home that is 1.6 billion years old. We are nothing compared to that.
"We have to re-arrange our priorities; we have to be bold so that we have a world to pass on to those who follow us – who will otherwise think we are the ones who destroyed the world.
"Covid-19 really highlighted the fact that recovery is possible. The planet has an enormous capacity to recover. Look at Venice – a few weeks of lockdown and they had fish and dolphins in the canals.
"If we just give nature half a chance, she will fix it."
He says the Te Hiringa Hauora and partners' work will be aimed at helping others get back on their feet after lockdown: "Loneliness is a terrible sickness. I know there were some in lockdown who locked themselves up – didn't see anyone for weeks. A lot of health problems can spring from loneliness like that."
Part of the solution for those people, he says, is to get out "and celebrate spring; the jonquils are blooming already". That stems from McGowan's beliefs that human beings have lost their connection to the natural world and they – and the planet – are suffering because of it.
Lonely people could get out into the natural world as much as possible and even undertake simple things like gardening and understanding plants. "There's a lot of talk about seeing how amazing New Zealand is now that we can't travel overseas – and it is even more wonderful when we stop and go outside ourselves and realise how great New Zealand is when the spring flowers are blossoming.
"I read about the people locked in those big towers in Melbourne when the lockdown was re-applied," he says. "There are too many people in this world who have no experience of seeing something grow. They are here too – there are people who don't even have a pot plant in their home."
Virginia McEwan of Te Hiringa Hauora says that although Covid-19 is a cloud that could hang over us for a while, it will pass: "It is important for older people to realise that most of them have probably already gone through tough experiences in their lives and have come through them; they've seen hard times but have the wisdom and experience to know they can bounce back."
Covid-19 (lockdown) changed many things, a growth in the use of online banking being one example, she says. Older people can have difficulty adjusting to such and family can play a part in showing them how to manage such tasks.
Age Concern has recently launched a new website, full of information and wellbeing support for older New Zealanders: www.ageconcern.org.nz