I stand dwarfed beneath the world’s largest, oldest koa tree. The sylvan giant rises eleven stories into the sky, its gray bark cloaked in spider webs and moss. Emerald ferns carpet the base of the massive trunk, which is gnarled with big burls and more than nine feet thick. Five men could stand fingertip to fingertip and barely reach around it. Awed, I gaze up into the lacy canopy pierced by beams of sunlight.
In fact, they did belong to another world—the past. Even as Rock watched, the leafy skyscrapers fell to the ravages of introduced cattle and insects. The 1974 reissue of Rock’s book informs readers that trees of this size have vanished.
But not this one. I’ve flown to Hawai‘i Island specifically to meet this venerable ancestor, tucked away in the Kona Hema Preserve on the southern slope of Mauna Loa. I ride up a buckled dirt road with Mel Johansen, the forest’s caretaker, who leads me down a shaded trail to see the “big koa.” It doesn’t have a name, though perhaps it should. Earth’s tallest tree—a California redwood that towers 379 feet—was christened Hyperion. Koa trees are the sequoias of the Pacific, the monarchs of the Hawaiian forest. They loom large as keystone species in the watershed and icons of Hawaiian culture.
Johansen himself discovered this particular tree, designated a grand champion under the American Forests Big Trees Program in 2012. “It’s the biggest,” he says. “The next largest is only five or six feet in diameter.” Johansen, an amiable fifth-generation Island resident, grew up rambling all over this mountainside, which has some of the best-preserved remaining pockets of old-growth koa and ‘ōhi‘a forest. In 1999 he helped The Nature Conservancy conduct a survey before it bought the land to create the 8,089-acre Kona Hema Preserve. Johansen knew the forest so well, TNC hired him to manage it. “It’s a nice place that had been abused for a long time,” he tells me. “It’s happy now.”
By the time the conservancy acquired Kona Hema, it had been logged five times. Cattle and feral pigs had had their way with it. Molten lava had poured down the mountainside, burying forest and villages but leaving the big koa unscathed. I press my hand against its rough bark and imagine it telling the story of its kin.
When this tree sprouted around five hundred years ago, Shakespeare had yet to write a sonnet. European explorers had only just discovered the sprawling continent to their west across the Atlantic. Polynesian voyagers, meanwhile, had crisscrossed a much larger ocean and zeroed in on the Hawaiian archipelago. They sailed here in double-hulled canoes most likely carved out of breadfruit trees.
Hardwoods are rare throughout the Pacific, and the first humans to set foot in Hawai‘i must have been awestruck by the forests they found here. Unfamiliar trees covered the landscape from the shoreline to the alpine summits. As a seafaring people, they would have taken immediate note of the tree species tall and straight enough to produce an ocean-crossing canoe. They named it koa, a word that also means “warrior.”
In the forest koa acts more like a parent than a warrior. Rock recounted the numerous native species thriving beneath the tree’s open canopy: honey-scented naio bushes, red-stemmed kōlea saplings, and fuchsia-throated lobelias cradled in the forks of sturdy koa branches. The benevolent tree’s roots channel nitrogen, a natural fertilizer, into the soil, and its sickle-shaped leaves (actually enlarged petioles) serve as efficient water catchment devices. At midday the petioles turn perpendicular to the sun to reduce evaporation. They also morph in shape according to the microclimate. Koa trees in rain-soaked Kīpahulu, Maui, for example, have long, narrow petioles, while trees in dry, high-elevation climes feature wide, paddle-like petioles. The latter capture moisture from low clouds and fog so effectively that it “rains” beneath their branches. As one Hawaiian proverb observes, “Where the finest koa forests grow, the most luxuriant maile vines proliferate.”
Acacia koa grows throughout the main islands, but what remains of the legendary old-growth forests is found in the Hilo and Kona districts of Hawai‘i Island and the Hāna district of Maui. Ancient carvers recognized that koa wood, like its petioles, varied according to its environment. In The Hawaiian Canoe, author Tommy Holmes lists twenty-one historic terms for koa varieties, including koa hi‘u wa‘a (wood that grows straight, without branching), koa lā‘au mai‘a (lightweight, banana-colored wood) and koa io ‘ōhi‘a (extremely dense, heavy wood). Hawaiian craftsmen used this diverse timber to fashion important objects: spears, surfboards, paddles and fleets of canoes, which they referred to as “the koa grove at sea.”
Because canoes begin their journey in the forest, Hawaiian canoe gods are forest gods. Great ceremony attended the selection and preparation of a canoe tree, and felling one with stone adzes took days, even with many hands working together. “I think of the sound it must’ve made,” says Johansen, who found a sharpening stone near here. “You couldn’t hit hard. The stone is brittle and would break. And just imagine dragging a canoe log from here to the ocean.”
“The day set apart for dragging the canoe is a day of much pomp; like the day of a funeral of a famous man,” wrote nineteenth-century historian Abraham Fornander. Men, women and children ventured up into the forest with pigs, chickens and fish—enough to feed the multitude throughout the day. The group hauled a hewn tree through the forest with ropes while steersmen rode atop the log, using a small stick as a rudder—a dangerous job, writes Fornander. “A canoe coasting down a hill is faster than a galloping horse.” When the log reached the oceanfront canoe hale (house), master woodworkers would carve out the center; lash on the outrigger, mast and rails; and waterproof the hull. The largest canoes were sixty feet long and so deep “they reached the armpit of a person when he stood inside of one of them,” says Fornander.
A floating koa grove greeted Captain James Cook and his crew upon their arrival in 1778. The first Europeans in the Islands were also impressed by Hawai‘i’s rich natural resources. Cook’s lieutenant Charles Clerke wrote of koa in the ship’s log, “Some of our Explorers in the woods measured a tree 19 feet in girth and rising very proportionably [sic] in its bulk to a great height, nor did this far, if at all, exceed in stateliness many of its neighbours; we never before met with this kind of wood.”
Cook met his end at Kealakekua, just north of the Kona Hema Preserve. But he and his crew were harbingers of change. Multitudes of Westerners soon arrived in Hawai‘i, along with cargoes of exotic plants, animals, diseases and values. In 1792 Captain George Vancouver arrived with a gift of several head of cattle for King Kamehameha I, and the forest shuddered.
It’s a simple equation worldwide: as cows spread, forest recedes. At Vancouver’s suggestion, the king released his small herd and placed a kapu (restriction) on hunting the animals. Within fifty years, twenty-five thousand wild cows roamed throughout the Hawaiian archipelago. They nibbled forest understory to a nub, trampled crops, ate the thatching off of houses and sometimes injured or even killed people. Meanwhile, ranchers knocked down forest for pasture and planted non-native grasses and thorny kiawe trees as fodder.
“Cattle are the great enemy of the koa,” wrote Rock in 1915. He estimated that 90 percent of the forest had disappeared in some areas. “Large tracts of koa forest which twenty years or so ago were in their prime have now perished and nothing is left but the dead trunks with their huge branches dangling on strings of bark … such is the condition of the koa forest of today.”
At that time, Kona Hema belonged to a descendant of the Robinson family,which also owns the island of Ni‘ihau. He ranched cows here and built a little cabin, which Johansen now uses as a field office. But the ranging cattle weren’t the forest’s only existential threat. Johansen drives me across the black, rippled surface of young lava flow that cuts through the reserve. In 1916 and 1926, Mauna Loa erupted and sent rivers of fire down the mountain. The lava plowed through trees and buildings alike, utterly destroying the coastal village of Ho‘ōpūloa.There was a silver lining: Both the cabin and the elder koa survived. Plus, the flows encircled sections of forest, creating kīpuka—islands of forest buffered against future cattle intrusions.
Throughout most of the twentieth century, Hawai‘i’s forests languished, along with its native culture. As the population grappled with radical changes in government—from the overthrow of the monarchy to the advent of statehood—the landscape likewise shifted from indigenous food forests and taro patches to cattle ranches and sugar plantations. While fallen koa trees were often burned or left to rot, some enterprising woodworkers turned the available lumber into cabinetry, furniture and the increasingly popular ‘ukulele.
Local luthiers discovered they had a wonderful new tonewood on their hands. Koa possesses unique sonic characteristics ideal for string instruments. Koa guitars and ‘ukulele exhibit a bright, sweet resonance that warms with use. As Hawaiian music gained an international audience, koa became the little-acknowledged voice of the Hawaiian forest.
Still, it wasn’t until the artisan woodworkers came along that koa gained real currency. In 1980 Tai Lake moved from the Pacific Northwest to Hawai‘i with a duffle bag and a skill saw and fell in love with tropical hardwoods. “If you’ve been working on the Mainland with oak and ash and you get here, the wood is just breathtaking,” he tells me during a recent visit to his Hōlualoa studio. Lake is now known worldwide for his museum-quality tables, chests and rocking chairs. When the Dalai Lama visited the Islands, Lake received a commission to build His Holiness a chair. He produced a sublimely humble koa throne, its curves designed to mimic a monk’s robes.
Working with koa “is like painting with wood grain,” says Lake. “It’s so dramatic; there’s a rhythm and a flow to it that you see right when you open up the log. It’s exciting.” Much like their ancient Hawaiian predecessors, modern woodworkers recognize a dozen grades of koa, including yellow, red, curly and fiddleback (fine enough to form the back of a Stradivarius violin). The wood’s color ranges from honey brown to deep red and even purplish. The finest grades of koa have “curl”—gorgeous, wavy ripples in the grain that swirl like eddies in a stream. These mesmerizing patterns result from stress during the tree’s growth, the pressure of pushing out a branch or forming a burl.
The best pieces of koa display something even more remarkable than curl: chatoyance. The French term refers to a unique shimmer or gleam—the luminous streak of light that lends tiger-eye quartz its three-dimensional depth. Several gemstones have chatoyance but few woods possess it. Maple, for example, can have wonderful curl, but it rarely glows like koa. “It really is one of the best woods in the world,” says Lake. “It’s gem quality.” And it’s priced to match. Custom pieces of koa furniture sell for tens of thousands of dollars. Even tarnished antiques command hefty prices.
It’s hard to believe that for decades the native wood’s marvelous properties went ignored. When Lake arrived, koa was close to worthless. “Stumpage sold for five cents per board foot, and planks were $1.75,” he says. “At the time we had these regressive property taxes that didn’t recognize native forest as an agricultural use. You could only handle large properties if you were actively converting your land to pasture. There was an extreme disincentive for people to even consider forestry.”
Lake was instrumental in getting native forestry recognized as a land use in 1990. He and his partners also began milling their own timber, which proved transformative. Until that point, sawyers cut koa trees into uniform planks—ignoring the wood’s most beautiful qualities. When the artists guided the milling process, pieces with the most character could be identified and preserved. “People realized they could make these beautiful heirloom pieces,” says Lake. “We raised koa’s value by changing the way people could buy it.” Almost overnight, koa went from being underappreciated to one of the most valuable woods in the world.
Woodworkers and luthiers weren’t the only ones for whom koa kindled a passion. In the 1970s the Polynesian Voyaging Society sparked a cultural renaissance across Oceania by launching a replica of a voyaging canoe, the kind early Polynesians used to explore and settle the Pacific. When Hōkūle‘a sailed from Hawai‘i to Tahiti using only the stars and sea currents as guides, its crew proved to the world that Polynesians ranked among the greatest navigators ever to set sail. Hōkūle‘a was the catalyst for a cultural revival, but it had been fabricated out of modern materials. In 1990 the Polynesian Voyaging Society sought to build another canoe, one made from traditional woods and fibers.
Nearly every weekend for nine months, the sailors fanned out through Hawai‘i’s forests, searching for two large and healthy koa trees. The crew covered hundreds of square miles on Moloka‘i, Maui, Kaua‘i and Hawai‘i, following tips from hunters, foresters and hikers. Koa grew just about everywhere, but the crew couldn’t find a single tree large enough to serve as a canoe hull. Finally, they admitted defeat. “We were very depressed. We did not achieve what we so much wanted to achieve,” says PVS president Nainoa Thompson. “But beyond that, I think the erosion of the forest was eroding something inside of us.”
Thompson recognized that the canoe represented a sailor’s living connection to the forest—and that relationship was in dire need of mending. “Even though we did not directly cause the abuse of our forest,” Thompson recalls, “we needed to take responsibility for it. Our culture flourishes from that caring.”
Ultimately the PVS’ search for canoe trees led to Alaska, where a Native American-owned corporation offered to donate two huge Sitka spruces. The gift linked the two indigenous communities. In building Hawai‘iloa, the Hawaiians forged a friendship with the Alaskan people and recommitted themselves to caring for their own forests. They started by planting hundreds of koa seedlings.
Back at Kona Hema, I catch sight of a stately ‘io, a Hawaiian hawk. The tawny raptor stares down at us from its perch on a lichen-covered branch. Some of the rarest Hawaiian birds nest in the cavities of old koa trees and rely on the insect-riddled bark for their food. If I wait long enough, I might catch sight of a jeweled koa bug feeding on the tree’s seeds or a confluence of Kamehameha butterflies sipping at a sap flux. At dusk the long-jawed, humpbacked, spiny-legged spider Tetragnathus quasimodo will emerge to weave its silken snare.
The patience required for witnessing wildlife contrasts with the tenacity needed to protect it. After eighteen years spent watching over this place, Johansen hopes to see some innovation. The entire reserve is fenced and ostensibly free of feral ungulates—though on our way out we chase a wily black boar down the fence line. At present, Kona Hema’s biggest vulnerability is lightning. Not only is this corner of the mountain scantly populated and remote, but a cloud curtain hides its upper regions most afternoons. A fire here could burn unreported for weeks. Plus, Johansen says, Mauna Loa is overdue for another eruption.
He helped install a solar-powered field camera that scans three hundred thousand acres in all directions, accessed via an app on his phone. It’s the modern equivalent of an old fire tower. But what the koa forest really needs is a secure financial future. Johansen sees money lying on the ground. “You drive by a log that’s worth $10,000 just lying there while you’re coming up short in fundraising,” he says wistfully. “Sacrifices are being investigated by our leadership.” Those sacrifices involve the select harvest of fallen trees in exchange for operating funds.
Bordered by state forest and national park land, Kona Hema is just one of many protected native forests across the archipelago. A few miles north, the 32,733-acre Hakalau National Wildlife Refuge is among the largest. Others exist on land owned by Kamehameha Schools or the state Department of Hawaiian Home Lands. Everyone is looking for economically and ecologically sound ways to manage native forests. On the Hāmākua coast, Hawaiian Legacy Hardwoods is experimenting with all kinds of enterprises: selling koa investment plots, memorial groves and carbon credits. Guests of the Four Seasons Resort Hualalai may have koa trees planted here in their honor. Those who sponsor the planting of a thousand trees receive a spectacular Kanile‘a ‘ukulele crafted entirely from native woods.
Because the trees were undervalued for so long, commercial koa forestry is still nascent. The timber grows a quarter of an inch in diameter per year, depending on rainfall, and the most desirable wood comes from trees forty years or older. It will likely take a few decades to understand the best harvesting practices. Curl and chatoyance might prove to be the result of genetics rather than age.
Meanwhile, we’re still learning basic things about the species. “Everyone thought the nearest relative of koa came from Australia,” says Maui research biologist Art Medeiros. “Then they sequenced it. Genetics said it was from the Mascarene Islands.” That astonishing fact means that a million years ago a single seed traveled—hitching rides on errant gusts of wind and sea currents—from the Indian Ocean to the center of the Pacific. It found fertile soil and grew to sustain an island nation and its people. What a testament to chance and survival.
No one knows precisely how long koa trees can live, but the elder tree at Kona Hema is likely close to the end of its life. One of its branches snapped off in a recent storm and lies near its base. That single limb is as large as the surrounding koa—likely the tree’s own offspring. Which of these tender upstarts will still be reaching skyward five hundred years from now? Hopefully at least one, still carrying the story of its species. HH