Hapu’u. Tree Fern. This was the name given to me. I liked the idea of being a tree fern, unraveling fronds towering over human heads, growing upwards steadily towards the canopy, towards light, the soft furry pulu shedding off of me, glistening a golden orange-brown through the crack of shade in this dense Ohia Lehua forest, with their bright red and yellow flowers shooting out like fireworks frozen in mid-burst. The canopy is full of sounds; a biophony. I am standing in the middle of a kipuka, this particular one is called Puaulu, a small patch of forest that stands isolated in the middle of an old frozen lava flow. It is an island of sorts, somehow untouched during the eruption that covered this side of Hawaii with molten smooth rock, pahoi hoi, like syrup on pancakes.

The air is thick with mist. The sounds of birds resonate through the kipuka in mysterious ways. I am focused on a Hapu’u standing tall in front of me, trying to notice its detail. The large fronds radiate out from its thick stump creating an understory of canopy. Some of the fronds have snapped and point downwards making the tree fern into an hourglass shape.

            January 06th, 2010

            Arial RootsThe ferns are a rusty color at the base, with a furry texture covering it. The rainforest consists mostly of these tree ferns. The Ohia Lehua trees form and enclose the canopy. Some of the trees release a hanging reddish-brown collection of aerial roots, a defense mechanism that is activated if the tree is somehow damaged. Ohia refers to the tree, lehua to the blossoms.

I take out my tiny sketchbook and make an attempt at drawing this giant fern. It is the first time I’ve seen one. They are everywhere, dominating the mid canopy, shading, protecting.

Today is full of first times. I am marveling at it all. The group is far ahead of me on the trail. I stop every step, noticing a new plant foreign and unfamiliar to me, beautiful to me. Everything is so different here. There are large cavities in the ground where the soil collapsed because of an absence of support beneath the old lava rock. The land here is not very stable. It is not so old as it is periodically covered with lava, as the island swells and grows, and erupts. My skin begins to breathe, sweating, opening up to the humidity. Rain falls softly and shyly.  A pheasant comes bursting out of the brush and over my head, a great flash of blue and black. The size of the canopy and many birds residing in this Kipuka means that this forest is very old. I think about what it must have been like before the latest lava came barreling down out of one of the volcanic shafts that connects to the deep magma chamber. Hawaii is but 0.6 million years old, making it the newest land formation on the earth. In fact, some might say that it is still 0 years old since the land is actually still forming, fed by a hot spot deep in the mantle layer. Inevitably, someday, this kipuka will come crashing down, only to rise up again.

Yesterday I landed by plane 2,390 miles from California; 3,850 miles from Japan; 4,900 miles from China; and 5,280 miles from the Philippines. I am Lehuastanding in an island within an island, isolated by lava that is isolated by a great ocean. I take a deep breath in and look up at all the life existing in the canopy. I walk out to the edge of the Kipuka and the frozen lava flow. Standing between these two worlds I begin to contemplate the balances of life. All this life somehow made it to the most isolated place on the planet, all this life finding ways into every corner of the earth.

I look down at my hands and examine the grooves sketched in my palm. I focus my eyes at the cracks in my skin. I wonder who I am. I wonder how life came to together to create me. Was I once just a mere bare rock that emerged from the ocean, born into the turbulent exposure of the world, growing and filling with life?


Tuesday, January 9th, 2010

            It was the most pretty and mystical walk yet, with the sound of hundreds of birds chirping, the giant Acacia Koa and Ohia trees, some of which are joined together near the base of the trunk forming wild structures. The most mystical aspect of it all was the Ki plants that sprout up tall, then bloom long glossy leaves that are used in a variety of ceremonial ways. The ki plant was introduced by ancient Polynesians, and is part of the lily family. It is considered sacred to the Hawaiian god, Lono, and to the goddess of the hula, Laka and was used by the kahuna priests in their ancient religious ceremonial rituals as protection to ward off evil spirits and to call in good.

Hapu’u means ‘breath of the hill’. The young hapu’u grows upward until it is too heavy to support itself, at which point it cracks, splits, and falls over. New roots spring from the fallen trunk, and again it grows towards the sun. Again gravity pulls it back to the ground, and so on… this cycle continues, like long slow breathing. I came to Hawaii to reach out towards the sun, to feel alive, to get away from the confusion I faced daily back at home, and school. I arrived to the program silent and shy, raveled up like the new fronds of a fern, hidden from the other members of the program. As Americanized as this Island has become, Hawaii felt foreign to me, and very magical.

Next Chapter – Pele

(Read the whole essay here)


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