The Hale Koa in Oahu boasts, if not the largest, certainly one of the most beautiful banyan trees in the world.
Unfortunately, like many of the plants and animals found on the islands of Hawaii, the banyan tree is not endemic. It is native to India, an intruder in Paradise, a visitor from the mainland, Southeast Asia, or even South America who found temptation too strong to resist.
Take for example this pretty little java sparrow, an inquisitive creature with a bright white cheek and a shocking orange bill. He hails from Indonesia. Consider the red-crested cardinal, a bold park-dweller with a tropical headdress who belongs in Brazil, not the south Pacific. Even the mynah bird, a raucous traipser through the branches overhead who loves equally to strut along sidewalks and railings – also from Southeast Asia, primarily India.
These are just a few of the species I saw on a recent visit to Oahu to teach the course Critical Writing and Critical Thinking for the United States Fish & Wildlife Service. And if it were not for them, I would not have needed to go (or at least, I would not have needed to work while I was there).
I was there to teach a group of people – both natives and transplants, like the wildlife – how to write more clearly, so they could continue their work of preserving the natural ecosystem, an ecosystem that has been badly damaged by humanity’s intervention.
Also like the wildlife on the islands, those of us in the class shared a common goal – a deep, intuitive need to connect with the land. Thankfully, our need was not based on survival but on conservation.
I say “thankfully” for two reasons. First, I am grateful that as a species we have evolved beyond the need to focus entirely on survival. We have the luxury to spend precious resources like time and energy on something greater than our bodies, like our minds, our hearts, and our souls.
We should remember that this is not true for every member of our species. Hawaii, like the rest of the United States, harbors many citizens who live in poverty and who spend much of their time and energy trying to survive. Those of us who live beyond survival can never forget that with greater privilege comes greater responsibility.
Second, we agree as a society that conservation is one thing that transcends survival, that native plants and animals are significant contributors to a healthy ecosystem, and that they deserve to be protected and restored. In the midst of all the terrible news that bombards me every day, I find this fact to be a refuge.
I am not a scientist, but like many of the biologists that I work with, I have been immersed in nature since infancy, and, although I do not take things like trees and birds and wildflowers for granted, I cannot imagine a life without them. My husband hunts. My family fishes. We bird. We do not “live off of the land” in the ways that our ancestors that did, but we live with it.
In many ways, I found Hawaii to be a familiar place. As I spoke with course participants throughout the week, I learned that they did too. Many of those who were native had, at one point left the islands, and discovered on the mainland a destruction of resources similar in kind if not degree as that which they thought they were leaving behind. Those of us who were not endemic to the state were as desperate to protect the small local lizards, snails, and creeping vines as we have been in our own native territories to establish backyard gardens, plant native habitat, and protect threatened and endangered species from extinction.
One story I found especially poignant was told to me by course participant Jiny Kim. Island tradition holds that the ‘aina, or earth, of the islands is protected by the goddess Pele. In older times, people would find pieces of ‘aina, like a chunk of lava rock, so appealing that they would take them, either to another place or even to another island, in furtherance of luau, food or cooking.
This would anger Pele. And those who did so would find that inside their cooking fire one of two visions would appear – either a young woman in white who would seduce them with her dance or an old woman in red who would threaten them. Either way, these people were in danger of burning themselves in their own fire because of the disrespect they showed to the ‘aina.
Jiny’s story is perhaps more true that she realized. Like many who have visited the island of Oahu, I carried a piece of the ‘aina away in my heart. I am now visited daily by a seductive vision, the idea of a natural world, perhaps not free from humanity’s influence, but coupling with it in such sinuous harmony that together the two yield bountiful fruits sufficient for all creation.
I also carry a fire in my belly, one that I will be happy to stoke from time to time if only to keep me clean and pure, one that burns away the distractions and the fears and the excuses. May it temper me and make me strong so I can help these government biologists write with clarity and preserve the land.