In July, I traveled to the Big Island of Hawai’i with a group of classmates for my third and final Earth Expedition trip for my graduate degree. The theme of the course is “Saving Species”, and the focus is ostensibly on the question, “what does it take to save a species”. We journeyed from coastal Hilo on the eastern coast of the island, inland to Volcanoes National Park, and then up to the slopes of Mauna Kea, spending several days in the Hakalau National Wildlife Refuge, all the while looking at the issues facing native species of Hawai’i and the efforts to preserve, protect, and in some case reintroduce them.
We learned a lot of Hawaiian terms over the course of our adventure. From the concept of pau hana (a rest or break, but really… happy hour) to the oli, an invocation of sorts that shows recognition and respect while requesting admittance into a special place. Many of the words have different meanings, depending on the context. The one that stood out for me the most was the word huli’au.
The literal translation of huli’au is “flipping the current.” Depending on the context, it can simply mean “change” or “turning point”, but for me the deeper connotation is that of a paradigm shift; a fundamental change in how we approach and view the world. When Cheyenne used the term to discuss what needed to happen, that was a critical moment for me on this trip. That light bulb, a-ha, eureka moment. However, it wasn’t as much in regards to conservation or saving species, although it certainly applies. In fact, I have said we needed a paradigm shift in the environmental thinking of our culture for years. No, this was about me.
Metaphors using the sea, sailing, and the like are very much woven through my thinking in regards to my own life. Rough seas, fair winds, and so on. So the idea of “flipping the current” immediately struck a cord with me. It is evocative of a captain at the wheel of a ship and suddenly being faced with an unexpected change in the sea he thinks that he knows so well. He has a choice: adjust and ride the new direction, or fight the opposing flow. I realized in that moment that I had been fighting every change of the current in my life. Professionally, personally… It made me examine my own thinking and consider what I was fighting for.
One of the themes that was present throughout the course was how intertwined the cultural and spiritual aspect of Hawaiian life was with the conservation efforts. This was not something I has expected or considered going in. From the oli to the concept of aloha aina, the discussion of kuleana (stewardship and responsibility) and uka – to – kai (mountain to ocean), there is no land without the people, and vice versa. There is no separation of culture from conservation, and spirituality and being part of the land – the aina – is a given. Each place we visited, we learned not only the ecological story of the place, but the cultural one. Stories of Pele and Hi’iaka, Ohia and Lehua, Maui and Kane… the legends are tied to the people who are tied to the land that is tied to the legends. I found this level of connection inspiring, and also saw it as an opportunity to engage those that might not otherwise be interested in conservation, per se.
Of course, as always, the highlights of these trips for me is the new connections and friends I make. Amazing people from around the world, some older, some younger, each with their own story and viewpoint. In the hours before we get to work, the evenings after a long day, the lunch breaks, those moments of fun, of poignant conversation, personal sharing, and just being human together is where the friendships and bonds are forged. I feel fortunate to have had the chance to meet each and every person on this trip. It is bittersweet in some respects, as it is my last one as a student. Perhaps I will return as an instructor one of these days.