JAMM AQUINO / JAQUINO@STARBULLETIN.COM
Students from Hakipu'u Learning Center are reflected in the taro patch water as they listen to instruction on planting huli, young taro shoots, from Tommy Young at a site in Windward Oahu. The Hakipu'u Learning Center, a public charter school located on the campus of Windward Community College, is collaborating with a statewide kalo farmers group called 'Onipa'a Na Hui Kalo, and is promoting the growth, cultivation, and knowledge of planting taro in the traditional Hawaiian way.
Rebirth of taro
Students and experts in Hawaiian culture restore a kalo patch on land in Kaneohe
In a single day recently, 200 people converted a gnarly jungle of hau trees and thick undergrowth to a working taro patch.
Men, women and children traveled from every island in the state to Windward Oahu for the job.
It was the annual project of 'Onipa'a Na Hui Kalo, a statewide affiliation of taro farmers who seek to perpetuate the ancient art of growing wetland kalo.
The future of the small loi, planted in several varieties of taro, is now in the hands of students at the Hakipu'u Learning Center.
The public charter school housed on the campus of Windward Community College has a dual focus of Hawaiian and environmental studies, which makes caring for the loi perfect for them, said Calvin Hoe, a Hawaiian taro farmer and teacher who assists with the school program.
"We had a nice gang come -- Molokai people, Maui, Kauai, Big Island. It was nice," Hoe said of the October workday on Kamehameha Schools property on the outskirts of Kaneohe. "We got a lot of work done."
The location of the old loi was found using archaeological reports.
Some preliminary work clearing trails and cutting down larger trees had been done to ensure safety. But the bulk of the work was a one-day wonder, Hoe said.
On that day, one team experienced in taro irrigation set up a combination of existing auwai, or ditches, with polyvinyl chloride piping to get water to the site.
Another group cut and carried brush from the loi. Others prepared the ground. After the field was flooded with water in the afternoon, everyone helped plant huli, or young taro shoots.
One participant told Sharon Spencer, a social worker at the Windward Oahu Queen Liliuokalani Children's Center, which was part of the project: "In the morning it was a forest. By the afternoon it was a garden. By late afternoon, it was a loi. It was amazing."
Just a week later, when additional huli were added to the loi, taro farmer Tommy Young, who also assists with the school program, was thrilled to see how well the first transplants had already taken hold.
Wearing a black T-shirt that read "Our land, our legacy," Young, who is Hawaiian, guided the Hakipu'u students in planting the young taro in a spacing that allows each plant to have adequate room to grow. The spacing also allows farmers room to walk in the loi between them, without damaging roots.
"That's your big brother," Young said of the taro. "To step on your big brother's toe is not a good thing."
In the traditional Hawaiian creation story, the first-born child of two Hawaiian gods was stillborn, but when planted in the earth became the first taro plant, a staple of the Hawaiian diet. According to the story, the couple's second child became the originator of the Hawaiian people.
"It doesn't have to be perfect, but try see how neat you can be," Young instructed.
The power of sharing and community is a hallmark of 'Onipa'a, the taro farmers' group. Past workdays to revive ancient taro patches have been held at Halawa Valley on Molokai, Kohala and Waipio on the Big Island, Waialua and Waiahole on Oahu, Waialua Nui on Maui, and Anahola and Ke e on Kauai.
Gwen Kim, Windward unit manager for the Queen Liliuokalani Children's Center, which also participated in the recent Kaneohe restoration, said the projects are an example of "hana kalima," many hands working together. "Everyone was enjoying themselves, but they worked very hard," she said.
At the loi, said Hakipu'u student Louis Soares, "we learn a lot about hard work -- that's really important. And we learn how culture of taro is a really big part of Hawaiian culture.
"Taro is a food source," Soares said, "but it's also like our elder brother."