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.