Singing the virtues of trees

Since my return from a June walk under a canopy of giant sequoias at Muir Woods with my hula sisters, and my July forest hikes with family in Colorado, I’ve been looking, really looking, at trees as I walk and drive around the island. Trees have such amazing real-life qualities of supplying shelter and shade, cleaning and scenting air, acting as a buffer to wind and storm, and in many varieties, producing nuts (coconuts!), fruits, medicines and wood.

Some plants become trees if left untrimmed: coffee, star of India, hibiscus, croton and poinciana bushes. We have living proof in our garden. Some, we call trees that are actually grasses or herbs: bamboo, banana, papaya.

Thinking about trees in reality doesn’t take into account the value of trees, and their symbolism, as with the Tree of Life depicted in almost every world culture and predating writing. I have long admired sculptures in stone seen at ancient sites and museums worldwide that express trees known to various tribes and peoples. It’s amazing to recognize chiseled and painted representations of blooming and fruiting pomegranate trees on pre-biblical slabs and walls, as well as laurel (bay) and date palms of ancient Ur, Assyria, Egypt, Greece and Rome — just as we know and recognize them today.

I am one who stares long at representations of trees in cathedrals and temples, museums and galleries. I learned to visualize trees, deep roots to highest branches, during preparation for the practice of Healing Touch. However, a living tree never ceases to amaze me and how the various and miraculous adaptations to nature depend on climate, soil and moisture. And what human beings make of trees is also intriguing and quite humbling: paper to sculpture, decorative to useful objects, as well as glorious musical instruments.

Trees can honor a life being lived, or one that has passed. When my mother died and willed her body to science years ago, my sister and I decided to plant a silk oak on the grounds of the school where she taught for 25 years, adding a memorial plaque. 

Recently, my 6-year-old granddaughter, Isabella, chose a young blue spruce as her tree, to be planted to grow along with her in Colorado Springs. Now all our grandchildren — Kira, Brendon, Ryan and Evan, and “Izzy” — have a tree in their Ohio and Colorado yards that represents their individual lives: four blue spruces in various stages of development, like their owners, and one flowering crabapple that bursts into glorious bloom each spring. That is my first granddaughter’s special tree, planted back in the 1980s. Kira has been married for not quite a year now. Her tree echoes Kira’s great-grandmother’s love of her favorite climbing tree during childhood, an arboreal nook in which she cuddled her teddy bear, a private place in which she nested and dreamed.

My feeling that trees and spirit connect might stem from the year I lived in Burma, where the belief was that each tree hosted a resident “nat,” or spirit. Each of my children has a tree planted during their youth: a willow for Brian, a golden apple for Angela, a pie cherry for Chris, and a black walnut “picnic” tree for Jason. I also believe you should plant as many trees as possible in as many places as you can during a lifetime.

Right now, at our Noni Street property, my husband thinks I’ve reached my limit. So I must content myself with planting herbs, and bushes, instead. (I have given up with vegetables except leaf lettuce and now rely on an organic farm and farm markets to supply those.) I also content myself by communing and regularly carrying gray water from our kitchen to supply thirsty roots of the tangerine, star apple, noni, lemon and kaffir lime, katudai, poincianas, puakenikeni, Norfolk pine-in-a-container, banyan-in-a-tub, fir and cedar trees. The breadfruit, Tahitian plumeria and money trees are on their own with normal rainfall. The papaya trees and mango need less moisture than what falls naturally in the Homesteads.

A favorite tree tale of mine is my husband’s story from years past: He took a class of California seventh graders on a field trip to see an ancient live oak that had a trunk that would take seven students holding hands to surround. 

“You brought us all the way here to see a dead tree?” they complained. He, too, was shocked. He apologized; he hadn’t known a fire had burned the tree since his last visit. However, even the charred stump still proved amazing.

Native Hawaiian trees are stately and/or struggling, lovely or straggly, depending on how and where they’re rooted. In the Kokee forest, I have hiked, rested and bird-watched under the ohia lehua and olapa and hardwoods of ahakea and aalii. I have cheered on koas that sent up new growth after Iniki winds decimated them, and sandalwoods that struggled to live on after being systematically harvested and stripped. There is a movement in place now to replace dying or unhealthy imported trees, such as monkeypods and casuarinas (“Ironwoods”), with native trees. It’s my hope that this plan will succeed. In coaxing the growth of native trees suited to the Garden Island, there will be a natural proliferation of endangered birds, also.


Dawn Fraser Kawahara has been a Kauai writer and promoter for 30 years. A former writer and department editor for The Garden Island, she launched and continues to run her TropicBird Press and TropicBird Weddings & Celebrations – Kauai as part of DAWN Enterprises.


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