Stepping into the lo‘i: On taro production and community building at Hawai‘i’s Kānewai

kanewai1\Photo by Annie Sheng with editing by Robert DeGutis

By Annie Sheng, Cornell University (The University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa, Visiting Researcher)

We volunteers peel off our socks and shoes, roll up our pants, expose our legs to the morning sun, but not for long. Soon, we step into the lo‘i, the taro wet paddies, feeling the soft mud under our feet—a respite from the onslaught of small rocks and jagged hard seeds that dug into our soles on our short walk to the lo‘i. We wade through rows of mounds of kalo, taro plants with their distinct heart-shaped leaves, making sure we follow the directions of our leader Makua Perry:

               Don’t step on or over the puʻepuʻe (the mounds of kalo), don’t disrespect them.  But feel free to talk to the plants. The kalo are like people, they have personalities. After all, the Hawaiian people believe kalo is their brother.

At first, we work in silence. But, as we continue to weed, pulling the sinewy intrusive vines from beneath the murky paddy waters, detaching and pitching these away from their tenacious grasp of the kalo mounds, we begin to chat. We talk about kalo varieties, initiatives to trade kalo cuttings with others in the wider community in O’ahu, uses of taro-derived pudding-like poi. “My uncle put poi in his son’s (my cousin’s) baby formula and he grew really strong,” says Makua. Our backs bent, our legs deep in the nutrient-rich paddy water, we pull, dig with our hands and pat down and replenish the kalo mounds with fresh, hydrating mud. Later, we rest and “talk story” under the thatched hale, a work of art with its own signification of Hawaiian identity, its grand roof supported by mangrove logs, in turn held together by the lashings also used in seafaring canoes.

But there is more ahead for us during this First Saturday’s Community Workday, held by the Hawai‘inuiākea’s School of Hawaiian Studies Ka Papa Lo‘i o Kānewai  since 1980, and directed by Makahiapo Cashman as part of the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa. We learn about water and reciprocity during a short educational tour of the kahawai (stream). Before entering the paddies, we trek a hidden route, balancing on rocks alongside flowing water to the poʻowai (the headwater), the part of the stream that eventually feeds water into the loʻi. The poʻowai is nestled away from the “urban jungle” and sources back to the Mānoa Falls high in the mountains. At the poʻowai we learn the history of the secluded place, the reclamation of the land from its disuse after its illustrious history of producing kalo for hundreds of years, before and during Kamehameha’s rule, by local Hawaiians, and later Chinese and Japanese residents. After we soak in the stream’s history, we follow the snaking line of water back to the paddies and immerse our feet into the paddy water.

Kānewai’s staff, such as Makua Perry, bring community volunteers to the stream because their approach to water is fundamental in illustrating how native Hawaiians interact with others and the environment as part of the food cultivation process, “to leave water for those downstream, to share and give back to the environment.” Water is pivotal to any understanding of the lo‘i system, not only the mechanics of the paddies but the ontological whole of kalo production. Without water, there is no taro paddy. The way the water cycles through the paddies serves as a moral model. The organization’s name, Kānewai, draws from stories of the god Kāne who discovered fresh water in the area.

First Saturday’s draws some two to three hundred visitors (students, service members, locals, tourists, regular volunteers) to learn traditional Hawaiian agricultural methods and immerse themselves in the Hawaiian language. The day’s activities range from cultivation and maintenance of the space itself—from plucking leaves for fertilizer, stepping on leaves in the paddy mud to submerge them, to weeding, to cleaning—, and at the event’s heart is experiencing the lo‘i firsthand.

I started this post with the volunteers’ jolt of the sensory-rich entry into the lo‘i, but our workday actually started with handling pre-boiled kalo. Volunteers, sitting on picnic benches around giant metal buckets, bent our heads together and scooped pre-cooked kalo from the water. With butter knives, we peeled the kalo, dropping the peels back into the water clouded by the corm’s hardy skin. We shaved off discoloration or bumps, revealing a light purple flesh that smelled fresh, creamy and earthy all at once—then passed the kalo to a staff member to check.

Palani Deponte, the Kānewai staff working with us, taught us the names of the skin and edible flesh while sharing more about this core starch. He looked at the last taro piece I was struggling to peel and told me to eat it. It was a rather unforgiving piece and I was whittling it away to nothing as I tried to shave this piece to perfection. I was all too happy to stop—and bite, as directed. I sunk my teeth into the kalo, chewed, and let the flavors build in my mouth: starchy, rich, with a touch of sweetness.

On typical community workdays, the staff would have prepared a meal for all, with kālua pork and other Hawaiian foods, some cooked in their imu, the steaming pit oven. On this rare small workday of only twenty to twenty-five volunteers (the majority of the University was on summer break), there was no cooking fire, but we were satiated with the taste of the kalo, the sensations of that supple mineral mud under our feet and the compelling stories that underlie and animate kalo production.

As Kānewai grows many kalo varieties, it maintains a vibrant community of cuttings exchange, a continual contribution to the diversity of kalo stock. The organization circulates knowledge and agricultural material abundance, just as the water circulates life and growth in the lo‘i system.

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