After living in a purgatory of sorts for a few months, maneuvering in a daze between a newly cultivated and treasured mālama ʻāina mindset and the return of collegiate responsibility, I have once again come to a point in my life where I feel another vibrant aspect of my world becoming integrated into my identity. The Jocelyn that I knew before with thoughts of idealism and a passion for learning still remains, and yet these tendencies have become more inspired and enhanced by the intimate experiences with nature and with community that I had this summer with Kupu.
As beautiful a process as this transformation was, it was also very difficult to transition back to school-life, moving my hands away from the earth and back onto the keyboard for hours on end. This fostered a yearning for the natural places, beautiful people, and native flora that I have since come to know as my friends.
I have since adjusted back to daily life, but the enchantment of the summer lingers. To mark this transition, I would like to share an essay that I wrote about my experience this summer. It’s a bit lengthy, so if you’re not up to a long read you can stop where you are. But I poured my heart and soul into it so for those who are willing, here goes…
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The summer of 2018 started off like any other: the air was charged with potential, full of that sense of freedom that is so fleeting during the school year, and I found myself ready to charge into that expanse of the unknown known as summer vacation. This summer marked the denouement of my first year in college, becoming a milestone in my hesitant yet inevitable progress into adulthood. Within the span of a year I have found myself to be a totally different person from that Kalani graduate I was some time ago. Since then, I had experienced one amazing summer of traveling around the world, as well as an entire year of collegiate study that was able to expand my mind even further. The result of these two major events was that, by the beginning of this recent summer vacation, the face that stared back at me when I looked in the mirror was no longer that of a naive and confused high school student, but instead a young idealist who felt for the plights of the world and was passionate about doing what she could to help solve them.
Little did I know during those first few weeks of summer freedom that I would get to experience yet another life-changing event that would alter the very fabric of my identity and change the way I saw the world. But it caught up to me soon enough. The Kupu HYCC Summer program, which started off merely as an internship that appealed to my interests and happened to be paid as well, became a life-changing experience that has altered my world view within the span of only seven weeks.
Friends for life
Our first week at Camp Palehua certainly got us prepared for the more rugged lifestyle required of the Kupu program. Almost right when we arrived we were informed that each person was only allowed 3 minutes of running water per shower, which ended up in chaos on the girls’ end as we waited in ridiculously long lines for our turn and ran from bathroom to cabins dripping wet and wearing nothing but our towels. At night, rain would come in through the open windows of the cabin and loud whistling sounds in the trees would keep the superstitious campers awake. Although most would say that these are not exactly the ideal living conditions for a week’s stay, they ended up being the perfect conditions both for initiating us into the art of “roughing it” and for strengthening soon-to-be lifetime bonds.
Starting off with those awkward hellos and generic self-introductions, my teammates and I nonetheless became a tight-knit group in no time. We were already comfortable with teasing each other and finishing each other’s food by the end of the week. As the program went on, we got so close that we would have therapy sessions together as a group during our breaks and quickly came to know almost everything about each other. Believe it or not, we got a little too close sometimes: one time when I left my already damp and muddy shoes in the car over the weekend, I had a wonderful surprise when I caught a whiff of it on Monday and discovered to my disgust that two other pairs of socks from my male team members had also been festering in them for days. But even those not-so-perfect moments became precious memories as we all grew closer throughout the program.
Although I entered this program purely with the notion of taking part in something not only altruistically-oriented, but also related to my interests in Hawaiian culture and environmental studies, I had no idea the extent to which it would alter my social wellbeing as well. Not only did I end up experiencing a refreshing social environment in which like-minded people concerned about the state of the natural environment and our place within it worked side by side, but because of this I was able to make much deeper friendships than I would have ever expected prior to the program.
A Hawaiian way of thinking
Starting at camp, and extending throughout the program, I became awakened to the Hawaiian culture, which I had previously appreciated from afar but had never really felt a part of. In fact, part of the reason why I had initially made the decision to join Kupu was because I had felt bad that I was so disconnected to the culture of the land on which I have lived my entire life. Before Kupu, Hawaiʻi was merely a place where I happened to live rather than an environment where I truly had a strong sense of place. Instead, I pulled my culture from the cultural melting pot of my neighborhood as well as my mother’s Taiwanese heritage. Of course, this upbringing of great cultural diversity is a characteristic of Hawaiʻi unto itself, so in that sense I am indeed a product of my environment. But this nurtured aspect of my cultural identity did not include the true core of Hawaiian culture and values, so I always felt foreign to them despite my interest and respect for that lifestyle which I only observed from afar. Because of this, I never felt that strong sense of place in my own island home, since my life experience had never given me the chance to truly connect to the ʻāina (land) in the totally immersive and spiritual manner with which Native Hawaiians have been connected to it for hundreds of years. However, Kupu initiated me into these cultural practices and ways of thinking, not only increasing my understanding of Hawaiian culture but also allowing me to take on such principles in my own cultural identity.
One significant cultural practice that we learned was to oli, or chant, in order to show respect for certain people and places. This humbling action was not only a great opportunity to learn some ʻōlelo Hawaiʻi (Hawaiian language), but also to understand the extent to which Native Hawaiians have shown respect when entering new areas for example, exemplifying their great reverence and respect in many aspects of society. Really learning an oli by heart and being able to recite it with the wind blowing through your hair and the grass between your toes is an extremely invigorating and sensational experience, in which, if only for a moment, one feels totally immersed in the beautiful surrounding environment. This very spiritual relationship that the people have with the land is one of my favorite aspects of Hawaiian culture, and stems from their cosmogonic genealogy which ties their ancestral roots to the very earth from which they were born.
This genealogical connection to the land explains the very responsible subsistence lifestyle that the native Hawaiians had always practiced, which starkly contrasts with the idea of nature as the “other” according to nonindigenous thought. By respecting the ʻāina they are in turn showing reverence to their land-based gods, which therefore leaves no room for environmental abuse. This perspective is exemplified with the fact that there is no word for “nature” in the Hawaiian language, since nature was so integrated in the people’s daily lives that there was no need for a distinctive word for it. However in English, nature and mankind are very distinct linguistic and conceptual categories, further emphasizing the much more dichotomized mindset of nature being a completely separate entity from ourselves. Seeing the world through the more Indigenous mindset of nature as an integral part of life allows one to better embrace and respect it, while the alternative dissected view seems to make it much easier to ignore nature’s existence and therefore exploit it without giving much thought to the consequences. The existence of global climate change exemplifies this idea, since the more urbanized and segregated from nature humankind has become, the harder it is for people to not only be aware of the negative implications of a wasteful, environmentally-harmful lifestyle, but also to have much empathy for such matters as the very end of nature. After all, as many may think, if the natural world goes down hill, we at least have our AC units and fake turf to create our own artificial world alongside it. Or better yet, with today’s rapidly changing technological innovations, we could just find ourselves a new planet to inhabit for that matter. But to a young, idealistic naturalist as myself, this mindset is appalling, and should be replaced by the rich Indigenous mindset that is so much more holistically considerate of the wellbeing of both people and their environment. To the Hawaiian people, the Earth is more than our home: it is family, it is deity.
Being surrounded not only by pristine and beautiful ʻāina as I worked, but also by people who were integrated in the Hawaiian community and culture, really made me feel more a part of the culture that I had for so long considered myself foreign to. The words and values of Hawaiʻi which I had heard here and there throughout my lifetime had now become personal to me and were in turn integrated into my evolving identity. This cultural awakening not only made me better understand the general aspects of Hawaiian values and ways of life, but it also allowed me to actively live the culture by seeing the world through an Hawaiian cultural lense and adopt these perspectives into my everyday life experience.
A richer geographical understanding
Getting to experience and participate in the indigenous relationship between people and the land was not only an extremely rewarding and awakening experience on a personal level, but it also gave me a new perspective vital for an enhanced understanding related to my field of study and career aspirations. Being a geography major, my studies are focused on the link of people to the land, referring both to how the physical environment affects its people as well as how people in turn influence their surroundings. In looking at these kinds of processes, the stark contrast between the Indigenous and foreign mindsets in regards to nature became brutally clear to me. It was quite disheartening to realize that pretty much all of the work that we did throughout the summer involved the cleaning up of some environmental mess made by foreign powers in places that were once pono (in balance).
At most of the sites at which my team worked, we not only got to learn the original Hawaiian moʻolelo (stories) of the land, but also the more recent history of the colonial occupation and alteration of those areas. When we worked at Ulupō Heiau, our first site, we got to learn about the history of Kawainui marsh which was located alongside the heiau. What used to be a pristine natural habitat has since become an overgrown marsh full of invasive plant species and subject to illegal dumping. Before foreigners arrived in the islands, the Hawaiians had not left the area in its purely natural condition either; however, rather than altering the environment with total disregard for potential negative implications on the surrounding ecosystems, the native Hawaiians had merely enhanced the landscape to make it even more bountiful all the while sustaining the natural balance. In the case of Kawainui Marsh, before foreign contact it had once been a vast, abundant fishpond of about 400 square acres, with approximately 1,000 fish per square acre. In other words, the native Hawaiians were able to recognize a nutrient-rich area and harness that natural characteristic for the nourishment of their own people. The creation of this fishpond allowed for a communal food source from which people from all parts of the ahupua’a (land division) could acquire food.
Since then, as foreign influence took over the islands, the fishpond was blocked by development along a sandbar which lay adjacent to it, preventing circulation between the stream and ocean water to create the brackish conditions that were so ideal for the formerly abundant fishpond. When these new housing developments were discovered to have flooding problems, a wall was built extending the entire width of the pond, completely ceasing waterflow and in turn causing excessive deposition and vegetation growth in the formerly pristine fishpond. This drastic change from aquatic environment to marshlands was not only detrimental to the organisms that were part of that ecosystem, but also became yet another example of a retraction of sustainable food practices, bringing the islands one step closer to the almost total foreign food dependence of today. This is just one of many cases throughout these islands and beyond that echo the same sad story of colonial dominance and destruction of a once pristine and Pono way of life.
Learning about the complex factors that came into play to make Hawaiʻi’s landscapes as they are today really fit perfectly in the holistic geographical perspective with which I was receiving this information. Place-based cultures like that of Hawaiʻi are directly linked to the land on which they originate, and this makes sense of place even more important in these sorts of cultures. On a personal level, I must say that I had certainly experienced a sense of place prior to this program, having felt that deep connection of people and place on my many travels around the world. However, I did not so much have a sense of place within the context of my island home, instead merely enjoying the beauty of the ʻāina on my hikes in the Ko’olaus and my swims in the ocean.
However, after this program, after becoming not only a steward of the land but also a member of the island community, my entire perspective of my island home has drastically changed. My internalization of the Hawaiian culture made me more aware and concerned about the plights of the Hawaiian people as well as the environment, both of which have not been given their fair share due to foreigners’ disregard for Hawaiian culture and values. And alongside my sense of social responsibility and my passion for change on these fronts, I also find myself experiencing my island home in a new light as I go on seeing the world through this newly adopted Indigenous lens. Now, when I pass by Koa or a Ohi’a Lehua trees on my hikes in the mountains, I no longer merely see beautiful plants but instead feel a deep, inherent connection to them. This personal connection stems from their representing a call to action regarding my passion for environmental conservation in the face of a world so prone to environmental abuse. This sense of connection also stems from their being triggers of the memories from this amazing summer, bringing me back to days under the beating sun where I laughed together with my Kupu ohana. However, most of all, these pieces of nature, of ʻāina, are now perceived to me as an embodiment of the spiritual quality and mana of the islands which I have only just recently come to truly understand and love.