Though I live 4,234 miles away in Central Kentucky, my feelings for Hawaii have been heartfelt since the first time I landed there. The historic town of Lahaina was destroyed last week, and a 150-year-old banyan tree I have a passion for was scorched.
Maui’s wildfires affected me more than those this year in Spain, Portugal, Italy, Greece, Kazakhstan, Chile, Canada, and 23 other states besides Hawaii. The record “heat dome” in the southwestern U.S. and Mexico was extraordinary while ocean temperature in the Florida Keys reached 100 F (38 C), strengthening the likelihood of deadly hurricanes this season.
I do not conflate every “weather event” with climate change, but I grieve over the loss of life and for the thousands of Hawaiians who were displaced.
According to the Associated Press, “Waves of severe thunderstorms in the U.S. during the first half of this year led to $34 billion in insured losses, an unprecedented level of financial damage in such a short time, according to Swiss Re Group, as climate change contributes to the frequency and severity of violent meteorological events.”
I first saw Lahaina’s banyan fig in 1972. I didn’t immediately realize it, but the tree was a trigger for my horticultural career.
On that mid-August day, over 50-years ago, I learned the Latin name for the banyan (Ficus benghalensis) —thanks to good labeling—before I could identify a pawpaw or a persimmon on sight. I had never seen anything so botanically wondrous as the tree’s gigantic canopy that covered nearly two-thirds of a city block. The banyan’s magnitude sunk in.
I have returned to Maui several times since. Traffic around Lahaina has become congested with tourists like me, flooding the once beautiful and historic Front Street for souvenirs, shaved ice, and a hard-to-miss tree.
I have been honored, on these return pilgrimages, to see my first love again.
The magical effect of Lahaina’s banyan was evident when Rose and I were last there in 2014.
Playful children ran around the tree’s massive trunk and its 36 botanically peculiar aerial roots.
My memory of the banyan was upended last week. Its future remains uncertain.
“Weighed against the horrific loss of lives and the nearly complete destruction of a town, the potential loss of a single, gigantic tree may seem trivial,” Julia Flynn Siler wrote for the New York Times in a guest essay called “Lahaina’s Banyan Tree Stands But Much Hawaiian History Is Gone.”
“The tree and surrounding historic district are a powerful reminder of how Lahaina, however imperfectly, had managed to preserve its 19th-century roots to a greater extent than most other places on the islands. The fact that the tree is charred but still standing offers us the hope of both the tree and the town’s eventual revival.”