Story by Michael Shapiro
Photo by Monte Costa
If you like to eat,
you’ve probably heard of aquaponics by now. Thousands of people, and a lot of Hawai‘i residents, have these closed-loop systems pumping out Manoa lettuce and curly kale in their backyards. But not many are using aquaponics to grow medicine.
Which is why Leina‘ala Bright and David McGuire started NaloPonics in 2009. (The name’s a combination of Waimanalo, the O‘ahu town where the duo live, and “aquaponics.”) Along with the lettuce and kale in their backyard systems are essential plants in the waihona la‘au lapa‘au, or the Hawaiian medicine cabinet: ‘olena (turmeric), popolo, ‘uhaloa, ko‘oko‘olau and others. Leina‘ala had gotten into aquaponics as a matter of food security—she’d been having nightmares about a future when food had become scarce. At the same time, she was taking classes in la‘au lapa‘au—herbal healing—and worried about those plants, too. To many Native Hawaiians, dreams are messages from the ancestors, and the kupuna [elders] were practically shouting at her “to learn about the medicine,” says Leina‘ala.
As interest in indigenous healing has grown and more people have begun harvesting in the forests, wild medicine is becoming harder to find. “Our kupuna used to have their medicinal gardens in the back,” Leina‘ala says. “They were called ‘weed gardens.’ Before that, the la‘au was everywhere, so it was easy to go and pick it. Now we have to really look for it.” Why not, then, try growing some aquaponically? The results have been extraordinary. Some species fare better in aquaponic systems than they do in the wild, and now, says Leina‘ala, “I literally have a pharmacy in my backyard.”
Today Leina‘ala and David offer workshops both in aquaponics and in growing medicinal plants, and they share their medicine with local la‘au practitioners. They make almost no money at it, but they do it to make the wisdom of the past available for an uncertain future. “All the work we’re doing is indigenous science, bringing forth our ancestors’ knowledge—making it viable, making it real,” Leina‘ala says. “It’s about native intelligence.”