As co-founder of Hui Ku Maoli Ola and Papahana Kuaola, Matt Kapalikū Schirman ’92 is at the center of a movement to restore native plant species and ahupua‘a management practices.
By Catherine Black ’94
When Matt Kapalikū Schirman was one credit shy of getting his civil engineering degree at Oklahoma State University, he had an epiphany. During a meeting with his dean, he realized that, “If this was being an engineer, it just wasn’t me.” Shortly afterward, he returned to Hawai‘i and enrolled in the University of Hawai‘i’s Kamakakuokalani Hawaiian Studies Program, “which was way more what I was into: outdoorsy, connected to space, identity and that kind of thing.”
Schirman grew up playing in the streams and back roads of Waimānalo and in many ways seems like a kid at heart. But his informal demeanor and joking manner belie the major role he has played in raising the profile of native plants in Hawai‘i’s popular culture, and the ambitious vision that motivates him.
After making that pivotal decision to return home and focus on what he truly cared about, Schirman says everything began to fall into place. While pursuing his graduate degree in Pacific island studies, he noticed that many of the plants he learned about were not readily available. “So many of the plants that are endemic to Hawai‘i have an endemic practice associated with them, so that if we lose the plant, we lose the practice,” he explains. “We’d learn the chants and hear the mo‘olelo about the uses of these plants, both in my hālau and at school, but then not have any live examples of them.”
Schirman got to talking with a zoology student and friend, Rick Barboza, and the two decided to found a nursery devoted solely to native plants. “Neither one of us had an agricultural or horticultural degree and everything bad in the book was said about native plants – they’re hard to propagate, hard to sell, slow-growing, bugs like to eat them, you name it,” remembers Schirman. “So I like to say that if we can successfully run a commercial native plant nursery, then anyone can do it.” And after a pause, he adds with a laugh, “plus I always like a good challenge.”
The two founded Hui Kū Maoli Ola in 1999 on a small plot in Waimānalo and quickly realized that their first challenge would be educating the public about the value of native species. What many people take for granted today – that these plants preserve Hawai‘i’s unique ecosystems and the cultural knowledge that developed around them over centuries – was not widely known at the time. So Schirman and Barboza began to design environmental projects, particularly stream restoration, as a vehicle for working with schools and community groups to raise this awareness.
They formed a nonprofit, Papahana Kuaola, to support their work and in 2005, secured a 57-acre site from Kamehameha Schools in Ha‘ikū Valley to concentrate these activities. After clearing it of decades worth of dumped cars and construction debris, they transformed the land into a stunning example of culturally based ahupua‘a management. Today, Papahana Kuaola welcomes around 30,000 people per year – including groups from Punahou School – for a variety of educational and cultural activities. The organization also works with public, private and charter schools around the state to deploy a unique place-based curriculum for elementary-aged children. “What we’re doing is giving kids a basic understanding of their environment,” Schirman explains. “Especially today, when many kids are growing up much more urbanized, we want to give them a foundational understanding of where they live so that they can treat it with knowledge and respect.”
With the nursery now an established name in landscaping projects – their long list of clients includes names like the U.S. Navy, Haseko and Turtle Bay Resort – Schirman can say with pride that, “We were able to make native plants cool and sexy.” Not only do all major local nurseries now carry at least a handful of native plant species, but the City and County of Honolulu and the State of Hawai‘i both recently enacted laws to use natives in a growing percentage of their public landscaping.
But for Schirman, the vision that inspired his work from the beginning has always been bigger than plants or even the ahupua‘a restoration occurring at Papahana Kuaola. “I would describe it as lifestyle restoration,” he says. “Plants and the cultural practices associated with a healthy environment are just byproducts of learning about how we should be living – that’s my real work. It’s how we interact with our space, how we interact with each other, how we interact with the future. Putting native plants out there isn’t really going to solve Hawai‘i’s problems, but it’s one more tool to get people connected to their space so that they can become part of the solution to those problems.”
Nana i ke Kumu Look to the Source
The traditional saying popularized by Mary Kawena Pukui is often invoked as a reminder of the ancestral wisdom at the heart of Hawaiian culture. By honoring our roots and history, we are better equipped to face the present and shape the future. As ‘ike Hawai‘i, Hawaiian knowledge, becomes more intentionally woven into the Punahou experience, the School’s graduates can honor and represent the host culture of their home, wherever they end up in the world.
The featured alumni in the fall 2018 issue of the Punahou Bulletin demonstrate the impact that Punahou graduates can have on Hawai‘i, as well as the different ways their Punahou experience informed their life’s calling. From hula to aloha ‘āina to ‘ōlelo Hawai‘i, their work strengthens the bridge between ke kumu, the source (or the teacher), with an inspiring vision for Hawai‘i’s future.
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