04 April 2024

Month 5: From the Taiga to the Tropics

Written by: Sharika Elahi

The past few months with RTCA Alaska have been a whirlwind. They’ve been filled with travel to wonderfully unique places and an influx of so much new knowledge and perspective. The Alaska team has a close working relationship with the RTCA Hawai’i team, and I’ve been lucky enough to help with some Hawai’i projects and participate in site visits on the islands. We visited Makalapa Park in Oahu, an environmental justice park that has been neglected for years and finally receiving some love. We did a walk of the site with a landscape architecture studio class who will be coming up with designs based on ideas that were gathered during workshops held with the neighboring community. It was inspiring to listen to a group of design-minded individuals look at a nearly empty space and imagine how it could be transformed and revitalized to benefit local people.

We then traveled to Kauai to visit the restoration site of an ancient Hawaiian loko’ia, or fishpond. I had read the restoration plan RTCA has been assisting on and thought I had an idea of what to expect, but I could not be prepared for how special this project was until I spent those four days surrounded by community members whose deep passion and love for the place was teeming right at the surface. What I thought was a wetland restoration effort was so much more than just the physical work being done to restore the loko’ia. Alakoko has also been revived as a cultural hub, as a place that supports traditional practices, values, and educational programs as a living outdoor classroom. You can feel how culturally and spiritually Hawaiian the space is, and how much regenerative energy and inspiration the project has imbued the local community with. The project was beloved by every local that I chatted with while I wandered around after work hours - people’s excitement was palpable. Someone said it perfectly: “This loko’ia is being restored to feed the community physically, culturally, and spiritually.” 


As I stepped out of the rental car onto the unpaved dirt road that led into the fishpond, my senses were completely overwhelmed by how alive the space was. We were at the heart of the loko’ia restoration operations. Tall and unbelievably lush Hawaiian pu’u, or hills, towered over the Hulē‛ia river, the repaired pond where fish had already come back, and the gardens hugging the shore where the group was growing traditional Hawaiian food. The green open space where people moved about was dotted with coconut trees and other Hawaiian plants, as well as human made structures like a native plant nursery, a small building with information about the Hawaiian moon cycle and native fish species on the outside, a traditional ahu or altar made from stones, and others. I looked around at the structures and equipment supporting the ongoing restoration work and appreciated how they seemed to sit so right in this thoughtfully managed green space that invites both wildlife and human life to prosper. 


There was a central tent pavilion that everyone would gather at to have meetings, classes, and meals. As we sat around discussing the work RTCA has been assisting on with the non profit’s staff, board, and community volunteers, I was able to take notes on the feedback while watching endangered Hawaiian birds meandering about the wetlands and children running around the grounds. I came away from the Alakoko visit with a deep appreciation for the impact a place can have on the flow of conversation and work. There seemed to be no urgent need to hurry one’s thoughts or finish things up quickly. I attributed this to the fact that we were in a space that was able to support such a diversity of life and beauty. There was lots of sitting around and sharing ideas over freshly cooked food, surrounded by a healing but thriving ecosystem. What was the rush to leave? 


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