A personal loss, a healing plant

text by

Akiemi Glenn, The Popolo Project

photo by

Josiah Kekoanui Patterson

Today I received word that one of my senior colleagues, Dr. Arthur Whistler, succumbed to COVID-19, marking Hawaiʻi's third fatality in this pandemic. A botanist, Art's book Plants of the Canoe People: An Ethnobotanical Voyage Through Polynesia was one of the first places I learned about the history and expansive distribution of pōpolo across our sea of islands and our world. Art was a respected scientist in our local scholarly community and in acknowledging the ʻike his research brought forward for so many, we have to reckon with all that we have at stake in a crisis like this. It is hard to comprehend the human scale of losses like this one happening many times over, all over the world.

So much has changed in the last few weeks here in Hawai'i and around the world and we at the Pōpolo Project are, just like many of you, working hard to understand our place amid the rapid changes in our community. This is a hard time, but as we deal with cancellations and re-work our programs, worry about the health and safety of our loved ones, as we try to think creatively about how to stay connected to our communities, we are taking inspiration from the pōpolo plant itself. Pōpolo is a healing plant, a lāʻau long regarded for its power as an antibiotic and for healing respiratory issues. It grows all around the world—in North America it has a range from Georgia to California— and yet still has a special place here in Hawaiʻi and in the Pacific where it found a way to enrich the soil, to feed birds, and to be a remedy for humans in trying times.

There are so many layers to what we are being challenged to contend with as a community. The fallout from this crisis is unfolding in many complex ways and we hope that we will be able to keep the Pōpolo Project alive through all of the obstacles we will have to weather as an organization, especially financially, in coming months. However, through it all we know that our salvation is in our community and our sense of kuleana to and for each other and, just like those hardy nightshades that pop up wherever they can, brimming with healing medicine, we hope to find opportunities to keep us all together and looking forward to the next time we can gather again.

In the coming weeks, and beyond, if necessary, we intend to amplify good work across our community, to connect with you, our community, in new ways, and to uplift this is as a time for us to be thoughtful, all of us, about the world we want to sustain when we emerge on the other side of this challenging time.

At our Black Futures Ball in February, seemingly a lifetime ago, we insisted that "The Future is Fertile" and we still believe that. But we also believe that we need to each other to be able to bring that abundance forth and put it to good use. We hope that as we redirect our work you will think about engaging with us in new ways, too. Please stay safe and healthy with your families and community.

COVID Resources Especially Relevant to Our Community

  1. American Documentary: Artist Emergency Fund
  2. Anonymous Was a Woman: COVID-19 Emergency Relief Grant
  3. Coronacare Hawaiʻi: COVID-19 Mutual Aid Network
  4. Disabled Creator and Artist Pandemic Relief
  5. Doris Duke Charitable Foundation: COVID-19 Resources for the Performing Arts
  6. Hawaiʻi Resilience Fund: Hoʻāla Assistance Program
  7. SheaMoisture:Community Commerce Fund for Women of Color Entrepreneurs
  8. Nellie Mae Foundation: Rapid Response: Racism is a Virus Too