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Aug. 29, 2010 by Judy

Darwin's Other Option:

Darwin would have gotten more bang for the buck if he’d come to the Hawaiian archipelago instead of the low-lying, relatively ‘simpler’, Galapagos Islands (nothing personal there, Galapagos—we love you, too).  By Darwin’s 1800s the high islands of Hawaii Nei had been simmering life in a big crock-pot of episodic chaos for millions of years.  In that crock-pot was many a new species born, tempered by time and circumstance.


The plants, insects and birds (and bats) that landed here in storms or drifted down out of the aerial plankton, or rafted over to these shores, found themselves without their usual predators or familiar foods or even their habitual home options.  They had to find new ways to live, so they adapted.  Their genes drifted over the long slow drip of time.  Isolation created ‘children’ that became very different from their ‘parents’.


By the time people arrived here, about 2000 years ago, we think, the seething kaleidoscope of life on these islands was made of endemics--organisms found mostly only in this one spot on the planet, having arisen here.


At that point, however, the game changed, and rapidly. 


At first, it was mostly the warm, low-lying coastal regions and areas with abundant fresh water that were modified to any great extent by settlers and the plants and animals they brought intentionally (pigs) and accidentally (rats).  Plants hauled here through great effort in canoes from Tahiti were by and large cultivars, or plants grown from cuttings. They required—still do—human help to propagate.  Most have been bred to have few or no viable seeds, like bananas.  Most are cultivars, meaning the sprouts are taken from the ‘mother’ plant and outplanted, like taro/kalo.  None of them are aggressive weeds.  Island dwellers know enough not to transport weedy plants from place to place. 


Fast-forward to the late 1700s and the arrival of, first, the British..and their goats.  Follow up with the French…and some rats, Americans…and mosquitos. Russians, Chinese, Japanese, Portuguese, Filipinos and assorted others came for work, love, adventure.  Every new wave of humanity carried with it not only communicable diseases that nearly wiped out the native human population by 1900, but also plants, insects, birds and other animals good for eating (cows!) or just popular at the time (like songbirds).


The native, mostly endemic tapestry tried to absorb this onslaught and then began to sag and unravel.  Birds stricken by introduced pox and malaria fell out of the trees in the thousands.  Weeds took hold, thickened, and began a march of smothering.  Almost without exception and nearly everywhere, native species were overrun by plants, insects and animals that could outbreed them, outfight them, overgrow them or sicken them with new diseases.


I tell you this not to bum you out, but to open your experience.  As you spend time here, and most of us are still in the warm, coastal lowlands, most of those imports now dominate the lowlands and your view.  In many cases they are beautiful, but ruthless—the flowering gingers, the tall African tulip trees (neither African nor tulip), the choking vines which seem so pretty and green.  Indian mynah birds, brought here for crop pest control, fight their internal flock dominance battles under American mesquite trees re-named ‘kiawe’.  African kikuyu grasses mat the slopes, refusing to let native plants rise as seeds from the soil.  The birdsong is as cosmopolitan as an airport lounge in New York—what rings from the trees are voices from Asia, Europe, Africa.  The voices of Hawaiian birds are altogether missing below the high elevations and the last stands of true Hawaiian forest where they live, and eat what they know, and sleep in a landscape they understand.


So, if I were you and if you are on Maui, I say bundle up and put some snacks in the car.  Head upslope, aim for and through the clouds, keep going until you enter Haleakala National Park at 7000 ft. above sea level.  After the entrance station you will find a turn to your left, to Hosmer’s Grove.  Although the grove was an experimental tree plot used to determine which introduced trees might grow well in Hawaii, and as such is just displaced as that Indian mongoose that crossed the road near the beach, there is a secret here.


In the heart of Hosmer’s Grove is a gulch.  In that gulch is a strip of remaining native forest where the ohia lehua blossom is dressed, quite often, by Noe, the goddess of the mists.  Take a seat on the bench near the gulch and quiet yourself.  Wait.  Very likely, climbing among the crimson crowns of these long-lived, moss-draped trees, will be the astonishing i’iwi, a bird that people come from all over the world to see in its home.  Drink in that sight; listen for the fluted, fallingwater call of that ‘only here’ bird.  Welcome to Hawaii.  The real Hawaii.  

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