The Banyan Tree

By Roland Nipps

In Waikiki, along Kalakaua Avenue, I stand before a 15-foot-high wooden structure with four small, square windows. I look through and see two things: a sprouting construction site and a tree.

An Indian banyan tree.

A day-glow plastic mesh fence surrounds the tree. White plastic sheathing hugs the tree’s base. Outside the fence, on one side, stand six bundled propane tanks. Three port-o-johns lean against the other. Deep rectangular ditches, moat-like, encircle the banyan.

I hone in on the tree and spy a sign shaped like a surf-board. This is marker No. 9, which informs visitors that Queen Emma Kaleleonalani, widow of King Kamehameha IV, summered on this land. She enclosed her house with a stone fence from a ruined heiau. An Anglican, Queen Emma feared not the wrath of local deities.

The site, once known as Kaluaokau (The Grave of Ka’u), was later leased out by the Queen Emma Foundation to Henry MacFarlane, a New Zealand entrepreneur, who reportedly planted the banyan in 1848.

The 20th-century Waikiki tourist boom loomed.

A notable booster was Don “Beachcomber” Beach, the tiki-maestro, who built International Market Place on the land of Queen Emma’s former residence. Opened in 1957, the ersatz wonderland played host to travelers. Don built a treehouse in the banyan, and Hawaiian radio icon Hal Lewis even broadcasted his morning show there in the early 1960s.

I remember International Market Place as a claustrophobic place full of kitsch. But that all ended last summer, as I watched from my lanai the demolition of the eclectic bazaar.

Today, a Midwestern mall mogul works with Queen Emma Foundation on a $350 million revitalization plan. The six-acre parcel will boast a five-story structure, 60 new stores, seven restaurants and a 750-car parking garage with valet service. And they boast that the banyan will stay.

I read about a local arborist who tends the banyan. Protective steps are being taken to ensure its survival. Roots have been mapped to prevent heavy machinery from damaging it. Buried sensors monitor the tree’s vital signs. If the tree feels stress, someone will know.

In Waikiki, my neighbors talk about the new construction — along with The Ritz Carlton Residences down Kuhio Avenue and the proposed monolith that will efface King’s Village, another archaic building from Waikiki’s post-World War II boom. Some who possess views of the ocean and mountains bemoan this construction. Others warm to the idea that their homes may appreciate in value. I don’t hear much talk about trees.

The arborist could be correct: Banyan trees are sturdy, and this one will survive.

Then again, looking through the window on Kalakaula, I’m not so sure. I understand development. I just don’t understand neglecting nature. And that tree looks threatened.

The new International Market Place is scheduled to open in one year. Stay tuned…

Roland Nipps teaches high school English at Mid-Pacific Institute. In his spare time, he writes young-adult fiction and cooks.

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