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By Renée Tillotson

Sometimes your heart hurts so much, you know just what you need to do.

News of the horrific August 8, 2023 fires on Maui reached my husband and I the next morning, a Wednesday. The loss of life and terror of the people of Maui boggled our imaginations and tore at our sympathies. Cliff and I – like so many people around the world – wondered what on earth we could do to help.

Cliff was devastated to hear that the Lahaina Banyan tree had been badly, badly burned. Memories of visiting Lahaina as a child with his mom and little brother flooded his consciousness. The Banyan, with all its many supplemental trunks, covers an entire city block. Cliff re-lived in his mind all the many hours he had spent climbing up and through its strong, extensive branch system. When he’d come down for lunch or a snack, his mom would ask him to climb under the nearby pier and collect any broken pieces of black coral he could find on the wet sand

discarded from the coral jewelry-making shop above. Task complete, Cliff would scamper back up into his beloved Banyan.

Perhaps as you read of Cliff’s childhood experience, it’s one you’ve shared yourself. That precious Banyan has stamped itself into millions of memories over the 150 years it has been growing in Lahaina, gifted from India originally as an 8-foot sapling, and revered as India’s most sacred tree species. 

As he mused on his happy times spent with the tree, Cliff began to realize that his lifelong sense of communion with Nature, was in many ways rooted in the soil of that Banyan. Its living presence held him like a massive, consoling friend. Cliff’s parents had divorced just before his mom moved him and his brother to Hawai’i. I can just imagine how stable and comforting that immovable tree, with its sturdy branches holding him up, must have felt for little Cliff. 

Cliff went to sleep that night after the Maui fire news with the thought that no one might ever be able to climb that tree again, or enjoy its leafy shade. The thought just pierced his heart. Thursday morning, Cliff woke up knowing what he needed to do. Somehow he had to help rescue that tree if he could.

Cliff set out on a several-pronged research mission. First, he found another contractor, one who was working in the Lahaina burn area, who had a water truck, and he begged them to begin watering the Banyan. The contractor, appropriately named Goodfellows, agreed. Yes. Next, he contacted one of the state’s top arborists – Steve Nims of Tree Solutions Hawai’i – to see whether he would be available to go inspect the tree. Yes. Next, he contacted Brooke (of last month’s story about Auntie Charlotte) in the Governor’s office to get permission for the arborist to enter the policed and cordoned-off burn area of Lahaina. Yes. 

By Friday night we were able to call a Hawaiian cultural practitioner, Kumu Kapono Kaumanu, who had given the blessing at a past construction job of ours in Iao Valley on Maui (you can read about his blessing here) to represent our host culture in approaching the tree. Yes. Kumu Kupono was happy to bless the site the next morning. Hawaiian protocol demands that one always ask permission before entering a sacred site. And this definitely qualified as a sacred site.

The next morning, Saturday, Goodfellows entered the burn zone at 8 am. Workers from our company, Prometheus Construction, caravaned in with Goodfellows, bringing the arborist and a man lift. Kumu Kapono accompanied them. 

According to our workers there on Maui, the blessing that Saturday morning was a moving event. Kumu Kapono didn’t live in Lahaina, yet he was the only kumu we knew on Maui. As it turns out, he had gone to elementary school right next to the Banyan. And Steve Nims had been part of a national group of arborists who had placed a historic placard on the Banyan some forty years previously in 1982. We definitely had the right team in place!

After the blessing, the arborist went to work examining the tree from bottom to top. A gloomy, doomsday article about the Banyan had already appeared in the paper, claiming from afar that the tree was unlikely to survive. In fact, Steve found all the leaves on the tree were burnt, and the sap that usually oozes out immediately if you nick the bark of a Banyan, did not come out at all. The side of the tree facing the historic Pioneer Inn and Front Street was more badly scorched than the harbor side. Nevertheless, Steve DID find a positive sign in that the cambium layers of the tree, which is the growing part of the Banyan’s nineteen trunks, were still moist.

His prescription was a regimen of spraying the tree down with six 4,000-gallon trucks of water a day. Goodfellows’ water trucks were already in use putting out hot spots, etc., and they agreed to apply three full water trucks in the morning and three at the end of the day. The water would help wash off the charred areas of bark, allow the tree to breathe better and keep the cambium layer moist. Additionally, the arborist called for us to drill holes in the ground every 3 feet to aerate the highly compacted soil under the Banyan, allowing the water to better seep down to the roots, and he called for protective fencing, which Prometheus installed. Noholowa’a Earth Works meanwhile prepared the recommended compost tea to provide the tree with nutrients and inoculation.

With restoration efforts beginning Friday, August 11th, three days after the devastating fire, hopes and prayers for the Banyan, as well as for all the affected people of Maui, encircled the globe. Maui Green & Beautiful offered to be the official receiver and disperser of donations related to the Lahaina Treescape restoration project: Elaine Malina at craterpair@hawaii.rr.com.

We had our grandchildren over to our house a few days after starting the restoration. When we told them about what was happening to save the Banyan, our five-year-old grandson, Ryder, looked up earnestly at Cliff and asked, “But what about all the other trees, Papa? Aren’t we going to help them, too?” 

Wisdom from the mouths of babes, yeah? Turns out that many local Hawaiians and arborists were wondering the same thing, especially about the pre-contact, ancient ulu or breadfruit trees that used to grow as a food-providing grove in Lahaina. Motivated by Ryder’s concern, Cliff headed over to Maui with arborist Steve a couple days later to examine the Banyan and to identify all the other saveable trees in the burnt area of Lahaina. They labeled the living trees with construction ribbon, signaling that those trees, too, would receive the water trucks’ daily dousing.

Cliff came home from work on August 31, bursting through the front door,

proclaiming, “We have leaves!” Indeed, Steve and another arborist, Tim Griffith, had been examining the Banyan that day. They found both new leaves and freely flowing sap throughout the Banyan, as well as indications of new roots growing. 

So thrilling.

My husband told me this was one of the five happiest days of his life. What a relief to know that this mighty tree-being that he loved so well was going to survive its terrible ordeal. We hope that the sacred breadfruit and other Exceptional trees being watered in the area will hang on as well.

Sometimes our hurting heart tells us exactly what we need to do. And sometimes a little child or another unlikely source tells us what we need to do. Those are very important times to listen. If we don’t, we risk suffering great regret after the fact. Cliff was certainly glad that he had listened and overjoyed with the result. 


Renée Tillotson

Renée Tillotson, Director, founded Still & Moving Center to share mindful movement arts from around the globe. Her inspiration comes from the Joy and moving meditation she experiences in the practice of Nia, and from the lifelong learning she’s gained at the Institute of World Culture in Santa Barbara, California. Engaged in a life-long spiritual quest, Renée assembles the Still & Moving Center Almanac each year, filled with inspirational quotes by everyone from the Dalai Lama to Dolly Parton. Still & Moving Center aspires to serve the community, support the Earth and its creatures, and always be filled with laughter and friendship!

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