Aspiring environmental leaders at Pacific University explore Daughters of Fire

On April 18, Tom met via video conference with more than a dozen students at Pacific University in Forest Grove, Oregon (, part of their exploration of cross-cultural perspectives. The students, a mix of Environmental Science and other majors, had read Tom’s novel Daughters of Fire for Dr. Shawn Morford’s Environmental Leadership course.

Students in Dr. Shawn Morford’s Environmental Leadership course.

Dr. Morford, whose extensive community development experience ( includes years working with First Nations people in Canada, required the novel to help broaden the perspectives of these aspiring leaders, five of whom call Hawaiʻi home.

“Reading and discussing Daughters of Fire was transformative for many students in my class,” Dr. Morford said. “The multiple layers of meaning that unfold in the story led the students to test their assumptions about science, power, culture, and privilege in ways that I think many had never done before,” she said. “Hawaiʻi is an ideal metaphor for the planet as a whole, and I think the students from Hawai’i and elsewhere got to see their place on the earth quite differently than before reading the book.”

The session was held via cyberspace, using Skype, telephone, and video connections set up by university technicians. Tom discussed the novel with the class from the living room of his rainforest cottage near the erupting summit of Kilauea Volcano on the Big Island of Hawaiʻi.


Photos by Jim Quiring (left) and Catherine Robbins (right).

The conversation was a surprise to the students, sprung on them by Dr. Morford after they wrote down questions they would ask the author if they had the chance. When they finished, she announced that the author was waiting to speak with them via video conference from his home in Volcano, Hawaiʻi.

Among the students’ questions were inquiries about the inspiration for the novel’s characters, what personal experiences Tom had drawn on in creating the story, how Hawaiʻi islanders had reacted to the novel, and how to reconcile economic development with local community values. They also discussed the importance of seeking ways to truly understand what community members, including indigenous people, think and value.


Dr. Shawn Morford of Pacific University; Tom reading a novel excerpt requested by Dr. Morford from one of the students’ favorite chapters (photo by Catherine Robbins).

During the discussion, Tom mentioned that decades ago—before his life in Polynesia—he’d earned a master’s degree from a prestigious public affairs school and written University of Minnesota policy studies related to environmental and economic sustainability. With that background and his long experience with Native Hawaiians, he offered some seasoned advice: don’t dismiss what your naʻau (guts) tells you—that greater knowing that reflects both logic and intuition, which are powerfully integrated when we use our whole brain for thinking. And, he said, ‘don’t let the conformity of professional values or training undermine what you know to be true from your direct experiences with the people and communities you’re hoping to serve.’