Story by Alan D. McNarie
Photos by Joshua McCullough
The great sugar cane plantations are a fading memory now in most of Hawai‘i. Only on Maui is cane still commercially cultivated. But those who’ve been in the Islands long enough can remember when the fields of light green cane stalks seemed to stretch forever across the central plains of O‘ahu and the mountainsides of the Big Island, and C&H ads touted “the only pure cane sugar from Hawaii” with images of smiling workers and delighted kids. Some remember the downsides, too: the ocean stained brown with topsoil along the Hamakua Coast, for instance, when a rainstorm struck after thousands of acres of cane had been harvested at once.
Noa Kekuewa Lincoln
Now picture a different image, one that no one alive has seen but that lingers in the imaginations of a few. It’s the leeward side of the Big Island, four hundred or so years ago. Stretching up the mountainsides of Kohala and Hualalai and Mauna Loa is a sight even more impressive than those future seas of cane: a vast patchwork of fields edged by ridges of hand-piled rock, or kuaiwi. The fields contain a multitude of crops: kalo (taro) and sweet potatoes, breadfruit and bananas. Planted along the kuaiwi that edge them is ko, sugar cane. But this cane is not the uniform light green of twentieth-century field cane. Instead, ko offers a rainbow of colors, from a violet so dark it’s nearly black to red-purple, maroon, scarlet, pink, green, yellow and white. Looking up the mountain is like looking at an exquisite quilt, with different fields bordered by different hues. When Captain Cook stood on his ship’s deck in Kealakekua Bay and looked up, he must have marveled at a system far more vast and complex than anything he’d seen elsewhere in Polynesia.
Today the image of that Kona field system lives vividly in the imagination of Noa Kekuewa Lincoln. On a late afternoon at the Amy B.H. Greenwell Ethnobotanical Garden in South Kona, Lincoln is striding among the forty-four different cultivars of ko that he helped replant the year before. The planting was done in the traditional Kona drylands style, with kuaiwi on one side of the ko and rows of kalo on the other. Lincoln pauses beside a particularly vibrant clump of cane that has green-andwhite- striped leaves and stalks with stripes of pink, white and pale green. It’s called laukona, he says.
“This one is famous as the only one of the canes that was used to negate love spells,” he continues. Nearby he points out another ko, called manulele (flying bird); it’s dark reddish-purple with yellow stripes and green leaves. Manulele, he explains, was a cane that kahuna (priests) used to cast those love spells, known as hana aloha. Depending on the love desired, kahuna used differing ko: Manulele worked best for enchanting a physically distant or hard-to-approach person. Pilimai (come this way) was good for a quick fling. Papa‘a (hold fast) was the cane for cementing a long-term relationship. And the only antidote for any of them was to chew a properly enchanted piece of laukona.