We’ve just returned from a few days in Hawaii. We consider Oahu our second home and where, in the fullness of time, we intend to make our primary residence. My first trip to Hawaii in May, 1976, was for a job in the banking business. Had not a greater power been guiding my destiny, I wouldn’t have traveled there, but in the intervening 36 years I’ve taken every opportunity to express my thanks for this fortunate event.
Over the course of those years, there have clearly been changes the most profound of which seem singularly contradictory. The growth in real estate development- and a visit to the forest of high rises that is Honolulu is testimony to this- is contrasted with the marked growth and appreciation of endemic, traditional Hawaiian culture, and its concomitant and often expressed respect for the land. Tragically, Hawaii’s strategic geographic position made it, since its discovery, a coveted possession by governments in both Europe and America. That it was a crossroads, as well as grappling for political hegemony, made an inordinate number of people aware of its beauty and it inexorably became the nexus of global mass tourism.
In spite of all this, its natural charm has survived pretty well, as well as the spirit of aloha maintained by its resident population. This last week, we enjoyed a morning’s hike to Manoa Falls, astonishing in its verdant beauty, and all the more so given its position in the Koolaus so close to the teeming population of Honolulu. Once there, we found the pool at the base of the fall predominated by a gentleman of a certain age and his blowsy girlfriend, who had stripped off and were intent on taking photos of one another. To say that this was inconstant with the natural setting is an understatement. Let’s say that this jarring mise en scene scared the birds away. While Keith and I stood there palely loitering, averting our eyes and hoping to outwait the lady and gentleman, we were joined by another couple who had hiked up with their two mid-teen daughters. The second gentleman, while not absolutely appalled, was nevertheless irritated by the way two others exhibited such an uncomprehendingly dominating presence, and he shouted out to them ‘How long are you going to be?’ To which the stripped off man replied ‘Come on in- there’s plenty of room.’
Really? Thank goodness not all of us think the natural world is a mere backdrop automatically trumped when graced by our presence. I suppose that, once upon a time not so very long ago, the preponderance of the natural world and an abundance that seemed inexhaustible made our exploitation of it seem incidental, when it was considered at all. Still and all, in Hawaii with both its limited land area and strongly rooted tradition of respect for the natural world makes its exploitation seem at best schizy and it has wrought some bizarre effects.
This may come as a surprise to my gentle readers who have visited there, but that intense enclave of the built environment that Waikiki has become was historically one of the most hallowed places anywhere, the precinct of kings and shrines that in their number would rival the Acropolis. My beloved Royal Hawaiian Hotel takes its name from the royal cocoanut grove, vestiges of which remain in the hotel grounds, enjoyed by the Hawaiian ali’i from the earliest days. The grove and its precinct were named Helumoa. Favored with ample fresh water naturally drained from the Manoa and Palolo valleys a few miles inland, Waikiki, and the area of Helumoa specifically was replete with abundant natural beauty and food stocks from taro patches and fish ponds. Nothing of this remains, with the area drained with the construction of the Ala Wai Canal in the 1920’s, and the spoils from the canal used as fill aiding a construction boom in Waikiki that has yet to abate. Sacred sites known as heiau were dismantled. One of the most revered was only recently rediscovered when its topside development as a bowling alley was demolished, revealing the sacred alter of Kapaemahu underneath, incorporated into the building’s foundation.