Traditionally in Hawai‘i, environmental zones were perceived and determined by various natural features and resource criteria. The following is a summary of Handy and Handy description of the terrestrial environmental zones:
The land area with which the Polynesian migrant first became familiar was of necessity that along shore, wherever his voyaging canoe made its landfall.
This area he termed ko kaha kai (place (land) by the sea). This might comprise a broad sandy beach and the flats above it, or the more rugged shore of cove or harbor with its rocky terrain-in fact many and varied descriptions might fit, according to locale.
Kaha was a special term applied to areas facing the shore but not favorable for planting. Kekaha in Kona, Hawaii, was one so named, and Kekaha on Kauai another.
The ko kaha kai was not without its own verdure of a sort, however. In fact the terrain just above the sandy stretches (pu‘eone) was often called ‘ilima, because of the low-growing, gray-foliaged, golden-flowering ‘ilima bushes found in abundance there.
Pohuehue, the beach morning-glory, also had its natural habitation there, along with ‘auhuhu., whose leaves yielded a juice used to stupefy fish for ready catching in the inlets and sea pools. In fact most of the varied low growth of the ko kaha kai found use in the planter’s or fisher’s economy.
Next above were the plains or sloping lands (kula,) those to seaward being termed ko kula kai and those toward the mountains ko kula uka (uka, inland or upland.)
Here were the great stretches of waving pili grass, which was used to make the thick rain-repellent thatch for dwellings (hale). Before cultivation took over the area, the carpeting grass was interspersed with vines (such as the koali, morning-glory) and many shrubs, all of which found practical uses by the immigrant folk. There were also a few stunted trees.
On the ko kula uka, the upland slopes, were found the native ginger and other flowering plants, medicinal herbs, and thick-growing clumps of shrubs. Here too the great variety of trees attained to greater height, and their wood became the source of valuable materials for many necessities of life.
This word kula, used by Hawaiians for sloping land between mountain and sea, really meant plain or sloping land without trees. There is a large land area in the southerly kula slopes of East Maui that is named Honua‘ula (Red-earth.)
Typically, on all the islands the kula lands are covered with red soil, both on leeward and windward coasts. This is the soil in which sugar cane and pineapples flourish today. It is soil in which sweet potatoes grow well. (In contrast, dark soil, rich in humus washed down from the forests, is what wet taro requires.)
Some kula lands, such as those of southern and eastern Hawaii and the southern slopes of Haleakala on Maui, were covered with lava or soil evolved from the dust of recent volcanic eruptions.
The red soil is oldest geologically, having evolved from decomposed basalt oxidized by sun, rain, and air. Next in age is the humus of valley bottoms.
Most recent is decomposed lava, such as is typical of Kona, Ka’u, Hilo, and Puna on Hawaii, and of some areas on the southern slope of Haleakalā on East Maui.
This was the kahawai (the place (having) fresh water,) in other words, the valley stretching down from the forested uplands, carved out and made rich in humus by its flowing stream.
Here he could find (or make) level plots for taro terraces, diverting stream water by means of ‘auwai (ditches) into the lo‘i, or descending series of lo‘i until from below the whole of the visible valley afforded a scene of lush green cultivation amidst fresh water glinting in the sun.
The planter might have his main dwelling here, or he might dwell below and maintain here only a shelter to use during periods of intensive cultivation in the kahawai. Here also was a source of many of his living needs and luxuries, from medicinal herbs to flowers for decorative garlands, and with a wide range in between.
Two other descriptive terms applied to land areas, one belonging to the kahawai and one not. The first was pahe‘e, meaning a wet, soft, or slippery area; and the other was apa‘a, meaning arid or dry. From its derivative (pa‘a) meaning firmly bound, the latter became a term of affection for land long lived upon.
Wao means the wild – a place distant and not often penetrated by man. The wao la‘au is the inland forested region, often a veritable jungle, which surmounts the upland kula slopes on every major island of the chain, reaching up to very high elevations especially on Kauai, Maui, and Hawai‘i.
The Hawaiians recognized and named many divisions or aspects of the wao: first, the wao kanaka, the reaches most accessible, and most valuable, to man (kanaka;) and above that, denser and at higher elevations, the wao akua, forest of the gods, remote, awesome, seldom penetrated, source of supernatural influences, both evil and beneficent.
The wao kele, or wao ma‘u kele, was the rain forest. Here grew giant trees and tree ferns (‘ama‘u) under almost perpetual cloud and rain.
The wao kanaka and the wao la‘au provided man with the hard wood of the koa for spears, utensils, and logs for boat hulls; pandanus leaves (lau hala) for thatch and mats; bark of the mamaki tree for making tapa cloth …
… candlenuts (kukui) for oil and lights; wild yams and roots for famine time; sandalwood, prized when shaved or ground as a sweet scent for bedding and stored garments. These and innumerable other materials were sought and found and worked by man in or from the wao.
The term for mountain or mountain range – a mountainous region – is kuahiwi (backbone). Kuamauna is the mountain top, and kualono the high reaches just below it. Mauna is the term for a specific mountain mass, and may have a descriptive designation following, as Mauna Loa (Long Mountain.) The term mauka is directional, and means toward the mountains or uplands, or merely inland. (All here is from Handy.)
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