Cultivating an Ancient Wisdom

Growing, gathering and teaching, these Hawaiians are sustaining a culture.

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Napua Barrows holding limu (seaweed)

Limu (seaweed) is an important part of the traditional Hawaiian diet. Used to add flavor and variety to meals, it’s also a source of vitamins and minerals. Since noticing native species in decline, Napua Barrows has been replanting the reef, and teaching youth how to identify different types of limu and harvest it sustainably.

Replanting the Reef

When I find Alyson Napua Barrows on the sands of Waihe‘e Beach Park, she’s down on one knee, holding her phone, and photographing the end of a log.

As the founder of Waihe‘e Limu Restoration Group, it’s the type of thing Barrows does whenever she finds a species of limu (seaweed) like the one clinging to the seaward edge of this log. Though she grew up gathering limu with her grandparents on O‘ahu, most of Barrows’s knowledge is the result of diligent study in the classroom at the University of Hawai‘i–Mānoa, and out on Maui’s shores. She can tell you that limu kohu is prized for its taste and medicinal qualities; and that limu kala is for ho‘oponopono—cultural gatherings of forgiveness, where the limu is eaten at a conflict’s resolution, as a traditional symbol of release. She knows which type is best for poke (a Hawaiian dish of raw fish), or brewing up in a stew, and the seasons, conditions, and island locations that are best for finding it.

Ancient Hawaiians were familiar with up to seventy species of limu. Today only trace amounts of that knowledge remain. It’s something Barrows is out to fix, combining what she finds on the reef with historical texts and accounts to piece together what her ancestors knew.

When she moved to Waihe‘e in the 1980s, native species like manauea flourished along the shore, but by the 1990s she and other limu gatherers began to notice a change.

“You just didn’t see as much limu on the reef anymore, and the fish population was decreasing. Invasive seaweeds were starting to crowd out the natives, and freshwater springs that helped them to thrive were starting to all dry up.”

Barrows knew she had to do something before the native species disappeared. She took to gathering limu from Kanahā, carefully inspecting it for invasives, and then transplanting it by the reef in Waihe‘e by tying it onto rocks.

The process, she admits, is trial and error. “Every section of shoreline has its own specialty of limu,” she explains. You see what works, what doesn’t work, and then try to figure out why. You monitor the currents, the fish, and the shoreline, and it gradually starts to make sense. Through lectures and beach days with student groups, she’s working to pass that knowledge along.

Though Barrows is humble about whether her efforts are making a difference, as if on cue a voice chimes up from a snorkeler strolling the shore.

“Are you planting today?” asks her friend Christina, who’s been swimming here since 1973. “We used to gather ogo here,” she tells me, “and then it just got wiped out. But since Auntie’s been restoring, we have limu again; it’s really coming back.”

Info: Waihe‘e Limu Restoration, 808-264-4135

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