I begin, as I so often do, with wonder. I am sitting here on the breakfast lanai, where William so often sat, looking out at a tall palm—a native loulu, or Pritchardia. Each time I pause in this place, I am drawn into a perpetually unfolding conversation between house and garden, language and land, palms and poems, past and present. Today it’s this striking loulu that pulls me in. I’ve been reading quite a lot about Hawaiʻi’s native genus of palms—particularly the three west Maui species—in these months since the fires, as many begin to imagine a revitalized Lāhainā treescape. Don Hodel’s 2012 book Loulu: The Hawaiian Palm, for which W.S. Merwin drafted the foreword, is lately close at hand. William’s introductory remarks begin with a disclaimer:
“I am not a scientist of any kind but a writer and amateur gardener.”
I’ve encountered the disclaimer before. Three years ago, in the early days of our stewardship, in the attic we found a cache of letters to and from botanists, seed collectors, palm experts and enthusiasts the world over. The correspondence, dating from the late 1980s and early 1990s, retraces the story of the garden becoming itself. Most of William’s letters begin something like this:
“My love of the natural world, the tropics, forests and gardens and palms is that of a rather ignorant amateur, learning as he goes.”
Here in the foreword to Hodel’s book, amateur perspective established, William writes about the very palm before me, and from this very spot on the breakfast lanai:
“When I look up from the table every morning that I have the good fortune to be at home on Maui, I see outside the window the early daylight reflected by all the subtle greens and gray-greens of a broadleaf palm. The huge, pleated, fan-shaped fronds spread out to fringes of long, slender, pointed ribbons, and their shapes keep waving shadows across the leaves under them.”
As it happens, I’ve encountered this loulu elsewhere on the page, in a letter dated just about the time of its planting. Among the papers found in the attic, we came across a typewritten letter drafted in October 1989, and an accompanying “OUTLINE OF A PROJECT TO SAVE THE HAWAIIAN PRITCHARDIAS.” The proposal begins:
“For much of the past fifteen years I have studied the culture and language of the islands where I have the good fortune to live, and for much of the past decade I have been interested in finding, protecting, and propagating different species of Hawaiian flora – natives.”
William mentions the young native palms he planted in his early days in Peʻahi, and his realization over time, learning as he went, that these had been grown not from wild seed, but rather ex cult–from trees already growing in gardens. “It began to seem ridiculous,” he wrote, “to be living in the islands where the palms are native and to have so little to do with them in their natural state.” From here, William begins to sketch an outline of a collective effort among land stewards, scientists, conservationists and gardeners alike, one that would “include the collecting of wild seed and growing of seedlings, some for horticultural propagation and some for planting at sites [in the wild] once they have been adequately protected.”
The narrative that follows invokes the risk of hybridization, “greater depending on the distance in time and in generations from the wild seed;” the precarity of several endangered species of loulu; the threat of pigs, goats, cattle and rats; and the near inaccessibility of the relatively (or very) few individuals of some species still thriving in the wild: “Given the appalling history of the treatment of the land and the life on it in the islands, that is probably the only thing that has allowed the present species to survive at all.”
William’s outline concludes:
“I hope that if such a project were once well started it would come to include a small group of devoted individuals who would want to continue to contribute to it.”
Thirty-four years later, nearly to the day, I sit on the lanai overlooking this loulu, and wonder into whose mailboxes this outline, drafted by a passionate amateur, made its way. I know that for centuries before and decades since, many extraordinary people, families, communities, and organizations have been dedicated to the critical work of protecting native species; in recent months I have had the good fortune of speaking with and learning from a few of those leading the way today. As a west Maui “Loulu Project” coalesces as but a small part of a collective effort, it is yet unclear what shape it will take, if and how our efforts to contribute to a thriving treescape may have further conservation value for loulu. But I feel certain that a contribution on any scale, inspired in part by an archival find and shaped by many brilliant minds across and beyond the islands, will carry forward—and amplify—an impulse to participate in the well-being of this place, and of the living things that thrive here. Learning as we go.
Here we share the efforts of just a few of the extraordinary people and organizations working toward a revitalized Lāhainā treescape, and well beyond. Maui County Arborist Committee Chairman Duane Sparkman is bringing together a coalition of organizations to save and water trees that burned in the fires, and to propagate a range of native and canoe plants as part of the nascent Lāhainā Treescape Restoration Project. Hōkūau Pelegrino of Nohoʻana Farmis heading up efforts to save Lāhainā’s pre-contact ʻulu, or breadfruit trees, and to feed displaced families. Laukahi, the Hawaiʻi Plant Conservation Network, is a voluntary alliance of agencies, organizations and individuals aiming to protect Hawai‘i’s rare plant species through coordinated conservation efforts. The Plant Extinction Prevention Program (PEP) works tirelessly to protect Hawaiʻiʻs rarest plant species.