Archive for the ‘Molokai stories’ Category

4X4 adventure and a rampage of deer

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Restoring the Land, Part II: West end

As you can probably tell, my posts are getting more and more sporadic. It’s a good sign: we’ve been too busy having fun. As I promised, here’s the next installment of “Adventures in Restoration.”

The 4X4 rattled and bounced through the savannah-like scrubland. I was grateful it had rained hard that morning, keeping down the fine red clay dust, but all traces of the drenching were long gone. We were on our way to the Mokio Preserve, a 1,718-acre section of land along five miles of shoreline. The area contains seasonal wetlands, native coastal strand and dune ecosystems, and several ancient cultural sites. With help from local volunteers and student programs, the group is slowly replacing the 95% of the invasive introduced plants with native species. Winding along the bumpy dirt road, the erosion from overgrazing is starkly visible in the red clay earth. We crossed under giant radio towers strung across with cables like spiderwebs, taut to the ground. This is the major signal station in a 5,000-mile vicinity and a source of income for the land trust.

Our first stop was a group of test plots surrounded by deer-proof fencing. Inside the gate, a large tract of hardpan–desolate, compacted clay devoid of life–was in the process of being replanted. It was hard to believe anything would grow on it. But the system they were testing out was ingenious: bales of dry pili grass were laid out in long lines along the contour of the slope. As the wind swept the clay dust over it, filling in the gaps and creating terraces, plants from the native nursery at the Hui were transplanted and mulched. The young starts only get irrigated for their first dry season, then they’re on their own in the arid landscape. It was incredibly inspiring to see the regenerative capacity of these plants when they’re given a real chance to grow. Plants that were planted just a season ago were healthy, robust, and beginning to spread their seed to other areas. For JoBo, who remembered gathering seeds and cuttings from the forest to grow these plants, and then caring for the tiny baby plants in the nursery, there was a deep sense of satisfaction.
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I love this little tree thing. it grows across the ground for a while and then perches itself straight up.

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This is a test plot showing that scattering seeds over bare ground actually works better than raking the ground first. Nature knows best!

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As we continued on, a dark cloud came over our plans. From the satellite imagery on Butch’s phone, we could see a storm system coming in: the red zones demarcated the heaviest rainfall, and it was headed straight toward us. Even with a 4X4, we could easily get stuck out there in the mud. We parked beside the road in the middle of what Butch identified as a wetland–although it looked like just another piece of dry scrubland to me–and waited. Sure enough, the storm blew in–moderate at first, then a downpour–and we watched the clay earth disappear into rivers of muddy red water all around us. Listening to the rain, I wondered why parking in a wetland during a heavy rain was a good idea, and how in the world we would get ourselves out.

After a time, the rain slowed, then disappeared at once. Emerging from the truck, we discovered beside us a big sinkhole nearly a metre wide. Water was draining from all directions into the basin we were parked in, pouring into the rough cut hole like a giant pitcher of water and recharging the ground deep below. It sounded like a bathtub draining loudly. Peering in, we could see a little gecko hanging out in the water. Everywhere around us, smaller sinkholes threatened to twist our ankles or to cave in under our feet to the miniature caves below. ImageImage

Hauling a bin of planting bags out of the truck, we trailed behind Butch, who was on a mission with his shovel. His keen eye led us directly to a small patch of delicate and unassuming grasses. Our boisterous chatter descended into reverent silence as we stood watching him carefully scoop up chunks of rush, cutting with precision and tenderly covering over the hole with humus, making it instantly disappear. The rush is called Makaloa – it’s not technically on the endangered list, but according to Butch this key wetland species is being threatened just the same–which points to the need to look at the ecosystem as a functioning whole, rather than simply trying to boost the numbers of a few single species on the official records.
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Hopping back in the truck, it was time to find out whether we would actually make it out of the wetland. The red clay caked onto the tires in layers, causing them to lose their grip in the slippery mud. But we managed to get rolling, and all of a sudden we were at the edge of a steep lookout point high above the north shore. Here at Ka’a, it was a stunning view across to the eastern cliffs. Watching the wind push the water around in spirals, we could see humpbacks blowing and surfacing below. Marc took some time to contemplate the view from a different perspective.
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We had one more stop to make, but looming red streaks on the satellite weather images–much bigger this time–made us change our minds. Soon, we were racing the storm, careening down the slippery dirt roads at 50 km/h with Butch flinging the steering wheel side to side, engine roaring. Muddy water blanketed the windows. Everytime I caught a glimpse outside, it looked like we were heading straight into the hard clay wall of earth beside the road where the bulldozer had cut out a path as deep as the truck itself. Butch told us it was the wettest he’s ever seen it, and casually mentioned he’d heard horror stories of people who’d gotten stuck. My heart was pounding as I gripped the Oh-Shit handle. The last section of the road was uphill, and if we didn’t get past it in time, we might not get past it at all. But first we had to do some real 4X4ing, pulling off the road and into the trees in some parts to avoid the lakes welling up in the road. Pulling back onto the road and turning a corner, we stopped dead in our tracks to watch this incredible sight:

Restoring the land, Part I: East end

This is the first of a few installments about the ecological restoration work happening on this island. The story will take us from one extreme end of the island to the other, bringing us right back to our home at the Hui, which plays an integral role in the restoration and is an  inspiring example of the positive change possible when a community of people shares a common vision.

Last week, in a whirlwind twenty-four hours, Marc and I traversed from the northeastern tip of the island to the far northwest. From one end to the other, Molokai feels like a completely different place. For an island that’s only 38 by 10 miles in size, there is unbelievable diversity of terrain, thoroughly rugged–and endangered–from tip to tip. The island was created by two volcanoes, one forming the eastern mountains, and one on the west. Molokai’s coastal cliffs, the highest in the world, were formed when the north side of the eastern volcano suffered a catastrophic collapse about 1.5 million years ago and sunk to the bottom of the ocean. The forested, mountainous eastern half receives about 300 inches of rain per year; the west, about 15-20. In the middle, where it slopes down close to sea level, the land gets perhaps five inches per year, and there are disturbing signs that it’s slowly drying up. The entire western half is dry scrubland, and there have been three years of significant drought. With climate change, the frequency of drought is only expected to increase.

Long ago, the land would have been more protected from the effects of drought. It was covered in a diversity of species and great stands of sandalwood trees. But the fragrant wood has all but vanished. A huge pit, the exact size of the cargo hold of a ship, remains visible in the middle of the island. Here, logs were hauled en masse until they filled the hole. They were then shipped in bulk to China for a few bumper decades in the early 1800s, until the forests quickly disappeared. Axis deer–introduced to the islands in the 1800s for King Kamehameha’s hunting pleasure–have decimated the island’s vegetation from tip to tip. From the sensitive coastline to the remote mountainsides, the thousands of deer are joined by hungry goats and feral pigs, mowing down any native plants that dare to pop up and creating serious erosion problems. The native species are further choked out by monoculture stands of invasive plants introduced over the centuries.

Signs of these threats to the landscape were clear last week when we went for a late afternoon swim at Halawa Bay on the east end. Overhead, helicopters routinely circled over the cliffs, shooting goats on sight. It’s sad, but necessary to protect the integrity of the landscape. Afterward, we visited our friend Cole at Pu’u O Hoku Ranch, the 14,000-acre biodynamic cattle ranch. Cole works with Marc on the Hui’s reforestation project but spends his days off working at the ranch. Knowing firsthand the nausea-inducing intensity of his workouts, I was doubtful when he suggested a “short half-hour run” through the steep grazing lands to the northeastern cliffs. But sheer excitement got the better of me as I trailed the guys down through the rocky landscape, which opened up to a 360 degree view looking back over distant Halawa Bay, with the waterfalls and helicopters still visible.

We stood at the edge of a straight vertical drop of several hundred feet into churning water below, where humpbacks spouted and surfaced. Running along the edge, we dipped down into a gulch where a small flock of nene, the endangered Hawaiian state bird, cautiously surveyed us, droning their strange melancholic sounds. In addition to the ranch’s restoration project, it has some pens where the nene can nest in safety. We stood overlooking Cape Halawa with Maui visible to the southeast, and the tiny prehistoric cinder cone islands Moku Ho’oniki and Kanaha Rock directly in front. A WWII bombing practice site, Moku Ho’okini is uninhabitable due to unexploded warheads and is now a bird sanctuary. Turning back around, we watched a wild blue and yellow sunset through the clouds as we sweated back up the hill, with evidence of grazing deer all around us.

Cole shot an axis deer nearby on the ranchlands just a few days ago. He seared it proudly in a skillet for dinner as we listened to his most recent plan to use his new hide-tanning knowledge–gleaned from Youtube videos–to start up a tanning operation on the island. We discussed the merits of different tanning techniques–from battery acid (oh god!) to eggs to good old-fashioned animal brains. Sitting down to dinner, I felt like I was participating in restoring the balance of the ecosystem with every tasty bite. It’s times like this when being a meat-eater comes in handy, as the one silver lining of this major threat to the landscape is an abundant food source (one that doesn’t even know it can jump, unlike the deer back home). On Molokai, wild pigs and deer are a critical component of the diet of a population that often can afford little else.

We opted for a late-night drive home along the rocky cliffs and hairpin twists of the one-lane highway, which hugged the rough water’s edge where Hawaiian men were gathered around giant trucks, fishing in the moonlight. I was up before dawn and had finished the day’s harvesting and watering before breakfast, eager for our next adventure. We were heading out to see more of the Molokai Land Trust reserve with Butch, the trust’s Executive Director and leader of their restoration project. After a torrential downpour early in the morning, we shifted gears away from our plans to harvest seeds in the soggy eastern mountains and headed northwest…

Crumbling remains of a 19th century church at Halawa:

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Halawa Bay

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Aerial shot of the middle of the island, from Marc’s plane ride

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Eastern mountains and valleys….

 

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On the drive to the east end… (this house is just down the road from Monsanto’s headquarters)

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talkin’ story

It’s been a week of rich cultural exchange, and I haven’t even had to leave home. We’ve been hosting the Global Vigil Fire, a semiannual gathering of energy workers and shamanic practitioners who come together to light a fire that lasts for three days and is mirrored by similar actions around the globe to weave their energies together for the benefit of the world. Despite days of pelting rain and intense windstorms, they managed to get the fire roaring and welcomed us Hui folks to join in. We got a chance to listen while the local Hawaiians were “talkin’ story.” Hearing about the history of the island as passed on through the generations, I understood more why the people on Molokai are so dynamic and strong-willed in maintaining the culture and undeveloped nature of the island.

After the fire lighting ceremony, in which we all offered a blessing or intention into the fire, a Hawaiian energy healer and close friend of the Hui began the first session by toning with the participants. Zelly’s didgeridoo was covered from head to toe in a single snake skin, and she moved slowly as she sent the deep vibrations of the didge directly into the hearts of each person in the circle while others drummed. She played beautiful old Hawaiian songs on the ukelele and helped people to interpret their experiences so far in some of the sacred places on the island.  The wild winds we’ve been having here this week didn’t seem to surprise Zelly in the least: we found out that there are hundreds, and perhaps thousands, of Hawaiian names for different winds on this island.

Later, we returned to listen to more Hawaiian music under the stars. We had heard that Lono, one of the island’s finest and most known musicians, loves to talk story so much that his music tends to become a side act. This was just fine with me, as I sat with ears wide open listening to fascinating stories of Lono’s life and of the land and people. Lono’s grandfather was a Menehune, the little people of legend who were the size of dwarves and who lived deep in the valleys and forests of the islands. With heavy lava rocks, the Menehune were said to have built the island’s more than 60 massive fishponds centuries ago, the remnants of which are still visible today just offshore from Kaunakakai. This amazing feat of human organization and cooperation allowed the Hawaiians to corral ocean fish into the huge enclosed area to catch them more easily.

Lono’s deep spiritual knowledge of the island has been passed on to him over several years through the teaching of one of the old kahuna (powerful Hawaiian priests). The Hawaiian spiritual traditions recognize three levels of being: the subconscious, the conscious, and the superconscious. It is said that Molokai is the belly button of the universe, and correspondingly it is recognized as the spiritual centre of the islands. Way back around 600 AD, the Hawaiians built the Ililiopae Heiau, a learning and teaching centre. Kahunas from all the different islands would travel there to be tutored in the sacred Hawaiian ways. Lono told us a story of the attempted Tahitian invasion of Molokai around 1100 AD. After successfully invading the other islands, the Tahitians turned their boats toward Molokai. But all of the kahunas came down from the mountain to the shore and were able to use their collective spiritual force to turn back the Tahitians before they came ashore, protecting the people and the land. With this rich history of responsibility to the traditions and sacred places, the people of Molokai have much to be proud and protective of. No wonder they’re so willing to put up a fight when more contemporary powerful interests come to town.

Molokai is also the birthplace of the sacred tradition of hula, said to have been passed down from the goddess Laka to her people. The hula tradition was shared by DJ, another Hawaiian who also has both Chinese and Japanese ancestry, which speaks to the diverse cultural dimensions that characterize Hawaiian reality. The conventional image of hula–wide smiles, carefree ukelele music, and a context of performance/entertainment–is a contemporary adaptation that evolved alongside the tourism industry. In contrast, the traditional way involves chanting and drumming. Smiles are scarce as each movement is made slowly with great intention, representing a particular element of an ancient story or spiritual expression. DJ gracefully weaves old tradition with modern aspects, playing Molokai music created by Lono and using traditional gentle movements to tell a story. Through the hula, we learned about DJ’s life. At the end, he offered gifts to everyone in the circle. Each of us received a long, magnificent pheasant tail feather–a collection he had been keeping for a long time in anticipation of the right moment. Each person also received a bag filled with five things: a shell, which represented his sister; a kukui nut, which represented his father; a grain of rice, which represented his mother of Chinese heritage; a macadamia nut, which represented his other sister; and Molokai sea salt, which represented himself–the protector of his family.

These offerings reached into us with the knowledge that we are all one interconnected family. This week reminded me that though spiritual beliefs and expression can be vastly different from one person to the next, it is possible to come together in our diversity to celebrate and learn from each other, and to share a common vision of peace and light in the world. If we can learn anything from Molokai history, it’s that collective intention has the power to make peace a reality.

Below are some shots of DJ doing the hula and sharing music..

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These are some shots of a hike Marc and I took on the cliffs… a few mushroom friends below:

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A really cool tree we found – its trunk separated into branches that rejoined together into one solid branch..

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Marc overlooking Kalaupapa, standing on a tiny outcrop attached to a 2,000-foot cliff

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Rainbow over Kalaupapa

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Late afternoon sun looking west along the faintly visible cliffs

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Cutie patuties

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Moi

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Another beautiful tree in the late afternoon sun

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Me staring in awe at the famous phallic rock, a sacred site on the cliffs where many a couple has spent a night and woke up expecting a child. We didn’t stick around very long…

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watching whales

There’s something incredibly humbling and even spiritual about observing other earthlings relating to each other in nature. Especially when they’re 80,000-pound humpback whales and they’re diving right underneath you. On Marc’s first morning here, a handful of us were out  whale watching on the ocean at the dawn of a calm, sunny day. We didn’t have to go far–in fact, we were only a couple of miles offshore, with a view back toward the rainclouds enveloping the hill we live on. And we were right in the thick of it.

In this tiny triangle of water connecting the islands of Molokai, Lanai, and Maui, between 3,000-5,000 humpback whales spend the winter birthing and mating. At this point in February, it’s the peak of the season. The whales take over a month to journey 3,000 miles here from the ocean southeast of Alaska. It’s a safe, sheltered spot for raising the young calves until they’re big enough to traverse the seas without being lost to predator sharks. To do this, the calves can gain 90 pounds of weight per day, which is an incredible feat for the moms. The ocean here is particularly salty and pretty devoid of life–which makes it an unappealing place for predators to hang out, but it means the adults don’t eat for months. Imagine spending four months birthing and feeding a baby without getting a decent meal in yourself! And to top it off, the gestation period is 11 months, which means the ladies are either pregnant, new moms, or just about to get pregnant, pretty much all the time. They begin giving birth at eight years old, and continue to have a calf every 2-3 years. For whales that live to between 45 and 100 years old, that’s a heck of a lot of childrearing.

Because having a calf is such a big deal, the women have pretty high standards in a mate. So the guys are constantly battling it out to be the primary escort–a Battle Royale, according to Captain Mike. But if the guy who makes it to the top isn’t fancied by the female, she shuts him down and goes for the next in line. During the birthing season, the males are off in the rough waters ramming each other and sometimes even splitting each other’s heads and tails. Unique to humpbacks, during this season the males sing a long, structured song, repeating the song for hours. All the males in a breeding ground sing the same song–in fact, all North Pacific humpbacks sing the same song, and all North Atlantic humpbacks sing a different song.

Meanwhile, the moms and calves are hanging out in the calmer shallows. Soon after striking out on the waves, we saw a mom with her calf, estimated to be only about two weeks old. Our hearts stopped as we watched what looked to be a guy and gal doing their graceful dance together. Although we could see spouts blowing for a mile in each direction, it was pretty quiet for about an hour and we were getting close to packing it in. I was listening to the wild stories of Captain Mike, a friend of the Hui, who has a tremendous amount of knowledge of and respect for the whales. Captain Mike decided to take one last turn to check out a few spouts in the distance. The next thing we knew, we were right in the middle of a Battle Royale.

Goosebumps rose as I watched the sharp curve of a tail and matching 15-foot wing fins cruising silently under our boat. Long bubble lines on the surface in every direction signaled their paths. Over and over again, they dived and surfaced, their tiny dorsal fins like the tips of gigantic black icebergs emerging out of the waves. Just the volume of water rushing down off their backs was enough to create new wave patterns. Often, they were so close, we could study the curves leading to the black abyss in each nostril of their blowholes. The whales simultaneously breathe in one hole and out the other. Though they can stay underwater for up to six hours, the males come up to blow every few minutes because they’re expending so much energy battling each other. There were probably five or six adult males all around us. A few came up so high out of the water that we could see their mouths open and bottom jaws puffed up in an effort to look tough to the other males.

I’ll be honest–I’ve been whale watching before, and we were definitely not allowed to get that close. But Captain Mike knows the whales and the waters on a very intimate basis, and the whales aren’t bothered by the sound of boats. I know that was the closest I’ll ever get to a whale, and it was without a doubt one of the most awestruck experiences I’ve ever had–a sense of deep interconnectedness with the earthlings of this planet that together we call home. It was also a moment to celebrate what’s going right in the world–after being on the endangered species list for decades due to commercial whaling that almost caused them to go extinct, North Pacific humpbacks have resurged to a very healthy population of over 21,000 and growing.

Since the whale watching trip, we’ve hiked to the north cliffs again, observing as the whales break the surface in their tumultuous dance 2,000 feet below us. We’ve sat motionless on the front deck of the lodge, catching glimpses of spouts blowing saltwater far out on the waves. But nothing can compare to gliding alongside one of these incredible creatures, dwarfed and humbled by its sheer immensity. It puts one’s life into perspective in a flash.

And the moment you’ve all been waiting for… BIG thanks to Phil Teyssier and Tina Green for sharing these incredible shots with me!

Marc and I on the boat – photo credits to Phil Teyssier…

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The following photos are all credit to Tina Green…

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Only on Molokai do you see animals shooting rainbows out of their nostrils…

And below, with credit to Phil Teyssier and his GPS, is a map of our path off the south coast of the island.

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The Makahiki, hellos, and goodbyes

It’s been a busy week here at the Hui. I feel as though I had barely settled in before things started changing again. Connie left on the Maui ferry on Monday to return to teach a course on Vancouver Island, so I’m officially The Gardener now. In just a few short weeks, I’ve gone from total novice to managing a full-scale garden and seed house providing gourmet food for a well-to-do retreat clientele and I’m about to jump into 10 days of leading a garden work camp team. Whew! And I have Connie to thank dearly for this. I’ve learned an incredible amount of knowledge from this expert who has been not only my teacher but a mentor, roommate, and friend. It was sad to say goodbye, but I feel very prepared to take on this exciting challenge and I am looking forward to continuing to learn from my work here and from Connie in the future (check out http://www.gardensonthego.net/apps/webstore/products if you’re looking for a great garden course on VI, or if you want to do an internship like me here on Molokai next fall/winter!

On Saturday, we spent some of our last down time together watching the Makahiki on the playing field in Kaunakakai. Here’s one description of this old Hawaiian tradition: “The Makahiki is a designated period of time following the harvesting season when wars and battles were ceased, tributes and taxes were paid by each district to the ruling chief, sporting competitions between villages districts were organized and festive events were commenced.” What a beautiful tradition to be able to halt conflict and celebrate in community. I feel like there’s something that other cultures can learn from this! It was an amazing sight: graceful hula dancers in flowing white with long, wild hair; elder women in colourful flowered dresses, drumming; youths holding long poles draped with ceremonial cloth. During the opening ceremony, three men in white loincloths with traditional tattoos stood in the centre. Groups of kids from different schools took their turn singing in procession and handing the men gifts of sacred plants and traditional foods like taro. In slow ritual, the eldest man received the gifts, who handed them to the next-eldest man, who handed them to the youngest man, who placed them among a circle of rocks as an offering. The most surprising part was the last group to pass up an offering. Three officers in naval attire brought up a gift to be placed among the others. The stark contrast between cultures and yet the beauty of this symbolic gesture of peace was astounding.

It was an incredible honour to be able to watch this annual celebration of a tradition that is strongest on Molokai. Kualapu’u school, a mile from our home, is the only public school on the islands that has a full Hawaiian immersion program. We watched and the children screamed as little first graders went head to head in traditional games. In one game, two children held up one foot behind their backs with one hand, and locked onto each other’s palm with the other hand, each trying to cause the opponent to fall or to drop the held foot to the ground. This is the 32nd year of the revived tradition, and our hearts leaped when the MC took to the mic to talk about this year’s theme: food independence. He spoke of the issue that Molokai imports nearly all its food, which is not only difficult to afford, but increasingly unreliable: “We need gardens, and we need them in schools to teach our keiki how to grow their own nutritious food.” It’s truly a time of awakening here, as it is in other parts of the world that are realizing our food system is cracking.

Reinvigorated by this marker for cultural revival and resilience, and motivated by Connie’s imminent departure, we put in long hours doing last-minute instruction in the garden. I learned about irrigation, sheet mulching, banana harvesting, and macadamia nut cracking (what else would you expect in Hawai’i?) It felt really satisfying doing some final walk-throughs of the garden together. This month has been tough on the plants, heavy harvesting coupled with the nematodes and short day lengths has resulted in little growth among our salad greens. But it’s incredible that after every rain, the whole garden looks bigger. There is some kind of energetic enhancement a rain imparts that just doesn’t happen with irrigation. The same goes for eggshells, as we found out when Connie decided to try loading them around the broccoli. The first time it happened, both her and Sabine were shocked to see the plants stand up straighter. I tried it myself the other day, and sure enough, within just a few hours the slightly wilty plants were taller! As the day lengths get longer, we can tell the plants are already starting to grow faster again. It truly nourishes the soul to watch a little seed grow up into a beautiful, strong plant.

I’m also looking forward to some nourishment from the human realm. Tomorrow, our household of twelve staff will swell to thirty-four people, as the Great Fullness Winter Camp is upon us. Twice a year, the Hui hosts friends, family, and past retreat guests for ten fun days of working on team projects, building, planting, painting, co-creating, and sharing. Needless to say, my posts might be slim for a while. With four of us on the garden team, I hope to finally get ahead of the game and able to breathe for a bit afterward, because as soon as it’s over, another person is joining the Hui family: my wonderful partner, Marc. He’ll be here for two months working on the native plant restoration project. I’m counting down the days soaking up gratitude that we’ll be able to be in this place together, and amazed at the possibility that this experience is about to get even better!

Connie and I in the native plant nursery, with the shadehouse in the back:

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The Makahiki opening ceremonyImage

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Vandana Shiva vs. Monsanto

Aloha ‘aina. These words represent a deep component of the culture in Hawai’i–one that the speakers talked about passionately at the energy festival. I like this quote that gives a brief explanation of the concept:

Aloha ‘aina means love of the land. It is the profound respect we have for Hawai’i and the care we take to protect our Islands. Aina means that the land is the source of our food. In that sense, then, the land is what gives us sustenance; it is Hawai’i that sustains us. We who live in the Islands walk upon its earth, breathe its air, drink its water, and eat the food it provides. Hawaii is within us, a part of us.

What became, under development pressure, a call to reclaim Hawaiian land for the benefit of the people is now being used as a call to move toward a sustainable future. It’s a call increasingly heard across the globe, regardless of language or cultural difference. This was made clear yesterday by one of the most powerful and inspiring leaders on my radar: Vandana Shiva. Dr. Shiva is an Indian physicist, author, philosopher, and ecofeminist–and one of the most outspoken critics of genetically modified organisms (GMOs). She was in Honolulu yesterday speaking about aloha ‘aina at a rally in favour of labeling foods containing GMOs–if you have ten minutes to spare to be incredibly inspired, check out this video.

Did you catch what she said about Monsanto being Hawai’l’s biggest employer? Well, on Molokai this is a fact of life. When I first considered coming here, I had no idea I would be living so near the belly of the beast: with its small, remote population, Monsanto has taken advantage of the high unemployment on Molokai and now produces GMO seeds here to sell to farmers on the mainland. The eerily perfect, thick rows of corn, all genetically identical, stand out starkly against the hills of red earth and dry brush on Molokai. Workers in neon safety vests move through the rows marked with “No Trespassing” signs. At Monsanto HQ, dozens of huge white trucks and shiny new SUVs are parked neatly. A few doors down, giant painted signs read “Monsanto, get your toxic chemicals off my land!” Incredibly, the corn rows end just metres from the edge of town in Kaunakakai. In the neighbourhoods beside the fields are apparently the cheapest homes for sale on Molokai. It seems no one wants to live near the pesticide spray.

From the same company that brought us controversial chemicals like DDT, agent orange, bovine growth hormone (injected into dairy cows) and PCBs, Monsanto is probably the single largest threat to global food sovereignty. Whether it’s suing North American farmers when its seeds contaminate their land (sounds a bit backward, doesn’t it?), contributing to an epidemic of suicides among Indian farmers (Shiva pegs it at 270,000 in the past 15 years), causing birth defects and driving farmers off their lands in Argentina, causing horrifying tumours in rats, or financially controlling politicians and university researchers, (the list goes on….) Monsanto is hell bent on controlling the global seed supply–on which the global food supply rests. The company and its products are so reviled that after the earthquake in Haiti, Haitians burned seeds donated from Monsanto rather than planting them. It hired the infamous Blackwater mercenary army to infiltrate anti-GMO groups. Most recently, Monsanto donated a whopping $8.1 million to support the “No” side in the California referendum to make GMO labeling mandatory, which ultimately failed. Any company who bullies farmers into the trap of using its harmful pesticides and its patented RoundUp Ready seeds–and then takes them to court if they try to save seed from the crop–is a huge danger to global food security, biodiversity, and human health.

Monsanto is a very common topic around here at the Hui. Many have very strong feelings against the company, but it’s clearly a very complicated situation on the island. How can you effectively resist a force that is providing an income to your aunties, uncles, perhaps brothers, sisters, and parents, when jobs are so hard to come by?

And while GM corn usually ends up in Hawaiian households as high-fructose corn syrup and other additives in unhealthy processed foods, genetic modification has reached some of Hawaii’s major food plants. It turns out that about 80% of Hawaiian papayas are genetically modified. Articles claiming this “saved” the papaya export industry don’t mention the widespread contamination of backyard gardens and organic papaya farms–which can make them lose their certification.

From what I’ve heard, it sounds as if Hawaiians really began to get upset when scientists began pursuing genetic modification of taro. Taro is an ancient cultural staple considered to be the family of the people. Taro is such a culturally and spiritually important plant that the Hawai’ian word for family, ‘ohana, is derived from ‘oha, a part of the plant: as shoots grow from the tuber, people grow from the family. This starchy root crop, pro-GMO scientists have claimed, is “weak” in the face of pests. But as Connie pointed out the other day, taro survived being brought here in canoes from the South Pacific and supported a population in the hundreds of thousands. Though times have changed, I have a feeling taro doesn’t need scientists to mess with its biology in order to maintain its existence.

On a broader scale, Hawaiians–and Canadians, and all humans–have a big choice to make. Do we allow corporations to profit from messing with our biology, or can we maintain our existence without mutilating our food? I don’t want a laboratory controlling my food supply–which is a major reason I’m here at the Hui learning how to grow my own food organically. In the video, Vandana Shiva tells a story of visiting Italy as the economy collapsed in Europe. A political official took her to see what had happened in Rome: gardens had come up, and young unemployed youth had become seed savers and gardeners. Here’s my favourite quote from her speech:

“In the making of your own food is the making of freedom.”

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