Ghosts of the Cane Fields



The fantasy of moving to Maui almost five years ago hooked something deep within me. Northern Virginia life had chewed me up and spit me out. A 10 day vacation on Maui in July 2014 made an impact on these highly stressed East Coasters. Our house in Virginia went on the market and away we went. Normally a careful planner, I surprised myself. I just knew I had to come.



Why I brought too much:

My things were my parachute. A prior investment, sometimes pricey, that made me believe I had arrived, I’d made something of myself. These things feel more like a noose around my neck now. I had recently read Marie Kondo’s book: “The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing”.

The paved road I found myself on gave way to dirt and stone. I looked for the MFOL (Maui Friends of the Library) sign, losing my way heading down dead ends. Turning the corner, just past Puunene School, I saw a little hut. My books and their well-fingered pages and margin notes dating back to my college years and beyond found a home there. This is the place where books have a soul, not pixels on a screen. Such a Miracle! Clearly, I’d found my people.

Graveyard of steel:

Along the way, I fell in love with the rusty machinery lying in stately repose. My camera was calling my name. Like the unearthed bodies and homes buried at Vesuvius, I felt the ghosts of the past greet me. Would these structures be bulldozed?  Suddenly, I felt their stories come to life.

There were the Picture Brides, bending in the fields, next to their stranger/husbands. Were they happy or sad? Did their husbands lie to the matchmakers back home, only to leave their new wives shocked at the boat dock? I imagined them stopping at the Meat Market on the way home, belly bulging with pregnancy, a sullied apron covered in dirt and sweat, sore fingers from the cane leaves’ sharp edges. Would they make something good for their husband to eat, passed out at home from exhaustion, or besotted with liquor dreaming of Japan, Portugal, or China? Was their husband benevolent and loving, or cursed and powerless, taking out frustrations on a wife trying her best. These were brave women. They made the best of what they had.


The History of Cane:

As I drove through fields of parched cane and rusty carcasses of metal, I found myself transported even farther back in the early mill days. The Cane industry began with:

“In 1843, Samuel Thomas Alexander and Henry Perrine Baldwin, sons of pioneer missionaries, met in Lahaina, Maui. They grew up together and became close friends and went on to develop a sugar-growing partnership that spanned generations and left an indelible mark on Hawaii.” (

A & B was started with an initial investment of $110. Today, A&B is valued at 26 billion dollars. The Sugar Cane business came to end in 2016. Losses and community uproar over the toxic air, that engulfed the island on the pre-harvest burn days lead to the closing. The air on Maui and skyline are definitely much improved. The Local Community, however, felt sad about the Mill closing.


It was the best of times?

Was Mill life good or bad? For many immigrant families, life was good. Segregation in camps by cultures was the norm. There was even one camp was for honeymooners. They must have made fast friends, held dances and other social activities in their free time. These camps helped to ease the transition and provide assistance to the mill workers. Did they dream of home? Was the camp enough of a facsimile of home for workers, or a new enticement? Did unmarried men and women unable to speak each other’s language fall in love in the cane fields? Such heady romances are enough to make me swoon!


Local boy, local girl:

The seamless blending of cultures and influences that make up Hawaii today is what I call local. If you travel to the Sugar Cane Museum, you may meet an elderly rotund white lady, who balked at my desire to take a picture of her. She’s a “tell it like it is” docent, who waxes poetic about growing up in the camp. Her husband, a local boy, worked in the Mill his whole life. She became a nurse, raised their kids and had a good life. Maui Memorial, where she worked, was opened up in 1894 by Queen Kapiolani, a woman of great sorrow and compassion for her people.


The Image of a Beneficent Queen:

“Queen; mother of three adopted sons; founder of Kapi’olani Maternity Home (now Kapi’olani Hospital for Women and Children) and Maui Memorial Hospital; founder of the Kapiʻolani Home for (non-leprous) Girls at Kakaʻako for the education of daughters of parents with leprosy; sipper of tea with Her Royal Majesty Queen Victoria; humble sharer of coffee and conversation ( at the Leper Colony at Kalaupapa) with Mother Mariane Cope and Father Damian (now Saints, of Molokai).

“When you showed up for work in those days, you had to know everything and be prepared to do anything.” She described camp life as having a real sense of Ohana, of family. The workers grew small vegetable gardens and bartered goods. She said “People stopped bye to talk story and share bumper crops of food they grew. The longing for a far away home wained, as this island grabbed hearts with ease.


Life and Death:

The cultures intermarried, fused beautifully and babies were born. The men and women walked the fields and openings in stone fences, smiling and laughing after a long day’s work, tanned and sweaty, dreaming of their children’s children, not their own passage in history.

Off the beaten path:

Maui is, without question, a stunning slice of paradise in the grand scheme of things. “Lucky we live Maui.” That’s what we say. The perfect weather, stunning beaches, majestic mountains are just one part of this island life. If you should visit, go off the beaten path and take the time to pay homage to a people.

Tonight, as I write this, history fills me up and settles me down. Suddenly, I’m not thinking about my problems anymore. I’m thinking of braver, less self-absorbed people. Something has been lost and must be found. What little part I play, taking and sharing these photos and these mysterious pasts gives me a sense of satisfaction. I know I’m in the right place, that I was meant to get lost today to discover what is behind those self-propagating cane fields. Each shoot is a remembrance of things past.

As FDR said:

“Remember, remember always, that all of us, and you and I especially, are descended from immigrants and revolutionists.” 

We are all immigrants, migrating out of Africa, traversing the globe, building villages and allegiances, dreaming dreams and stoking the fires of hope. Listen to your inner voice and do the thing that scares you most. Trust that it will be the right one.

As for me, slowly, slowly and little by little, I’m letting go my parachute. Quieter times lie ahead. Less busy work, more joy. The Aloha spirit lives here and has something to teach the rest of the world. Hawaii has something very special to give the world.


Mrs. Sassy Pants


3 Comments Add yours

  1. Steve F says:

    I have a picture of the cemetery from 1967. Looks like a Spanish revival church was there. Can you confirm?

    1. Mrs. Sassy Pants – I'm a city girl, living on island time. This is the story of how I got my sassy back and how you can too.
      Mrs. Sassy Pants says:

      Wow, that’s going way back. Are you asking me to confirm if it was a spanish revival church?

      1. Mrs. Sassy Pants – I'm a city girl, living on island time. This is the story of how I got my sassy back and how you can too.
        Mrs. Sassy Pants says:

        You may want to check with about this, or visit next time you are on island.

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