Sacred Forests Part Eight – The Soul of the Forest

Sacred Forests
Part¬†Eight –¬†The Soul of the Forest

By Sam Low

On the day that Nainoa and the delegation from Hawaii traveled to Schelikoff Island in Alaska to receive the gift of spruce trees, the forest was dense with life. There were flights of raven and Canada geese, solitary rufous hummingbirds and bald eagles, Sitka black tailed deer, moose and brown bear. But for all this, it was the trees themselves that astonished the Hawaiians – colonnades of trees that shadowed the landscape all around so that little grew beneath the tall canopy, producing a feeling that the land had been swept clean by some unknowable and fastidious spirit.

“There were representatives from Sealaska and the Native Hawaiian Culture and Arts Program,” Nainoa recalls. “Wright Bowman, our master builder who would make Hawai’iloa from the trees was there. A Kupuna named Keli’i Tau’a conducted the Hawaiian chants alongside Paul Marks who came to chant for the Tlingit people and Sylvester Peele who chanted for the Haida people. My mother and father were there. Judson and Byron were there. When we walked down to the trees from where we parked the trucks everyone was talking, it was so beautiful and invigorating, but when we got there and looked up at the trees it became very quiet.”

“We thanked the spirit of the forest for the gift of the trees,” Nainoa continues. “First we thanked them in Hawaiian and then we thanked them in the Tlingit language. We were two very different cultures, from two very different lands, but it seemed to me that we gave thanks in a way that was very similar. We were two people separated by a great distance and by history, but we thought about the spirit of the land in a way that was very similar.”

When the ceremony was finished, Ernie Hillman and his crew moved forward. Nainoa remembers the sound of chain saws reverberated through the forest, a sound that seemed for a time to sever a still place deep inside him. He appreciated the expertise of the foresters – how they knew exactly where to make a wedge-shaped cut to aim the trees’ descent and how they left a hinge of wood at a precise point in the cut to slow the rate of fall. Yet for many of the Hawaiians who watched, it also felt as if they saws were cutting into living flesh. They had never seen such trees before, and they had certainly never participated in the death of such a massive life form.

“I couldn’t watch,” Nainoa remembers. “Out of respect for the gift and for Ernie and his men, we had to stay while the trees were cut. But when the final moment came, I had to look down at the ground. I only looked up when the first tree had finally fallen but I will never forget the sound it made. It was like a scream of agony from the very soul of the forest.”

Shortly after Nainoa returned from Alaska he received an envelope postmarked Juneau. Inside was a letter from Byron Mallot, a response to a question Nainoa, deeply shaken by the cutting of the trees, had asked him on the way back to Ketchekan – “do you think personally that we should have the trees?”

“Both the reality and the symbolism of the (Hawai’iloa) project,” Byron wrote, “brings hope and inspiration to all peoples seeking to maintain their traditions, heritage and culture. In a society that does not place a high priority on such things – except when they may touch a nerve – you help nurture shared values through an expression of such vision, initiative and sheer innate beauty and strength that all can feel ennobled by it. The voyaging project is that kind of expression. You do it for the Hawaiian people but it reaches far beyond. In your canoe you carry all of us who share your vision and aspirations for a people to live and prosper with their future firmly built on a knowledge of their heritage and traditions.”

On July 24, 1993, Hawai’iloa was finally launched. A few weeks later, sea trials began. Byron Mallot flew in from Juneau to stay with Nainoa for a week and to take a voyage aboard the canoe.

“Byron came to Hawaii for one of the original sea trials of Hawai’iloa,” Nainoa remembers, “and when he walked on board the crew members didn’t really know who he was. They knew he gave us the trees, but they didn’t know the man. He is a very quiet and private man and when he came aboard he didn’t say much. It was not like him to give a speech.”

“When we were sailing, I saw him climb into one of the hulls. He was fiddling around there but I didn’t pay much attention to it. Then suddenly he called out my name – pretty loudly. I thought that something must have happened, so I ran over and I looked down at him and there were tears flowing down his face. He looked up at me and he said, ‘Hawaii Loa is alive. These trees are alive.'”