Inspired By: Photographer Nate Yuen

Yes, this is totally a real place. If this stunning view doesn’t inspire you to get outside and hike, nothing will! Photo by Nate Yuen

This month, I wanted to highlight work that inspired several drawings in my 2016 Native Hawaii calendar. Nate Yuen is an incredible local photographer of native Hawaiian plants and animals from O’ahu. If you look closely on his website you may be able to spot the photos I used as reference!

1) How and when did you start photographing native species?
I always loved to watch nature shows as a child growing up in Hawaii, but knew very little about native Hawaiian plant and animals. It was only at the age of 36 when I quit smoking cigarettes that I took up hiking to lose weight.  After a few months of conditioning, I started hiking with the Hawaiian Trail and Mountain Club each weekend. I became acquainted with people who were a fountain of knowledge about unique plants and animals found nowhere else in the world. The more I learned, the more fascinated I became. I soon started taking photos on hikes. Eighteen years have since elapsed, and I find myself I an amateur hiker/photographer/naturalist.

2) Can you share a funny or harrowing story in an attempt to capture a photo?
I once got lost and had to stay overnight on the Hanalilolilo Trail on Moloka’i taking photos of ohia trees in a mesic forest. I was hiking alone on a trail I had not been on before. It was really overgrown and there were multiple-ribboned transects and unmarked pig trails that criss-crossed the area. I veered-off on some unknown trail leading to god-knows-where. As the sun began to set, in an act of desperation I went off-trail, plowing through uluhe to get back to my jeep. Needless to say it was a bad move. The sun set and I had to bed down for the night. I nested in the uluhe for shelter. I had some li hing mango and granola bars to eat. It was cold, but I had a jacket. The next morning, I climbed a tree to orient myself. I backtracked through the forest, and ran into a trail that lead to my jeep. It was not a fun experience – I am lucky to have found my way out. Some people don’t and are never seen again. 

A super-cool fuzzy variation of orange lehua. Don’t you just want to touch it? Photo by Nate Yuen

3) What is your favorite thing to photograph?
‘Ōhi‘a lehua! The term ʻōhiʻa refers to the tree while lehua refers to the flowers. As the dominant endemic tree in Hawaii’s native forests, ʻōhiʻa lehua has always captivated and inspired me, it is quintessentially Hawaiian.

4) What do you mean by “quintessentially Hawaiian”?
‘Ōhi‘a lehua is found in almost every ecological niche in Hawaii from sea level to 6,000 feet elevation. ‘Ōhi‘a lehua is sacred to the deities of HawaiʻI; Pele, Hiʻiaka, and Laka. The wood was used to make kiʻi, temple carvings, altars, and other ceremonial structures in the heiau. It’s flowers and leaves were made into lei and used in laʻau lapaʻau, traditional herbal medicine. 

A yellow ʻōhiʻa lehua flower, fruit and buds. Photo by Nate Yuen

5) What makes it so interesting to photograph?
I love the beauty of red, orange, and yellow lehua, and every shade in between, and the progression as buds turn into flowers and then to seed. I am still searching for white lehua documented in old Hawaiian language sources, but have yet to be validated by science. The leaves of ʻōhiʻa are equally spectacular from colorful leaf buds and young leaves to mature and aging leaves. I have photographed the 5 species that make up ʻōhiʻa; Metrosideros polymorpha, M. tremuloides, M. rugosa, M. macropus, and M. waialeale. As its species name, polymorpha, implies, ʻōhiʻa can take many forms from twisted moss covered trees in wet montane forests, to tall straight trees in mesic and dry forests, to stunted trees under a foot tall in water-logged bogs. 

6) What is your dream photography project?
To publish a coffee table book about ʻōhiʻa showing the spectacular diversity of the tree and its connection to Hawaiian culture. For the past 15 years, I have hiked throughout the Hawaiian Islands to photograph the different forms of the tree. With the recent discovery of Rapid ‘Ōhi‘a Death, I feel compelled to share my images now to raise awareness before it’s too late.

7) Any last thoughts or words of advice?
I hope that the Hawaii State Legislature appropriates adequate funding for research to devise ways to fight the deadly disease and to protect ʻōhiʻa lehua for future generations.

Nate in action! Photo by Aaron Miyamoto

Thanks, Nate! Keep up the good work! Check out more of his photographs at: