Issue 8.1: February/March 2005

Life of the Land

story by Julia Steele
photos by Rae Huo/Sanford Mock

Mount Kaala, the highest peak here on the Gathering Place, is our very own Everest. It’s a true mountain of the tropics, topped not by snow drifts and abandoned oxygen canisters but by a misty bog filled with rare native plants and happy-faced spiders. The top is 4,000 feet up, a steep ascent through dense jungle, a straight slog broken only by tightrope ridges flanked by sheer drops.

To get up Kaala, to hoist yourself into the swamp, you use the mountain’s mat of life, the branches and roots that coat everything and morph accommodatingly into hand- and footholds. I’ve pulled myself to the top three times, always arriving exhausted, high on endorphins and ready for the island’s best view. Twice clouds made it to the top before I did, but once—the last glorious time I got to the summit—it was clear, and I was able to look straight down into the moku of Waialua. It was spread out beneath the slopes of the mountain, field after field, a palette of all shades of growth. I could see from the dry cliffs of Kaena to the houses of Haleiwa, the white stripes of sand at the shore befriending the ocean, and beyond, the ocean itself, a magic carpet fading to sky at the horizon. Waialua is stunning from any vantage point, but from the top of Kaala, you see it for more than its beauty, you see it for what it means to us: It’s our oasis of country on ever-more urbanized Oahu, an island of green within an island going gray, and looking down, I decided it was time to make a pilgrimage there.

Which is how I found myself sitting in the living room of George Tanabe, one of Waialua’s foremost citizens, a man who also happens to be my old Buddhism professor from University of Hawaii days. George is the kind of professor students love: wise, funny, able to take the simplest anecdote and turn it just so to reveal a profound truth or two—or maybe even four noble ones. He’s a third-generation Waialuan—his grandfather arrived here in 1900, "an enterprising guy," as George describes him, who left his home in Iwakuni with a plan to come to Hawaii, make some money and hightail it back to Japan. Like most immigrants, though, he never went home. Instead he learned English and became the Islands’ first Japanese luna—"the hated people who stood between management and labor but actually represented management and had to beat up on labor," as George puts it. In those days, the Waialua sugar plantation was a thriving enterprise, filled with camps housing workers from China, Portugal, Korea, the Philippines and, of course, Japan. But when a strike struck the plantation in 1914, George’s grandfather refused to take sides, quit and went into business for himself. He created a lotus pond, then harvested and sold the roots of the plants, and he opened up a furniture store—Tanabe Furniture—that sold everything from imported wicker to mattresses stuffed with pili grass.

George Tanabe

George tells me this story in a room filled with his own furniture creations. For in addition to being a renowned Buddhist scholar and professor in the UH’s religion department, George has become one of the Islands’ finest furniture craftsmen. In honor of his grandfather, he sells his work under the name Tanabe Furniture and Designs.

I’ve always thought George was a lot like Waialua itself: unassuming, low-key, invariably interesting. He was born in the plantation clinic in 1943 and grew up in a home with a kerosene stove and no running water in the kitchen ("Geez, I sound like an old man"), but his memories of the plantation are good ones.

"You can look back and say the plantation was pretty paternalistic, say there was a lot of exploitation going on—and I’m sure there was. But as somebody growing up in a community like this, the plantation was great because it was paternalistic," he says. "It made all kinds of alternatives possible. And it was multicultural in its segregated way: We had Japanese camp, Portuguese, Filipino, Korean. The plantation was everybody’s life."

George’s father took over the furniture store and turned it into Waialua’s only hardware store. "He was a terrible businessman," remembers George, "but anybody who can run a store and not make any money and, in fact, go into debt for as long as my dad did has to be a wizard. So I call him the greatest business success ever."

George seems to find the silver lining in everything—or maybe he just has a perverse sense of humor. When we visit the grounds of the Waialua Hongwanji Mission (which his grandfather helped build in the 1930s), he pronounces it the site of his "greatest academic achievement" because he came to after-school Japanese lessons here every day for seven years determined not to learn a thing and he succeeded beautifully (but only temporarily—he’s now fluent in Japanese, having mastered it at Columbia).

George is the ultimate tour guide: A trip through Waialua is also a trip through his family’s history. We visit what was once Tanabe Camp, site of the old store and George’s childhood home. We see Ranch Camp, a collection of homes built by George’s uncle in the ’30s. We drive to the war memorial in Haleiwa Beach Park, also built by George’s uncle, a monument to Waialuans killed in World War II, the Korean War and the Vietnam War.

"The military has been a big thing in Waialua," George tells me, "and with all of the nisei soldiers, there was a real tradition. Every summer, high school students would volunteer." George was a young man during the Vietnam War, and the monument we are standing beside holds the names of many of his high school classmates.

"Politically, morally, I couldn’t see going to Vietnam," George remembers of his own feelings during those years. "My mother was sure that I’d become a communist. We’d have these horrible arguments, she’d say, You gotta go, you gotta do your duty.’ I’d say, Not this war.’" Eventually George got a notice from the draft board to report for his physical. "And thank you, Haleiwa Beach," he says, looking out at the ocean—a perforated eardrum from surfing kept him from the war.

You get the feeling Waialua has always exercised a protective pull over George. Even when he was away in college and graduate school, he says, he knew he was coming back: "I don’t know what it is: instinct, obsession, tie. I always knew this was my home. Kaala may be one of the biggest things for me—there’s something about the mountain I have this attachment to. I’ve climbed it twice. You know at the top there’s a swamp?" George gets a small, secret smile—the kind people get when they are inside themselves, marveling at something—as he adds, "We live under a swamp."


One thing to know, before we go any further: There are actually two ways of understanding the term Waialua. There is the modern meaning: the town that grew up around the sugar mill; and the original meaning, the moku that encompassed the many ahupuaa from Kaena Point to Waimea Bay. Some suggest the moku of Waialua was the first part of Oahu settled, chosen for the bounty of the fishing, generosity of the soil, cool breezes and moderate rains—not to mention the area’s wild beauty. Hiiaka, Pele’s sister, is said to have admired Waialua when she passed through here on her way to Kauai to find Pele’s lover, Lohiau. Charles Clerke, sailing past Waialua on February 27, 1779,

just after Captain Cook had been killed on the Big Island, described it as "the most beautiful Country we have as yet seen among these isles... here was a fine expanse of Low land bounteously cloath’d with Verdure, on which were situate many large Villages and extensive plantations."

Today, agriculture remains the mainstay of the North Shore (along, of course, with the waves, for this is the surfing Mecca of the known universe). In the wake of sugar, small farmers here are raising fish and cattle and growing taro, tomatoes, tuberose, lettuce, papaya, kava, asparagus, bananas and much more. Their Mother Nature is Susan Matsushima, who started out as an elementary school teacher and now runs a multimillion-dollar-a-year flower-and-plant business at Alluvion Farms. Susan is as full of life as her nurseries, and she is on a mission to promote ag. "I really feel the North Shore can be the breadbasket for Oahu," she tells me as she takes me on a tour of Alluvion; not far away, the surf is breaking for the farm sits on twenty acres just across from Laniäkea Beach. "Most people don’t realize what’s happening out here—this is a really entrepreneurial area," Susan says as we walk. Everything she is showing me proves her point: She shares her twenty acres with, among others, an organic okra farmer, a landscaping company and an ornamental fish breeder. Everywhere around us, things are growing.

And it’s true, I find, as I explore Waialua: The bounty of ag turns up all over here—the fields are off the maps but everywhere. I travel 4.8 miles down an unpaved road and find May’s Wonder Garden, a thriving lettuce farm, the largest hydroponics venture in the state. Behind it, some twenty-five raised ponds are home to tens of thousands of snails. I watch them sunning themselves, oblivious to the plan for their future: Escargot on the menu in Hawaii’s restaurants.

At the Brown Bottle liquor store behind the Waialua library, I see a hand-lettered sign in the window advertising "fresh asparagus." Turns out the Brown Bottle is owned by Milton Agader, who’s also the state’s largest asparagus farmer. Milton worked in sugar for decades, drives an old tan pickup truck and is as earthy as his two professions might lead you to guess; he harvests asparagus year-round from a forty-acre field next to Haleiwa’s only traffic light. Jeanne Vana grows Big Wave Tomatoes and Ernest Tottori harvests taro from loi right beneath the bypass bridge; the loi are famously productive, even though massive concrete pillars were driven into the heart of them when the bridge was built.

But while most of the ag that’s going on in Waialua these days is small-scale and individual, not all of it is—Pioneer Hi-Bred, a subsidiary of DuPont, has 1,200 acres in feed corn. It’s now the single largest crop in the area, and it’s dragged Waialua into debates about the hottest ag issue in the world: genetically modified crops. Forty-five percent of the corn Pioneer grows here is genetically modified. Sitting in his office, a huge processing plant visible out the window behind him, Pioneer’s Richard McCormack explains that the company is raising new varieties to disseminate around the world. He holds up a small pouch about the size of a handbag.

Susan Matsushima

"We get about three kilos of seed from a corn developer in a bag this size," he explains, beginning to detail the amazing productivity that characterizes corn. "We plant that over about a third of an acre. Twelve weeks later, we harvest it and have enough seed to plant thirty-five acres. Then, twelve weeks later, we harvest that seed and send it to South America, where it will plant 3,500 acres. From there, it will generate enough seed for 600,000 acres." Pioneer now exports some two and a half million pounds of seed a year from Waialua.

McCormack, a friendly, enthusiastic man who has been involved in ag for decades, is a big proponent of GMO crops, which, he says, help farmers become less reliant on pesticides. That may be true, I think, and McCormack is certainly the expert, but I can’t help it: I’m skeptical of the idea that you can re-hardwire nature and not create some fairly significant—and unforeseeable—consequences. I wonder, too, at the long-term ramifications of patenting and privatizing something as basic to survival as seeds. When I raise these concerns with McCormack, he reiterates his view that GMO crops are ultimately a good thing. The debate will undoubtedly continue—and Waialua is likely to stay involved.

Random sights in Waialua town: a young boy playing ukulele at the bus stop; a homemade 5 MPH sign; a purple bulldozer; chickens crossing the road; live shrimp for sale by the highway; an enormous branch of scarlet bougainvillea cascading out of a front yard; a plane wreck on the beach... that last being the set for ABC’s program Lost, which has been filming here—for in addition to multinational corporations, Hollywood has discovered Waialua, and with FOX’s North Shore also shooting here, a whole other type of corn is now being produced in the area.

Beyond the small farmers, there’s another group of innovators in Waialua, people who simply love the North Shore and are coming up with all kinds of creative ways to keep themselves solvent here in its not-always-bountiful job market. In the backroom of the Popcorn Café, Great and Mighty Greens produces 5,000 bags of popcorn a month under the label Malina’s. There’s "lava" popcorn, garlic popcorn and—weird but (trust me on this) delicious—spirulina popcorn. Co-owner and popper Kelli MacQuoid shows me the set-up and tells me the story of the company’s namesake, the ingenious Waialua mom who hit on the idea of lacing her veggie-hating kids’ popcorn with spirulina. Kelli is thrilled to be a Waialua businesswoman. "We’re such a small community out here and we all stick together and help each other," she enthuses.

Upstairs from the café, the Kaala Healing Arts Center is a newly created, light-filled collective of natural healers. Over at the old mill, husband-and-wife team Jerry and Debora Driscoll are going gangbusters with their soap-making venture, Hawaiian Bath and Body. Another husband-and-wife team, Karen and Jason Campbell, recently founded Waialua Soda Works, which makes pop of a different kind: pineapple soda and root beer. The couple won’t be giving Coke a run for its money anytime soon, but their sodas are increasingly seen in stores across the island.

And then there are Dana and Barbara Gray, the Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn of Waialua: He’s the older one, silver-haired, all calm strength and dry wit; she’s the younger one, tall, all keen intelligence and cool elegance. They’ve been married for twenty-nine years, and for the last sixteen of those they’ve owned and run Oils of Aloha from the confines of Waialua’s old Koga movie theater, built circa 1910. There, where the spirit of the silver screen still lingers even if the screen itself is long gone, the story reads like a Frank Capra script: success comes to cast of lovable eccentric characters in small town after much hard work, creativity and faith.

Oils of Aloha makes macadamia and kukui nut oils, long renowned by Hawaiians. When Dana bought the little Waialua company in the late ’80s, it was making kukui nut trinkets and oil, and it was in bankruptcy. Today the company ships oil all over the globe: to Russia, Australia, Switzerland, Fiji, England, Japan, you name it; Shiseido, Estée Lauder and Boots are only a few of the cosmetic giants who use the Grays’ oils in their products.

On any given day, the 8,000-square-foot theater-cum-factory runs like... well, like a well-oiled machine. In the crushing room, precise mixes of nuts, shell and dust are fed into expeller-press devices; the resulting oil is filtered, sanitized, purified, decanted and packed. Upstairs, in the old projection room, lotions are blended in stainless steel vats, then bottled and labeled. Downstairs, dozens of brown boxes—products ordered off the Internet at—await the UPS man. Soaps, lotions, body oils, cooking oils, wholesale, retail—the company does it all. Dana leads me through the whole process, talking of triglycerides and fatty acids and filters that take out everything down to two microns.

"We’ve come from a little tiny company to a little small company," he says modestly as I prepare to take my leave. "But it’s not about size; it’s about the fact that this little company can ship things around the world and develop new things. I get excited about the progress we’ve made!" Right on cue, the doorbell to the factory rings. A woman has arrived, full of praise for the oils and hoping to learn more about them. Barbara graciously begins to answer her questions, and I ask Dana if he thinks Barbara knows who the woman is. "No," he says, surprised by my question. "Who is she?" He hasn’t recognized her either, but I have—she’s the original supermodel, Lauren Hutton, and, I think as I walk out of the theater, her arrival at that moment was straight out of the movies.

Before I leave Waialua, I go exploring with George again. This time, we hit the relics in the landscape, the remnants abandoned in old cane fields. We find the gray brick smokestack from the first mill, with the year 1883 etched into its side. We drive down forgotten cane roads ("the highways of our youth," George calls them) to the ruins of an old heiau and, beside it, the first Catholic mission in the area, deserted in 1912. Around the ruins there are burial sites, cemeteries: Hawaiian, Buddhist, Catholic. George wanders around the cemeteries, looking at the tombstones. "All together but segregated—even when we die, we set up camps," he says, more to himself than to me.

The graves look forlorn: tombstones are cracked, weeds are growing. And cemeteries hold their secrets tightly. As I wander around, I wonder at the lives represented—though every generation that has lived on this coast, from the earliest Hawaiians to the plantation immigrants to the latest newcomers, seems to have been nurtured well by the extravagant confluence of water and land and sunshine that exists here.

George joins me in the Japanese cemetery. "One of the worst things that can happen to the dead in Japanese Buddhism is to be uncared for," George says, looking at the weeds, "so these people are in real trouble." But towering over the other tombstones stands a large stone George calls a sangai banrei. "It’s put up in commemoration of the 10,000 spirits of the three worlds: past, present and future," he explains, my Buddhism teacher come to life again. "It’s nobody’s grave but it’s everybody’s grave, so even if individual graves are abandoned, there’s always the big one to take care of everybody."

I look at the wild land everywhere around us, running all the way to the top of Kaala, which stands before us. Sun pours from a clear sky, illuminating the summit where George and I have both stood. George’s words echo in my head—"the big one to take care of everybody"—and from this perspective, I can see Kaala for what it means to all of us: It’s a green testament and totem to the fertility of our island—and a constant reminder that one way or another, nature always triumphs.