A Radical Movement in My Own Backyard

Squeezed May 17, 2005

Kailua is not known for being a very hip place. It’s all-American suburbia, out in the middle of the Pacific. Sure, there are windsurfers at Kailua Beach and festivals every so often, but first and foremost, it’s a bedroom community for Honolulu.

Moreover, it’s a district that is one of the few places in Hawaii that sends Republican legislators to the Democrat-dominated Legislature. (Which makes it an interesting predicament for me…being a blue person in a red area of a blue state in a red country. But I digress.)

This is hardly an area where you’d expect radicalism. Nevertheless, there is a subversive movement happening, right in my backyard. There are no violent protests or anything, but it centers over otherwise innocuous papaya and lilikoi plants.

I live in the Enchanted Lake area of Kailua, and I jog along Keolu Drive regularly. One day, in October 2004, I noticed a bunch of papaya saplings and lilikoi vines planted along the fence fronting the lake, with a sign that said something along the lines of:

Upon this lovely trellis we have planted some tasty papaya and lilikoi plants. They will be ready in one year for all to enjoy. Please do not poison the plants as they will poison all who eat them. –The Diggers (from the 16th century)

I jogged past them, thinking it was interesting, but not really giving them a second thought. As the weeks went by, I noticed that the papaya and lilikoi plants were still there. A few weeks later, I noticed this sign that said something like:

Bishop Estate wants to remove the papaya and lilikoi plants again! How come they get to say what happens to the land? If they remove the plants who will plant again? Anyone can be a Digger.

There was a URL leading to this website, which is a position paper by artist Gaye Chan and sociologist Nandita Sharma. In November 2003, the two scholars planted about twenty papaya seedlings in roughly the same area as they are now, but they were removed about five months later.

Now, I have to warn you that their position paper is hard to read. My eyes all but glazed over reading their overly scholarly language. But I’ll see if I can give a Cliff Notes version as best as I could comprehend:

  • The distinction between public and private is an illusion; the conceps of public and private are inventions of a capitalist, nationalist system.
  • The formation of national states is rooted in the struggle over land, labor, and life.
  • Government-owned public spaces are created at the expense of commonly owned space.

The Diggers that they refer to were a 17th century movement in England (also known as the True Levellers) that stood for many of these ideals, but were suppressed by the English government of Oliver Cromwell. Their activities were much what these modern-day Diggers did here…planting fruits and vegetables in public land. They figured that the way to a nation’s heart is through its stomach.

Of course, I don’t necessarily agree with any of these points of view. But I do find the idea of just reaching up and picking a ripe papaya off a tree, without worrying about what the owner of the tree would say, pretty compelling. And on reading their site, so do some others.

I’d taken a break from jogging for while, so it was a while before I was able to come back to the site. Not only are the trees still there (the papaya trees are now about 3 feet high, and the lilikoi vines are winding their way up the chain link fence), but there’s now also a small sweet potato patch.

So, like I said, even though I’m not in complete agreement with their politics, more power to them. I hope those trees stay around for a while. Save a papaya for me when they give fruit, OK?

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