story by Roland Gilmore
photos by Dana Edmunds
A warm wind is blowing on O‘ahu’s leeward coast: down from Mount Ka‘ala, through Makaha Valley and then out to sea. Not a strong wind, just enough to rustle the leaves of Dalani Tanahy’s wauke patch. Left untended, these paper mulberry plants will would grow like weeds, sending runners underground and shooting up new plants where you’d least expect them. But that sort of unfettered growth does nothing to suit Dalani’s purposes, and so her carefully managed crop of roughly 200 plants grows as uniformly as a field of corn, each eight-foot-high row separated by a mulch-covered walkway; branches regularly pruned at the trunk to create a smooth, unscarred bark; the whole works irrigated by drip-lines.
“Because of the way wauke grows, one plant today equals forty plants next year if it’s happy,” Dalani says, gesturing to a recently tilled, currently empty vegetable field that sits just across a narrow dirt drive from her patch.. “But if I didn’t keep a really tight rein on it over here, then that whole field over there …” she gestures toward a recently tilled, currently empty field just across from her patch “… would be covered—that’s just how crazy wild it can get.”
Wauke is not native to Hawai‘i. It isn’t food, nor is it strong medicine. But it was so essential to Polynesian culture that it is widely thought to bewas probably one of the a “canoe plants” — that is, one of the life-sustaining crops carried here by the earliest human arrivals, who themselves came somewhere between 300 and 600 A.D. It was brought here because it is the best plant for making bark-cloth, and kapa figured in virtually every aspect of Polynesian life, from ritual adornment and funerary rites to day-to-day clothing and bedding. By the eighteenth century, when Europeans first happened upon Hawai‘i’s shores —and logged the first written accounts of life in the Islands, —the plant was ubiquitous. In fact, according to the highly regarded ethno-botanical history Native Planters in Old Hawaii, it would be “useless” to attempt an inventory of all the places wauke was reportedly farmed. So long as certain conditions were met—light winds, rich soil, plenty of water—the plant would almost certainly have been under human cultivation ... and virtually all of it for kapa.
Given its traditional importance and reasonably prolific growth, it’s hard to believe that wauke is rare in the Islands today, or that Dalani’s 30x50-foot plot is one of the larger fields under active cultivation. Then again, maybe it’s not so hard to believe: While bark-cloth is still commonly made and used in many parts of the Pacific—particularly in Tonga (where it is known by either the generic Polynesian term tapa or the native ngatu), Samoa (siapo) and Fiji (masi)—by most estimates, there are only about two-dozen people throughout the Hawaiian Islands who make kapa on anything approaching a regular basis. The few wauke plants that still exist in the wild—usually the remnants of formerly cultivated maāla wauke (wauke patches)—are mostly hidden away in remote areas. And in any case, the bark of wild wauke is unsuitable for making refined Hawaiian kapa; for that, it has to be carefully managed.
Which brings us back to Dalani’s patch: Because while kapa-making has yet to experience the kind of broad revival that many other cultural practices did during the late twentieth-century “Hawaiian Renaissance,” its—to steal a wauke metaphor—the roots (to borrow a wauke metaphor) are in place, the runners are moving underground and the shoots are sprouting. While their numbers remain relatively small, there are kapa makers on every island (and various points abroad). These modern artisans have not only successfully revived a nearly lost craft, they—which in turn supports the myriad other traditional practices that employ kapa—but are also re-establishing it as an integral part of the 21st-century cultural conversation: Some, like O‘ahu-based kapa maker and modern artist Maile Andrade, incorporate elements of kapa design into works that examines modern Hawaiian life; others, like the Big Island’s Marie McDonald, have elevated bark-cloth to the realm of fine art. (Witness McDonald’s recent Honolulu Academy of Arts exhibition, which marked the first time the august institution hosted a solo show by a contemporary Hawaiian kapa maker.)
For her part, Dalani is one of an even smaller subset within the kapa community who derives all her income from her skills. For the past thirteen years, she has been a kapa instructor at the educational farming agriculture co-op Ka‘ala Farms, where she was first exposed to kapa-making by another highly respected practitioner, kumu hula (hula teacher) and kapa tool-maker Kawai Aona-Ueoka. In addition to making bark-cloth for traditional uses, Dalani is also one of a handful who sell their kapa as fine art.
This is by no means an easy proposition.