Images by John Hook

Camouflage is the first thing I notice debarking from the plane at the airport on Moloka‘i. From T-shirts and pants to duffle bags and trucker hats, nearly every local person I see is sporting or carrying an item of camo. A little girl, no older than three, scampers to the waiting area in a pink camo-patterned skirt. Though it is a short 30-minute flight from O‘ahu, Moloka‘i is a world apart from its neighboring glittering urban island. Residents cleave proudly to traditional, subsistence-style living. Fashion follows function here, hence the camo.

I have come to Moloka‘i to join the latest cohort of Hō‘ea Initiative, a wilderness survival and cultural appreciation program created by Hawai‘i musician Noland Conjugacion, better known as Brother Noland. Unlike the tropical girl wooed by the high-fashion world of Hollywood in his 1983 breakout hit “Coconut Girl,” Brother Noland’s inner compass has always drawn true to his first love: the ‘āina. Nature, Brother Noland believes, is God’s original classroom. Since 1996, the expert survivalist and animal tracker has utilized Hōʻea Initiative as a platform to connect children back with nature and teach lessons that go beyond the outdoors.

Brother Noland greets me at baggage claim. Tanned and easy-going, with a gleaming shock of white hair pulled back into a ponytail, he channels equal parts shaman and surfer, samurai and sage. His insouciance is misleading. Those who know his tracking skills say nothing escapes his keen eye.

Surrounding him are the six kids signed up for this season’s three-day camp, a cheery group of five boys and one girl ranging from 10 to 15 years in age. Palakiko Yagodich, a former student turned Hō‘ea Initiative staff, is here to assist. A parent has come along too. We make a brief stop at Kanemitsu Bakery and Cafe in the sleepy town of Kaunakakai where Brother Noland’s relationship to the tight-knit Moloka‘i community is evident in the generous rounds of shakas and warm hugs exchanged at the diner. Midway through breakfast, Brother Noland approaches the kids’ table with a merry glint in his eye. “Enjoy your last meal,” he portends. “From this point on, we catch what we eat … and if we don’t catch, we don’t eat.” The children, momentarily shocked into silence, study their plates piled with steaming pancakes, eggs, and sausage. Brother Noland breaks into a broad smile and throws his head back in laughter.

Day I
Heading southeast along the highway, we make our way to Keawanui Fishpond, where we will be camping. Scores of fishponds, some dating as far back as the early 13th century, once flourished in this region. According to legend, the moon goddess Hina gave birth to Moloka‘i and afterwards took a stroll along the island’s southern stretch. Everywhere she stepped, pūnāwai (freshwater springs) sprang forth, delivering the sweet, cold water necessary for aquaculture. By the late 1950s, many of these fishponds had fallen into disrepair, suffocated with thick mangrove and kiawe growth. In 1989, restoration efforts revitalized Keawanui, and over the course of the following decade, life was slowly breathed back into the 800-year-old fishpond, inviting the return of fish, plants, and people.

Hanohano Naehu welcomes us in front of the twin lava-rock mounds that mark the entrance to Keawanui. A stout and hearty man, he is a kia‘i loko, or caretaker of the fishpond. The children remove their shoes and stand barefoot in the grass. They perform an oli of introduction and respect, requesting permission to enter the sacred space. Uncle Hanohano accepts, and then greets each child as they pass single-file through the entry. “Nature is chief. We are servants,” he says solemnly, looking each in the eye.

Inside, Keawanui’s energy is enigmatic and palpable. Large swaths of grassy lawn serve as gathering spaces. Gardens of delights abound: useful hala trees and pili grass, noni and ti. There are fruits of all kinds: tangerine, mango, papaya. Waxy, cream-colored pua kenikeni blossoms release a heady scent. Beyond, the fishpond shimmers with a thousand points of white light.

Uncle Hanohano leads our group to a small pavilion sitting over the water. Ancient Hawaiians were shrewd scientists and engineers, he informs us, directing our gaze to the fishpond. He points out its three critical elements: the crescent shaped rock and coral kuapā (wall) that serves as the fishpond’s protective border; the sluice gate, called mākāhā (eye and breath), that gazes into the pond and out to the ocean, breathing in the tide twice daily; the puna (spring water) that provides the essential, brackish mix of phytoplankton and zooplankton. Because nutrients from cultivated kalo fields upstream fed into water systems that made their way makai (to the ocean), fishponds often served as a barometer of what was happening mauka: A problem in the fishpond could indicate a problem upland. “Our ancestors were akamai,” Uncle Hanohano says to the children, tapping his head with his forefinger. “They knew everything was connected.”

In today’s technology-driven world, convenience and instant gratification are the norm rather than luxuries, and children are less inclined to spend time outside. “Kids are more preoccupied than previous generations, and they end up limiting themselves,” says Brother Noland, who spent his childhood hunting, fishing, and diving. “Each generation becomes further and further removed from nature.”

Hō‘ea Initiative aims to mend that disconnect. Though Brother Noland and his staff teach the “fun survival stuff” like how to shoot a bow and arrow or make fire, he also emphasizes skills considered the hardest to master: the ability to sit still, to observe, to listen. The ability to do so allows the children to better connect with the world around them. In many indigenous cultures, co-existing with nature becomes a spiritual endeavor. Cultivating such mindfulness is not a skill just for the outdoors, Brother Noland explains. It’s a skill critical to an individual’s internal journey, helping to unveil the path to who we are.

That afternoon we take to the road again, hugging the empty, rugged coastline. To our left, the striated beiges and grays of exposed karst offer respite from the brilliant blue of the ocean. Through the first half of 2019, the kids have been learning to cast net at Hō‘ea Initiative’s monthly meetups on Oʻahu. Today they are eager to test their abilities. We’re instructed to scan waters for telltale shadows and splashes. La‘a and Noah, two of the older and more experienced boys, let out a whoop: they’ve spotted a promising cove. As we pull over, the two boys tumble out, hurriedly put on their tabi, and grab a net. “Throwing net” is an excellent way for the children to lōkahi (work together), or what Brother Noland likes to call “practicing the village.” In other words, it requires teamwork. Making their way to the water, one works as a spotter while the other cautiously steps to the reef’s edge. The boys nod to each other as an incoming wave surges and suddenly a translucent web arcs high and then unspools, graceful and swift. We collectively hold our breath as the net is pulled up. A couple fish thrash about, glinting sliver in the sun. Triumph. Brother Noland gives a nod of approval. I’m simultaneously impressed and relieved: We caught something. We can eat.

When we return from fishing, the children are dispatched to set up camp. They descend upon the designated area with boisterous glee. Some 30 minutes later, the scene resembles a Greek comedy turned hilariously tragic: Amid heaps of nylon and scattered tent poles, a couple kids sit hapless and morose. Excitement, it seems, does not translate to execution. With Brother Noland and Uncle Palakiko remaining conspicuously absent, the kids are forced to take stock of their situation. Moments like these are prime for catchy survival codes they’ve been taught: The “Two E’s,” Endure and Embrace, and the “Two A’s,” Adapt and Adjust. Eventually, frustration gives way to resolve and a collective effort ensues. Working together, the children build their village.

That evening, after lights out, I can hear some of the boys goofing around in a tent. When Brother Noland issues a stern, guttural warning, the shenanigans abruptly stop and the guilty culprits shuffle back to their sleeping quarters. All is quiet in Keawanui. The stillness is broken when a boy named E.B calls out goodnight, his voice slightly wavering, to no one in particular. It’s a self-comforting gesture, I suspect, and my heart twinges. I wonder if this is his first time sleeping alone, away from home.

Day II
The next morning, the children gather in a wide circle. It’s time for Opening Words, a Haudenosaunee invocation of greetings and gratitude to the natural and spiritual world. As Uncle Palakiko guides the children through the prayer of thanks, the children acknowledge the integral parts that make up the web of life—from the Earth Mother to the waters to the animal nations and the stars above. Each passage of the prayer is concluded with a simple statement, spoken together: “And now we are One.” An advocate of native knowledge, Brother Noland has long incorporated a rich mix of indigenous cultures’ practices, philosophies, and traditions into Hō‘ea Initiative’s curriculum, including Hawaiian, Native American, Aboriginal Australian, and Japanese. This mélange is intentional, mirroring the myriad cultural practices inherent in Hawai‘i’s ethnic diversity. “I’m teaching them aloha,” he says, “embracing culture and nature.”

Afterward, the children perform a regimen of stretching exercises. “Taking care of the body is bush medicine,” Brother Nolan reminds them. “The way to stay in shape is never to get out of shape.” There are multiple references to beasts—the students shake their bodies like a “dragon coming out of a mist,” balance on a single leg like a crane, and imitate a deer’s cautious step in the wood. “We can learn a lot from animals,” Brother Noland tells me as I crouch down low to the ground like a turtle in an effort to mimic the reptile’s slow, methodic breathing.

Later that afternoon, we drive west into the hinterlands, the pitch and yaw of the rough road revealing dusty patches of haole koa and kiawe and swaths of dark-green gullies deep within. We are on private land owned by Billy Buchanan, a friend of Brother Noland. Uncle Billy is a man of few words. “Animals are all around us,” he says as we set off on our explorations. “They are watching you.” Two by two, we walk in silence through the forest, pausing at intervals to glean information from our surroundings. We see trees with portions of their trunks rubbed smooth, an indication that it is the season when young bucks are growing antlers and jockeying for supremacy in the herd. We inspect scat for freshness. We scrutinize a deer track. Even a single hoof print can provide a wealth of information to an animal tracker, explains Brother Noland, pointing out the hallmark feature called the pressure release. Hidden within it is a cache of clues: Was the deer injured? Did it stop abruptly and change direction? What time of day did the deer cross this way? My mind wanders to something he said while telling a story about tracking bear in New Mexico: If you step into a bear track, that bear, wherever it is, will pause too.

The thickets give way to a wide, flat expanse. We have arrived at the mudflats, an area dubbed The Boneyard, which is used by local hunters to discard the skeletal remains after dressing their quarry. Thousands of bones of beasts, mostly deer, blanch white under a scorching sun. It’s a sobering and eerie place, and the children move about with curious deference. Finn, a wiry and quick-witted boy, remarks on the difference between bones: the older the bones, the whiter and cleaner they are, while newer bones retain scraps of fur and skin. Brother Noland asks for volunteers to assemble a skeleton for an impromptu, hands-on lesson in anatomy. When one child loosens a tooth from a jawbone to slip into his pocket as a souvenir, the adults cluck their tongues. The message is clear: It’s bad luck to take a trophy from someone else’s hunt.

On our way back to the van, I ask what animals are the hardest to track. “It depends, all creatures are creatures of habit,” Brother Nolan says. “They have patterns.” He gives me a sideways, mischievous glance before adding, “Humans are the worst.” Later, I realize that Brother Noland’s animal-tracking lesson is a clever one: On the surface, the children are learning to track animals, but the lesson serves a deeper purpose: They learn to track themselves.

That night, I awake to the yip of a deer carried by the wind. My phone battery had died long ago, leaving me no clue what time it is. Unzipping the tent, I step outside to a velvet sky. Directly above me shines a lā‘aukūlua moon, the luminous disc ringed with a hazy moonbow. Stretching out on the grass, I stare up at the heavens. A few minutes pass, or maybe an hour. Perhaps even a lifetime. I feel strangely at ease, as if a tightness that I didn’t know existed inside of me had been loosened. A remnant of a conversation shared with Brother Nolan earlier that day drifts dreamlike across my mind. When we spend time in nature, he had said, we are granted the ability to connect physically, emotionally, and spiritually with a higher power. The first two days of camp are spent reacquainting ourselves with that higher force. “Your spirit arrives on the third day,” he had said.

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Day III
It’s our final day on Moloka‘i, and our schedule is open-ended and laidback. By this point, we have all fallen into an easy ebb and flow, and time feels like an irrelevant concept. Some boys are practicing net-throwing skills, taking turns gathering up the heavy netting on their arms and stalking imaginary fish on the lawn. Minami, the lone girl, is busy jerry-rigging scavenged fishing line and baiting crabs. Others are cooling off in the kīpuka, a small swimming hole adjacent to the fishpond.

Brother Noland watches as two boys build small targets to practice throwing rabbit sticks. Rabbit sticks, or hunting sticks, are simple weapons used to strike small quarry like rabbit or fowl. Initially, it’s just a fun game for the children as they hone their skills against the backdrop of play, Brother Noland says. However, it is not until one actually harvests something that the true significance of the act is understood. I think about how the children pitched in to help clean the fish that La‘a and Noah caught on the first day of camp. Some were responsible for descaling; others were tasked with removing the innards. I had been impressed by their maturity; no one had shied away from their duty or acted childish or melodramatic. “We start off as the boy, then the cowboy, then warrior and king, and finally the sage,” Brother Noland later tells me, describing our ever-evolving understanding of, response to, and place in the natural world.

Some 20 years have passed since Hō‘ea Initiative’s debut, and Brother Noland still marvels at the sheer amount of personal belongings inadvertently left behind after camp each year. “I’ve been doing this since 1996 … Do you know how many tabis that is?” He chuckles, likening the phenomenon to snakes shedding their skin, except here, the children are shedding their possessions and anything else that doesn’t serve them.

“They don’t even notice that they forgot this or that,” he says. “They just surrender. They set it all free and their spirit is roaming. It is a cool thing to watch.”