In balance with nature—it is what we continue to envision and champion in our work everyday; a summing-up that speaks to a lifeway very much rooted in the culture that came out of this place we call home.
Hawaiʻiʻs people have a long and rich history of living, working, and thriving in balance with nature.
To unlock just how our kūpuna, our ancestors, were able to live in this way, we have to first begin to relearn the way in which they saw the natural world, and, in turn, their relationship to it. For starters, there is no word in our ʻōlelo, in the Hawaiian language, that means environment or nature. This lapse in lexicon denotes, not an incomplete way of seeing, but an expansive one - a beautiful testament to the way in which Hawaiians see ourselves: Deeply embedded in, and indistinguishable from, everything around us.
One of our most beloved scholars, Mary Kawena Pukuʻi, explained that “to comprehend the psyche of our old Hawaiians, it is necessary to enlarge the implications of the ʻrelationshipʻ beyond the limitations of the ʻinterpersonal.’ The subjective relationships that dominate the Polynesian psyche are with all nature, in its totality, and all its parts.”
From a deep sense of environmental kinship, came expansive land stewardship practices. Land was managed through a strict system of land division, called the ahupuaʻa system, where each segment of land was kept in balance from the uplands all the way down to the plains and out to near-shore fisheries. Forests were stratified and named and were increasingly kapu, or prohibited, as they ascended in elevation, keeping critical watersheds inaccessible and intact.
This intimacy with the environment not only informed robust forest management practices, but agricultural ones as well. Between 1300 AD and European contact in 1778, Hawaiʻi went through a period of pronounced agricultural production.
A growing body of archaeological evidence tells the story of highly innovative food systems built to support a booming human population (about half of Hawaiʻiʻs current size according to conservative estimates) through a deep understanding of the intricacies and interconnectivity of land, sea, and the movement of water throughout.
The Kohala Field system, for example, is one of the most expansive prehistoric agricultural features in the world, made up of over 500 miles of dense and intricate networks of field walls and paved trails. This dryland field system was devised for sweet potatoes that averaged an estimated 66% higher yields per acre than Hawaiʻiʻs current average sweet potato yields, on land that ranged from too wet to too dry that was buffeted constantly by the famously strong Kohala winds—and all without a drop of herbicide.
This kind of innovation was evident throughout Hawaiian agriculture—from taro complexes to long coastal stretches of fishponds. To maximize yields, a prolific amount of crop cultivars were designed, and planting was coordinated with certain seasons and lunar cycles: Four nights of waxing crescent for planting sweet potato and taro - Kūkahi, Kūlua, Kūkolu, Kūpau; three nights of waning crescent for banana and sugarcane - Kāloakūkahi, Kāloakūlua, Kāloapau; four full moons for all manner of fruit; for anything you could want to plant - a moon. Fishing, too, was timed by the moon, and fish species important for food were placed under strict seasonal harvesting.
When asked in a recent interview how we apply innovation through cultural values in our work, we couldnʻt help but point out that innovation IS a cultural value, one that our kūpuna practiced daily to feed a large population base with incredibly finite resources, whilst staying in balance with the natural world—a world in which they were deeply imbedded, a world populated throughout with elements, animals, flora and fauna, that were all looked to as kin, as ʻohana.
Finding ways to live and work in better balance with nature is not only possible – as evidenced in our language, in our ancient demarcations of forest and field and fishery—it is quickly becoming our only way forward.
Me ke aloha ʻāina,