Saturday, June 18, 2016

The Hawai'i That Was: Why Should We Care?

Lapakahi State Park on the Big Island is the remains of an ancient fishing village that was occupied for hundreds of years. Not a single plant in the picture is native to Hawai'i.

In a lot of ways, a post like this is how one might wrap up a series. The problem is that I can't say exactly where we will be or what we will have discovered by the time I've determined that this blog series is completed! I can certainly talk about why I had the idea, and maybe I'll find some guidance as we move forward in this exploration.

I can say that Hawai'i is very special to me. California is far and away the most interesting place in the world, what with the Sierra Nevada, the coasts, the deserts and all the other fascinating landscapes, but Hawai'i to me is an incredible place that I am privileged to visit only on special occasions. There are so many mysteries on the islands that I haven't had the time to explore. But there is something more. There is a sense of wildness about the place that I don't feel often in my many travels.
The Ha'upu Range. Kaua'i can certainly look foreboding from some directions.
I think it has to do the isolation and remoteness of the place. The Hawaiian Islands were among the last, if not the last significant landmasses to be colonized by human beings in the world. It's been only a few dozen generations that it was the last wild place on the planet,  It has been significantly altered by human activity, but there are still remnants of that primeval world that still exist today. You will never find it in a high-rise hotel at Waikiki, but the pieces are there if you know where to look.
An 'Apapane, one of the few native Hawaiian birds that is not in imminent danger of extinction.

At the same time there is a newness about the Hawaiian Islands. Not a single piece of land in the eight major islands is older than 6 million years. Essentially all of the Big Island is less than a million years old. There is a lava flow near my home in California. It erupted 9-10 million years ago, and while it has been altered by erosion, it still looks relatively "recent". And yet in the time since that lava flow in California, eight major islands grew, reached great heights, and then eroded. Literally thousands of species of plants and animals evolved in that short period of time. Many existed for a time, and then went extinct, sometimes by the hand of humans, and sometimes not.
Pu'uhonua o Honaunau, the place of refuge. If you violated kapu, you had a chance at life if you could make it here.

There are really two Hawaiian Islands that were: the islands before the Polynesians, and the islands of the Polynesians. They were then changed forever in 1778 when Captain Cook "discovered" the islands and their people. The changes in the intervening 238 years have been mostly catastrophic, both for the natural landscape and for the Native Hawaiians. It's only been in the last few decades that people have tried to recover pieces of the past before they were completely gone.
'Ahu'ena Heiau, the last "palace" of King Kamehameha in 1819. It's now surrounded by the bustling city of Kona, with luaus next door two nights a week!
We learn from history. We are often far too ignorant of our dependence on the land and resources, and forget that they can be abused and wasted. All human societies alter the landscapes that they occupy to increase their chances for survival, and some are more successful than others. The Polynesians who discovered the islands brought with them plants and animals they knew would insure their future, and for more than a thousand years they lived within the limits of the land. That is no longer the case today. Meeting the needs of 1.4 million people on the islands requires a huge amount of energy. Can you imagine the chaos if the ship and plane traffic were disrupted for any length of time?

So Hawai'i is beautiful. But it is also a living laboratory that has much to tell us about geology, ecology, evolution, and anthropology. And that is why we were there for much of the last two weeks, students of geology and archaeology, learning what we could in the short time that we had. The story of our journey begins in the next post.