Updated: Feb 11
by Oliver Lewis
The sun was a deep, red pit in the sky, sucking the light of today, and the countless days before, as it trudged towards the sharp horizon. The heat of the evening air wrapped me up in a blanket while the warm ocean water rushed between my toes and through my legs. The land, the sea, and the clouds above shared their colours and blurred their lines. The weight of Hawai`i pulled me in every direction and I began to think of the people who had felt this before me.
The surf was small and playful. Kaniela sat on his wooden board, about fifteen yards out from me. The colours of the exhausting sky danced off of the water and glimmered off his bronze shoulders. There was no one else out in the water with us. There wasn’t much of anything in the water with us either.
No one has caught a fish in the open ocean for as long as I can remember. The hot ocean water and white coral skeletons pushed marine life to the brink. If it weren’t for the reconstruction of fishponds, I doubt I would even know what a fish was. Before I was born, how long before I’m not actually sure, the oceans began to heat up, slowly, and then quickly, until everything died all at once. Well, as far as we could tell here in Hawai`i. During the time of incremental warming, Hawaiians reinstated fishponds around the islands to increase productivity. Fishing yields were dwindling but manageable. Nobody knew it would get this bad, but nobody ever really does.
Now, fishponds scatter along the coastlines like broken ribs. These ponds were once connected to the open ocean, harbouring small fish to move in and out as they pleased until they grew too fat to fit through the gates that line the rock walls. Now, the system is closed, and the ponds have since evolved into breeding grounds, divided into quadrants. Using similar traditional techniques, the fish swim freely between the quadrants through wooden gates that get wider as the fish go along, welcoming them in with motherly arms until they are too big to go back to where they came from. In some ways, we are like the fish in those ponds; only one direction to go. But we have stories to bring us back behind the closed gates.
The sun was now gone behind the horizon, and Kaniela was riding on a wave. Without the light of the sun, his body glided across the face like a shadow. His stance unmoving and stable, his fingers dangling. Kaniela was a master, a ghost floating across worlds. He knew how to give and take from every wave he rode, a tradition of riding that persisted with passion. I caught the next wave, years of repetition giving my body instructions, and soon I was climbing up the black rocks to join Kaniela on our long walk home on the torn-up road.
Our wet toes gripped the dirt and gravel while we walked with our boards underneath our arms. Our pace quickened inexplicably and soon we were laughing, sprinting. Kaniela had a habit of turning everything into a competition, something I had come to appreciate. Kaniela was winning our makeshift race, as he always seemed to do. He would credit this to his Hawaiian feet, unfazed by sharp little rocks that inevitably find their way beneath your toes. Then, right on cue, Kaniela let out a yelp and his running abruptly turned into a hobble, mumbling curses into the sky. I instantly knew what had happened. Kaniela had stepped on a Keawe thorn. There were few enough on the ground to forget about for weeks or months, but enough to be absolutely unavoidable forever.
“What happened to those Hawaiian feet of yours?” I called with a smile as I finally caught up to him.
“Brah, I don’t care how Hawaiian you are or think you are, ain’t nobody stands a chance against one of these fuckuhs.”
By then Kaniela had pulled out the thorn. He held it out in front of my face to show me its length, blood sticking to its sides.
“Dang,” I replied. “That’s a big boy.”
“Yeah, it’s a big boy! I swear, everywhere you look things are dying. Kalo, Breadfruit trees, people, pigs. But not the Keawe. My Dad said those things grow in the Australian Outback.”
“Australia.” I responded. Each syllable sticking to my lips like a paste. I had heard the word only a handful of times. “And what, exactly, does anyone know about Australia? Nobody’s left these islands for a hundred years. Australia is probably burnt up in flames like the rest of the world anyway.”
“I’m just telling you what he told me. And I’m just telling you that I fucking hate these Keawe trees and their thorns that fall and I wish they would die like everything else on these islands. And who knows? Maybe when I leave next week with the crew, we will stumble upon Australia, and when I get back, I will tell you if Australia is burning or not.”
It hurt to hear Kaniela speak of leaving, like a toothache, gripping my head and running down my spine. I used to tease this pain on occasions. I’d rub my tongue over the diseased tooth, applying just enough pressure to make me wince. I’d ask him questions about his trip. Are there fish in the ocean outside of the Hawaiian Islands? Was he afraid? Would he miss me? These questions made me squirm, my tooth continuing to rot. I became grateful for the few moments when I could forget that Kaniela would be leaving on the Hokulea sailing canoe, in search of healthier land to which the rest of Hawai`i could migrate.
Kaniela was a star navigator. One of few, the youngest by many years. He was seventeen years old, just a year older than me. Star navigation was a Hawaiian tradition lost and found, lost and found, throughout history. A pull to the open water, the unending sky. To ride ocean currents and to move with the wind.
Kaniela met with elders nearly every night. They would lie on their backs on the football field of the long-abandoned Kamehameha Hilo High School, pointing out constellations and tracking their movements throughout weeks and years. Kaniela had the night sky memorised forwards and backwards and inside out.
We continued walking along the dirt and gravel road. Soon we were jogging again, and then laughing, sprinting. I chased after my star all the way home to Hilo Town. We threw our surfboards down in his backyard and took turns rinsing each other’s salty bodies with buckets of rainwater from his family’s catchment system.
“Brah. I don’t know how you never get skin cancer yet, haole boy.”
He continued to pour fresh water over my pale, sun-freckled skin.
“The sun’s got nothing on me!” I exclaimed as I flexed my biceps.
“You’re crazy. You know that, huh?”
I grabbed the bucket out of his hands and dumped the rest of the water on his head. I ran up the steps of his house and grabbed the towel hanging off the rail of his front porch.
“You better watch yourself, haole boy!”
I let out a quick laugh, stepping inside to his living room, dimly lit with solar-powered lanterns. Kaniela’s mother was scraping out the meat of a coconut in the kitchen.
“Hi, Aunty Kau`i.”
“Aloha e Teddy. Are you joining us for dinner again tonight?”
“How did you know?”
“Well go set the table and pull up another seat.”
“Thank you!” I said excitedly and gave her a kiss on the cheek.
As I placed the mismatched plates across the Koa table, I glanced out the window at Kaniela drying off on the porch. The lantern lights danced off the churning muscles on his back. His salt bleached hair looked ablaze on top of his head.
It was Kaniela’s last day on Hawai`i for a while. The morning was hot. Instead of dew drops on the grass, there was sweat building on my neck. The sun had yet to poke over the cloudy ocean, but its raw power could already be felt across the islands. The feeling of unending heat, unending humidity, collects a tax on living things. A constant state of sweat puddling in your eyes.
Life in Hilo, in all of Hawai`i, was slowing to a halt. Kalo roots were getting smaller, the muddy fields were drying up. Breadfruit trees stopped producing fruits in the spring, summer, and fall. The Hilo ahupua`a was drying and the residents of Hilo Town were having trouble producing enough food to make ends meet. The ahupua`a system was brought back to Hawai`i in the Second Great Mahele. The first Mahele was used by colonisers to purchase land off of Hawaiians back in 1840. The Second occurred some 200 years later and redistributed the land equally amongst all remaining residents of the islands. Those who could afford to pack up and leave, did. The rising sea made the islands shrink. Hawai`i’s proximity to the equator made it unbearable for most. Climate change disproportionately affected the less privileged, and, as proof, the rich migrated back to where they came from, leaving a small population behind to fend for themselves in the Pacific, being swallowed and burnt all at once.
The reinstatement of ahupua`a’s created new sustainable land systems, each with a river, fertile land, and access to a fishpond, bringing back communal living as the foundation of a new Hawai`i. The ahupua`a system worked, as it always had, and the people of Hawai`i worked together, and the population began to rise slowly. But the red heat of the burning sun continued to grow. It wiggled its way into the shade and into the water and eventually, even into the night. The land twisted and writhed. The rivers strained with every available drop. But the abandoned greenhouse of the earth’s atmosphere continued to haunt all life underneath its dome. Curses of generations past continued to leave footprints on the children of today and tomorrow.
I started this morning like all mornings, working the Kalo fields with Kaniela. We would first pull debris out of the stream that funnelled water into the fields. Dead branches, dead animals, old car parts. We’d then check the rat traps. Rats always find the best Kalo roots and we can’t afford share food with anything, let alone rats. Finally, we would harvest. When the tasks were all done, or it was simply too hot to work any longer, we’d go inside and drink coconut water and bask like dogs on the–almost–slightly cool living room floor.
But today was Kaniela’s last day. So instead of basking after work, I helped him organise the last of his things and carried his bags out to the old solar-powered Jeep in his backyard. We drove down to the docks at Hilo Harbour and parked in the dusty red cul-de-sac at the end of the road. From the car we could see the Hokulea, sitting heavily on the glassy, gelatine water of the protected harbour.
The two masts stood straight, and the giant cloth sails held alert and ready to catch any movement in the still, wet air. The two Koa-wood hulls had waves of their own, grain weaving throughout the deep brown wood. Fallen trees to traverse the Pacific Ocean. Humans, rope, earth, sea. All things connected until torn apart. This was Kaniela’s new home. No matter how closely I looked I could not find anything resembling myself on the Hokulea, but I saw Kaniela in every fibre of the canoe.
We made our stop at the Hokulea quick. There was no space for the two of us here. We knew that this canoe would rip us apart like a sharp knife that pries Opihi from rock. I began to think about all of the voyages that the Hokulea had embarked on throughout history. And I thought of all of the people that it had left behind. Back when climate change was just a warning, the Hokulea sailed across the entire globe, connecting indigenous cultures across every continent. This Hawaiian masterpiece touched all corners, reaching its fingers into every sea. Unbreakable, unstoppable, moving throughout history and time. A gift to all generations. A heartbeat of Hawai`i. Human, rope, earth, sea. A tradition and a bedtime story.
The night sky was cloudless and gaping. Stars stuck to the black wall like saltwater dried onto clothes. I was sitting in the passenger seat as Kaniela drove us up the winding mountain road to the top of Mauna Kea. The peak was our getaway, a private world in this world. We parked at the end of the road and began following the barbed-wire fence westward before slipping through a hole and hiking the last stretch of mountain.
The earth on the peak of Mauna Kea looked dead and lonely. Giant valleys were carved into the mountainside from years of snowmelt. It was almost comical to think that there was once snow on Mauna Kea. Snow. In Hawai`i. The earth changes when we aren’t looking. Unrecognisable places to one generation deemed normal to another. Naturalised tragedy. Year after year after year.
The top of Mauna Kea had been fenced off by the U.S. Government, separating Hawaiians from the rotting telescopes on the crater. The peak was littered like a war zone, sharp and treacherous as the barbed wire that surrounded it. We made our way up and up. On our long journey skyward, we were side by side.
Finally, we reached a landing at the top of the mountain. Kaniela’s face lit up like the moon. We sat down together, cross legged. Two boys, side by side, on a bridge between earth and sky. Timeless and ageless.
“You see that star?” Said Kaniela, pointing to a sparkling, blue dot in the sky.
“That’s Tahiti. That’s where we are going. If it’s springtime, and you sail directly at that star, you hit Tahiti. That is exactly what I am going to do. The elders think there may be more water on the south side of the equator.”
“But we have water here.”
“Not for long we don’t.”
“Why do you have to go?” The fragility of our universe was becoming clear. The land, the sea, and the clouds seemed to tremble with it.
“I’ve always had to go. Since before I was born. Since my ancestors travelled across the world on the Hokulea. Since my ancestors constructed the Hokulea with their own hands. Since my ancestors constructed it again when it was nearly forgotten. I’ve always had to go.”
We sat silently again; necks strained skyward. Stars danced and teased in celebration, just as they had 100 years ago, and 100 years before that. Like an old book. Dust wiped off of pages. Corners creased under new fingers.
“You see this star?” I followed Kaniela’s pointed finger. “This star is you. See how it twinkles white and red?”
“Yeah.” I replied. My lips creasing into a smile.
“That’s you. You’re my haole boy. My haole boy who’s always sunburnt!”
We both broke out into laughter. The stars laughed with us. And so did the Mauna. And so did the sticky, night air. Timeless and ageless.
Oliver Lewis grew up on O`ahu, Hawai`i. He has an M.S. in Earth Systems from Stanford University and works in San Francisco, developing supply-chain management software for the food industry.
Art by Aishah Wilson
Photography by Karl Dudman
This article is an online feature of Anthroposphere Issue V.
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