The Koa Experience
by Tiffany DeEtte Shafto (2007)
Tim and I had the most amazing time on the Big Island! One of the many highlights of our trip was our primary purpose in going—meeting our koa sawyer and seeing the mountain where this beautiful wood is coming from. We started our morning at 4 AM to be able to meet him at a lookout 45 minutes north of Hilo where we were staying. As we waited, we watched the sunrise and marveled at its incredible orange glow through the clouds. Our sawyer arrived and after a delightful conversation we were following him up the mountain. We headed up through gates and elevation changes and watched in awe as the forest changed from ironwoods to guava to ohia and koa. It became denser and the hapu (tree ferns) among the koa were reaching heights of 30ft as they stretched to reach us on top of the ridge. The koa tree canopies engulfed us and we continued.
We finally reached our destination after an hour and a half in four-wheel drive (we only traveled eight miles) and the landscape changed completely. We exited the protected forest onto private land that had been used for more than a century as cattle pastures. Here the ohia and koa trees stood out among the grass, beautiful and majestic. This was the place! This is where they perform the task of searching for the fallen, dead, and dying trees, reclaiming them with loads of heavy equipment, and milling them into the boards we use to create our artwork.
This is where new life for the amazing koa begins and it is this handful of people who make it all possible for so many of us. What a task! Our jaws dropped and we had a permanent smile all day.
The beauty of the standing koa and the knowledge that was imparted to us that day was incredible. We learned what it takes to scout for the fallen trees, often covered by the grasses. We learned about the mill and the tools and equipment used to create the boards, but we appreciated it the most when we saw it in action. We were informed that the log we were about to see cut had most likely fallen before we were born (40+ years ago) as told by the degree of rot. As the process began and the sawdust started flying, we got a glimpse of how much it takes to get the beautiful material we work with. More than half the log, which was a good 4-5 feet in diameter, was rotten. Much of it had to be discarded and only about half of the boards he was able to cut were usable. The process was incredible and we developed a much deeper appreciation for the people who make it possible for us to work with koa and for the mountain home of this tree.
The most touching part was that when a fallen, dead, or dying tree is found and has been reclaimed, the crew then scarifies the soil (does a bunch of donuts with the bulldozer) and in a few weeks, new koa trees are popping up because they finally have room to grow. New life is formed in two ways, through the new growth of the koa seedlings that finally have a chance and through the work of woodworkers like us who use the reclaimed koa to create art that lives on as an heirloom in its new owner’s home.