The first time I came to Puanui it hit me.
The winds, I mean. The relentless, 40 MPH wind gusts that blow from the mountain to the sea, taking anything and everything with it. It bent the sugar cane and tamed the ironwood trees. That day, I felt the power of the environment and was introduced to the powerful place called Puanui.
It was our first day working on the farm. We drove up to the ahupua’a early in the morning, guided only by the fact that it was “after the green conifers ended on the right side” and “between mile marker 14 and 15, but closer to 15.” We excitedly pulled up to our first day -- two little girls in their massive truck, hiking boots laced up tight, with an eagerness to work and an eagerness to learn.
“Make sure you’re on four wheel drive!” Auntie Kehau called out to us.
Simone and I looked at each other. What is four wheel drive?
We fumbled with the controls and then proceeded to descend down the hill towards the upper mala, making a ride that can be only described as a bumpy, slow moving roller coaster ride. This ride would soon become familiar.
We spent two months on the Big Island, working on Puanui each week, and becoming more knowledgeable each day we spent getting our hands dirty. We learned how to sickle, pickaxe, create new beds, and plant ko and ‘uala. We learned that the ko and ‘uala are companion plants that work together to thrive. We learned to observe; we learned to listen.
There was never a typical day at Puanui. Some days the winds were relentless and fierce; other days there was no wind at all. Some days we would climb Pu’u Kehena and saw down trees, and other days we would sickle kikuyu grass in the upper mala. We asked questions, and we made connections. We did what was needed, and the rain did the rest.
As I began to appreciate the land I worked on -- a land that was once intensely cultivated by ancient Hawaiians -- my curiosity about the ancient Hawaiians grew. I learned that the dryland field system, one dependent completely on the rain, was a uniquely Hawaiian invention that the Polynesians had created once they discovered this land. I learned of the ancients’ innovation and horticultural experiments, and of their deep understanding of soil and crops. I marveled at the fact that the ancients, using only their muscles and understanding, were able to sustainably feed a larger population than exists on the island today -- without leaving a clue of how they did so.
I looked at the land I worked on and imagined what it once was and what it could be one day. I wondered what we had lost, and why we had, in a sense, gone backwards. Slowly I realized, the idea isn’t to recreate what the Hawaiians did in the past, for there are new tools, crops, and pests. The ancients never stopped innovating and evolving, and to think they would have stopped is absurd! Instead, the path forward includes integrating what they had discovered with the knowledge of today. It is to discover the best ways to grow and sustain crops through the lens of observation and connection to the land. The ancients adapted and grew what was best suited for the land, and so they thrived, just as we can today. They surfed, danced, and created for themselves a life of abundance.
By working on the land that they once intensely cultivated, I gained a sense of what it took to be close to the land, a feeling I had never experienced before. I took on a new perspective and a newfound hope for the future of our land.