Hands in the Red Dirt: The Heart of Ka ‘Aina.

For those of our friends and supporters who have followed ‘Iokepa Hanalei ‘Imaikalani and my journey  – our Return Voyage to cultural and personal authenticity – there is  really no need for background here.  But I always anticipate new readers, and so for those folks and others who may have missed last year’s post, I insert a link.

Na Ka’a Mea – Change In the Winds.

For those familiar with our story, begin here. And, yes, after eighteen years living in thirteen tents on the Hawaiian good earth (by choice and for purpose), we were gifted a home.  It is a lovely home – now adorned with family photos, our own books,  and clothing in an actual closet.  (Amenities that in another life may have been taken for granted, but after years without, there is little danger of that.)

No doubt, the house feeds our comfort:  a house to gather friends and acquaintances for  fish and poi;  a dinner table to stimulate the exchange of  ideas;  a roof under which to live the ancestral Grandmothers’ vision.

But though this gifted house soothes and comforts, what truly feeds our souls, stokes our spirits, and intensifies our purposes is still ka ‘aina – this ancestral land of ‘Iokepa’s forebears.  After eighteen years of our heads-on-the-earth bedding and our hands plucking cigarette butts and beer tabs from those self-same public beaches – the land now has a new meaning.  It is the land on which those closets and book shelves sit that replenish our faith.

We were told by our benefactor to choose a house:  in any town, on any rural road, or on a beach next to the ocean.  We were told to do this by someone who asked absolutely nothing in return.  With guidance from heart and ancestral Grandmothers, we chose  a house perched on a ridge with an acre of very steep hillside blanketed by impenetrable jungle.  The bit of flat land that might support fruit trees and flowers was shaded by the hillside Swamp Mahogany or Guava or Java plum or Albizia – all invasive species to these Island lands.

Interesting fact:  the invasive trees on this Island suck up the aquifer (ground water) and hold it; native species trees release the water back into the aquifer for communal use.

I feel certain that there is a metaphor here.  Native Hawaiians lived gently on their sacred ‘aina; they neither owned it nor abused it.  Stewardship meant they ( the earth and the Native Hawaiian) were  children of the same Creator.  They cared for and fed one another.  In other words:  they did not soak up all the water and keep it for their own.  Water – wai – was life.

‘Iokepa could not wait.  He rubbed his hands together; equipped himself with chain saw, pick and shovel and began.  This is year-two of the effort.  He completely freed the steepest hillside that denied us sun in morning and early afternoon of the huge trees and their clinging vines.  In the reclaimed space and uncovered sunlight, together we planted: Papaya, Mango, Banana, Avocado, Orange, and Lemon trees.  In that now terraced space and sun, I have planted birds of paradise and gardenias and orchids and so much more.  We have only just begun.

‘Iokepa, age sixty-six and pretty darn fit,  knows the reality of diminishing returns and he is adamant that:  “I don’t want land that I can’t walk on; I want to be able to see the land.  I want to clear all that is invasive on this ‘aina and plant as many native species as possible.”

The largest of the hillsides – bare of invasive species – will eventually sprout Koa and Ulu (Breadfruit), kukui nut, and so much more.  We are drawing from the wisdom of experienced Native farmers – what works or not in this particular locale.  Friends from every corner of the Island offer plants to our endeavor.  It’s the way it is done here.

‘Iokepa clears and terraces and digs very large holes for me.  I design the garden layout; I choose the plants; I settle them in place.  I fertilize with chicken manure, mulch and weed.  He installs the irrigation; we both wander and study the health of the fruit.  We both offer gratitude.

For almost twenty years we have lived head-upon-the-earth – but apart from clearing the ill-served public spaces of their garbage, we had little opportunity to put hand in soil.  I am married to a Native Hawaiian.  Native Hawaiians are genetically married to their ‘aina.  Their lives and their futures are one with the soil they stand on.  This is a concept alien to most who have grown up in the United States.  Even Western farmers do not regard the land as kin – the sacred sister born of the Grandmothers.

Newcomers are given to warning ‘Iokepa:  “You know that it will all just grow back.”  He smiles, but he does not answer.  His answer is:  Now.  Like a good Native he lives in this breath alone; he accepts change when change comes; and he passes his experience onto the next generation.

In sum, the red dirt – the Islands’ ‘aina – is feeding ‘Iokepa.  And like the generous people of these Islands, its blessings are shared as well with this guest of the Native Hawaiian people.

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