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Off-Grid Hawai'i: Turning Trash Into Treasure



Making the Most Of What You Have In Changing Times


By JLF Sullivan


Growing up there were five kids in my family, so whenever there was a free summer camp program going on in NYC, you bet my mom was dropping us off there. One summer when I was 9, my mom found a free arts and crafts camp that was one of the first of its kind; it aimed to teach children how to reuse and repurpose recyclable materials. I truly loved every second of this camp. The award I got at the end of my two-week stint was “Most Likely To Turn Trash Into Treasure.” I wish I still had that certificate, it had some real motivational power to it. In many ways, I feel like that simple certificate represents me far better than any of my other degrees or accomplishments. No matter what life has thrown at me so far, I have always managed to turn trash into treasure. As I look around my new surroundings, I see my childhood creativity has not let me down. My little Hawai'i homestead is really starting to become something much more than just a rock pit by the sea.

We’ve been busy building and growing, trying to make the most of what we have while the world changes around us so quickly. One of my biggest goals in constructing our homestead is finding a way to harvest long-term sustainability when it comes to food production. Anyone who has visited Hawai'i knows our food prices are astronomical due to the high transport costs involved in getting the food to the middle of nowhere. Living in an environment suited for growing food year-round has some major advantages I am totally taking advantage of.

The area of West Hawai'i we reside in has perfect conditions for growing citrus, pineapples, and lilikoi (passionfruit). Since that's what works, that’s where we got started. During the spring rains, I was able to get 14 different varieties of citrus into the ground, about a dozen pineapples, and four Lilikoi vines. The next round will have to wait till September when the heavy rains return to Hawai'i.


When I need to get the kids out of the house to burn off some energy, I go foraging with them in the numerous parks on the island. An abundant resource we have become familiar with here is the Kukui Nut Tree. I actually once had a Kukui tree growing in my yard in the Florida Keys, but Hurricane Irma destroyed it before it ever produced for us. Driving around Hawai'i island, it's a pleasure to see so many of these trees growing abundantly. Kakui Trees were used historically to create an all-purpose oil used by the native Hawai'ians. The Kukui Nut tree is also known as the Candlenut Tree and prides itself in being the State Tree of Hawaii. Some uses for the oil include lighting, coating fisherman’s nets, as a topical oil for sore muscles, burns, and as a scalp stimulant for hair growth. Kakui oil is absorbed easily into the skin or hair and is known for being a fountain of youth in its reparative properties. With this in mind, I decided to try my hand at making some.



I searched to find the most authentic method for extracting the oil that I could, but when I realized I was going to need some old school materials, I switched to a method I found that uses a glass jar and the sun's heat to extract the oil. Eagerly I gathered, shelled, washed, chopped, and dehydrated my little Kukui nuts and sterilized my jar and lid. In the mid-afternoon blazing sun, I placed my jar with the highest of hopes and the deepest sense of self-satisfaction. And then, a few days later I went to check on my jar…and it smelled like nasty fish. As a backup, I went to Island Naturals, a local store here, and picked up some locally made Kukui Nut oil. When I compared the two, I realized mine was crap and I had missed a step somewhere. I’ve thrown in some pictures to show you how eager I was to make my own, but for now, I’ll shop local until my cold press oil expeller gets shipped over from the horde of crap I left at my mom's house in the Keys. Once that gets here, it's round two with them Kukui Nuts.


Finding cheap things to entertain my kids while I work on the house has been a challenge here with the cost of everything rising so quickly. One solid idea I found on Pinterest promised me some sweet-smelling homemade playdoh for pennies on the dollar.

Instead of artificial dyes or scents, I used spices and natural pigments from food items to get that whole sensory experience (Apple Pie spice and Pumpkin Pie spice, as well as some Hawai'ian Spirulina, Paprika, and Turmeric). It smelled so good I almost didn't regret giving them fake-doh to play with inside.

Over the past few months, we’ve put a lot of heart, sweat, and tears into transforming our little home. My partner Stephen is a skilled carpenter and without his craftwork, we wouldn’t be able to do what we're doing. Recently, he has done some amazing work installing new floors, building a covered lanai (porch), and constructing a guest suite (fuck yea!). I even got him to hang up this beautiful old vintage mirror I picked up at a local thrift shop and lovingly refinished.





After very little debate, we decided to paint the house a color called “Recycled Glass” which I feel is a full circle tribute to my Trash into Treasure certificate from long ago. I feel deep happiness when I walk around my property and observe the changes that we have made since we moved in six months ago. The work we have to do here will go on for years, but as I think of the future, I feel excited to have the opportunity to build something special, something that is truly an expression of our creative abilities.

If there is anything I can share from this experience with those of you reading, above all, find what makes you happy and throw yourself into it. When I look around, I realize happiness can be found even in a pile of rocks. is too short, and in many ways, too long for us to live a life of mediocrity.



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