Nearly a dozen of us stood in a circle, holding hands on the fertile floor of Maui's Honokowai Valley. A sheer cliff face rose sharply behind us, casting a cool shadow over our group while Puanani Lindsey offered a Hawaiian chant to her ancestors.
"I ask for permission to enter the valley and to walk in the footsteps of our elders," she told me later. "And I say we want to learn the ways of our elders, or those who've come before us, and ask if they'll bring us in out of the cold, so that we can learn."
A slight woman, with dark hair tied in a bun and penetrating, focused eyes, Lindsey was quick to flash a bright smile and share warm laughter with the group. She also seemed unquestionably thankful for all of the volunteers who joined her that Saturday morning to battle against an ever-growing jungle and the dogged brigade of invasive plants that don't belong in the valley's ancient Hawaiian village.
"My husband used to say, 'People who help the land and the culture, who give unselfishly for the sake of the land, they are the real warriors,'" Lindsey said. "And whoever comes, they are always welcome, because it's another hand helping us."
Lindsey has been removing invasive plant species from Honokowai Valley in west Maui for 15 years, and the work to restore balance to the special place has become a family legacy, beginning with an effort by a local community group to map Hawaiian archaeological sites in the area led by Puanani's husband, Ed, in 1999.
Puanani Lindsey, left, teaches a group of volunteers about the noni plant and its fruit. Photo Credit: Duane Sparkman
"My husband was really concerned about the development that was going on, especially on the west side of Maui," said Lindsey, whose husband died in 2009. "And if we didn't start saving the archaeological sites, we wouldn't have anything left, because once it's destroyed, it's gone."
Honokowai was home for nearly 600 Hawaiian families before the first Western explorers arrived on the Islands in the late 1700s, and according to Lindsey, the 300-acre valley served as a breadbasket, producing taro, sweet potato and other crops for the larger ancient coastal community of Kekaa, where travelers will now find a collection of oceanfront hotels at the Kaanapali Beach Resort.
The range of archaeological sites remaining within Honokowai includes an intricate collection of rock walls, some dating as far as 1200, that likely once served as the foundations for homes; temples; complexes maintained by ruling chiefs, or alii; and elaborately engineered loi kalo, or taro patches.
"You're seeing stacked rock walls, anywhere from 4 to 6 feet tall, that are 600 to 800 years old," said Duane Sparkman, engineering and landscaping manager at the Westin Maui Resort and a longtime Honokowai volunteer.
"We're cleaning those off, restacking some of them to put them back the way they were," he continued. "Until we clean it, you can't see it at all, and then all of a sudden, we open up a section, and you have a rock wall 100 feet long and 6 feet tall with boulders that weigh 500 pounds."
Just about every Saturday morning, unless it's rained a great deal in recent days, a mix of local and traveling volunteers will gather in the Puukolii Sugar Cane Train parking lot, which sits across the street from the Westin Kaanapali Ocean Resort Villas, and head up into Honokowai Valley to help remove invasive plants and possibly even replant some native species. And while spending four to five hours weeding may not sound like an appealing activity for some Maui visitors, Laird and Carol Vanetta, who travel to Hawaii twice a year from their home in Washington state, can't seem to get enough.
"It's just a magical experience for us," Laird Vanetta told me. "And being able to give back some to the Hawaiian people, who we feel have given us so much in all the years that we've been coming to Hawaii, is what really keeps us going back."
Volunteering in Honokowai offers some obvious highlights, including a rare, up-close look at one of Maui's most picturesque valleys along with a unique perspective on the Hawaiian culture in a setting steeped in ancient heritage. There's also a chance to learn about Hawaii's complex botanical history and the devastating effect introduced species have had on the Islands' often defenseless endemic plants, trees and even birds.
"It's so different from the normal tourist experience," said Carol Vanetta, who's been volunteering at Honokowai with her husband for more than six years. "You really get a feel for the importance of the culture and the tradition and the connection the Hawaiians have to the land and to each other."
Volunteers alongside a Honokowai stream. Photo Credit: Duane Sparkman
Visitors who volunteer in Honokowai are also likely to take home a far better understanding of Hawaii's spirit of aloha and the kindness so common among Maui residents.
During my recent time in the valley, the chance to mingle with locals, while pulling out more invasive haole koa tree starts than I can remember, was just terrific, and one of Puanani's few rules is that lunchtime is spent together as a group, "talking story."
"It was a totally uncharted facet of what a Hawaii vacation experience can be about," said Jerry Zanko, a Minnesota resident who's been visiting Maui for more than 20 years with his wife, Carolyn.
"Puanani is a gem," Zanko said, adding that he and his wife have even been invited to the Lindsey's oceanfront home near Lahaina after a few different Saturday work sessions. "The generosity they've shown us, and that I've found to be a feature of the Hawaiian culture, is just amazing."
Ask Puanani Lindsey why she occasionally invites visitor volunteers to her home following a good day's work at Honokowai, and she'll tell you she's simply continuing a tradition her husband started years ago.
"We wanted to share the spirit of aloha with them," Puanani said. "And the whole idea behind that is no matter where you come from, you take the spirit back. You take the spirit of aloha back to where you come from and you share it with others."
For more about volunteering in Honokowai Valley, visit www.mauiculturallands.org.