Curiosity: forget “Cherchez la femme” (Look for the woman.) “Cherchez l’histoire.” (Look for the story.)
This time last year, Gary and I sought warmth and sunshine on James Michener’s Islands of the South Pacific and Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, where we reveled in irresistible underwater vistas. This year we’ve come to the north-east shore of Oahu, snorkeling gear in tow, and found ourselves caught up by the color, texture, and sheer exuberant energy of vegetation thriving in lush valleys separated by sharp volcanic partitions.
Our first serious immersion was a short (1.5 mi.) but diverting afternoon-long hike to Waimea Falls, where the plantings are mainly indigenous.
The ginger collection is spectacular, too. On my To Do List: find out which of these produces the spice for my favorite cookies:
We visited the Bishop Museum the next day, where we spent hours engrossed in the history of Hawaii. The ground-floor display of sailing canoes harked back to another book by Michener: Hawaii, published in 1959. I didn’t read the book until 1999, but I loved the story of Polynesians sailing thousands of miles, guided by sun and stars until they found fertile and receptive islands on which they settled. In 1976, the Polynesian Voyaging Society went from Hawaii to Tahiti and back–over 2,000 miles each way, in a replica of an ancient sailing canoe without navigation instruments, demonstrating the veracity of the legend that Michener recounted. This and subsequent voyages cemented bonds between Hawaii, the Marquesas, Fiji, Tonga, Tahiti, Tonga, and Aotearoa (which I know as New Zealand) as members of the great Pacific triangle of the Polynesian Islands.
The geographic slices of verdant valleys divided by mountainous partitions shaped the tribal structure in ahupua’a: territorial stretches managed from the mountains to the sea.
Museum displays show how available plant and fish resources were used and cultivated, how labor was divided between men and women, and how Hawaii was became a protectorate of the US at the end of the 19th century.
The vitality of plant life here and ingenious use of plants became even more vivid when we went to the Ho’omaluhia Botanical Garden on Sunday, with the specific intent of participating in the guided walk at 1:00PM. Carol was our friendly and informative guide, who herself came to Hawaii from Aukland in the 1970s on a 60-ft. sailboat. She’s worked at the Garden for about six years and the signs about “no taking” don’t apply to her.
The 400-acre garden was developed about 35 years ago as a flood control project, planted with rain forest trees and shrubs from the tropics of the world. In the first few minutes of our two-hour walk, Carol pointed out the drooping remnants of tumeric plants near the park entrance. She then reached into the dirt, pulled up a tuber–thinner than the ginger root one finds at a supermarket, and broke it apart. “Smell it,” she directed. It was a lighter, fresher version of the powder I have in a jar at home. The juice is bright yellow; Gary rubbed it on a fresh bruise on his arm: it was almost gone the next day. I think I’ll take the rest home with me.
There were only four of us with Carol, so conversation flowed freely. Carol asked if I was wearing a Panama hat. “What a good eye!” I responded. I love this hat that I bought on our trip to Ecuador in 2001, when we learned that Panama hats aren’t made in Panama; they’ve always been made in Ecuador, but got their name because they were supplied to the men working on the Panama Canal. A few minutes later, Carol showed us a Panama Hat Palm:
She showed us a Ficus religiosa, cloned from a clone of the Bodhi tree, the 2,500-year-old tree under which Gautama Buddha is believed to have attained enlightenment in India’s eastern state of Bihar.
A little later, she directed our tallest companion to pick an especially large and orange husk from a nutmeg tree; then she opened it to reveal the intricate red webbing around the nutmeg core, explaining that it becomes allspice. Sure enough we could smell it.
She showed us the developing seed cluster on a 50-ft. palm tree that at Christmas was crowned with one big flower. The seeds will propagate; but the tree itself with continue to wither and disintegrate. Fortunately, a younger sibling stands nearby, preparing a bloom for next Christmas. Each tree blooms only once–and that must be a sight to behold.
Next, we came to a cinnamon tree, where Carol searched for a fallen branch to break open. The fragrance was unmistakable.
It’s rained quite a bit since we arrived, so I’ve also read Doris Kearns Goodwin’s magnificent No Ordinary Time. Thus in the proper frame of mind, I began sorting old family letters from the late 1930s and early 1940s: there’s more to come.