I love arboretums, so when I got the chance to join a guided tour of a local Honolua Ridge Trail to the watershed view at the Puʻu Kaʻeo Lookout, I jumped on it. This was not just any guided tour, though I didn’t know it at the time. What I did know was that my guide was from Jean-Michel Cousteau’s Ambassadors of the Environment program. To join this walk I had to opt out of our tweet-up. (Yes, I was bummed and excited at the same time.)
When I got to the Ritz where the Ambassadors of the Environment center is hosted, I walked downhill and across the lawn to the Center located down by the beach. While there, I spoke briefly with the Ambassadors of Education Program Director Ashley Carroll and asked her about what they were doing. She explained,
The mission of Jean-Michel Cousteau’s Ambassadors of the Environment program is to explore local ecosystems through creative education, demonstrating the critical connection between humanity and nature, and celebrating biodiversity’s vital importance to the survival of all life on our planet. Almost all cultures have in some way or form recognized the importance that nature, and its biological diversity has had upon them and the need to maintain it.
Hawaiian traditions establish a mutual relationship between living systems and people. Hawaiian culture evolved in the embrace of native ecosystems. As a result, Hawaiians developed an intimate relationship with their natural setting, marked by profound appreciation, understanding, and respect of these places. Exploring the Hawaiian relationship to the land reveals a service relationship; not land serving people, but people serving the land.
That’s a little different than what most people seem to think these days! I was happy to have the opportunity to learn some of this history and appreciation first hand, and especially to be guided by someone who grew up with this wisdom.
My tour was just my guide Linda Nakagawa and me. Linda grew up in this rainforest, and the amount of information that she knew was extraordinary. Every turn we took, she had new stories to educate me on native (Moa, ‘A’ali’i, and Uluhe) and endemic (only found here on this island, like Koa, Olopua, Manono, and Ti) plants.
Linda also told me about several invasive plants, which early in the trail looked controllable. The deeper in we walked, the more I realized that those invasive plants were really taking over and there was no clear way to limit their spread. Native plants didn’t stand a chance, and were slowly being wiped out. Even across the watershed, the colors of green along the hillsides revealed the takeover.
Our hike was 1.25 miles uphill to the lookout. This rainforest is one of the wettest spots on the planet, getting 325 inches of rain at the summit. Our walk was not in the rain, but the winds did their best to be heard and felt all along the way. Linda explained that many of the native plants were part of how the ancient Hawaiʻians use to live, practicing sustainability of land and resources from the mountain to the sea. This thread continues today; Linda says that “we try to see what we can conserve now for future generations. The ocean is like a bit refrigerator, it’s just a matter of knowing what to get and when” in order to keep resources available.
History has much to teach us. For example, net fishing would bring in a haul that could be divided among members of the community. People would gather and share to live off the land. Consequences for doing the wrong thing were severe; you could lose your life. Their way of living, everything they did was part of this practice. People depended on each other and their skills. They depended on the resources of the land, and were careful stewards of those resources. For example, if sails on canoes got holes, specially designated people would go in the mountains and use specific plants to heal and patch the sails.
I asked Linda what she thought we needed to do differently. “We need to start doing more education of the kids. Start having more farms, more local resources grown and used on the islands. Only take what you need.” Practical advice, backed up by long native history. Later, Program Director Ashley put it nicely:
To protect the relevance of biodiversity, Jean Michel Cousteau’s Ambassadors of the Environment program has chosen to take a lesson from the ancient culture of the Hawaiian Islands. Through natural adventures that create an intimate relationship with nature and educating on how nature works not only advances an appreciation for the value of our natural heritage but also help guide the next generation to live more sustainably on the earth.