Issue 12.1: February/March 2009

In the Name of the Gourd

story by Liza Simon
photo by Hawkins Biggins


The ipu is an ancient Hawaiian gourd drum; its beat has marked time for the hula for centuries. But in recent times the hardshelled gourd needed for the drum, the kukai ‘iwa variety, nearly disappeared from the Island landscape, and ipu makers began to turn to a San Diego supplier for their gourds. That state of affairs didn’t seem right to Kimberly Clark, a Waimanalo farmer of Cherokee Indian ancestry who is now at the forefront of a movement to re-root the ipu gourd in local soil. Clark, who holds a Ph.D. in agricultural economics, acquired kukai ‘iwa seed four years ago; these days her acreage is filled with tangles of hardy gourd vines that attest to her success. She nurses the gourds lovingly, setting selected fruits upright with teepeelike trellises so that they will form into the bulbous shapes preferred by local hula masters. And more and more of those masters have begun to place orders with Clark, pleased that they can pick up gourds fresh from the fields and, according to long standing Hawaiian custom, bring them home the same day for cleaning, carving and drying.

“When I started growing these gourds on abandoned sugar plantation land, there was a mistaken impression that they would no longer grow here. But mulch, minerals, manure and molasses can usually revive the soil and get just about any crop back,” says Clark. Her sense of mission might also be helping. In the early 1990s she learned that her eyesight was fading, leaving her legally blind. She made a commitment then to organic farming—her way to “build a better body and a better planet”—and established a keiki organic gardening program which now teaches gourd growing to students at a Waimanalo middle school. At a greenhouse in the back of the school, the amber fruits of the youngsters’ labor glow in the sun. “The students get so excited about the day-to-day changes they see in the gourds,” says Clark. “There’s as much magic in nature as there is in Harry Potter.” HH