Monday, May 17, 1999

By Anthony Sommer, Star-Bulletin
Hula master and composer Auntie Sarah Kailikea, 87, has
been outspoken on issues involving the state's largest Chinese
banyan tree. The banyan -- more than 100 years old -- stands
110 feet tall and has spread over 250 feet in width. In the 1970s,
Auntie Sarah and her late husband successful-ly campaigned to
have Kauai County declare it an "exceptional" tree; so when
she recently invited officials to gather by the tree, they came.

Ancient banyan
tree returns
protector’s favor

The Kauai tree serves Auntie
Sarah well, to officials' bemusement

By Anthony Sommer
Kauai correspondent


NAWILIWILI, Kauai -- "I'm not going to be like an old Hawaiian and go on and on."

That's what Auntie Sarah Kailikea promised members of the Kauai County Council and county officials as they gathered under the state's largest Chinese banyan tree a couple weeks ago.

At 87, Auntie Sarah is, of course, an elderly Hawaiian -- and she did go on and on.

But it is a measure of the respect the island's political leaders have for her that when she invites, they come, and when she talks, they listen.

Auntie Sarah is a genealogist, a hula master, a composer, a key figure in a plan to build a living replica of an early 19th-century Hawaiian village on Kauai, and a living connection to Kauai's history in the 20th century.

She is best known as the feisty and articulate protector of the immense Chinese ban-yan tree that was the centerpiece of Kauai Menehune Garden. Auntie and her late husband, Melvin, operated the garden as a tourist attraction for many years until it closed in 1992.

She's also very crafty. She can quote legal documents verbatim without ever looking at her notes -- but everything she quotes supports her position. "She has selective photographic memory," one county official says.

Ostensibly, the purpose of her gathering was to educate newly elected Council members on the threats of encroachment to the magnificent tree. Among the entourage were the mayor's chief aide, the deputy planning director, the deputy county engineer and the chief deputy county attorney.

They all trooped out to the tree and gathered in a semi-circle around Auntie Sarah. She spread out maps and pulled out documents and began holding forth.

What quickly became obvious was that she wasn't talking about the tree at all. There is, in fact, no imminent danger to the tree.

What she really had called them there for was to give her side of a fight she is having with her neighbor over storm drainage. Since everyone thought they were there to hear about the tree, no one invited the neighbor, and that side wasn't aired.

"The agenda was her drainage problem. The tree was only the venue," Deputy County Engineer Ian Costa chuckled. Costa has been assigned as the county's liaison to Auntie Sarah for the past two years. "I'm just starting to understand her," he said.

"She conned us. That old lady conned us," said another official with a mixture of bemusement and admiration.

No one really minded. They had just spent an hour with a living legend -- two living legends, if you count the tree. They reasoned that if Auntie Sarah uses the tree to her benefit, she's entitled: She's been taking care of that tree for a long time.

"It's my baby," she said of the century-old, 110-foot high, 250-foot wide tree.

The tree has more than 1,000 air roots. Auntie Sarah has calculated each air root grows at a rate of about seven inches every month. "Feed it and it just grows and grows," she said.

It's the tree's proclivity for growing that has launched Auntie Sarah on crusades before the County Council and Planning Commission.

The tree was planted some time between 1890 and 1895 by Grove Farm founder George N. Wilcox. Today it is on land owned by Banyan Harbor, a subsidiary of Security Pacific Mortgage Co.

Grove Farm still owns an easement across the property, and when the tree grew over Grove Farm's road, it was cut back. That led Auntie Sarah and her husband, who died in 1989, on a successful campaign in 1976 to have the county declare it an "exceptional" tree, which gives it legal protection against purposeful damage.

Less successful was an attempt to convince the state to buy the land the tree sits on and maintain it as a state park. Since Menehune Garden was closed, the public has not been able to view it.

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