Can honey make the world a better place? If I was asked that question before living on the Big Island I would most likely have replied “what drugs are you taking?” Since then I’ve witnessed the work of my friend Richard with his Volcano Island Honey Company and seen how the hippy values of a beekeeper can actually help change the world for the better – because he did it!
It wasn’t long after meeting Richard that I started using juggling and circus arts to promote community building and that put us on different but somewhat parallel paths. Richard chose the wide brimmed floppy hat while I wore a top hat but we both grew grey beards to accompany our welcoming smiles as we pursued our missions navigating along our life journeys.
Richard is a renegade entrepreneur who opted out of the corporate world with the intention of showing people there’s another more humane way to run a business. A native of New Jersey, he practiced law briefly, participated in the Civil Rights movement, traveled across the country in a VW bus, and eventually raised goats living a mountain-man existence in Washington State. While cutting wood for the winter, he was seriously injured and realised he couldn’t recover in such a remote spot. He called a friend who lived in an old Shinto temple on the Big Island and moved there to heal. That was over 40 years ago, he grew strong in body and spirit, created a home and he’s still there fulfilling his dreams.
We first met in 1982 after I started my own business, called Tropical Dreams, making the first commercially available macadamia nut butter. I wanted to experiment with mixing honey into my product and someone told me Richard had the very best and they were right. We developed a lifetime friendship and, when I needed to move from Kapa’au, he offered me his hideaway shack as my new home. It was magical, located in Kukuihaele village, one of the treasures of old Hawaii on the road to historic Waipio Valley. Tucked away along a tiny trail behind a traditional cottage-craft tofu plant it was nestled amongst tropical bird filled trees with exotic blooms and was calmed by the ambient sounds of a nearby waterfall. While sitting in his wooden Japanese furo (hot tub) I had a spectacular ocean view all along the coast to Kohala lighthouse. I felt blessed and so did my guests!
Richard and I shared several bonding experiences hiking to some very remote hidden places – through cane fields on the Hamakua coast, into lauhala forests in lower Puna and across smoking active lava flows around Kalapana. When the Pu‘u ‘Ō‘ō eruption shifted to a new vent, Kupaianaha, in July 1986, and the style of eruption changed from intermittent episodes of high lava fountains to continuous extrusions of lava we went to visit. A lava pond formed and a low shield grew as lava repeatedly spilled over the rim. We precariously circumvented it all. Eventually the main lava channel from the Kupaianaha pond gradually roofed over, formed a tube and lava flowing through the system reaching the sea in November 1986. Together we watched Pele’s awesome process of creation and destruction.
When Richard’s wife Laura passed away he researched the legalities regarding private family funerals. His choice was to accept death as a natural part of living and to normalise the ritual of caring for the body and arranging a meaningful family ritual. With help from his community of friends he organised all Laura’s arrangements without a funeral director. It was beautiful. He later co-wrote a book to help guide others in the process. It’s called ‘Coming to Rest: A Guide to Caring for Our Own Dead, an Alternative to the Commercial Funeral.’ It remains the premier resource on that subject three decades later.
In 1986 after my trip to the Caribbean, Panama and Nicaragua I returned to the U.S.A., landed in N.Y. and met Richard’s mother, brother Leroy and sister Lorraine. We all got along really well and discovered several common connections, music, herbal medicine, non profit foundations and being of service to help ‘save the world’. Each of us had our own path but we all shared a passion for pursing peace and justice for all.
When I first began looking for land for my intentional community project I was living in the barn on the farm that Richard was planning to buy. I seriously considered splitting the ten acres in Ahualoa with him – but then the constant wetness made me realise it was not the lush tropical nirvana that my juggling partners and I had envisaged. I left and headed down to the Puna coast to look for a piece of the jungle. Being spread far apart on the Big Island and busy with our projects we rarely saw one another but I appreciated it greatly when we did.
Richard had previously been a hobby bee-keeper and so he decided to use bees as his way to improve society. He hadn’t really been interested in starting a commercial operation, but he wanted to see if it was possible to succeed in business based on ‘alternative’ lifestyle principles. He decided to run his business focusing primarily upon human and environmental values not just profits.
Beekeepers had worked the Big Island kiawe forests for 100 years before Richard arrived, but his techniques really distinguished his artisan honey from others. He revolutionised honey production by focusing on quality not quantity and by making his whole company as organic and environmentally sustainable as possible. His holistic approach meant that he treated his staff as extended family rather than employees and this proved to be a key element in producing his gourmet product.
From his inclusive management style to organic beeswax foundation, to the jars he used, to the paper he printed his labels on, to the fuel he used for his vehicles, to presentations for students, tourists and the media, to offering his farm as a community meeting space; Richard taught people to accept and embrace different ways to run a business and produce honey.
He understood early on that when he spoke to business people about organic small farming, he wouldn’t be taken seriously unless his honey succeeded, not just artistically, but financially too. After being featured in numerous national publications like National Geographic “Traveler” magazine Richard’s honey reached shelves all around the world. He used all the exposure his famous honey obtained to get into the hearts and minds of people, planting seeds of change everywhere. While calling it his Bee-green initiative he acknowledged a persistent irony saying, “The edge of hypocrisy follows me all the time, we touch the earth but we sell at Neiman Marcus.” The way I perceive it, Richard was preaching challenging new environmental ideals to the old guard and was winning important new converts.
During the years, his bee business was slowly growing, Richard also pursued his interest in individual empowerment and community building. He saw conflict resolution as a catalyst for positive change and, in 1988, he became the founder and first executive director of the West Hawaii Mediation Center. His goal was to provide a safe and neutral environment for parties in conflict to have a confidential dialogue using trained mediators to gather information, identify issues and work toward finding a mutually satisfying agreement. He asked me to video his first training program and I consequently became a life long convert to the power and value of mediation. Under his leadership the center developed ongoing public and private funding partnerships making these services more available and affordable for all Big Island people to resolve their differences peacefully. The Big Island now has two mediation centres largely thanks to Richards pioneering spirit.
Through mediation and bee keeping Richard has significantly impacted the lives and consciousness of thousands of people. He’s been acknowledged by many of Hawaii’s top politicians and business leaders and won awards for his work as an ethical business guru – not bad for a retired hippie. Like many other admirers I found a kindred spirit in Richard and we can still talk for hours about bees, honey, the world, careers, passion, and life. The philosopher in him explains, “The earth grows the tree, the tree grows the flowers, the bees gather the nectar and I collect their honey but the bees help me remember what’s real. If I move too fast or act out of integrity, they’ll sting me.” “Remember historically, bees have been seen as a connection to the spiritual.” So speaks my wise renegade apiarian, fellow traveller and dear friend, Richard.
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