Isabella and Martha on the Path Less Traveled
This month’s photo was taken over fifty years ago. A narrow ranch road leads into thick native forest with one silvery puddle gleaming in the gloom, reflecting an overcast sky. The tall trees are predominantly `ohi`a lehua, our indigenous tree that thrives best on Hawai`i island, finding lava no impediment to luxurious growth. Tree ferns crowd along the roadside like eager spectators jostling for a view at a 4th of July parade, as unremarkable a plant in that era as a field of Giant Guinea Grass is in ours. No trace of yellow-flowered fireweed or dratted pa-makani can be seen. No cursed kahili ginger lurks on the sidelines or, even worse, nasty popoki, the sleeve-tearing and skinshredding cat’s claw. Tree trunks are not draped with banana poka vines and no German Ivy smothers the ferns. Except for some possibly introduced grasses surviving in the sunlight, the forest is practically pristine, that overworked word that can be hard to appreciate unless you are presented with the Real McCoy, captured in a photograph such as this one. Horseshoe One Ranch cowboys who rode their horses over this muddy track five days a week back in the 1960s and 1970s might be shocked to learn that in the 21st century, these Hawaiian tree ferns are threatened by hardy invaders such as Australian tree fern and hideous strawberry guava. What is the message? Seize your pen and snap your camera now, for the view can change in the blink of an eye.
In case you have not noticed, summer rains have renewed Kona; the land appears more alive and lush than it has for several years. Fortunately, this wealth of water has been shared up and down West Hawai`i, encircling Waikoloa and Waiki`i with rippling seas of grass (and now mice!) and coloring the slopes of Mauna Loa and Hualalai with fresh growth. Author Isabella Bird said it best back in 1873 when she wrote a letter to her sister Henrietta trapped in somber Scotland: “It is a joyous green; a glory!” Isabella happened to be riding across the lower reaches of Mauna Kea at the time, but her observation is as spot on now for Kona as it was then for Hamakua. “Whenever I look up from my writing, I ask , Was there ever such a green? Was there ever such sunshine? Was there ever such an atmosphere? And Nature – for I have no other companion, and wish for none – answers,’ No’.” Hawai`i’s rain soaked hillsides present a palette both unique and marvelous, and the prevailing color (in the rainy season) is GREEN!
We can relive Isabella’s enthusiasm for our Hawaiian rainforests by dipping into her Six Months in the Sandwich Islands. “…the small-leaved ohia, its rose-crimson flowers making a glory in the forests, and its young shoots of carmine-red vying with the colouring of the New England fall.” “There were some very fine tree-ferns (Cibotium Chamissoi), two of which being accessible, we measured, and found them 17 and 20 feet high, their fronds 8 feet long, and their stems 4 feet 10 inches in circumference 3 feet from the ground. They showed the most various shades of green, from the dark tint of the mature frond, to the pale pea green of those which were just uncurling themselves.” Determined to collect samples of two parasitic ferns, Isabella, 42 years old at the time, “managed to get up into a tree for the first time in my life!” While staying at the Todd family’s boarding house near Greenwell Store, our intrepid visitor exclaimed: “The beauty of this part of Kona is wonderful. The interminable forest is richer and greener than anything I have yet seen, but penetrable only by narrow tracks which have been made for hauling lumber. The trees are so dense, and so matted together with trailers, that no ray of noon-day sun brightens the moist tangle of exquisite mosses and ferns which covers the ground.”
Isabella captured Hawaii’s 19th century beauty with her pen, describing events and vistas that have delighted readers around the world. One might ask who has stepped forward in our era to present Kona’s charms to a wider audience? For many of us associated with the Kona Historical Society, our favorite interpreter of Hawai`i’s beauty has been Martha Lowrey Greenwell. Born in Honolulu in 1920, Martha showed talent with both pencil and paintbrush from girlhood, artistic gifts she perfected throughout her long and productive life. Her father’s early drawing lessons and family encouragement resulted in a lifelong passion for capturing the image in front of her. If she didn’t have time to get every last detail on paper, she learned to make sure her camera was always at hand.
Fortunately for KHS, our young artist’s marriage to James Greenwell in 1940 introduced Martha to Kona. Although the couple lived in Honolulu while raising their two children, family vacations in Honokohau were frequent. Soon Palani Ranch’s white faced Hereford cattle, sleek horses, slicker-bedecked cowboys and rustic stone walls became models for scores of charming oil paintings and sketches, an authentic rendition of ranching life. Hualalai and Mauna Loa became the backdrop for detailed landscapes filled with dapper nene geese, capering wild goats, and friendly turkeys. When Jimmie and Martha decided to move permanently from Honolulu to North Kona in 1989, Martha could finally focus on Kona to her heart’s content. The walls of her mauka lanai studio were never bare because she never stopped painting. A shopping trip to Waimea doubled as an excuse to shoot a roll or two of Kodak film, Martha stopping her car to snap snow-capped Mauna Kea or an attractive stretch of fence line. Within a week or two, Martha would have begun a new series of paintings inspired by that patch of sunlit cloud over Kohala Mountain or that fallen down tree on the Saddle Road. Well into her 90s, Martha’s on going projects included special paintings of moonlit canoes or portraits of adorable animals for favorite charities and worthy causes; Christmas Santas for her beloved grandchildren; and tiny paintings poised on tiny easels created for a special friend. The demand for a piece of Martha Greenwell artwork ballooned and KHS felt fortunate when she created our new logo, a charming painting of the old Greenwell Store, to use on all our stationary and publications.
In the past decade, Martha’s paintings have become prized collector’s items, the sort of attention grabbing, must-have-at-all-costs, big ticket draw that non-profit organizations dream of for auctions and gala events. If all the money raised by Martha’s donated art was added together by the Daughters of Hawai`i, Hawaii Preparatory Academy, Family Support Services, Parker School and the Kona Historical Society (to name just a few of her pet causes), it would be in the hundreds of thousands of dollars!! To top it all off, Martha was not only a prolific and popular artist, she was a beautiful, generous and fun loving person – and she could cook! This winning combination won her admirers throughout the state of Hawai`i and a devoted circle of family and friends.
Martha passed away this July, clear of mind and terribly talented. She will be missed by many, even those who never met her, because her drawings and paintings reflect so clearly her love of Hawai`i and her amazing zest for life. Martha lived at the edge of the rainforest which cloaks the western face of Hualalai, her sunset view of North Kona’s coastline framed by towering `ohi`a trees. I’d like to think that Isabella and Martha would have enjoyed each other’s company. Their footsteps in Kona have crisscrossed more than once, Palani Ranch owning the little cabin at Kealapu`ali where Isabella spent several nights in the company of Mr. Wall and his Hawaiian wife in the summer of 1873. Martha has sketched the picturesque ruins of that place several times and admired the same views Isabella described in her letters. Both women have been awakened on moonlit nights by the glow of molten lava coloring clouds and smoke over Mauna Loa’s summit. They certainly would have been “soul mates” in their admiration for Kona’s lush forests, each of them finding that vast stretch of green an endless source of delight. How grateful I am to those two fine ladies for leaving us an invaluable record of our district, captured for all time with an artist’s appreciative and ever alert eye.
Aloha no, e Kona.