A day in the life: as a Kohala Watershed Partnership volunteer

For some time I have been thinking about volunteering for the Kohala Watershed Partnership. It just seemed like the right thing to do. So one day while throwing back a coffee at the local Starbucks, I see a sign up sheet for the Starbucks volunteer day, and without a second thought, I move in with my pen ready to sign up. It seemed like a good time to take a breather from my daily weed pulling and planting and go do some weed pulling and planting somewhere else, while surrounded by lovely, engaging citizens. It helped too that it was MLK Jr day, and I always like to do something positive and community minded on that particular holiday.

So what does a day look like? We arrived at the Kohala Center at 8:30am and chatted as we drank from the coffee canisters that our Starbucks reps lovingly brought along, we signed wavers,snacked on our breakfasts then gathered into a circle where we introduced ourselves. We came from different walks of life, and to me represented the best of what society has to offer: go getter community builders who know the value in gathering together for a good cause. The cause was planting 600 lovely little native shrubs into the forest preserve, while also puling up the invasive grasses, and shrubs. I will spare you my attempt at recalling the Native Hawaiian name of the shrub we later planted.

We were loaded into 2wd transportation and talked the whole way. We buzzed up the steep slope of the Kohala mountain in no time. The equipment was unloaded by Kukui, Tawn and Cody while and we got a brief talk about the program from the Coordinator, Melora. There were many seasoned "regulars" in the volunteer crowd that made us feel at ease, I mean they had survived, and came back for more. We then carried what we thought we each could handle up into the mountain forest trail. We stopped to hear points of interest, as well as see the noticable lack of trees from destruction by cattle on one side of the fence, exotic (to a Wisconsin girl) Native Hawaiian trees on the other side of the fence. Volunteers eagerly grab native shrub starts

The day was split into two teams, two sections. The weed puller team and the planting team. I opted to be a weed puller teammate in the cooler morning hours. Plus I am notorious for doing the “hard work” before I am allowed the more fun task. So the weeders grabbed our pick axes and off we went. I clung pretty close to the Coordinator Melora, whose passion and enthusiasm was infectious. This well traveled woman has found her home and her calling here on the Kohala mountain. I hacked away at some of the same plants that I battle in my own farm, hand pulling fire weed and carefully crawling around the looming prickly pear cactus. Melora pointed out how the introduction of the bio control moth was working on the withering cactus. I know that that cactus doesn’t belong there, but I could not help thinking of childhood field trips to the Milwaukee Botanical domes where such a cactus wooed my tiny botanically inclined heart. But here in Hawaii…it is a no no. So I resisted my heart string urges and hacked on through the brush trying not to be wooed by the invasives. I also tried to “zip it” and just work away at times, and concentrate on the thorns and brambles and task at hand, but the conversations flowed so easily between us all, that I chatted my heart out for the entire day.

A Native tree

We broke for lunch and gathered together near the now dry creek that was flowing last week, and will again flow with the heavy rains that are falling as I type. The teams switched positions, and the weeders now became planters with team leaders Cody and Kukui. We were instructed by Cody to think about the way the water flowed across the landscape, so to plant the shrublings were they were most likely to thrive. It was a poetic moment that punctuated the afternoon heat with silent thoughts of the future of these plants, the future results of our actions. A few of us pulled into ourselves and tried our best to imagine the rains coming to nurture the tiny ones. In the midst of a 9 year drought, these plants need all of the help they can get. Cody and Kukui both had a way of surveying the land with eyes that are filled with a knowledge that I personally did not possess. They knew the good spots for these young plantings, and were rewarded by seeing their earlier successes rising up through the powdery red soil. I tried my best to channel this knowledge in some way, for the plant’s sake. I also tried my best to wrestle a pumpkin recipe out of guide Kukui, whose heart shined through his smile like a beacon for us all. In the mid afternoon heat, I tormented my fellow planters with talk of all things food. I am ruled by my stomach, and seemed to scream that loud and clear as I encouraged my workmates to swap recipes as we worked. Here we were high atop the Kohala mountain talking about chow while our dwindling supply of snacks was left behind us at the “lunch camp.”

Melora joined us and encouraged us to walk a bit more so to see the beautiful spot that is featured in my photo above. Orange lichen clinging to ancient stones beneath a tree that would make anyone swoon. The tree, a stoic elder that would watch over the young plantings, as we turned to go. Stephanie, Cody and I walked back to the gathering place. We rested with the group, and celebrated our companionship beneath trees that had seen many years of volunteers. I shared the last of my lunch pail, and accepted an apple offering from Malora. I was joined by the young Ruby, who’s child frame sprung from rock to rock like a forest nymph. She showed me the wonders of how to weave grass and leaves into zig zags. I thanked her for joining us, and she offered up an explanation well beyond her years. Adorned with the blazen red hair of a Klimt painting, she pushed up her glasses and looked deep into my eyes and said simply, “I have decided that I am going to take care of this place.” Her earnest words made a tear start to form in my eye. I quickly swatted back the tear and feigned that it was a mosquito. But that was no mosquito, and everyone was on to me. The soft heart was there exposed, and ready to fill that creek bed with tears of love. I carried those wise words upon my shoulders all the way back to the van. Ruby, her Mother and I sat together in the same seat row. When the door slid shut, Ruby exclaimed, “There are three red heads in the same row!” Elated at the genetic lottery that would bond us for life, we laughed in solidarity at the many ways that strangers can connect if they make an effort to.

We filed out of the van and into each others arms with hugs, good wishes, and number exchanges. As we drifted off many of us pledged to return, and like the sweet child Ruby, we would also vow to take care of “this place,” however we define that.


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