Essay | Learning about trust for every being’s benefit

A person in a brimmed hat and a blue tank top stands near a table filled with large dishes of food in an outdoor, tropical setting.
Josiane describing each dish that was made collectively at Sofia and Gus', with home-grown garden ingredients and without connection to any municipal water or power. ...
(Kamryn You Mak)
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Green Living, Storyfest 2023

My parents grew up in a place that didn’t want them or anyone that looked like them. They were raised by parents who contended with that hypervisibility daily. Everyone looked for opportunity, finding some while also finding lots of hurt. My grandparents grew up with little money – farming, fleeing from political conflict, crossing oceans, hoping for safety.

I grew up embodying these legacies, learning to take as much of what’s given because you never know when the safety around you will crumble away. To watch out for myself and my people and always be aware. To be skeptical and cautious and prepare for the worst. While I believe that people are intrinsically good, I also carry practices of not trusting those around me. These lessons are rooted in experience, resulting in constant precautions.

My family home has weathered break-ins and my father’s car was recently stolen a few streets from our home. I’ve been harangued on the street for seemingly no reason (Was it because of who I am? What I look like?), questioned about where I or my family are from or what my “heritage” is seemingly a billion times, made to feel small and incompetent simply because I didn’t look like anyone else present or like anyone who had been present before. In the name of protection, I was raised with a scarcity mindset, as well as my forebears’ belief in the American Dream. 

Learning about trust on Huahine

This past fall, I had the incredible opportunity and privilege to study in the South Pacific. One of the professors, Josiane, is a Tahitian ethnohistorian, teacher, author, botanist, linguist, and wonderfully kind person. In discussing culture and community in the French Polynesian islands, she said, “You can’t trust someone who doesn’t trust anyone.” Other similar maxims exist – trust people and they will become trustworthy. Over the last few years away from home, I’ve learned about more worlds than the childhood worldview I grew up with.

I’ve worked hard to assume the best intentions and motivations, love all people, have empathy, and be generous with second, or more, chances. But in the rigid, individualistic cultures prevalent in the U.S., I’ve struggled with the balance of giving the benefit of the doubt while also still remaining safe. Spending time in French Polynesia, I was exposed to a different, more trusting lifestyle. I began to understand how these community values can be one of the most important ways to tackle climate change. 

Picturesque Huahine, an island in French Polynesia. (Pom’/CC BY-SA 2.0)

Some of the highlights of my time in the South Pacific were on Huahine, where Josiane lives. Huahine is known for its strong womxn, pride, and self-sufficiency. People live intentionally, practicing culture and traditions as their ancestors did. Most of our programming that week was focused on learning about life there, especially related to food, as well as connecting with Josiane’s home and friends. One whole day was spent with all of our professor’s friends at a couple’s, Sofia and Gus’, home and garden. They live off the grid with solar power, big rainwater tanks, no doors, barely any walls to their house, a couple of sailing canoes for transportation, and composting toilets, buying minimally from the island’s grocery store.

My class spent the morning walking through the huge garden with Sofia as she told us about many foods I had never even heard of, as well as how they like to grow. She passed on so much of her knowledge in a couple hours, replete with years of best practices, things she had learned from just trying–planting seeds in every single place imaginable to see what conditions and companions each plant liked. The rest of the day was spent with all of Josiane’s friends preparing a huge meal.

From each we learned different skills, ideas, and values. Together, we husked coconuts, cracked them open, shredded the meat, squeezed the shreds to make coconut milk, made bowls out of the coconut shells, made coconut pancakes with the meat and fresh cassava flour we ground, chopped up a beautiful fruit salad and greens salad, and made carpaccio with fish they had caught yesterday. I talked to one about jewelry and traditional Polynesian craft. Another showed me how to better husk coconuts. One heard us mentioning a fruit that we’d never tried and shortly thereafter presented us with the fruit prepared in its juiced and fermented form. There was an air of abundance, of both time and joy.

Sharing knowledge, building community

All of the food, knowledge, and skills to prepare this feast came from the garden and people present. All were open, willing to teach and to answer our (silly) questions, and they moved with grace and gratitude in the time we spent together and the generosity of the earth. The lack of hesitation in welcoming a group of foreigners into their community, which had never before been done, the generosity with which they shared their knowledge, demonstrated clearly to me what living closely with the earth can look like, in reality.

I had read and theorized and imagined and envisioned back in my ivory tower at school, but this was a genuine way of living that was joyful, fulfilling, and full of love. All of the friends knew nature’s rhythm and showed their gratitude to her by living in relationship with every other being. And they all did this in community. Although it was Sofia and Gus’ home, all of the friends, and then us students, too, were so invited and so comfortable that we moved around their home with ease and care.

Together, the friends, each offering their knowledge and skills, teach workshops to the surrounding Polynesian community, not open to any tourists, of how to live close to the earth and use low-tech devices like sun-drying food racks and rocket stoves that use little wood. Not only do Sofia and Gus exemplify a life with little harmful environmental impact, they also share that with many others, helping build and give to a community. 

A pampelmousse for everyone

Another memorable experience of kindness was on Nuku Hiva at the Arboretum Papua-Keikaha. The arboretum aims to preserve native and culturally significant foods, while also helping provide food to the community as the island has been stricken with drought for many years after the introduction of palm trees for plantation farming by colonizers.

In addition to small farms, there are commercial grapefruit, vanilla, pineapple, and coconut farms that line the coast of Huahine. (Gerick Bergsma/CC BY 2.0)

When we reached the citrus groves, the man giving us the tour picked a few different pampelmousse (or, grapefruit) for our sampling. There were four different varieties that we were able to try and after our murmurs of deliciousness, he started picking pampelmousse after pampelmousse, handing them to people and telling us to take them with us! We were overwhelmed with fruit; everyone had at least a couple in their hands. Whatever backpacks people had brought with them were overflowing with fruit. He was incredibly giving, wanting to share his work and the food important to his people.

Had the citrus not gone to us, it would’ve, along with the rest of the fruit produced at the arboretum, gone to local schools for lunch meals. But it wasn’t a question of saving the juicy, ripe fruit for the schools, more of an assumption that there were visitors to this place and when they left they needed to take something with them–a mark of the kindness and mindset of abundance in people.  

Living in rhythm with nature

Building and extending generosity and trust in communities is an important way to address climate change. All of Josiane’s friends and the man at the arboretum showed me this explicitly. They produce their own food, take and emit little in terms of housing, transportation, or waste, and share what they know with others so more people can live with the land. In recognizing the earth and others’ generosity, there is more gratitude, which can develop more responsible and intentional living. Knowing that the breadfruit trees are abundant when they fruit and having gratitude for the amount of food the earth provides leads people to make sure they steward and care for those trees and do what they can to make sure they can keep reproducing year after year.

Breadfruit. (Philip Tellis/CC BY 2.0)

Rather than keep these ideals siloed and individual, Sofia exemplified these values in her community. She trusted a group of foreign students she had never met before to walk through her garden and harvest all kinds of food on our own. She, and the rest of my professor’s friends, shared their time, their hard work, and their knowledge with all of us. From that day, I truly came to understand that it’s possible to live in right relation with the earth, surrounded by and embedded in a community.

The people we met have little negative and harmful impact on the earth while teaching others to live closely, not pollute nor emit, and bask in the generosity of the planet and reciprocate with care for the land and waters. Climate change has and will bring food scarcity, individualism and escapism, irregularity and the inability to depend on historically accurate cycles or trends, resulting in barriers to community building. But in building communities that are trusting, kind, and generous, that live in rhythm with nature, climate change solutions become everyday actions that are accessible and contagious to many people. 

Developing the capacity to trust is not an easy task, nor is it fair to ask uniformly of all people. Some people are skeptical, self-protective, and wary for good reason. The world they live in is not built for them or their benefit, happiness, or ability to thrive. Bad things can and do happen. Greeting the world with trust and care can sometimes take an unexpected or harmful turn. 

It begins and ends with trust

At the end of the program, my family came to visit and spend the holidays together. Within a couple of days, I noticed the generosity and goodwill I was accustomed to greeting and giving out shifting a bit. It was raining as my family drove up a narrow, bumpy, dirt road looking for our rental house. Not a good road to be on in the rain with a tiny car with tiny tires. When we reached what seemed like the end of the road, with no luck on finding the house, a person came out from his home and tried telling us in mixed French, Tahitian, English, and hand gestures to turn around and get off the road. It made perfect sense to me and I thought I understood what he was saying.

But for the others in my family, having just arrived in the country, they didn’t expect this behavior. This man was standing out in the rain, having come out of his house where we were on his property, telling us with zeal to turn around and leave. As the guy tapped on the window again to emphasize that we needed to go, someone said, “roll the window up” as he was speaking. I was astounded and frustrated! This person was trying to help, to be kind. I trusted him and saw the generosity, whereas that wasn’t shared within my family.

They did not expect interactions with strangers to be filled with generosity. It’s hard to be generous without trust and it’s hard to trust without being part of a community. With a little bit of trust in someone else, they will put a little bit more trust in you, as Josiane says. That trust is the foundation of relationships that become communities, which can be filled with generosity and openness. Community building is one of the most essential ways to contend with a rapidly warming world where suffering abounds. Trust people and they will become trustworthy. 

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