story by Dennis Hollier
photos by Chris McDonough
Manny Matos presses his forehead against the gray trunk of an old kauila tree. He closes his eyes and mutters a little prayer under his breath. His right hand is wrapped around the slender trunk, as if around the neck of an old friend. In the bright sunlight, they seem to touch noses—to honi—in the old Hawaiian greeting.
But the meeting is bittersweet. The old kauila died in a recent wildfire. Its bark has burned away. Only a few crisp leaves still cling to its craggy limbs. Manny will be its undertaker. He already has a permit from the state Department of Land and Natural Resources (DLNR) to harvest windfalls and deadwood here in the Pu‘uwa‘awa‘a District Management Area. Today, he’s come up the mountain to get permission from the trees themselves—and to see if he can help save what’s left of the last kauila forest.
Manny makes traditional Hawaiian weapons, the wooden spears, daggers and clubs of ancient warriors. Four years ago, when he retired from the Honolulu Police Department and moved to the Big Island, he started making weapons from koa and selling them to tourists and collectors. But the traditional material for these weapons wasn’t the relatively soft wood of koa; it was the endemic hardwoods of Hawai‘i’s scrublands: kauila, which rings like steel when it’s dropped; uhiuhi, so dense it sinks in water; and gnarly maua. Now all these trees are endangered. It’s illegal to sell their wood. The grove in Pu‘uwa‘awa‘a supports the last wild populations of maua and Big Island kauila. There are less than fifty uhiuhi left in the wild. Other hardwoods, like alahe‘e and olopua, may be rarer still. Manny wants to save them all.
Pu‘uwa‘awa‘a is a rough landscape. The name means “deeply rutted hill.” The forest is mostly a chaparral of weeds—of lantana, fountain grass, apple-of-sodom and tobacco plant. The trees are spread thinly over gullies and chunky lava flows. Much of the mountainside is leased out as ranchland. The combination of undergrowth and cattle has been deadly to the rare trees there. Cattle compact the soil and their sharp hooves gouge the trees’ roots. They graze on the keiki—the seedlings—so you never see young kauila. But the fountain grass is even deadlier than the cattle: It serves as tinder for wildfires that scorch the trees. A few months ago, one of the last uhiuhi was killed by fire. The DLNR believes that, without intervention, the rest of the kauila forest of Pu‘uwa‘awa‘a is doomed.