My Hawaiian Hale — building with sticks on Molokai

My Hawaiian Hale — building with sticks on Molokai

This was meant to be an essay about building a new life and home on the Hawaiian island of Molokai. I moved here from Ottawa with my family in July 2020, fulfilling a longtime dream to return to this family property that includes 14 acres of farm fields, orchards, and retail spaces, as well as a comfortable two-bedroom house.

But as farmers, our focus since arriving has been on the outside spaces. My husband Alex does most of the growing: he quickly put together a large vegetable garden, got a hydroponic system going in one of the greenhouses, and began strategic pruning of the mango trees. I end up managing the mess that’s left behind. Turns out that the leafy tree canopy, so pleasant to walk under, isn’t an effective part of farm production. Strong gusts break brittle branches, and it’s easier to pick mangoes if they aren’t too high up.

The house is simple, used mainly for midday naps and eating. We treated ourselves to a patch of grass but as the drought worsened we ceased to water it. Photo by Dayanti Karunaratne

So we prune and clear, and a massive pile of sticks and tree trunks grows not far from the house. Everyone has a different take on whether it’s advisable to burn. We collect tin to make a sort of ‘burn box’ and are advised to dig a deep pit — an imu, the kind one would roast a pig over — and light the match on a rainy day. But the rain does not come: we live on the west end of Molokai, which is experiencing extreme drought conditions. Then the electric company comes and cuts down more trees to avoid damage to their wires. Though they make tidy piles and leave us some mulch, the land seems bare.

As I throw branches of milo and haole koa across massive ironwood trunks, my eyes are drawn to the beauty of sun-bleached wood, and I consider other options. Can’t we make something with this? Alex posts to a local social media page, but there are no takers. Then I hear an old friend, who happens to make fences with local timber, say ironwood is used for hales. Until I looked it up, I had thought the word hale (ha-LAY) was simply a direct translation for “house” or “home,” as in “turn left at the blue hale.”

But a little research reveals that a traditional hale is more of an all-natural pavilion with a leafy thatched roof. I was surprised to learn that over the past 20 years, hales have been written into the state’s building codes. It’s not a house for Ottawa climes: no cooking, electricity, or even generators are allowed. While the thatched roof can be made with any leaf grown and harvested in Hawaii, there is a short list of approved lumber, and I was excited when I saw ironwood, Casuarina equisitafolia, at the top of the list. It’s a use-what-you-have approach that does not discriminate against invasive species; indeed, only one of the approved species are endemic to Hawaii. Perhaps most incredible of all: the built-to-code hale stands without the use of any nails or any kind of metal. Natural and synthetic rope and the skill to do it right bring it all together.

Our proud, if aged, tractor. It helped move the one large stick pile into more manageable piles, which are gradually decomposting but can be seen in the background. Photo by Dayanti Karunaratne

I connect with a neighbour, who mentions her husband might be interested in the wood. My neighbour is keen, says they have always wanted to build a hale, but the time is a challenge. What’s more, her family is related to the renowned hale builder Frances Palani Silenci, who has built over 300 hales.

I envision a group of us heaving the trunks across our property, working together to build something natural (not to mention shrinking that stick pile). But since the pandemic is making gatherings of any size impossible, the building of a hale isn’t a priority. The important thing now is food, so she’s spending a lot of her time bringing in food and distributing it free to the community. To say Molokai people take care of each other is an understatement; it’s more fitting to say that to live on Molokai is to accept that a certain portion of your life will be dedicated to helping your neighbours. While I knew this before moving here, to see it on display against the backdrop of COVID-19 is truly inspirational.

One friend brushed off my earnest hale questions by saying: “It’s easy. You can build with anything. Anyone can build a hale.” But I don’t think this is a project to rush into. I’d rather work alongside the people who can teach me and tell me what the hale means to them. And something tells me we will have plenty of branches and trees to offer when the time comes.

Dayanti Karunaratne splits her time between managing Ottawa Magazine and tending to the trees, plants, and critters at Mahana Gardens