A Gaian Approach to Disaster

The fire that swept through Lahaina, Maui illustrated in ashen black and white the devastating convergence of climate change and colonialism. The suffering is vast, and the loss will take decades to heal. The increasing frequency and severity of fires, floods, hurricanes, and other disasters feels overwhelming. Tragedy is a time to grieve, and to deal with the immediate needs of community. Contained in this moment is also the energy of hulihia (a complete change, a pivot), the potential for transformation and healing.

Pūlama Collier, of Maui, shared this comment in 2019: “The breadth of opportunities in learning, living and loving our beloved land is expanding at a rapid pace presenting us with accelerated answers and divine repositioning. The extension of our intentions during these times will be reflected in all of these spaces. E ola ko Hawaiʻi i ka ʻāina (Hawaiiʻs Salvation is Land)”

During these times, let us turn our hands downward and work on ourselves through our land. A laha ka ʻāina laha ke kanaka. (When the land is lifted, so are its people.) -Pūlama Collier, 2019 (Image by Matthew Lynch)

I had been scheduled to give a talk about The Gaian Way for the Earth-based Spirituality Action Team of the Citizens’ Climate Lobby (CCL). The talk had been on my calendar for months, and I had planned my remarks around my usual drumbeat of sustainability education, the need for more effective, and more affective, climate education.1

But then, this. My current understanding of what happened: high winds from the offshore Hurricane Dora created conditions for fire to spread quickly. The invasive grasses that cover a quarter of the island were dry due to diverted water and the filled-in sacred wetland that was once the royal home of Kamehameha and the seat of the Hawaiian Kingdom. Power lines were blown down. Sirens were not sounded. Cell phone alerts were not received due to old fiber-optic cables that burned. Mistakes were made. There was no warning. Several hundred people died in the flames and may never be identified.

When it was time to give the talk for CCL I felt some kuleana (responsibility) to comment on these events, even though I am not on Maui, and I am not directly impacted, and cannot speak for the community on Maui. And also – we are all impacted, because we are all connected. As I read the reports from Civil Beat, scrolled updates on Facebook, listened to friends in direct support roles, and tried to respond to many texts and emails and phone calls from friends around the world who feel connected to Hawaii and to Lahaina, I put together these thoughts in consideration of “A Gaian approach to Disaster.”

A long-exposure photograph of Lāhainā on the night of August 8 to 9 from South Maui (Image by Wtp22 via Wikipedia)

But first, allow me to re-introduce myself.

I am a settler on this ‘āina who now calls Honolulu home. I trace my family’s roots to the American midwest where my grandparents were farmers, and before that to Germany and Sweden. My connection to the indigenous knowledge and practices of my European ancestors has been lost.

I have lived in Mānoa Valley for over 20 years, in the ahupuaʻa of Waikiki and the moku of Kona and the island of Oʻahu in the paeʻāina of Hawaiʻi nei. I would like to begin by acknowledging that beloved Hawaii is part of the larger territory recognized by Indigenous Hawaiians as their ancestral grandmother, and that her majesty Queen Lili‘uokalani yielded the Hawaiian Kingdom and these territories under duress and protest to the United States to avoid the bloodshed of her people. I further recognize that Hawai‘i remains an illegally occupied state of America.

Each moment I am in Hawai‘i she nourishes and gifts me with the opportunity to breathe her air, eat from her soils, drink from her waters, bathe in her sun, swim in her oceans, be kissed by her rains, and be embraced by her winds. I further recognize that generations of Indigenous Hawaiians and their knowledge systems shaped Hawai‘i in sustʻāinable ways that allow me to enjoy these gifts today. For this I am grateful and as a settler aloha ʻʻāina I seek to support the varied strategies that the indigenous peoples of Hawaiʻi are using to protect their land and their communities, and I commit to dedicating time and resources to working in solidarity.

I dedicate this essay as part of that effort.

No ka noho ʻʻāina, no ka ʻʻāina (The land belongs to the people whose ancestors have dwelled upon it) (Image by NASA Earth Observatory via Wikipedia)

My introduction includes the recommended land acknowledgement published by the University of Hawaii office of Native Hawaiian Student Affairs. I am fortunate to live in a place with a vibrant Indigenous community holding the moʻolelo (stories) and practices of a land-based worldview. Gaianism provides for me another resonant community that is connecting, or reconnecting, with Gaia. Iʻd like to describe four aspects of the Gaian way that have been helpful to me.

1. We are part of Gaia

The Gaian creed begins, “We believe that the Earth, Gaia, is a living being. That Gaia is at the same time composed of the vast diversity of life and is alive in Her own right. We understand that we depend completely and utterly on Gaia and are part of Gaia.” The Hawaiian value of “aloha ʻāina” is much more than the surface translation, “love of land”. It’s really more of a worldview than a value; central to Gaianism is that working to sustain and restore Gaiaʻs systems and other non-human beings is our main reason for being alive!

There’s a natural instinct to find the resilient aspects of nature and draw strength from them in hard times. The huge Banyan tree in the center of Lahaina, which seems to have survived the fire, quickly became a symbol of endurance. A Gaian response would be to ask how we, as humans, can provide strength to the natural environment for recovery and healing after a disaster. The arborists who care for the tree and the kupuna (elders) who have performed ceremony for the tree are also examples of Gaian practice. A well-known olelo noeau (Hawaiian proverb) also reflects this Gaian creed:

He Ali’i Ka ‘ʻāina; He Kauwā ke Kanaka. (The land is a chief, the human is a servant.) (Image of the Banyan Tree at the center of Lahaina before the fire by Melikamp via Wikipedia)

2. Inquiry in Community

The Maui fires are the worst disaster in Hawaiʻi since the tsunami in Hilo or hurricane Iniki on Kauaʻi. It is perhaps not as deadly, however, as western contact, when 80-90% of the native population died of introduced diseases like tuberculosis, syphilis, and smallpox. Gaians take an unflinching look at climate change impacts and seek better and deeper understanding of history, science, and religion through intellectual inquiry, a discussion board, book club, and even this Gaian essay! Taking the time to understand what happened is important, and empathy arises from understanding.

3. Mindfulness Meditation 

Another practice of the Gaian Way is meditation in nature. Gaian meditations can have a particular focus (like death or collapse). Forest bathing is another example, where you focus on sensory awareness. Or, having a familiar “sit spot” nearby to observe seasons, weather, birds, and animals. A daily meditation practice can be tied to the solar cycle of sunrise, solar noon, and sunset. Punctuating busy days with mindful moments helps us find a sense of planetary time during difficult days. Maybe just a moment of awareness.

This reminded me of a story from Thich Naht Hahn. He was mourning the loss of a friend who had died and could not sleep, so he summoned the memory of some cedar trees that he used to walk under, and hugged them. The memory of the cedar trees was soothing in his time of mourning, but he still couldn’t sleep, so he recalled the smiling face of a child, Little Bamboo, who had lived in Plum Village. He practiced breathing and smiling with her image and this is what helped him to sleep.

He wrote, “Each of us needs a reserve of memories and experiences that are beautiful, healthy, and strong enough to help us during difficult moments. Sometimes when the pain is so big, we cannot truly touch life’s wonders. We need help. But if we have a strong storehouse of happy memories and experiences, we can bring them to mind to help us embrace the block of pain inside.”

When I start to spin out on climate anxiety, I remind myself that the best thing I can do to prepare for a challenging future is to be present with the gifts that are available to me today, like a glass of clean pure water, or a juicy mango that literally fell from a tree, or a cup of organic, fair trade, dark roast coffee out of my favorite mug. Each of these ordinary experiences records vivid sensations I can draw on in the future–one in which I may not be able to find coffee very often. That’s a powerful thought (and mentally healthier than stockpiling bags of coffee from Costco, which I have also been known to do).

Quotation from page 97 of At Home in the World, Image by Dana Hutchinson via Wikipedia

4. Fasting on the New and Full Moon

Another Gaian practice that helps me develop resilience is fasting on the New and Full moon. While this practice is intended to remind us to notice the phases of the moon, it also helps me with fears about the future. I tend to really freak out about droughts and inevitable food supply issues (especially living on a remote island where 85% of our food is imported). When I learned about how carbon in the atmosphere actually makes wheat and other food less nutritious, for some reason that just terrified me. I look at pictures of historical famines from around the world and think about parents unable to feed their children (which I know is already a reality as many households today experience food scarcity). I get really sad and scared about that.

Fasting helps me build resilience. I think to myself: “I can do hard things!” I say this to myself to get through a day without eating food. To be honest, it’s really not that hard to fast for 24 or 36 hours (safely, and after consulting a professional if you have any compounding issues). I’m not suggesting fasting in response to a disaster, but as a pre-disaster strategy to build personal resilience and meet fear head-on.

Let the ‘aina heal (Image of damaged Banyan tree by Dominick Del Vecchio, FEMA, via Wikipedia)

A Gaian Approach

A Gaian approach to the terrible disaster on Maui would be to restore the land in order to heal the community. Of course the displaced people need their homes and lives restored, and there are property rights and livelihoods and the interests of the community to be considered. But from a Gaian perspective, the actions to restore the land will be the actions that will rebuild the community. As Naka Napoleon wrote in the local newsletter Civil Beat, “We need to heal our islands or we are doomed to suffer more of these catastrophes. We need to plant, plant, plant before we build, build, build.”

I also described in this essay how we can prepare for future disasters not just with better planning but by developing inner practices of learning, mindful sensory observations, facing fears and building fortitude, and serving Gaia – so resonant with aloha ʻāina. The history and moʻolelo of Lahaina describe a lush wetland that could feed the people, before the breadfruit trees were cut down, before the water was drained and diverted. Dr. Manulani Aluli Meyer shared some of this history with me in an email. “Did you know it was once super verdant with thousands of loʻi kalo (taro fields) and scores of loko iʻa (fishponds)?” she asked. To be honest, I didnʻt know that, because I never thought about it until this disaster. But now I can see it, and if I write it here, now you can see it too.

Image of an early and more verdant Lahaina via Images of Old Hawai’i


1) This essay is an expansion of a talk given on August 14, 2023 to the Earth Based Spirituality group of CCL. 

Krista Hiser is the convener of the Gaian Guild of Hawaiʻi Nei. She teaches writing at Kapi’olani Community College in Honolulu, Hawaiʻi.

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