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My boss has an enormous van, covered in various decals depicting natural symbols and brimming with water quality testing equipment, with this custom license plate.

Many of the other members of my program have defined the Hawaiian concept of ‘āina as land, and have also alluded to the feeling that defining it as such is a gross oversimplification. In a manner that I’ll never fully empathize with because I have no ancestral ties to the 0.11 acres my parents own in Cleveland, land is not just land to the natives of this island. Land is an ancestor itself, a giver, a venerated companion, even as colonizers attempt to strip it and its meaning away. Land is part of the fundamental identity of the place, and if you don’t revere it you truly don’t belong here.

Despite growing up on the aforementioned 0.11 acres in a city most known in the environmental realm for being home to a river that set on fire, I always liked to think of myself as outdoorsy. I hiked with my friends on Sunday mornings, grew basil and oregano and Hinkelhatz peppers in the 2 foot stretch of slightly fertile dirt that my parents allotted for me, and if particularly inspired, incorporated litter collection into my daily cross country runs. In a superficial sense, I knew and appreciated the land.

If there’s anything I’ve come to know on this island, though, it’s that I didn’t know the ‘āina. Seeing the incredible terraced lo’i at Limahuli Garden where natives have grown and harvested the exalted taro plant, here called kalo, for thousands of years, watching my boss fight ruthlessly against any development that further mars the tiniest parcel of the land considered sacred by those who it truly belongs to, hiking the unforgiving cliffs of the Na Pali Coast at Koke’e State Park, standing on the edge of Waimea Canyon: all of this has shown me that life doesn’t have to just be lived on land. More meaningfully, and more rewardingly, it can be lived 4AINA.

My luggage was already overweight on the way here, but I have something much heavier to bring home with me: the knowledge that our land inhabits us as much as we inhabit it.

I would never be so ignorant as to pretend that I have a deep understanding of the ‘āina practices that Hawaiians have embodied for so many thousands of years before the white man co-opted aloha, but what I do hope to comprehend and to pass along is the idea that land is not to be owned, but is instead ultimately intended to be respected, loved, and lived for.