This week at the airport, a woman in front of me got pulled out of the TSA line and her black ukulele case unzipped on a stainless steel table. She wasn’t asked to play music, but to explain the crystalized contents of a plastic bag.
I recognized the Ziploc bag of pink, chunky salt as soon as the TSA agent plucked it out of a zippered pocket, and I was immediately taken back to last week’s Hawaii Conservation Conference. In particular, the remarks of one woman.
Sometimes I feel like my brain is the inner workings of a combination lock. Thoughts happily spin around all my life feeling whole and complete when seemingly out of nowhere, a different order of words click into place and just like that, a sparkly, new idea is freed from my mind.
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Malia Nobrega-Olivera unlocked an idea for me when she spoke on a plenary session entitled, “Navigating Change: A Dialogue with Island Leaders on Climate Change.”
She began with a Hawaiian chant, the first two words easily translatable even by a non-Hawaiian like me: aloha `aina. Simply, a love and respect for the land.
Malia followed with her genealogy. Switching to English, she explained that she was from the community of Hanapepe on the west side of the Hawaiian Island of Kauai. She talked about the Hawaiian idea of pilina, which she translated to English as “relationship.”
“In the work that I do I have always been reminded to pilina the `aina,” she said. “My ohana, we are people of the `aina, salt practitioners.”
She said she belongs to one of about 30 families that continue a cultural practice not found anywhere else in Hawaii. Each family tends to a saltpan, the rights to work it and the know-how to do so coming from a legacy handed down through generations of Hawaiians.
“When I share my mo`olelo, story, people wonder why I get involved in climate change, and I tell them that my mo`olelo comes from generations before me. But when I look at my lifetime alone, 43 years, climate change is having an impact on this particular cultural practice of salt making. In my lifetime alone, yes, we’ve had very productive summers where we would harvest 75 gallon buckets of pa`a kai, sea salt, in one harvest, but yet in my lifetime, I know of two recent summers where our ohana has not been able to continue this practice because of flooding. With sea level rise, the whole place gets flooded. With increased rain that happens, it’s having a direct impact on our cultural practices.”
I watched Malia as she spoke, her visage projected on two big screens in the oversized meeting room, and I could see as she reached up to wipe a tear away from one eye.
“I don’t know what my life is like without being a salt practitioner,” she said. “What happens when I am not able to continue that?”
Somewhere in these sentences I began to understand something in a new way. A thought clicked into place the way the last swing of a dial opens a lock. It’s not just enough to clean up our beaches, to figure out ways to keep plastic out of our environment, to reduce the number of feral cats killing our ground-nesting seabirds, to put up fences in the mountains to keep pigs and goats from eating our native plants, to eradicate invasive plants from our forests, and even to re-forest tracts of lands used for grazing cattle for the past century. That is, it’s not enough to aloha the aina. The conservation of Hawaii relies on the preservation of cultural practices intimately tied to a place. I see this in the tears on Malia’s face. I see this in the pride of my husband’s co-worker when he hands over a precious bag of salt that his family harvested from the very same centuries-old salt ponds as Malia’s has. I saw this in the joy of the women beating kapa, bark cloth, in Nu`alolo Kai where I spent a long weekend recently.
There are Hawaiian communities where the relationship to the land is strong, and in almost every example I can think of, there is a strong tie to a cultural practice, as well. Sadly, there are many Hawaiian communities where the relationship to the `aina has gotten lost through the generations, and I see a higher number of people in those communities lost, as well. Maybe a practice was outlawed. Maybe the productive taro fields went dry. Maybe the fishponds got contaminated. Maybe technology of some kind made us lazy. But for the benefit of us all, Hawaiians and non-Hawaiians alike, we need to resurrect cultural practices that are intricately tied to a specific place. I get how important that is now.
And it’s not just a concept that works in Hawaii but worldwide. If we go back far enough, we all have our own mo’olelo tied to the ‘aina. I spent my childhood summers on my grandparents’ farms. One cousin now kayak-fishes in Florida. Another just put in an elaborate garden on his property in Colorado. And I, as you know from reading this blog, spend plenty of time wildlife watching. Just this week, I went in search of a rare bird in Haleakala National Park on Maui. Fishing. Gardening. Bird watching. These are things we all did with my grandparents in Missouri.
Malia finished her remarks with: “For me, any new bold policies and actions need to come from a place based in culture and that cultural narrative needs to say things like restore, respect, replenish. It needs to replace the narrative of dominate, deplete and destroy. And I have to reiterate that intimate pilina we need to have to the `aina.”
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I watched as the TSA agent tucked the bag of salt back into a pocket and handed it and the ukulele case to the woman. I re-packed my laptop and clear bag of liquids into my own case, put my shoes back on, hefted my backpack, and boarded my plane.
As life in Hawaii would have it, the ukulele-toting woman sat across the aisle from me. After she carefully stowed her ukulele in the bin above us, she turned to me. “A visit to Salt Pond?” I asked.
She smiled. “Yes.”