Friday, October 20, 2017

Uncle Abel Versus The World

Uncle Abel is not really my uncle.  You call almost everyone of the older generation uncle or aunty in Hawaiʻi.  In the twenty years that I have known Uncle Abel we’ve been on the opposite sides of the question more often than not, which is to say in enemy camps, although not exactly enemies.  But the differences don’t matter as much as what we have in common. What matters is that we love the same place.  We have a shared history with a small bay and section of land called Kawā. He lived there for years, and I worked there for years.
Kawā might not look like much at first glance.  It's a small bay with a rocky, pebbly beach where the wind is usually blowing briskly.  There is no white sand and no palm trees.  The surf is  rough and the water cold. However, on a small bluff above the bay at Kawā are the spectacular ruins of an ancient heiau (temple) and on the flat below the foundations of a village site.  These are what we used to call “archeology,” and what we now refer to as “cultural resources." Not long ago relics such as these were considered of minimal significance compared to the demands of commerce and progress, but now they have become links to the pre-contact, pre-industrial past.  There is a large brackish pond behind the beach that is considered an important wet-land  for multiple species of endangered native birds.  Kawā also has one of the few surf-breaks in the district and that in itself makes it precious to surfers of all ages.
I worked with my family on the ranch lands above the bay where Abel lived. We both impinged on each other’s realm with a casual, lawless tolerance that is nearly un-imaginable now-adays.  We pumped brackish water out of the pond and his crew of hippie-hangers-on set up camp on a piece of land inset within the ranch.  They had a Rainbow Festival one weekend and a number of the visitors stayed on for months in a constantly dwindling camp.  We thought they were funny and harmless.  None of that would be possible now.   You have to do everything by the book even out here.  You have to have all your permits in order these days.
We haven’t spoken much, Abel and I, over the years, but we’ve been on the same land. We’ve known of each other as distant neighbors. Weʻve both heard stories of each other, as one does in a small community; we’ve seen each other coming and going for a couple of decades now.
Abel is politically radical, a native sovereignty activist who camped for years near the beach at Kawā.  I’m politically centrist, non-native, middle-class, highly indoctrinated into conventional life.  I can count on my two hands the nights I’ve slept anywhere but on a nice, soft bed.  I’m on the slightly unconventional side of conventional; Uncle Abel takes unconventional to a whole other level.
Uncle Abel has the long gray-white hair and the thin, high-cheek-boned face of a Chinese sage, but his skin is dark brown, mottled with sun spots.  His eyes, somewhat rheumy now, can glare at you with a manic insistence. Today he is wearing two ti leaves around his neck which he has tied together and shredded.  Also he is wearing a pareau in black, green, gold and red.  All of these things have a specific meaning: the two leaves - a minimalist ascetic lei  -asserts his pure spiritual authority; the pareau echoes the colors of the flag of the Hawaiian sovereignty movement.
We are both at a county government hearing - an advisory commission that recommends lands for preservation.   Abel is giving one of his famous speeches. He is protesting everything.  I’ve always admired his gift as a speaker.  He had the dramatic genius of a Shakespearean actor. When he was in top form, he was a public enemy to those in power and a cult favorite for those who were not.  He was able to keep large crowds spell-bound by his unpredictability and mad prophet oratory.  Even if you did not agree with him, even if he made you uncomfortable, Uncle Abel meant “action” - as in quite possibly police action.  It was high entertainment.
Abel has a signature line that he uses in every speech I've heard him give: “Ka’ū (the name of our district)” he intones meaningfully, drawing out the last vowel, “ has never been conquered.” He says this in a dramatic whisper,  turning around to confront his audience his eyes wide, daring anyone to contradict him.  His voice rising in volume, he continues: “I no recognize no government: county, state, federal.  We was never conquered you see? We the government. We, the people.”
Technically speaking he is wrong.  Our district was conquered over and over again by various ancient chiefs, but we are dealing with political myth-making here, not pedestrian historical facts. And his favorite line expresses something that is, in a mythical sense, essential. Ka’u is the hinterland of the island.  It has always been sparsely populated and poor.  This is mostly because there are few sources of fresh water, because the district is downwind from the volcano, because the soil is rocky, the climate arid, and the oceans rough.  It is a difficult place to make a living.  Nevertheless, the people of this district, Ka’ū, are passionate about their land and fierce in their politics.  Ka’ū is known as a land of rebels.  We don’t bend the knee.
But Abel had the calling to take it quite a bit farther than the rest of us.  He wonʻt go along with our modern conveniences, like private property, representative government, hot showers and refrigerators, and in his passions he calls shame upon all of it and all of us. (He does have a Facebook page though, of course.)  In his radical rejection of all modern forms of life, we part ways with Abel, and yet not completely.   We say to ourselves, “Well, he is crazy.”  And yet he humiliates us in our acquiescence and opens up a space for questioning the status quo.
He has heart.  Even his most ardent detractors would have to give him that.  And there are plenty of people who dislike him intensely.  Mostly people who he has challenged in their position of public or private authority.  My friend who works for the county parks department has had many run-ins with Abel.  He says: “Abel doesn’t like me much, because I made him spend his seventieth birthday in the county jail.”
He loves to make trouble to those in power.   He’s good at it. Once when the County evicted him from Kawā he planted a taro patch on the lawn in front of the big glass windows of the Mayorʻs office.  He is a political performance artist, a show-boat, an anarchist. But I’ve never heard of him doing anything low-down and dishonorable. At least recently.  Well, he used to shake down the beach visitors.  From what people have told me, including he himself, he would demand things - hoʻokupu (small offerings) like toilet paper, or money - to support his occupation.  He once asked my father if he could kill one of his cows.  My dad said no.
There was a rumor that he had murdered somebody in Honolulu a long time ago.  Thatʻs why he  holed up in Kawā in the first place.  And then somehow he decided that it was his to guard.  I would be very surprised if the rumor was true.  There is an Old Testament madness to him, but no malice and no sneakiness. He might say outrageous things about you but he’ll do it straight to your face, which is better than some people. Heʻs not a violent person - well, there was that one time that he and his sister got into a doubles wrestling match in the brackish pond with Kyle Soares and his wife.  The police had to break it up, evidently. And, well, Iʻm sure there was plenty of blame to go around on that one.  But other than that, Abel is peaceful, as far as I know.
Having named himself the konohiki, or guardian of the place, Abel lived at the beach for years, and kept a close eye on all goings on.  He was famous for confronting anyone who showed up in an official-looking vehicle and chasing them off.  As konohiki he considered it his right to do so, as they were threats to his authority.  He also grew native food plants and organized surfing contests at the beach in the heyday of his self-appointed reign as guardian.
Other people in the community had better documented familial ties to the lands of Kawā than Abel. They considered him a usurper and a fraud. Some people found his retinue of penniless hippies distasteful. But they mostly tolerated Abelʻs antics because his occupation threw a wrench in any attempt to develop Kawā and helped to maintain their native, familial claims to the land without actually having to live on the beach themselves.
Abelʻs advocacy for Kawā may have backfired on him. His term as konohiki of the beach at Kawā ended when it was purchased by the County of Hawaii for public space and natural resource preservation.   At first Abel refused to leave and there were many tense confrontations between he and his followers and County officials. Eventually Abel was evicted. On one level he failed, in that he is no longer the konohiki of Kawā. On another level he succeeded in his very failure - the public purchase of the wild beach and ancestral sites of Kawā protect it for the foreseeable future from the commercial developments that transform  shorelines all over the world into resorts and other artificial paradises.
Is Abel a saint or a fool? A visionary or a clown? One thing is clear: he long ago stopped worrying about how to make a living or being respectable or playing the game.  He gave all that up in a way that makes me slightly vertiginous just to think about.  He walks a wild edge of the mind with only the place, Kawā, to return to, to keep him centered.   He is a brave person.

Thursday, October 5, 2017

Ka'u CDP passes the County Council

The Ka'u Community Development Plan was approved yesterday by the Hawai'i County Council.  A Community Development Plan is a document that attempts to express the vision of the community as to planned development and conservation.   Our CDP has one provision that is unprecedented in Hawaii as far as I know  - a stipulation that strongly dis-encourages building within 1/4 mile of the shoreline.  It is, understandably, not a popular idea among  prospective real estate developers, but most people in Ka'u love it.  The almost entirely undeveloped shoreline of Ka'u truly is our common pride and joy; something that everyone in the district can glory in whether they are from an old Ka'u family or newly arrived, whether young or old, rich or poor.

When the Community Development Plan process started in 2008 my daughter was seven years old, a second grader, still learning to read.  Now she's doing trigonometry and driving.  How crazy is that? I'm not complaining, mind you.  I've gotten used to government stuff taking a decade or two.   Those hours of attending meetings after a long days work, the minor psychic trauma incurred  from being yelled at during contentious decisions or when people had perfectly legitimate concerns but no other venue to express them, the stacks of reading material - all of that was a privilege and an honor, as is always the case in getting to be a very small part of representative democracy.   

I am super-proud of our County for sticking up for it and for us. A lot of time we grumble about the corruption and inefficiency of government but sometimes it can be a wonderful, hopeful thing.  Not perfect, usually infuriating, but overall, a very good thing.

Friday, September 15, 2017


So, dear readers of Kuehu Lepo, the wiliwili is in blossom (which traditionally meant that it was also the time that the sharks were having their babies, so not a good time to go swimming, since mama shark in mother bear mode, not good) and I have started a new blog collective thingy called Anima/Soul: A Gathering Place. Come on over, check it out, and contribute a comment or a blog post or a quote or a photo.  No sked, do it!  :)

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

George Helm

Nohealani Kaʻawa in testimony supporting the preservation of Waikapuna quoting George Helm at the PONC (Public Access, Open Space and Natural Resouces) Commission:

A native Hawaiian man can sit on a spot at the beach and feel the ocean and the wind and sky and sense their ancestors there in that place with them, and know that they must care for the place so that their descendants can also experience these things.

A Western man will sit in the exact same place and say: “How can I make this work for me?”

(my paraphrase)
Image result for george helm

Monday, September 4, 2017

Henry Curtis in the House!

I was super-honored that Henry Curtis (who is an all-around legendary force to be reckoned with in the sustainability and energy arena here in Hawaii) attended the session I moderated at the Hawaii Ag Conference, but not only that he wrote a blog post about it.  You should read it because the three panelists that I had the honor of introducing are amazing young thinkers and do-ers. Thank you, Henry! Thank you, Life of the Land for always showing up with the hard questions for the powers that be!

Also, if you are a Ka'u person, please testify in support of the Ka'u CDP (Community Development Plan) on Wednesday, September 6 at 9:15 in person at the County Council Chambers in Hilo or by video-conference at the State Office Building in beautiful downtown Na'alehu.  The CDP will help to keep Ka'u's coastline undeveloped and its lands in agriculture.

Saturday, August 26, 2017

Never Enough

'Tis the sickness of Western civilization.  Nothing is ever enough. There always has to be more. The sickness makes us unstoppable because we cannot stop.  We always win because we cannot stop, but we can never win because it's never enough.

We have to keep building in order to keep winning. We have to have more because we have nothing.  Everything was taken before we knew what it was.  How could we know what was being taken?  How could we know that our animal bodies, mute and humble, were our greatest treasures?  How could we know that we would learn the fear of death along with our name? How could we know that every word would be a wall between us and our animal bodies?  How could we know that it was all a trap? How could we know we could get so lost?

But there is always the daylight and the night, and what we lost is right there before us, waiting for our return.

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

Borderlands II

Without realizing it you might find yourself in the borderlands between the citadel of civilization and the outer territories - those states of chaos and truth that we long ago built a wall against and left behind. It is an invisible wall, of course, a psychological wall, a wall that is as much a cutting as a building, both bulwark and wound simultaneously. It is a wall of words, and of what came before words, the first intention, the first plan of attack or of defense, the first knowledge of fear, of life and death. I want to go there, back there. You can never go back, and yet you can, not in innocence, but in a non-innocence that is neither cynical nor wise.
Our civilization wants to shut out the experience of open-ness, of open space. Cut out and box up. This is a short-term fix to our fears and anxieties. Our words harden and we forget that we live in the boxes of civilization by choice, that we choose our duration in the rooms and hallways, the enclosed mental and physical spaces, of civilization.

Say its Name, over and over again,
Naming what is beautiful and what is dark,
Standing under the mountains:
Pākua, Makanau, Kaʻiholena, Puʻuiki, Puʻuone.