WEST MAUI - It's 9:30 a.m. on a Saturday. A motley crew of volunteers squeeze into a flatbed truck. Most are standing, clutching onto a metal railing as they bounce along a cane haul road past coffee fields and through Honokowai Valley's rugged backroads. Following close behind is a convoy of four-wheel drive trucks packed with more volunteers and a tangle of weed wackers, rubber boots and gardening tools.
Suddenly, dense forest gives way to an open terrace filled with native plants and ancient rock walls.
Here, Puanani Lindsey launches into an oli (chant); her naturally soft voice transforms into a booming force that echoes against the valley walls. "It's my way of asking for permission to enter - to walk in the footsteps of our ancestors," she explained.
Puanani Lindsey, Maui Cultural Lands program coordinator, busily gardens at Honokowai.
Puanani is program coordinator for Maui Cultural Lands (MCL), a nonprofit group that leads weekly volunteer trips to Honokowai Valley in an effort to preserve and restore Hawaiian cultural resources.
Her days spent here are how she honors her late husband, Ed Lindsey, who founded MCL in 2002.
"Ed would always ask, 'What will my legacy be?' " shared Puanani. "This is my way of carrying out what he started and making sure it continues."
The group's mission, while straightforward, is no small feat: restore Honokowai Valley to its former glory, with a focus on native and endemic plants, clearing vegetation to reveal and preserve rows of ancient rock walls and reconnecting people to the 'aina (land).
A century ago, the area was a thriving village, housing more than 600 families. Today, glimpses of this history are being uncovered.
"I think back at where we started and how far we've come," said Puanani. "It makes me feel good to know that it's possible to bring life back to this area."
Ed's legacy also continues through the volunteers who care for Honokowai Valley each week. Among them is 13-year-old Kahana resident J.P. Hill, who spends nearly every Saturday removing invasive weeds, digging ditches and planting native flora.
The Sacred Hearts School eighth-grader began volunteering with MCL more than a year ago as part of a community service assignment. "I thought I'd show up, get my hours and be done," he grinned. "I was wrong."
Since that first trip, J.P. has become an ambassador for Honokowai Valley, sharing his experience with new volunteers and leading them on tours of the area. When he shows someone around, he pauses to tell stories or point out a native plant, all while fielding questions like a seasoned docent.
"I remember the minute that I first walked past the entrance gate, where it goes from forest to protected land," he recalled. "It was just a jaw-dropping moment, and I literally couldn't speak. I've been coming here ever since."
Despite the demands of manual labor and the long hours spent in the valley, J.P. said it's worth the effort. "I feel like I belong here, and it's my tie to the 'aina," he said, adding, "I want my kids to grow up coming here, and to see how beautiful this place is."
At that moment, J.P. surveys his surroundings: clusters of volunteers are yanking weeds from the mountainside; others are tending to an edible garden, and a chainsaw roars in the distance. It's these individuals, along with J.P., Puanani and countless others, who are the stewards of Honokowai.
"The 'aina provides a home, and it provides food for us," said J.P. "For me, it's a matter of 'How are you going to take care of it?' I want to make sure I never lose touch of that."
"West Maui Community Stories" features the everyday people who make West Maui the unique place that it is. The series is a project of West Maui Kumuwai. To learn more, visit www.westmauikumuwai.org.