Images by John Hook & IJfke Ridgley
Love letters from an artist, farmer, and florist give thanks to the life-giving virtue of the outdoors.
E ulu e, e ulu kini, o ke akua!
Many people are struck by the energy and personal grounding of my son, Kuha‘o. He is the creative director of my namesake, Sig Zane Designs. He is also son of my beloved wife, kumu hula Nalani Kanaka‘ole. You know her. You know him. And you know that the creations that emerge from our design house, though lauded for the use of clean lines and passive space, also celebrate the vibrancy of our Hawaiian culture, and especially, our native plants. Kuha‘o is right when he says there’s a story behind each one of our pieces, a deeper cultural symbolism in the art we create. (And yes, I still painstakingly hand-cut each design from Rubylith.) He understands the link between our art and our Hawaiian heritage, how vital that link is to knowing our family both professionally and personally. Our cultural compass is rooted in this spiritual connection to the ‘āina. Kuha‘o speaks with conviction of the rawest kind on this. Steady and pure, our cultural compass guides our ideas for the future, and defines our connection to the past. The Greeks held an idea of telos, a concept that describes how we are all destined to be our greatest selves, as an acorn will strive to be a mighty oak. Perhaps more fitting for us, for Hawai‘i, is an ‘ōhi‘a tree.
You, ‘ōhi‘a, are Hawai‘i. You appear in myriad forms: a single shrub dotting a barren volcanic landscape, a cloister of dense thickets in the midlands, or, in the cooler upper elevations, stands of trees—regal and tall. From times ancient, the sacred spirit in your tree has fortified our medicine and tools. Stretching further still reveals your significance upon a land, a people, and a culture: Your tree is a Hawaiian god form, your wood selected as the physical essence of carved ki‘i found in the sacred site of Pu‘uhonua O Hōnaunau, City of Refuge on Hawai‘i Island. You are associated with the volcano goddess Pele because of your fiery explosion of red-hued lehua blossoms. Simultaneously, you are a brilliant emissary of hope, one of the first plants to break through the black, brittle mantle of desolate lava fields. As your saplings grow into forests and stretch skyward, you usher in the rain, giving opportunity for additional plants to seed and bring vibrant life to what was once barren.
I introduced you to a traveling companion recently. As we journeyed along Saddle Road, I explained that your name means “to gather” or “attract.” Though the air was chilly and a white sky hung wet and low with misty rain, our mood was bright and infectious. I was keeping an eye out for liko, your young, tender flower buds. My new friend had joined Kuha‘o and me on this drive to learn more about you and our kinship to the plants that influence our designs, and our lives. As we rode through the rain, I told her that the creative process is borne from something much deeper. You know this story; it’s one of the many favorites that we have shared. How, upon leaving the urban city of Honolulu for sleepy Hilo in the ’70s, I felt a pronounced shift in myself, a spiritual homecoming of sorts. How I felt it in the land and the ocean where I fished. How I felt it in the hula hālau where I danced. How I felt it while falling in love with Nalani, and especially through the guidance of her mother, Edith Kanaka‘ole, who witnessed my full immersion in Hawaiian culture. You watched as I opened myself to what I knew I was meant to embrace … and then you saw as native plants inspired my designs. Those designs are my offerings, my beautiful recursive tributes to plants like you. The designs sing of our inherent connections to you. Like you, we are from the earth and going back to the earth. And so we are brothers and sisters.
My travel companion asked me to name a few of my favorite plants. Of course, I rattled on about the ‘ulu fruit’s hexagonal rind pattern and its symbolism of growth and inspiration. I described how koa, though often referenced for its strength through images of canoes or bowls, is reimagined in my mind as the father of the forest. Look at the tall ridgeline, I said. Examine the sickle shape of the koa’s leaves. That sickle shape helps bring moisture down to nourish the rest of the forest. The koa is helping to take care of others.
I also explained that there are plants I am wary of using in designs: for one, the milo tree, since it represents the entryway into the underworld; another, the puhale tree’s lauhala leaves, which carry such somber, augural tones—hala means “to fall” or “fail”—not good for businesses. When asked to recall an early design, I paused: a white ginger blossom. I had made it to woo Nalani, remember? “Did it work?” my companion asked. I laughed and laughed. Then she broke into laughter, too.
Somewhere along mile 20 marker, we pulled over. The temperature had dropped further, and a silvery mist blurred the delineation between land and sky. In the vast expanse, we were simultaneously alone and not alone.
Kuha‘o and I picked our way among the scree of lava rocks to stand before a tree. Had we selected you? Or had you selected us, a father and son? Your boughs, shaped by wind and sun, were blotched with light green lichen. The moving mist had dampened your bark and bestowed upon each of your delicate liko a spheroidal crown of tiny water droplets. Liko like these are my favorite. I always tell you that.
As we began to chant our oli—protocol in asking for your blessing before picking your blossoms, though we arenʼt gathering now due to the threat of rapid ‘ōhi‘a death—time itself halted as if to bear witness. The heavens lowered, and the land reached up in mutual greeting. Something larger, something ephemeral, solemn, and euphoric, was taking place: a wondrous reaffirmation of the spiritual and cultural connection between man and nature. We stood before you in grace.
She got chicken skin, my companion confessed once we returned to the car. She said that it felt like you had moved in response to our words, your flowers and branches nodding and murmuring in communion. Could it have been the wind? I chuckled, as I know you would. “Maybe, yes, the wind.” As we drove away, I watched you recede from view, disappearing into the white mist and striving toward the sky, taller and larger than before.
Ulu ka ‘ōhi‘a a lau ka wai!
Hilo, Hawai‘i Island
Adapted by Rae Sojot
To my dearest seedlings,
We breathe together. We drink from the same spell of rain. I’ve worked hard, spent hot hours with your stems scratching at my skin, at times drawing blood. But I don’t know that we’ve ever much talked.
Absurdly, I must have uttered niceties at you from time to time. “Wonderful,” “brilliant,” or some accolade just as trite surely passed my lips upon tearing your sweetest lettuce leaf apart with my teeth. Soul food needn’t be dressed in barbecue dips and grease, of this I am certain. No, the soul is fed by what is pure and simple. An uncomplicated song. Mangoes readying to drop from the tree. This teaching I learned from you, and also Bob Dylan.
For example, the hairless, perfectly proportioned carrots packaged in plastic are mere snacks. They are more healthful than a bag of Cheetos, certainly, but aren’t they just as artificial? Real nourishment comes from the wriggly carrot with dirt-clogged dents and creases. How peculiar to think that food, or life, should be so cookie-cutter and contrived as baby-cut carrots.
Speaking of babies, I don’t think it’s unsound to reason that I am like your father. In 27 years and on 11 small-scale farms, I brought you to life when I sowed your seeds, imbuing your birth with gentleness and the anticipation of all you might become. Then, with each new sprout, I prodded you to grow. I shielded you from hungry beaks. I nurtured you with my hands and my heart—never pesticides or diesel-powered tools. When you thrived, so did I. How I love the reciprocity of this kinship.
But in the case of us, plants, I am surely no father figure. Rather, you are the teacher. You are my life force. And I, your grateful student, would like to say “thank you.” Thank you for helping me to cultivate a supernatural sense of calm and purpose. Thank you for sustaining my life, my agile mind, and these tireless, willowy limbs—the fruits of garden yoga.
It’s funny to think that there are men and women who steer and push buttons, and we call them farmers. Preoccupied with technology, they lack reverence for your gifts that allow you to sustain life or unfurl a new leaf. If you are planting crops by puncturing holes in the earth with a drill, you have lost your connection with nature. Gag me with a tractor!
I am a farmer of rare breed: the kind who works exclusively with his hands. How odd, in this age of technology worship. Yet these two old-fashioned hands have grown immense treasures immune to the fickle swings of fashion. Everyone needs to eat.
Still, people are shocked: My closed-loop farming systems are completely self-sufficient—no fertilizer imports, no foreign-grown seeds, no reliance on cargo ships. But shouldn’t this way of farming be the rule rather than the exception? The moment we bring diesel-drinking machinery into farming is the moment we ruin it.
It’s not just about growing food, you see. It’s about involving people in growing food. It’s about equality and accessibility. Simplicity. I’m not just a farmer, I’m a concerned citizen. If you eat, you are a concerned citizen, too. Farming is about community. Nobody gets left out.
Of course, many do. Our challenge lies in this great undoing.
If I could have one wish, it would be to have a legacy. And that legacy would take the shape of an eco-conscious farming community. A little turf for you, plants, and for us salt-of-the-earth farmers. A world in which food cultivation is the abundant source of income, sustenance, pride, and discipline. What a joyous life that would be. A life sustained by perfectly tart lychee and peppery arugula and water collected from the sky. I won’t give up on this big little dream of mine.
Of course, it wouldn’t be wholly idyllic. Farming is patience. Centipedes. Mud. Screaming quiet. But wouldn’t it be better than the loneliness born of digital hyper-connectivity?
People say to me that they have always wanted to get back to the earth. It begs the question: When did they leave?
With optimism and great love,
George “Sun” Hadley
Adapted by Brittany Lyte
To All That Bloom,
Each Monday morning, our inner design room transforms into a veritable feast of sight and scent. Flowers of all kind arrive en masse. Pastel-hued hydrangeas mingle with pink-tinged gladioli; regal orchids take company alongside Queen Anne’s lace. Tropical flowers announce themselves in bright bursts— heliconia and protea, ginger and anthurium. As a heady concoction of roses, carnations, and jasmine swells within the tidy workspace, our team skillfully sorts, trims, and prepares the blooms for their floral debut. Welcome, flowers. Welcome.
As a fourth-generation florist, I am proud to continue my family’s floral legacy. In 1937, when my great-grandparents first opened their tiny storefront along Beretania Street, the thoroughfare was already a bustling merchant corridor lined with flower vendors. My great-grandparents’ emphasis on quality and their fastidious attention to detail helped shape their company’s success: All flowers had to be of the utmost freshness, and if a floral arrangement was requested, the subtleties were paramount—the vase must be free of smudges, the water pristine, and the blossoms impeccably arranged. Such meticulous care ensured that business flourished. Over the next 80 years, our company, Beretania Florist, branched out, with satellite locations downtown, in the Royal Hawaiian Center, and at Hale Koa Hotel. Today, our family business operates from its original site at 1293 Beretania St., though our tiny storefront has since expanded to include a design room, six commercial walk-in refrigeration units, and even a small greenhouse.
If viewing our company (and our industry at large) from a perfunctory standpoint, it’s easy to define you, flowers, as mere commodities purchased during business transactions. But I am a florist. I am surrounded by you every day. I understand your deeper, eternal draw.
Similar to art and music, you possess the powerful means to trigger thoughts and elicit feelings. I observe this phenomenon regularly at the shop: A customer casually peruses the showroom only to stop in their tracks at the scent or sight of you, swept into a potent reverie of memories. You have the ability to remind them of a loved one, a particular period of their life, a dream once held. I tell others that flowers are important because of our emotional attachment to them. Though long used as visual markers of life’s significant milestones—birth, death, graduation, marriage—it’s to the vast depth of the human condition that you best lend yourself: jubilance, pride, sorrow, passion, gratitude, hope. Your blossoms’ explicit beauty is heightened by the implicit meaning imbued within it.
Equally profound, you serve as a bridge between emotions and people when language falls short. You offer yourself as a metaphor for words that want to be said, cannot be said, or have already been pronounced. Helping customers navigate these emotional landscapes is a crucial service I’ve learned to provide—whether in selecting a final tribute for the loss of a loved one (the most difficult part of my job), suggesting flowers as an overture to mend hurt feelings (a simple gesture makes all the difference), or creating vibrant displays to celebrate new business ventures (one of my favorite things to do), you have taught me the inherent responsibility of conveying what is wont to be said.
The keystone of the floral tradition is emotional connection; flowers are at the heart of it. When I flip through the stack of dusty photo albums in the design room, I see that even though the photos have faded, a flower’s beauty rings eternal through the meaning it imparts.
Knowing this, our business is not just a business. It is an art, and perhaps even a gift in its ability to grant brief, intimate glimpses into my customers’ lives and the emotions that steered them my way.
Welcome, I say to my customers, welcome. To them, I lend an ear, then a guiding hand, and finally, I offer you, a perfect flower. Thank you.
In beauty, scent, and sentiment,
Adapted by Rae Sojot