It was a cloudy Saturday morning. The cleansing scent of rain permeated the air. My weekend to-do list was as long as some of the lengthy street names around Hawaii, but weeks before, I had agreed to help weed a taro patch this morning. I looked outside at the cloud-shrouded mountain in my front yard and considered my options. Do I really want to pull weeds in the rain? Maybe I should skip the volunteer project and stay home and tend to my own chores around the house. But how often do you get the chance to participate in a cultural experience that is practically sacred to Hawaiians?
For Polynesians, kalo, the Hawaiian word for taro, is what rice is to Asians and what the potato is to Europeans and Americans: A food staple. Its vegetable leaf is used in cooking, much like spinach; whereas, its cooked form is mashed and made into poi. In the days when a calabash of poi was passed around, the ritual required scooping out the starchy food with fingers. Depending on the consistency of the batch, it might be called “two-finger” or “three-finger” poi.
Whatever the texture, poi represents more than just dietary nourishment to Native Hawaiians. According to the Kumulipo, the Hawaiian creation chant, kalo is the elder brother of the Hawaiian people. That explains the familial and sacred relationship Hawaiians enjoy with taro.
While poi may have lost its staple status around the dinner table in Hawaii today, it is found at grocery stores and the many luau open for visitors around the state. Too, more and more communities and families are clearing overgrown loi, ponds, and growing taro again.
That’s why I had signed up to help weed a taro patch. Learning about a Hawaiian way of life sounded like an interesting way to spend a Saturday morning, especially for a malihini, newcomer, like me. I’d lived in Hawaii for almost 10 years but had yet to step foot in a loi. Except it wasn’t raining when I’d agreed to help.
Located on Kauai’s north shore just past the town of Hanalei, Waipa is a 1,600-acre ahupuaa, land division, one of the smallest on Kauai. In 1982, the owners of the land announced plans for a high-end agricultural estate development. In response, a group of kupuna, elders, from the north shore organized. Their mission: "To restore the ahupuaa of Waipa as a Native Hawaiian community and learning center, as a sustainable, culturally- and community-based model for land-use and management." After four years, the landowners—Kamehameha Schools—agreed to halt development and lease the land to the Waipa Foundation (www.waipafoundation.org).
Since then, the group has started a native reforestation program. They are restoring a native fishpond. And they are growing kalo in centuries old loi. They host a weekly poi-pounding day and operate a weekly farmers market. Plus, they run an active learning center with programs for keiki, children, and kupuna alike.
But I didn’t know all that yet. I learned it with every weed I pulled. In the end, I braved the wet weather. I joined the hands-on executive director of the Waipa Foundation, Stacy Sproat, and a dozen other people.
When I stepped into the loi, my feet sunk deep into the cool mud while fresh water diverted from a nearby stream circled my calves. I slipped my hand in the water at the base of a weed and pulled. It popped right out of the mud. Weeding the loi was easy work.
When I tried to take a step, though, my foot slipped right out of the shoes I was wearing—neoprene sandals made for water sports—so I proceeded barefoot. On one side of me, a neighbor weeded. I hadn’t seen her in a while, and she told me about the lush produce growing in her garden at home. She reported that her daughter was working with Malama Kauai, a community group with a mission to implement sustainability practices on the island.
On the other side of me, a visitor from Vermont pulled weeds. She called herself a recovering lawyer and a cancer survivor. Turns out, she was staying just down the road from where I lived.
We chatted and pulled, chatted and pulled, while I caught up with an old friend and met a new one. This is like my grandmother’s quilting bees, I thought. We come together to work, and it turns into a social event. What’s more, within 30 minutes, we had finished weeding the taro patch.
I drove home happy with the choice I’d made. It never did rain and the work was easy—and satisfying. I remembered a saying I’d first heard long ago, maybe from my grandmother: Many hands make light work. There must be a Hawaiian proverb that expresses that concept, I thought.
Indeed, there is. Aohe hana nui ka aluia translates to English as “No task is too big when done together.”
A few weeks later, on May 14, 2008, Acting Governor James “Duke” Aiona signed a bill into law that made kalo the official state plant. Taro joins pua aloalo, yellow hibiscus, as the state flower and kukui, candlenut, as the state tree. All three are native plants.