Rough branches brushed our car. Birds cawed nearby. The jungle was impenetrable—we could see only a short distance in any direction. Had we been utterly naive? We were, after all, driving by ourselves deep into an unfamiliar jungle searching for a prison. Following the advice of locals, who had assured John and I that the prison was the only location on the big Island of Hawaii selling items carved of Kou wood, we had set off that morning, along a long road leading deep into the jungle.
Trees have inspired me all my life. As a small child, I found escape from family troubles in a simple, roofless tree house—a stumpy box, really–constructed by my father in the hefty fruitless mulberry canopying our back yard. Trees provide places for little girls to escape.
In cold climates, when tree leaves unfurl in spring, they transform our grey-brown world. In fall, when they reveal their true colors, they remind us of hidden truths unveiled.
Trees offer windbreaks, fruit, nesting sites, and covering for plants and animals. They give flat vistas verticality, produce oxygen, and even clean the soil. And inside their protective coverings, their rings and burls affirm the remarkable beauty hidden throughout creation.
“Just follow the road inland,” the locals had said. “Keep driving. It’s a ways, but if you keep going, you’ll get there.” So they’d said.
We had been “going” for nearly two hours, and it looked like we were getting nowhere. Edgy, we considered turning back. And then, we saw it–a high, cut-edge barbed wire fence came into view where the jungle parted. Now we just had to climb out of the safety of our car, call someone on the phone attached to the prison gate, and ask to be let in.
Before long, we found ourselves inside the prison in a room displaying an array of products carved by inmates out of native woods. We bought a Kou fish tray as a gift for my mother (which I have today), and then drove two hours back the way we came.
John and my appreciation of native Hawaiian woods began when we first traveled to Kauai on our honeymoon. For Californians, the islands were a common destination. Of course, like other visitors, we loved everything—snorkeling, sunsets, grilled ahi from our favorite restaurant, the Dolphin. Greenery. Green valleys, green trees, green jungle vegetation. And products local artisans made from native Hawaiian trees.
On our first trip, we stopped at a small woodworking shop and were greeted by a graying woodcarver of Hawaiian ancestry who showed us a few unfinished vases from a Kou tree. The old woodcarver told us the Kou was going extinct; the carvings were from one found downed naturally. And so we bought a vase.
It was years later that we set out on our quest to find this second Kou product in the jungle at the big island’s prison.
In those years, we did not understand the impact humans were having on native trees in Hawaii and elsewhere. We did see the beauty hidden in the trees’ bowels.
Fortunately, the Kou is still living in parts of the Islands. But other trees in our world are disappearing. According to a 2017 Newsweek article, “9,600 types of trees” across the planet are “threatened by extinction.” Such extinctions are particularly devastating in rich and fragile natural environments, like Hawaii.
Home to over 10,000 endemic species (native species, found nowhere else on earth), Hawaii’s forests helped conserve water, allowing this stunning assemblage to thrive. These forests are now among the world’s most endangered, though, due largely to the invasion of humans, pigs, cows, goats, rats, insects, and non-native plants introduced in the past few centuries.
Over the years I’ve learned to ask questions about the wood products I purchase, to ensure that I am not purchasing products from endangered species.
My environmental awareness is under development, and I trust I am growing wiser with the years.
Trees like the Kou and others native to Hawaii are worth all of our endeavors to save them. For the trees themselves; for our interconnected ecosystem; for ourselves, our children, and our children’s children not yet born—working to save whole forests and individual tree species from extinction is imperative. Trees—appreciating and saving them–are part of the reason I began this blog. And they are a reason I’ll keep trying to find my way to make a difference.