Alan L / 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, the ʻōhiʻa forests are under attack from a disease called Rapid ʻŌhiʻa Death (ROD), which decimates tree 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 1)
Give ʻŌhiʻa Love
ʻŌhiʻa tree, blossoms, Lehua flower. Long lost lovers, fates intertwined,
Roots that are ingrained with culture, preserving more than just nature.
Branches uprooted, twisting in the sky, you are home to many
You were the first to cultivate molten rock, a true survivor,
Now you are your own prey. Victim of Rapid ʻŌhiʻa
Death, thousands lost in just weeks. What can we
Do? Preserve, support, and spread the word
Hope is not yet lost for ʻŌhiʻa
Always remember that
A Promise to ʻŌhiʻa
Thumping through your core
Red, thick intravenous, intertwining,
Locked together, constricting,
Through the crust, lava bursts,
and gives birth.
Vulnerable and small,
the keiki ʻōhiʻa
a reflection of stars overarching,
blood pumps through,
green leaves deepen
their roaring rhythm calling
the ‘apapane, a heart in the sky,
perches and gulps,
its red feathers admired
from a woman afar.
Faintly, trembling, she answers the bird’s gaze,
he looks deep through her eyes
and sees anemia wrestling, cursing,
her weakening blood.
He flies over close, and whispers in her ear
secrets of healing
the kahuna lapaʻau once showed him.
The keiki ʻōhiʻa then takes her hand,
he lays in it
nā pono lapaʻau
to cure her aching blood.
The ‘apapane watches,
each day, and the woman grows strong,
heavy on her cheek, one day, a tear,
he asks her what’s wrong.
Her heart beating too full,
indebted to the ʻōhiʻa,
he whispers secrets of servitude
his life’s dedication,
for generation upon generation.
The morning sun beating,
the woman awoke and began walking,
heavy and strong,
each step on red dirt,
weighted with respect;
Kneeling down she looked up,
the sky endlessly tall,
the ʻōhiʻa, still small,
she begged to serve him,
to preserve him,
for her children, she knew,
may one day need him.
“When my grandchildren suffer,”
the ʻōhiʻa responds,
“from the tragedy i dreamt is still to come,
quickly—they will crumble,
ashes on molten ground,
and the Earth’s pulse
will make a new sound.
Tree after tree will drop,
melting into Earth,
and their redemption will fall with them,
landing in the hands of you and your children.”
The woman nodded in acceptance,
signifying her undying promise.
The ‘apapane takes another sip,
and around them—rustling lava,
cooling, slowly moving,
Now is the time,
the dreaded day has come,
we must keep the woman’s promise,
before the last ʻōhiʻa has gone.
He aliʻi ka ‘āina ke kanaka
by Robert Souza
“An attack on one is an attack on all.”
Different cultures speak different truths.
Does this epidemic affect the all, or does it affect the one?
Do the trees not give of themselves
To provide essence of life for animals and us?
Are we to let the luscious green scapes of our youth
Be reduced to a dark landscape?
How can we, when we have all seen
The beauty that came before it.
ʻŌhiʻa trees are thankless confidants,
Rarely do we recognize their importance.
Facing the threat of death.
Even so, they stay solemn and silent
Never asking for help.
And yet, we must intervene
To save the ʻŌhiʻa that have so cared for us.
Marcos Cruz Ortiz
Ears ringing from your screams
I turn my head
To the island of my birth
And feel your death.
What will happen when you are gone?
If it rains
When we lose your flower
And you your lover
Then will the mountains bleed
When we lose you?
What poison attacks
Your twisted branches?
Able to thrive in lava,
Petals capturing its glow
Yet you are helpless
To this invader—Intruder
He strangles you whole.
From our home
He chokes away
Years of growth
Years of blossoming.
Month and it’s over.
Your suffocated leaves
Lose their breath
Turn brown and fall.
I have lost thousands of you
How many more
Must I see vanish?
You who have watched my ancestors go
Cried raindrops on their last breath
I will shed frozen showers on yours.
What will happen when you are gone?
Will the mountains bleed onto me?
Pele’s sacred pua
Let these lovers be.
A Love Torn Apart
Blossoming out of molten rock
lava trickles through their bodies.
They glow red and fire heats their core.
Born from ashes,
she was gentle and sweet.
He was strong and handsome.
From the moment they met,
they were destined for each other.
But Pele wanted him for herself.
She courted and batted her eyes,
As he ignored her, glazed over
with love rooted deep in the earth.
This left Pele enraged with
Without hesitation she turned
ʻŌhiʻa into a twisted tree.
Then the mighty gods
reached down and placed Lehua
on the tree as she gracefully
transformed into a beautiful red flower.
But don’t be fooled.
This love story doesn’t
have a happy ending.
ʻŌhiʻa and Lehua are dying.
Devastated by natural disasters
and human destruction.
Their seeds are no longer fruitful.
They are fighting to stay together
and to stay alive.
Message Upon the Wind
The morning sky opened clear.
I made pause—
at the edge of a river
noting the wind,
blowing past, pulling color out of the air.
When we note tragedy,
When the drops of rain pulled from the deepest eye,
running down the leaves
soaking into the earth—
elemental creation seeking to bring Life.
We view death,
reverberating, coursing, humming its lute,
promising, foregone, campaigning
the seemingly inevitable degradation.
Bismillah, In the name of God,
How can this happen?
These days should be cloaked in an eternal rain.
Lovers are being torn apart,
Twisted from the inside Out.
Diseased invader infiltrating the roots
The birds cry for mercy upon the waves in the wind,
Long, red fingers, extension of a beating heart Reach,
prying to speak, attached to the dying arms of her lover.
Fanned, spindled, facing angles
hoping, pleading, licking the heat— the tendrils
arching up in humility to feel the warmth of the ascending sun
simply begging as to Why.
The river preserved in their union spirals up.
It creeps in, the consciousness alive in message,
absorbs into our skin.
He ali‘i ka ‘āina, he kauā ke kanaka.
I cannot divorce myself from what I must know.
Our existence from river to reed is one.
It was the rain that yielded the flower
And within this letter it speaks to reason
Provoke a thought, and move a current.
For to save what was and Saw the eye of eternity
is to take one small step towards absolution.
Selah is what we say,
To pause and think about what you just heard.
I say, Breathe it in.
Inshallah, and this message shall
Dialogue with an EverDying Tree
by Mary Archer
Good morning,ʻōhiʻa . Good morning, little one.
I heard a story about you. Yes, what did you hear?
Hawaiians say your gnarled wood and bloom are two lovers married. Ah, that one. Yes, I have heard it too.
Are the lovers fighting? Is their love dying? Why are so many of you aging quick and whitening?
Some loves die.
But so many of you are going. My people are crying. How could the red bloom go? Lehua? She grows tired. ʻ ōhiʻa does, too. But their seeds survive.
Then I will gather them.
Rest here a while, little one. Let us both remember how to ripen quiet and slow.