This the the 4th day of the trip to Kaua’i, a small “country” island of the Hawaiian archipelago, a place that islanders fondly and quietly assert is the “real Hawai’i.” This blog is roughly three days late, but I will do my best.
The day started leisurely, if early, at the usual waking hour of 6:00 am. Jody and I have discovered a favorite and relatively cheap breakfast of ulu fries (breadfruit), a couple of boiled eggs, fresh papaya that gives off a splendid perfumy aroma, and kona coffee. I often augment my breakfast with a fresh coconut water (a coconut “tapped” with a straw). Tom, my guide at the Allerton Botanical Garden, reported that breadfruit was a complete food — containing complex carbohydrates, all amino acids, and protein.
That excited me. I was already fairly certain I could thrive on a diet of breadfruit, eggs, and coconut water and this just drove the point home.
We met Tom, a transplant from Washington State who arrived in Honolulu 40 years ago for spring break and never left, in one of the most famous and scientifically viable botanical gardens in the world. He clearly had a passion for his home, and seemed to epitomize a temperament I’ve seen about: a willful insistence on having the good of the day, a commitment to it, and to the grace, humor, and subtle protectiveness that it warrants.
The people of this island, natives and transplants, scientists and surfers, seem to share a love and respect for the land as aina, striking a balance between generous sharing and fierce protection. After all, the ubiquitous coastline is a constant reminder of the land’s limits — it’s changing shores subject to the whims of water and wind, and the things they carry.
The archipelago is one of the most isolated on the planet, its clement surface a perfect canvas for a revel of biodiversity, most of which was introduced by “wind, wave, and wing,” as Tom pointed out. When the people migrated from the Marquesas Islands and established a native Hawaiian culture, they brought seedlings, pigs, dogs, and chickens; the plants were called “canoe plants.” Until they arrived, there were only 2 mammals native to the islands, one of which is the Hawaiian monk seal, now endangered. As we snorkeled along the North shore’s Ke’e Beach, a monk seal paddled itself onto the shore to sunbathe. These rests are required for survival and the lifeguards quickly install a perimeter around the seal, who alternated between a bliss-like rest and a pensive yet curious engagement with the beach-goers.
The settlement trip across the Pacific was a 2 and half month sail, and represented a microcosm of society and everything necessary to successfully transplant it to the uninhabited islands of Hawai’i. They knew there was no turning back, and with the favor of the Gods, sound navigation, and expert sailing, they had faith they would settle a new land. And they did.
The Allerton Garden overlooks the Lawa’i valley, a place of extravagant and idealized tropical beauty cultivated by a flamboyant gay magnate in the early 20th century.
Before Robert Allerton, the enigmatic heir to a 400 million dollar fortune, settled and transformed the valley into his personal paradise, it was the property of Hawaiian royalty, most notably Queen Emma. Touring these gardens, the shocking pink of her bougainvillea still riots along the hillsides. Many of the trees she planted form an unmistakable towering canopy over the gardens. Robert preserved her plantings to honor her memory.
Queen Emma spent a lot of time here, most notably two month long retreats — one month after the death of her 4 year old son, and another month after the death of her husband. Jackie Kennedy followed this tradition, taking her children to the valley for a month after the assassination of her husband. And so, the bougainvillea recalls the salt-black tears of women in mourning. Yes, it also emits a resplendent joy, of loves gained and lost, of the sweet surrender to a well lived life.
The garden is the legacy of Robert Allerton and his partner, both talented and passionate devotees to design, architecture, and art. There were no arguments about gay marriage back in his day so he did what any self-respecting gay millionaire would do when partnered with a significantly younger man: he adopted him. This ensured that his legacy would legally transfer to his love and life partner.
I suppose it was the stories of love that most inspired me today. Among the towering ficus trees, the stories of Darwin’s plants nestled in the research gardens, the 500 year old botany books on site, the celebrities, glamour and royalty, the tales of humble Japanese tenant farmers, or of Nixon’s wingtips flashing in the sand as he surveyed the Lawa’i coast, I thought of love.
Among the changing cast of colorful characters, an open-hearted, broken-hearted love was the most vibrant settler in this sun-drenched valley.
The National Botanical Garden website just does not do its work or gardens justice. And if you go, ask for Tom. You’ll be glad you did.