The Heart of Halawa—Land&People

The breathtakingly beautiful Halawa Valley lies on the northeastern point of the Hawaiian island of Moloka`i, at the end of the main road. From the overlook above the lush, green valley, you can look west to see a meandering stream bisect a broad crescent beach to meet the ocean. To the east, waves from the North Pacific end their thousand-mile journey as foaming breakers that pound the steep volcanic cliffs.

Inspiring though it may be, the Halawa Valley is still a work in progress for Glenn and Mahealani Davis. The couple have been working for nearly a quarter century–recently with the Trust for Public Land–to restore the valley to the place of healing and sustenance it had been for Hawaiians for more than a millennium.

When they moved to Moloka`i from O`ahu in 1997, their sights were not set quite so high. "Actually," says the 47-year-old Glenn, "I went down there to work for a helicopter tour company. They had leased land at the mouth of the valley and would bring tourists over from Maui. I'd run them in a Zodiac boat along the north side of Moloka`i."

The enterprise failed–"totally," says Glenn. "But it was a great place to be, a great place to raise kids." So the Davises stayed on. The fish were plentiful and hunting for wild pigs provided meat. But, says Glenn, "we always thought about taro," the source of the traditional Hawaiian food, poi. "By the time we would come to town, poi was sold out. We never had poi to go with our fish." Taro was the major crop in the Halawa Valley throughout its human history, but cultivation dwindled practically to nothing in the mid-twentieth century. "We started trying to figure out how to grow taro in the valley and hooked up with some people who helped us learn how."

Food for Body and Soul

Poi, a porridge-like blend of pounded taro root cooked with water, is the alpha and omega of the Polynesian diet, introduced to the Hawaiian Islands by the Pacific Islanders who first voyaged there around 500 a.d. Although to many non-natives, poi is an acquired taste, it is one of the world's most perfect foods. Easily digested and full of nutrients, it is not only a key ingredient in the Hawaiians' diet but also a central, defining element of their culture. Planting and harvesting taro, cooking and eating poi–all are occasions steeped in legend and cultural protocol.

Over the years, Glenn and Mahealani, both Hawaiian-born, began to learn more about the valley where they lived. "When we moved there, there were still a number of elders living in the valley," Mahealani recalls. "In talking with those kupuna and their children, we began to get an appreciation of the valley's history. Stories from all those people really fed our curiosity about the place. We started looking at old maps, old deeds. Almost everybody on Moloka`i has a story about Halawa."

Glenn and Mahealani also met Patrick Vinton Kirch, an archaeologist and author of a popular book on ancient Hawaiian culture, Feathered Gods and Fishhooks. While the elders of the valley had given them insight into living traditions, Kirch opened a door to the valley's ancient past.

Through Kirch, the Davises learned that early Hawaiian society developed around the cultivation of taro, as evidenced by a complex system of gravity-flow irrigation canals and pond fields. Halawa, they learned, has hosted one of the longest uninterrupted occupations in the Hawaiian islands, going back 1,300 or more years. The valley also was among the early stops for ships carrying goods from the outside world after Hawai`i's initial contact with the West in the late eighteenth century. "Archaeologists often find broken pottery from the very early days of western contact," Mahealani explains.

Halawa's continuous inhabitation was nearly broken in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. After western contact, disease and removal of Hawaiians to population centers left Halawa, like many other remote parts of the islands, with a tiny fraction of its precontact population. David Stannard, a historian at the University of Hawai`i, has suggested that the precontact population of the islands was roughly equivalent to the current population of slightly more than a million residents. All were largely supported by taro.

As the valleys were depopulated, taro cultivation waned, though Halawa was slow to lose its traditional ways. As recently as 1877, more than a thousand taro fields (lo`i) of varying size were still being worked in the valley, but by the 1930s just a handful of taro farmers remained. Young people left to attend school and never came back, finding jobs in Lahaina or Honolulu. "So," says Mahealani, "you ended up with a population of elderly people who stayed until they died, but there were not enough of them to maintain the taro lo`i or the extensive irrigation systems needed to cultivate taro. People were taking care of just a couple of lo`i in places close to streams or `auwai intakes [`auwai are the irrigation canals], where it was easy for just one person to maintain water flow."

The Steadfast Taro Growers

As the Davises became more deeply rooted in the valley, they wanted to start cultivating taro. "It was something our son wanted to do," Glenn says, "so we had to figure out how to do it the right way." And for that they called on the Reppun family of Waiahole Valley, on the windward shores of O`ahu. Although the three Reppun brothers–Charley, Paul, and John–have no native Hawaiian blood in their veins, they have become leaders in the renaissance of taro cultivation.

The first step was to map the ancient `auwai, which carried water from Halawa Stream to a series of terraced lo`i. Although taro is often grown as a dryland crop, most connoisseurs of poi believe it is best made from taro cultivated in a wetland field, somewhat like a rice paddy. Glenn and Mahealani found the overgrown canal and cleared it of weeds. To open the `auwai, clear the lo`i, and plant the taro was more work than the two of them could do, so in the summer of 1997 they called on the Reppuns and a few friends to help. "About 200 other people came too," Glenn says.

For three days, Halawa Valley was the site of a flurry of activity the likes of which the valley had not seen in half a century or more. People from around the state moved boulders the size of small cars to send water into the `auwai first dug centuries ago. In the taro lo`i, they cleared brush with machetes and felled trees with chainsaws. They hauled, they dug, they filled the lo`i with water and planted the huli, the stalks used for propagating taro. Women and men, young and old alike. Taro farmers and office workers. City kids and keiki (children) from rural areas. Everyone participated in the hard work in the old Hawaiian style. And then they feasted.

When the crowds dispersed, they not only had brought taro back to Halawa, they had also organized themselves into a group–Onipa`a Na Hui Kalo (roughly translated: the Steadfast Taro Growers)–that over the next few years would encourage a statewide renaissance in taro cultivation, an essential foundation in the recent rebirth of Hawaiian culture and pride. Glenn became its first president.

In the years since the group was formed, it has helped bring back into production dozens of abandoned taro fields, ranging in size from a few hundred square feet to several acres, on all the major populated islands. The goal is not just to put wholesome food on the tables of Hawaiians. The rekindling of interest in taro production also has been a vehicle for instructing young people, including troubled youth, in the ways of their elders. This is the very foundation of the mission of Onipa`a, which holds that active participation in planning, working, and maintaining relationships–key factors in taro cultivation–will foster the positive traits of Hawaiian society and culture: laulima, cooperation; aloha, love; malama, stewardship; and kokua, to help without being asked.

"Work that makes you touch the earth plays a powerful role in the rehabilitation of both people and place," says Mahealani. "Like rebuilding walls one stone at a time, social capital grows as each person finds his or her place in the community. Taro is a loving and patient teacher."

Paul Reppun, one of the gurus of taro cultivation in Hawai`i, praises the work of the Davises: "The Davises are definitely the caretakers of that area," he says. "We had been talking to Glenn for many years about opening `auwai in Halawa. Since then, there have been a lot of people moving island to island to open lo`i and restore `auwai."

A Land Trust Is Born

In the mid-1990s, the land the Davises leased for taro cultivation was put on the market. Although Glenn and Mahealani had expressed interest in purchasing it, the land ended up in the hands of a Kaua`i rancher whose interest seemed to lie in the direction of development. The Davises' ability to stay on the land they had so lovingly begun to restore was never more uncertain.

Then, suddenly, it all changed. Rell Sunn, a legendary surfer and a lifelong friend of Glenn's, had brought two of her friends, Yvon and Malinda Chouinard of Ventura, California, to Halawa for a visit. They camped on the white-sand beach, kayaked along the sea cliffs of the island's north shore, and saw the work that the Davises had begun. After Sunn's untimely death in 1998, the Chouinards made a generous donation to the Trust for Public Land in her memory. With this gift, TPL was able to purchase the taro lo`i and some outbuildings from the Kaua`i owner and subsequently donate the land to the nonprofit Maui Open Space Trust (MOST); it was MOST's first project. MOST now holds the land until the Davises can complete organizational work on the Halawa Valley Land Trust.

"Our role in the Halawa Valley is TPL's mission statement made real," says Scott Parker, director of TPL's Hawaiian Islands program. "The restoration of taro fields in the Halawa Valley isn't only about restoring the land, it's about restoring Hawaiian culture in the valley."

With the land now secure, the Davises have begun working in earnest on their vision for preserving Halawa as a learning and healing center–what they call a "cultural anchor" for the valley. "We want to help students understand botany, ecology, and so on," says Mahealani. "But more than that, people need to reconnect with primary elements, they need to remember things, to get a sense of balance back."

Within the first year of the reopening of Halawa's lo`i kalo in 1997, more than 1,200 people came to draw strength from the valley and the lo`i kalo work in progress. Says Mahealani, "They all needed something–inspiration, understanding, restoration, reconnection."

Mahealani envisions the center "as a staging area where people can get oriented to the valley before they go into it–where people can be prepared for the work they're going to be participating in. We would just let people know how to be safe, and the valley will do the rest," she says. The Davises are hopeful that, in addition to the four or five lo`i already reopened, the Halawa Valley Land Trust will be allowed to open up another lo`i on land held by the Pu`u O Hoku ranch, the valley's largest landowner.

Glenn suffered a debilitating stroke in 1999 but has been astonishing doctors and friends with his rapid recovery. As he travels around the island, the support and friendship provided by the close Moloka`i community is abundantly evident. Although progress in the valley slowed while Glenn was sidelined with his health problems, he continues to visit the site of the center regularly and is making plans to restore an old stone house to host groups on the property. Taro farmers around Moloka`i have pledged to help with their labor and equipment when Glenn resumes work on opening new lo`i in the valley.

As we walk through the valley on ancient paths that Glenn and Mahealani and their children have cleared by hand over the last two decades, a fresh breeze carries the scent of earth and newly mown grass. As in a scene from centuries ago, taro leaves and land and people are mirrored by the cool water of the lo`i. We see ourselves reflected in the water's surface, embraced by an ancient culture in the Hawaiian heart of Halawa.

Land & People, Spring, 2001

Patricia Tummons is editor of Environment Hawai`i, a monthly newsletter published in Hilo.