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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Land for the Good of All

Air Date: Week of

"Home Ground: Language for an American Landscape," edited by Barry Lopez and Debra Gwartney. (Courtesy of Trinity University Press)

Living on Earth continues its series exploring features of the American landscape. It’s based on the book “Home Ground: Language for an American Landscape,” edited by Barry Lopez and Debra Gwartney. In this installment, Pamela Frierson explains the term “ahupua’a.”


GELLERMAN: One danger of climate change is that it may destroy the most cherished features of our home planet: our forests, seashores, glaciers and snow-capped mountains.

Describing the features of the landscape enriches our appreciation and understanding. Learning about the geography that surrounds us, connects us, it puts us into context, which is the goal of the book “Home Ground,” compiled by Barry Lopez and Debra Gwartney.

From time to time we take note of this miscellany of American landscape descriptions. Today Pamela Frierson has an historical term from Hawaii: ahupua‘a.

FRIERSON: Ahupua’a. The most important unit in the ancient Hawaiian system of land division was the ahupua'a, a pie-shaped wedge running from a high point on the island to the coast and some distance out to sea. Since Hawaiian Islands tend to have rain-carved valleys originating at central mountains and opening out toward the coast, an ahupua'a often roughly followed the contours of watersheds.

"Home Ground: Language for an American Landscape," edited by Barry Lopez and Debra Gwartney. (Courtesy of Trinity University Press)

The coastal boundaries were marked by an ahu, a heap of piled stones supporting a carved wooden image of a pua'a, or pig--symbol of the tribute paid annually to the paramount chief of the island by the lesser chiefs in charge of each ahupua'a. The commoners within an ahupua'a, living in extended families, held tenancy to small landholdings called 'ili. The ahupua'a provided the resources to sustain a community: access to upland forests for timber, lowlands for growing crops, and fishing and gathering along a stretch of coast. This traditional system ended in 1848 when Kamehameha III was persuaded by foreigners to institute the Great Mahele, or division, which allowed land to be bought and sold. In modern times ahupua'a holds both the traditional meaning and a broader one of environmentally responsible land use.

GELLERMAN: Writer and photographer Pamela Frierson lives on the slopes of Mauna Kea Volcano on Hawaii Island. Her definition of “ahupua‘a” comes from the book “Home Ground: Language for an American Landscape”, edited by Barry Lopez and Debra Gwartney.



Check out the Home Ground project.


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