22 Jan Highlight | Learning to Live on Island Earth

by Christian Erickson (Kupu AmeriCorps VISTA)

On June 17th, 2017, the voyaging waʻa (canoe) Hōkūleʻa returned to Honolulu from its three-year voyage around the world. Hōkūleʻa visited 150 ports and 23 countries with a message to share — the message of “Mālama Honua.” Mālama Honua is directly translated to “to care for our island Earth,” but also ecompasses the idea of a shared care for every piece of Earth. Mālama Honua is seen as a care for the land, seas, plants and animals, as well as for our own human communities and cultures. Taking the idea of Mālama Honua further means to live with a mindset of seeing the Earth as a waʻa  adrift in the ocean, its resources limited and incredibly valuable. Living in Hawaiʻi, even for the short amount of time that I have, has helped teach me to see the value of the people and places around me as more than simply where I live and what sustains me. As I approach the halfway mark of my service with Kupu, I see how Hawaiʻi has allowed me to begin to see the environment around me as part of my identity, part of my inheritance, and eventually part of my legacy.

I am originally from Vienna, VA, right outside of Washington D.C., but spent most of my summers either at a summer camp in North Carolina or on family trips to National Parks and other spectacular natural places. I was fortunate enough to have the means to pursue an education and eventual career in natural science and conservation, and have always seen my connection to the natural world as an important aspect of what I stand for.

Coming to Hawaiʻi for my year of service, however, immediately felt different than my previous experiences. I was greeted by a stunning view of the erupting Kilauea volcano from my arriving plane. I could clearly see the fingers of freshly erupted lava rivers making their way to the ocean, framed against the dark outline of Hawaiʻi island and the sun setting behind Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa. This was an incredible introduction to the power this place has on people. Landing in Hilo, I fully expected my service with Kupu to be a valuable professional work experience. After six months of learning how to Mālama Honua, it is clear that has become been an important personal and spiritual experience as well.

Native Hawaiians believe not only that humans are dependent upon nature, but that they are intrinsically related to it as well. Instead of singling out humanity from nature and the cosmos, Hawaiians see the land, the sea, the sky, and everything that resides within these places, as a unified whole. This worldview is powerful because it is framed around a mutual relationship with nature and the place where one lives, not simply valuing nature for the benefit it can provide for humanity. Like any healthy relationship, there needs to be a commitment and respect on both sides in order for it to work properly.

There also needs to be an expectation of equality. In Hawaiʻi, I have learned that an easy way to begin to see nature as an equal is to learn the names of the places and things that live within it. By learning plant, animal, and place names, I am also learning about the role each has in sustaining the Earth as a whole, and by extension, myself. An example of this is my evolving relationship with the ʻŌhiʻa tree. ʻŌhiʻa trees are critical players in sustaining life in the Hawaiian Islands because they are among the first tree species to colonize a fresh lava field and also assist in trapping and storing fresh rain water within aquifers. In these two important ways, ʻŌhiʻa trees provide a framework for all other life to exist on the Hawaiian Islands. This one tree has helped change my view of the way species work together for survivial. ʻŌhiʻa are also incredibly widespread in both range and form. They can be found near the beaches of Pāhoa or on the high slopes of Mauna Kea. While exploring the island, ʻŌhiʻa is always there, reminding me of the collective whole that both it and I are a part of.    

Another part of a healthy relationship is to listen to the problems of the other and being there to help with these problems. Learning about my surroundings gives me knowledge of the many problems facing not only Hawaiʻi, but the planet. When talking about climate change, much emphasis is put on leaving our planet habitable for future generations. While this is undoubtedly true, living in Hawaiʻi has taught me to add another obligation to that list. We have the responsibility to the Earth itself, the united whole, to live sustainably. Living in Hawaiʻi has taught me the value of mālama ‘āina (care for the land) not simply for the benefit of human use, but also for the sake of our sacred partner, the Earth itself.  

Alpha Centauri, the closest star to Earth besides our sun, is estimated to be around 4.2 light-years (roughly 24 trillion miles) away from the center of our solar system. Between our sun and Alpha Centauri, there is only one known place where life has been found: here on Earth. When considered on this scale, the comparison of Earth as a voyaging waʻa at sea becomes more than a metaphor. Every person we have ever known, read about in the past, or that will live after us, was or will be born on the waʻa of Earth. Furthermore, all of these people need to be sustained by the finite resources that are present on Earth.

Living in Hawaiʻi has encouraged me to think beyond myself and my needs. It has allowed me to see humanity as part of a greater whole, a united whole, whose goal is to live together on the waʻa of Earth. Learning about my fellow travelers, both human and otherwise, gives me a newfound respect for the relationships between the people, places, and things around me. Having these relationships makes it simply impossible to act without considering them. These relationships make me a more intentional, compassionate, thoughtful, and sustainable member of the waʻa Earth crew.  


Christian Erickson is a Kupu Community Resiliency AmeriCorps VISTA member and is currently serving at Hawaiʻi Experimental Tropical Forests in Hilo. Before coming to Hawaiʻi, he earned a Masters Degree in Climate Change Adaptation from North Carolina State University.


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