story by Paul Devlin Wood
photos by Monte Costa and Franco Salmoiraghi
photo by Monte Costa
From left to right: Kawai Tsuha,
Derek Kekaulike Mar, Kalei Tsuha,
Andre Perez, Joanna Tsuha,
Conner Naho‘opi‘ and Mile Naho‘opi‘i
gather to greet the voyaging canoe
Makali‘i on thebeach at Honokanai‘a
Kaho‘olawe has its hooks in me. I can still feel that all-night mouse scratching under my sleeping bag; still see those miles of red earth running like ski slopes from the summit to the sea; still hear the bugling call of the pu (conch shells), pulling us together—for work, for meals, for everything, for the honor of greeting the sunrise, in fact for survival.
I can see the island from my house in Upcountry Maui. Even in the darkness, even as Kaho‘olawe sinks into its unelectrified blackness, I can see it. Last night, for instance, an amber crescent moon balanced above the island, and blue-white Venus stood directly above that, like a pearl dropping into a razor-thin cup. Just as I saw this portent, a pueo, a Hawaiian owl, flew past my head and let out its distinctive cry—a rusty shriek that shoots like a spear into registers above human hearing. Immediately I was back there. In my imagination it was midnight and I was lying once again on the shoreline at Hakioawa, listening to three women chanting wildly from somewhere in the distance, their voices penetrating the night’s thick silence with unbelievable velocity. Each time the voices paused, a pueo shrieked in the darkness. And when I lifted my head from the sleeping bag, I could see the myriad amber lights of Maui, one of them perhaps my own.
Am I here or there?
It’s now been six months since I first set foot on the island, joining seventy other pilgrims as part of a four-day “access” led by the Protect Kaho‘olawe ‘Ohana. During our stay we worked hard and slept little. We cleaned up the “camp”—acres of thigh-high coastal grass in the simmering shade of thorny kiawe trees. We hiked to the island’s summit and jumped into a restoration project, staking itchy bales of native pili grass right into the slick red surface of an eroded mountainside. Then a storm walloped our departure, testing our endurance to the snapping edge. Not long afterwards, someone asked me if I would ever go back there again. “Go back?” I said, “I haven’t left yet.”
In the interim, I’ve come to know many people who have fallen under the grip of Kaho‘olawe. “This is my Mecca,” I’ve heard them say. “This is the piko”—the navel, the soul-center of Hawai‘i. I have found that everyone who gets involved with this island, from the occasional access participant all the way to Sol Kaho‘ohalahala, executive director of the Kaho‘olawe Island Reserve Commission—that is, “KIRC” (pronounced as a one-syllable word), the state agency responsible for the care of the island and its surrounding waters—everyone sincerely believes that this island represents the future of Hawai‘i. They are driven and earnest in their faith.