Land and Literature: teaching about the Hawaiian forest

This essay, along with an image of Mākua Valley, appeared in the 2003 book Wao Akua, published by the Division of Forestry and Wildlife, Department of Land and Natural Resources, State of Hawaiʻi.

Loina, or traditional practice, helps you connect with the land in a very intimate way, as the ancient natives did. The winds, the trees, everything becomes living, personified.

— Sam Gon, Director of Science, The Nature Conservancy, Hawaii, in “Nature Conservancy,” Spring 2003, p. 26

Environmentalist and author Barry Lopez agrees with Sam Gon in his celebrated environmental manifesto, The Rediscovery of North America (Vintage Books: New York, 1990), which proposes a new ethic for human tenure on the land: “ It is by looking upon the land not as its possessor but as a companion. To achieve this, one must I think cultivate intimacy, as one would with a human being.”(32)

I teach a high school senior elective called Land and Literature. We begin the semester reading Lopez, who describes the 1492 European “incursion” into North America as a series of greedy raids that set the tone for what followed, a “profound abuse of place,” that continues today. Ultimately, though, his is a message of hope; the ethic that he advances redefines our relationship with the land as communion with a place that we accept, finally, as home, with all of the obligations that implies.

The true wealth that America offered, wealth that could turn exploitation into residency, greed into harmony, was to come from one thing — the cultivation and achievement of local knowledge. (23)

The course Land and Literature asks students to further that acquisition of “local knowledge,” of the places they live in and care about. We begin first with direct observation and description of places not far from the classroom, during the 40-minute period. Despite distractions, most connect:

I walk up a steep hill on stairs made of rocks, and I am continuing to be bitten by the abundance of pesky bugs and scraped by the sharp thorns of those ridiculous thorn trees. Mosquitoes constantly swarm around and suck out my life, little by little as I try to complete this assignment. It is a very arduous task to carry out as I am constantly being distracted by these annoying things. But through the thickest of the bugs and trees I see a large rock in the middle of all these things; I stare at it in awe. (Tupu Laufou, 3/14)

Wherever they go to describe their surroundings, students are encouraged to focus on the details, the small stuff. Just going to a place and describing what is there proves surprisingly demanding because it requires one’s full attention:

I noticed a couple of dried-up cactus plants turning a brownish ugly color and I mistook it for a tree trunk; that’s how deformed it was. I also noticed on the ledge above the cave, in the rocks, two baby cacti and a couple of tall grasses or, really, weeds. (Ka‘onohi Segovia, 3/6/03)

The places we go sometimes have cultural significance. Those who know volunteer to make an entrance chant, Kunihi i ka mauna, and then the class respectfully enters, looks around carefully and then goes a little distance away to describe and sketch. Again, the small details bring the place to life again on the page:

I saw three different levels of platforms up on the hill. On the top left corner there is a formation of medium sized stones. Below it there is a stone standing upright known as the Kü stone and below that is a flatter big stone known as Hina, the male and female stones. To the right of those are the other two platforms. The higher one consists of smaller stones while the lower one is made up of larger stones for the foundation. This separation shows it was carefully planned and built. (Jason Laeha, 2/7/03)

We continue to visit nearby places throughout the semester, especially on hot days, with just the right amount of breeze to push away mosquitoes. Students by then have favorite places and ask to go to those for the period. In addition, though, they keep a land journal, a kind of record of their interaction with a place they have chosen. Lopez calls this a querencia, a place from which one draws strength. In local terms, though, it is their ahupua‘a, and their strength is mana. Some choose the uplands, the waonahele and kuahiwi:

A calm breeze blows through the trees making the branches rustle like the crashing of waves on the sand. The air is light on the tongue. … The ground is covered with pine needles dried from years of untouched growth. The silence is peaceful. Moss covers the ground, creating a carpet-like texture, roots travel in and out of the ground, intertwining with earth, creating a sense of untouched beauty. Much of the pathway consists of narrow walkways atop towering steep cliffs. The summit is a large open area encircled by trees. The opening gives a sense of jubilance; one will often dwell in the moment before wanting to leave the euphoric experience. (Adam Mendez-Ancheta, 2/24/03)

Some choose ke kai, the seashore:

The setting sun casts a flattering shadow against Pu‘u o Hulu Kai, magnifying itself over Ma‘ili Point. Pink, purple, and orange colors spray themselves across the evening sky: a sunset. It’s evident that Ulehawa is calming down. That gracious sun, which provides life for all, loses strength and settles into the ocean.

The ocean moves slower than before with fewer waves crashing against the shoreline. All life knows evening is upon us. The shy moon illuminates itself against the dark Nānākuli sky, causing the rocks to cast miniscule shadows against the sand along Ulehawa’s shoreline. Fewer people comb the beach; some look for an area to call their own, others gather fish to feed their families. The sand crabs race along the water, ducking into their holes at the approach of anyone. Luckily a slight wind gathers strength, bringing the sand up in a whirlwind, carrying itself out into the sea, with all the little crabs fleeing as well. (Jamie Kutara, 2/20/03)

We also do an exercise called “modeling” in which students put their own words and meanings into a form created by someone else, just another way to bring them into contact with others who have the same feelings for the landscape. Some of their models are sensitive reactions to a place, with awareness in time as well as space.


— by Haunani-Kay Trask

light in the crevice

never seen mosses

palai kåla‘au


crescent moon


fragrant clack clack

from the shadows

hunehune rain

aloft on the wind

steamy rocks

falls of crustaceans

blue caves far

away choked

with grasses wet

fully winged

high ‘iwa floating

many chambered

heavens still

and singing


— by Shelly Smith

night in the room

never been noises

pigs cats


full moon


trees sway lightly

from the breeze

cold rain

drips on the roof

ancient stones

days of old

small platforms far

away crowded

with grasses weeds

fully grown

small kōlea pecking

for worms

Alaska bound

and flying

Clearly, some students come to the course with “local knowledge” of their own ahupua‘a. For those, the course merely confirms something they already possess. Similarly, the literature we read together confirms something already embedded in the ka‘ao and mo‘olelo of this place, Hawai‘i. We read the portion of the journey of Hi‘iakaikapoliopele and Wahineoma‘o around the windward coast of O‘ahu, on the way to pick up Lohi‘au on Kaua‘i. The story of their journey is not merely a tale of passion, intrigue and conquest but a relating of the acquisition of mana through intimacy with places in the landscape. The lover adored by Hi‘iaka on her travels through Kailua, Kanahau, is not just a handsome ali‘i but an upright stone at the heiau bearing his name. A large stone still at that heiau appears to be the same one identified in the 1930s as Kanahau. Pōhaku o Kaua‘i is not just a stone at Ka‘ena Point, but the grandfather of Pele, a stone to be addressed with the respect due a kupuna.

If Hi‘iakaikapoliopele is a like a “chick flick,” with the two women throughout their journey attracting and sometimes destroying men, who cannot help but fall under their erotic power, then Kamapua‘a is the opposite, a tale for guys. As a counterpoint to the former, we read, sometimes out loud, the story of the battle between Kamapua‘a and Pele, just a small portion of the epic. The fire goddess almost defeats him, burning his bristles, but the clever little pig narrowly escapes by assuming his fish form, the humuhumunukunukuapua‘a. Renewed, he returns, seduces a willing Pele and quickly triumphs by pinning her down in an embarrassing position for days on end, repeatedly impregnating her. Like all Hawaiian tales, the story contains multiple levels of meaning, one of which is the observation of the contest between vegetation and lava; first one wins and then the other. Neither will completely triumph. Thus, Hawaiian literature is not just “literature” in the Western sense, but a way of knowing this place, based on centuries of direct observation, based on the “local knowledge” mentioned by Lopez. As Kamapua‘a repeatedly asserts, “I am of this place.”

Ultimately both tales affirm kinship with the land, what Lopez refers to as “indigenous systems of natural philosophy.”(19) Wayne Westlake repeats the same idea in the poem Hawaiians Eat Fish. However, if this system of ancient knowledge is now submerged beneath freeways and condominiums here, as elsewhere, Lopez decries its fragmentation:

We lost in this manner whole communities of people, plants, and animals, because a handful of men wanted gold and silver, title to land, the privileges of aristocracy, slaves, stables of little boys. We lost languages, epistemologies, books, ceremonies, systems of logic and metaphysics — a long, hideous carnage. (15)

Lopez asks the reader to look to those whose lives model hope for an alternate future: Bartolomé de las Casas, Oscar Romero, Thomas Merton, the Amish and Mennonite communities. In a similar vein, speakers come to address the class who in their own ways model alternate ways of knowing Hawai‘i, who have helped to redefine mere real estate as land and place and kinship: Haunani-Kay Trask, who writes poems about culture and place; Chuck Burrows, who works to restore Kawainui Marsh; Lance LaPierre, who combines Hawaiian and Western ways of knowing in his work for the Nature Conservancy; Mahealani Cypher, whose life-long fight against the H-3 Freeway has made her intimate with the land all along its corridor; WilliamAila, who works for the return of Mākua Valley; and Kapua Sproat, Kyle Kajihiro, Henry Curtis and Kat Brady, whose work helps protect land from “the hideous carnage.” There are many more.

Thus, the course looks at what is and then at what was, perhaps with a suggestion of what might have been. In response to a looming global environmental crisis that has profound local implications, it looks at environmental issues through traditional Hawaiian values embedded in traditional orature. At the end, it returns to the present, with students encouraged to write a paper on a contemporary land issue. One such paper looks closely at the windward Waiahole water controversy:

Eventually, contact with Westerners and their ideas of economics and politics brought a new era to the Hawaiian islands, an era that led to the loss of the Hawaiian identity, culture and land. Many are still trying to recover these today. Westerners began taking over much of the land in the islands for profit. Sugar plantations became the next big investment for foreigners after the California Gold Rush. Twelve prosperous sugar plantations were actively running in the islands by 1860 (Kekiai: A Publication of the native Advisory Council, Vol. 7, No. 4, winter 1996). The price of sugar began to increase and plantations started looking for more water to grow their crops, especially since it takes 800 pounds of water to produce one pound of sugar. (Kekai)

The digging of the ditch was done by the newly-formed Waiahole Water Company, Ltd., now known as the Waiahole Irrigation Company. The company did not complete the drilling of these developmental tunnels until 1963 (“Chronology of Waiahole Ditch,” Environment Hawai‘I). The combined punps and ditches of this system pumped 27 million gallons of water per day (mgd) to Leeward O‘ahu.

This [the Waiahole Ditch] resulted in a big loss for much of the Kåne‘ohe Bay area. This bay used to be one of the state’s most fruitful estuaries, but it has lost up to 70 million gallons per day due to the ditch and other uses. Thus, much of the Bay’s aquatic life has declined (Commission on Water Resource Management, “Waiahole Ditch Information packet”) The ahupua‘a of Waiahole and Waikåne, the poi bowls of O‘ahu, were hit hard with the depletion of water supplies. Many kalo farmers were unable to continue growing their crops and were forced to change their ways of life, and to walk away from cultural traditions. (Haia, Moses, Hawaiian Water: Waiahole Ditch Controversy, Native Hawaiian Advisory Council, Vol. 7, No. 1, spring 1996)

— Sara Nagatani, fall 2002

As Sam Gon points out, the most intimate connection of all is between the land and the language. “That all these animals and plants could be described in Hawaiian overwhelmed me — there was obviously a long-term connection between the land and the language, which I began learning.” (26) Here, once again, the students teach me far more than I could possibly offer them.

— Jan Becket, 3/03