Friday, January 13, 2012

There Used to be an 'Awa Patch Here

This is where I gardened for years. Before this glaring repair of the big wall that holds up Iolani Avenue wiped it out. In fact, that darker part behind the Mini, you see that? That's the old new wall, that went up years after I first started building terraces and composting, and in a minute I'll tell you something about what's on it.

But in the meantime, imagine it back in the 90's, gardens where there is now an impervious apron, and at the end of that, a big old mango, recently rejuvenated by some nut climbing around with a big Swedish chainsaw. The same guy planted a hala tree that grew fast and huge, but that's gone now, along with the bananas and cane clumps, ti-leaf. Kalo and `uala in the sun, mulched by maia, ko, and ki.

On two terraces heading up from the mango, more than a dozen `awa plants went from cuttings in pots to being old enough to go to first grade if their roots weren't so deep and happy in the Puowaina cinder, so well moist cheap city water. 'Awa is kava is yanqona is Piper methysticum, a relative of black pepper whose roots are pounded and mixed with water to make a drink that relaxes without dulling the senses. It has practical and ritual uses: for relaxing muscles tired from digging and stacking stone, for sharing over stories with the Tongan and Fijian guys at the garden, and once for presentation of an entire plant to an elder anthropologist being honored by the Rotuman community. 

I go on, because the 'awa patch was something I was proud of. In soil that had begun as parched and lifeless cinder, compost and a soaker hose gave it a black and worm-rich foothold on terraces that would have fit right in at many of the archaeological sites I'd worked in. Having a garden with `awa and all its Polynesian companions in the middle of Honolulu was satisfying, it felt like a place of refuge (if not a real pu`uhonua) from the concrete jungle. Growing the plants for years--not only resisting the urge for an early harvest, but somehow managing not to get ripped off--was an accomplishment, and yielded some fine quality root, not to mention cuttings that became many more plants. 

The 'awa was just part of the garden, though. Eventually, I had maybe a thousand square feet of space, lush with descendants of the plants Polynesians thought enough of to transport across the Pacific in canoes. It was a lab, testing varieties (60+ going at any given time), experimenting with planting schemes and horticultural techniques gleaned from the many published and archival accounts of traditional gardening in the islands. It was, as I said, an island of peace and green in the midst of a large hot city, a place I took my daughter to play while I worked, and to share meals of mangoes, bananas, and cook-out chicken. It was, by the time I'd gardened there for a decade and had to leave, a place that had transformed from barren to brimming with life.
When I started, in 1991, the big wall had partially collapsed. It had been built decades earlier from the local stone, part of Puowaina (aka Punchbowl), which was beautiful and interesting, but also pretty weak and crumbly, not suited to holding up a heavily used road. The community garden there was officially closed, but an old local Chinese woman still slipped in and tended her plot, inviting me to do the same. So I took rubble from the big wall and made terraces in the hilly northwest corner. 

After a couple of years, the city fixed the collapsed part of the wall, replacing the cut Puowaina rock with massive boulders. It happened while I was away doing fieldwork somewhere, and they did a little damage, but I rebuilt and replanted. The garden officially re-opened, and I struck a deal with the city that I would keep my large, irregular plot, and they could carved it up when I left. In the meantime, I enjoyed a run as the 'president' of the garden, having the occasional meeting in which we'd all share food and maybe resolve one of the inevitable minor disputes and agree that we were autonomous from the city, all of whose other community gardens were sad little grids, none of the terraced hills or Chinese havens or Korean restaurant feeders or Tongan subsistence plots that made our place special. We broke the rules against big plots, against bananas and trees, against fires, and so on, and were very happy.

Last time I visited was at least 4 or 5 years ago, and of course it didn't seem the same. The `awa was gone, replaced by spindly cassava, one of the terraces pulled down in the process. One of my old banana clumps clung to life, having eaten all the compost and not been fed again. It was sad, but still better than when I'd first peered over the wall.
I don't know exactly when they fixed the wall again. The satellite view claims to be from 2011, and the concrete looks fresh. The devastation is clear. Gone is the mango; only a common mango, but it had been the anchor for the terraces, the shade for young plants and the girl I trained to recognize and track down the thunk of a ripe one dropping the mulch. Gone is the hala, whose roots were a playground, whose leaves grew long and clear and would have been excellent for weaving. Gone are the terraces: the lower garden, the plant nursery, the cookout and play area, the highest one (above which was 'natural' ground with native plants). Gone is the topsoil that took years to grow. 

What remains? Maybe a bit of terrace, perhaps the stone adze I found and built into the first terrace, and probably some artifact dropped by me or my kid. Some tenacious root or shoot, I hope, propagating itself as an act of defiance against the machines and concrete. One thing I am pretty sure is still there is on the old new wall. I carved some petroglyphs into it, something I'd never have done on a natural boulder, where spirits may still live and take offense, but which seemed alright adornment for roadkill rock. There was a giant lizard head, it's forked tongue licking it's eye the way they do. Also, an owl, a recognition of the animal associated with that place. Maybe some other stuff, too. Someday I'll check. If I live long enough, I'll come back when I am 80 and the petroglyphs are old enough to be recorded as historic.

In the meantime, I hope the process of renewal starts again. That somebody will peer over the wall and again feel the surprise and joy of finding a garden in the city. Maybe there's enough rubble for them to build some new terraces. Maybe as they dig, the new gardeners will find that trowel I lost, or a toy my daughter stashed in the hala roots, or a buried organic layer still willing to grow something. Maybe somebody will find a way to make that concrete slab below the wall produce something. 

I hope so.

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