Just above Kona town behind Border’s Bookstore sit remnants of the five-mile-long King’s Wall built by the subjects of Big Island Governor Kuakini in the early 1800s to contain herds of wandering livestock. Napoka, who wrote about this era in the book Pohaku, says masonry skills were widespread by this time: “For the average paniolo, the ability to quickly repair a puka in a dry stack wall was as essential as knowing how to ride a horse.” In the absence of any guild to teach stone building skill, it was expected that sons would observe and absorb the talents of their fathers. At the same time, Napoka notes, builders who really distinguished themselves might find themselves fast-tracked for royal recognition—a kupuna (expert) status was given to those who planned and placed stone architecture.
With the introduction of mortar and metal as early as the eighteenth century, Hawaiian stone builders found themselves in a busy new job market. Immigrants were eager to import their own buildings styles, which explains the kaleidoscopic touches on public buildings around Honolulu, from the Tudor-style eaves of the city’s first pumping station in Kaka‘ako to the fretted medieval gun turrets atop the gateways to Diamond Head’s Fort Ruger. But in all this activity, the demand for stone remained constant.
Missing from the picture was the cultural context. Like many things Hawaiian, it was eclipsed until Hawaiian identity reasserted itself in the 1970s during a period simply referred to as the Renaissance. If many are adjusting their vision to see rock wall building as indigenous architecture, then the credit largely goes to Billy Fields, who, it seems, still has a hard time believing that he has succeeded as both a commercial stone mason and a cultural avatar. This later part of his
reputation stems from his extensive restoration work on more than 100 historic sites, including heiau and fishponds; his roster of commercial clients is even lengthier. About sixty percent of his projects are modern mortar-based, the rest are dry-stack—a style in which he is so masterful, he was chosen to represent Hawai‘i in a Folk Builders of America Festival sponsored by the Smithsonian. He shakes his head laughingly at the memory of doing a demo in D.C. next to Italian marble carvers. “A lot of local people came by, and they were so happy to see what I do. Just the sight of rock walls brought back memories. And I was ready for them with all the macadamia candy I brought along.”
Billy radiates energy. Tomorrow he’s off to Haleakala on Maui, where the National Park Service has hired him to oversee some wall renovations. It seems a stroke of sheer luck I am able to locate him in his hometown of Kona. It’s pau hana time on a weekday afternoon, and as we head up the road in his huge truck, it’s not long before he’s slowing down to trade shakas with some of the men making their way home from any of his six concurrent jobsites. “My men are tough. This is a tough job. Everyone sleeps well after a day of work,” he says.
Their sense of accomplishment, he hopes, comes not just from their physical labor. “At just about every jobsite, we make it a habit to pule,” he says, using the Hawaiian word for prayer. This is part of the protocol he has instituted; it also includes reciting chants and genealogies connected to the sites the workmen are about to enter. “Discipline is important because this is what it takes to get to the jobsite everyday and work your butt off,” he says. “It’s through this hard work that you find your way to the spirituality of the culture.”
Billy’s own turning point in his career came in 1989 when the Daughters of Hawai‘i, the caretakers of Hulihe‘e Palace in Kona, asked Fields to restore the aging dry stack palace wall. He drives me to the site and describes the sense of reverence he felt for the stones themselves. “These might have passed through the hands of my own ancestors,” he says, with amazement in his voice. The palace job so inspired Fields that he went through masonry training and did everything he had to to pass the state licensing boards, including joining the union, racking up apprentice hours and learning the state’s building code. Nowadays in his commercial work, he takes on jobs that he doesn’t hesitate to describe as “real monstrosities for all the red tape involved: getting permits, addressing archeological concerns, working with contractors, suppliers, workmen’s comp, medical”—all the while never losing sight of his all-Hawaiian crew’s spiritual needs. Sometimes this has included the need to pointedly lecture on Hawaiian values. “Once, when things got out of hand, I had to sit some of the men down and give them Hawaiian terms to think about. One is kaumaha. This is the personal burden each of us carries. It is meant to be left at the gate when you come into a place where cooperation is everything. I mean, when you practice wall-building, it’s nothing less than practicing life.”