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On Kaho‘olawe

Small plants can restore a larger faith.



From the vantage point of the wind-ravaged highlands of Kanapou on Kaho‘olawe, the island seems bigger than I imagined. Here, the ground is desiccated, its Mars-red soil packed and baked hard as rock, unyielding. From here, Kaho‘olawe, always an abstraction for me, suddenly seemed so solid and real, ancient and enduring. But in that same region, you can feel Kaho‘olawe disappearing beneath your feet. The dirt of it blows into your hair, your eyes, your mouth, leaving a gritty coating on your teeth. The erosion is relentless.


I was on Kaho‘olawe as a volunteer, tagging along with freelance writer Sheila Sarhangi, who wrote this month’s feature “Saving Kaho‘olawe.” You don’t hear very much about the island anymore. The major battles to get Kaho‘olawe returned to Hawai‘i have all been won, the cleanup of unexploded ordnance as completed as it’s likely to be. But, as Sarhangi relates, the work has really just begun. Every week, a fresh set of volunteers ventures by boat or heli-copter to join the island’s small permanent staff, in an effort to reforest the island.


The ideal outcome for the Kaho‘olawe Island Reserve Commission would be to bring the island back to its original, precontact form as a woodland. For the near term—measured in decades—the goal is simply to slow, if not halt, the erosion. After two centuries of goats and a half-century of bombing, much of the island’s topsoil has washed or blown away.


So, for four days, I joined Sheila and about 20 other volunteers as we planted fresh saplings of a‘ali‘i, a drought-resistant Native Hawaiian plant species. We put 600 into the ground, and the irrigation system to get them started, so that roots and leaves can trap the soil, hold the island down, keep it safe.


photo: Sheila Sarhangi


One night, though, we talked about the ultimate fate of Kaho‘olawe—submergence. A volunteer read a W.S. Merwyn poem describing the rise and eventual fall of each Hawaiian island, from towering seamount to life-rich island, to atoll, and back to seamount. What good could it possibly do, then, to plant 600 little shrubs against a fate like that? But, somehow, the reflection had something more to do with humility than futility. With luck, even. The invulnerable continents circle warily around each other, eon after eon. But Hawai‘i rises up from the sea like a dream the world dreamed for itself, beautiful but not meant to last. And here we are, at the same rare time, on this most unlikely, unlasting bit of land.


At night, from the base camp, you hear the ocean itself hungrily eating at the edge of Kaho‘olawe, beneath a sky truly ancient and uncaring. There is nothing that cannot be washed away. I didn’t much like that feeling. But in the daylight, in the field, I may have found an answer that will do.


When everything around you seems to be eroding away to nothing, things you thought would last forever, could last forever, there’s only one thing you can do that makes any sense.


Plant something.


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Honolulu Magazine September 2020
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