By Jan TenBruggencate
The Hawaiian Islands have a series of jeweled families: natural life forms that sweep across the rainbow.
The birds, the shells, the flowers and the seeds — they’re all so spectacular that they were and are woven into adornments.
Think about the forest birds. The bright red of the ‘apapane and the red-orange of the ‘i‘iwi. The slate to glossy black of the mamo and of the several now-extinct ‘o‘o — with their lemon yellow wing and leg feathers. The green thrushes and ‘amakihi. The orange ‘akepa.
To sit in the forest and watch them working the flowers or seeking insects on tree bark is a wonderment. The now-rare ‘i‘iwi, sitting on a lehua blossom and sipping the sweet nectar at the base of the flower’s bright red stamens. Or the bright-eyed ‘elepaio, tilting its rust-colored head and twitching its striped wings, curiously landing on a branch inches from your hand.
The feathers of the birds were so spectacular that they were woven into the most stunning patterns for capes and lei. It would be difficult to not to be awed at the sight of a high-ranking chief in a cape of patterned red and black and yellow — representing thousands of feathers from ‘i‘iwi and mamo and ‘o‘o.
Today, hardly anybody does capes, but the feather lei, lei hulu, is still a treasured item in the Islands.
And then, of course, the tree snails. I remember peering under the leaf of an ‘ohi‘a tree up in Molokai’s central mountains, and there was a native tree snail, its shell decorated in whorls of ivory and milk chocolate. Others had greens and whites and myriad shades of brown.
Once, the tree snails were still common — before the cannibal snail Euglandina rosea devastated tree snail populations. In those days, people would wander off into the mountains and collect buckets of them, to be displayed under glass or woven into wearable lei.
The tree snail shell and feather lei are rare today, but Ni‘ihau residents still produce that remarkable art form, the Ni‘ihau shell lei, using several sea shell species collected from their beaches.
With a few notable exceptions, the native flowers of the Islands are not the showiest. But woven together into garlands, the floral and leafy treasures of the Hawaiian forest form stunning displays.
The grassy-scented maile and the anise fragrance of mokihana recall familiar memories of earlier times. What is more irresistible than a head lei of red ‘ohi‘a leaves, and silvery ‘ohi‘a buds, and bits of pale lichen and palapalai fern and other plants drawn from the Hawaiian forest.
The most common lei flowers are not native to the Islands, but that hardly matters. A fragrant plumeria or pua kenikeni speaks of Islands.
Hawai‘i’s seeds also display unique beauty. Think of the polished kukui in colors from white to café-au-lait to black. And the bright red of the wiliwili seed.
The photographic exhibit, Remains of a Rainbow, reviewed elsewhere in this volume, celebrates the jewels of Hawai‘i’s natural world.
- Jan TenBruggencate is a Kaua‘i based writer and communications consultant.