Why I Photograph: An Apologia*
“What I have most wanted to do throughout the past ten years is to make political writing into an art. My starting point is always a feeling of partisanship, a sense of injustice. When I sit down to write a book, I do not say to myself, ‘I am going to produce a work of art’. I write it because there is some lie that I want to expose, some fact to which I want to draw attention, and my initial concern is to get a hearing. But I could not do the work of writing a book, or even a long magazine article, if it were not also an aesthetic experience. “— George Orwell “Why I Write,” 1946
What has drawn me to visit and photograph stone structures in Hawaiʻi and the UK is their beauty, a beauty that to some degree transcends culture, a beauty that is also a conversation with the surrounding land, totally appropriate to each of their particular landscapes. In Hawaiʻi these visits have been a puka (opening) into the place where I was born and in the UK, another puka into a home of my ancestors. This is the short story. The long story, of course, is far more complex.
My father came to Honolulu with the fleet in the 1930s, a junior officer on the USS Indianapolis. My mother lived across from the zoo in Waikīkī, the daughter of immigrants from Friesland in the north of Holland. Several years after the end of the war, they brought me from the naval hospital in Hālawa to their new home on Kailua Road, not far from Kalapawai Market and the beach. The contractor who built it, I was told much later, had leveled the lot with sand taken from dunes on Kailua Beach. When I was very young, I played in that sand with little bulldozers and dump trucks, accompanied by sound effects, leveling foot-square lots for the construction of tiny houses, in tiny fantasy subdivisions. As I played, I was later told, I would load my dump trucks with digits, teeth, carpals, vertebrae and fibula, bits and pieces of those whose remains had been transported to create our beautiful suburban yard. Of course, the sand dunes had been burial places, like dunes everywhere in Hawaiʻi. Fingers from the past protruding into our brand new lives in our band new home on a brand new Castle Estate leasehold lot. It is like that in Hawaiʻi.
Landscape photography and the journey towards home
Place-rooted photography celebrates the sacred nature of the natural world; at it core, it is a ceremony. It invites us to experience intimacy with a landscape by reminding us of the innate value of that place, even if we do not think through the complex chain of cause and effect that anchors our existence to it. Barry Lopez, in Rediscovery of North America, draws a distinction between those who reside in a place and those who have made it their home. According to Lopez, the way to make the journey from residence to home in North America is to acquire “local knowledge,” intimate familiarity with oneʻs cultural and physical environment. Here in Hawaiʻi this might be called becoming maʻa. ** One becomes maʻa to a place by studying the stories of its first peoples, its tides, rains and winds, its indigenous plants and animals, and especially its original language. To photograph the land is also a way to become maʻa, a way to listen.
Many of my images include earth and stone structures created by indigenous cultures, both in Europe and in Hawaiʻi, where I was born. The sites were first imagined and then created by those who understood, far more than most of us do now, the sacred nature of the natural world, and our intimate links to it. I photograph these places to acknowledge those who found their own balance here before us, and to see these landscapes, as much as possible now, through their eyes. The structures they built reward careful listening. An ahu is a small shrine or altar in Hawaiian language, but the term can also refer to a cairn, a pile of stones marking a trail, such as the ahu marking the route to the summit of Mauna Loa on Hawaiʻi Island, a journey I made in my youth. The cultural sites documented here might be seen as ahu marking trails towards alternate visions of the universe, trails towards home.
Wahi kūpuna as aesthetic creations
Hawaiian pre-contact culture was a Bronze Age civilization without bronze, rooted in agriculture, ocean and stone. Like Greeks and Romans, Hawaiians are engineers, skilled in fitting stone on stone, expressing abstract thought through physical structures — of which many yet remain in bushes on the sides of roads, hidden behind real estate developments, on land often viewed as “worthless” unless covered with concrete and asphalt, generating income. The Hawaiian language term wahi kūpuna (ancestral place) better describes them, replacing the sterile academic label, “archaeological site.” Many images here simply document wahi kūpuna. They record a few of the numerous pre-contact site complexes which continue to be bulldozed to make way for marinas, strip malls, condo developments and upscale gated communities. Some wahi kūpuna, having been recently destroyed, live nowhere else except in these images, now evidence that they once existed. And the few sites recorded here pale into insignificance beside the vast numbers already erased, mōhai to the gods of greed.
The recently-intact complex of fishing shrines and shoreline sites at Oneʻula, Oʻahu, is now a pond surrounded by a golf course and upscale houses — with a handful of sites allowed to exist on the periphery of the lagoon, isolated from all original context. It was the last intact shoreline site complex on Oʻahu, the only one on any island on an emerged seabed constructed entirely of coral. A bottle collector who lived in ʻEwa in the mid-1990s took me to photograph structures at Oneʻula over a period of several years. We used to walk in the kiawe forest past many, many filled-in sinkholes. They were of course burials. On Hawaiʻi Island, cultural anthropologist Marion Kelly witnessed bulldozers clearing site complexes in Keauhou, Kailua-Kona. Two bulldozers connected by a long chain would pass on either side of a complex, reducing it to rubble in a matter of minutes. Kelly, along with Kenneth Emory, also witnessed the bulldozing of the lower section of the holua loa, the broad, stone-paved downhill sledding run at Keauhou on Hawaiʻi Island — now a resort and golf clubhouse. The landowner was Kamehameha Schools, my employer. The land managers, knowing that local residents would object, arranged for the demolition to take place on a Sunday, when everyone was in church. According to Kelly, “Up to the late 1960s and early 1970s, remaining sites of the Kānaka Maoli were seldom preserved. No one thought much of them. The missionaries had convinced most people, many Hawaiians included, that those sites of sacred rituals, shrines to the indigenous Kānaka Maoli gods, were places to be shunned, avoided, repressed and dismantled.” (from the introduction to Pana Oʻahu, by Marion Kelly)
The attitudes Kelly refers to were an intimate part of the unspoken understandings of my youth. In my time at Stevenson Intermediate and Roosevelt High, almost none of my classmates would admit to being Hawaiian, even though they lived in nearby Papakōlea Hawaiian Homesteads. They were all Chinese or Portugese. And the sites I later photographed for all of us at that time were scary places of “human sacrifice.” It was all amazingly successful narrative control by 19th century missionary descendants, businessmen who saw themselves as beacons of enlightened Western culture, but whose great grandparents had hanged people for witchcraft in Salem.
Those wahi kūpuna that have survived a 200-year frenzy of land development exist in fragmented, isolated pieces. In Hawaiian language the term “kīpuka” refers to the island of forest left untouched by a surrounding lava flow as it splits into two rivers which later rejoin, heading downhill to the sea. Many of these images record cultural kīpuka, images of one landscape being surrounded, sometimes being submerged or sometimes re-emerging in the midst of another. We must assemble the previous forest in our minds. And once the bigger picture begins to emerge, even a little, we are better able to appreciate an aboriginal culture that expressed through stone structures, carefully placed in reference to the landscape, its place in the cosmos.
These structures are some of the few tangible, direct communications passed down from pre-contact times — aside from objects left in museums. They are not merely “archaeological sites” but spatial references to the natural environment that embody religion, philosophy, aesthetics and the natural sciences, treatises that suggest an entire non-western cosmology, connecting culture, land and sky. They are at the same time dissertations on the natural world, scriptures and works of art. Their wanton destruction is the equivalent of burning libraries of irreplaceable manuscripts, of bulldozing museums full of works of art.
I was at a heiau (a ceremonial structure) a few years ago with an elderly Hawaiian man, a wise and generous person who has since passed. We were clearing invasive weeds from a large structure of two terraces on a gentle slope, defined by an enclosing wall at the rear and a stone-faced terrace on the other three sides. A large, flat pōhaku (stone) lies on the upper terrace and a very old ki (ti) plant grows at the front of the structure. At one point we stopped cutting the tall grass and he offered me a gift. He pointed to a vertical cliff on the opposite side of the valley. “Can you see Kāne?” he asked. When I looked at the spot, I saw a face staring down at us, formed in the folds and hollows of the basalt. I had been to that place a number of times before and must have glanced at that cliff dozens of times without seeing the face, which, once noticed, was strikingly clear. It may be that the heiau was located at that spot just because of it. Kāne is a god of agriculture, of generation, of reproduction. On the lower terrace of the same heiau is a small group of stones — an ahu — on an otherwise flat, clear surface. One of them stands on end, erect, an ule. At its base, facing Kāne, are two flat stones that suggest a cleft, a kohe. And at the very top of the cleft, almost touching the upright is a small stone projecting slightly from the folds of the cleft: fecundity.
Borders, peripheries and footprints
Borders interest me, the edges of things. I was born and raised on a kind of border, an outlying periphery of American civilization in the middle of the Pacific. On an island it’s easy to notice demarcations between physical spaces: land and water, urban and rural, sky and earth. However, what draws me in particular are the visually elusive borders between contested landscapes occupied simultaneously by several cultures: places occupied by divergent views of the cosmos, views that do not comfortably share the same space, and yet which do share that space.
I was born here in Hawaiʻi, but it took me decades to notice such spaces, where cultural borders overlap and sometimes collide. A few of these images, if they succeed at all, document overlapping world views, both referencing, both claiming the same landscape in their opposing perceptions of the universe and of our place in it. Once in a great while, it is possible to photograph these contested spaces in such a way that multiple, overlapping worlds crystallize in a visual way. Thus, the places themselves become metaphors for the changes that have happened here, the sober reality beneath the fantasy hula-hula façade of slick tourist promos that litter the streets of Waikīkī. In recording a wahi kūpuna, one ends up, without even intending to do so, recording the effects of contact with the West over the past 230 years, the footprint of Western culture on a non-Western landscape. The camera always faces in two directions.
Lopez describes the 1492 Spanish landing in the New World as an “incursion” that quickly turned into “an appropriation of place,” decimating indigenous cultures and their environments in a rapacious search for gold. The Spanish, according to Lopez, set the tone for what happened across an entire hemisphere in the centuries that followed. “We lost languages, epistemologies, books, ceremonies, systems of logic and metaphysics — a long, hideous carnage.” Within this carnage, the 1893 overthrow of an independent Hawaiian nation by American businessmen supported by American marines — three years after Wounded Knee — was yet one more appropriation of place by those who saw a residence but not a home, opportunities for profit, but no corresponding responsibilities. The 1893 appropriation of land and culture continues, a century after the overthrow of Liliʻuokalani and the subsequent ban on speaking Hawaiian language in the public schools (1896) and at Kamehameha School — which expelled students for committing that offense in the first decades of the 20th century.
Cultural landscapes and their names
The overthrow of 1893 created a ripple of subsequent overthrows that continues to this day. Hawaiʻi was once the most remote land mass on Earth, with unique species far more numerous than the Galapagos. However, indigenous species have not fared well under the onslaught of alien plants and animals, which continue to appear and take hold at a bewildering rate, shrinking toeholds of native ecosystem year by year. More often than not, it is profit extraction that drives habitat destruction; once gone, original ecosystems never return. When the plants go, the birds, snails and insects go along with them — another “hideous carnage.” Native species make up just one component of a vast web of interconnected pieces of the original cultural landscapes of Hawaiʻi: flora, fauna, winds, rains, ʻolelo (language), moʻolelo (stories, history), moʻokūʻauhau (genealogy), political/economic organization, land tenure, among many other pieces. With so much else altered or lost, the stone and earth structures in these images remain as potent pōhaku hekau (anchors), reminders of their recently- intact context — and of the recent inhabitants and owners of the land.
If many of the habitats for native species have been paved, what else remains — besides stone structures — are inoa maoli, original place names. Like the names of places significant to Native Americans, there was a vast colonial erasing concurrent with the appropriation of title to the places they name. Henry Kaiser renamed Maunalua Hawai’i Kai. Lēahi became Diamond Head, Puowaina became Punchbowl, Lae Loa became Barbers Point, Ka‘ōwao became Lanikai, Ka‘elepulu became Enchanted Lake and Līhue became Schofield, all to suit the fancy of developers, military commanders and politicians.
Still, original place names do remain, a vast treasure still somewhat intact. Islands were named, and within each island, districts (moku) and below those, ahupuaʻa, and below those ʻili, and so on, down through many layers to small plots of land and single stones. In photographing places in Hawaiʻi, one sooner or later becomes interested in their names, which then occasionally turn into small openings in the fabric of time, through which one might catch a glimpse of the original cultural landscapes that thrived here.
For several years I had the privilege of teaching sections from several works of Hawaiian orature, long epics memorized and passed down from one generation to the next in a form called kaʻao that included narrative, chant, and dance. These are extended performance pieces, like western opera, but much longer. Hawaiian orature communicates through a complex and multi-layered language of place reference. It is so intimately tied to particular landscapes that it is now impossible, even with a superficial understanding of those epics, to pass through those landscapes without thinking of the events connected to them. Hi‘iaka and Wahineōma’o land on O‘ahu at Āwawmalu, where the inhabitants are embarrassed for their lack of food to offer their guests. Hi‘iaka falls in love with Kanahau at Olomana, and outwits Hauwahine at Kawainui in Kailua. Later, she slays a lizard named Mokoli‘i at Kualoa and much later a monster at Mākua, where she brings a young woman back to life and tosses his lifeless body over the mountain to become a stone at Mokuleʻia. Every mile of the island yields a chapter from her journey.
And each mile evokes yet another chapter in yet another epic. The pig god Kamapua‘a outwits the army of Olopana at Kaliuwa‘a Valley in Punalu‘u, saving his family, and then escapes from captivity at Kāwa‘ewa‘e in Kāne‘ohe when his grandmother chants his name chant, giving him the strength to slay Olopana. Add to this layer the vast body of orature in hula and chant. The landscapes here in Hawai’i nei are permeated by mo‘olelo (stories) and mele (chant) to such a degree that the two are inseparable. Landscape is mo‘olelo.
Apart from their connotations in orature, place names can carry multiple layers of significance. The point at Kualoa is commonly called Lae ‘Ō‘io, or Bonefish Point. Indeed, ‘ō’io are plentiful there, I’ve been told. However, local residents confirm that the point is also known for its night marchers, ghosts of dead ali’i (chiefs). With a slight shift in pronunciation, the name of the point becomes Lae ‘O‘io, Night Marcher Point. The point is also the location of the remains of Pāhulu Heiau, a structure whose name translates as ghost-haunted or nightmare.
In photographing Kahoʻolawe, I learned that the original name of that island was Kohemalamaokanaloa. Broken one way, it reads Kohe mālama o Kanaloa, the Cherished Vagina of Kanaloa (god of the deep sea). Broken another way, it reads Ko Hema Lama o Kanaloa, the Southern Beacon of Kanaloa. In the 12-13th centuries, the island was a departure and arrival point for voyages to Polynesian islands to the south: the Marquesas, Tahiti, Aotearoa. Modern sailors confirm that tides and winds make one place on Kahoʻolawe an ideal departure: Kealaikahiki, the pathway to foreign lands. A departure from that point in the right season can shorten a southern voyage by ten days. For those departing, the currents drawing canoes away from the island were indeed a kohe, a birth canal. The island gave birth to voyaging canoes, a beautiful metaphor. And for those arriving, the island was a beacon at the end of a long journey, the point of first landfall, another profound metaphor. Coming and going, one name implies both meanings.
Of course, many place names entice one down a speculative path but then dissolve into ambiguity, raising more questions than they answer. I lived for years in a small section of Mānoa Valley commonly called Puʻu Pueo, owl hill. However a Hawaiian Kingdom map made in the 1870s clearly labels that place Puʻu Puea, perhaps an oblique reference to the blowing of a conch shell. At Kalaeloa in ‘Ewa is a small land section called Kualakai. It lies at the shore, in a place renamed White Plains Beach. One meaning of “kuala” is a pure white mother-of-pearl shell, the kind prized for fishhooks. The name may carry that significance, especially if those shells are to be found at Kualakai. However, the most prominent cultural feature of that place has always been the trail from there up into the interior, up mauka towards Pu’u Kapolei. One section of the trail still exists, not far from the shore. It stretches about 350 yards, with paired upright limestone slabs at intervals of 6-8 feet. Interestingly, another translation of kuala is kualā, the dorsal fin of a large fish. Some of those upright stones closely resemble dorsal fins, as if carved into that shape. Since a trail is an “ala,” the name may also be an oblique, poetic reference to that unique cultural feature. “Kuala” also means to somersault, to turn a cartwheel, a perfect metaphor for waves crashing on a beach, as the waves do at Kualakai. Perhaps the name implies some or all of those meanings. And perhaps its meaning may yet emerge from the oral traditions of a family, or a chant or an article in a Hawaiian language newspaper.
To an already complex interplay between story, chant, dance and place add the names of the winds and rains of each landscape. As a child attending Mānoa Elementary School, I learned and sang “Tuahine O Mānoa,” but it was not until much later that I learned that the Tuahine rain is the fine mist-like rain that falls on the east side of the valley in certain seasons. It is associated with the mo‘olelo of Kahalaopuna, daughter of the Mānoa rain and the Mānoa wind. And where I spent my earliest years in Kailua on O’ahu, the steady wind I remember blowing in from the sea is called the Malanai breeze. The arid island Kaho’olawe lies in the rain shadow of Haleakalā crater on Maui. On some afternoons, however, a certain cloud formation extends across the channel, bringing the Nāulu rain to the parched island.
Thus, in photographing a wahi (place) in Hawai’i, one must ask its true names, down to the smallest possible section of land. Ideally, one must then learn the stories associated with it, and the names of its winds and rains. And because everywhere on Earth is also indigenous land, wherever one travels one must ask those same questions in other landscapes. And where one finally makes a home, it really is best to learn its original language.
Waikīkī: a multi-layered vision
Waikīkī was once an intact cultural landscape. A place of exquisite beauty, the center of an independent O’ahu kingdom under aliʻi from Mailikukahi to Kākuhihewa. Waikīkī was appropriated not long after the overthrow to become a source of income for corporate entities. An early description offers a glimpse into a place that exists no longer:
“The verge of the shore was planted with a large grove of cocoanut palms, affording a delightful shade to the scattered habitations of the natives. Some of those near the beach were raised a few feet from the ground upon a kind of stage, so as to admit the surf to wash underneath them. We pursued a pleasing path back into the plantation, which was nearly level and very extensive, and laid out with great neatness into little fields planted with taro, yams, sweet potatoes, and the cloth plant. These, in many cases were divided by little banks on which grew the sugar cane and a species of Draecena without the need of much cultivation, and the whole was watered in a most ingenious manner by dividing the general stream into little aqueducts leading in various directions so as to supply the most distant fields at pleasure, and the soil seems to repay the labor and industry of these people by the luxuriancy of its production. Here and there we met with ponds of considerable size, and besides being well stocked with fish, they swarmed with water fowl of various kinds such as ducks, coots, water hens, bittern, plovers and curlews.“
— Archibald Menzies, Surgon and naturalist on Vancouverʻs 1792 voyage
McAllister comments in 1933: “All of this land has now been drained and filled; neither fishponds nor taro lands have survived.”
In 1909 my motherʻs parents immigrated to Honolulu from Holland, although my grandfather became indignant at being labeled Dutch. He and his wife were Fries, a people with their own language, in a land now occupied by parts of western Germany, southern Denmark and northern Holland. When they first arrived in Honolulu, they lived near Washington Place, where they occasionally spoke with the Queen on morning walks. In the 1920s they moved to Hilo, the birthplace of my mother, and then to Waikīkī, where they raised their family. Surfing often on a tall redwood board, my mother grew up in a house near the shore of Makee Pond, one of Waikīkī’s many inland loko iʻa. Between Makee fishpond and the beach was once located Kupalaha Heiau, one of only two on the island dedicated to the sun. The house is now a high-rise condominium, the pond mostly filled in, and the heiau now the Kapiʻolani Park bandstand, according to an old map.
Waikīkī was then being “developed” by the Dillingham Corporation, which in 1926 dug the Ala Wai canal in order to market a housing tract, one of the first of many to follow. In developing land, the corporation evicted many Hawaiian families with ancestral ties to that place. The Dillingham family then built its mansion on Papaʻenaʻena Heiau, on the slopes of Leʻahi (Diamond Head), overlooking Waikīkī, just as the missionary Castle family built its own mansion upon Puʻuhonua Heiau in Mānoa Valley, above Waikīkī.
The political overthrow of 1893 led directly to the eradication of every trace of Waikīkīʻs indigenous cultural landscape, and to the American strip mall that replaced it. Once, Waikīkī seduced visitors with an exquisite beauty, but the coded newspaper language of the early 20th century dismissed its ancient loko iʻa (fishponds) and ʻauwai (irrigation channels) as “swamps” and its Hawaiian subsistence farmers and fishermen as “undesirables.” The Ala Wai, heavily-polluted, now flows parallel to the Waikīkī shoreline, diverting the water of streams that once filled muliwai (estuaries) along the shore, marking the inland boundary of an asphalt sprawl of hotel rooms, vacation rentals, time-share apartments and convenience stores. And yet, the original landscape does remain below the Western veneer, preserved in early accounts, in chant, in moʻolelo, in hula and in stories told within families who used to live there. If through those one has even a glimpse of that underlying landscape, Waikīkī acquires an echo. Many places in Hawaiʻi have such echos.
Mākua: yet another multi-layered vision
Mākua is actually three valleys. The largest and deepest is Mākua, but to its east lies Ko‘iahi, and to its west, Kahanahāiki. Together they open up to form the broad plain at the shore. Driving past on the way to Keawa‘ula, past the chain link fence and military observation tower, past acres of grassland enclosed by steep cliffs and ridges, we admire its beauty. Like everywhere else in Hawai‘i, though, the surface both reveals and conceals multiple realities.
In ancient times, Mākua used to be a large fishing and farming community; we are just beginning to realize how large. Beneath the grass even now are remnants of a vast dry land field system, interrupted by small family or craft ahu (shrines), unu (heiau, temples) and other structures. At the beach was a fishing unu. Cattle ranching earlier this century trampled the agricultural terraces and grazed away much of the remaining native forest on the valley floor, opening the valley to colonization by the same foreign grasses that in the rainy season now look so green from the road. Goats probably destroyed much of the famed maile lauli‘i (small-leafed maile vine) of Ko‘iahi. The Kanaka Maoli (Hawaiian) community remained, though, working on the McCandless Ranch, fishing, farming, gathering on Sundays at the church near the ocean, bringing ho‘okupu (offerings) to the unu at the beach.
The Army took over the valley in 1942, evicting those who lived there and using their church for target practice. Live fire training is more controlled now, but in those early years, pilots dropped hundreds, perhaps thousands of 500 lb. bombs at will, keeping no records of locations or unexploded duds. Artillery rounds and mortars fired throughout the entire valley now work their way to the surface after heavy rains. Cluster bombs were exploded above ground, scattering hundreds of shiny little bomblets that can explode decades later if slightly moved. To make the valley safe for training, the Army conducts “controlled burns” of the vegetation on the floor, so that it is possible to see unexploded ordnance before stepping on it. The burns, however, regularly escape control, killing off precious remnants of indigenous vegetation on the valley walls, just as one did in 2003. Marion Kelly tells of hiking to an area decades ago after such a burn and seeing hundreds of endangered Hawaiian tree snail shells on the ground below a blackened native forest. Once gone, the native forest, its snails and its birds never return.
Fortunately, kūpuna (elders) whose genealogy connects them with the valley have passed on cultural knowledge to their descendants, even after the diaspora. Because of them, we know that Mākua is the parent, a place where Papahānaumoku and Wakea, the sky father and the earth mother, mate to give birth to the Hawaiian people. Kamapua‘a still meets people there at night, according to local hunters, in the form of a huge pig that leaves no hoof prints. Hi‘iaka passed by there on her way back to Hawai‘i island, bringing back to life a young girl who had just died and destroying the evil creature that had killed her. Nearby, she opened a new water source for the local people. The rich tapestry of land and sky and ocean is reflected in the moʻolelo (stories) of those whose ‘ohana (family) lived there for so many generations and who now assert their kinship with Mākua. As for the rest of us, those same moʻolelo serve as markers on the journey towards our own kinship with this place, towards a less exploitative relationship with Mākua, with Hawai’i and with the rest of the Earth. Given the impending environmental crisis, it is a journey we must all make, sooner or later, willing or not.
Now, one passes by on the highway, seeing through the chain-link fence a double vision of past and present. It is the same wherever we look below the surface in Hawai‘i, but at Mākua, the contrast is sharper, the present reality more full of pain and of hope. To make a home here in Hawai’i nei is to hear many echos, to acquire many such multi-layered visions, so that everywhere one sees what once was and what is now, and perhaps a little glimpse of what might have been. However, these thoughts are easily dismissed as naīve, sentimental notions … were it not for what comes.
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born? (W.B Yeats)
To this multi-layered vision must now be added one more layer: diminished islands in a rapidly-approaching future. Before contact, O’ahu was the center of Hawaiian civilization. In 1773 at the age of 15, Kahahana, a descendant of Kuali‘i, was chosen by the O‘ahu moku chiefs to become Ali‘i Nui. A few years later, a vain and foolish Kahahana ordered the slaying of his own Kahuna Nui (high priest), Ka‘opulupulu, along with Ka‘opulupulu’s son, Kahulupe. They had both tattooed their knees black in an oblique reference to the deafness of Kahahana to advice: “kuli” means knee but it also means “deaf.” It is recorded that just before Kahulupe was slain, he attempted to flee into the ocean. His father called out, “I nui ke aho a moe i ke kai!” Take a deep breath and give your body to the sea. As his son died, Ka‘opulupulu then uttered a prophecy that has been interpreted as foretelling the chain of events ending with the coming of foreign ships a very few years later, and the subsequent loss of Hawaiian sovereignty: “No ke kai ka hoi ua aina.” This land is the sea’s.
The prophecy did indeed come true, for Kahahana’s defeat arrived on the ocean. The slaying of Ka‘opulupulu, the last Kahuna Nui of the independent kingdom of O‘ahu, led directly to Kahekili‘s subsequent conquest of the weakened island in 1783. That, in turn, led to the conquest of Kahekilli‘s son, Kalanikupule, by Kamehameha I in 1793 — a conquest that also came from the ocean. However, the prophecy continues to unfold even now, 130 years later.
Much of O‘ahu was covered in water in the early Holocene era, far before the arrival of humans — up to a depth of 150 feet above the current level. A series of measurements taken here in Hawai‘i at the top of Mauna Kea over the past 40 years confirm that the Earth is now permanently beyond 400 parts per million of atmospheric CO2, and that it is too late to avoid severe consequences. Among those consequences are vastly higher sea levels, a return to the levels of the early Holocene. Polynesians built structures of basalt, but in just a few places on O‘ahu used sedimentary limestone that had formed under water in the early Holocene. A precious few of these limestone structures still exist, and have taken on new meaning for everyone in Hawai‘i as potent affirmations of Ka‘opulupulu’s prophecy. Sometimes to see the future, one must look into the past; the land is indeed the sea’s.
A one-meter rise in sea levels is all but certain by the end of the century, probably much sooner: Waikīkī will experience some of the earliest and most direct impacts, with streets impassible at high tide or during rainstorms. (Refer to this site detailing the approaching one-meter sea level rise in Waikīkī.) The one-meter rise — in the long run — is a best-case scenario. Bill McKibben tells us that 3 million years ago, the last time the Earth’s atmosphere held this much CO2, sea levels were 20 meters higher. Click here to judge for yourself the hard facts and figures forecasting the changes coming sooner or later to Waikīkī, to Hawaiʻi and to the rest of our planet — all a consequence of the disconnect between our lives and the places we have turned into mere residences.
It all circles back in the end to the acquisition of local knowledge, which is to say, the acquisition of indigenous knowledge and indigenous relationships with the land. In Notes of a Native Daughter Haunani Trask reminds us that Hawaiian language assigns objects to an “a” class or an “o” class (as they are assigned male or female gender in French language) and that ʻāina (land) belongs to the “o” class. Things in the “a” class are disposable, more distant parts of our lives, but things assigned to the “o” class are close, daily fixtures of our existence, to be treated with care. Our parents belong to the “o” class, as do our thoughts, parts of our bodies, our houses and our clothes. Thus, the impending crisis comes from an underlying misconception of ʻāina, from treating it as though it belongs to the “a” class of things, like any other disposable commodity.
The consumer / corporate / military culture that has brought about this catastrophe, this vast overthrow of an entire planetʻs equilibrium, has at the same time marginalized or extinguished indigenous civilizations whose world views offer paths to more sustainable ways of life. Given this larger context, given the vast changes that rapidly approach, wahi kūpuna and other bodies of indigenous knowledge take on significance as tangible reminders of pathways towards home that leave lighter footprints on the planet, that offer a line of breadcrumbs out of the forest. Itʻs a journey we must all make, sooner or later, willing or not. Some have already imagined it.
And so we find ourselves, all of us together, poised trembling on the edge of a change so massive that we have no way of gauging it. None of us knows where to look, but all of us know not to look down.
— from “Uncivilization” by Paul Kingsnorth
Years ago I was invited to attend a family dinner marking the coming of age of a young woman in a New Mexico Pueblo. It was the time of the yearly festival, a celebration in which participants dressed in masks of horned animal spirits and danced a circuit around the square. At one end, in front of the Catholic Church, was a bower of corn stalks that must have contained kachinas, ancestral gods. Several hundred people danced in unison, making a slow and powerful rhythm with their feet.
One dancer, however, moved utterly out of step, sometimes in the direction of the others, sometimes not. The rhythm of his dance had no obvious relation to the beat of the drums or the steps of the other dancers. Dressed in street clothes, he wove in and around them with a can of Coke in his hand, clearly trying to make them take a misstep. Sometimes he would offer a drink to one of the dancers, who would ignore him and continue making slow, rhythmic steps. I thought at first he was the town drunk who was being tolerated by friends who were perhaps too kind to toss hm out of the dance. Then I saw that his steps made a rhythm after all, a kind of solitary counterpoint. He was playing a central role in the ceremony: the clown, the contrary who dances against the current.
I’d like to think that my work refers obliquely to some of the poetry of Gary Snyder (Earth House Hold, Turtle Island), or perhaps to the ideas of Barry Lopez (The Rediscovery of North America). The culmination of one phase of this effort was the book Pana O‘ahu (University of Hawai‘i Press, 1999), edited and photographed with Joe Singer. In the twelve years of effort leading up to that book, we made an inquiry into what might yet remain of aboriginal wahi kūpuna on this, the most heavily developed island in the Pacific. That inquiry led us to almost 150 ceremonial structures on the island, many yet unrecorded and others since destroyed. Joe has passed away, as has Marion Kelly, who wrote the introduction, and Mikilani Ho, who contributed text. Junior Kanuha, who so freely shared his life and connections to wahi in Kailua-Kona has also passed. For them, my dear friends, I offer these words as mele kanikau. Hoʻomanaʻo.
Presently, efforts are concentrated on O‘ahu, on North Kohala and North Kona districts on Hawai‘i Island, and on Kahoʻolawe. These Hawai‘i projects have led to other sacred enclosures – stone circles in Ireland and Scotland – to inquiries into the indigenous roots of my own culture, and to questions about human conversations with earth and sky. As for the Paris images, I lived there in ’75-76 and was seduced by the filtered light along the Seine, and by the faces passing through that landscape. I’ve returned many times since.
ʻO wau me ka haʻa haʻa, JB
* An apologia is not an apology but a justification. Ultimately it is an effort to persuade. The most famous apologia is the speech given by Socrates at his trial (399 BCE) in which he defends himself against charges of “corrupting the youth and not believing in the gods in whom the city believes.”
** Maʻa: having thorough knowledge. The Hawaiian term “kulaiwi” refers to the place where the bones of oneʻs ancestors are buried, an even closer indigenous connection to the land. In Maori language, that same place is defined by the term “turangawaewae.” It is the place with ancestral ties where onesʻ feet are rooted.