The Life of the Land series
Parts 1 – 7
“Ua Mau Ke Ea O Ka Aina I Ka Pono – The life of the land is perpetuated in righteousness.”
This, the state motto of Hawaii, is one of the few if not only state mottos that alludes to man’s integral relationship to the natural world. This series will explore the Molokai’s life of the land with a brief history, both natural and human – its ample strengths and clear fragility, our diverse cultures and our common bonds. In our first part we will examine where we are in the broad expanse of the universe.
The forests of Molokai once echoed with the lovely songs of many unique and beautiful birds. Some, such as the `Apapane and Amakiki can still be seen and heard in what?s left of our native forests. Many more, such as the Black Mamo and `Akialoa, have been permanently silenced from the forest of their ancestors. Evidence suggests that 40 or more species became extinct after colonization by the early Polynesians, and another 23 at least have been lost since Western contact.
To study the history of Hawaiian wildlife is to study the change of the natural world by man. In many instances in the past, we have ravaged the land for monetary gain, such as the rampant clear cutting of Molokai’s native rainforest in the nineteenth century to run cattle. In others, we have inadvertently caused great damage – in some cases, irreparable damage – to the life of the land for vain glory such as feather capes for kings, rare coral jewelry, and endemic tree snail shell collections that sometimes numbered in the tens of thousands per collector. This interaction with humankind will be look at further in a future article.
We have a solemn obligation to protect and preserve the beauty around us. As you travel, work, or play, notice the real world around you. Man has created an amazing artificial environment which he even has the capability of having beamed into his home 24/7, but nature surrounds us with sights, sounds and smells guaranteed to soothe the nerves and calm the spirit. Flowers are not beautiful just for bees, birds and butterflies. The calming call of the ocean is not just for the `Opihi and `Iwa (Frigate Bird). Man can see more colors, hear more sounds and smell more smells than any one creature on earth. Nature speaks to our senses unceasingly, may we each give it a listen.
The Pacific Ocean, approximately 1000 A.D. The morning breaks like many others, bright and warm. The day wears on, providing a steady breeze allowing good progress of the voyage. As evening approaches, the cooling breeze seems to be whispering a note of change. The navigator’s diligent gaze travels the arch from the crimson glow of the western setting sun, to the purple afterglow and the inky black of the Earth’s shadow; night fall spreads across the heavens from the east. As he scans the heavens, he finds his newly acquired friend. When the voyage began, this flickering point of light was much lower to the northern horizon. As this journey of exploration has continued on its northerly traverse of the vast blue ocean, the starry night sentinel has risen steadily toward the zenith, directly overhead. This brilliant, slightly red guide will later be named Hoku`lea by these voyaging ancestors.
As the navigator’s experienced gaze takes in the heavenly inventory of the hundreds of stars and their associated constellations, his attention is again drawn to the faint red glow on the horizon. He quickly realizes that this shimmering light is straight off the sailing canoe’s bow to the north, whereas the last fading ember of the tropical sunset is to the west of the seafarers. This red-orange glimmer arrests the attention of all onboard. Faces of weathered age and wisdom, faces aglow with youth and vitality, faces that have endured tropical tempests and equatorial doldrums, all gaze in wonder, concern, and interest. As the glow intensifies it seems to have a movement of its own.
As the travelers continue their approach a small dark point begins to rise. The point becomes a spot and then a mass. On this mass, bright fiery ribbons lace the night sky with golden hues. The largest land mass any of them have ever seen rises from the dark depths, piercing the night sky. For most, if not all, it is the first time they have seen the earth molten. The now brilliant display of glowing red rivers abruptly ends in a spectacular battle of fire, steam and surf; as usual the sea is victorious. As the voyagers stare in amazement, the navigator takes note of the bright celestial friend, it is now directly overhead. Man has discovered Hawaii.
The preceding account is the author’s speculation of how it could have been. There are no written records, only chants, legends, and tales. What we do know is man traveled across a vast watery expanse, the Earth’s largest ocean. How many never made landfall we do not know, but Polynesians finally discovered Hawaii and a period of migration from the Southern Pacific began.
Today, both the ancestors of these early explorers and newly arrived settlers have a responsibility to share in the preservation of this land and the life therein. Be still, consider the wonders around us, lest we forget and are ultimately forgotten ourselves. Aloha Nui Loa.
The single, most important event in the history of Molokai has been the arrival of humans. Not the first coconut that floated ashore and sprouted, nor the first bird that took wing from some distant shore and alighted upon a local lava ledge. Not the first plant seed attached by some means to the aforementioned bird, which fell off and took root – none of these affected the life of this land as much as that first sailing canoe that appeared off Molokai’s shoreline.
As best as can be determined with no written historical records, Polynesians probably arrived in the Hawaiian Islands in the sixth or seventh centuries A.D. Halawa Valley was most likely the first permanent settlement on Molokai and possibly in all of Hawaii. At first, these early pioneers partook of the sea’s bounty, but the land offered very little in the way of food for humans. These early explorers came prepared for just this possible scenario. Fruit and vegetable plants were planted and chickens and pigs were introduced into the environment to supplement seafood. Along with the intended cargo were undoubtedly some unintended stowaways, such as the Polynesian Roof Rat.
When a forest bird builds its nest to raise its young, it changes the forest environment. These changes, if kept in balance, at the least, have a neutral effect on the natural world; at best, a positive effect. Nature has an inherent balance that allows flora and fauna to flourish. The early Hawaiians affected their new home by their “nest building,” but humans have a tendency to build larger and more complicated nests. The extensive taro walls and stream diversion ditches in Halawa Valley and the many fish ponds along Molokai’s south shore show a remarkable level of engineering, but all this comes at a cost. The flora and fauna of Halawa?s valley floor has been permanently altered.
To some extent this is the way it has to be, for humans are a part of the circle of the life of the land and we need nourishment just like the birds and the bees. The early Hawaiians knew that the `aina would provide for them as long as they preserved the `aina. This was not a perfect protection, for not all those feathers on the feather capes of the ali`is were collected by catch and release. Thousands of forest birds, including many not found today, died for man’s pride. It’s one thing to eat a bird for dinner, and quite another to wear birds to dinner.
For the most part, the early Hawaiians interaction with the natural world can probably be summed up best by a quote by Hawaiian Charlie Keau: “We knew about pollution, we knew about preservation, we knew about the environment long before the Westerners forgot about it, because we had to live with what we had here. If we disturb any of the environment, we have no place to run and hide. This is our home.” May we all take care of our home. Aloha.
“We are life that wants to live in the midst of other life that wants to live,” Albert Einstein once said.
Many of us love this island, this land, but the question should be asked: do we love the life of this land? Much of our attention has been given to the interaction between humans and everything else, for we are the only creatures on Earth capable of destroying all the life of the land or protecting any of the life of the land.
The early Hawaiians knew that the natural world was their sole source of food, clothing and shelter, which necessitated a deep since of respect, even reverence for the land. Today, the preservation of the natural world has been somewhat relegated to the realm of being a nice thing to do, a good cause, be green, save the whales and all that. But the true essence of the land, the lessons contained therein, lessons that speak of balance, lessons, that for some of us, speak of the Creator, are being drowned out by the noise of the world.
We have more time-saving devices than ever, but less time than ever. In reality, time is the same length as it’s always been: a minute, an hour, a day, a month and a year are still a minute, an hour, a day, a month, and a year long. We just have much more to do now; important things, like trying to make a living, paying the bills, maybe raising a family. These are responsible endeavors, but even they are being crowded into smaller and smaller corners of the day. Technological advances have brought us to the point of 24/7 technology. Using the term advances usually has a positive connotation, but is it a sign of advancement to spend large amounts of the day texting, tweeting, and twittering? And if we are truly honest with ourselves, are all those phone calls, messages and tweets drawing us closer to our loved ones and advancing a useful, caring society?
Civilization is being separated from its roots. We are an integral part of the natural world, but we have allowed ourselves to be distracted from the real world and lured into an electronic illusion. This does not mean that all technology is bad, for this article was written on a modern computer. Instead, we need to be the masters of our technology not the slaves to it. Most importantly, we need to get up from the computer, turn off the TV, put down the gaming device and get our head outside. Look up at the stars, down at the flowers and across the mountains to the sea.
Ua mau ke ea o ka aina i ka pono – the life of the land is perpetuated in righteousness. Seek for the righteousness of the land. Aloha Ke Akua.