Poetry for the ʻōhiʻa tree

"Inā ʻaʻole lākou, ʻaʻole kākou" ("If there is no them, there is no us")

Craig Santos Perez

ʻŌhiʻa tree along the Kuli’ou’ou ridge trail | Alan Levine/Creative Commons

The ʻōhiʻa is one of the most important native trees in Hawaiʻi. Native birds and snails, who themselves are endangered, depend on the ʻōhiʻa for food and shelter. The beautiful, flowering tree is also significant to Hawaiian genealogy, culture, literature and arts.

Tragically, Hawaiʻi’s ʻōhiʻa forests are under attack from a disease called Rapid ʻŌhiʻa Death (ROD), which decimates trees within just a few weeks, leaving behind white skeletons. In the past few years, more than 100,000 trees have died from the disease, with many more threatened.

Many researchers, scientists, activists and conservationists are working to protect the ʻōhiʻa. The Seed Conservation Laboratory at UHM’s Lyon Arboretum has started an “ʻōhiʻa love” campaign to collect and save ‘ōhiʻa seeds. (For more information, and to donate, go here. Additional information can be found here.)

I am currently teaching an “Eco-Poetry” undergraduate course in the English department at the University of Hawaiʻi, Mānoa (UHM). We study and write poetry addressing the themes of nature, environmentalism, ecology, climate change, food and animals. We believe that poetry (and the humanities in general) have the power to raise awareness and cultivate empathy, compassion and care.

Students in my class have written poems as our way to express our love for the ʻōhiʻa. We offer these poems in two segments over the course of a week. Feel free to share our voices, and to write your own poems in response. (Read part 2)


Ka ʻŌhiʻa
By Leilani Portillo

There is a ʻōlelo noʻeau that says
“He aliʻi ka ʻāina, he kauā ke kanaka.”

The ʻōhiʻa tree
Faces a premature death.
A fungus is consuming
The forest.

In just two weeks,
Hundreds more ʻōhiʻa trees will be dead.
It’s not a painless death
For the tree is strangled
The sapwood plugged
And it cannot transport water.

Ka ʻiʻiwi
Ka ʻapapane
Ka ʻākohekohe
Depend on the ʻōhiʻa
The island’s water supply
Depends on the ʻōhiʻa
Depends on the ʻōhiʻa
Depend on the ʻōhiʻa

Just like the ʻōlelo noʻeau
“He aliʻi ka ʻāina, he kauā ke kanaka.”
The land is chief and the people are its servants.
No laila,
Inā ʻaʻole lākou, ʻaʻole kākou.
If there is no them, there is no us.


How to Survive Rapid Death

by Ryan Gapelu

How do you repel a disease
That poisons your blood so severely
It withers you to an ashen white husk
Like the dust you were born from
Stripping the life from your bones

How do you repel a disease
That does not care
That your love for each other
Is so deeply rooted
The gods dared not see
You apart

How do you mourn the sound
Of a thousand quiet deaths
Gnashing teeth? Pulling hair?
Bloodying ourselves
Regretting that we could not protect you

How do we fight?
How do we fight?

We mourn—then stand, ready
Because this is not the first time
Rapid death has come to Oceania
This is not the first time
Diseased white bodies have sprouted in our stead
This is not the first time
Our living have been outnumbered by our dead
We have been here before

How do we fight?

We carry the dead in us
We hold sacred breath
Over the last ‘ohi’a tree
We pray over archived seeds
We await your return
We do not forget

We breathe life into ‘Ohi’a
We run our hands across the name
Like our fingers caressing the twisted body
He was cast in
We carve the blushing red beauty
Of the name Lehua onto our tongues
And remember the depth of her love
Was infinite

We dance the memory of the lovers
Into our songs and stories
That they should always live again

We do not forget
‘Ohi’a and Lehua have conquered death before
We do not forget
They could do it again
Do not forget
Do not forget
Do not forget
The loss of their memory
Is the true rapid death


Lele Nā ʻUhane o Nā ʻOhiʻa
by Jessica Carpenter

A ruby heart
Caged in frosty ribs of snow
With each pluck of this soft thorny gem
Falls a crackling flood
A blessing, a cry, a breathe of life to wash away drought

A pale opal pearl
Encased in grey, brittle shell
For every fall
A feather dusts the pine below
With the absence of a single pluck
With the silence of a chant
With the stifling of a breathe
To put out every fiery cheek

Your crowns fall down
Constant as the rain it causes
And silent as a slap from an axe is brutal
Its quiet, roaring passionate fiery ʻeleu mana
Plummets to a flatline
What used to be a beautiful sunrise
To hōʻike the blossoms of life you laid to birth
Is now shameful exploitation
To the tune of excruciating silence

A dry dark congregation
As each bone laid to rest
After each bud has leaped
Lele nā ʻuhane


The Tree Snail
Mireille Doth

You know others have the wrong idea about folk like me.
They figure we got a home that we walk around with safe and warm.
Keeps the rain off our backs, and the bad guys from getting in,
but you know a house is not a home.
A home is where you eat and get shelter from the sun.
My home was the Ohi’a.
A pretty amazing home at that.
Erupting in crimson and ivory.
Flourishing by the side of the road.
I only saw the others when they extracted buds to create leis.
Never bothered me much.     
Always more blooms the next day,
but now the flowers come No more.
No nectar
No shade
A dead thing                        
The sun beats down
and I am thirsty
and ravenous
and destitute
Dying in my own shell, and no one seems to care.
No flowers for their fair leis, but I have lost my cradle, and my dusk has come. 


Eulogy of the ʻōhiʻa

Christina Lee

Are we so different,
you and I?
Like Eve,
the lovely lehua blossom grows
upon the twisted ʻōhiʻa tree.

Picking the blossom,
severing Man from his
a separation of matrimonial harmony
of Nature
and Man.

what is left
but the melancholic melodies,
thousands of millions dead
in no greater than a decade;

For the last of the ‘Apapane have died
with the Death of Man;
and a eulogy is chanted
in the funeral filled with
scattered brown leaves
underneath its bone-white branches.

As the last blossom falls,
turning crimson petals into blood,
we mourn sweet sorrow,
the death of Good
& the skeletal remnants
of Mankind.


Forever ʻŌhiʻa
Zach Donovan

Oh, Beautiful ʻŌhiʻa tree
Sacred to all mighty Pele
Her spirit thrives along your fiery red and yellow flowers
You are the first spark of life to rise when her lava rushes down the mountains
You are quite a brilliant creation
Helping provide food for many birds and watershed cover for our water supply

We cry, we cry, we cry
At the sight of your bone dry skeletons
I don’t know why this deadly disease is on this earth
But what I do know is
It’s given us an unstoppable drive to make sure you never disappear
Your seeds have been getting stored for decades
Making sure your beauty and health will never leave the islands