Yeah, but...I'm not listening
Updated: Apr 12
A Hanapepe chicken
Hello! I'm writing the second installment of the Dumpster Diaries from the island of Kauai, which sits on the western end of the Hawaiian archipelago. Like many people who come here on vacation, I came to Hawai'i seeking peace and quiet. I wanted a place with immense natural beauty, great hikes, great beaches, and delicious food. Kauai has all of this, and of the Hawaiian islands is one of the more "chill" and less crowded. But after getting to our motel at midnight last Thursday, eagerly anticipating sleeping in for the first time in at least a year, I was awoken well before sunrise by a loud and incredibly close guffaw of a rooster, who, I soon found out was hunting for worms right outside my window. His cry kicked off a steady fugue of cock-a-doodling that continued well past mid-morning: roosters in Kauai, apparently, crow the whole day long. They're joined by a host of other local fowl, some of whom after a rainfall awake even before the roosters, chirping and cawing as they claw the soil for worms as they dip in the marsh for grub. Kauai is anything but quiet.
Nicknamed "the garden island," Kauai teems with wildlife. A huge swath of the northwestern region is all forest preserves or state parks, and 12 miles of its protected Nā Pali coastline are accessible only by boat. Since arriving here one week ago, I've gotten up close and personal with spinner dolphins, wild orchids, a monk seal, sea turtles, lizards, centipedes, and coral; ducked beneath the branches of abundant plumeria, hibiscus, noni, breadfruit, guava and coconut trees; glimpsed muscovy ducks, red crested cardinals, peacocks and peahens, brown footed boobies, black noodles, white tailed tropicbirds, and many more lifeforms whose names I didn't know. While the haole [someone who is not a native Hawaiian, used most often to describe white people] tourists and the occasional monk seal lay idle on the sand, the rest of Kauai's creatures are bustling from dawn till dusk. But what a haole like me hears as a glorious, raucous chorus of life is actually a decrescendo: Hawai'i is now nicknamed the "extinction capitol of the world" because of how many of its species are endangered and require protected habitats. Soon, without deliberate and immense measures, Kauai will become much quieter and much less diverse. The cause of this acceleration towards extinction is clear: the destruction of local habitats through the introduction of diseases and new species by Europeans, and more recently pollution, real estate development, tourism and commercial fishing. This is not the first time Kauai has seen its ecosystem threatened or decimated. When Captain Cook landed on the western coast of Kauai in modern-day Waimea in 1778, the population of the archipelago was approximately 300,000 people. By the mid-nineteenth century, 40,000 native Hawaiians remained after European diseases killed nearly 90% of the population. The islands' devastation is fairly easy for tourists to miss, what with all the clinking mai tais, whooshing surf, and adorable chickens. After all, how could the silence of the dead speak louder than the living? A few days before I came to Hawai'i, I was invited to participate in a workshop with a group of local performance artists. The theme of the new project is silence, and so the four of us met in one of our apartments to pass an hour in silence, and afterwards to discuss. During out post-silence conversation, one collaborator described a recent reading he had done on the silence of the archives. The example given was the exhaustive list of the identification numbers of Holocaust victims, and the ghostly feeling of the names, faces, and memories those numbers omit. Their absence is palpable. You can feel what you're missing, you can sense what you'll never know all the while pouring over the stubbornly mute archives. The inability of the archives to convey any of that feels like a violence all its own. But another collaborator countered that just because something is missing from the archives doesn't mean it isn't there or can't be found. It just can't be found there. People of color, queer people, indigenous people, they argued, keep alive, guard, and tend to the stories, spirits, memories, practices and knowledge that the archive redacts. The ghosts are still singing, they said. You just have to know how to listen.
Photo - Two flags anchored in an ahu stone pile (explained below): one of the Hawaiian sovereign kingdom, and the other a flag that is said to pre-date the monarchy. Near Salt Pond Beach in Hanapepe.
Photo - A close-up of the sign posted above the ahu, explaining its significance as a traditional property identification marker.
Driving out to the Waimea Canyon last night, my partner remarked that he'd seen a lot of Hawaiian flags hoisted upside down. A simple Google search will tell you that an upside down flag is a signal of a nation in distress. In the case of Hawaii, it is a "silent" protest to American occupation. I wonder how many visitors here do that Google search, or recognize these signs of protest as they drive down to the beach. On Saturday, walking from the car to enjoy the sunset on Polihale beach, we were walking past a tailgating party of locals. Our most direct path seemed to be just past their line of tents, and as we were headed that way I thought I heard someone say "Don't come through here." Assuming they weren't talking to us, since we were going next to their camp, D and I kept walking until we heard a little kid say "Why aren't they listening?," at which point we re-directed our steps.
Kauai's history continues to live and speak through its people. But very few outsiders who come hear seem to know how to listen. Mid-way on our hike along the Kalalau trail, my partner was trying to get me to eat more snacks. An experienced outdoors person and hiker, D was adamant I put a little more food on board before we shoved off.
"But you love gummy bears," D reminded me.
"Yeah, but I want to save those as a treat for when we get to the falls," I said.
"Yeah, but you should snack here. You need your sugar,"
"I already had a pb & j. I'm good," I insisted.
"Yeah, but...I'm not listening..."
The minute D said this we both erupted in laughter. We are both, admittedly, quite stubborn. And both, admittedly, recovering know-it-alls. I can't count the number of times we've realized we've totally missed the other's cues or perspectives, so intent we were on driving through with our own. That half-joke has become a refrain I hear in my head whenever I learn something new about the annexation of Hawai'i, or hear about efforts led by local activists to preserve locals' fishing reefs from tourism and sport fishing. It's the unconscious slogan of haole history on Kauai: "Yeah, but...we're not listening." Alongside this haole mantra, two Hawaiian words also echo in my mind as a stark contrast. The first is 'ohana, which is usually translated as "family." But as a Hawaiian teen, who was also a crew member on a boat ride we took to the Nā Pali Coast, told us, 'ohana means much more. Keanu told us he loved watching Lilo and Stitch as a kid, and loved it especially for its definition of 'ohana. " 'Ohana means family," the show instructs, "and family means no one is left behind." The second word is kuleana, a Hawaiian word meaning something between rights, responsibilities, and place. The notion is complex in translation, so I'll leave it to local scholar Mehana Blaich Vaughan to explain:
In Hawaiian, one word, kuleana, means rights as well as responsibilities... Prior to 1850, kuleana were 'plots of land given, by the governing ali'i [ruling chiefs] of an area or the king himself, to an 'ohana [family] or an individual as their responsibility without right of ownership... When asked the meaning of kuleana, beloved elder, lawai'a [fisherman], and taro farmer Anakala Eddie Ka'anana...referred to the lands within a family's care. He explained that a family's work and level of respect in the community, and in turn the rights or authority that family was accorded, were judged largely by the condition of their kuleana... Kuleana then is more than simple binary rights and responsibilities but extends to relationships with the land and with other people (4-5).
Because there was no private land ownership in Hawai'i in the way we know it now, all crops and cultivation were shared. So your responsibility to your given kuleana was not just a responsibility to you and yours: it was to all. As climate change and tourism threaten to make extinct so many local species, Hawai'i strikes me as a microcosm for the dilemmas of our planet: this rare gem of a place, this fragile ecosystem, is facing perhaps the greatest in a long series of threats to its stability and survival. I am left in my coastal motel room thinking about the roles silence and listening have left to play in activism not just in Hawai'i but around the world. The schools of fish that swim into local reefs is dwindling; endemic bird cries are growing softer; Hawaiian flags fly upside down; all around us are signs and sounds of a place in distress. Yes, but...are we listening? I've tried many times to wrap up this letter, but it's hard because I don't have the answers. I wasn't raised in an ethos of "no one is left behind," but in the much more Calvinist that only a very small amount of us are good enough to survive, as well as a very English individualist understanding of my rights and my responsibilities. I have a lot of questions and I'm trying to listen. I'm trying to listen and respond before a much larger and devastating silence descends. The book from which that quotation above was taken is called Kaiāulu: Gathering Tides, and it combines oral histories with Kauai's local subsistence fisherpeople with a look at recent grassroots movements that are combining a reinvestment in ancestral knowledge, practice, and values, with concrete legislation that protects habitats and species increasingly encroached upon by tourism, climate change and commercial development. I'll follow up next time with more resources I've found worth listening to: voices that call us to listen actively, as and act from a place of listening. The rest, as they say, is silence. Warmly, G.