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Cents and Sensibility: Upcycling Projects On My Off-Grid Hawaii Homestead

Updated: Feb 24, 2023

By JLF Sullivan

There is an old Hawaiin proverb that I deeply resonate with, it says:

“We can never return to paradise until we stop dwelling in a past that is dead, a future that is only a dream, and begin living in the eternal now.”

I have learned a lot from this quote and have found that there is much power in refocusing your attention to the “now” that surrounds us. For much of my life, I spent my days dedicatedly focused on the future, and all too often, dwelling on the past. I would validate my misfocus believing a better future that was filled with better things was coming to me. But now, I see it all a bit differently. I have found great inner peace in minimalism and taking a more sustainable approach to running a family. Looking to innovate and transform what I do have has shown me that there is much joy in repurposing what is around me in the “now.”

Moving to an isolated island teaches you quite a bit about upcycling resources. There are some mornings I will see a car abandoned on the side of the highway here on the Big Island. Not a person will touch that car until the county slaps a big pink sticker on the window saying its fair game. Later that night, the entire car will be stripped down to nothing more than a metal skeleton. Nothing gets wasted here.

One of the most beautiful repurposed resources I see exploring the Big Island is the use of lava rock in and around businesses and homes. People use it to make walls, raised beds, fire pits, steps, bread ovens, shrines, and much more. Piecing the lava rock chunks together is like nature's jigsaw puzzle, and I have found it extremely relaxing and rejuvenating to work with.

Our first project here on the homestead was to create steps that would help us traverse the many levels to our seaside lot. My partner started off with a shovel, some cement, and a dream, and as you can see, even a novice can fashion something sturdy with the hard lava rock. Our next project was to create raised beds for our future fruit trees and cacti. This time the kids helped me gather and sort the larger chunks of lava rock and we made some raised beds we are all proud of. Our next step is to fill these with a mix of compost, mulch, and cinder and start planting the many little lovelies I’ve been propagating since we arrived.

Another project I took on was to start repurposing the varied clothing my family grows out of, stains up, or rips beyond repair. I had read some startling statistics about clothing waste that is piling up all over the planet:

There are 6 people in my family, and those clothing numbers add up quickly. So instead of tossing our old stuff, I found an interesting way to upcycle and repurpose them. On Youtube, I found a video that shows how to make rugs using old strips of fabric from t-shirts and jeans. The process is simple, cut your old stuff into strips, slipknot your strands together and start weaving. My first project I originally thought was a bust, it bunched up and would not lay flat like the rug for my kids room I had destined it to be. I kept going with it despite its flaws and later found it made the perfect shape for a bean bag style cushion seat. I stuffed it with some sleeping bags to make a comfortably sweet little seat for my babes.

Next, I worked with jean material and found it made a much stronger rug, which I am using at the front door right now to keep my kids from tracking sand into the house. I’ve also used the same process to make bags for my kids to hang their toys in, and recently started something new in making a runner carpet for my porch from old sheets I picked up at the Salvation Army for $1. The internet is filled with tons of ideas of how to repurpose old clothes, so expect a good share when I find some more projects worth trying.

When I’m not weaving my old crap into stuff, one of my favorite things to do is to go hiking in search of plants and seeds to forage. I will often travel up mountain to the cooler areas that have an abundance of parks and nature preserves filled with some of the rarest and healthiest looking foliage I have ever seen. Whether it be something that can be eaten, used medicinally, or even to clean with, I find no shortage of these seasonal gifts from nature around me. Getting permitting to forage is very easy with the state of Hawaii, and there are many resources to find trails on apps from iNaturalist or the National Parks Service. My wanderlust has shown me some interesting plants over the years, but I have to say my new favorite here in Hawaii is the Mamaki plant. Have you heard of it before?

If you know where to look you can find Mamaki growing all over the island. There are also several farms on the island that grow it commercially and package it as teas that aid in weight loss and rejuvenation. I find it tastes like a cup of English breakfast tea, but without the caffeine. It is easy to forage, and quick to preserve by drying. Many of the people I have met who were born and raised on the island have told me that they were raised on Mamaki Tea, and that it purifies the blood to maintain balance in the body. I highly recommend giving it a try if you are in Hawaii or if you are homebound and curious you can order online from a local farm here.

Over the years I have seen some interesting things done by my fellow millennials with pallet wood. I was never really one to work with this medium, but the cost of wood here in Hawaii is high enough to inspire me to pick up every decent wood pallet I cross paths with. Using some tools, my partner and I disassemble and restore the wood to create feature walls in our home (and cut the cost of our interior wall construction!). We’ve even used some larger pallets that our home windows were delivered on to set up our solar generator system. Another creative re-use for wooden pallets I see all over the island is the numerous A-frame birdhouses for the many here who have their own chickens, turkeys, and pheasants.

Recently my partner Stephen upgraded our off-grid clothes washing operation with a little wash table fashioned from wood scraps leftover from our deck. The reclaimed wood worked well to make a rectangular stand which he then attached the new wringer on a board between my wash and rinse buckets.

While I do feel like I’ve stepped back in time at moments when using this contraption, I think it allows my mind to rest in a place that is more “now” than anything my last washer-dryer set up did for me. It has allowed me to see that sometimes all we ever need is right in front of us, just waiting for our transformative energy to release it.


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