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  • Poetry and Place in Hawai'iNotes from a Writer and Resident
  • Eric Paul Shaffer (bio)

Ke One Hānau

In Hawaiian, ke one hānau (pronounced "kay owe-nay HA-now") means the sands of one's birth, or one's birthplace. In the islands, connection to place and one's status as native is perhaps more important than it is everywhere else.1 In Hawai'i, more than anywhere else, I have been faced with the truth of my own particular existence. I am a native of nowhere. I have no hometown, no native sands, no place I can legitimately claim as my own, my home. From the moment I was born I've been moved or moving throughout the United States and the world.

As far as I know my heritage is a mix of dim and mongrel origins. The most easily identified strain is Irish with a smattering of Scotch (in every sense) and German. My ancestors were eager to strip themselves of the tongues, troubles, and trappings of the homelands they escaped, and they never looked back. To honor them, and because I don't care where I or my family or anyone else is from, I don't look back either. Like my ancestors, I care only and exclusively for where I am, for where I am is who I am. Also, perhaps as a further consequence of all that migration, my father was a rainbow chaser, pursuing every real or imagined new opportunity. Neither of my parents ever liked, let alone knew or loved, the places they were born, and neither saw reason to explore or embrace a place when they might be a thousand miles away from their present abode in one, two, or five years. Like most Americans and twentieth-century denizens, my parents were economically disenfranchised both from the land of the United States and whatever lands their ancestors acknowledged as their origins so long ago that [End Page 277] they did not remember or care. There was a mild touch of patriotism (both were Air Force veterans), but only as loyalty to a nation, not to the actuality of the land. For them, history was over, land was dirt, and money was required for mortgages, food, and raising children. For better or worse, I am an American, I reside in the islands of Hawai'i, and now is the only moment.2

Rootlessness is a fact of my existence, yet surprisingly, that fact compels me to set down roots quickly. Every time I arrive, I learn about my new place. Without a home, I make myself at home where I live by becoming as knowledgeable about my surroundings as I can. As a resident, I study the geography, wildlife, culture, and language. As a writer, I read the local literature to get a sense of the community of writers I hope to join. As I read, I am "grounding" myself, learning about local issues, imagery, concerns, culture, and history, and I begin to write and speak about where I am.

Grounding, in the sense of learning what natives know of a place, informs my teaching as well. As part of a Title III grant to Honolulu Community College, a faculty-training program called Ho'āla Hou has been initiated in order to create a sense of place for our students at the college and to help instructors to incorporate culture and place-based learning into our courses.3 I am a member of Ka Papa 'Olani, the second cohort of faculty to undergo this year-long program. Members focus on the history and location of Honolulu Community College on the mokupuni (island) of O'ahu, in the moku (district) of Kona, in the ahupua'a (mountain-to-sea land division) of Kapālama, and in the 'ili (smaller local district) of Niuhelewai. We incorporate into our courses knowledge of the land and local geographic features, such as the hundreds of capped springs beneath the campus, the dredged Kapālama Canal to the west (once a stream), and Lo'i Kalo (taro patch) Park to the north. In our cohort, we work to understand how water in, on, and of...


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