Appreciating Hawai`i, Hāmākua Hawai`i

Notes on Hawai`i’s Botany


The following note was written for a landscape manager in our neighborhood. A well-intentioned and intelligent person, he had introduced “Mysore raspberry” on a near-by property because he grows them on his own place and enjoys eating them. He has since removed them from the place under his care.

The geological history of the Hawaiian Islands goes back some 75 million years; the botanical history is less lengthy because about 40 million years ago a 10-million year hiatus in the process of hot-spot island production apparently resulted in the drowning of all terrestrial life that had populated the extant islands up to that point as the lands subsided into the Pacific.

Still, 40 million years is a long time. The remoteness of Hawai`i’s location in the middle of the north Pacific is so extreme that the thousands of miles of open ocean in every direction has acted as a filter to make arrival of organisms – before the intervention of humans – a very rare event. Thus, only two mammals that can be considered terrestrial populated pre-human Hawai`i: a bat and a seal. There were no amphibians nor reptiles before people brought them. Only nine or ten forest birds had successfully arrived here, and only 250 plant species. One interpreter of the island’s natural history has compared the successful arrival of a new plant species to the likelihood of a person standing on the edge of an Olympic pool being able to hit with poppy seeds a postage stamp floating on its water. Others have calculated that a new plant species got here on the statistical average of one every 100,000 years.

In short, whether their seeds were light enough to be airborne for thousands of miles, durable enough to survive the freezing temperatures of high altitudes, and fortunate enough to land on ground suitable for their germination and propagation; impervious enough to withstand months of immersion in saltwater and being caught in currents that carried them to parts of the islands that were conducive to their survival and reproduction; sticky enough to adhere to bird feathers or muddy legs, or in fruits or berries tasty enough to be ingested and carried here in avian digestive tracts, pre-human colonization of Hawai`i by new plants just didn’t happen very often.

The islands, though are very diverse in their range of habitats and ecological niches. Once a plant species did establish itself here and began to disperse, it typically adapted to the various circumstances to which it spread, changing its characteristics to do so to the extent that it gave rise to a number of new species. Thus, the 250 ancestral arrivals gave rise to some 2,600 native species – accounting in large measure for the fact that over 90% of Hawai`i’s native plants are found nowhere else in the world. In the absence of grazing animals, the need for protective characteristics (e.g., thorns, toxins, strong tastes, noxious odors) was absent and these tended to diminish or disappear.

Another testimony to the remoteness of Hawai`i is the fact than it was one of the very last places suitable for human habitation that was actually discovered and populated by our kind. That only happened about 1,500 years ago, but the event was marked by significant changes. Pigs and dogs were introduced deliberately, the Polynesian rat and a species of gecko apparently accidentally, and 30 species of plants culturally significant to the settlers all had their several and cumulative impacts. With the arrival of the British, the ships of James Cook’s third Pacific expedition in 1779 – on his way to search for a passage around the upper reaches of North America – the impacts of introduced species accelerated hugely (including micro-organisms infecting naturally immunized human carriers of diseases that began a massive die-off of the native human population).

Observers in the early stages of “post-contact” times commented that scarcely a ship called at the Islands without new botanical specimens to set out. That tendency has not remitted with time. Thus, presently, perhaps 10,000 species of plants are found in Hawai`i that were not here at the time of Cook’s arrival. All of these are likely to have evolved in environments that were much more challenging and competitive than those of Hawai`i. As a consequence, these historic-era introductions strongly tend to have patterns of growth and dispersal that are highly aggressive relative to the native species (comparisons with human culture also spring to mind) and a strong likelihood of displacing them. The Casuarina trees, often in Hawai`i called “ironwood,” lay down a thick mat of its needle-like branchlets that keeps other plant species from thriving; the many species of ornamental ginger spring vigorously from corms inches thick and inclined to mass into impenetrable thickets where nothing else can grow; Eucalyptus trees continuously drop leaves, twigs and branches that change the chemistry of the soil to inhibit the successful propagation of potential competitors; and the list goes on.

Consider as a contrary example the native raspberry, `Akala (Rubus hawaiensis). It was probably one of those species brought to the Islands in the digestive tract of birds. In the course of time, the thorns so typical of the genus have, in this species, become modified so that they are absent or relatively small and soft to the touch. According to the University of Hawai`i, “There are also several introduced species (of Rubus), many highly aggressive invasives, in the Hawaiian Islands: Prickly Florida blackberry (R. argutus), Himalayan blackberry (R. discolor), Yellow Himalayan raspberry (R. ellipticus var.obcordatus), Andean raspberry (R. glaucus), Mysore or Hill raspberry (R. niveus), Mauritius raspberry or thimbleberry (R. rosifolius), and Molucca raspberry (R. sieboldii).”  The Mysore is one of the members of the genus Rubus that thrive in tropical climates (most preferring colder winters) and bears cautious monitoring because of its thorniness and vigorous spread (see

Needless to say, all these are subject to dispersal by birds and pigs feeding on the tempting berries – and their thorny stems and characteristic formation of dense patches makes their presence problematic for those who would protect spaces for native plants, or those who simply find their forest wanderings blocked by them and their formidable defenses.

Nearly everyone who lives in Hawai`i and cares for plants enough to propagate and nurture them has for a variety of reasons regrets about some of his or her botanical introductions. Our ordinarily mild tropical climate shifts the struggle typical in more extreme zones to promote plant growth, to on-going efforts here to control their growth. Without such efforts, yards and fields in Hawai`i become jungles and/or weed patches with startling rapidity.

Many people have a fatalistic attitude toward the growing dominance of historically-introduced specimens, thinking that the tipping point has long been passed; that the shrinking share of habitat for native species will inevitably continue to diminish. That may indeed be the case, but we should not “go gentle” into that frame of mind, but be inclined to err if need be on the side of the native species.

Appreciating Hawai`i, Being well

Honoring the Breath

It strikes me as a curious fact that of the three things absolutely essential to continuing to live – food, water and air – the less dense the substance, the more critical its absence. That is to say, we can live for weeks without food; we can live for days without water; but we can only go for minutes without air.

We tend to give frequent attention to solids: thoughts about food, places to get it, varieties that are available, advertising about it permeate our lives. Liquids also come into our awareness quite a lot, too: bottled water, energy drinks, carbonated sodas, drinking fountains and more are part of our thinking and choices every day. The air we breathe – the intake we can’t forego more than seconds without experiencing some distress – seldom gets a thought.

As a psychotherapist I frequently did training in stress management and found that focus on breathing was critical to success in that regard. When we experience the discomfort of stress our breathing changes, tending to become more rapid and shallow. This results in less oxygen being passed into our blood circulation and begins to impair our body’s operations, especially our brain. This organ only constitutes 2% of our body but it requires 20% – 25% of our oxygen intake. Brains are very sensitive to reductions of oxygen and quickly set off alarms to call attention to the potentially dangerous condition developing, including increased tension in our muscles. This, unfortunately, may add to our sense of stress, further impeding adequate breathing and creating a rising sense of anxiety or even panic: the feeling that something is wrong and getting worse, while slipping in our ability to understand and cope with the situation is one we all know and dread.

Key to unwinding this impending sense of crisis is to breathe and let go of unnecessary muscle tension. The immediate relief we experience when we do so lets us feel more in control once more and provides a basis for beginning to apply greater resourcefulness to the problem at hand. Checking in throughout the day to our levels of tension and taking some good, deep breaths can be of surprising value to keeping us alert and effective. Almost always, we’ll find that we can feel better in just seconds with a few adjustments to our posture and our oxygen levels. Try it now: let your shoulders drop to a relaxed, comfortable position. Let your jaw and facial muscles become soft and smooth. Straighten your spine to let your upper body be balanced, side-to-side, front-and-back. Take several good, deep breaths. Better? Great!

Often, our breathing can be so shallow that we have stale air settled into the lower portion of our lungs, impairing the critical fusion of oxygen into our blood. It’s really good for us to be active enough to breathe hard, to push ourselves so that we exchange our air with noticeable sounds and effort. Even more, consciously pushing out all the air we can for a few cycles of breath will assure that any stale air has a richer replacement. A simple, positive cycle of companionable exercise, breathing fully and staying in tune with our level of muscle tension leads to well-being in surprising ways.

I ka ʻōlelo no ke ola; I ka ʻōlelo no ka make. This Hawaiian saying – words can heal; words can harm (my translation) – is a teaching I strongly believe in. The Hawaiian word for breath is . In the Hawaiian Dictionary of Pukui & Elbert, is defined as, “To breathe, exhale; as kava after praying and before prognosticating; breath, life. Hā ke akua i ka lewa, god breathed into the open space.”  Languages from which English is derived also have many words suggestive of the awareness of the importance of breath. The English word “spirit,” for instance, comes from the Latin spiritus, meaning “breath,” as well as indicating something other than a material object. In English we have familiar words related to the Latin such as “inspire” (to breathe in; to arouse by divine influence or to stimulate to creativity or action), and “conspire” (literally, to breathe together, as a secret plot requires participants to plan in soft voices, requiring whispered exchanges), “expire” (to breathe out; one’s last breath).

Breath is often the focus for meditative practices. Some yogic exercises focus primarily on certain patterns of air intake and release and others usually match postures to the cycle of breathing. Many contemplative traditions involve letting our minds rest in our breath, taking advantage of its constant rhythmic presence to center our focus as we observe the activities of our amazing minds.

Breath: It’s our first real exchange with the physical world when we’re born into it and, at least so far as our body is concerned, our last interaction with it. Let’s give our breath the place of honor and appreciation it deserves in the rest of our life.


Appreciating Hawai`i

Interpreting a Goddess: Science and Myth at Kilauea Volcano, Hawai`i

This piece was originally prepared for the Interpretive Sourcebook issued at the November 2003 workshop of the National Association for Interpretation. The organization is dedicated to enhancing the quality of presentations of those who work to connect people with places through exposition of the natural and cultural features of those places.

The format used to standardize the Sourcebook’s material has been kept in this layout.


Kilauea exerts an extremely powerful pull on the imaginative and intellectual capabilities of humans who witness its displays. The Polynesians who sailed to the Islands nearly two millennia ago observed well and drew on an extensive ancestral trove of (literally) wonderful experiences to account for their observations of super-human forces, deifying volcanism as a goddess, Pele. In broad understanding and in explaining specific, localized phenomena, they often anticipated the findings of the very active modern geological science.


Kilauea volcano is the most active of the five volcanoes on the Island of Hawai`i. One of the most active volcanoes in the world, it is continuously and intensively studied. Kilauea is sprinkled with seismometers, tiltmeters, gas monitors and strain gauges in deep bore holes. Geologists enthusiastically scramble about on past and current lava flows, as they have even before the first scientific expedition ever financed by the government of the United States, the U.S. Exploring expedition, addressed the phenomena of Kilauea and Mauna Loa in 1840 – 1841.

Human habitation of the islands of Hawai`i began sometime around 1700 years BP (before the present). These original colonists were descendants of people who participated in the most rapid diaspora in human history. They populated a huge expanse of the Pacific Ocean (some 4,500 straight-line kilometers, beginning at the Bismarck Archipelago east of New Guinea) in just three to five centuries to end up in the islands of Fiji, Tonga, and Samoa as the progenitors of the Polynesian culture. At a time when Europeans were hugging continental coastlines for rear of monsters or vertical edges, the people who were to become the Hawaiians extended the bold voyages of their ancestors by forging into the midst of the earth’s largest ocean to settle in the most isolated major island group on the surface of the planet, known now as the Hawaiian Islands.

Remarkable Peoples, Remarkable Stories

As a people with a rich history of exploration marked by transitions averaging 180 – 300 km per generation, the Polynesians and their progenitors kept their cultural treasures alive in their minds and transmitted it orally. The myriad unexpected and sometimes inexplicable events they witnessed in the course of their migrations resulted in gripping tales, a mythology that is unsurpassed in color and complexity. The process of settling a new island home, interacting with the extant population (as they did until they reached the Solomon Islands, from which point colonizing uninhabited islands was the rule), and watching their offspring sail away over the eastern horizon, created a chain of cultural memories molded by time, distance, imagination, and the emotional connections to ancestors and ancestral lands.

With these traditions as background, the voyage of the first people to the Islands of Hawai`i would have been bracketed with great tales. The Island of Hawai`i, the first to be discovered and settled by the Polynesians, had (and has) three active volcanoes – Hualalai, Mauna Loa and Kilauea – among its total of five. It is a given that experiences and observations of volcanism would give rise to powerful stories.

Basic Hawaiian Geology

The heat of the earth’s interior is not uniformly distributed. Some areas are significantly hotter than others, and the “hot spots” create buoyancy in the mantle material (the thick layer between the core and the crust)  that makes it rise through the surrounding cooler rock. As this hot plume reaches the underside of the crust – in this case, the Pacific plate – it pushes and melts its way through. Thus, a volcanic pile builds on the ocean floor. Over about 300,000 years, the mass of lava grows tall enough to break the surface of the sea, some 16,000 feet deep, and become an island. The volcanic mountain/island grows larger with each eruption. The Pacific plate continuously moves northwest at the rate of about three inches a year, slowly dragging the volcano away from the latitude of the hot spot and mantle plume. The island, even as it is waxing, is waning too, by erosive forces and by settling under its own weight. Eventually it will disappear beneath the ocean’s surface.

Remarkable Place, Remarkable Stories

The Polynesians found in Hawai`i a place of striking beauty, one with awesome mana or power, calling for explanation. Their minds required them to place their observations in contextual framework and impose meaning on raw experience. Oral traditions, associated with their voyaging traditions and their familiarity with stories of superhuman beings, readily came into play in accounting for powerful events.

Though there are references to a male volcano deity named `Ai La`au (forest eater), his reign ended long before western contact. It was western culture, ironically enough, that, despite its role in the dismemberment of the Hawaiian culture, brought the means to record on paper and the academic interest to do so that preserved some important stories
The deity primarily identified in extant accounts is a goddess: her name is Pele; she is quick-tempered, capricious, arbitrary, jealous, lusty, and powerful.

Intertwining Perspectives

As Pele led her family to Hawai`i from the faraway place called Kahiki, it was her responsibility to find a suitable home for her siblings – and for her sacred fire. Probing the ground with her magical digging stick, she searched from the northwestern Islands to those in the southeast, finding, until she got to the Island of Hawai`i – water – inimical to her fiery nature. This sequence of exploration presents a striking correlation with the geological determination of relative island age. The older, more submerged and hot-spot-disconnected island are those to the northwest, and the youngest of all, the Island of Hawai`i, sits directly above the hot spot. In some tales, one of Pele’s sisters. Namakaokaha`i, goddess of the sea, relentlessly and vengefully pursues her. As Pele creates new land, her sister incessantly destroys it, gnawing away the shoreline to create both small and cataclysmic collapses, and slowly to engulf the sinking island – an obvious parallel with the geological observations of erosion and submergence.

Pele also has conflict with other Hawaiian deities. One, Kamapua`a, whose primary form is as a giant hog, found Pele in her form as a beautiful woman to be irresistibly attractive (in Hawaiian culture, a concept known as kinolau, or a myriad of bodies, refers to the capability of the same being to have various forms). When he pursued his interest, in his form as a rugged man, he found himself rejected in no uncertain terms as “a pig and the son of a pig.” Angry exchanges led to elemental battles: earth and water vs. fiery lava. One aftermath of this battle is found on the rim of Kilauea caldera, at a place called A-Kani-Kolea, where a meadow-like area surrounded by forest and crossed with earth cracks emitting plumes of water vapor. Geologists explain the lack of trees and the presence of steam vents as due to the presence of an intrusive magma body emplaced several centuries ago that killed the trees with its heat. Even today it is hot enough to vaporize rainwater that infiltrates the ground to the magma below. Such areas frequently become the sites of eruptions, but this has not yet eventuated here. The “struggle” between moist earth and the hot magma-body of Pele continues at a subdued level

Another consequence of this conflict was the portioning of some of the Island between the two combatants: The realm of Kamapua`a became limited to the windward flanks of Kohala and Mauna Kea, while Pele’s sway is restricted to Kilauea and Mauna Loa. No eruptions are to break out in his lands and no streams to flow over hers. Geologically, the lands of Kamapua`a have not seen eruptive activity since long before humans arrived and the young volcanoes of Pele’s realm are covered with lava so porous that rainwater percolates into it, rather than flowing over its surface.

In Hawaiian myth, Pele dwells in subterranean chambers, primarily in Halema`uma`u, a pit crater within the summit caldera of Kilauea, though she has numerous other places to live and underground passageways to travel between them. Geologists map magma reservoirs, rift zones, and lava tubes that correspond well to these mythical structures. Reservoirs, subterranean gaps in the rocks, fed by the mantle plume, fill with magma prior to an eruption, which can either rise up to the summit caldera or push laterally through systems of major cracks (rift zones) to discharge at vents remote from the summit. Lava tubes form as molten lava cools and crusts, first on its flow margins, then over the top. The crust provides such effective insulation that the flow only loses a few degrees of temperature in a mile. As a result, when the source vent stops feeding the flow, the stream drains out of its crust like water flowing out of a pipe, leaving the crustal structure in cave-like form. Indeed, Pele usually resides, and often moves, underground.

Between 1410 and 1470 CE, according to modern geological mapping and dating, an eruption occurred that proved to be the longest-lived of any Hawaiian eruption since the arrival of humans. It covered a great expanse of the eastern flank of Kilauea, reaching the ocean on a wide front in a district known since ancient time as Puna. In one of the central myths of Hawai`i, another sister of Pele, Hi`iaka-i-ka Poli-o-Pele, accedes to her elder sibling’s demand to fetch from the Island of Kaua`i a handsome chief name Lohiau, with whom Pele, in spirit form, has had an intense liaison. Meeting with many obstacles and delays (not least, having to bring him back to life after he killed himself in his grief at losing the literally ravishing goddess who had appeared to him).  Hi`iaka saw from a great distance that Pele, believing that her tardiness was due to betrayal, had burned the forest of `ohi`a-lehua that was so beloved by Hi`iaka. This forest was in Puna; the story of its destruction may well relate to the eruption of 1410-1470.

Pele had conflict, too, with Poliahu, the snow goddess who resides on and rules over the summit area of Mauna Kea. Snow and ice capped the summit of this now-dormant volcano up until about 10,000 years ago. Volcanic activity last occurred about 3,500 years before the present; there were eruptions under the ice cap, which cooled the molten rock so quickly as to change the consistency of the lava toward a denser, fine-grained texture, which the Hawaiians found quite suitable for making stone cutting tools. Though the glaciation and the most recent eruptions preceded human presence by thousands of years, the perceptive Hawaiians have their stories of molten rock clashing with ice.

Even in historic times, the powerful twin streams of human meaning-making are to be seen: in 1790, Kamehameha’s most powerful rival for dominion over the Island lost many of his troops in an explosion generated by ground water being flashed to steam by contact with magma – at least, that’s how geologists summarize it. For the Hawaiian it was obvious that Pele had taken sides in the conflict.


Kilauea’s incredible power has interacted with human observers to create an intersection of two perspectives, science and myth. The volcano’s capacity to focus observing minds to generate powerful and fascinating explanations is a testimony to its impact. We humans come off pretty well, too: our ability to create explanatory stories is quite impressive – and a challenge to interpreters to carry forward in a balanced, pono way.


Beckwith, Martha. 1970. Hawaiian Mythology. University of Hawai`i Press: Honolulu, Hawai`i.

Emerson, Nathaniel B. 1978.Pele and Hi`iaka: a Myth from Hawai`i. Charles E. Tuttle Co.: Boston, MA.

Kalakaua, His Hawaiian Majesty, King David. 1972. The Legends and Myths of Hawai`i: The Fables and Folk-lore of a Strange People. Charles E Tuttle C.: Boston, MA

Kirch, Patrick V. 1997. The Lapita Peoples: Ancestors of the Oceanic World. Blackwell Publishers: Malden, MA.

Macdonald, G. and A.T. Abbott. 1970. Volcanoes in the Sea: The Geology of Hawai`i. University of Hawai`i Press: Honolulu, Hawai`i.

McPhee, John. 1999. Annals of the Former World. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. New York, NY.

Swanson, Donald. June, 2003. Scientist-in-Charge, Hawaiian Volcanoes Observatory. Personal communication.


Hāmākua Hawai`i

Battlefield Hamakua

Hamakua is the ancient district of the Island of Hawai`i in which I have lived since arriving in the Islands in 1973. Following is one of a number of articles I wrote for The Hamakua Times, intended to enhance the appreciation of fellow residents of the amazing qualities and history of our home lands.

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The most thorough and inspiring archeological/historical synthesis ever done on data from the Island of Hawai`i  was published in 2000: Exalted Sits the Chief: The Ancient History of Hawai`i Island, by State archeologist Ross Cordy. One of the most riveting things about the book is the fact that, since it deals with our Island, it has numerous references to our Hamakua lands.

Many battles were fought during what Cordy calls “The Decade of Strife & Tears,” the period between 1782 and 1791. Because western observers were intermittently present during this period, either to witness the events or to hear of them from participants, there is a good deal of written information about the twists and turns of events that eventually led to Kamehameha’s establishment of dominion over all the islands of Hawai`i. Hawaiian historians also were able to document the history of the time with accounts from individuals with direct or second-hand experience. One particular episode in all these conflicts is of particular interest to us as residents of Hamakua and is summarized as follows:

With the death of Kalaniopu`u, three rivals emerged for control of the Island of Hawai`i, after a very brief reign of the old king’s son, Kiwala`o. Keawema`uhili controlled the lands of Hilo, eastern Hamakua and eastern Puna. Keoua held sway over Ka`u and western Puna, while Kamehameha ruled the lands of Kona, Kohala and western Hamakua, including Waipi`o. Warriors from Maui had gotten involved in the fighting among Hawai`i’s chiefs and Kamehameha had invaded to conquer portions of that Island.

After the bloody battle in `Iao Valley on Maui, in which Kamehameha’s lead in the race for western weapons assured his victory, Kamehameha traveled to Moloka`i. His intent was to increase his power by arranging connections with several powerful women. It was at this time, too, that he received the prophecy that a heiau dedicated to Ku and built at Pu`u Kohola at Kawaihae, would assure his success in conquering all the islands. In his absence, Keoua invaded Hilo and slew Keawema`uhili at `Alae, thereby extending into Hamakua the land under his control. With no one to seriously oppose his movements, Keoua continued on up the coast into Kamehameha’s strongholds, including Waipi`o. There, according to accounts put forth by Rev. Stephen Desha (see Kamehameha and His Warrior Kekuhaupi`o), he “…dried up the famous ponds of Lalakea and Muliwai, and also broke down some other fishponds. The kalo patches being cultivated by the men were damaged. The kalo was laid waste, and the banks of the lo`i needlessly broken down. He plundered the maka`ainana and abused the women of Waipi`o.” From the Valley, Keoua’s troops moved on to Waimea – probably along the alanui, or main trail that ran approximately along the route of the current-day “Mud Lane Road” — where the same kind of despoliation continued.

Reports of these terrible activities had reached Kamehameha, and his heart was greatly troubled. Kamakau, in Ruling Chiefs of Hawai`i, quotes Kamehameha as saying, “Alas, while I have been seeking new children my first-born have been abandoned.” He and his troops set out to return to Kawaihae. Their arrival was observed by Keoua’s spies; when he learned of the landing of his rival, Keoua immediately ceased his harassment of the people of Waimea and descended the slope of Mauna Kea toward the windward coast, placing himself and his army directly in Hamakua. John Young and Isaac Davis helped lead Kamehameha’s forces, and they caught Keoua at Pa`auhau, on the shoreline below and toward Hilo from present-day Honoka`a. Their cannon, Lopaka, did great damage to Keoua’s troops, but was for a time captured by one of Keoua’s leading fighters. The battle was indecisive, and Keoua retreated down the coast toward Hilo; another bloody but also indecisive battle was fought at Koapapa in east Hamakua. It, too, was inconclusive. Both armies retreated from the field, Kamehameha to Waipi`o, Keoua to Hilo.

These events, centered in Hamakua, were sandwiched in between the prophecy that led to the building of Pu`u Kohola heiau at Kawaihae, and the destruction of much of Keoua`s army at Kilauea by the violent eruption a short time after in 1790. At least in the temporal sense, and perhaps in even more critical ways, the lands under us here were the stage upon which pivotal events in the unfolding of history in Hawai`i occurred.

aging well

Aging Well – As a member of an astonishing species


“Man is the only animal that blushes. Or needs to.” – Mark Twain

Homo sapiens: That’s the scientific name of the primate group of animals we humans belong to. Its translation is “wise man*,” though the suitability of the designation has often been called into question. Mark Twain is one who had quite a lot to say about the failings of humans, including this: “Such is the human race. Often it does seem such a pity that Noah and his party did not miss the boat.”

For quite a long time there has been consideration and debate about what essential characteristics set us apart from other creatures. It has been argued that humans occupy the very pinnacle of earthly life – a link between “lower” animals and angels. The appeal of that kind of thinking is obvious, in part because we recognize behavior in our kind like that of “brutes” (in the sense of savagely violent animals) and also like that of “heavenly beings” (co-operators with the creative forces of the universe). We can think of currently newsworthy examples of each sort and, for most of us, even detect tendencies within ourselves toward both extremes.

Shocked as I have been by the brutality of such as ISIS, my recent readings of more distant historical accounts have been similarly disturbing. A relative with roots in Ohio got me to read, for instance, a book (That Dark and Bloody River by Allan Eckert) about the settlement of the Ohio River Valley. The cruel violence the between the settlers and the Natives surely justifies the description, “dark and bloody.”  And any reading of thorough accounts of colonization of Native people by weapon- and sickness-carrying societies will leave the reader aghast at the treatment “different” people inflict on one another (see Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs and Steel). Even more obviously, examining the long and continuing practice of enslavement of some humans by others leads to depressing views of what humans can consider to be appropriate. ISIS may be as bad as the worst but they are not isolated or unprecedented examples of humans practicing brutality.

Astonishingly evil as some conduct of Homo sapiens may be, we can be grateful and relieved that our species engages in some radically contradictory actions as well.  While the “news” is clearly unbalanced toward the negative to meet and encourage our fascination with threat and misfortune, there are stories every day of unselfishness and kindness extended by humans. Those sorts of actions are much more evident in our daily personal experiences, too. As we go about our ordinary activities we all practice and observe actions aimed at making the circumstances of others easier and more pleasant. Hans Selye, whose research created the radically new foundation for the recognition and treatment of stress, said that a strong motivator of his unrelenting career-long efforts in that area was the gratitude it drew from others. I often find inspiration, something to admire as I read the details of scientific work. It’s similar to the feeling I get when watching exceptional athletes, such as Olympics competitors: I didn’t know humans could do that! What more are we capable of?

The MIT Technology Review website ( reliably has such intriguing and often uplifting reports; at ( – or just search for “optogenetics MIT” – you will find, for example, an account of a procedure in which light-sensitive molecules are extracted from one-cell organisms and transplanted into nerve cells. The result is the capability of turning specific nerve cells, or groups of them, off and on with light. This hold great promise for advancing our understanding of the fundamental structures and processes of disease and damage, as well as healthy functioning in the brain. How do humans even get the idea to try something like that, much less to accomplish it? What a species!

If that doesn’t put you in awe of what humans can do, consider this: There is a red object in the sky these nights known as the planet Mars. It was much closer to earth’s orbit in May and so appeared much brighter. It will, beginning in late August 2016, be near Saturn and Antares, the brightest star in the constellation Kamakau-nui-o-Maui (known outside Hawai`i as Scorpio). Its reddish color makes it relatively easy to spot. Please do go out some night soon and have a look at it, and as you do, reflect on the fact that there are nine vehicles (plus several more non-mobile instrument packages) from our planet on Mars’ surface. Until I did the research for this article, I did not know there were so many, but just the fact that there were any at all gave me a feeling of pride and wonder in our species’ abilities to dream up, plan, and execute such marvelous achievements. Compare these accomplishments with the fact that little more than 100 years ago, many knowledgeable and serious people thought the Wright brothers’ efforts to leave the ground in an aircraft were the extremes of foolishness.

Dazzling as technical accomplishments are, distressing as cruelty is, the less tangible qualities of our species are equally powerful. “Wisdom” is an elusive concept, though it is generally admired and appreciated as one of those things of which it can be said, “you know it when you see it.”  Stephen Hall has written an excellent survey of traditional and contemporary views of wisdom in his book, Wisdom: From Philosophy to Neuroscience. Some of the qualities associated with wisdom will resonate as familiar and attributable to a few people in the public eye and, hopefully, more of our personal acquaintance: emotional stability, a slight bias for optimism, broad understanding of social relationships and the world in general, not taking oneself too seriously, humor, simplicity, a broad and long perspective on life, focus on what deserves priority, generosity, and patience are among terms attempting to capture the essence of wisdom. It is clearly not the same as knowledge; as Hall says, wisdom is not about knowing the best answer, it’s knowing the best approach to an answer. An adage that has stuck with me for many decades: “In pursuit of knowledge, every day something is gained; in pursuit of wisdom, every day something is dropped.”

Let your memory, your imagination and your observations roam among those you know and among the elements you think of as constituting wisdom. I’ll bet you will find much to admire in them and in yourself as you do so. After all, you are a member of an astonishing species. We must do what we can to live up to our name, Homo/Feminae sapiens.

*I apologize for the gender differentiation. I assume this translation is based on the long-accepted, now embattled practice of using masculine terms as all-encompassing. It could as well be Feminae sapiens.

© Hugh R. Montgomery, PhD, 2016


Hāmākua Hawai`i

Kukui in Hamakua


Nowadays the vegetation seen from the main roads through Hamakua is mostly eucalyptus with patches of pasture and abandoned weedy former sugar fields.  Most of us remember, almost half a decade ago, when sugar was the most common plant in fields along the     highway.  In between the era when the land was purely native forest and the time when it was cleared of forest for sugar, large areas of Hamakua were covered with Kukui trees.


Kukui is a Polynesian introduction, one of the more than 30 kinds of plants brought by settlers from southern Polynesia because of their usefulness.  Kukui well illustrates the ingenuity of the people of old in utilizing the qualities of plants. Isabella Aiona Abbott, in La`au Hawai`i: Traditional Hawaiian Uses of Plants,  lists the following uses for kukui: adhesive (the sap), canoe building (the trunk), fire making (small pieces of wood rubbed with a softer wood), fishbait (nut kernels), healing (flowers, nuts, bark, leaves), kapa (oil and burnt shells as dye), wood finishing (canoes and containers), and tattooing (burnt nut and juice from husk).  Others mention that the nut was also chewed by fishermen, who spat the oily residue onto wind-riffled water so it would smooth out and allow them to see into the depths.  `Inamona, roasted and chopped nuts mixed with sea salt, makes a delicious relish.  Toy spinning tops are still made from whole nutshells.


The Kukui was, because of its usefulness, planted everywhere it would grow in inhabited areas.  With its pale leaves, dusted with granular particles that make it almost glow in sun or moonlight, Kukui is easily distinguished among other trees or shrubs. In their authoritative book, Native Planters in Old Hawaii, Handy, Handy and Pukui comment that a broad strip of Hamakua, between the shoreline and the upper elevation forest of koa and ferns, was. “…before the era of early sugar plantations, completely covered by kukui forest.”   What a sight it must have been from a distance, from high points or from the waters off the coast, to see the large band of pale kukui crowns!


Kukui is, in the traditional culture, regarded as a kinolau (body form) of Kamapua`a, the hog-god associated with Lono, the bringer of rain (and therefore of crops).  Glades were opened in the kukui forests and taro was planted in deep holes in which was placed the plentiful refuse of the kukui, which constantly drops leaves and branches; sometimes, apparently only in Hamakua, trees were felled and taro was planted in the decayed remnants.


The tree is one with which I have a personal affinity.  I recall that the first time I gathered the leaves of a kukui to make a lei for one of our youngsters’ graduations, I was drawn to a particular tree I had seen in my explorations just above sugar fields not far from where I live in Ka`apahu Homesteads.  Going after work, I drove to the area just before dark and found the tree in the gathering dusk.  By the time I had picked the leaves, about 60 of them, it was dark and a little spooky.  I hustled out of the forest, back toward my car, and just before I got there, a pueo glided silently out of the trees and flew about 10 feet above my head.  I stopped in my tracks, and my feeling grew that this was an event of some significance as the bird circled back and crossed the air over me several times more.

I felt as if my activity had been blessed by this quietly powerful visitor from the forest and from some mysterious realm.  One of many sayings about kukui in ka `olelo Hawai`i, the language of Hawai`i, conveys something of the special qualities one can notice about this wonderful tree: Ka malu halau loa o ke kukui – the long shelter of the kukui trees – with its full canopy arching over those of us fortunate enough to have the pleasures of being under them.





Hāmākua Hawai`i, Uncategorized

Na Manu o Hamakua


It wasn’t unusual for hiking clients to be interested in whether we would see birds on our adventures, and it was always a bit sad to tell them the fate of many of our native birds.  Douglas Pratt, in his informative book, “Enjoying Birds in Hawaii,” comments that the 45 species of native forest birds known to have existed in Hawai`i are thought to have evolved from only eight or nine ancestral species.  Of those recorded 45 species, at least 15 are extinct, and over half of the remainder are endangered or threatened.  Mosquito-borne diseases (avian malaria and avian pox) and habitat loss are important factors leading to the loss of our native birds.  Charles Stone, in a volume entitled, “Conservation Biology in Hawai`i,” also specifies predation by introduced rats, cats and mongoose as important contributors to the disappearance of many numbers and kinds of native birds.  Native forest birds are seldom found at elevations less than 4,000 feet, mainly because that’s about the cut-off point, above which mosquitoes do not reproduce.  Thus, in the accessible remaining forests of Hamakua, the only native birds we have much chance of seeing are the larger birds, the raptors – pueo, the owl,  and `io, the hawk — that are apparently immune to the pox and malaria so deadly to Hawaiian forest birds.  Stone lists three known species of native hawks and four of native owls, but only one of each are now to be found; the ‘io is officially classified as an endangered bird.  Its range, notably, is limited to our Island: nowhere else on planet Earth can our wild native hawk be found.


The inspiration for an article about birds of Hamakua came one summer when at dusk my wife and I were enjoying the orchard we’ve planted down below our house, on the edge of Ka`apahu Gulch.  As we sat on the grass and talked, a shape approaching in the sky above the pasture makai of our place caught my eye.  I silently pointed to the pueo – our native owl — flying toward us.  As it drew near, I whistled sharply.  Though the steady stroking of its wings didn’t seem to change, the pueo veered sharply to its right and passed directly over our heads.  It was so obviously visible that our Labrador retriever, Kela, leaped up as if to intercept it, though even his powerful jump was about 15 feet too low.  I continued repeatedly to whistle, and the bird banked to cross above us again, then a third time.  We could see it turning its head on each pass to examine us.  Our last glimpse of it ended as it blurred into the darkening trees around our house up the slope: we thought it might have landed on a branch, but we never saw it again.


As always is the case, we felt privileged to have been visited by this native raptor, and especially honored by the repeated attention.  We reminisced about other such contacts, recalling a number of experiences with both pueo and the introduced barn owl, and some notable encounters with our native hawk, the `io, as well.  I wrote in an earlier article about kukui an account of a pueo seeming to bless my mission of collecting kukui leaves to make a graduation lei for one of our youngsters.  There was also the unforgettable time when one of my sons and I were working our way through a lava tube from one collapse to the next opening and a beautiful, mostly white barn owl flew down the length of the tube toward us, passing by about six feet away, in amazing silence.  My wife, Kaulana, had frequent sightings of owls as she returned from hula classes over the years.  Several times birds sat alongside the road and allowed her to stroke them, without seeming alarmed by her approach or contact.



My long-time friend Dr. P. Q.Tomich has recounted his review of naturalists’ reports and some of his interesting personal and professional observations of the `io.  His photograph of one of these hawks in quest of a rat in a brush pile reminded me of a time last year when my wife and I saw an `io while driving through Kalopa Gulch.  We had just made the sharp turn off the bridge and begun to climb up out of the gulch when an `io streaked directly over our car and seemed to crash into the brush above us.  We drove on up to a place where we could leave our car off the road and walked back to see what the bird’s fate might be.  It was on the ground, in the grass and shrubs above the road, looking both occupied and fierce.  This demeanor was explained when it suddenly took flight with a sumo-weight rat hanging limply in its talons, flying up the gulch toward the sound of a hungry juvenile somewhere above.  Its sharp eyes had evidently spotted a “roof rat” on a limb, and the strike had dislodged the heavy rodent so that both `io and prey fell to the ground.  During the time we were parking and returning to the scene of the battle, the death of the rat was accomplished.  The `io must make a noticeable dent in the rodent population, for another time, we stood in silent wonder with a group of hikers from the cruise ship Statendam while a large `io dispatched a rat it had carried to a tree limb in clear view of our trail in a forest on Hualalai.  It worked steadily but without haste to devour its meal, wiped both sides of its beak on the bark of the limb, then launched itself down the slope and glided away.


The royal palace on O`ahu, ‘Iolani, symbolizes the singular view with which the traditional culture of Hawai`i sees the hawk, for the name of the building translates as “heavenly ‘io.”  Just as the ali`i, the monarchs of Hawai`i mediated between the realms of humans and gods, so does the ‘io soar to the heavens and rest upon the earth.  The pueo is held in special regard, too, particularly by members of families who regard this bird as an `aumakua, or family god.  A Hawaiian friend on the Island of Moloka`i whose family has this kind of relationship to pueo drove us to the airport for an early morning flight: the birds seemed to be everywhere on and alongside the road, an extraordinary set of circumstances that seemed a matter of course to her.


Hamakua is not a unique area so far as its birds are concerned: the same adverse impacts have impoverished the native populations here as they have elsewhere on this Island and the rest of Hawai`i.  We are, nonetheless, fortunate to have visible populations of the two remaining raptors here.  As is the case with much else in Hawai`i’s natural environments, encounters with these creatures often carry an unusual impact, imparting a feeling of portent and significance that transcends the mere facts of the experience.