Who Are Na Kupuna?

Like the rest of us, Hawaiian mature, age and die. And there the similarity ends.

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I drive up the mountain at twilight. When the road gets bad, I walk upslope, carrying a flitch of kupukupu, fern fronds. I see small, aged mamane trees, many of them half dead, trunks no bigger in diameter than a baseball bat, pocked with insect tunnels and caked with flakes of bark. The understated tassels of foliage are the softest green, leaflets arranged in paired racks down the midrib—exactly the way of the kupukupu. Farther up I glimpse the prettiest of the old mamane. I walk toward it, kupukupu flitch in hand, and there is a gateway — two upright pukiawe shrubs with just enough space between for me to pass.

I step through the gateway to meet the old lady. I say hello. I admire her multitude of gray-brown limbs, frail seeming despite her long history, her surviving fire and storm and drought and human. I think of the Hawaiians who have helped me learn. Then I hear a silent voice.

“Go home, Junior. Get back to work.”

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