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  • Writer's pictureBrandon Spars

Are you really doing research?

Updated: Oct 16, 2019

Hokuau Pelligrino of Noho'ana Farm

That's what every one of my colleagues at Sonoma Academy is asking me and the two other teachers who are in Maui for a week to work on building a new freshman humanities unit on the Pacific Rim. This is the first half of our travel grant we received from Sonoma Academy to do the groundwork for this new unit. 

Our proposal highlights the importance of studying the Pacific Islands because they are the first places to really experience the powerful effects of climate change. We are also focusing on how they have met the challenges of limited resources for the past two thousand years or so, planting in the same land all the while without any chemical inputs. While I am familiar with the Balinese rice/irrigation system, I had done very little research into the Hawaiian system, and I was immediately inspired by what I learned from a wonderful, motivated, brilliant young man by the name of Hokuau Pelligrino.

My colleague Laila found him on the internet as the main force behind Noho'ana Farm, where traditional taro farming is practiced. When we arrived, we were met by a dashing young man with kalo (taro) plants tattooed on his calf and a tightly wound ponytail. He led us to a bench next to a rushing stream and said, "Let's sit and talk story." We were spellbound for four hours. 

He explained the plantation system that began with the missionary takeover in 1893, and how it disrupted a beautiful, self-sustaining wet field system. Water was drawn off by kalo farmers and then returned to the stream in the same way that the Balinese farmers irrigate their wet rice terraces. The terraces themselves in Maui were built with volcanic stone. The fields, for eight months at a time, are transformed into wild ponds with algae, snails, frogs, and the goby fish (which has suction cups on it's pelvis for scaling waterfalls) just like the Balinese rice fields. Kalo is hard on the ground, so fields are left fallow or are planted with various other crops between harvests. The algae falling into the soil does help resupply the land with nitrogen just like in Bali. Turning over the fields and plowing them is difficult work, made all the more laborious by the lack of water buffalo in Hawaii. 

Hokuau finished our time with a rendition of the story of the origin of kalo. Sky father and Earth Mother gave birth to a still born child that became the taro plant. Their second child was the first human. The significance is that the relationship between humans and kalo is that of younger sibling to older, which brings a tremendous amount of respect and honor for the plant, which sacrifices itself over and over to keep its younger brothers and sisters alive. 

I am fascinated by the parallels and the differences between Bali and Maui, and I could spend the rest of my life moving from one Hawaiian myth to the next contemplating how these two islands have met the challenges with which their geographies have presented them in similar and unique ways. I could also listen to Hokuau speak for the rest of my life as well. He is a farmer, a scholar, an activist, and a storyteller with a very strong purpose in his life. It will be fun to watch him over the next decade. 

Sonoma Academy Oceana Expedition: Pacific Rim, October 12-19, 2019, Maui, Hawaii


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