Saturday, May 26, 2012

The Wall

Memorial Day Weekend 2012

Friday, May 18, 2012

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Raising Cane - Afterburn

Sugar cane... a crop once ubiquitous to the islands now on the wane. On the island of Maui, sugar planting is now largely limited to the the central plains, north shore and lower elevation plateaus & slopes of Haleakala. There was a time when a patchwork of verdant green once quilted the mauka ("towards the mountains") areas of West Maui from Ukumehane to Kahana. 

Sugar is controversial. Which side of the controversy you stand is largely dependent on several factors. 

If you were born here... or come from family that was brought here decades ago from foreign lands to work in the plantations, your view is most likely that cane is a benevolent crop, providing employment for members of & ethnic diversity to your community for generations. Many of the small towns in the islands developed essentially from the plantation camps... sugar (together with  pineapple) was the central point of focus that held these communities together and around which these communities eventually grew into the residential and resort areas that exist on the island today. It was within these small camp communities that the foundations of what we now call Island Cuisine first developed as approx. 337,000 new immigrants were imported from China, Japan, The Phillipines, Puerto Rico & Korea to work the plantations in the course of a century. With them came the cooking styles & foods of their homelands, contributing to what we all now enjoy as a diverse and vibrant mix of ethnic flavors employed in the humblest of Hawaiian Plate Lunches to extravagantly priced Asia Fusion offerings in dining venues boasting a galaxy of rating stars.

If you're malahini (newcomer) or kama'aina (long-time resident transplant), it's quite likely your view of sugar is the opposite... it's dirty, consumes too much water (a somewhat limited resource in the islands). The burning of fields prior to harvest creates large amounts of smoke & ash (first plumes of smoke during the first stage of a burn resemble the mushroom cloud of an atomic explosion), in turn, contributing to increased reports of asthma & other respiratory illnesses, air pollution, toxic gasses released from plastic drip irrigation lines also burned along with the crop, increased air born dust & dirt, filthy ash (island snow) falling on our newly washed cars or filling our swimming pools. Fields, once burned & prior to replanting, are extra prone to wind & rain erosion, which contributes in the long run to the burying and degradation of protective barrier coral reefs that ring the islands. Opponents of sugar production will also point out that the crop sucks up tax dollars with government subsidies aimed at supporting domestic production over cheap imported sugar. 

My thoughts on sugar are decidedly mixed. On one hand, I sympathize with sugar's opponents. I agree with the health and environmental concerns they hold while at the same time enjoying the expansive greenbelts the crop provides. One only needs to drive along the coast of the island's west side to see large expanses of land, once green with cane & undeveloped, now a dry brown brush fire hazard or yielding to the unquenchable lust of gated-community developers. The smells issuing from the island's last remaining sugar mill are of the nausea innducing, sickly-sweet, rotting variety during peak production seasons. Yet, fields in cultivation are temporary ecosystems in themselves, providing shelter, food and homes to a variety of fauna, from insects, mongooses, rats & mice to several species of birds. Vast fields of cane provide paths (illegal... you will be trespassing) for outdoor activities like biking, dirt biking, walking, hiking, running and other outdoor activities... their network of irrigation ditches & streams bringing much needed water to arid parts of the terrain and opportunities to recreational fish for Tilapia and other introduced fresh water species.

No matter which side of the issue you take, sugar has been grown in the islands for centuries, most likely arriving somewhere around 600 AD with the first voyagers from Polynesia. Sugar cultivation was observed by Capt. Cook when he first ventured to Hawaii in 1778. Sugar eventually became big agribusiness and one of, if not the dominant island industries with the advent of reliable steamship transportation to the island's sometime during the 1840's.

Love it or hate it, sugar remains a large agricultural and economic force in Hawaii for the foreseeable future. As we approach the summer months, harvest is in full swing soon to be followed by replanting and cultivation. My goal is to document the process & some of the people involved with photographs and the occasional word through the season, to serve as a visual document of an island way of life that will not be with us forever, with neither a point of view of condemnation nor praise, but simply as an island way of life that has permeated & contributed much to the current culture. 

Spending time in the fields recently to photograph a harvest, I quickly became aware of the skill & precision... a choreography of competence, with which each field team operates. Like clockwork once the burn is completed, heavy machinery moving in & out... cranes, haul trucks. There is noise, danger and the harsh conditions of heat, brutal sun & unrelenting dust in the workplace of these men & women working the fields. During harvest season, they work 'round the clock... morning, noon & night... first leveling the fields once burning is completed, moving the charred remains into massive piles and then scurrying load the scorched "cane" into huge haul trucks before it rots, transporting their cargo to the mill for processing into raw sugar & molasses to be pumped into tanks for eventual sea transport for further refining at mainland mills.

The following photographs comprise the first early efforts of a series I call: "Raising Cane". Stay tuned for further installments throughout the summer harvest & replanting season.