This month’s installment of “Pe‘ahi Stories” continues our commitment to becoming more intimate with The Merwin Conservancyʻs home place, and to connect with neighbors, historians, and teachers across time so that we may better understand the layers of history held here. Our intention, to become more thoughtful stewards. There’s also a hope that, as people relatively new to Pe‘ahi, our surroundings will become further animated with meaning–the kind that reaches far into the past and will help us determine our collective futures.
In a recent entry in this series, W.S. Merwin’s published poetry became a primary source document, one that tells of his journeys in the now empty Pe‘ahi Stream. Since the Merwins’ home and garden transferred to the Conservancy’s care in January 2020, we have uncovered at least six decades’ worth of history in the form of correspondence, unpublished poems, compiled research, journals, and more. The Conservancy’s staff has archived these papers, and continues to learn from them.
Recently we opened one of William’s composition notebooks, this one titled “Gardening in the Dark #1”– a kind of gardening journal. These hand-written entries begin on Thursday, October 14, 2010, shortly after the Conservancy was founded, with William acknowledging the place he calls home, sharing his intimate connection with its name, and the little that is known about the name Peʻahi.
He begins with a passionately protective statement about his home place:
This is Peahi. It is a name that I have known, and pronounced, to myself and others, fondly and with a sense of intimacy, rather as one would pronounce the name of one’s mother or of anyone close and closely held. A name with a life and privacy of its own.”
“In recent years, very recent, I have come to use the name, except among friends, with a certain wariness because it has been scooped up and attached to a latter-day scheme to commodify the coast along to the north, and a few miles to the west of here. That area, no more than a couple of miles from coast road to cliff edge, had been vaguely referred to as Peahi in some generations but it was the restless rapacity for “real” estate development, quickened by the new celebrity of the huge surf off the cliffs to the west of us, and the filming of famous surfers some of whom lived not far away, that have unfortunately put the name of Peahi “on the map” as a label for these exploitations and their publicity.
In our conversations with neighbors in recent months of Pe‘ahi Stories connections, talk story gatherings, and correspondence, we find that many in this region share William’s sentiments. Pe‘ahi is a place that has withstood development for many years, in the face of great change, with encroachment accelerating in recent decades.
William continues to reveal what he knows of the name:
“But this is Peahi. This silent streambed where water was cut off in the nineteenth century by the sugar-planters and where rocks and soundless echo I fell in love with thirty five years ago are Peahi Stream, Peahi Kahawai [sic]. The planters and the developers used the ugly, contemptuous word “gulch” for the streambeds of the islands, a word from the American mining camps of the nineteenth century, an earlier ruthless despoiling of the earth for something else. The Hawaiian word kahawai means watercourse and this is Peahi Kahawai. Hawaiians lived here, somewhere along the watercourse, when there was water in it. The valley spirit has not left it, and I believe I owe the garden to it.
It has been a long time since anyone knew what the name means, apart from the watercourse. The name means a fan, a brush, a signal, a beacon, a winnow (presumably a basket or similar shallow container for winnowing). Their meanings are listed in the authoritative Hawaiian-English Dictionary compiled by Mary Kawena Pukui and Samuel H. Elbert, first published in 1957. Mary Kawena Pukuiʻs Place Names of Hawaiʻi, first published in 1966 does not even list Peahi, stream or land section. Harry Mitchell, the old poet, song-writer, story-teller, repository of legends and ancient chants, and the last man on this coast who had been hanai’d in the traditional way, in which a first born son was given to his grandparents to be taught all that they knew of the ancient lore and traditions, once compiled a series of historical resumée of every of the kahawai on the northeast coast of Maui from Hana to Maliko, with the legends and chants from each of them. He did it, he told me, to give to the church at Keanae, his native village, to keep a record, but apparently it has been thrown away or lost since his death in 1989. It may have contained something about Peahi that no one knows anymore…but the meaning of the name, except for designating this place, is gone.”
This missing history, compiled by Harry Kunihi Mitchell, indeed a legend himself, could explain why our partners at Kumupono Associates, Kepā and Onaona Maly, uncovered very few mo‘olelo and scant instances of the place name Pe‘ahi in primary source texts, and that most references found were of the descriptive word pe‘ahi (meaning to beckon, or to wave with a hand) in old poetic texts.
The trace of Pe‘ahi’s naming may no longer be present in the written record, but the essence that gave rise to the name can never be lost. While the history may be gone, the meaning remains and it is all around us, still alive, still in this valley and others like it, waiting for us to reawaken our intimacies.
This program is made possible in part by funding from Hawaiʻi Council of the Humanities through the Sustaining the Humanities through the American Rescue Plan (SHARP) with funds from the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) and the federal American Rescue Plan (ARP) Act.Any views, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this series, do not necessarily represent those of the National Endowment for the Humanities.