Natural history is a proud tradition in Hawaii schools
Students in Hawaii receive an early introduction to natural history. From preschool through high school, they learn songs, chants and dances of Hawaii that celebrate island birds, insects, plants, limu, land and sea critters.
Coming from Georgia, where students were taught to stand straight, stand still and sing about the state bird few had ever seen, this got my attention.
There was no TV reception on the North Shore in the early 1970s, so we learned the old-fashioned way: from books, recordings in libraries, Hawaiiana experts who held classes at Kahana Bay, adult community-education classes, hula/chant classes funded by Hawaiian civic clubs and the state Foundation on Culture and Arts. Kumu Betty Jenkins, then teaching at Haleiwa Elementary School, was influencing generations of students and working to build the kupuna program in schools statewide to share Hawaiian language, culture and dance.
The first class in Hawaiian chant and dance, funded by the Foundation on Culture and Arts in the early 1970s, has become an annual opportunity.
At one of the first statewide conferences, we found ourselves sitting on the floor of Nona Beamer's classroom, learning a chant about a plover, a fern and land shells. In that classroom, high above the city at Kamehameha Schools, the echo of the two wooden sticks accompanying the chant -- wood upon wood of the kala'au -- seemed to linger an incredibly long time after each verse.
We got it: It was more than singing, more than trying to keep moving in the right direction. It was about listening, observing -- really observing and appreciating every living thing. It was this attention to the natural environment, passed from generation to generation through music and dance, that impressed this nature lover. (Only in Hawaii would fascination with local music and dance lead to a degree in the natural sciences.)
As we learned the short mele "Kahuli Aku," we were taken back to a time when people made the effort to observe and sing about land shells, a beautiful fern ('akolea), and a golden plover (kolea). These were lessons for a lifetime.
Earlier this month, we lost the beautiful voice and sunshine smile of Nona Beamer, just as our kolea were also preparing to leave on their annual migration to the North Pacific. Aunty Nona used to remind us that we would see the kolea again in a few months.
The lessons of nature she and her gifted family wrote and sang remain with us -- continuing to remind young and old to stop and look -- really look -- and listen ... and to celebrate all the gifts of nature that can be seen, heard, embraced in this unique island chain.
It's time to sing the praises of all who have introduced generations of Hawaii students to the natural world around us -- whether through song and dance -- or just taking the time to take us on walks and hikes.
COURTESY C. IMADA
The 'akolea fern was used by ancient Hawaiians in leis, and its shoots were eaten. It was also mixed with other foods to treat loss of appetite and to help during childbirth.
Kahuli aku, Kahuli mai
Kahuli lei 'ula, lei 'akolea
Kolea, kolea ki'i i ka wai
Wai 'akolea, wai 'akolea
Landshells far, landshells near
Red kahuli lei, 'akolea lei
Plover, plover: Fetch the dew
Dew from the 'akolea, dew from the 'akolea
Source: "E Himeni Hawai'i Kakou (Let's Sing Hawaiian Songs)," compiled in l973 by Noelani Kanoho Mahoe for the 1973 Governor's Committee on Hawaiian Text Materials
Wednesday, May 7, 2008
Helen Desha Beamer and Winona Beamer set the traditional mele “Kahuli Aku Kahuli Mai” to music. This story originally stated that the Beamers wrote the chant.
teaches botany, ethnobotany and environmental science at Chaminade University. Her column runs on the last Monday of the month. E-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org