Photo by Brendan George Ko
Author Kawai Strong Washburn shares what growing up on Hawai‘i meant to him—and what he learned about Aloha ‘Āina, which roughly translates to “love of our lands,” and the ancient traditions of protecting the islands’ natural spaces.
Kawai Strong Washburn is a climate change activist and the author of the novel Sharks in the Time of Saviors (MCD/Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2020), which weaves together climate change, tourism, and Hawaiian mythology.
“I grew up in a small town on the Big Island, Honokaʻa, which is where my novel opens. It’s just outside of Waipiʻo Valley, on the northeast side of the Big Island. I remember it being small-town life, with a lot of open space to run and explore, and a mix of these incredible places of natural beauty.
It’s important to emphasize that, in no way, do I consider myself a sort of larger cultural ambassador or any authority figure on the islands themselves. I can only speak from my own experiences having been exposed to Native Hawaiian practices and mythology.
There’s a sense of the deification of the land and elevating the land to something bigger than just the scientific sum total of its parts. Not thinking of, for instance, volcanoes in the ocean as purely some sort of natural phenomena, but deifying them in a way that gives them a certain amount of unknowability—and being comfortable with that unknowability. Looking at a space and recognizing that this is bigger than humans will ever be able to comprehend, and we have to give some reverence to that and see ourselves as people who are in a relationship with something bigger than us.
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There was a point when the islands were largely self-sufficient. They were able to provide for everybody with the agricultural systems that existed at the time. There was an understanding that you cannot live outside the bounds of what the environment is capable of sustaining.
Many savvy practices came about as a result of trying to find a way to live within the boundaries of the world. [For example] it was very clear that there were times in which enough was enough, in terms of how much fish you take from the sea, or how much of this or that thing you collect. There was an understanding that there’s only so much of a thing you can take before it can’t be replenished.
People today are looking at how can we rebuild a system of local sustainable agriculture, using traditional methods informed by some of the more modern techniques. There are a lot of places where that’s happening in the islands right now. You also have utilities that have looked into building solar at scale. There are discussions about wind farms.
To me, I think the recognition [via Hawai‘i’s pioneering declaration of a climate change emergency] that climate change is here, and that it’s going to affect the islands is severely overdue. Not only in terms of how the coastlines might change because of sea level rise, but how things like the reefs might expire completely as a result of ocean acidification.
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I imagine a future for the islands in which changes have been made—to the extent they can be—to make them more sustainable, with a circular economy. A place that has responded to the climate emergency as an opportunity to reframe the way people live with natural systems. I’m optimistic that the islands are the place where those things can be imagined and built, and potentially be a model for coastal cities and other island nations around the world.” —as told to Aislyn Greene
>>Next: A Better Way to Visit Hawaiʻi
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