Koa, The Most Prized Possession

April 27, 2017

Magnificent curls float in the distinct orange-hued canvas of the Hawaiian Koa calabash. At 2016 Hawaii's Woodshow.

Koa means “ Warrior” in Hawaiian.
The warriors in the time of King Kamehameha the Great made their weaponry and mighty canoes out of tall endemic Acacia trees that grew thick in the forests of the Big Island. They fought their fearless battles for the King and swept through the neighboring islands. Native Hawaiians started associating the image of these wooden weapons which included sharktoothed daggers, pikes, spears, as well as their mighty canoes, to these invincible warriors, and the endemic Acacia trees became known as “Koa”, the symbol of fearlessness, boldness or bravery.

Bold and fearless curls do all the story telling themselves. Curly Koa table by Alan Wilkinson.

The largest endemic tree in Hawaii favors high elevations of preferably 2,000 feet and above. It loves loamy, clayish soil in uninterrupted land to protect its sensitive surface roots from outside factors such as humans, animals, and machines. The slopes of two volcanos, Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa, push arriving trade winds up and in return deliver abundant rain in the surrounding region. For its ideal elevations and mesic air, the area has been known as the place where big healthy Koa logs are to be found. The tallest Koa tree which measured 115 feet (33 m) back in 2012, stands in the Kona Hema Preserve on the Big Island.

Koa trees from the Big Island are also known for its striking grain patterns and luminescent golden to reddish shades. The “curly” Koa is a term to describe its distinct figured grain pattern. Curly grain resembles the long zigzagging clefts on the coastal mountain ranges or lacy waves webbing on a sandy beach. Some say these majestic streaks and wavy swirls are the reflections of how the tree interacted with brushing winds. It consists of only 10% of all Koa lumbers and thus the most prized among all. Because of its dramatic appearance and golden luster in addition to its tonal characteristics, some curly Koa used for acoustic guitars and ukuleles, can cost $150/board foot! This makes Koa the world most expensive tree commercially.

Every tree is one of the kind holding strong impressions of Mother Nature. Curly Koa calabash by R.W. Butts.

Amongst the fine Koa woodworks ranging from a small jewelry box to a rocking chair, Koa calabashes, ʻumeke lāʻau (wooden bowl), are probably the most mesmerizing pieces to which many people are drawn. Its fine delicate shape and the half-mooned shadow inside tickles our imagination. It communicates with our hearts and makes us want to get to know it better. Maybe many layers of mana form from inside the forest, which woodturners masterfully feed into their crafts. And then they strike a chord deep within us.

Ancient voyaging canoes carried a large Koa bowl during its sea voyage. Some say that it was used for navigation purposes. Filling it with water, ancient Hawaiians would check the stars that were reflected upon the water from the night sky.

I have a little curly Koa box that I bought years ago during my trip to the Big Island. Once in a while I re-polish my box which started loosing its original luster. Every time I rub it gently with beeswax, I feel like I’m witnessing a similar magic taking place in front of my eyes. The constellations of varying golden curls emerge from the dull surface. Sometimes it appears like a hidden treasure map with a dotted line leading to a little faint “x”. Other times, it appears like endless ebbs and flows overlapping in a forever golden void.

Regardless of the interpretation, it helps me locate and reposition myself better with the infinite possibility reflected on the surface. This makes me feel like my Koa box is priceless, the most prized possession of all.

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