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The Hawaiian Studies garden, Kahualoa, ensures the physical & spiritual self-sufficiency of Hawaii for generations, says caretakers

landscape upward shot of taro plant leaves in a taro patch
Indigenous plants growing in the BYUH Hawaiian Studies garden on campus. 

Lono Logan, born and raised in Laie and kalo caretaker at Kahualoa, the Hawaiian Studies garden on campus, said, “Kalo is not some random plant. We treat it as an ancestor.”

In Hawaiian mythology, Haloa Naka, the first-born son of Wakea (sky father) and Papa (earth mother) was stillborn, according to They buried him, and out of his body grew the kalo plant. Papa became pregnant again and gave birth to a healthy baby boy named Haloa (everlasting breath) in honor of his older brother, the kalo. Haloa was fed the kalo and is considered to be the first Hawaiian.

Logan said he sees the different varieties of kalo grown at Kahualoa in the same way the Lord sees his children. “Some of his children are very colorful. … Some grow straight up, some grow out. They all have their unique characteristics and flavors, and they’re all important.”

He said he does not have a favorite variety of kalo (taro), just as the Lord doesn’t have a favorite people, either. Logan said Kamoa’e Walk, a Hawaiian Studies professor from Utah, used to say, “I never met a kalo I didn’t like.”

Walk said Kahualoa has many meanings, but he typically defines it as the “foundation for life” because a variety of plants are grown there. The plants grown range from guava to passion fruit and from ulu to turmeric. However, he said the most space is dedicated to the coconuts, several unique varieties of bananas and kalo.

“We try to maintain the garden as closely as possible to the ways our kupuna or ancestors did,” said Walk, adding how no herbicides, pesticides or chemical-based fertilizers are used in Kahualoa.

Walk said he has worked in Kahualoa since it began in 1999 and personally planted most of the native plants growing there now. “We have had to remove ... a lot of invasive plants that now thrive in our environments and replant endemic and native plants,” he said.

Many of them are edible. Walk said some are even used in traditional Hawaiian medicine.

Learning from the ‘aina

“The ‘aina is our teacher in many profound ways. We just have to take the time to listen and learn from her,” Walk shared. “I say ‘her’ because, in our mo’oku’auhau, or genealogy, the earth, Papa, is our mother, and the sky, Wakea, is our father.”

Logan, who has worked with kalo for 10 years, shared he originally didn’t plan to take the career path of kalo caretaker. “My ancestral ghosts came bothering me,” he said.

Though he grew up around kalo patches, he didn’t really remember them until he started working with them again as an adult. “It started to work in me,” he explained. With the help of friends and family, Logan said he found a passion for cultivating kalo and pounding poi.

a landscape shot of a taro patch and surrounding greenery
The taro gardens at Kahualoa are grown in traditional ways.

Traditionally called papa ku‘i ‘ai, he said he takes poi pounding seriously. “You’re making food, and when you’re making food for someone else, you have to be in the right frame of mind.”

Preparing food transfers energy to those who eat it because the kalo leaf collects energy from the sun to grow, he explained. “Everything [in Hawaiian mythology] is very symbolic, similar to the gospel. … Everything has a purpose. It’s not just random. It’s specific.”

For him, growing and cultivating kalo is a learning process because he said he grew the first mala, or dry patch of kalo, at Kahualoa entirely by hand using traditional techniques. However, he said in the coming years, Kahualoa may expand and use more modern technology to help plant and harvest the more than 30 varieties of kalo grown at Kahualoa.

However, he said he prefers to plant kalo in the traditional way because it is a restoration of the way people used to plant in Kahualoa and Laie. He said doing everything the way his ancestors did, including planting according to the phases of the moon, helps him learn what his ancestors knew.

At Kahualoa, Logan said he experiments with growing different varieties of kalo to find out which ones grow best in specific environments and elevations.

Logan said one modern adjustment he has made is with his o’o, or Hawaiian digging stick. He added a steel blade on the end, which he said makes it more effective. Pre-contact Hawaiians didn’t have access to steel, he added.

Logan translated Kahualoa as “the fruit of life” and said the plants growing there give life, not simply because they are food. Kahualoa is “a place that was designated for growing our traditional foods and letting it grow us,” he said. “You don’t get that in a regular classroom.”

Logan said he takes care of the 47 varieties of kalo at the Polynesian Cultural Center. “A lot of locals don’t know there’s that many,” Logan added. “You have to have a relationship with [your environment].”

Living off the land

Kaiana Runnels, a BYUH alumnus who now lives on the Big Island in the town of Laupahoehoe, also described a deep spiritual connection to Kahualoa. “Kahualoa is like a piko for me,” he said, referring to the Hawaiian word for the navel, a place where nutrients or energy transfer into something. He said his current life trajectory started at Kahualoa.

Runnels now works for the Kaloa Center, a non-profit organization that turns ancient knowledge into modern practice. He runs a farm similar to Kahualoa as a living classroom for students all over the eastern half of the Big Island.

“I shuttle in students to our farm. ... I go to their schools and teach them about these plants and how to plant them and why they’re so important.”
He said Hawaii’s food security is a big concern for him. Before European contact, he explained, Hawaiians were entirely self-sufficient and harvested everything they needed from the islands and the ocean. Today, however, he said 90 percent of food is imported.

landscape illustration of the purple taro plant with green leaves and labeled parts
Everything except the roots are edible if boiled/heated. The different colors of the piko and ha are easy ways to differentiate between varieties.

Runnels said he lives on the slope of Mauna Kea, giving him a good view of the shipping barges coming in every Tuesday and sailing out every Thursday. He said he often wonders what would happen if one day the barges stopped coming.

“I worry the day may come that our people might be hungry,” he said. Now, he teaches children and teens about growing, gathering, traditional medicine and everything they might need to provide for themselves where they are.

Runnels said his students each recently designed a dream garden for their house and submitted the designs to him. Then, Runnels gathered all of the plants, along with the tools to plant, maintain and harvest them, and dropped them off at each student’s house. He got the parents and grandparents involved too, he said, turning it into a multi-generational project.

“They’re thriving,” he said of the gardens now, as well as the students. “We need to get them rooted in our culture young so we don’t lose them to the prison system, or the U.S. military system, or all these other places, when we need them in Hawaii.”

He said he highly recommends BYUH students engage with Kahualoa as much as they can. “It’s a life changing piece of ‘aina. It’s an ancient cultural experience with the heiau above it, but it’s needed today still. … Kahualoa is a great model for communal living and communal feeding. It could feed a lot of people if something were to go wrong.

“Put your feet in that lepo, the soil. Put your feet in the vai, the water in the lo’i.” •