By James Sturz
April 07, 2016

When I grew up, on the twelfth floor of an apartment building in Manhattan, Arbor Day was always in April. But the follow-up question was usually something like this: What are trees? The holiday goes back to 1594, when a Spanish village 13 miles off the North Atlantic coast inaugurated it to plant a horse chestnut and lime tree grove. In the U.S., the first Arbor Day was celebrated in Nebraska in 1872, and Hawaii started celebrating it as a territory in 1905. It’s held there now in November, when rainy season begins and saplings can be sure to get enough water, but perhaps that just means I’ll celebrate it twice in 2016, the second time once the house is finished. This year, National Arbor Day is April 29.

I bring this up because no native trees are more important in Hawaii than the ohia lehua, an evergreen whose wood was traditionally used in construction while its stunning flowers decorated hula altars (the red lehua is the Big Island’s official flower, although the tree is now battling a worrisome blight), and koa, an acacia that can easily grow to 100 feet and is prized for the beauty of its wood—and consequently also for its value. Used for everything from furniture and cabinets to carved bowls, ukuleles, canoes, paddles, surfboards, and even weapons (in Hawaiian, the word koa also means warrior), the one thing you can always say about a piece carved from koa is that it won’t just be beautiful but beautifully pricey.

A month ago, Paula and I drove out to Umikoa Village, an 1885 ranch town up a winding road from the island’s windward coast, about 10 miles outside of Pa’auilo and 50 from our house. It’s now the home of Hawaiian Legacy Tours and the Hawaiian Legacy Reforestation Initiative, which together offer the chance to plant a baby koa or sandalwood in a 1,000-acre tract on the slopes of Mauna Kea, in what will eventually become a 500,000-tree koa forest. You can dedicate your trees (we did, but not every secret uttered is destined for this blog), and each tree is planted with a radio frequency ID tag, bearing its GPS location, as well as information about its mother and her seeds. (On a different note, one that has nothing to do with Hawaiian traditions, the koa blossom is thought to have been the inspiration for many of Dr. Seuss’s flowers.)

The initiative, in turn, is part of a larger one called Hawaiian Legacy Hardwoods (HLH), which began in 2009. Operating from the standpoint that sustainable tropical hardwoods have a reliable and increasing value (I’ll direct you to return now to the line about the prices of carved pieces), HLH lets you invest in them as timber. You’ll have to do your own due diligence, which could possibly mean your next few Hawaiian trips will be tax-deductible, at least as long as your CPA and the IRS see eye-to-eye (alas, Arbor Day isn’t the only thing happening in the U.S. in April)—but for an investment of $12,236 for 100 trees, HLH’s projections for cumulative net proceeds over their 25-year life range from $217,488 to $321,117 (at that point HLH will cut them down and start again). Some 330,000 saplings have been sold and planted as investments to date. You could do worse. So could the planet.

Of course, another choice is that you don’t actually have to sell your wood. You plant it, you own it—I’m not sure if that’s the phrase, but we say something similar in New York City—so you can also keep the lumber for yourself, and then maybe even build a Hawaiian house. In our North Kohala lot, we’re still months away from installing any cabinets—a koa kitchen seems unlikely, although I do currently own a handsome koa bookmarker—but we did plant two koa saplings on our site after planting two of them first with Hawaiian Legacy Tours in the mountains.

I talked a few posts ago about Hawaii’s native forest birds. Planting forests provides new habitats for them, of course. I’m not going to suggest that our two scrawny trees helped attract this Hawaiian hawk, who came to visit our site about 10 days ago, but I’m certain they didn’t scare him away. Maybe he’ll even return once the trees are bigger.

Otherwise, our spruce-pine-fir and engineered wood frame is now close to finished.

Given time, everything grows.