WOTA LOTA POTA (Part Three) ... by Rachel Borg

There is one green leafy plant eaten as a vegetable on Pitcairn which I believe Norfolk Islanders do not and have not eaten on Norfolk.  On Pitcairn it is known asobre or obrew.  Other spelling variations have also been recorded.  The closest Tahitian word I can locate for this is ‘oporu – a plant that bears berries resembling the capsicum’.  The leaves of the Norfolk ‘nightshade’ do look a little like a capsicum plant.  The Norfolk variety may well be Atropa belladonna (Deadly Nightshade).  I have a vague recollection of an ill-fated a convict who collected nightshade on the Island in the earlier settlements.

On Pitcairn Anders Kallgard recorded obre as a kind of ‘edible plant, used like spinach (the black nightshade Solanum nigrum).  The toxicity of the plant is said to vary at different times of the year (it contains solanine) and it is actually thought that boiling the leaves removes the toxins, while other methods of cooking would not. The leaves of this plant are somewhat bitter according to some people, but once they are cooked any bitterness is removed.  Although not as toxic asbelladonna, Solanum nigrum is still very poisonous and can result in many of the same symptoms if ingested. 

Pitcairn Islanders also use the term ‘Green as a obru’ in a similar manner to our phrase ‘How green’.   This is a plant commonly found and consumed throughout the Pacific.  I am told that the plant we refer to as  Nightshade has been identified as being the same as the one of Pitcairn but I am not so sure – it has little green berries turning to black and the little bushes can be seen in gardens and paddocks over summer.  Both probably come from the same plant family but I suspect there may be some difference – possible the colour of the flower.  Some plants in this family are agricultural plants or have some other use; others such as the Deadly Nightshade is quite a toxic plant which clearly does not lend itself well to human consumption although there are some medicinal applications.  

Interestingly enough, back on the pota trail, there is an old recipe, with local variation which is made on both Pitcairn and Norfolk, which I think might hark back to ‘pota’ and perhaps hints at just how long ‘pota’ might have been a part of our vocabulary.  It is a dish known in both places as ‘potter bush’.  To my strange way of thinking this looks and sounds very much like ‘pota bush’.  Which leads me to wonder if originally it was ‘pota and bush’ after the fact that this dish is just that; a combination of pota and leaves off certain edible bushes.  Pure speculation of course.

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Wota Lota Pota (Part Two) ... by Rachel Borg

There seem to be less and less people around on Norfolk today who know about ‘pota’ in the Pitcairn-Norfolk context; and probably even less who eat it.  There are still a number of Islanders who remember eating ‘pota’ as they were growing up (generally remembered as either taro leaf or sow-thistle).  There is an increasing vagueness about what exactly pota is; many people have never even heard of it.  When Elwyn Flint visited Norfolk Island in the 1960s he recorded pota as ‘the leaves of the taro (Colocasia antiquorum) or sow-thistle (Sonchus oleraceus).’  

The sow-thistle (which some people call milk-thistle) is also recorded in Speak Norfolk Today by the name ‘puuhaa’’; which I think may be a New Zealand Maori loan-word – most people in these here parts know about the Maori staple of ‘porkbone and puha’.  If it is not a loan word, it is one which is almost certainly Polynesian in origin.  I believe there are actually three varieties in New Zealand.  The sow-thistle here on Norfolk (Sonchus oleraceus) has soft smooth, almost velvety leaves, milky sap and dandelion-like flowers; the slightly bitter leaves are the edible part and they are a good source of vitamin C.  It always has a lovely peppery flavour but in winter its leaves are broad and its flavour much milder; however as the weather dries up the leaves get smaller and more jagged in shape and the peppery, slightly bitter flavour intensifies.  The leaves also get a little tough.  The sow thistle is used like any green leafy vegetable; it can be eaten raw or cooked like spinach.  It can also be picked and fed to chickens and pet birds.

The other leafy green referred to as pota is the taala (taro) leaf which is picked when it is young and tender and still furled up.  When you get it home you simply cut it up and cook it, removing the centre stem beforehand. The leaves of the taro plant are then steamed or boiled and make a tasty vegetable.  I have only ever used the green leaves, but I am told for those who might be curious enough to go out and pick some pota that it is only the green leaved varieties and not the purple taala (taro) leaf which is eaten.  It cannot be eaten raw and must be cooked for good reason.  It is important to boil the taro leaf in water for a sufficient period of time to allow the oxalic acid, which makes your mouth and throat itchy, to leach out into the water.  This takes about fifteen to twenty minutes at which time you drain off and discard the cooking liquid.  It can be eaten as a plain and simple green vegetable (in much the same manner in which we eat spinach or silverbeet); or you can sauté some onion, garlic and ginger then add your cooked taala (taro) leaf, pour over some coconut milk or coconut cream and season to taste.   

Green leafy vegetables are generally eaten on the day they are picked although refrigeration has changed this somewhat.  They are considered essential to a well-balanced diet and that have long been recognised for their health-giving properties.  It is interesting to note that when Captain James Cook and some of his crew came ashore in October 1774 not only did they observe whales frisking and playing, waters teeming with fish, and also abundant birdlife but while they were on the Island they collected quantities of wood sorrel, samphire, sow thistle and mesembryanthemum ‘to put in our soup’. 

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WOTA LOTA POTA (Part One) ... by Rachel Borg

Have you ever picked out a fortune cookie which really meant something?  A particularly prophetic and insightful cookie fortune; perhaps one that held a little bit more than your stock-standard, short, trite, and rather flippant throw-away line.  The kind of fortune cookie that might make you stop and think twice instead of laugh and cringe at its corniness.

 A long time ago now one of my friends impressed me immensely by making hand-made fortune cookies and I have kept my slither of ‘fortune teller’ paper for many years.    I’m not sure why I kept it; perhaps I’d never seen such a D & M (deep and meaningful) fortune cookie and a small part of me probably never stopped thinking that one day I might better understand its message.  For some obscure and unknown reason this week’s topic brought me back to the ‘message’ contained in that old fortune cookie:-

                “Praise and blame, gain and loss, pleasure and sorrow come and go like the wind.   To be happy rest like a great tree in the midst of them all’.

Great advice really; to be happy and at peace in the midst of change.  To rest like a greattree in the wind; to accommodate the ebb and flow of life and to bend - so you don’t break!   Yeah, I kind of get that bit.

If you have ever played in, or even stood near a stand of big old creaking bamboo, or watched a pinetree swaying backwards and forwards in gale-force winds, all the while holding your breath waiting for it to fall over, you will understand what a wonderful analogy a tree is for many of life’s D & M questions.  This week I want to talk about just one of those fortuitous fortune-cookie themes  - loss and gain; and change.

There are many advances in agricultural practices on the Island today which have made life a whole lot easier; these advances or gains mean that we can grow more, we can plant more often, and there are any number of ways to extend a growing season.  We also now have tractors and rotary hoes, as well as water pumps and irrigation systems.  All changes which have given us an increased number of choices.  In previous times without such modern contrivances there was much more dry-land farming going on and Islanders relied far more heavily on annual cycles and their personal ability to read the soil, the weather and the seasons.   Herein lies the loss; if it can be thought of as such.

 Did you ever wonder what kinds of greens the Island people may have eaten in earlier times; in times of scarcity, or through the long hot summers when there was little else around after the young and tender winter and springtime greens had all but finished.

One of the answers can be found in Davies 1851 Tahitian dictionary.  ‘Pota’ is defined as ‘any vegetable, such as cabbage, taro leaves, &c’  On Pitcairn still pota is ‘cooked green taro tops (or leaves of other plants), cooked and used as a vegetable’.  This usage on Pitcairn was recorded as early as 1957.  Other green edible leaves include such things as obre or nightshade, tomato leaves and manioca or cassava leaves.   The Pitcairn Islanders also have a saying ‘green as a pota’.  On Norfolk we simply say ‘hi/shi/dem how green’.  Both mean inexperienced, silly, or naive.

Pota appears in Norf’k to specifically refer only to taala or taro leaf and/or sow-thistle.  Both were once collected and eaten as greens.  Although I can find no evidence of the following greens specifically being referred to as pota, other edible young green leaves once eaten on Norfolk are the growing tips of the sweet potato vine, tomato leaves, wild cress, wild spinach, pumpkin leaves, and choko leaves.  Wild mustard and wild cabbage have also been eaten in the past; the wild cabbage I am told is very bitter.   Flint also recorded ‘Cook’s cabbage’ as a herb when he visited the Island in the 1960s.

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DAA ENT’ NORF’K WERD (Part Three) ... by Rachel Borg

Recording information regarding a word’s origin helps put it in a full and proper context and places speakers in a position of greater power; we can at least say with some authority that yes it is, or at least once was, a Norf’k word.  Ambiguity can be a terrible thing; it sometimes leads to malcontent.  It certainty puts people in a better position not only to be able to say that a word clearly belongs to the Norf’k vocabulary; but also how, why and when it came to be.  Even if it falls from everyday usage we retain a fascinating historical record of language and how it has changed over time.

During my long term love affair with Norf’k  I have come across some words which I have never heard before, and there is a wonderful core of people around me who help me to understand the context in which they themselves might use these words.  When I hear them I know they belong comfortably in someone’s Norf’kvocabulary; even if they have never been evident in my immediate surroundings.  Sometimes the tiny pockets within our community where these words lay hidden prove to be extremely valuable in rebuilding language links.   Here are some of those mysterious words;  if anyone can shed more light on how they are used, who used them and how they came to be we would be so much richer for knowing about them.  These words have made their journey into our language and in some small way have made it richer or more colourful: words like j’lili/jallilygada/guddabululusprinkegijan/gajantwaa/twarapapetini, and hupudulu remain words of infinite mystery to me.  Perhaps not to others.

There are also more widely recorded words such as emans which are almost obsolete but retain some level of mystery, not so much to definition and usage, but definitely as to it’s possible origins.  Perhaps we have to accept that there are some things we will never truly know.

The reasons why words leave us are also interesting; sometimes it is a simple as an economic change such as the move from a subsistence to a cash economy; or a moral change such as a loosening or a tightening of the moral code by which we live.  Changes in work and lifestyle, as well as environmental factors may also encourage them to stay or go.  Whaling words for example, unless continued in another context or re-invented, by and large have fallen to the wayside when the industry ceased.  We no longer use tab’lain (tub of line); and faas boet (fast boat) now retains a figurative rather than literal usage.  I suspect also that only the older generations might now use waif in reference to a flag.  Agricultural words and phrases such as in’raip and graba also fall away with changes in our work-life balance and general lifestyle.

Norf’k is officially recognised as an endangered language; saving or maintaining it is a little like looking at a brick wall which is falling into a state of disrepair.  There are a few options on the table;  leave it and see what happens; look towards re-enforcing the foundations and building  the wall back up to a position of strength to ensure that it remains strong and weathers any future storms well; or dismantling it brick by brick until there is nothing left.  Maybe we could also pray?  Whatever one might decide to do in the end; taking ownership of the wall and making sure it stays strong is the only really enduring testament to the hard work of the generations of people who have come before us who originally dug the wall in well and built it strong and firm.  

If anyone can help to re-build the ‘word wall’ it would be great to be able to pass the knowledge on.

Knowing about word origins not only gives these words a legitimacy and a sense of place in our vocabulary; it also helps speakers and students of Norf’k to understand them better and use them in their full and proper context without fear of recrimination or reprisal.  At the same time it also fosters a safer and happier environment where everyone el tork Norf’k macheswieh dem want desdieh en f’aewa.

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DAA ENT’ NORF’K WERD (Part Two ... by Rachel Borg

When word origins are obscured for sensitivity’s sake it makes it even more difficult over time to trace them back to their origins, words such as lusa (possibly of Polynesian origin) perhaps belong in this category.   

Sometimes Norf’k word usage is also primarily restricted to families, groups, or generations of Islanders and they may not move beyond that environment to the wider community or might only have a limited shelf-life.  One of these words in current usage is bolos, a word used to describe very cold weather, and particularly cold blustery and uncomfortable weather.  Older Islanders will say it is not a Norf’k word.  It was not until a few years ago that I realised that there were Islanders who didn’t actually use it and perhaps didn’t know of its existence.  This might suggest it is a relatively recent addition to the Norf’k vocabulary.  It is not an English word, nor is it a Pitcairn word and even more unlikely is it of Polynesian origin.  How did it sneak in and where does it belong in our histiography; how did it come to the Island and who brought it here?  Does anyone know?  Please if you do know; let others know.   It might not seem important right now but it saves a lot of angst, misunderstanding and hurt when we are clear about such things and everyone is empowered by shared and common knowledge. 

Language is of course forever changing, moving, and reinventing itself; we have to be willing to let go of some things and open the door to other things.  You lose some and you gain some.  Capturing language and quarantining it is like trying to stuff a red racing car going at full throttle into a jam jar, if you’re quick enough you might just pull it off without mishap.  Sometimes the results can be calamitous; unless we somehow accommodate the fact that is eternally moving and changing.  It’s a big ask!  Maybe the answer is simpler; maybe it’s just about being kinder and more respectful to each other in these matters.

Often word origins can be traced back to specific dates, historical events or certain people; the origins remain in living memory for a time; and hopefully have somehow been recorded along the way.  I often wonder, for example, where in the Island’s history the pudding ‘Maree’ comes from.  

As well as telling when and how words may have been introduced; in the same way we can also roughly estimate a word’s demise; the time in which it fell out of general usage and perhaps what pushed a word aside; whether it be a change of circumstance; generational changes, passing fads, or the introduction of a new and ‘better’ word.  Words of course also come in and out of vogue; we can all teach each other, young and old, about the patterns and trends we see and experience along the way.  Sometimes old words become ‘new’ again.  A few weeks ago a young boy was telling me about how they use the word ‘puti’ at school to refer to a boy who was ‘a bit of girl’ (I suppose in the same way others  might use sissy or nancy-pants and words in this vein).  Is ‘puti’  an old word or a new word?  I suspect it is an old word from an old Island family; it also appears elsewhere as an old Island nickname for a woman who is no longer with us, and there is a similar sounding word we use for female genitalia which likely is traceable back to the Tahitian word for ‘girl’.  Linguists often group these ‘similar sound - similar meaning’ words together as being highly likely indicative of a common origin.  Sometimes it is very hard to say in retrospect exactly how these words or derivatives of them arrived at this point.  There is a lot of second-guessing which goes on.

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