Gratitude, Nature And Our COVID Response - Honolulu Civil Beat

About the Author

Joe Miller

Joe Miller is a retired high school teacher, storyteller and amateur carpenter-boatbuilder from Kalihi Valley. He taught at Maryknoll School, St. Francis School and Chaminade University.

“Aloha, kia ora, talofa, la orana” are greetings  of warmth and graciousness throughout the Pacific.

In the Polynesian outlier communities of Tikopia and Anuta the word “aloha” is rendered “aropa” as our “l” and “h” get transmogrified. Here in Hawaii “aloha” has a more emotional meaning as a kind of affection and subjective disposition toward others.

In Anuta and Tikopia it is a principal of communal economy and justice. Geographically isolated with no regular contact with the modern world except shortwave radio for hurricane watches or medical emergencies, the communities remain tied to traditional chiefs and 20 or so families. They practice deep horticulture, communal care of land and reefs and closely manage their food security.

They have achieved a circular regenerative balance with the natural world. No Netflix, Facebook, or the internet, they rely on communal singing and storytelling to pass their leisure in the evenings.

Aropa is why no one is destitute, no one goes hungry and no one dies alone.

We are just beginning to understand the complexity of our own biome. There is much to learn. Flickr: Heather

This life may not be one that any of us would or could choose. Still, the achievement of Anuta and Tikopia is celebrated by Jared Diamond, who wrote with prescience about the catastrophic decline of civilizations that enshrined values and practices that led them to live in ways that were contrary to their own survival.

At the core of Tikopia’s success is relational and communal cooperation. They trust each other, they trust the land, they trust the sea and they trust their leaders, the chiefs.

Star Of Gladness

The farmers on Anuta and Tikopia use no soil additives or chemicals to control pests, yet they have managed to feed their community for 800 years with little or no damage to themselves or the Earth. They remain for us a living parable of what we once were and how we can again live.

Like a navigation star they cannot give us a map of what we should do say on Monday morning given our complex lives, but they can give us a direction as the Hokulea, the Star of Gladness, once gave our ancestors navigating for home.

Environmentalists say that once human beings are gone the world will replenish itself in its natural “grace” in a very short time. In two months white tail deer and wild turkeys will rewild the streets of Manhattan.

In a world forced into a Sabbath rest by COVID-19, we saw dolphins revisiting rivers, and deer and elk returning to European forests. Chernobyl, once the sight of nuclear fallout, has elm and hemlock and pine forests returning. Nature is indeed full of grace and gifts if we allow it to give its gifts. We are all borrowing this Earth from future generations to come.

We are in the Sixth Great Extinction. According to the World Wildlife Federation, in one generation — from 1970 to 2010  — 52% of vertebrate populations (fish, mammals,  amphibians, and birds) have been destroyed. This is due to the metabolic rift caused by the need of a market economy to convert living things into commodities.

Most of us live at arm’s length from the farms, the soil and the sea, enclosed in an electronic bubble of our virtual lives. COVID-19 has exposed how fragile our society is and how disconnected and lonely we have allowed ourselves to become in blindly following the dictates of corporations, banks and the dictates of global capitalism.

Who has time to question the system when you are busy working to pay your mortgages, with barely time for the soccer game, Costco run before dinner and stop to look in on kupuna? Almost all the produce we get at our Costco run is produced by farms that must use soil enhancements and chemical because our soils have been depleted.

Adding additives further weakens soil, and so you must keep adding them after each harvest to achieve the efficiencies that the market demands and government subsidizes. With farms losing 40 tons of topsoil per an acre a year, the land cannot generate life without expensive additives and petrochemicals.

A land itself now in the spiral of addiction. Farmers we heard this year began killing themselves in an epidemic of depression. They must live and work according to the demands of Cargill, Archer-Daniels-Midland and other large conglomerates with diminishing returns. After equipment debt, seed and fertilizers some farmers are making less than $40 an acre per year in net returns.

More loans leads to greater debt and a sense that they are no longer “husbandmen or women” who marry the Earth.  A country where farmers no longer feel like farmers, nurses like healers, teachers like educators is a country that has surrendered its soul to capital and efficiencies driven by distant shareholders. Such a people cannot experience “aloha” or “grace” in any collective way. It will move to further fragmentation.

There is hope because nature is always gracious, generous and wise. There are approximately 6 million different viruses out there and our existential anxiety that has converted the discourse into a “COVID war” may need to be tempered by the fact that our very evolution as a species depends on viruses, bacteria and other “invisible” gracious hosts who do things in our soil and our very digestive systems and live in relational balance with us.

We have as many bacteria, fungi and viruses in our large intestines as there are cells in our body. We are alive by sharing existence with the small and invisible. We are just beginning to understand the complexity of our own biome and no mechanical analogy will comprehend it.

We are alive by sharing existence with the small and invisible.

COVID will never be conquered. Yes, a vaccine will come aboard and we will adapt to live with it as we have with other viruses. It has given us a sabbatical, a costly one, yes, but one that can have us step back and ask why we have seen fit to allow Big Ag and Big Finance and Big Pharma to reach farther and farther into the natural world, destroying forests and pristine ecosystems that provided natural firewalls and kept our balance with these zoonotic critters like Ebola and SARS and COVID-19.

If we see COVID as a metabolic disorder of our world body we might be able to bring forward the deep perception of our Polynesian elders from Tikopia and Anuta to see that sharing, caring and welcoming is the only strategy that aligns with the grace that fills the universe. To fall in love again with life instead of lifeless things is the difference between the world as graveyard and the world as garden. We have a few decades to learn this grace.


Community Voices aims to encourage broad discussion on many topics of community interest. It’s kind of a cross between Letters to the Editor and op-eds. This is your space to talk about important issues or interesting people who are making a difference in our world. Column lengths should be no more than 800 words and we need a photo of the author and a bio. We welcome video commentary and other multimedia formats. Send to The opinions and information expressed in Community Voices are solely those of the authors and not Civil Beat.

Read this next:

Danny De Gracia: The Growing Disconnect In The War Against COVID-19

Not a subscription

Civil Beat is a small nonprofit newsroom, and we’re committed to a paywall-free website and subscription-free content because we believe in journalism as a public service. That’s why donations from readers like you are essential to our continued existence.

Help keep our journalism free for all readers by becoming a monthly member of Civil Beat today.


About the Author

Joe Miller

Joe Miller is a retired high school teacher, storyteller and amateur carpenter-boatbuilder from Kalihi Valley. He taught at Maryknoll School, St. Francis School and Chaminade University.

Latest Comments (0)

When I looked at CB's reading offerings this Sunday morning, I skipped over the rest and opened this one.  A good read given the alternatives.  After several months of living with this global pandemic and observing how the world is reacting to it, I've come to the conclusion that perhaps we have gotten this virus all wrong.  We were headed towards self-destruction:  overpopulation, environmental decimation,  political turf wars and technology's ever expanding reach.  To name but a few.This virus is a wakeup call to the world.  Are we listening?

ahhnow · 1 year ago

Wow, such a thoughtful, insightful, and gifted approach.  If only we could view this period of time as "the glass is half full" .  Nature is allowed to rest and recover from our abuse.  The ocean smiles at us.....

DrDeb · 1 year ago

Beautiful.  I was onboard with everything until the part about seeing COVID as being a metabolic disorder.  Covid has allowed us to step back and look at our priorities yes, and that is important but the virus is considerably more than just a disorder.  Aside from taking the disease to minimalism, I am in full agreement with this piece.  We should always be in touch with nature and the life source it provides us.  Not to mention it's beauty.  Native peoples throughout the world who are in touch with this and protect it are heads and tails above us in proper perceptions and reality.

Valerie · 1 year ago

Join the conversation


IDEAS is the place you'll find essays, analysis and opinion on every aspect of life and public affairs in Hawaii. We want to showcase smart ideas about the future of Hawaii, from the state's sharpest thinkers, to stretch our collective thinking about a problem or an issue. Email to submit an idea.



You're officially signed up for our daily newsletter, the Morning Beat. A confirmation email will arrive shortly.

In the meantime, we have other newsletters that you might enjoy. Check the boxes for emails you'd like to receive.

  • What's this? Be the first to hear about important news stories with these occasional emails.
  • What's this? You'll hear from us whenever Civil Beat publishes a major project or investigation.
  • What's this? Get our latest environmental news on a monthly basis, including updates on Nathan Eagle's 'Hawaii 2040' series.
  • What's this? Get occasional emails highlighting essays, analysis and opinion from IDEAS, Civil Beat's commentary section.

Inbox overcrowded? Don't worry, you can unsubscribe
or update your preferences at any time.