On the Battlefield
Fragrant and Foreboding Panaʻewa
The plane is picking up speed as it heads down the runway of the Hilo International Airport, once known as General Lyman Field, and before that the US Naval Air Station, and long before that this was known simply as the Panaʻewa forest. Suddenly, liftoff, and I see miles of forest out of my window on the right side of the plane as we head towards the ocean. I’m reminded that before planes were flying around here, travel through this area was difficult and dangerous.
The trees, ferns, and mosses in the Pana‘ewa forest grew to maturity on a lava flow that spilled out of Mauna Loa between 750 to 1,500 years ago. The flow started somewhere up above Kulani Prison and made it all the way to the ocean. From high in the air this flow looks somewhat like a warrior’s club with its long shaft lying on the rift zone ridge of the mountain, and the club head resting on the shoreline sticking out into the ocean. The square-shaped club head covers land from the mouth of the Wailoa River, to Leleiwi Point and Richardson’s Beach, to Ha‘ena Beach at Kea‘au Ranch, and to just west of the town of Kea‘au.
When King Sugar came to Hilo, they came looking for soils to grow the cane. The older flows on either side of the Panaʻewa forest were easier to cultivate, and that is where the flumes and camps and fields were set up. They steered clear of the forest.
The town of Hilo grew outwards, and a little ways into the forest at Keaukaha and the Panaʻewa lots and the airport, but besides that, and the opening up of the macadamia nut farm and a few other things later on, the forest has resisted development.
And for good reason. The forest terrain is jagged, with humps and hills that rise 10 to 20 feet above steep-sided cracks that wind their way in a maze of shapes. The vegetation is dense, with vines that hide cracks in rocks, and sling across trees. Once inside the forest it is almost impossible to tell mauka from makai. The thick green canopy overhead blocks out the sun so it is also hard to tell if it is morning, noon, or closing in on night. It is easy to get disoriented in these conditions.
This is the gnarly place that a mo‘o named Pana‘ewa ruled over long ago. He controlled the natural and spiritual forces of the forest. This large, legendary lizard kept an eye on people moving through his realm, and he looked forward to catching any unwary or brazen trespassers. One could guarantee safe passage by offering Pana‘ewa ʻawa to drink, taro and red fish to eat, tapa for mats, and malos. If not, the lizard would let loose a demon wind, drop a branch on the traveler’s head, or cause the vines to snare and trip you into a fatal fall. Or he would simply eat you.
Hi‘iaka ended the deadly reign of Pana‘ewa while she was traveling from Kilauea to Kaua‘i on her epic journey for her sister Pele. Although the mo‘o no longer lurks in the forest, the dense vegetation, vines, and rugged terrain seem as if they still carry on Panaʻewa’s work by making every step difficult and treacherous.
While the forest interior is somewhat forbidding, you can enjoy the beauty of the forest without getting into a plane. People from Hilo Hanakahi, that part of Hilo that is east of the highway that leads to Kilauea, appreciated the forest for, among other things, its fragrance. In the old days the forest was famous for its maile vines, hala, and lehua ‘ōhi‘a blossoms. They used to say, “le Hanakahi i ke ‘ala me ke onaona o Pana‘ewa”. Mary Kawena Pukui translates this in ‘Ōlelo No‘eau to: “Hanakahi is adorned with the fragrance and perfume of Pana‘ewa”.
Non-native tree species, including guava, banyan, and albezia, have crept their way into the Pana‘ewa forest. Although there is still much of the forest that remains intact, it is difficult to view that, because the non-native trees are more common along the roadsides that pass through the forest. There is one place that you can view from your car the beautiful ‘ōhi‘a – hala – uluhe combination that defines the unique look of the Pana‘ewa forest. Drive past the Hilo Transfer station and the old quarries. The forest will close in on the road as you near the Hilo Drag Strip. Keep an eye out for the arrangement of textures and shades of green that the mingling of ‘ōhi‘a – hala – uluhe plants create. If you get out to enjoy the beauty of the forest, you might want to keep the car running in case you run into any mo`o.