(Title from `Olelo No`eau: Hawaiian Proverbs and Poetical Sayings, by Mary Kawena Pukui.)
One of the most interesting ways to learn about the view people in times past had of the land is to hear the stories that have been passed down. In many ways, the proverbs and sayings of ka po’e kahiko — the people of old – are a distillation of such stories. Rather like a poem, such expressions compress the ideas about places, the images people used to have about areas that they may have visited or just heard about from others who traveled more extensively. The crowning achievement of Mary Kawena Pukui’s long and productive career as an interpreter of her Hawaiian culture was the compilation of her collection of proverbs and sayings in the book referenced above. Of particular value is the series of indexes in the book: not only is there a general index, but one for personal names, for plants and animals, and for places. If one wants to know the reputation an area had for people in times far past, looking up the sayings about that area gives a good idea.
When it comes to sayings about Hamakua and Waipi`o, it is the rugged grandeur of the landscape that is emphasized. Na pali alo lua o Waipi`o speaks of the Valley’s cliffs facing each other. Hamakua i ka wakawaka tells of the gulches and valleys characteristic of the land in our district – “irregular and rough Hamakua.” The saying that heads this article describes the steep trails of Hamakua, and in doing so, points to the geological events that create the conditions necessitating trails going sharply up and down.
Most of the eastern side of Hamakua is on Mauna Kea, but a portion around Kukuihaele is on lava from Kohala. The district also extends along the windward cliff-and-valley coast of Kohala volcano past Waimanu and Honopue Valleys. Kohala, Hawai`i Island’s only extinct volcano, has had no eruptive activity for an estimated 60,000 years. Mauna Kea, our Island’s only dormant volcano, has been eruptively quiet for about 3,300 years. The last acts of Hawaiian volcanoes sees a shift from effusive eruptions of molten rock to explosive eruptions of pulverized material that falls to the ground as cinders and/or ash. For a very long time, then, the main geological activity impacting these slopes has been erosion.
It is only when the lava is covered by ash, in fact, that flowing streams begin to develop and significant fresh water erosion begins to occur. It takes some explanation to convey to visitors why they cannot see flowing rock and flowing water in the same area! We are all familiar with the lack of standing or flowing water on the flanks of Kilauea and Mauna Loa – even their windward slopes. If the ground surface were not almost entirely porous rock, water would accumulate and Kilauea would have geysers, thermal pools and other features similar to those seen at Yellowstone, the other U.S. National Park located over a geological “hot spot.”
Once the ground is covered with ash, at any rate, rainfall, instead of percolating into the surface, begins to flow over the surface. Drops become trickles, trickles turn into rivulets and thence to streams. As the volume of the flowing water increases, particles of soil begin to be displaced and channels start to form (most residents here know about Ka ua wa`awa`ahia o Waipi`o – “The furrow-cutting rain of Waipi`o”). As erosion progresses, the streams continue to cut down through ash layers and become powerful and debris-bearing enough to begin to erode the underlying lava. Since lava flows differ in their density, they erode at different rates and waterfalls begin to appear at the edge of harder rock. As experience of this Island reveals, some of its beautiful features occur only on the rainy sides of the oldest volcanoes.
One consequence of the water undoing the creations of Pele is that as we traverse the windward flanks of Mauna Kea and Kohala we frequently encounter steep-sided kahawai, or gulches. Thus, the ala ulili, down one side and up the other. Those traveling on foot count themselves fortunate if they are on a trail, steep though it may be, that takes them across the kahawai. Lacking a trail developed by humans, in fact, travelers are well advised to stay up on the side until they find a pig trail, since these creatures are quite familiar with the best ways to cross such obstacles.
Isabella Bird, describing her visit here in 1873, wrote of her astonishment when, on a ride from Hilo toward Waipi`o, her mounted guide suddenly disappeared in front of her! She quickly understood when she came to the side of the precipice to see him sliding on his horse down the pali and had to overcome her own considerable hesitation in following. It was a measure of her progress when, some months later, as she ended a day of riding solo from Waimea she did not hesitate to urge her mount over the edge to take evening shelter with the residents of Laupahoehoe.
These days, of course, highway bridges take us right across the kahawai, going between Waipi`o and Hilo, only into the three with sweeping curves at Ka`awali`i, Laupahoehoe and Maulua. The old trails have often disappeared under brush, landslides or construction projects. Finding and walking on the remaining ala is like traveling to an earlier time. And whether or not you get to walk on an old trail, take a look at the gulches as you drive the awesome Hamakua Coast. Think about what it would be like to cross them on foot. Honor the skill and determination of the people of times past by whispering softly, “Hamakua i ke ala ulili.”