Stone Spirit Revival
THE LIVING ROCKS OF KĀNEIOLOUMA
I’m in the Hawaiian Islands this week for the Kauai Writer’s Conference that was taken online after I’d already booked my flight and lodging. So here I am working, swimming and also reading.
I’d saved Sharks in the Time of Saviors, a debut novel by Kawaii Strong Washburn expressly for this trip. Set here, it tells the story of a contemporary Hawaiian family struggling to survive in a fast-paced world with no time to honor the living or the dead.
I don’t know if it’s because of the book or something else but I can’t stop thinking about the Kānaka Maoli ancestors that inhabit every inch of this place and what wisdom they might offer a wall-obsessed Haole like me.
OF GODS AND TOURISTS
When I type the words “wall” and “ancient” and “Kaua’i” a native Hawaiian village called “Ke Kāhua O Kāneiolouma” appears in my browser. Clicking the link I am directed to a website operated by the local nonprofit overseeing the restoration of the village.
Paging through the site, I learn that Kāneiolouma is the oldest intact village of its kind anywhere in the islands. It’s located in nearby Koloa, a 25-minute drive from where I am staying.
Situated across the street from touristy Poʻipū Beach, the 13-acre site dates back to the 1400’s when Kaua’i was an undiscovered, sovereign state with its own king and thriving culture.
Aerial photos of the site reveal a compact parcel surrounded on three sides by a newly built perimeter wall. The fourth side abuts a parking lots filled with cars and a row of refuse bins.
My eyes are drawn to the northeast corner of the property where four carved Hawaiian deities stand staring out over the tumbled remains of walls that once belonged to houses, temples, fishponds and taro patches.
Even though the village is closed to the public, I decide to go see it anyway. From reading Sharks in the Time of Saviors, I have a hunch there’s more to the stones at Kāneiolouma than their stolid volcanic aesthetic might suggest.
PARADISE PAVED AND BROILED
Two hours later, accompanied by my oldest daughter, Paige, I drive south to Koloa—snorkeling gear stashed in the back, just in case.
When Paige and I turn off the highway, we are immediately greeted by the wooden faces of Kāne Lono, Kū,and Kanaloa, the four primary Hawaiian gods, and the sparkling sea straight ahead.
With the restoration still in its early phases, Kāneiolouma isn’t an obvious cultural site. Were it not for these four gods, the village could easily be mistaken for an abandoned development.
As I pull the rental car into the crowded lot directly adjacent to the village, I wonder aloud how the nearby Gods feel about the sun-screened vacationers who triangulate between the lot, the sand and Brennecke’s Beach Broiler, seemingly unaware of the archeological gem a few feet away.
“It’s pretty random,” Paige says.
BEHIND THE BINS, BACK IN TIME
Paige joins me at the perimeter wall where we survey the site trying to conjure how it might have looked seven hundred years earlier. It’s hard to see what isn’t there.
After awhile Paige heads to the beach to scope out the snorkeling while I continue around the perimeter of the property, puzzling over the linear rock patterns that are the remains of the village’s interior walls.
I feel like I’m meant to understand something but as an outsider—literally and figuratively—I’m not sure.
Eventually I arrive back at the parking lot. That’s when I notice the brightly painted refuse bins and the grassy, open area that marks the southern flank of the village. Stepping over broken bottles and a cardboard box, I step behind the bins into another world. There before me is a brackish pond where the ancient Hawaiians who lived here once farmed fish. I see a squared off area that might have been used to grow vegetables.
OLD AS STONE
I eye a small pile of volcanic rock near the fishpond. Bending down, I lay my hand against one of the stones, feeling for the long-ago lives that are supposed to rest inside. Native Hawaiians or Kanaka (their preferred ʻŌlelo language moniker) believe the spirits of their ancestors—all of whom are part of one earth-born family—live on in the landscape of the natural world. This explains why stewardship of the land and sea are prioritized in Hawaiian culture.
At first, it’s a struggle to animate the rock, which is rough and hot under my fingers. But after a while it comes to me—I feel something shift inside my hand and then in my heart.
Today is my father-in-law’s birthday—or would be were he still with us. Papa passed away in 2012 way before his time.
What comes to me is not the face of an ancient villager but Papa—who I loved like a father and gave into when he insisted I name his grandson after the dozen or so Johns that came before him because family names “matter”—
—Papa who once told me he believed in reincarnation, which I’m pretty sure I dismissed at the time.
For the first time, I understand why Papa, who was not a pushy guy, made such an issue of the ancestral name. It’s a bridge that name; one that connects the living and the dead.
Back in California, I phone Rupert Rowe, an 80-year-old native Hawaiian and Kāneiolouma Po’o—Chief, who tells me about the Pōhaku scattered across the site and how their shape, size and location “speak” for those who came before. It is from these ancestral stones, says Rowe, that the village’s modern day masons, Peleke Flores and Kaina Makua, take their instruction.
After we speak, I watch videos in which Flores and Makua speak about their process. Rather than mortar or glue, they rely on gravity, balance and instinct to set the stones.
From Flores I learn how he and Makua study the fall line of a ruined wall—noting where and how the rocks have tumbled to puzzle-out the original design.
“We’re stacking upon what our Kupuna already stacked,” Flores says in the video.
They won’t bring any stones from outside the village. Everything the masons need is there, waiting, to be put right for the next generation.