BY LOUISE ROCKETT
HONOKOWAI - There's a wonderland of Hawaiian treasures right in our own backyard, West Maui, in a 300-acre valley above the shores of Kaanapali.
It's not a manmade spectacle like Disneyland but a cultural resource complete with 800-year-old rock walls still standing, remnants of ancient taro patches being revived and native wiliwili trees making a comeback.
Honokowai Valley was a thriving agricultural settlement dating back to 1200 AD that today is being restored by a grassroots land trust, Maui Cultural Lands, founded in 2002 by Lahaina native son Ed Lindsey II (1939-2009).
The organization's vision is to reinstate balance through education, restoration and preservation.
To this end, Maui Cultural Lands (MCL) offers guided working tours into the valley for an immersion experience like no other.
On Thursdays for six weeks this summer, MCL hosted the Kamehameha Schools Hoolauna Program for Hawaiian youth in grades six to eight.
"We're with Kamehameha Schools' Extension Education. We outreach to Native Hawaiian youth who do not go to Kamehameha Schools," one of the group leaders, Mr. Wong, explained.
"Kamehameha Schools brings them to attend these one-week summer programs each year. This one is called the Hoolauna Mauna Kahalawai, and Mauna Kahalawai is actually our whole West Maui Mountains," Wong said.
"We've been taking them to explore the West Maui Mountains in more of a cultural aspect...What the whole essential question for the students this week is where is our water resources going in Mauna Kahalawai?"
Native Hawaiian students enrolling in the 2010 program came from across the state and some from the Mainland to join the Lindseys - Aunty Puanani Lindsey (Ed's wife) and son Ed "Ekolu" Lindsey III - on Thursdays in Honokowai for a stimulating, hands-on learning adventure.
The journey began with Aunty Puanani sharing some of her knowledge about the history of the ancient valley community referred to as the breadbasket of Keka'a.
"At its peak, there were 600 Hawaiian families that lived here. They were self-sufficient. The water ran," she said.
"When sugar cane came," Aunty continued, "they built the tunnels a couple of miles up, and they took all the water for the sugar cane. So the last family that left the valley was about 1931. There was only one family down here. They could no longer live in the valley, because they had to bring their water in. It was hard for them to survive; they were getting older."
Puanani is a resourceful guide, weaving stories into a botanic tour of the native plant life growing along the valley walls and floors.
"The uhiuhi tree seeds are like gold," Aunty exclaimed. "I think there are less than ten trees in our state."
"Lama is a sacred wood," she said. Branches of the ulei plant are used to form the rim of fishnets.
"If we put this in the garden and we were to trim it down, it would make a beautiful hedge," she suggested.
Aunty added a mix of Pele into the mythology of the plant lore with a tale about the blue-flowered Pa'u O Hi'iaka vine that grows along the shoreline.
Noni is useful for its multiple medicinal purposes.
"Our native hibiscus is on the endangered list, meaning if we don't take care of our native hibiscus and plant these in our gardens, it will become not endangered anymore, it will become extinct. It will no longer be there," Puanani said.
"And it doesn't take much care," she added, "and this particular hibiscus doesn't like too much water. All we got to do is plant it, malama it and low and behold it will give us some seeds."
With part of the lesson giving back, a teaching to malama and care for the area, the students seeded and weeded before and after lunch to prepare the way for planting.
According to the organization's president, Ekolu Lindsey, similar working tours are offered every Saturday to the public individually or in a group format for residents and visitors alike.
Meet at the Pu'ukolii train station at 9 a.m.
"We mainly get our visitors to join us. Kaanapali Ocean Resort, The Westin, has been good supporters of our efforts. Their visitors walk right across the street and spend the day with us and just walk home. They have a great time up here. All the visitors who come really feel like that they did something good with their time instead of just sitting around the pool drinking mai tais all day. They came up here and gave back," Ekolu said.
Like Aunty told the Kamehameha Schools youth, "It's important that you take advantage of the opportunities that come your way, 'cause sometimes you only get one chance."
For more information e-mail MCL@hawaii.rr.com.