James Michener’s epic novel on the settlement of Hawaii contains an ominous warning for would-be settlers planning to scratch out a living on some of the world’s youngest, still-forming land. Just before telling the story of the first Polynesians and their unprecedented sea voyage in the 700’s to discover the Hawaiian Islands, Michener sets the stage for his entire book with two brilliant paragraphs:
Therefore, men of Polynesia and Boston and China and Mount Fuji and the barrios of the Phillippines, do not come to these islands empty-handed, or craven in spirit, or afraid to starve. There is no food here. In these islands there is no certainty. Bring your own food, your own gods, your own flowers and fruits and concepts. For if you come without resources to these islands you will perish.
But if you come with growing things, and good foods and better ideas, if you come with gods that will sustain you, and if you are willing to work until the swimming head and aching arms can stand no more, then you can gain entrance into this miraculous crucible where the units of nature are free to develop according to their own capacities and desires.
On these harsh terms the islands waited.
Harsh terms, indeed! But as I was reading this book during a recent two-week family vacation to Hawaii, I couldn’t help but chuckle at how easy our own journey had been compared to those endured by Michener’s characters. Delta’s non-stop flight from Atlanta to Honolulu isn’t quite the same as doubling Cape Horn on a six-month journey from Boston in the 1820’s on an 80-foot brig. And the thought of leaping from the “miraculous crucible” of the academy into any other sort of crucible wasn’t resonating either. All I wanted to do was catch a few waves on Waikiki Beach and spend some unhurried time with my family.
In addition to accomplishing all of that, I also had the good fortune to stumble across a fascinating story that ties to vocation. On the big island of Hawaii, we got to visit The Hawaiian Vanilla Company for lunch and tour the farm where Jim and Tracy Reddekopp started the first commercial vanilla harvesting operation in the U.S. in 1998. The farm sits just outside the town of Paauilo about 2000 feet above the sea on the slope of Mauna Kea.
If you’ve ever purchased a single vanilla bean in a glass jar from the supermarket, the price undoubtedly shocked you. One bean is typically sold for somewhere between $10 and $15. If you buy it in bulk, you can expect to pay as much per ounce as you would for silver. As ubiquitous as vanilla flavor is in everything that we eat today, I was surprised to learn that less than 1% of the vanilla flavoring used in the world comes from real vanilla beans.The reason for the high cost and global shortage of real vanilla is that growing vanilla beans is not easy. First, a vanilla orchid cutting will take two years to begin producing blossoms. When a blossom does open, it is only viable for a single day and — this is the real dagger — each blossom must be hand-pollinated to produce a single bean. (This video clip shows the process):
But it was clear to me as Mr. Reddekopp told his story of purchasing the land and learning everything he could about vanilla orchids, that his entire experience has been a labor of love. There were multiple failures along the way, but one of his statements that helped to change my perspective on the entire operation went something like this: “as much as I wanted to build this business and grow vanilla beans, I was really just looking for a farm and something to do with it that would help me grow my family.”
There were also a lot of questions from the tour group about expanding the operation — especially considering the current price of vanilla beans — or investing in technologies to automate the process. Once again, his response gave me pause. Yes, expansion was always a possibility, and they were recently successful in establishing some new covered growing areas for more orchids. But he also made it clear that getting bigger wasn’t going to be the ultimate measuring stick of their success: “we’re trying to make a living, not a killing.”
When you read Michener’s paragraphs about what it takes to survive on these islands — or consider what it takes to survive almost anywhere in the world these days — the ethic of care that is evident in the Raddekopp’s vanilla bean farm isn’t what automatically comes to mind. Getting in there and fighting for your life seems to line up better with quarterly earnings reports or cutthroat business practices than the gentle patience one might need to nurture a vanilla bean. Perhaps this ethic of care is more prevalent in the world today than I currently imagine, but reflecting on vocation for the past few years has been a big part in helping me to recognize it. Slowing down for a vacation undoubtedly played a big part, too.
Jeff Brown teaches engineering at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach, Florida. His essay, “Unplugging the GPS: Rethinking Undergraduate Professional Degree Programs” is part of the collection Vocation Across the Academy: A New Vocabulary for Higher Education (Oxford University Press, 2017).