Monday, April 22, 2013

Malama 'Aina

Malama 'aina is a value I learned in Hawai'i.  Translated, it could be, "Care of the Earth," but the concept might be a little different than what comes to mind with a cultural lens greased with the motifs of the "Environmentalist" movement as known to "Western" culture.   Before seeing the way Hawaiians teach and live this important value, I was a little torn--trying to reconcile two scenarios I had been presented with.  One I'll call the "Leave No Trace" movement, with it's aire of "We-care-about-the-Earth-and-you-don't," and it's own branch in our federal government, the EPA.  An extreme example of the attitude from when we visited Isle Royale in Lake Superior: hate graffiti on the walls of a outhouse about the spawn of the devil who would dare to build a rock cairn along the trail.  The other is a long-standing Alaskan way of life--that of living off of the land, using it to sustain you, harvesting the bounty and making use of the resources.  Of course, there have been regulations made and protections placed on the various species harvested, but many in big cities would still huff with horror at the cruelty done to halibut when bashed on the head in your boat or a deer slung over your back on its way to your freezer.

In Hawaii, an island with obviously finite resources, care of the land is crucial.  The islands were divided in a pie shape by territory--not with some being mountain people and others water people, but each division, "a'hapua'a," getting a slice of the mountainous interior, going down through the various ecosystems, and a spread of the shoreline.  The ancestral lands Hawaiians are permitted to keep in their family if they have 60% of the bloodline (which could be it's own debate) are not refered to as "land claims," but as "Kuleana lands" -- Kuleana means "responsibility," not indicating, "This ground is what I get," but,  "I have a responsibility to these lands."  Almost like, the land has a claim on me, it inherited me, instead of the other way around.  The kind of responsibility meant, could be summed up in a comment to me by a Hawaiian friend who described the way you can tell a true Hawaiian's property and one who is not really living the values.  She said, if you see a yard that is nice and taken care of--the plants are healthy, things are orderly, you can tell there is care put into it, this is what Hawaiians are taught to be like.  Yards full of junk, with shoes everywhere and things overgrown and sloppy, this is not really a Hawaiian. 

She also told me more about the idea of "ownership"--in our culture, she said, something is not "yours" because you bought it, it becomes "yours" when you take care of it.  It is your Kuleana.  This means you can't say a plant is yours, unless you water it, trim it, you know it, you care for it.  During my college years in Hawaii, I took a series of Hawaiian culture classes--one of which was called, "Malama 'aina."  For this class we met mostly at "Kahuaola"--a garden of Hawaiian plant species (so much of the islands are now overrun with invasive species) run by the Hawaiian Studies Department behind our campus.  In the garden, backed by an ancient "he'iau" or temple, we worked hard in the sun--watering the ti plants, pulling thorny hili hili grass--with roots so deep--out of the ground, cutting down, pulling out and burning hundreds of invasive haole koa trees, and working in the lo'i (taro patches) weeding and harvesting.  This place became an intimate part of us.  We cultivated the land, and the land cultivated us.  The value was lived; and I began to see what beauty exists in this relationship with the land.  This concept is probably known to most "farm kids," but I had never experienced this paritcular type of symbiotic interaction with the land in my non-agrarian climate.

I began to see how this principal related to so many "environmental" issues and wars.  I believe it can applied to almost all.  Let's take, for example, the forestry industry.  My grandpa was a Forester in Juneau.  His eyes still light up when he describes to us the different ways the species of trees react to forces and grow, giving examples from trees out the window, or explainaing how the forest was managed, then, by nurturing concepts that, with the help of humans, yeilded the healthiest and most productive forests.  It was a fine art.  I can tell when my grandpa talks that they knew the trees, cared about them, cared for them.  It was their Kuleana.  The thinking changed; forestry has all but gone by the wayside as people in Urban centers, with the power, believe that touching the natural world at all is a sin. 

I strongly believe that humans are not on the Earth by accident.  We are not a blight to it -- we have the power to be if we don't care for it, malama 'aina -- but we are MEANT to touch it, to be in it, to know it.  We should use the resources around us -- they are meant to sustain us, just like any other form of life on the planet.  Should we be allowed to cut down trees? YES, in moderation.  Hunt seals? That's a sensitive one... YES, in moderation.  Go into the wild parts of the world without having to ask permission? YES.  Those who hunt deer, or ducks, seals, or foxes, in the right attitude and for the right reasons are the ones who will know them best and care about them the most.  Not the city-dweller who saw a special on National Geographic or read an article about them, and then petitions to bar every soul from interacting with the species again or entering their domain, and they will never know what they don't know.  We have the ability to destroy -- some would say this means we should put up walls around the wild and protect it from ourselves.  But we also have the ability to make it even more fruitful.  Deep familiarity with and dependance on the natural world makes life beautiful, it cultivates us.  And it is our Kuleana, our responsibility, to cultivate and beautify the Earth.  And not by removing ourselves from it.

I say, Go! Build your rock cairns along the hilltops to guide yourself back home, leave your footprints in the forest! Get to intimately know this glorious world! That means being prepared to shoot a bear if you have to and recognize its part of the natural cycle!  Do things for the Earth and let it do things for you -- it's a sacred relationship. This is malama 'aina. Or you can close off the natural world, make it jungle to you, untouchable, while you banish youselves to the cities to live out your pitiful days in concrete and synthetics and in guilt of your very existance.  And there, go to the park to see trees, take your kids to the zoo to see the caged vestiges of the once-known savage world, while I take mine to visit the last trapper allowed and see more clearly that world, reflected in his eyes, the only one really shaped by it.

2007 - Kahuaola -- Working hard to clear an overrun lo'i kalo (Taro patch)

2008 - Kahuaola -- Same lo'i kalo, now fruitful


  1. I like this blog. You say it like it is with the courage to throw it in the faces of those you describe, the timorous, pallid creatures huddled in their synthetics and concrete cages. It is obvious that you have studied this thing out with the help of your Hawaiian background.

    God made the world for man and he commanded him to be the steward of all he surveyed, responsibly. He also made the world to delight man -- and woman. (When I say "man" I also mean "woman"). Why is there so much more beauty than it would take just to satisfy the Darwinian projection of species propagation? Why do birds sings with such glorius rapture? Why does a rose or a crocus delight the eye and tantalize the olfactory nerve? Why is the sunrise and the sunset so breathtakingly beautiful? Far more than is necessary -- unless it was intended to delight you and me.

    The world was made for us, you and me, and ours. You have made the case well. Love you.

  2. Mac, I love this. You've said it so well. I also love the idea that the land had a claim on us. I think this is what having dominion really means = having responsibility. And why would the ideal be to exorcise all human contagion from the planet? Sounds like the same kind of thinking that leads to agrobusiness and RoundUp Ready barrenness. Why do we keep pretending we're not part of Nature?

    And what a great opportunity to work in the school's taro field! When in Hawaii I loved best walking through the Waimea (sp?) gardens that showed the a'hapua'a system (which interestingly is also the tradition in Peru apparently -- what possibly cultural connection would there be there?).