Sunrise over Haleakala from Kaho’olawe

It’s hard to explain a place like Kaho’olawe. A place that’s been ravaged for so long by bombs and artillery and bullets that in many ways it no longer resembles a place at all. Covered in thorny, invasive kiawe trees and scrubby fountain grass the red hard pan shines through in warning. No rain comes here, the hot hard pan chases the clouds away like bothersome children. The wind whips the red dirt around and around the lava rocks and dry stream beds and eventually out to sea. On land, only hope thrives.

We drive our trucks around the red roads, searching for a place to plant or a place to dig or maybe just a place to weed. These places are sparse because unexploded ordnance litters the island, preventing us from even entering most areas, let alone dig.

The Bell Stone sacred area

In ancient days, Kaho’olawe was known for being the navigational center of the Hawaiian islands. All long voyages began there. Not long ago, the island was used by the military to test bombs and weapons for many, many years. Throughout its history, Kaho’olawe was sparsely populated and after World War II, the islands’ only resident leased the land to the military for testing. By that time, Kaho’olawe’s plant life had been devastated by feral goats and red dirt swirled and was blown away even then. Local protesters led the fight to reclaim the island in the 1970s, some even lost their lives doing so. Today, the island seems more like a long-lost cousin forgotten or never known. It’s cultural significance has not been forgotten, however and there is a strong effort to restore the island.

Crater left by bomb activity

It is an uphill battle with one of the biggest challenges being that only about 10% of the island has been completely cleared of ordnance, making most of the land and coastal areas a real danger. Few out-plantings have been successful with little water and even less soil.

Shadows of our youth

Maybe the youth we brought to see this place will be the ones to save it. One thing is for sure, there is a future for Kaho’olawe. To learn more about the island or to find out how you can volunteer to make a difference, visit: http://kahoolawe.hawaii.gov/. I went there as a team leader for Kupu’s summer gateway program. 

Sunrise on Kaho’olawe


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