Posted on June 10, 2011 at 6:17 PM
An Unlikely Setting
Past the little town of ʻUlupalakua and the tiny but graced headquarters of ʻUlupalakua Ranch, on the leeward flanks of Haleakalā volcano, begin in earnest lava fields that continue for another 20 or so miles until you reach Kaupō District. To most who pass this way, kapu to rental cars, the lava seems barren and like a moonscape - formidable, almost hostile, and seemingly incapable of supporting life of any kind.
Most are shocked to learn that these lava flows support some of Hawaiʻi’s richest forests, the source of much of the material culture of the ancient Hawaiians - the Hawaiian dryland forests.
To those who pass through only once, their memories recall buffeting winds and tortuously pitted roads winding through stretches of twisted lava and rocky ridges. But to those who know this country better, each of the ahupuaʻa (wedge-shaped land districts) that make up southern Haleakalā is profoundly unique.
To botanists, some of these ahupuaʻa have acquired near legendary status: Kanaio, Lualaʻilua, Kapuni, Alena, Auwahi. This is thanks to the turn-of-the-century explorations of early Hawaiian botanists, like Charles Forbes of the Bernice P. Bishop Museum, and the renowned Joseph Rock of the College of Hawaiʻi (now University of Hawaiʻi at Manoa). Rock singled out the Auwahi District, on Haleakala, and the Puʻuwaʻawaʻa District of Hawaiʻi Island as the richest botanical regions in the territory, with more tree species than any Hawaiian rain forest.
Of the 50-odd species of rare Hawaiian trees found at Auwahi, 41 had specific Hawaiian ethnobotanical uses. Nineteen species had medicinal uses, 13 were used in making specific tools, 13 had uses in canoe construction, 8 were used in kapa-making , and 8 to make dyes ranging from pink to blue to a rich yellow-orange. At least 7 of the tree species have spiritual significance and were used religiously. Other uses ranged from fireworks to bird-lime to a fish-narcotizing agent.
Since days of old, however, Auwahi has been greatly transformed by burning, grazing, and the invasion of non-native plants. As a result, much of the original native understory at Auwahi has been replaced by a thick, smothering green mat of aggressive African Kikuyu grass, introduced as cattle forage.
A Museum Forest
To many, Auwahi is known as a “museum forest.” Although ancient majestic trees of nearly every Hawaiian dryland species can still be found there, most have no seedlings and have had none for the past 50 to 100 years. Just like a museum filled with artifacts, these forests are in a sense no longer living, but just persisting in a shadow state, one windstorm away from becoming a pasture.
By examining sub-fossil bones found beneath this land, we now know that these dryland forests once supported a tremendously diverse community of Hawaiian birds, from giant flightless geese (moa nalo) to the loud, sweet-voiced, yellow and black honeyeaters. Now, except for the light twittering of white-eyes and the occasional mynah squawk, the forests are quiet as a museum.
As a local boy from Kaneʻohe, Oʻahu, I came to know and love Hawaiian plants. I read Joseph Rock's often poetic descriptions of these Hawaiian treasures of incomparable value growing at Auwahi, a far-off forest on Maui, and was deeply moved by them. Later, as a biologist, my dreams came alive when I had a chance not only to visit these areas, but also to participate in efforts to save them.
ʻUlupalakua Ranch's Stewardship
Dreams wouldn’t have gone farther than the first visit without the complete empathy and support of the landowners, the Erdman family of ʻUlupalakua Ranch. First Pardee Erdman, and now his son Sumner, have always made one thing clear - “Let’s see if we can run an honest, productive business and yet at the same time, do the right thing.”
This unflagging ethic of giving back to the land and community that support them has been the catalyst for a multi-agency collaboration dedicated to protecting and restoring Auwahi's superb forests. Throughout all our years out there, the Erdmans have encouraged biologists to come and try to bring life back to the Auwahi forest. For this, they deserve our most sincere mahalo loa.
Sponsored first by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and more recently by the U.S. Geological Survey, U.S. Department of Agriculture's Natural Resources Conservation Service, Maui County Department of Water Supply, and Haleakala National Park, these efforts evolved over the years into the construction of a 10-acre exclosure, from which invasive weeds were removed.
Seedlings Ready to Return to Auwahi's Slopes
Over a 2-year period, our team built a greenhouse at Ranch headquarters and started gathering and germinating seeds of Auwahi’s rare trees. By late 1999, we had about 2,500 seedlings ready to be outplanted - returned to their native soil. Based on 5 decades of monthly rainfall records, we selected the first week of January 2000 as the date most likely to receive winter rainfall.
We had no way of knowing that 2 El Nino drought years were just about to occur, back to back - the driest 2 years ever recorded at ʻUlupalakua. (As it turned out, despite that severe drought, the outplanted trees have had a 75% survival rate, vs. the 10-30% predicted. The project is considered a great success.)
The Blessing: Kumu Tauʻa
It had been a busy 3 weeks of planning, logistics, and coordination before the actual outplanting. Everything was coming together well, but I knew one thing still needed to be done. Before starting a big task into uncharted territory, Hawaiians often want to make things pono (good) or pololei (correct). To that end, I contacted noted Maui kumu Keliʻi Tauʻa and asked him if he could bless our plants and welcome the long-absent seedlings back into the ahupuaʻa of Auwahi.
Keliʻi Tauʻa has been present at the beginnings of great projects before. He had been there with the double-hulled voyaging canoes, first the Hōkūleʻa and then its great twin, the Hawaiʻiʻloa. It was Keliʻi who, when winds had failed, went down to the Society Islands to chant for winds, and winds had followed. Keliʻi Tauʻa has taught for years at Baldwin High School in Kahului, a truly beloved teacher and mentor for Hawaiian music, dance, and culture.
First Blessing: the Greenhouse
The morning of the blessing was a typical one at ʻUlupalakua, calm and clear and quiet, save for the sound of chickens and the occasional far-off barking of a dog. Our group of 20 to 30 gathered at the greenhouse where Kumu Tauʻa, Bully Kapahulehua, and Kapono Kamaunu began the ceremony with pule (prayers) and spontaneous words of inspiration.
Kumu Tauʻa then mixed ʻawa in a heavy wooden bowl that Māhealani Kaiʻaokamālie carried as he sprinkled the ʻawa-water mixture around the greenhouse and plants, and, as is Hawaiian tradition, paying special attention to the entrance of the structure.
With this first part of the blessing completed, the seedlings, planted in foresters' dibble tubes and arranged in sets of 98 for each black plastic rack, were loaded into pick-up trucks for the 45-minute uphill drive on rough, rutted ranch roads to their new home.
Maile for the Blessing at Auwahi
The group reconvened in Auwahi, at Puʻu ʻŌuli, perched 4,000 feet above the ruffled and slate-blue Pacific. As an essential and tangible representation of the blessing, we gathered to plant a maile lauliʻi vine within the exclosure. At the trucks, Kumu Tauʻa asked how many maile we had time to plant.
I knew we were coming precariously close to the arrival of the helicopter to sling-load the seedlings to strategically selected sites within the exclosure. I asked Kumu Tauʻa if it was okay to plant just one, to which he nodded. To be on the safe side, I grabbed 2 dibble tubes of maile lauliʻi , and we headed off.
The Pūʻolēʻolē Sounds
Single-file, the group wound down the narrow ridge and into our fenced exclosure, gathering and reassembling below a twisted, spreading kauila tree, one of only 150 to 200 trees of its kind remaining on Maui. Kauila was renowned by Hawaiians for its iron-hard wood and as a symbol of indefatigable strength. It was used in making the very best quality ʻōʻō (digging sticks), weapons, and iʻe kuku (kapa mallets).
Framed by the rusty-red liko (leaf buds) of the kauila, Bully Kapaulehua trumpeted the pūʻolēʻolē (conch shell) for each of the 4 cardinal directions. The loud brave cry filled the emptied forest, echoing off its rocky ridges.
I found myself wondering how long it had been since the pūʻolēʻolē had sounded at Auwahi. One hundred years? Two hundred? Three hundred? More? Maybe that was the reason the dryland forest at Auwahi had fallen on such hard times!
Ola Poured into the Land
Pieces of ʻawa root were added to a bowl with water and massaged. ʻAwa doesn’t make seeds anywhere in the Pacific, but is propagated by root and stem cuttings. This means that all ʻawa grown and used today is from the very same long-lived plants used by Hawaiians centuries ago.
I dug a fair-sized planting hole, not without effort in the rocky ground, laying the maile seedling in the hole. Then, without my asking, the second seedling was handed to me, and I put it in the hole next to the first.
As I watched the thin, milky ʻawa water being poured from the coconut cup into the planting hole, I felt I was watching the ola (life) being poured back into the land. I had always thought the ola was in the plants, but now I felt the ola was in the land itself, awaiting the arrival of the seedlings.
Mailelua is Named
Then Kumu Tauʻa started to walaʻau (talk) easily and from the heart. He talked about the spirit having left the land and how we were asking it to return here, to this ahupuaʻa, to begin in the exclosure.
He said “You know, up at the truck, I asked Art how many plants to plant and Art said one. I didn’t say a word to Art, but 2 seedlings were brought down and the 2 were planted right next to each other. This is the Hawaiian way. One for the male side of things, the other for the female side.”
Then Kumu Tauʻa gave the unnamed hill its name, Mailelua, literally, “the two maile vines.” From there, Kumu Tauʻa voiced his feelings and asked for ours. Person after person spoke with eloquence.
For the last 10 minutes or so of our kumuʻs blessing, my eyes were filled with silent tears. I had asked Kumu Tauʻa to give the blessing, but I have to admit I was caught off-guard by its simple power and grace.
Clouds of Noe
Up to that point, the morning had been clear and warm, much like the weather of the previous week and the week to come. But during the course of the blessing, the skies began to darken. Shorty thereafter, the group clustered on the ridge round the kauila tree was engulfed in clouds of rolling noe (mist). Then it began to rain - a thin, insistent, white rain that at this elevation quickly changed the warm morning to conditions more favoring hypothermia.
The ensuing helicopter operation to lift the seedlings into the exclosure was almost canceled due to the rain and poor visibility. Despite pea-soup conditions, pilot Duke Baldwin said he felt comfortable and that somehow he could see the things he needed to.
Seeing Kumu Tauʻa at the top of the hill, I said “Too much rain, kumu, too much rain.” With his big, warm smile, he cooed “Very un-Hawaiian, Art, very un-Hawaiian.”
The rest of that week, the first week of this new, bright millennium, a crew of about 30 souls planted over 2,000 seedlings of rare Hawaiian dryland species, most of which can grow 30 to 50 feet tall. The planting wasn’t accomplished without a struggle, as the land seemed filled with rocks. But between and beneath these rocks was the blackest, richest loam many of us had ever seen.
For species like the rare ʻaiea (Nothocestrum), after which Oʻahu’s well-known district is named, probably as many seedlings were planted in 1 week as there are adult trees in the entire ahupuaʻa.
A Crew Becomes as One
The work went slowly at first. The keiki plants were so valuable and after all, many of us barely knew each other at the start. At the beginning of the week, the coordinators all seemed most busy talking, giving instructions for the complicated outplanting procedure. After Wednesday, we didn’t need to say a word. Everyone knew what we were doing and what came next.
By Thursday, the group had become of one mind, working almost silently, except for the occasional ring of a pick on rock. At lunch, words of hope for the future were the theme. The tide seemed turned. Pau hana at week’s end, the laughing, joking crew had become friends and colleagues-in-arms.
Cresting the immense, rounded puʻu (hills) of ʻUlupalakua, far below, the islands of Kahoʻolawe and Molokini roil the ocean’s surface, appearing adrift in the ʻAlalakeiki Channel, orange and uli (darkened) with the setting sun. We are smiling. It feels pono; the ola is back at Auwahi.