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Prophecy on the River

by Judith Hoch

2020 Next Generation Indie Book Awards, Finalist
2020 Ashton Wylie Book Awards, Best Book Finalist
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Lights with no apparent source, heating her back while she walks along a riverbank, initiate American anthropologist Judith Hoch into a decades-long process of spiritual renewal. In this vividly written memoir, Judith describes what happened when she and her husband struggled to restore newly-purchased New Zealand land to native forest. It quickly becomes a spiritual as well as ecological task—and proves far more difficult than she ever anticipated.

Faced with a challenging environment and hostile neighbours, Judith is surprised to find the degradation of the land is not just physical, but has spiritual and ancestral components that urgently need addressing. Guided by her Miami-based spiritual advisor, Ernesto Picardo, and working with her Waitaha Māori friend, Aroha Ropata, Judith connects to the spiritual forces she needs for her ecological efforts to succeed.
132 pages, 6 x 9 inches / 129 x 152 mm
ISBN Paperback: 9780995120341. Hard cover: 9780995120334. Ebook: 9780995120358.
In Prophecy on the River, artist, anthropologist and environmentalist Judith Hoch describes her magical experiences with the people, land and history of New Zealand. Written in graceful, eloquent prose, this memoir tells how Hoch came to recognise in a very heartfelt and visceral way that her own spiritual rejuvenation, along with that of both indigenous Māori people and descendants of the colonial settlers, depends upon acquiring deep respect for rivers and forests, and appreciating the innate power of the natural world and its need for revitalization.

Hoch writes of her efforts, with those of her husband John, to repopulate a forest preserve adjacent to her home on the South Island; her encounters with ancient, majestic trees and with spirits that inhabit waterways; and her struggle with neighbours who despoil the land. Her story is compelling, the narrative flows easily, and the overall experience is both moving and motivating.

— Richard Schwartz, Emeritus Professor, Florida International University

Judith, I am so enjoying your book. Love your story-telling style. It is really from your heart. It has me so captured I'm not looking forward to finishing it! … Grant
Reading now. Incredible, amazing, inspiring! … Janice.
I never read a book twice, but your book I will. I love your writing. … Sue
I'm really enjoying your book. I'm close to the last chapter but I don't want it to end. Wow! … Helene

Judith Hoch is an artist, anthropologist and yoga teacher. She and her husband John originally bought land in Wainui, at the top of the South Island of New Zealand, in the 1980s. For many years they commuted between their homes in Miami and Wainui, gradually restoring the farming-damaged land to native forest. They now live fulltime in New Zealand.
Prophecy on the River is Judith's first book.

I LIVE IN A CLOUD FOREST In New Zealand. This year there is a drought and nearby paddocks are as yellow as the hills in California. Smaller trees on the edge of the forest are wilted and some have died. Up in the forest, the ground is dried and cracked in places. However, before long, as summer advances, the rainforest and mountain will seduce clouds to join them. Then a mist will move through the forest, mingling with the leaves in its canopy. After a while, a slow drip, drip, drip will fall from the canopy onto the forest floor, wetting dense thickets of vines, shining palm fronds, tall tree trunks. These droplets will multiply into rain. The fresh water will soak the land and roots, run into gullies and creeks, and flow fast to the Wainui River, churning and white capped. The Wainui River is the site of the spirit prophecy described in this book.

Natural scientists use the phrase “cloud stripping” to describe how the forest and mountains draw rain into our water system. Sometimes it doesn’t rain; sometimes there are mighty rainfalls. Some of the most astounding are vividly described in Prophecy on the River.

New Zealand’s Māori name is Aotearoa, the Long White Cloud. Aotea means cloud; roa, long. Lost in the clouds, the Aotearoa islands are the most southern of the Polynesian island chains. I live in the South Island, also called Te Waipounamu. Wai is water, pounamu is the sacred, healing greenstone found only on Te Waipounamu. On Te Waipounamu, I live in Wainui Bay. Wainui means lots of water: wai, water; nui, big, a lot. In Wainui, my husband and I have named our land Waitaha, inspired by my friend Aroha Ropata and her mother, Netta, descended from the Waitaha tribes, whose stories portray them as the peaceful water containers of creation, gardeners and artists holding the gifts of the universe. Because of these strongly poetic Māori names, I have an image of myself surrounded by rainforest on a cloud island, where water flows from the mountains to the river and sea over an Earth full of magical stones.

I am from Miami, Florida, an immigrant to New Zealand. When I began writing this book, I thought of The Enigma of Arrival, one of my favourite books by V.S. Naipaul. Naipaul was an immigrant to Britain, from a much warmer place, living in a rural county. Displaced like him, I was a stranger to the landscape and culture of Aotearoa. Only during my morning walks did I start slowly untangling the surrounding landscape’s mysteries. As you read Prophecy on the River, imagine walking with me by the river through the forest to the falls.

The Waitaha people of Aotearoa may have preceded the Māori peoples, leaving traces of their culture in many place names and local stories. Aroha walked the Greenstone Track with Barry Brailsford, author of The Song of Waitaha. She also played a part in reigniting the vigour of the coast near our land, when she and others placed impressive carved stones, infused with healing energy, on power spots. They were healing land and shoreline altered by decades of farming, forestry and conquest by the British and by Māori iwi (tribes). If the Prophecy on the River is fulfilled, Aotearoa will once again be a great Pacific nation of monumental forests, unique birds and peaceful people.


ONE NIGHT IN WAINUI, while strolling with my husband along the river bank at the bottom of the pasture, I experienced a warm, golden light behind me, beaming over my shoulders, warming the back of my neck. I turned around, but there was no vehicle with lights, no source of light at all. We glided seamlessly together in the dark night, arm in arm. Not long after, my right shoulder became warm, and I noticed a golden luster in my peripheral vision. Now I remember it as a living light like small fireflies dancing in a matrix. I looked behind and saw a fading golden glow, breaking up into pixel-like, fading particles, but no source of illumination.

I asked John, striding beside me, “Do you see the light shining behind me?”

“No,” he said. “Nothing.”

One night the light was so bright it glared all around the back of my body. That time I was certain someone had a strong spotlight turned on me, a hunter or a late-night walker. I turned around quickly to surprise whoever it was, and started running in the direction of the light. No one was there. Sometimes it seemed more than one light, but always the beam shone over my right shoulder, confusing and, somehow, edgy. The light warmed me, but warned me too, being similar in feeling to a light I had once encountered on the North Island.

We had visited Aotearoa for the first time two years earlier, when we reserved a room at a fishing lodge on a lake near Rotorua, far enough away from the city to be in a quiet forest. We arrived quite late off the flight from Los Angeles and didn’t reach the lodge until after 9 p.m. Needing to stretch, when we checked in I asked the host where we could find a walking trail. He pointed to a forested knoll across from the lodge, its silhouette Prussian blue in the silver moonlight. He suggested we go straight along the well-marked path, where we would find a route that circled round to come back. He mentioned that the trail passed a Māori cemetery. Ten minutes on the trail took us upward and along a small path, which we navigated slowly in the dim torch light through the tree tunnel in the forest.

I walked around a curve and abruptly stumbled against a sheet of vertical light like a closed door. It was slightly visible; there, but not there. I was surprised. Surely, I had imagined it. I gently tried to continue forward, leaning into it with my shoulders. My body felt a soft gel-like resistance from head to foot. Something prevented me moving forward. I stepped back, and John passed around me, then he quickly stopped too.

“I can’t move forward,” he said.

At the same moment, we both turned and walked quickly and silently back the way we had come.

At that time, I knew little of the indigenous Māori people, but I imagined them deeply absorbed in land, sea, and sky. Their ancestors were part of the great South Pacific migrations which had peopled an enormous ocean nation. Their sailors read the skies and seas on epic journeys during long apprenticeships with master navigators. These geniuses of nature, the ancestors of New Zealand, would have noticed the beautiful hill sited on the dark, shining lake, shimmering in the night air, and selected it as an appropriate spiritual burial ground. I can still close my eyes and see that densely forested mount, the indigo shadows, and the gentle but firm resistance on the trail. The cemetery was off bounds and guarded; it was tapu, set apart for a consecrated purpose.

We weren’t as surprised as we might have been by the paranormal prohibition on the path. Over the past two years, we had been visited by a poltergeist at our small cottage south of Miami, I had seen a ghost in a Victorian flat in London, and a spirit had compressed John’s chest in bed. I’d had intense kundalini rushes in meditation, seen auras, and worked with ecstatic body postures in the New Mexican desert. After hours of meditation with seekers of knowledge in Miami, I saw a blazing white/gold light, not a light on the outside, a shining light on the inside when my eyes were closed. There was a sun between my eyebrows that was warm and pumping gold spiraling light. The white/gold light had more intensity than the warm golden light over my shoulder on the riverbank.

Before buying land in Wainui, during the years in Miami, I became acquainted with a young man, Ernesto (Ernie) Pichardo, a fully initiated priest of the West African Yoruba god, Shango. A famous, handsome deity in the Yoruba diaspora, Shango is god of thunder, dance and justice. A king and general, he ended his rule on Earth in self-destruction and resurrection. I was intrigued by the young priest, a Cuban exile in Miami, but I really had no idea what his powers or his training might be. He was nineteen, and I was twenty-seven with a new Ph.D. I had lived in the Yoruba speaking area of Nigeria before moving to Miami. There, I had studied and performed with theater groups, absorbing Yoruba stories until they felt like my own.

Ernie was still a teenager, but was then, and still is, Obá Oríaté and Italero (Ceremonial Leader and Master Diviner), as well as Shango priest of the Yoruba Lucumí religion. One day, when he visited my university anthropology of religion class, Ernie quietly revealed his predestined life mission and career. He worked with departed spirits.

“Working with spirits is like drinking water to me,” he explained.

His phrase summarised a great deal of the difference between the Anglo and the Latino world view in Miami. Even Latinos who were not Lucumí priests, especially Catholics, included the spirit world in their lives, while Anglos, at least at that time, were still obsessed with proving there was one. The barrier on the cemetery trail the night we arrived in Aotearoa, and the lights on the riverbank, were part of the invisible world of spirit around us, intriguing in ways we didn’t understand, but perfectly natural in Ernie’s world.

Two years after meeting Ernie, John and I bought the land we named Waitaha, which we thought of as our own Garden of Eden. However, after a few years we altered that name to the Yoke of Paradise, because we still lived and worked in Miami over eight thousand miles away. When we were in Miami, we would say, “We have to sell it! It’s too much trouble.” But then we would return to Wainui, swing around the last bend in the road, see the mountains behind our land full of rainforest, and catch our breath. We couldn’t sell Waitaha; the yoke of paradise bound us.

We travelled to New Zealand to work on our land a few weeks, or sometimes months, of the year. During those times we planted native trees, because the scars of farming were not going to heal without help, and we needed insulation from the cattle farm below. When we started the locals thought that only Australian trees, or almost any tree but New Zealand natives, would grow, and that cattle grazing could stop invasive gorse and blackberry. In fact, grazing made invasive plants much worse and harder to remove from the compacted soil, and cows didn’t like them. One farmer’s wife thought no trees could ever grow on our land again. In our naiveté, we believed this land would grow nothing else as well.

Our land was in the middle of a temperate rainforest park, receding as cattle ate the edges. Nonetheless, the high rainfall and relatively recent clearing of the forest offered a great chance for regrowth of native trees. For a long while we allowed the gorse to grow wild, until it was fourteen feet high with young natives coming up underneath. At the same time, we also planted native trees around the prickly, strong gorse. The theory was that shade kills gorse; throw some shade its way, and it withers slowly, weakens and dies. At that stage there was no hint of this final decline, only its present full-bodied, impenetrable, springing upward. During this time in our county there were immense acreages of gorse where the forest had been burned and the land left fallow.

Our Kiwi neighbours called us “the gorse people” as they debated how our experiment would end: gorse up the mountain and down the valley, thick as my thigh, and unstoppable except with fire and poisons. Instead, our planted trees grew into a small forest where the creeks run clear, birds flourish, and the dairy farm below is invisible. Run the projector at extremely slow speed when you visualise this growth, beginning with the scene of twelve-inch saplings grown in root trainers planted in prickly gorse and blackberry, and in pasture grass bred to withstand anything. Many of the trees died before they were two, lost in the weeds and grass. But enough lived to get above the fray and reach for the Sun. Run that projector forward until you can see, in the middle of the former pasture, the once-thick boles of gorse lying dead in groves where shade prevented further growth. Now imagine a shady grove of kowhai trees or manuka or fern trees on a hot summer day—cool, darkly shaded, with water running in the gullies.

When our planted trees were small, we continued to travel between Miami and Waitaha, so that my husband and I could pursue our careers and see family and friends. During this time, Ernie became my Lucumí padrino (godfather). Many times he read my fortune and destiny through the lens of his intelligence, character and experience, while deploying the Cuban/Yoruba oracle called the Dilogún, a symbolic system not unlike the Chinese I Ching. When I became Ernie’s godchild, he presented elekes to me—necklaces symbolic of the Orisha, the Yoruba spirits/gods of nature and culture. It was natural for Ernie, and an intrinsic part of his religion, to honour plants and trees. He made healing remedies from them, considering them as alive and full of spirit as people.

In fact, the whole body of ancient knowledge in the sacred divination form known as Ifá and the Dilogún were taught to the human world by an ancient tree. My dreams became tangled with trees and Ernie’s house. The first time Ernie sent me into the forest on a ritual journey, my spiritual well-being merged with trees. Now it is trees I remember most vividly when I leave a place: their calm beauty, lovely, fresh air atmosphere, and high branches filled with birds. Good smells, leaves gently rustling in the wind, peeling bark, or shiny trunk covered in enigmatic galls that tell a history of interaction with the world.

When I plant a tree, for a few days I feel its roots underground, stretching through the moist brown soil, harmonising with the environment. In a most mysterious way, the sapling is connected to my heart. Italian scientists say that plants and trees are best described as living computers with many senses; trees share and transmit large volumes of information within themselves and with others. I think at some level everyone knows that trees, like rivers and oceans, are ancient healers and the finest medicine. Trees and water harmonise human beings. If you want spiritual happiness, trees, especially those growing near a river or by the ocean, are very good places to find it. Young trees fill you with new oxygen. One day I recovered quickly from carbon monoxide poisoning. While standing in a group of small beech trees about my size, I inhaled deeply and exhaled completely across their young foliage until I felt much better. The whole time I could hear the communion of birds and insects in the branches of parent trees nearby.

I find the longer I spend out-of-doors, the more my life veers away from the mundane. My dreams change. I experience myself turning into the trees, birds, rivers, oceans and mountains, which vibrate with a pervading trill. One summer afternoon in Waitaha, that shimmering vibration overwhelmed my senses with pleasure during this transportation. I simultaneously noticed that green plants and trees were growing, leaves brown and dry were decomposing, seeds were sprouting, blossoms were opening, and my ears were quivering. I was immersed in the buzzing of bees, the clicking of cicadas, and the twittering and peeping of birds hidden in gullies and lost in green canopies. I smiled as I watched bumblebees dive into the lavender hearts of artichoke blooms. They went for heaven, swimming down into the deep violet flowers, their furry little black bums and golden pollen baskets remaining upright like islands in a purple lake. Yet this wonderful natural world is on a steep decline. Sometimes, I try to imagine what the sounds and colour were like three hundred years ago. I can’t. In 1642, during the few days they were anchored in Wainui Bay, Abel Tasman’s sailors asked him to move further off shore because the bird song was keeping them awake.

In the later afternoon, I noticed there was a pause for the world to exhale, as the long twilight seamlessly transformed into evening’s deep ultramarine sky, sparkling with stars, satellites and distant ships on the horizon. One by one, all the birds left the trees around the veranda and the weka disappeared into the shrubs. Already, there was water vapor in the air and a katabatic breeze blowing from the forest. I felt like shouting, “No, don’t let this perfection end. May this day last forever!”

Then I heard a descant from the tui, whose bell-like song evoked depths of soul and soothed my passion. Soon the drowsing tui was replaced by a now awakened little owl, the morepork, whose haunting cries crowned the enchantment of the night.

Veriditas was a word used by the eleventh century mystic Hildegard von Bingen. Hildegard put the Latin words for green and truth (viridis and veritas) together in one evocative word, which meant the omniscient presence of the green force of creation. That day in my garden I had a deep feeling of veriditas, the ever present One, within every speck of life, always evolving. Veriditas is something sacred, in perpetual motion, the trill that animates and enlightens the ever-changing universe. The Lucumí call this sacred force ashé. The afternoon when I thought of nothing else, veriditas didn’t stop when I went inside, because it can’t stop; it just is, even in my house. My act of observation doesn’t change it.

Veriditas is a natural law of the universe. It is the mystery. Where did it come from? When did it begin? Why does it exist? Will it ever stop? Trees are one source of wisdom about this sacred energy in perpetual motion. In fact, for those who listen carefully, apparently trees can transfer, from an all-knowing source, universal truths about life which can guide Homo sapiens. I like to remember I am a primate who loves trees. Certainly my ancestors lived in them, long ago. My closest primate relatives still live in them. I can’t forget my relations. Jane Goodall describes the chimps who are her friends at Gombe Reserve when they sit together to marvel at the sunset.

What if trees are meant to be the teachers of Homo sapiens, a primate who left the Garden of Eden and the Tree of Life, because of a made-up story in the apocalyptic land that still threatens our world? Are we “caught in the devil’s bargain, and we’ve got to get ourselves back to the garden”, like Joni sang at the Big Sur Folk Festival in 1969, a month after the immortal Woodstock? I feel we are living in a time of chaos because we left our teachers the trees in the forest, and now we have cut most of the ancient forests down. Therefore, it may be our sacred purpose to reforest our Earth and make it healthy again.

Siddhartha transformed into the Buddha when he accepted the wisdom and shelter of the Bodhi tree. In Lucumí tradition, an ancient Mother Tree taught Ifá divination, and its body of enlightenment knowledge, to the divine child Orúnmìlà while he was buried under her enormous canopy. This Mother Tree’s knowledge has been translated through the ages by Yoruba diviners like Ernie. It was Ernie who showed me how to begin a simple spiritual practice with trees and ancestral spirit guides. I’ve practised divination with Tarot cards and I Ching shells, for myself and others, for two decades. These practices have taken me deeper into Wainui and its landscapes, spirits, stories, ancestors—and into myself. Now I want to take you with me a little deeper into Waitaha.

When I last saw Ernie in Miami, just two months before writing this, he advised me that I must speak about the indigenous ancestors of my home in Waitaha. They must be acknowledged as part of the setting for the natural landscape and the Māori prophecy that unfolded on the Wainui riverbank a few years ago.

The last Māori chief of Wainui was a member of a tribe from Te Ika-a-Māui, the North Island. His tribe was allied with others. They settled our area at the top of Te Waipounamu in the nineteenth century and lived through very difficult times. Their people stand out in New Zealand colonial history as receiving brutal treatment. In laying a foundation for understanding the last chief of Wainui, I speak both from research and intuition; the same for the taniwha, an archetypal figure of great fascination, and for Tāne Mahuta, the tree who gave birth to humanity.