Uncle Abel Versus The World

Uncle Abel is not really my uncle.  You call almost everyone of the older generation Uncle or Aunty in Hawaiʻi.  In the twenty years that I have known Uncle Abel we’ve been on the opposite sides of the question more often than not, which is to say in enemy camps, although not exactly enemies.  But the differences don’t matter as much as what we have in common. What matters is that we love the same place.  We have a shared history with a small bay and section of land called Kāwā. He lived there for years, and I worked there for years.

Kāwā might not look like much at first glance.  It’s a small bay with a rocky, pebbly beach where the wind is usually blowing briskly.  There is no white sand and no palm trees.  The surf is  rough and the water cold. However, on a small bluff above the bay at Kāwā are the spectacular ruins of an ancient heiau (temple) and on the flat below the foundations of a village site.  These are what we used to call “archeology,” and what we now refer to as “cultural resources.” Not long ago relics such as these were considered of minimal significance compared to the demands of commerce and progress, but now they have become vital links to the pre-contact, pre-industrial past.  There is a large brackish pond behind the beach that is considered an important wet-land  for multiple species of endangered native birds.  Kāwā also has one of the few surf-breaks in the district and that in itself makes it precious to surfers of all ages.

I worked with my family on the ranch lands above the bay where Abel lived. We both impinged on each other’s realm with a casual, lawless tolerance that is nearly un-imaginable now-adays.  We pumped brackish water out of the pond and his crew of hippie-hangers-on set up camp on a piece of land inset within the ranch.  They had a Rainbow Festival one weekend and a number of the visitors stayed on for months in a constantly dwindling camp.  We thought they were funny and harmless.  None of that would be possible now.   You have to do everything by the book even out here.  You have to have all your permits in order these days.

We haven’t spoken much, Abel and I, over the years, but we’ve been on the same land. We’ve known of each other as distant neighbors. Weʻve both heard stories of each other, as one does in a small community; we’ve seen each other coming and going for a couple of decades now.

Abel is politically radical, a native sovereignty activist who camped for years near the beach at Kāwā.  I’m politically centrist, non-native, middle-class, highly indoctrinated into conventional life.  I can count on my two hands the nights I’ve slept anywhere but on a nice, soft bed.  I’m on the slightly unconventional side of conventional; Uncle Abel takes unconventional to a whole other level.

Uncle Abel has the long gray-white hair and the thin, high-cheek-boned face of a Chinese sage, but his skin is dark brown, mottled with sun spots.  His eyes, somewhat rheumy now, can glare at you with a manic insistence. Today he is wearing two ti leaves around his neck which he has tied together and shredded.  Also he is wearing a pareau in black, green, gold and red.  All of these things have a specific meaning: the two leaves – a minimalist ascetic lei  -asserts his pure spiritual authority; the pareau echoes the colors of the flag of the Hawaiian sovereignty movement.

We are both at a county government hearing for an advisory commission that recommends lands for preservation.   Abel is giving one of his famous speeches. He is protesting everything.  I’ve always admired his gift as a speaker.  He had the dramatic genius of a Shakespearean actor. When he was in top form, he was a public enemy to those in power and a cult favorite for those who were not.  He was able to keep large crowds spell-bound by his unpredictability and mad prophet oratory.  Even if you did not agree with him, even if he made you uncomfortable, Uncle Abel meant “action” – as in quite possibly police action.  It was high entertainment.

Abel has a signature line that he uses in every speech I’ve heard him give: “Ka’ū (the name of our district)” he intones meaningfully, drawing out the last vowel, “ has never been conquered.” He says this in a dramatic whisper,  turning around to confront his audience his eyes wide, daring anyone to contradict him.  His voice rising in volume, he continues: “I no recognize no government: county, state, federal.  We was never conquered you see? We the government. We, the people.”

Technically speaking he is wrong.  Our district was conquered over and over again by various ancient chiefs, but we are dealing with political myth-making here, not pedestrian historical facts. And his favorite line expresses something that is, in a mythical sense, essential. Ka’ū is the hinterland of the island.  It has always been sparsely populated and poor.  This is mostly because there are few sources of fresh water, because the district is downwind from the volcano, because the soil is rocky, the climate arid, and the oceans rough.  It is a difficult place to make a living.  Nevertheless, the people of this district, Ka’ū, are passionate about their land and fierce in their politics.  Ka’ū is known as a land of rebels.  We don’t bend the knee.

But Abel had the calling to take it quite a bit farther than the rest of us.  He wonʻt go along with our modern conveniences, like private property, representative government, hot showers and refrigerators, and in his passions he calls shame upon all of it and all of us. (He does have a Facebook page though, of course.)  In his radical rejection of all modern forms of life, we part ways with Abel, and yet not completely.   We say to ourselves, “Well, he is crazy.”  And yet he humiliates us in our acquiescence and opens up a space for questioning the status quo.

He has heart.  Even his most ardent detractors would have to give him that.  And there are plenty of people who dislike him intensely.  Mostly people who he has challenged in their position of public or private authority.  My friend who works for the county parks department has had many run-ins with Abel.  He says: “Abel doesn’t like me much, because I made him spend his seventieth birthday in the county jail.”

He loves to make trouble to those in power.   He’s good at it. Once when the County evicted him from Kāwā he planted a taro patch on the lawn in front of the big glass windows of the Mayorʻs office.  He is a political performance artist, a show-boat, an anarchist. But I’ve never heard of him doing anything low-down and dishonorable. At least recently.  Well, he used to shake down the beach visitors.  From what people have told me, including he himself, he would demand things – hoʻokupu (small offerings) like toilet paper, or money – to support his occupation.  He once asked my father if he could kill one of his cows.  My dad said no.

There was a rumor that he had murdered somebody in Honolulu a long time ago.  Thatʻs why he  holed up in Kāwā in the first place.  And then somehow he decided that it was his to guard.  I would be very surprised if the rumor was true.  There is an Old Testament madness to him, but no malice and no sneakiness. He might say outrageous things about you but he’ll do it straight to your face, which is better than some people. Heʻs not a violent person – well, there was that one time that he and his sister got into a doubles wrestling match in the brackish pond with Kyle Soares and his wife.  The police had to break it up, evidently. And, well, Iʻm sure there was plenty of blame to go around on that one.  But other than that, Abel is peaceful, as far as I know.

Having named himself the konohiki, or guardian of the place, Abel lived at the beach for years, and kept a close eye on all goings on.  He was famous for confronting anyone who showed up in an official-looking vehicle and chasing them off.  As konohiki he considered it his right to do so, as they were threats to his authority.  He also grew native food plants and organized surfing contests at the beach in the heyday of his self-appointed reign as guardian.

Other people in the community had better documented familial ties to the lands of Kāwā than Abel. They considered him a usurper and a fraud. Some people found his retinue of penniless hippies distasteful. But they mostly tolerated Abelʻs antics because his occupation threw a wrench in any attempt to develop Kāwā and helped to maintain their native, familial claims to the land without actually having to live on the beach themselves.

Abelʻs advocacy for Kāwā may have backfired on him. His term as konohiki of the beach at Kāwā ended when it was purchased by the County of Hawaii for public space and natural resource preservation.   At first Abel refused to leave and there were many tense confrontations between he and his followers and County officials. Eventually Abel was evicted. On one level he failed, in that he is no longer the konohiki of Kawā. On another level he succeeded in his very failure – the public purchase of the wild beach and ancestral sites of Kawā protect it for the foreseeable future from the commercial developments that transform  shorelines all over the world into resorts and other artificial paradises.

Is Abel a saint or a fool? A visionary or a clown? One thing is clear: he long ago stopped worrying about how to make a living or being respectable or playing the game.  He gave all that up in a way that makes me slightly vertiginous just to think about.  He walks a wild edge of the mind with only the place, Kawā, to return to, to keep him centered.   He is a brave person.

Image: Kawa Bay is pictured here in 2011. (Laura Ruminski/West Hawaii Today)

Some quiet time with the wildfire

In the last three days a wildfire has turned 800 acres of pasture on our ranch to black. It was a very dry pasture with very dry feed, hence the wildfire, but still  it was good feed, like standing grass hay. 

These fires happen periodically when it gets dry.  Every ranch around here gets their turn at this and it is no cause for despair.  But it is a painful blow to lose so much feed for our cattle when we are in a Stage Two Drought and there is no predicting the weather-patterns anymore.

I don’t know how the fire started. Probably a careless fisherman tossing away a cigarette into a clump of dry grass as he crossed our pasture on the way to or from the ocean. Maybe it was started deliberately by a local “firebug” – a person that likes to start and watch fires. It doesn’t really matter how it started.  What matters is that once it got started it was almost unstoppable.

This is a photo from the first night, when it had burned all day and eaten up about 200 acres. This is just before a bulldozer got in to cut a firebreak – a line where the brush has been scraped off, depriving the fire of fuel.   When the firebreak  was done the line of flames died out and it seemed we had the fire stopped.

But that was a vain hope.  The next day the wind picked up and the embers that had been smoldering “in the black” leapt to life, crossed over the firebreak and consumed 500 acres between 9 am and 1 pm.  More firebreaks were made and again as the wind died at dusk the flames stopped at the newly made firebreaks.  But there were smoldering piles waiting all along the line.

The next morning I decided to get to know this fire personally.  I have to admit that this is the first wildfire that I’ve taken the time to get to know face-to-face, one-on-one. During all the previous fires I’ve stayed distant while my father or brother got involved in assisting (and sometimes surreptitiously directing) the fire-fighting effort.  But for this one I decided I needed, finally, to try to understand what was happening.  Why was this fire defying the efforts of a half-dozen fire-crews and two helicopters?  How could it keep leaping the firebreak even though it was a back-burn i.e. burning against the wind?  What is the most effective way to fight a range wild-fire?

So I went down to the fire-line early before the wind picked up, before anyone else was there and watched the fire.  I didn’t bring any equipment to fight the fire.  I just wanted to be there with it for a while, to see it up close, rather than watching it from a distance or running around reacting to it or talking about it with other people.

Everything was black on the far side of the firebreak, white smoke streaming in tiny wisps from single blades of grass, or billowing extravagantly from half-burnt piles of debris that the bulldozer had pushed to the side.  A little way into the black orange flames burned in a pile of wood at the base of a brush tree. I stopped there looking at this few hundred feet of the fire-line on this, the back-burn end of the fire.

What amazed me was that the dirt seemed to be quietly on fire, reaching by slow black inexorable fingers across the fire-break.  I stuck the toe of my boot into the hot, black dirt and discovered that it was a root that was burning, the underground root of a clump of grass that had already been incinerated, and that burning root had blackened the dirt all around it.  Even with no fuel for it above ground the fire was slowly crossing the fire-break.  

The sun shone hot on the dark soil and the dark burning debris radiated heat and then the wind picked up slowly.  Out of what was smoldering and smoking emerged active orange flames, burning, reaching back against the wind to patches of fuel, flaming, reaching.  The fire was going to cross the break and there was still only me watching.  And then just as the fire crossed and orange flame burst out in a clump of grass in the unburnt side a team of firefighters arrived and doused the flame.  If they had been a minute later they would have been too late.  But this was just one spot on the mile-long line.  

After the fire-fighters arrived I went for a walk down the fire-break. Rounding a corner  down the line I saw a brown columnn of smoke and the roar of a wildfire at full-bore.  We had lost the line again after all.  I turned and walked quickly back to my truck, hearing the roar of the fire following me.  I told the fire-fighters what I had seen and evacuated behind the next fire break line.  Before long red flames were shooting into the sky very impressively and we had lost another thirty acres.

Finally, late on the third day, we got the only help that mattered, the thing that we could not ask for or requisition: a misting, then a very light drenching of rain.  It was not enough to put out the fires but it was enough to dampen the hot dirt and the hot air and discourage the fire from its willful spread.

On the fourth morning the wind did not pick up and the fire-fighters could get a handle on the fire.  Late on this, the fourth day, more rain came.  I’m pretty sure that it is over this time.

What did I learn there with the fire?  That if you want to fight a range fire with any hope of success you need to know a lot of things, such as the wind pattern for that area and the kind of vegetation there.  That timing is everything: you need to be able to think 12 hours ahead and at the same time be ready to change and react instant by instant  as the wind, the humidity, the terrain that the fire is on changes.   That you will probably not be able to beat the fire no matter what you do because when it starts burning it just wants to keep burning.

And that the world when it is burning is a very different place from when it isn’t.

Comparing Woods and Forests

The funny thing about Hawaiʻi is that we donʻt have “woods.” We have forests: dry forests, wet forests, extra-wet forests, perpetually raining forests.  (We do have the wettest spot on earth here, high on the mountain top of  Waiʻaleʻale on the island of Kauaʻi.) This is what a wet forest nearby looks like.  Mostly giant ferns and small shrubberies, with a canopy of ohiʻa lehua (Metrosideros collina).  It looks just like that pretty much all year long.

Iʻm not sure why we donʻt have woods in Hawaiʻi.  For one thing, itʻs just not a word that people use.  No one says: “Iʻm going for a walk in the woods.”  So it may be simply a linguistic peculiarity.  But it feels deeper than that.  Maybe  you need a temperate climate with its annual cycles and its interplay of animals and plants throughout the year for that feeling of a woods to develop.   Maybe itʻs because the kind of landscape that would make a woods  – a relatively open sort of forest through which one could walk at will – is both rare and non-native here.   You have to make such a landscape with either labor or pastured animals.  Maybe itʻs simply because these islands are  too young geologically (only a few million years) to have developed such a storied kind of being as a wildwood.