Volunteering at the Lo’i and an individual’s homecoming in times of planetary crisis
I woke up one day and found the familiar feeling of disconnection and loneliness creeping in. I didn’t know what I wanted to do and everything, including getting up, felt equally empty and meaningless.
A few months ago, I moved to the Hawaiian countryside alone to live with native plants, goats, chickens, turkeys, dogs, and birds. Despite how peaceful my surroundings were, I could not deny how lonely I was feeling, a feeling of being out of place, disconnected, like a lone leaf floating in the air never coming down to the ground.
It was a feeling I was too familiar with. I left home at 14 to attend a boarding school in China, followed by an 11-year ongoing journey in the US. Once a while, the same feeling comes up — Where is home? Who are “my people”? What is this endless wandering about?
Sometimes, I let myself sink into a place of despair and let tears fill the emptiness in my heart. But somehow, not that day. I walked up to my computer and searched “environment volunteering opportunities”.
I mostly avoided “on the ground” volunteering until then. I remember how shocked I was seeing my white friends voluntarily work on the high school farm. I remember joking that “it took my family 5 generations to escape farming. I am not coming all the way to the US to work on a farm.” I looked down upon those who did physical labor and thought computer-based work was more effective than labor-based work and more impactful. I was getting the global elitist education to become a “change maker”, which, in my mind, looked like coming up with miraculous solutions that impacted millions at a time and presenting eloquently in front of a large audience. I wasn’t getting all this education to do work that anyone with a body could do, right?
Despite all this conditioning, my excruciating loneliness finally got me to show up to anything that involved other people. I was curious who else preferred to sweat in the field on a Saturday morning instead of sleeping in.
When Saturday rolled around, I found myself at my first community workday at the Lo’i — a community kalo (taro) farm. When I arrived, 30 people were already knee deep in the mud. Normally, I would have hesitated before jumping into the mud — the squishy substance that I usually associated with being “gross”. “Come on in!”, someone called me with a big grin on their face. I put aside my hesitation and went in barefoot. When I stepped into the mud, the air bubble created a loud fart sound. People laughed, lovingly. I heard the silent message “welcome to the work”.
I was disappointed to find out that the first task was weeding. I was expecting to harvest or plant kalos. Weeding, in comparison, sounded so boring.
“90%” of the kalo work is weeding.” the leader told everyone, as if she just read my mind. I learned that weeds took away the nutrients in the soil and overgrown ones blocked the sun. Kalo does not magically grow after being planted. It takes a lot of work to care for them.
The leader told us that according to Kumulipo, the Hawaiian creation chant, the first boy child of Ho’ohokukalani, who is the child of Papa (Earth Mother) and Wakea (Sky Father), grew into a kalo, which fed the second-born son. It is from the second son that Hawaiians trace their lineage. “Taking care of kalo is like taking care of an ‘older brother’”.
Upon hearing it, I looked at the kalos again. The newly planted keiki (child) kalo were smiling under the sun. I smiled back.
I slowly moved between the rows, taking out a handful of grassy weeds at a time and stuffed them back into the mud. The world fell into deep silence.
Occasionally, there were chatters that organically occurred and we “talked stories” with each other. There were kids running around making themselves “mud creatures” and elders who looked more fit than me; there were nurses, teachers, military employees; there were newcomers like me and families who have lived on the land for generations. Regardless of how we found ourselves on this island and what we do for a living, we all showed up to care for the kalos and gave back to the land. It made us into an “Ohana”, the Hawaiian word for “extended family”. Everyone’s presence was welcome and greatly appreciated.
An hour later, 30 people transformed two lo’i full of weeds into clear wetlands with keiki kalo standing tall. I heard whispers of thanks from the kalo.
We, then, moved on to harvesting kalo leaves in preparation for the famous lu’au stew. For every leaf I picked, I softly gave thanks. For the first time, I felt the meaning of “mālama ‘āina” — what it means to “build reciprocal relationship with the land”. When we take care of the land, the land takes care of us.
To thank our contribution, the lo’i staff prepared us delicious field-to-table food — lu’au stew, talo poke, fresh salad, fruit tea, all from the field in front of us. I made a gratitude prayer, closed my eyes and took a bite. I opened my eyes to the marvelous mountains wearing clouds as jewels and the green valley underneath. The fresh food, together with the view of paradise, brought tears to my eyes. I felt so completely nourished — from body to heart to soul. I felt totally connected in that moment, with the land that supported my life and the community of people that took care of the land. For that split second, all wounds of separation were healed — I returned to my embodied being, part of an ohana, and a woman of the land again. It was a moment of true homecoming.
As I was leaving the lo’i, I was filled with joy and deep peace. I thought back at the resistance to the “on the ground work” I initially felt. Isn’t it exactly the capitalistic, colonial, and imperial structure that brought us to this planetary crisis that also preaches heroism and saviorhood, and denies the power of local grassroot efforts to regeneration? If I seek to dismantle this structure that no longer serves us, shouldn’t I bring awareness to the illusion of separation and engage in exactly the activities the structure suppresses, namely form critical connections, root deeply in communities, empower indigenous leaders, and show up for the land?
Maybe that’s all it takes to restore balance in our lives and on the planet. Every day that I allow myself to live lovingly, peacefully, and in alignment with nature, and to show up for each other in that way, I win; we win.