By Sara Tekula
We grabbed our bags at the baggage claim and walked to the curb, where our friend handed us a baby goat. At Kahului Airport. In front of everyone: tourists arriving and smelling the island air for the first time, security guards rushing us along and auntie waiting for her keiki to jump in the car. My husband Joe and I knew we were finally home.
This wasn’t just any trip back to Maui for us. Rather, this was our homecoming after completing a pretty exhilarating and exhausting mission: touring the country on the open road, planting native “wish trees” in communities in all 49 Mainland states.
We had one state left: Hawaii, and plans were in the works for in a big “Plant a Wish” finale. That afternoon, as our livestock-wielding friend drove us to our Upcountry home, I felt an anchor drop.
That was more than three years ago. Since then, the focus of Plant a Wish–and the personal focus of Joe and I–has gone “hyperlocal.” After traveling thousands of miles away from home for prolonged periods and engaging with hundreds of strangers, we were relieved to return to our community. And we wanted to work on Maui like never before.
While the documentary we filmed of our tree planting tour is still happening and coming soon, we’ve also accomplished a few big things since our return. First, we made a human, an awesome little dude named Henry Koa who was conceived soon after our return to the island. We’ve planted native trees every single day for a year, many of them on other peoples’ land. We’ve inspired dozens of volunteers towards land stewardship and tree planting activities, and we’ve done a fair share of our own planting at home. In other words, we’ve put down some roots.
Plant a Wish has morphed from a nationwide tour into a local environmental organization, striving to bring native plants back to our neighborhoods and habitat stewardship back into our communities. We feel there needs to be a shift from seeing land as a resource to be exploited through mass production and monetary gain to seeing the ‘aina as a living, breathing home that supports all of life.
Enter “Farm to Forest,” Plant a Wish’s way of working with farmers and ranchers on Maui to restore farmland to native habitat. In our travels through the Mainland, most of the farmlands we saw spread for miles across the big, flat plain. There were a few trees shading the farmer’s house and yard, and then endless acres of sun-soaked, RoundUp-ready corn planted in a lifeless ocean of dust.
One day, at a local brewery in a small town in Iowa, we met a man who worked for the U.S. Department of Agriculture. We interviewed him for our film and learned that farmers in the area were allowing native plants and trees to be planted on some of their land, specifically areas that butt up against streams.
We decided then and there that when we returned to Maui we’d work on the same thing, and have since partnered with Protea Gardens of Maui in Kula, and on ranch and agricultural lands in Olinda, Nahiku, Waikapu, Haiku, Hana and Kaupo, to set aside areas for native trees and plants to grow.
In addition, we have encouraged more than 60 community members to “Adopt a Tree.” We have been showing up–with our baby boy in tow–to plant with them at their houses. Joe is always marveling about the fact that when he plants at someone’s home and hits the road, he drives away knowing that the tree he just planted is one of the only native trees growing in the area for blocks or even miles.
How can this be? How can this place–a place with such natural, unique beauty and species found nowhere else in the world–be so devoid of functioning ecosystems? How can it be that we are actually surprised to have a koa tree sighting or see a native bird?
With an exception of a few nature preserves and wetlands refuges, many of them protected behind fences, the truth is that most of the Maui community–both residents and visitors alike–never come close to seeing native wildlife.
Our natural relationship with the land is fractured. Rather than striking the ancient balance it once did, the land is now in conflict with the weather and elements.
You can see it every time muddy floodwaters flow into the streets of North Kihei. Every time there’s brown water at Flemings Beach on the Westside. Truth is, the native flora of leeward Maui–if allowed to thrive on those slopes and in those neighborhoods–would absorb the runoff.
When Joe and I see the mud, we also see what’s missing. We also imagine neighborhoods on Maui where the native flora and fauna of Hawaii as common as a mynah bird (which isn’t native). We’re committed more than ever to healing this damaged relationship, even if we do it one tree at a time.
On April 26, local athlete Tatiana Howard will hold her eighth annual Butterfly Effect, a downwind paddle for women of all ages and skill levels that runs from Baldwin Beach Park to Kanaha. In addition to participating in the event, registered “butterflies” will be encouraged to participate in a few different “give back” opportunities, including a project we’re calling “Paddle & Plant.”
The day after the Butterfly Effect, Plant a Wish will take registered paddlers up to the protea farm in Kula to add 200 trees to the reforestation project on their farm. To sign up to paddle in the Butterfly Effect, and to be eligible to join Plant a Wish at “Paddle & Plant”, visit Betheeffect.com/maui-2014.
To get involved with Plant a Wish’s Maui-based replanting programs, visit Plantawish.org.
Photo of Joe: Peter Liu