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Hawaii's Poet Laureate reflects on what's next for the island after the wildfires


The wildfires that have raged across Maui over the past few days are tragic, historic and devastating. At least 80 people have died so far. Thousands more are burned out of their homes. Whole communities now are reduced to rubble and ash. This week will be a dark period in Hawaii's history. Brandy Nalani McDougall is Hawaii's poet laureate, and she joins us now. Thanks so much for being with us.

BRANDY NALANI MCDOUGALL: Mahalo for having me.

SIMON: How are you? I understand your family had to evacuate.

MCDOUGALL: Yes. The police came at 4 a.m. on Tuesday morning, and they needed to evacuate. They live in our family home in Kula on Maui. So they were able to find other family to stay with further up in Kula, away from the fires, thankfully. But even as I say that, it also hurts because I know so many other people on Maui aren't sure of their family or have family that they've lost.

SIMON: I'm just wondering, with your poetic powers of observation, what are some of the thoughts that run through your mind as you see the fires sweeping over Maui and people fleeing and so many losing their lives, their homes, their place in this world?

MCDOUGALL: As a poet, I'm really at a loss. But I love Maui. Maui has always been my home. I've always felt really connected to Kula in particular. So it also just pains me to see that aina, that land being ravaged in such a horrific way.

SIMON: I wonder if you recall any of your own lines from anything you've written that bear on this?

MCDOUGALL: For now, I really wanted to share a part of a poem that is really a love song for water on the island and how it's created, if that's OK.

SIMON: Please.

MCDOUGALL: (Reading) High in the mountains, in the piko of each of these islands, where earth sieves the sky in the (speaking Hawaiian), where the air is a thick howl, and the gods are seeds of cold cloud mist billowing between short, bent trees. (Speaking Hawaiian). Descending to the (speaking Hawaiian) arouse fat clouds with sweetened wafts, where the fog lingers and drips and birds slurp, their songs feeding the understory.

SIMON: That's beautiful.

MCDOUGALL: If this vision in what I wrote was allowed to happen, where water was allowed to flow, where it was allowed to be created and continued to feed and nurture everyone it should, this wouldn't have happened. So much about Hawaiian land protection and water protection is about restoration of aina, restoration of the land. And that includes water restoration, letting water remember where it should go, letting water flow where it needs to go because it was already a system that protected us, as well. And a lot of Hawaiian land and water protection has been a fight for so many generations now. We have to go to the courts. We have to put our bodies on the line to protect everything. And we're seeing the devastating consequences of that lack of protection.

SIMON: Part of that tension over the years has been created by the fact that you just had a lot of people who wanted to come there, a lot of people who sensed opportunity, a lot of people who thought they wanted to be in paradise for a week or for the rest of their lives.

MCDOUGALL: Yeah. I can see that. I can see - you know, there's so much beauty here, and I can see how anyone would want to be here and would fall in love with it. But I think there's a way to be here responsibly. And the typical sort of tourist experience, unfortunately, is not always responsible in the way that it should be to the environment or to the people who live here.

SIMON: What do you hope for in the future? And by that, I mean the next few weeks and months and then years.

MCDOUGALL: I hope that, you know, all of our communities can come together. Here in Hawaii, we still have a lot of really close-knit communities. We still have a lot of folks who want to take care of each other. Some of the stories coming out of Lahaina I've heard are about people, you know, risking their own lives to try to help others. And that has been really beautiful to see. And I think we're going to need to all come together to do that, to help people heal and to help aina heal.

SIMON: You're the poet laureate of the state of Hawaii. Do you feel you have to write about this somehow?

MCDOUGALL: It still feels very traumatic for me, I think, to write about it, at least now. I might need some time to process it. But it certainly is something really important. I would encourage anyone who feels moved to to write about it, as well. I think this is a story that affects so many of us. This is a real - or should be a real wake-up moment for all of us. And writing poetry, letters, even Facebook posts or social media posts are all a part of processing that and of having really important conversations.

SIMON: Brandy Nalani McDougall, poet laureate of the state of Hawaii, thank you so much. And best to you and your family and friends on Maui and everywhere. Thank you.

MCDOUGALL: Mahalo. Mahalo nui. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.
Hadeel Al-Shalchi
Hadeel al-Shalchi is an editor with Weekend Edition. Prior to joining NPR, Al-Shalchi was a Middle East correspondent for the Associated Press and covered the Arab Spring from Tunisia, Bahrain, Egypt, and Libya. In 2012, she joined Reuters as the Libya correspondent where she covered the country post-war and investigated the death of Ambassador Chris Stephens. Al-Shalchi also covered the front lines of Aleppo in 2012. She is fluent in Arabic.