Caring for the Earth: A Canoe as Our Classroom
Honolulu, Hawai’i —
By Karen Holman. We are in a time of transformation, one in which the future of our planet dangles precariously before us, and the wisdom of our past beckons to be heard. We are concerned for future generations, for biodiversity, and for the health of our atmosphere and ecosystems. In the midst of a time when ancient culture and traditional knowledge are vulnerable to vanishing, a canoe sets sail, and in her wake lies hope. Her name is Hōkūle`a, the star of gladness.
A double-hulled Polynesian voyaging canoe, Hōkūle`a first sailed in 1976, but her soul is centuries old. She was built to voyage once, from Hawaii to Tahiti, to demonstrate that the first Polynesians to arrive in the Hawaiian Islands were the greatest explorers on the planet, skilled navigators who sailed by the stars with intention and understanding. The image of a voyaging canoe surrounded by an estimated 17,000 people upon her arrival in Tahiti remains ingrained in the mind of all those fortunate to be present.
A canoe only 62 feet long was at the forefront of a cultural revival thousands of people wide. One hundred and thirty thousand miles later, she continues to voyage. Today, she sets sail with an urgent mission, a four-year Worldwide Voyage rooted in the concept of Mālama Honua, to care for the Earth. In an epic journey of 45,000 miles to visit 26 countries, Hōkūle`a, accompanied by her sister canoe Hikianalia, will circumnavigate the planet, merging ancestral wisdom with the best of modern technology to navigate towards a sustainable future. Hōkūle`a represents traditions and ancestry. She will be navigated without instrumentation, using only the celestial bodies, swells, currents, and birds. Hikianaila, a more modern canoe with a solar powered engine, will the platform for science and communication, transmitting images, video, and blogs to the world.
In Hawaii, we honor each other and welcome travelers to the islands with a lei, a collection of flowers strung together on a thread. As Hōkūle`a and Hikianalia set sail across the oceans that connect us all, they become a needle, threading a lei of dedicated communities around the planet, inspiring others by their work to care for our island Earth. The journey began in May of 2013, with the first leg of the voyage, across the Main Hawaiian Islands and named “Mālama Hawaii”.
Hawaii is a special, sacred place and traveling these islands with Hōkūle`a brings one close to the inner workings of humbled and empowered communities that exemplify Aloha. Grounded in the relationship of land to sea, amazing individuals are nurturing a culture of caring as keepers of their homes. They are sharing these values with youth in classrooms without walls, but rather the classroom of place and of living sustainably in our island homes. These extraordinary communities are working with nature, using permaculture to manage erosion, restoring ancient fishponds, planting trees, and protecting coastal areas devoted to traditional subsistence, to mention but a few examples. A movement is growing and as the canoes share stories from around the world they become a catalyst for positive change, planting seeds for our children to live in a healthy, peaceful, and safe planet Earth.
Education is the core of this voyage, with the vision to inspire children and their communities to Mālama Honua, to care for one another and our natural and cultural environments. The voyage supports education as a value-based, place-based, socially and culturally relevant program that highlights the interconnectedness of all life, the importance of cultural diversity, and the value system of caring and compassion. Innovative teachers in a group known as Aʻo Hawaii are working towards sustained educational transformation, designing inter-disciplinary curriculum that will relate to themes of the voyage and endure beyond, based on the principle that “the canoe is the classroom and the classroom is the canoe”.
The oceans and mountains of Hawaii become the classroom as we redefine our entire concept of a school, to one approached from the mind of a navigator and the values intrinsic to voyaging. The art of celestial navigation requires us to listen to nature as well as the instinctual, intuitive self, and contains powerful lessons for the present. Traditional Navigators are attuned to the world around them, from the heavens down to the water drop, constantly noticing the shape of the sea and the character of light through the clouds. In recent times, the ancient art of wayfinding was nearly extinct until one of its last keepers, master navigator Mau Piailug from Micronesia, on the island of Satawal, chose to teach. In traditional ceremony, he appointed five Hawaiians as Pwo navigators. Mau explained Pwo as light, love, kindness and compassion. In embodying these qualities, the navigator must sail and bring gifts of knowledge and understanding back home.
Gathering those gifts by way of canoe is a unique way to travel, one that intrinsically brings people together, spreading without words the message that we are all one family. The canoe is origin and possibility, heritage and story, and a poetic, powerful metaphor of planet Earth, reminding us that we are an island of finite resources, floating in the sea of space. As she voyages, she embodies balance, harmony, teamwork, and respect. If one of her hulls is damaged, we take actions to repair it and prevent sinking. So too is our responsibility for the Earth, to care for our home as though the planet is on loan to us from future generations yet to be born.
The canoe is filled with ancient whisperings, as though a channel to ancestral wisdom, timeless collective experience, and exploration. The sight of a voyaging canoe, with majestic sails traveling by way of the wind and guided by the stars, stirs the ancient inside of us. She carries a magic, but more than anything, she carries the power of the story. A dream manifested into reality, the canoe calls for a new vision, a new sail plan for Island Earth, drawing on the ancient island wisdom of sustainability to guide us.