“Whenua to Whenua” | One Reader On The Sacred Experience Of Planting Her After-Birth
For centuries, a mother’s placenta has received ceremonial handling by different cultures around the world who revere the placenta for its symbolism of life, spirit and one’s whakapapa. On a trip to Kenya and Tanzania five years ago, I remember learning about the African nations who swaddle the mother’s placenta in blankets and bury it beneath a tree to symbolise ongoing life. In cultures like Vietnam and China, the placenta is dried and added to certain recipes in order to increase a person’s energy and vitality. In Indonesia, the placenta is seen as the baby’s “twin” or “older sibling”, and is perceived as the baby’s guardian throughout their life.
In Māori culture, the word for “land” and “placenta” are the same – “whenua” – which illustrates the profound connection between the two. It was an honour to have this korero with my dear friend, Jess, on the birth of her baby boy and the sacred experience of returning her placenta to Papatūānuku (Mother Earth).
Tell me a little about your birth story. How did you feel emotionally and spiritually, both in the lead up to your delivery and while you were giving birth to Oli?
I’ve always been the maternal one out of my friends, but after witnessing a traumatic birth two years prior, I felt really disconnected from the process of delivery and wasn’t looking forward to it. The start of my pregnancy was really hard; I could barely stand without vomiting for the first 12 to 15 weeks. Luckily my mum is a nurse, so she helped keep my fluids up and keep me out of hospital.
Once that initial stage passed I started doing everything I could to feel physically fit and mentally prepared for giving birth; most importantly I started to visualise how I wanted my experience to be. I made a conscious effort to steer clear of any “bad birth stories”, and only filled my mind with positivity. During the birth, I mentally kept returning to an amazing book I’d read called ‘Hypnobirthing’ by Marie F. Mongan, which is all about how powerful our breath is. This helped me to not tense my body during contractions and reminded me how powerful my breathing was whenever I felt discomfort.
I gave birth at Parnell Birthcare, which I would highly recommend. The ambiance of the room is perfectly set up for delivery; there are big foam shapes to lie on, instead of a traditional hospital bed, and dim lights instead of bright lights. Oli decided to roll over and “star gaze” (go posterior!), so labour took a little longer as I worked to turn him myself, but my active labour was only 1 to 2 hours.
Once I’d given birth, I remember lying there feeling exhausted and in complete awe of what had just happened. Not knowing the sex of Oli, it wasn’t until about five minutes later that I realised I had a beautiful baby boy lying on my chest. If I could freeze time, that would be the moment.
Did you always know you wanted to keep your placenta for this special ceremony, or was it something you decided after you gave birth?
Yes, I always knew I wanted to bury my placenta up North as my whanau and I have a really strong connection with our whenua, and Te Ngaere is where mine and lot of my cousins, nieces and nephews all have our placenta’s buried. There’s a lot of wairua (spirit) in Te Ngaere, it’s a very special place.
Tell me a little about the Māori beliefs surrounding a mother’s placenta and it’s connection to whenua, as well as the beliefs surrounding why it should be returned to Mother Nature.
To be honest, I’d never done a deep dive into the history of why we do it, it’s just always been our whanau’s kaupapa for as long as I can remember. It’s a concept that has always made sense to me: The regeneration of life to help new life grow. The placenta, which fed nutrients to my baby and helped him grow, becomes the roots we return to Mother Earth to grow a tree – it’s the circle of life.
In Te Reo, the word “whenua” directly translates to both “land” and “placenta”, which demonstrates the significance of whenua to the Māori people. There’s a strong spiritual connection to the land and of being direct descendants of Papatūānuku (Mother Earth), so it’s a way to give back to Her, just as She has given to us. Burying our whenua gives us a sense of belonging and gives the newborn a sense of connection with the land.
You chose to wait until Oli was 18 months old to plant your whenua – how did this change the experience for you/make it more special? Was it special to have him as an active participant?
Haha, “active participant” is definitely the phrase I would use! All Oli wanted to do that day was run in the opposite direction and hunt for pebbles and rocks!
It was Oli’s first summer earth-side in Te Ngaere and we spent almost three weeks up there before the ceremony. I think it was particularly emotional for me because during those three weeks I really saw him grow a special bond with the land; exactly like I did when I was the same age, in the same place. Every morning he would wake up, demand that his gumboots be put on, and he was off to seize the day. There’s nothing more special than seeing your child connect with a place you love.
Okay, now tell me about the day! What did it involve, what family members were present, and what were you feeling emotionally and spiritually?
To put it simply, it was a morning filled with aroha. We were guided by my 91-year-old grandmother in terms of tikanga (customs and traditions) – she has an affinity to the lands of the North, having been born and raised in and around Kaeo, and marrying into the hapu Ngai Tu Pango – Te Ngaere. My grandmother is a native reo Māori speaker and provided support to our kaikarakia, my cousin Jamie during our karakia (prayer) for our Atua (God), which included a special karakia for Oli’s whenua.
My Dad then lay the whenua in the ground, I planted the Pohutakawa on top, and Oli helped me sprinkle soil around the base of the rakau (tree). We placed soil between the placenta and tree, so that the placenta has time to decompose before the roots reach the placenta. This was followed by a waiata (song), while everyone went around and poured water onto the base of the rakau. The sprinkling of water allowed us in some way to contribute or impart our Mauri (life force) onto the rakau (tree) so that we are all in some way connected to that time and place. Water is also the source of life, and has been used by our ancestors, and still used now, as a source of both healing and cleansing.
It was really emotional for me, planting my whenua back home, as it’s a place I’ve lost touch with in recent years. I’ve had a hard year, with deciding to leave my relationship with Oli’s father, and it really hit home for me to have so many loved ones singing and pouring their strength over us. It was something Oli and I both needed.
The rakau, to me, is a reminder of mine and Oli’s growth: To watch our strength grow from a small tree into something that will provide shade for future generations to come is something I will always treasure. My placenta is the connection that Oli and I shared for 40 weeks and, just like the circle of life, it will shelter our urupa (grave) where we will one day both be laid to rest.