Sunday, December 28, 2008

North Kohala is depressing

OK, actually, North Kohala is beautiful, and the winding mountain road that snakes along the ridgetops of the peninsula from Kamuela to Kapa'au is a sight to behold (though, as much as I appreciate our friend's loan of the car, I do not recommend a 1993 Ford Crown Victoria for hugging the tight curves). I sit on a Ph.D. committee in archaeology, for which the student is investigating the ways in which Native Hawaiians altered the natural landscape, and the ways in which this functioned to make the landscape meaningful. North Kohala is the focus of the investigation, so it was really great for me to see the place and get a sense of it. But this project is also key to why I found the place a bit melancholy. First, however, a description:

Kohala is the oldest of the five volcanoes that make up the Big Island of Hawai'i (Kohala, Hualalai, Mauna Kea, Mauna Loa, and Kilauea; some would add a sixth, Lo'ihi, which is still rising from the seafloor). It is the only one of these which is truly extinct. Half of Kohala is already gone, having slipped into the sea in a landslide of such violence that portions of the volcano have been found on the seafloor 130 miles away. This created the spectacular pali cliffs near Waipi'o Valley. What remains is some of the flattest land on the island, and this, together with being the oldest land on the island, means that the district of Kohala contains the most fertile agricultural soil on Hawai'i, since the lay of the land prevents water from running away too quickly, and taking nutrients (and new soil) with it. In the last century or so, it has been used to raise sugarcane, a practice made possible by the construction of the famous Kohala Ditch system of irrigation tunnels and canals. What remains now after the departure of sugar cultivation is a windswept landscape of grassy pastures and brush, some of which is used for cattle ranching and wind farms. The sense you get, hiking along the coast, is of a vast and lonely landscape, wild and nearly deserted.

We hiked a couple of miles from a remote airstrip to the main cultural site on the northern tip of the peninsula, which is Mo'okini heiau, a famous luakini heiau that overlooks the strait between the Big Island and Maui. A luakini heiau is a site where blood offerings were made, including both animal and human sacrifices. Not far away are the birthing stones where King Kamehameha I, who united all the islands into a single kingdom in the late eighteenth century, was born. It's a spectacular site, and one that people like us might not ordinarily be able to visit, except that the kahuna nui of the heiau lifted the kapu of entrance in 1978, for educational reasons.

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Here I'm standing at the back of the heiau enclosure, a long rectangle encircled by a low stone wall. You can see the remnants of some earthworks extending down the center of the photo, and the heiau itself to the right (looking rather low in this perspective, but actually 15 or more feet in height).

Here are some images of the features of the heiau itself:

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Looking in toward the interior of the large stone structure. We did not feel comfortable entering, but there were obviously some features inside. This Flickr photograph shows an aerial view of the heiau in which you can see some of the foundations inside the inner structure. Obviously it was a complex space.

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Modern hale pili (grass house) used for ceremonial purposes.

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Large stones set in the makai (seaward) part of the enclosure.

There is a rather unfortunate plaque set into a stone along the west face of the heiau, which declares that it possesses unusual value in illustrating and commemorating the history of the United States:

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No doubt this was set up with the best of intentions to preserve the site, but most information suggests that the heiau predates the United States by at least a thousand years. The plaque is clearly seen by some as a mark of possession left by a colonial power, since the words "United States" and "U.S." have been nearly scratched away, presumably by visitors to the site.

Nearby is the complex that contains the birthing stones where Kamehameha I is said to have been born, perhaps in 1756:

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Like the heiau, it once had wooden hale (houses) within the compound, and perhaps other features, now long gone. Both sites command a view of a lonely, windy landscape that seems deserted, which would be mournful in itself. But if you look around the sites, you see many stone features on the surface:

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These are nearly all man-made structures, stone foundations that once held wooden houses and other structures. The truth is that Kohala was not always a deserted landscape; the richness of the soil meant that before the decimation of the Native Hawaiian population by introduced disease, this was an intensely farmed and populated district. North Kohala is not a natural desert; it is a landscape of ruins.

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It is this that gave us the sense of melancholy when visiting the Mo'okini heiau. Although Mo'okini is still an active place of worship and remains under the care of the hereditary kahuna nui of the site, so many of the other houses that once stood here, the fields and groves and other marks of human intervention in the landscape, are now discoverable only by those who remember the accounts of the past, and by archaeologists.

As a professor, you always expect to learn from your students, and every project has the potential to open up new perspectives. It is my hope that the archaeology project I'm helping to supervise will leave me with a sense of the shape of the Kohala landscape when it was still a rich and populated district, and the meaning that the Hawaiians' labor of construction, farming, and living instilled into the built landscape.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Interesting and informative post, but don't appreciate the title. Maybe you can transform the "depressing" feelings about Kohala into positive ones that encourage a movement forward from the current space that you find so depressing.