Jordan and Robin, gathering ‘opihi at
Tim arrives and sits down with us. “This is about subsistence for us. It’s not a competition here,” he says. “It’s about taking what you need.” These are the values he wants to instill in his son Koa, who is anxious to go exploring. So we slip on reef booties and hike about two miles inland, following the river until we reach a breathtaking clearing, where rectangular terraces of green, heart-shaped lu‘au leaves cascade down the sloping earth, surrounded by nothing but rich forest on all sides. It’s a giant, restored lo‘i kalo. These patches were once Hawai‘i’s breadbaskets, the places where kalo (a.k.a. taro) was cultivated and pounded into poi, a mainstay of the Hawaiian diet. They were an integral part of the ahupua‘a, the traditional land division that generally stretched from the top of the mountain all the way to the ocean.
Traditionally, streams flowing down from the mountain were channeled and used to irrigate the lo‘i. The water was then diverted back to the river, which continued to flow to the ocean. Where the freshwater meets the saltwater is a crucial area of propagation for species like ‘opae (shrimp), ‘o‘opu (goby) and hıhıwai. And what pours out of the river impacts the health of the near-shore ocean habitat—often referred to as Hawaiians’ icebox for its abundance of food sources, among others various species of limu (seaweed) and ‘opihi.
Follow the course from top to bottom, and it’s easy to see how it’s all connected. And just as these smaller ecosystems comprise the ahupua‘a, ‘opihi picking is an indispensable part of Hawaiian culture—to perpetuate the tradition is to perpetuate the culture, in the same way that farming taro, paddling canoes or dancing hula does. Listening to Walter explain all of this as we overlook the lo‘i, it strikes me that this is the definition of an earthly paradise: A living land, a living ocean and a loving people who always give back more than they take.
The Hawaiian term for gathering ‘opihi is ku‘i ‘opihi—literally, pounding ‘opihi. Before the advent of knives, Hawaiians used sharp-edged stones to knock the limpets off the rocks. Modern equipment—fins, dive mask, knife, floater, nylon bag—makes the task a little easier. But not a lot: ‘Opihi pickers know that if you don’t time the waves right, you either get smashed into the rocks or swept out to sea, and virtually every year another picker drowns. One Hawaiian saying goes,
He i‘a make ka ‘opihi—the ‘opihi is the fish of death.
“People think it’s so easy,” Robin says. “It’s not.” He’s broken several fingers pounding ‘opihi. He’s seen boats that aren’t properly anchored get washed into the rocks. “You’re not only looking at the ocean dangers, but you have to be aware of what’s above you,” Tim Naki adds, nodding toward the 1,000-plus-foot pali rising up from the ocean. Waterfalls spill such a long distance down these sheer cliffs that, before they reach the bottom, they’ve lost most of their volume and powerful gusts of wind can blow them back upward. Woe to the ‘opihi picker who finds himself below the path of a nimble goat, dislodging loose stones as it shuffles down the steep mountainside. “It might be like lighting striking,” says Tim, “but it strikes.”