The ‘alalā and aloha aina: Interning with the ‘alalā education program (Part 2)

Field study often means the opportunity for a student to explore a new land and culture; I chose to use my time in the field to better learn about my current community, having recently moved from San Diego to Kailua, Hawai’i at the end of 2018.  This past summer, I visited Hawai’i island for the first time with fellow Project Dragonfly students on an Earth Expedition (EE).  I found myself in a strange juxtaposition of understanding more about Hawai’i than many of my fellow classmates, and yet not understanding nearly enough.   

Since moving to Hawai’i last year, I had noticed local residents spoke of the islands with a special reverence.  Although I saw beauty all around me, I did not understand this deep love for the islands.  Aloha is a word that has three meanings: hello, goodbye, and also love.  There is a connection between aina, the land, and the people in native Hawai’ian culture.  Aloha aina, love for the land, is more than an affinity for nature; it is the personal responsibility one takes towards natural resources, and the understanding that we coexist with nature.  

While venturing into protected native forests on Hawai’i island for bird watching, I could imagine what Hawai’i was like when Polynesian voyagers first arrived to the islands around 400 C.E.  These quiet moments were ripe with the understanding that I was listening to species threatened by extinction, and standing in small pockets of forest which once flourished all over the island.  It brought into context how the people who have dedicated their careers to protecting native Hawai’ian species are bearing a heavy burden.  Working and learning with members of local organizations during the EE showed me the emotional attachment that is aloha aina in a tangible manner. 

I was also privileged to experience the pieces of the ‘alalā education program which I had previously only read or heard about during my internship with the Institute of Conservation Research (see Part 1 of this blog post for more information).  

We visited Volcano Charter School, where the education program was first pioneered.  I appreciated learning about the same native Hawai’ian species that the children participating in the ‘alalā education program learned about, such as ohia lehua, i’iwi, ‘alalā, and koa.  Everywhere we went, we said a place’s name to ground us in the place and honor it.  By eating, drinking, and breathing of the land, it became a part of us.  E ola ‘oe, e ola makou nei, “you live, so we can live”.  These words carry more than their translation, for during this EE I also learned that the native Hawai’ian language was almost lost.  By embracing native Hawai’ian words, we help keep this beautiful language alive.

For me, the most poignant experience of this trip was touring the Keauhou Bird Conservation Center.  I came face-to-face with the ‘alalā for the first time on a rainy morning, shortly after learning about the tireless efforts of staff members and volunteers to preserve native Hawai’ian birds.  Reaching over 20 inches in length and as intelligent as any other corvid, this impressive crow captivated me.  As I listened to the cultural history of this magnificent bird and the struggle to keep the species alive, my eyes filled with tears.  The ‘alalā was once held as a guardian of the forest; just as they nearly disappeared forever, native Hawai’ian forests were almost completely lost. The ‘alalā’s call enveloped my mind, and I was struck by the knowledge that this species could still go extinct.

My awe for this bird reminded me that the middle grade students participating in the ‘alalā environmental education program also have an opportunity to learn about conservation in Hawai’i.  

I can imagine the awe they must feel to come face-to-face with this almost extinct bird, hear its call, and learn its stories.  I vividly remember reading one remark from a student on a post-program survey that said conservation means they might one day hear the call of the ‘alalā near their home.  When I think about the depth of that statement, it is incredible.  Conservation is often a quiet battle; most of the time we (the public) do not hear its stories or face the species struggling for survival.  At the Keauhou Bird Conservation Center, however, the battle lines have been clearly drawn.  It gives me hope to know that young students are having the same opportunity to witness and learn about the fight to keep native Hawai’ian species alive.  More importantly, though, it gives me hope that future generations will choose to support conservation. 

After these incredible experiences of learning alongside my fellow Project Dragonfly students and working with fellow conservationists, I now see that Hawai’i is more than a beautiful place.  Hawai’i is the lifeblood of unique species, the birthplace of an important culture, and a treasured home to millions of people.  Although Hawai’ian biodiversity is in danger of continued losses, I know that aloha aina will persist.  I have seen firsthand through the EE and ‘alalā education program the dedication to sustainability that aloha aina instills within local community members, and I have faith that this dedication will preserve native Hawai’ian species and habitats for generations to come.  

When it comes time for me to move away from these beautiful islands, I will carry the spirit of aloha aina with me in my conservation efforts.  Hawai’i and aloha aina will forever be lodged in my heart, a continued reminder that loving nature is an integral part of environmental stewardship.

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