Hawai­ian Soul

In true aloha spirit, a trans­planted Cana­dian takes us on a jour­ney, where a rev­er­ence for his­tory and na­ture goes be­yond seren­ity to the sa­cred

ZOOMER Magazine - - CONTENTS - By Su­san Casey

A jour­ney into the land and true mean­ing of aloha

IAM A HAWAI­IAN. Not a na­tive one, of course, given that I was born in Toronto. But for rea­sons I can­not en­tirely ex­plain, this re­mote, ex­otic place feels more like home to me than any­where I’ve ever lived. It’s not that I’ve cho­sen crummy lo­cales be­fore now: I spent years in Van­cou­ver, Whistler, San Fran­cisco, Santa Fe, Los An­ge­les, Mal­ibu and Man­hat­tan, and I liked them all. And it’s not that I lack proper north­ern cre­den­tials, ei­ther: my fa­ther was a hockey player; my mother was born in Portage La Prairie, Man.; my cousin was one of the down­hill ski­ing Olympians known as the Crazy Canucks. I learned to skate be­fore I could swim. I know what to do with a block heater. In gen­eral, the trop­ics are un­fa­mil­iar to me, but some­how Hawaii is my spot. Who knew? The dis­tance be­tween south­ern On­tario and the north shore of Maui, where I live now, spans about 5,000 miles and six time zones and, to get here, you must fly across the North Amer­i­can con­ti­nent and out into the vast Pa­cific (for six hours) un­til, fi­nally, you’ll come across the vol­canic is­lands of the most iso­lated ar­chi­pel­ago on Earth. It’s a hell of a com­mute. But Hawaii’s far-flung lo­ca­tion is one of the things I ap­pre­ci­ate about it the most.

“Con­ve­nience is very dan­ger­ous,” my Maui neigh­bour, Wil­liam Mer­win, said to me over tea one af­ter­noon, on his porch. Known to po­etry lovers world­wide as W.S. Mer­win, pos­ses­sor of ev­ery lit­er­ary hon­our imag­in­able, Mer­win, now 90, was the 17th Poet Lau­re­ate of the United States, cho­sen by Pres­i­dent Barack Obama. Mer­win’s house is sur­rounded by a palm for­est that he and his wife, Paula, planted by hand, re­claim­ing 18 acres that had been des­ig­nated “agri­cul­tural waste­land,” and turn­ing it into The Mer­win Con­ser­vancy – a sanc­tu­ary for writ­ers, po­ets, botanists and any­one whose idea of fun in- volves some­thing more soul­ful than watch­ing TV. In this mag­nif­i­cent for­est, up­wards of 480 hor­ti­cul­tural va­ri­eties and 900 species grow, trees that Mer­win calls “very an­cient and wise crea­tures.”

“The places I’ve most loved in my life, none of them were par­tic­u­larly con­ve­nient,” he added, smil­ing as a scar­let song­bird hopped down from a leaf and onto the ta­ble. “And this place – it’s not con­ve­nient at all! It was never meant to be con­ve­nient.”

The Mer­win Con­ser­vancy is lo­cated along Maui’s Hana High­way, near a small town called Haiku. This is Maui’s wild wind­ward coast, a place of huge waves and rugged sea cliffs. I al­ways de­scribe the Hana High­way to vis­i­tors as “a road built by hob­bits on psychedelics.” To drive 60 miles along its ser­pen­tine curves is a white-knuckle jour­ney that will take you at least three hours and, by the time you’re done, you’ll be so over­whelmed by its beauty and ec­cen­tric­ity that you’ll need to lie down. It’s the op­po­site of con­ve­nience – the an­tithe­sis of a fea­ture­less com­mute, done on au­topi­lot – and that’s why it’s mem­o­rable. “Re­mote­ness is its own se­cret,” Mer­win writes in his poem The Wilder­ness. He has lived this line of po­etry for 41 years on his land, and made sure that his palms will thrive long af­ter he is gone and con­tinue to be­stow their magic on those of us who walk along the Con­ser­vancy’s red-dirt paths, un­der­neath the green canopy, revel- ling in the things of this world that are larger than we are.

Mer­win was born in New York City, but re­spect­ing and tend­ing and restor­ing the nat­u­ral world – cre­at­ing in your back­yard what the Na­tional Trop­i­cal Botan­i­cal Gar­dens calls “a liv­ing trea­sure house of palm DNA” – is an archety­pally Hawai­ian thing to do. Every­one who re­sides on these is­lands, even trans­plants like me, are re­ferred to as kama’aina – or “peo­ple of the land.” It is as­sumed that if your sur­vival de­pends on liv­ing har­mo­niously and sus­tain­ably on your lit­tle blip of terra firma in the mid­dle of the ocean, you will take this re­spon­si­bil­ity se­ri­ously. The an­cient Hawai­ians cer­tainly did, when they ar­rived in their voy­ag­ing ca­noes from other tiny specks of land, scat­tered in the Pa­cific like stars. In fact, there’s a Hawai­ian word for this sa­cred trust: kuleana.

To em­brace your kuleana is to take up the work of pro­tect­ing what mat­ters to you, as Mer­win has done. It’s a call­ing you’re born with or choose or both – an obli­ga­tion ac­cepted whole­heart­edly. It is the op­po­site of shirk­ing du­ties or cast­ing blame or fail­ing to do the right thing be­cause you need to make your quar­terly sales num­bers. On the con­ti­nent, there’s al­ways an­other hori­zon, but on these is­lands the fi­nite bor­ders of ex­is­tence are ob­vi­ous ev­ery day. To live on an is­land is ba­si­cally to live aboard a space­ship and, to para­phrase Mar­shall McLuhan, there are no pas­sen­gers here – we are all crew.

THEREAREPLENTY of rea­sons to love Hawaii, of course. It’s one of the world’s favourite va­ca­tion des­ti­na­tions (even in times when we don’t agree upon much, we agree about that). But I want to tell you straight up: even the most sat­is­fy­ing tourist ex­pe­ri­ence is a pale shadow of the re­wards

avail­able to any­one will­ing to ven­ture be­yond the stan­dard-delux­etrop­i­cal-re­sort-ex­pe­ri­ence. Yes, the pools and spas and 500-thread-count sheets and chilled tow­els are nice. But I’m talk­ing about ac­cess­ing some­thing greater: the deep and pri­mal heart of a mys­te­ri­ous oceanic king­dom.

“To pierce the veil from tourist to kama’aina means ar­riv­ing and metaphor­i­cally tak­ing your shoes off be­fore you en­ter, be­fore you cross the thresh­old,” my friend El­iz­a­beth Kapu’uwailani Lind­sey told me. “It’s an ex­pres­sion of hu­mil­ity, and many cul­tures are not ac­cus­tomed to do­ing that.” Lind­sey, 61, comes from a long Hawai­ian lin­eage; she is a de­scen­dant of high chiefs, as­tronomers, teach­ers and philoso­phers. With her PhD in cul­tural an­thro­pol­ogy and as an ex­plorer for Na­tional Ge­o­graphic, her work doc­u­ments an­cient knowl­edge. Which is to say: she’s a wis­dom keeper.

“Hawaii is my mother­land. Of­ten, when peo­ple go to Hawaii, they never re­ally see her,” Lind­sey con­tin­ued. “The best way to ex­pe­ri­ence her is with one’s feet bare­foot on the ground, skin to skin with the breezes and the ocean. To re­ally ex­pe­ri­ence Hawaii means to take her in with all your senses.” In other words, choose a morn­ing walk through Maui’s bam­boo for­est over a ten­nis game. Make the time and ef­fort to get close to a vol­cano – Haleakala on Maui or the Big Is­land’s Ki­lauea (which is cur­rently erupt­ing – an awe­some sight). Post­pone that pedi­cure and, in­stead, feel the sand be­tween your toes. And here is one sure way to en­hance any Hawai­ian trip: spend as much time as pos­si­ble in the ocean. If you’re lucky, you may see spin­ner dol­phins or hump­back whales. And if you’re truly blessed, you’ll en­counter a shark, one of the most pow­er­ful au­makuas, or an­ces­tral spirit an­i­mals.

Hawaii is a par­adise of wa­ter sports, with ev­ery pos­si­ble op­tion: pad­dling (prone, outrig­ger ca­noe, stand-up), swim­ming, snorkelling, div­ing, sail­ing and, of course, surf­ing, the sport of kings, which is widely be­lieved to have orig­i­nated here. But in the waves, make sure you know your lim­its, and al­ways ob­serve the rules of safety and eti­quette. (If you aren’t sure what those are, it’d be best if you launched your wave-rid­ing ca­reer some­where else.) Es­pe­cially dur­ing the win­ter months, the ocean cur­rents are fast and strong, the waves tower over­head, and the lo­cals re­act badly if you get in their way in the surf. As renowned big wave rider and Kauai res­i­dent Laird Hamil­ton, 54, points out: “This is the most ag­gres­sive wa­ter in the world. You need to be care­ful not to set your­self up to get spanked.”

IAM AL­WAYS AWARE that I’m a guest in this place and that I’ll get back what I put out – but ten­fold. That’s the Hawai­ian way. Show re­spect, and you’ll be re­spected. Be­have in a pono man­ner – live righ­teously, ev­ery­thing in or­der, kind and fair – and you’ll never lack for friends. Be­have with en­ti­tle­ment or ar­ro­gance, or at­tempt to take some­thing without first giv­ing, and you’ll get spit out like a wa­ter­melon seed. My for­mer boss and Maui neigh­bour, Oprah Win­frey, states it this way: “You have to come cor­rect.” There’s a dif­fer­ent tempo out here, a dif­fer­ent set of pri­or­i­ties. One of­ten-seen bumper sticker warns: Slow Down, This Ain’t the Main­land. And if you see this mes­sage on a hoisted truck with mud-caked tires and a cou­ple of pit bulls in the back, driven by a heav­ily tat­tooed lo­cal who looks like he could tear a phone book in half, then you re­ally do want to slow down.

Ad­mit­tedly, the Hawai­ian peo­ple are not al­ways warm and cud­dly. They’re some­thing far bet­ter: war­riors who fiercely love and want to pro­tect their home. It hasn’t been an easy bat­tle. In 1893, the Hawai­ian King­dom was over­thrown by Amer­i­can in­ter­ests, its queen, Lili’uokalani, de­posed and im­pris­oned. There was big money to be made on these is­lands grow­ing su­gar cane and pineap­ple, and a rich in­dige­nous cul­ture that Protes­tant mis­sion­ar­ies were busily wip­ing out.

In 1898, Hawaii was an­nexed as a U.S. ter­ri­tory; in 1941, Pearl Har­bor was bombed. In 1959, these is­lands be­came the 50th state (some would ar­gue without much in­put from Hawai­ians them­selves). Dur­ing the Sec­ond World War, the U.S. mil­i­tary de­clared mar­tial law and used the is­land con­sid­ered most sa­cred, tiny Kaho’olawe, for bomb­ing prac­tice. They even rented Kaho’olawe out to other coun­tries that wanted to bomb it. This on­slaught was halted in

1990, af­ter a long strug­gle be­tween na­tive Hawai­ians and the U.S. Navy. By then, Kaho’olawe’s wa­ter ta­ble had been cracked, al­low­ing salt­wa­ter to seep in and de­stroy its veg­e­ta­tion. Ef­forts to re­store the ecosys­tems and re­move un­ex­ploded ord­nance con­tinue to­day.

“Hawaii was run as a plan­ta­tion for so long,” Lind­sey said. “The cul­ture was fad­ing.” In high school, she re­calls stu­dents be­ing urged to learn Ja­panese so they could work in the tourist in­dus­try. Hawai­ian wasn’t even of­fered: “We al­most lost our lan­guage en­tirely.” As re­cently as the late 1960s, a li­cense was re­quired to dance hula, which the mis­sion­ar­ies con­sid­ered pa­gan.

But in the ’70s, some­thing fan­tas­tic hap­pened – a cul­tural re­nais­sance. The Hawai­ian peo­ple fought for their own iden­tity and won. There was a resur­gence of the mother tongue, the tra­di­tions, the na­tive pride. Lind­sey rec­om­mends lis­ten­ing to that era’s mu­sic by the Sons of Hawaii and the Broth­ers Caz­imero, which cap­tures the spirit of the re­vival: “There is deep mean­ing in what they are singing.” The songs are as soar­ing and fluid as a seabird in flight, lush with gui­tar and ukulele, and unique to Hawaii. To lis­ten to them is to feel the is­lands’ essence in your body and spirit.

One of the most im­por­tant events in this cul­tural re­birth was the re­turn of tra­di­tional ca­noe voy­ag­ing. The first peo­ple to land on these is­lands were Poly­ne­sians – most likely from the Mar­quesa Is­lands 2,000 miles away – who ar­rived around AD 400 in dou­ble-hulled wa’as, or sea­far­ing ca­noes. These in­trepid ex­plor­ers had no in­stru­ments or charts, but they were able to cross huge swaths of the Pa­cific with as­ton­ish­ing ac­cu­racy, us­ing the an­cient sci­ence of wayfind­ing: nav­i­gat­ing by read­ing the sun, moon, stars and wind, the flight paths of birds, the be­hav­iour of fish, the move­ments of clouds and ocean cur­rents. These were re­mark- able odysseys that pushed the ideas of self-suf­fi­ciency and skill, faith and trust, and at­tune­ment with the el­e­ments, all the way to the edge.

The ex­quis­ite knowl­edge re­quired to make these ocean cross­ings was in dan­ger of be­com­ing lost in Hawaii, but in 1976 a voy­ag­ing ca­noe named Hokule’a (Star of Glad­ness) was launched by the newly formed Pa­cific Voy­ag­ing So­ci­ety. The plan was to sail it from Maui to Tahiti and back, on a kind of test run to prac­tise the an­cient skills. Hokule’a’s nav­i­ga­tor, Nainoa Thomp­son, from Oahu, was tu­tored by master nav­i­ga­tor­priest Mau Pi­ailug, from Satawal, a Mi­crone­sian atoll. (Mau, the man most re­spon­si­ble for pre­serv­ing the wayfind­ing tra­di­tion, was also a men­tor of Lind­sey’s; she stud­ied with him for 10 years un­til his death in 2010 at age 78.)

The jour­ney was a suc­cess; Hokule’a was greeted by 17,000 cheer­ing Tahi­tians. But tragedy struck on the next voy­age, in 1978, when the ca­noe sprung a leak and cap­sized 12 miles south of Molokai. With the crew in grave dan­ger, one man, Ed­die Aikau, 31, hero­ically pad­dled for help. He set off on a surf­board to­ward Lanai, the near­est is­land. Af­ter float­ing in the open wa­ter for sev­eral hours, Hokule’a’s crew was res­cued by the U.S. Coast Guard – but Aikau was never seen again. A mas­sive search failed to find him, a loss that is still felt to­day.

Aikau rep­re­sented ev­ery­thing Hawai­ians hold dear: brav­ery, self­less­ness, strength, roots, ocean skills of the high­est or­der. The phrase “Ed­die would go,” heard of­ten in these parts, is a ral­ly­ing cry, a salute, an all-pur­pose call to courage. A com­mem­o­ra­tive big wave surf­ing com­pe­ti­tion, known as “the Ed­die,” is held at Waimea Bay on Oahu’s north shore, where Aikau had per­formed more than 500 res­cues as a life­guard. The con­test takes place when ocean con­di­tions are per­fect enough to kick up clean 20-foot waves. This doesn’t hap­pen ev­ery year: the Ed­die has been held only eight times since 1985. When it does oc­cur, it’s a very big deal, and every­one knows it’s about some­thing far more than a tro­phy.

In May 2014, Hokule’a, shored

up and par­tially re­built, em­barked on an epic three-year voy­age, Malama Honua (“To care for our is­land Earth”), in which it would sail 60,000 nau­ti­cal miles around the globe, mak­ing 150 port stops in 27 coun­tries. As the ca­noe pre­pared to launch from Hilo, Hawaii, His Ho­li­ness the Dalai Lama sent it off with a bless­ing. “Hokule’a was like this dream that every­one held on to be­cause it rep­re­sented a sovereignty and a voice for peo­ple who were muted,” Lind­sey said. “It came to rep­re­sent a sense of re­silience, vi­sion – hope for the fu­ture. Hokule’a is so much more than a ca­noe.”

JUNE 17, 2017, was a post­card-per­fect day in Honolulu: sunny with light wind and re­gal clouds pass­ing by. The day was out­stand­ing for an­other rea­son: it was Hokule’a’s home­com­ing, Malama Honua’s fi­nal stop. I flew to Oahu to join the cel­e­bra­tion, though to call it that is an un­der­state­ment. It was a joy­ful, tri­umphant, mo­men­tous event that no one who wit­nessed will ever for­get. Peo­ple lined the shores of Magic Is­land, a har­bour in down­town Honolulu. Many wore tra­di­tional and cer­e­mo­nial cloth­ing. There were loin­cloths, sarongs and capes; leis and wreaths made from ti leaves, the pro­tec­tor plant. Thou­sands of Hawai­ians had gath­ered, but also Maoris, Mar­shall Is­lan­ders, Tahi­tians, Fi­jians, Ton­gans and Samoans–peo­ple from all over the Pa­cific. Haoles were well­rep­re­sented (the Hawai­ian term for whites), res­i­dents and tourists alike. And every­one was happy.

I watched the fes­tiv­i­ties with Kimokeo Ka­pahule­hua, a famed wa­ter­man and Hawai­ian cul­tural am­bas­sador. Kimokeo, 70, is the pres­i­dent of Hui o Wa’a Kaulua, Maui’s voy­ag­ing so­ci­ety. To put it mildly, he knows his way around a ca­noe. “The Hokule’a changed my life,” he told me. “It changed ev­ery sin­gle Hawai­ian I know be­cause it made us stand up and say we were once nav­i­ga­tors and we are nav­i­ga­tors to­day.” He smiled. “That’s the joy: we are to­day.”

Kimokeo also runs a youth cen­tre and a foun­da­tion on Maui, teach­ing kids tra­di­tional Hawai­ian prac­tices and work­ing with the Maui Ocean Cen­ter to re­store corals, among many other things. He makes visi­tor out­reach a pri­or­ity, so they, too, can pos­sess what he calls “a heal­ing knowl­edge of Hawaii.” And the most po­tent sym­bol of that heal­ing knowl­edge was glid­ing into the har­bour at this ex­act mo­ment to thun­der­ous chant­ing and ap­plause.

Hokule’a is a ma­jes­tic ves­sel, even more so when you are aware of its his­tory. I defy any­one to look at it and not feel a swell of emo­tion. It is 62 feet long, with two hulls and two 31-foot-tall sails coloured an earthy red. Its deck is ivory. As it ap­proached the dock, peo­ple waded into the ocean, arms out­stretched and – I swear it – a full rain­bow ap­peared, arch­ing over every­one’s heads. Surf­boards, kayaks, out­rig­gers – dozens of tiny ves­sels ringed the ca­noe, form­ing a lei on the wa­ter. Nainoa Thomp­son and the other crew­men stood on deck, wav­ing.

“The ca­noe is a liv­ing en­tity for us,” Kimokeo said, watch­ing the home­com­ing with pride. “When we pad­dle to­gether, we share aloha. To­tal love, un­con­di­tional love, re­spect and care for each other and en­vi­ron­ment – ev­ery­thing. And that en­ergy helps you to be more con­nected and more aware.”

The Hawai­ian lan­guage con­tains many words that lack an English equiv­a­lent. They don’t come with easy syn­onyms; they’re more like wise con­cepts we’d be well ad­vised to adopt. Aloha is the queen of them – and gets my vote for the sin­gle most beau­ti­ful word in the world. Though it’s of­ten used ca­su­ally, as hello or good­bye, aloha’s mean­ing is far grander and deeper than that. Ha means the breath of life. Aloha is an ex­pres­sion of love, good­will, peace, con­nec­tion: I share my breath with you. One strives al­ways to live with aloha, spread aloha and cul­ti­vate oth­ers with aloha. De­light­fully, there’s even a state law on the books that en­shrines aloha as “the work­ing phi­los­o­phy of Hawaii.”

In­clu­sion, love, shar­ing, hu­mil­ity, car­ing for the nat­u­ral world: these, by the way, just hap­pen to be hu­man­ity’s of­ten-for­got­ten op­er­at­ing in­struc­tions. For so many won­ders, so many age­less lessons, we have these is­lands to thank. Hawaii may be a small blip on the globe, an emer­ald float­ing in fath­om­less blue – but her soul is be­yond mea­sure.

Mau Pi­ailug and El­iz­a­beth Kapu’wailani Lind­sey shar­ing ha (breath), one of the most sa­cred and re­spect­ful Hawai­ian ex­changes

Cur­rently ac­tive: the Ki­lauea Vol­cano on the Big Is­land of Hawaii

The poet W.S. Mer­win, at his Con­ser­vancy

Above: surf­ing leg­end Michael Ho per­form­ing a cer­e­mony at the Quik­sil­ver In Mem­ory of Ed­die Aikau Big Wave In­vi­ta­tional, Oahu; bot­tom: sun­set over The Mer­win Con­ser­vancy

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