I was standing in the Iao Stream, a pristine place of solace and contemplation, undamaged by the fire, miles from the desolation. I was consoling myself and remembering the High Sierra rivers I had fished as a young man.
The Hawaiian word for water is ‘wai.’ Water is the life blood of her people. During ancient times, Kamehameha I, the Hawaiian king who united all the islands, divided the land into ‘mokus,’ large parcels that reached from the mountain tops to the sea, providing water for all. In those days Lahaina was known as a place for its water – a free flowing stream ran down from the mountains feeding fresh water to the vast taro terraces, and the fishponds, before being released back into the ocean. And so it remained for a long, long time.
Then, about the time that Lahaina’s famous banyan tree was planted in 1873, large plantations began diverting the water for thirsty fields of pineapple and sugar cane. Water was Lahaina’s life. Without it, Lahaina was forever changed. In a very real sense, the great fire, inevitably, became inevitable.
It’s a ghost town now, gray, skeletal, haunted. There are no headstones, only chunks of tilted and blackened concrete where habitation used to be, and commerce thrived.
Where the water meets the town’s doorstep the ocean is clouded with ashes.
Up on the slopes of the Kahalawai behind Lahaina there are brown scars like smoldering shadows of the furies, which inhabited the eighty-mile per hour wind, and incinerated everything in its path.
There was no warning, then there was no water. Then was no time.
Smoke obscured all but the flames.
Some local people ran, the soles of their shoes melting from the heat. Married couples tried to get out in their cars, but the roads were jammed and blocked. They died in their sedans. A terrified seven-year boy held his frightened dog and perished. An old Japanese lady raised her garage door and seeing the flames, pulled out a chair and waited.
A town was lost. So many dead, so many still unfound. Like the cultural links to the Hawaiian past, they are gone forever. Just ghosts now.
The burnt palm trees, with their drooping fronds, look like charred angels, grieving. Lahaina, once the seat of the Hawaiian kingdom, was a spiritual center. A place to meet, to share joy. A people’s beating heart. It is a tragedy that has touched all of Maui. Deeply.
But a symbol remains – the great Banyan. The heart of Lahaina.
Still standing amongst the rubble, badly singed, there is hope emerging under the bark, out on its massive, embracing limbs. The Banyan has begun to sprout new leaves.
And just like the rivers I had been remembering, and the mountain landscapes which had been ravaged by forest fires, left gray and bleak, life returned. Seedlings sprouted. Vegetation returned anew. The ferns grew back along the edges of the river. The Iao Stream, rushing cold and fresh over my bare feet reminds me, again, water will always nourish a new beginning.
Life endures. Lahaina ho ‘ala hou. Lahaina will rise once more.