Paʻa pu ka manaʻo o no ka pono o ka ʻāina
I mua na pua
Together in one thought to bring prosperity to the land
Forward young people and bring
Salvation to Kahoʻolawe.
— “Mele O Kahoʻolawe” by Harry Kunihi Mitchell
Blistered raw by the sun, Kahoʻolawe, in the recesses of its hardpan valleys and soil stained with red dirt, looks like a heart exposed. On the northeast region of the island, a reforestation effort runs the impressive, if exhausting, grid of three football fields. Long black rubber hoses bloated with water spool perpendicular down angular slopes with the adroit ambition of arteries. They heave, deflate, and occasionally spray mist alongside rows of native flora, the bloom of tender maʻo, ʻilima, and aʻaliʻi barely rising past the ankle. While this soft machine is a hopeful sight, its irrigating sound—a weak hiss of freshwater into the wind—is regrettably reminiscent of a person, breathing through a host of tubes, on life support.
On our third day on Kahoʻolawe, we stacked rocks. Environmentalists, engineers, archeologists, Hawaiian cultural practitioners, doctors, and journalists, the 14 of us had traveled to see the island’s scars for ourselves, and what could be done to heal them. Titles aside, we might have more appropriately been referred to as “students” of the Kahoʻolawe Island Reserve Commission, a program that organizes a monthly stream of volunteer visits, though its funds are running dry. For an hour, we arranged the rocks into compact raised circles in the highlands of Kanapou, one of eight ‘ili, the traditional subdivisons that comprise the island, building makeshift planters that will later be scattered with seeds. The notion is that, in this windswept region, the rocks will protect the kernels from wind but allow for dirt to accumulate over them, fostering an ideal opportunity for germination. Some will sprout, most won’t, we were told. A place like Kahoʻolawe can take those chances; there’s nothing left for it to lose.
All this because you can’t dig on Kahoʻolawe. History won’t allow it. From 1941 to 1993, the island’s 45 square miles were used as a bombing range and training facility by the United States military, a 50-year wound opened in response to the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor during WWII. The devastation of this preemptive violence is found everywhere in the landscape, which is pockmarked with erosion that is worsened by harsh tradewinds and a lack of vegetation. The island is in a perpetually parched limbo: Without plants to absorb rainwater, the island’s soil can’t replenish itself and runoff races to the sea; without topsoil, plants that could unlock the foundation for any semblance of an ecosystem struggle to take root in the hardpan. This erosion began long before wartime, with the introduction of sheep, cows, and goats, which overgrazed the island through the military occupation—by 1988, the goats numbered 50,000. Today, they are gone. But as the exterior of the island wears away at a rate of nearly 2 million tons of soil each year, more and more unexploded ordnances and fragments surface—a reminder that, for decades, Kahoʻolawe was assaulted with an arsenal of military-grade rockets, guided missiles, bombs, grenades, and TNT so explosive it is believed to have cracked the island’s water table.
On our first afternoon on the island, after parking our four-wheel-drive trucks at another ‘ili to remove invasive waist-high fountain grass, we cautiously stepped around a rogue pile of bullet casings and shrapnel. Multiply that scrap metal by 10 million pounds, and you have the estimated amount of material removed from the island’s interior following the U.S. government’s 1994 handover of Kahoʻolawe to the State of Hawaiʻi. Only 75 percent of the island has been surface-cleared (officially called Tier 1). Areas cleared an additional four feet below the surface (Tier 2) are considerably less, only about 10 percent.
Native plants, then, are critical to the island’s preservation, and to alleviating the dread of simply walking on the island’s surface. Because volunteers are only able to plant them in the designated tiers, their presence also indicate you’re in a zone that’s been deemed safe for passage, by car and foot. Being surrounded by these stone planters creates a mutual feeling of refuge. We protect the island, and the island, in turn, protects us. Like most sacred spaces, life and death’s dualities fold into their boundaries, often unexpectedly. Someone concluded the planters resembled mini ahu, Hawaiian altars; another whispered that they looked like gravestones. We kept on stacking until there were no stones left.
Centuries ago, Kahoʻolawe went by another name: Kohe Mālamalama O Kanaloa, or Kanaloa, for short, an akua of the ocean and one of the four major Hawaiian deities. The island is one of Kanaloa’s kinolau, or bodily forms. Its reverence is carved into boulders at Loaʻa, where petroglyphs that date back 500 years have been recorded. They are noted for their unusual and idiosyncratic aesthetic: human figures with inverted, triangular heads bisected at the center. Nearly half of Kahoʻolawe’s known petroglyph sites house these stylized head-shapes—detached, headless, or draped in headdress. Archeologists theorize they could represent kāhuna or demi-gods; they could also be allusions to numerous royal aliʻi visits. The emphasis placed on these religious subjects echoes the island’s enduring status today as a spiritual center. It seems that even when ancient Hawaiians were chipping away at stone to create the memorials, they were already consumed with the island’s effect on the human consciousness.
It’s better to let these pōhaku, or rocks, speak for themselves. Even George Helm, Walter Ritte, Loretta Ritte, Noa Emmett Aluli, and other aloha ʻāina warriors whose personal writings were published in Na Manaʻo Aloha o Kahoʻolawe struggled with expressing the island’s significance. The place was too heavy for words, many felt, which only inspired action. “Man is merely the caretaker of the land that maintains his life and nourishes his soul,” Helm wrote in a letter. “Therefore ʻāina is sacred. The church of life is not in a building, it is in the open sky, the surrounding ocean, the beautiful soil.” (Helm and Kimo Mitchell—whose father, Harry Kunihi Mitchell, wrote “Mele O Kahoʻolawe”—were lost at sea after an attempt to rescue protestors they believed were stranded on Kaho‘olawe.)
I found this limit on language, against the limitlessness of the landscape, to be a comfort. Having spent a mere weekend on Kahoʻolawe—compared to its foremost guardians, the permanent Kahoʻolawe Island Reserve Commission staff and independent members of the Protect Kahoʻolawe ʻOhana, people who’ve tirelessly devoted themselves to the island’s right to exist in peace since the 1970s—I feel admittedly foolish and incompetent to pontificate on its sacredness.
What I can write of is kinship. This, I felt in nearly every waking hour on the island, kneeling in the sand, dirt, and salt with the other volunteers. Side by side, we planted 400 shrubs of ʻakiʻaki, a native grass, in the lowly sand dunes of Honokanaia. In the late afternoon, we bodysurfed freely on the beach, our laughter and pearly grins floating on the whitewash. Alongside a tidepool, the eldest volunteer extended to me the largest ʻopihi I’d ever seen in my life, and the gesture itself felt like its own kind of sacrosanct act. At sunset, a glow settled over our camp, where the grill sizzled with pulehu steaks. Our skin salty and bronzed, we sat in communion, looking across the ocean as its waves pulsed against the shore, and no one spoke. We just listened.