Ancient Hawaiians had rock wall building talent to spare—a fact in special evidence on the Big Island’s Kona side, perhaps the rock wall capital of all Polynesia. Everywhere you look here, there is pohaku, or rock, much of it crafted into human structures. Historians believe that many of the sites around Kona have their origin in a building boom that took place in the twelfth century under the command of the very martial-minded Chief Pa‘ao, who arrived from Tahiti and exerted a dual dominion: as an engineer of public works projects and of community life, where he instituted the worship of Ku, god of war and ruling spirit of architecture.
The remains of this era range from the windswept Mo‘okini heiau to the sanctuary-conferring walls of the City of Refuge at Honaunau. No less evocative are the chants that have been handed down for generations, which tell how commoners shouldered the load of building, passing stones in long relay lines. Belief in the generative power of the heavy material may have been buoyed by the presence of at least three active Big Island volcanoes—province of the powerful goddess Pele. “Ancient Hawaiians may not have worshipped stone per se, but they saw fit to imbue certain stones with sacredness by making them into occupational deities—let’s say for prosperity in fishing,” says Nathan Napoka, a Hawaiian cultural specialist with the state’s Historic Preservation Division.
When Gino Bergman first came to Kona in 1958, it was as if he saw the region through the lens of its pohaku-infused history. “I mean, in this five-mile corridor between Keauhou and Kailua, you could see the archeological remains of stone platforms with specific purposes—one a canoe shed, the other a women’s shed,” he remembers. “You could tell it had been a thriving community. And you could see what it was to take a pile of rock—not so nice-looking—and orchestrate it so that it was beautiful.” He pauses, then emphasizes, “Beautiful is the word.”
The Laguna Beach native who was destined to become one of Kona’s most prominent stone builders and artists was hanaied (adopted) by Aunty Jo Roy, who shared her knowledge of the area as well as her aloha. “We would drive around in this old Model T of Aunty’s and deliver fish from the ocean, fruit from the trees,” Gino recalls. It wasn’t long before he was gaining insight into the methods of ancient Hawaiian masonry. And then he was recruited to help rebuild an aging seawall fronting the ocean on Ali‘i Drive. “I had to dismantle the structure, and that’s always the best way to learn how it was put together,” he notes.
What Gino learned was the ingenuity of uhau humu pohaku, or dry stacking. As the name implies, it is masonry without mortar or metal joinery. “Each layer is locked into place by the one below,” he says, describing other gravity-resistant touches such as inwardly tilting facades and adjacent stones that clench together like upper and lower jaws of teeth. “You can jump on it and it won’t move!” Gino marvels. To do this work, he says, requires one primary virtue: patience. “You have to be able to connect with the stone and get enjoyment out of it—in the same way you connect with your animals.”
Gino combined dry stack techniques with his artistic vision to evolve a style that uses rock of all different textures and hues. When we visit one of his many walls in Kona, he launches into stories about how he acquired the individual rocks: Smooth water-washed stones came from down at the beach. A scarlet boulder was a gift. “Once people saw what I was trying to do, a lot started bringing me stones because they knew they would get a good home,” says Gino. He points out a rock dimpled with rounded craters, the imprints of sea urchins. “Gathering stones and having a palette as vast as Hawai‘i is where the fun is,” he says, adding that he has carted rocks back to Hawai‘i from Rapa Nui to India while always “walking the talk of stone masonry”: Never disturb the integrity of ancient sites.
Talking of the decades he has spent building rock walls, Gino laughs that, if put in one long line, his walls might reach all the way to the Mainland. So perhaps, he muses, he has done enough at age seventy-three.
Though he looks young for his age—like so many others in the wall-building trade—I can’t help but ask what he gets out of such an arduous job. After reflecting a moment, he answers that as a child he changed schools more than twenty times; now, at last, he has found a profession where he can leave his mark. As proof of this, he tells me about the ultimate compliment paid to him by a passing truckload of local masons: “I’m working on the other side of my wall in the trench, and I hear some guys saying, ‘Look at how the edges all natural. Look how it’s like one painting in a museum. Like Gino’s
work.’ Then they see me and go, ‘What you doing here?’ before realizing it is Gino’s work!’”