Reconnecting the community with the land

Photo by Wayne Ricks

Students work to clear weeds from the ki leaf patch.

As the steady Saturday rain fell, a circle of some 30 volunteers held hands and listened to the oli (Hawaiian chant). The oli explained the purpose of Papahana Kuaola, a 69-acre parcel of land in the Waipao Valley, nestled up against the Ko’olau Mountains.

According to co-director Kihei Nahale-a, there is a program every day for the community to learn about land sustainability and restoration. “We are here to develop our connection to our community,” he explained. “We want to work and support our community to stay healthy. In turn, our community can help other communities.”

Papahana Kuaola is a place where you and the community can go to visit and volunteer to work in the lo‘i (irrigated garden patches). Kalo (taro) is grown in the lo‘i. The project is made possible from grants and funding from Kamehameha Schools. Nahale-a said, “We would be lost without the community’s involvement, just like we would be lost without any water.”

At first glance, one might think of the Ko’olau as healthy, green and wet, but actually 90 percent of the plants are invasive. “These plants don’t play well with the rest of the community of animals and native plant life,” Nahale-a explained. “They stunt the growth and vitality of useful plants that have a cultural significance.” Papahana Kuaola restores the land and puts back native plants through community involvement, which in turn, gives the community a sense of connection to the land, he adds.

The volunteers were divided into two groups. One group worked to clear an overgrown area, leaving the ki leaf plants and kalo to flourish. They also cleared the waterways of debris to improve the water flow.

Photo by Wayne Ricks

WCC students clean kalo at one of Papahana Kuaola’s streams.

“You have to know your waiwai (water-water),” Nahale-a said. He talked about the importance of the waiwai. Kane is the god of fresh water. Water is the life force to our sustainability. He said a kupuna (elder) told him, “Where get water, get kalo. Where get kalo, get Hawaiians.”

There are all kinds of water. They include the kahawai, which is the perennial Ha‘ikū Stream that runs through the property and later turns into the He‘eia Stream; the pūnāwai, which is a collection of natural springs located throughout the property.

The waihū, which is seepage water that comes up out of the ground under no pressure that feeds the kalo patches; and the waiola (sacred water) that is collected by plants such as the kalo, bamboo and coconut, which are considered sacred as well.

“You have to study the water, learn from it, and then you’ll know how to work it. It’s a challenge, and we learn from our mistakes,” Nahale-a said. “It’s a humbling experience.”

Photo by Wayne Ricks

Kumu Makanani Salā gathers kalo.

He went on to explain how to let the water teach you. “The stronger the familial bond with the water, the better we will sustain,” he said. “We need the community to maintain what we are doing here.”

The other group, led by Ana Kon, worked in the kalo patches. They cleaned and harvested the mature kalo. The kalo leaves and root balls were cut from the stalks for consumption. The stalks were replanted as there are no seeds, and the only way to regenerate is to replant the stalks.

Kon, an educator and engagement specialist, instructed the volunteers, “Share the land, share the knowledge, and take it home to share with others.” She said the Hawaiian people had a certain way of doing things—how they cared for the land and how they accomplished it. She wants to pass that on to the community, teaching those who visit Papahana Kuaola.

“Sustain the water and the land, sustain the island, and sustain the world,” Kon said. “Keep the water and land healthy—the common thread to keeping people healthy—and everything will be okay.”

WCC teacher of Hawaiian Studies Makanani Salā said she took her students to Papahana Kuaola to experience Hawaiian sustainability. Her first lecture deals with the Hawaiian relationship to the land through their ancestors.

“Papahana Kuaola puts the two together and brings our knowledge full circle,” Salā explained. She also said the Hawaiian people were agriculturally innovative. They took the water from the source and fed the lo’i and then returned the water to its source—all by gravity.

PHPapahanaSignTracy Brito, a WCC student of Hawaiian Studies, said volunteering at Papahana Kuaola made her think of what her Hawaiian ancestors did in the past. “It made me proud,” she said, smiling.

Kolby Matsushima, also a WCC Hawaiian Studies student, said working in the soil was “pretty amazing.” He has lived in Kaneohe all his life and said he never knew about Papahana Kuaola. He worked to help clear debris from a small stream and saw the increased flow of water. Later, he helped clear a larger section and saw the water gushing.

“It was awesome to see, to help nature get everything back into balance. It was a good feeling,” Kolby added.

Another WCC Hawaiian Studies student, Kassandra Dubois, said the experience was culturally an eye-opener. “It made me feel like a true Hawaiian.” She remembered looking at her fellow students along the stream and imagined living in a sustainable village. She said the experience helped her to understand the importance of agriculture for the Hawaiian people.

Student Kimmer Horsen said visiting Papahana Kuaola helped her understand how the air, clouds and land work together to produce sustenance. She helped clear the weeds from the kalo lo’i that hindered the kalo from sufficiently growing, saying, “It was a pleasant experience to kōkua the lo‘i.” Horsen said she realized how each component contributed to the kalo cultivation. “Water is life, and the sun provides warmth and assistance as well,” she explained.

At the end of the work experience, the volunteers hiked up to where the Ha‘ikū Stream flowed over huge basalt rocks, cascading into several glistening waterfalls. Their facial expressions said it all. The experience was beautiful and unique. They didn’t even notice the rain had stopped. One might say, it was a blessing from the gods.

Nahale-a bid everyone a mahalo and aloha. “Share the land, share the stories and share the food,” he encouraged.

by Wayne Ricks, Ka ‘Ohana Staff Reporter