AUWAHI, Maui >> It is a beautiful Friday morning on the leeward slopes of Haleakala, nearly a mile above sea level. The sun is strong, but the heat is tempered by a light breeze and the natural cooling that comes with elevation.
About two dozen people have made their way up the grassy, bumpy incline on a coarse and winding path in large pickup trucks. The route is lined intermittently by apple of Sodom bushes, a species of milkweed, and takes the vehicles past and through hundreds of cattle of all the colors they come in, as well as the occasional horse.
The people in the group share a purpose — they are workers, volunteers and other contributors to the Auwahi Forest Restoration Project, seeking to repair the once-thriving woodland — and they have made this pilgrimage both to honor the man who will help them save more forest and to welcome him into their ohana.
He will arrive shortly by helicopter after a bird’s-eye tour of the forest, as well as the Valley Isle’s other natural beauties.
That man happens to be decorated singer-songwriter — and now part-time Maui resident — Paul Simon, who performed two environmental benefit concerts on the island earlier in the week.
This moment has been seven months in the making. It started in early January when Simon heard about the rare kanaloa plant growing at the Maui Nui Botanical Garden in Kahului and went to have a look.
How rare is the kanaloa? There are only two in existence, both raised on this island from seeds brought from Kahoolawe 11 years ago. Maui Nui’s has been battling disease, so executive director Tamara Sherrill referred him to Ho‘olawa Farms in Haiku, where the other, healthier, kanaloa resides.
Ho‘olawa Farms is led by horticulturist Anna Palomino, and when Simon mentioned an interest in conservation, she connected him to Art Medeiros of the Auwahi project. Medeiros is a retired government biologist who, like Sherrill and Palomino, is committed to saving endangered and threatened plant species.
Despite their differing backgrounds, Simon and Medeiros have had what Simon calls “an easy friendship” developed over these months, and it’s easy to see why. They are both passionate about the environment, but they also have similar ideas about how to go about accomplishing their goals.
They prefer doing to politicking. Medeiros notes how the opportunity for Simon to help his group kind of fell into his lap.
“We’re not as focused on PR or even fundraising to that extent,” Medeiros said. “We’re all focused on community involvement and trying to save forests.”
They also have in common their belief in the importance of engaging residents to build long-term success for their missions. Medeiros and his staff have assembled a network of about 1,400 volunteers over the past 20 years, the kind of support system that money can’t buy.
That involvement builds passion in those stakeholders and keeps them invested in the cause.
The concerts at the Maui Arts & Cultural Center are the result of Simon and Medeiros hitting it off. Simon is donating his cut of the proceeds to two environmental nonprofits — Auwahi and Kua‘aina Ulu ‘Auamo. The dollar figures are still being calculated, but according to MACC marketing director Bob Burrichter, the concerts drew more than 8,000 attendees.
Medeiros said the donation will allow Auwahi to begin work on its fourth “exclosure” — an enclosure to exclude cattle and other ungulates. These are 20 acres the group will develop into a forest by planting trees.
More than a donation
As the helicopter approached, a buzz built among those waiting. While they are thankful for celebrities who make large donations to help environmental causes, they are especially impressed at Simon’s level of participation and commitment.
Going beyond signing a check is rare, and he has come to Haleakala to plant a lama tree, a member of the ebony family, in the Auwahi 3 habitat.
Simon and Medeiros descended from the chopper in olive green flight suits and walked toward the group, which kept a safe distance from the copter. The pair were greeted by an oli, a chant, performed by Aimee Sato, a master’s student in botany at UH-Manoa with a considerable hula background.
All in attendance are wearing ti leaf lei, but Sato presented a special lei made by Kailie Aina with ti leaf and yellow holei.
Simon said the helicopter tour was “awe-inspiring” and “life-changing.” When he spoke to the gathering, it was clear the week’s experience had moved him and fed his philosophical side — he even mentioned that he has wondered lately if possibly his extensive music career was really just a means to this end.
“Maybe music … the purpose of the journey that I was on was to bring me to another place,” Simon said. “That the journey was enjoyable doesn’t even begin to describe what it was, the privilege of doing what you love. But maybe it was meant to take me to a place that I was going to learn something that I didn’t know what it was.”
Later, privately, he marveled at how he has arrived in this wonderland after growing up in the concrete and asphalt world of New Jersey and New York, caring only about “stickball and music.”
“It’s something I never could have imagined,” Simon said.
And coming from that world to this forest, Simon was notably and unmistakably humble (seemingly a common trait among environmentalists, all of whom deflect credit as second nature). As he was led through a gate into Auwahi 3 by Ainoa Kaiaokamalie, who had preselected a spot for the lama and would break the ground, Simon declared, “Let’s continue my education.”
Inside, he sat on the dirt and finished the dig that Kaiaokamalie started, inserted the plant and a dream scroll into the hole and then refilled the soil, patting it down firmly. On Medeiros’ advice, Simon exhaled on the plant (ha, the breath of life).
In no rush, despite a strict flight plan, Simon sat and talked story with the group.
“To even sit with you guys and be in the same community is such a privilege. I can’t even begin to explain it,” Simon said.
Once giddy, the group is now comfortable with their new celebrity friend. They discussed the role of music in our lives, how most organisms communicate differently from humans, spirituality and humans’ place on Earth — “If we all got removed from the planet, there’s no living thing that would say, ‘Oh, we really miss those humans.’”
When Sato asked if she could perform another oli, Simon complimented her voice before unloading a barrage of questions, from as simple as what an “oli” is to deeper questions such as how it changes over time. After Sato answered all of his questions, she taught the group to provide the rhythm for her oli.
Two claps with cupped hands (upoho), then one with flat palms (pa‘i).
Upoho-upoho-pa‘i, about two dozen people clapped along as Sato delivered the chant “E Ulu E.”
It was a chickenskin moment. The legendary singer- songwriter, perhaps the most famous supporter of world music, blending in as part of the group providing rhythm while Sato chanted “a command to grow” and how the tree will grow to become a kumu, teacher, creating new students of humans, animals and vegetation.
It’s time to go, Simon was told, and the group ascended back out of the exclosure to the waiting helicopter. Simon flew off, but not before saying, “I hope to see you back here.”