Return to Po: Rivaling Arrivals Part I

She smiles at me with a big grin and gives me that hug she says she doesn’t like giving. I squeeze her through her life jacket and mutter a “see ya later” into her ear, letting her go quick-like so she can get on hugging everyone else goodbye. I don’t know how to express my affection towards her except to sneak a Sea Purse bean into her Pelican case as it sits in her packed-up bunk room before her departure with a note that just reads ‘For the Memories’.
She steps onto the inflatable boat and shoots two shaka fists at the sky as the boat motors away towards the giant NOAA research vessel, the Oscar Sette, jogging outside the reef. Our remaining crew stands on the shore at the water line, waving in return. I turn around and head up the beach not wanting to have anything to do with any kind of prolonged goodbye ritual.
“I’m over it,” I say coldly to Matt as he joins me at the water jugs stationed near the vegetation line.
“Gosh they’re still waving back and forth at each other,” he says in return while we stand there watching the boat getting tinier and tinier. I don’t like saying goodbye. I don’t like when certain things change, as they always indubitably do, especially when it means losing something I like. Especially when it leaves an incomplete feeling inside of me. I don’t want anyone to see that I’m upset, so I play it off as apathy. But I’m not over it. I can’t get over it. That’s my problem. I liked her. She was different than me; impulsive, reckless, not afraid to do whatever she felt like. A hint of untamed wildness in her. I respected the hell out of that. I was attracted to it. I wanted it for myself. She brought it out in me. But now she was leaving and I didn’t like what that left of me.
I sigh and fill the gap of silence growing between Matt and me as we continue to stand there awkwardly, “Goodbyes aren’t a single moment. They’re like the moon, a cycle of phases. It’s just the continuity of the present becoming the past. I’ll still be saying goodbye for a few days I think.” I don’t wait for a response knowing Matt is probably just putting that in his short-term memory storage filed under ‘weird stuff JE says’. Maybe he gets what I’m saying, maybe he doesn’t, but I’m definitely not gonna stick around in that lost cause. I turn to pick up two 5-gallon water jugs and head back to the water cove with the sun beating down on my browning and glistening skin. This day has come as I knew it would, and with it a transition in me has arrived in time with the changes that constantly surround us all in this great cyclical universe we live in. The vibrance I felt around her will depart, becoming a dullness that will settle into a numbing itch that can’t be satisfied with a scratch.

Summer has arrived in all of its expressions. The National Marine Fish Services (NMFS) crew has arrived. The warm winds from the south have arrived. Tropical storms are brewing in the Pacific. The Brown Noddys have returned to nest. The Koa eʻula are courting in the thermals, initiating their backward-flying ritual. The Albatross chicks are purging their boluses and opening their newly-formed wings to feel the winds that will someday soon lift them into flight – if they can endure the tremendous scorching days that lie ahead. The Native seasonal ground covers, Alena and Nohu, are growing rapidly and taking over the central plains of the island. The Paper wasps are making their hives. The Blue metal wasps are finding holes to stuff dead bugs and their eggs in. The Wedge-Tailed Shearwaters are prospecting. The Laysan ducks are brooding. The Monk Seals Pups are growing into fat weaners. Heat rashes are forming on my waist where my spray back rubs during our prolonged treatments. The days are elongating into temporal eternity and the calm silent nights wain in day’s residual warmth with the growing scarcity of Adult Albatross presence. Oh how the summer bathes us in light and drowns us in heat.
As a team, we have nearly completed a full-island treatment approaching 10 weeks on the island. A week has gone by since the Sette vessel departed with our crew member Tiana and we are all adjusting to our reduced numbers, learning to accept that we won’t be as productive with a five-person crew. Her absence is noticed like going a day without that habituated cup of coffee. It’s uncomfortable. It doesn’t feel right. It’s sorely missed. But she wouldn’t want to hear it. She doesn’t drink coffee anyways.
However, we stay head-strong, limber, and determined to get as much done before our season is up at the end of August. With the changing weather, the invasive plants begin to die off, a ripe opportunity to plant some new natives we brought from the main Hawaiian islands that do well in dry lowlands. Naio (Pea family), Nehe (Aster family) , A’ali’i (____ Family), and Pōpolo (Nightshade family) seeds, and I am more than excited to see these friendly allies successfully propagate all over the island. Only, giving the nature of seasonal work, I will see them sprout in our nursery but not out-planted in strategic locations around the island. That will occur during the winter season when the plants have grown large enough in the nursery; each plants duration of time in the nursery varying from a single month to up to a year. Instead, I have tasked myself with the responsibility of giving them a healthy start and making sure we have water catchment systems set up across island to help nourish them during the dry Ka’u season.
As the island of Kure has dramatically changed during the course of its restoration regime, the overall management plan has also. This summer marks perhaps even more changes. It is time to start focusing on what we are introducing to Kure, transitioning away from what we are removing. Conservation is a fickle field. It is not an exact science, rather it is an applied science, meaning we take what we know and put it into practice while simultaneously observing and monitoring the effects so we can make adjustments as we gain a better understanding of the ecology over time. It is an experimental process that allows us to evolve our practice organically. The greatest constraint against this process is continued financial support for such a extensively time-intensive project.
Efforts to eradicate immediate threats to the wildlife on Kure has overall been highly successful, but figuring out how to fill in the growing void of disturbed habitat is now the challenge. Ecology is the study of how life co-exists, and a healthy ecosystem is one that is able to do this naturally.
Currently, Kure is being kept in a kind of homeostasis only by the means of continued human intervention. We control the spread and growth of incipient species as well as the more established non-natives, but there is no reassurance that these plants would take over if we stopped treatment. There is much we still do not understand about ecological systems, even as simple as ones like an atoll which have little habitat and climatic diversity. Green Island, the name for the islet inside the protected waters of Kure Atoll, has a peak elevation of about 25 feet – which is pretty impressive for an atoll – but it also means this entire biome is considered a coastal lowland habitat. We make jokes about using makai (towards ocean) to mark our orientation on Kure since there is no mauka (towards mountain) to distinguish where we are (“I’ll head makai of that Naupaka bush and you head…well.. makai of the otherside… ugh never mind I’ll head north you head south…”) , but the joke is a reminder of how limited we are in our biological toolkit to out-compete the invasive characteristics of the non-native plants.There are only so many plants that can grow in such exposed dry and saline conditions, and even fewer that are native to Hawai’i. So bringing with us plants from the MH islands is new idea that could solve some of our new problems.
Without much topography, the range of niches and micro habitats are reduced significantly. I can remember sitting on top of the cistern with Steph during twilight recently after our own arrival to the island, and she stared out at the western dunes silhouetted by the failing light and she couldn’t help but see an illusionary mountain range as if the dunes were actually miles away on the horizon rather than the couple hundred feet in front of us. It is a strange sensation to come out here for so long where there exists a grave absence of geographical features. There are days when the ocean is riled up enough that waves can be felt in camp like tremors and seen breaking off the eastern reef half a mile away, towering 15 feet above our heads, creating the sensation of being swallowed up. There is also a lack of color diversity, a kind of deprivation that one begins to crave near the end of a season. Deeper shades of green, vibrant reds and oranges and yellows.
One of the things we have observed with the change in vegetation, as the infamous Verbisina has been heavily targeted, is that the invasive grasses and brassica have swept in and filled in the now vacant landscape. These varieties of introduced grasses grow fast, producing seeds quickly that seem to germinate even quicker, and the brassica: Lesser Swinecress, has a deep taproot that sucks up all the water during the wintering months and dominates the open-plain terrain on the island with its plethoric seed dispersal methods; preventing the natives from growing in during the summering months. It’s good news that the Verbisina Sunflower no longer dominates these open areas since this monotypic-growing plant was choking out the Albatross and preventing habitat for other seabirds, but this original treatment plan has now been met with an evolved problem. It’s the same old problem that human intervention in nature has been dealing with time and time again within the applied practice of ecological restoration.
Nature is constantly evolving, and never truly returns to a state it once previously held, for in the words of Newton: for every action there is an equal an opposite reaction. Whenever we apply force to something, there is an equal response to that force hurdling a motion forward into new territory. The interrelating of all life works the same way, only in more complex and sometimes invisible ways. Nature is like a pool table with a seemingly infinite amount of balls that never stop moving because they are constantly being struck with just as many cues. It is impossible to keep track of what is hitting what because we can’t pause the motion. We can only react to it while still in motion and see what effect this will have on the rest of the balls. It’s dynamic systematics.
I remember learning in school the concept of the web of life, how each species is somehow connected to each other through a kind of predatory-prey relationship, forming a web-like structure. The web is strong when all the threads are connected through each species. But as soon as you begin removing species, the structure loses its integrity and starts to fall apart. In some cases, there are species that hold many connections to the rest of the web. These are called Keystone species, often either being a food source for many other creatures, or, they hold a unique balance between preventing one species from dominating others. But the issues with this model of life is that it is static; frozen in time. Ecologists use this argument all the time to fight for things like the Endangered Species Act which allot an abundance of government funds towards the protection of a single species. These policies have in a large way reversed a great deal of environmental degradation that would otherwise have occurred, saving entire pristine forests from industrial “economically boosting” prospects because of a single species on the endangers species list that exists in those forests. And these monumental policies were enacted through the tireless efforts of 1st generation conservationists who were outliers in society because they took the tremendous amount of time it takes to observe the intricate, dynamic, and reciprocal behavior of nature.
Time is the key to our blindness. To ignore the dynamic aliveness of time flowing through reality has become the normal and ritualized behavior of modern society. But it is only through the wholeness of time we can begin to better understand the consequences of our actions. Past, present, and future. Unfortunately, what is done is already done, and the waters of our relationship with the past as modern humans have become murky. Convoluted. Through our consummatory addiction we have nearly severed ourselves from our wise and resourceful foundational past, forgotten to the point of being ignored, and ignoring the past breeds ignorance of what is to come.
So as we continue to play with life out here and learn to sail the great vessel of ecological restoration in the most professional and scientifically agreed upon ways, we navigate through the cause and effects of our forward momentum and learn how our synthetic actions can synthesize with the actions of nature to produce desired results: an island that can sustain itself. And who knows, maybe we can help it do so better than ever before.
This is my dream, and it is the same dream that I envision for the entire planet: humans perpetuating life into greater and grander realms of existence. It is a dream I know not how to materialize, however, and as Kure represents a micron of this dream, I can’t help but notice the many personal barriers in my own personal life keeping me from realizing that this dream has any hope. The only clue I hold is that somehow the past is important in restoring as that which is enfolding into the future: that digging into the past will bring about the arrival of long-forgotten answers.

To Be Continued in Part II…

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