By boat, they traveled to Kahoolawe late last month to perform restoration activities
under the auspices of the cultural education program of the Kaho‘olawe Island Reserve Commission.
Offshore, a pair of koae soared and dipped into the sea, fishing for supper — a hoailona, or sign, of life, vitality and nourishment.
Indeed, from the bay at Honokoa to the rain koa at Moaulanui summit, a regreened Kahoolawe continues to heal from decades of being bombed, stripped of vegetation by cattle and feral goats, and drained of topsoil by rains coursing over red hardpan.
In the uplands, drip-irrigated rows of new plantings were being fed water by means of a catchment system installed in 2002. Paul Higashino, restoration ecologist with the commission, said the plants’ survival rate has more than quintupled over the past nine years.
“When we first began planting en masse in 1999,” he recalled, “our survival rate was about 10 to 15 percent because at that time we could only give each plant 1 liter of water. But through the years of trial and error, by learning and observing — besides now we have that irrigation system with water catchment — our survival rate is up to 80 percent.”
Higashino said regreening efforts have put 350,000 plants in the ground. Improved cultivation methods include using compost, mulch and other soil amendments, and focusing on hardy “warrior species.” The latter range from aalii, aweoweo, kului, achyranthes and ulei shrubs, to kamanomano grass and koaia, alahee and other trees.
The aim is “to build more of a native Hawaiian plant community right now,” he said.
Also in the uplands, the volunteers swung heavy, damp bales of Molokai-grown pili grass onto trucks for unloading at an archaeologically significant “hummock,” or mound. The pili seeds had tiny barbs that caused some volunteers to get red, teary eyes.
The bales of grass were placed to prevent erosion at the site, which ancient sailors may have used as a triangulation point in navigation.
The revegetation initiative aims to mitigate annual runoff of an estimated 2 million to 4 million tons of soil.
A highlight of the visitors’ stay was the island’s endemic hinahina, seen growing in a modest patch at an upper elevation. The ground cover sprawled across a sun-swept, wind-ravaged spot and bore a few tiny white blossoms. Their miniscule petals held a delicate, exquisite fragrance: at once familiar and superexotic, and alleged to be an ancient aphrodisiac.
Evident, too, were outcroppings of pau-o-Hiiaka vines with dainty blue flowers and ilima-papa patches with golden blooms — to be expected in near-shore stretches, but springing valiantly in mauka spots.
Commission natural resource specialist Lyman Abbott said his favorite plant is aalii. Its bushes with purplish blossoms were fairly numerous on the flanks of Puu Moaulaiki.
“We plant 1,000 plants a week. Of that, I would say 300 are aalii, so over a year . . . there must be 30,000 new aalii out there,” he estimated.
“It’s a good warrior plant because they get established and they provide habitat for future plants that come in, and they are providing habitat for the Hawaiian blue butterfly — Udara genus.”
The Koa Pulelehua and the Kamehameha are the only two butterflies endemic to Hawaii. Abbott said photographers Forest and Kim Starr recorded Koa Pulelehua for the first time in 2003 on this smallest of the eight main Hawaiian Islands.
Covering 45 square miles and located nearly seven miles southwest of Maui, Kahoolawe was used as a military bombing target from the start of World War II. In the 1970s, Kahoolawe became the focal point of the Native Hawaiian renaissance movement. Finally, in 1994, the United States returned Kahoolawe to the State of Hawaii. A Navy contractor cleared ordnance from approximately 70 percent of the island from 1997 through 2003 under a $400 million federal appropriation. The 70 percent area includes 7 percent cleared to a depth of 4 feet — including the 11-mile Kuamoo Road that crosses the isle; the remainder of the 70 percent area was cleared on the surface only. The other 30 percent of the island has not been cleared of ordnance and remains strictly off-limits.
The December rainstorms affected Kuamoo Road as well as the vegetation, Higashino said.
“Just before the rains, we were down to the last inch or two of water (in the storage tanks). It was a very dry summer, but we were able to keep most of our plants alive. The rains came just in time,” he recalled.
“During the Kona storms we just get a deluge of water that comes down. They had some impact on the roads. There were a few gullies and ruts that needed to be tended. Our water tanks were near empty; now they’re full. The plants that we put in the ground previously didn’t need to be tended. . . . All the plants got a good watering.”
The volunteers also watered naupaka and pohinahina plantings on the Hanakanaia shoreline.
Besides revegetation activities, highlights of the 3 1/2 days on the island included excursions to Puu Moiwi adz quarry; Lae O Kealaikahiki — site of a planned navigation school — where the crosswinds smelled of both sea spray and earth; Puu Moaulaiki and Moaulanui summit for a blustery sunrise; and the “sailor hat” bomb crater, vestige of a 500-ton TNT explosion in 1965.
Puu Moiwi, a 1,161-foot rise in the heart of the island, is the archipelago’s second-largest adz quarry after Mauna Kea on Hawaii island. The hill’s gentle slopes are strewn with burnished red-brown rocks and shards of solid basalt.
The group reached the top of Puu Moiwi where commission cultural specialist Kapono‘ai Molitau explained that ancient Hawaiians fashioned fine cutting and carving tools from the shards. He urged visitors to follow the example of the forebears: “Strive to do your best, and don’t accept anything less.”
The dozen pilgrims paused in awe. The sighing winds and birds chirping in the brush were the only sounds. In that moment, past and present intersected. One could envision the kupuna: stone-age artisans gathering, examining and pounding basalt pieces, then shaping and polishing their new tools in the huge, outdoor workshop.
• Kekoa Catherine Enomoto can be reached at email@example.com.
Val Loh photo