Death and Renewal Pt I: The Mo’o of Solstice

Field work truly satisfies the whole spectrum of emotions; from the greatest failures to its wildest successes. The progress is slow and often the impact of our work is not seen within a single season. Only those who venture back reap the reward of change on Kure.
For me, it has been two years since I first came out, a year and a half since I left. There are surprisingly a great deal of changes, as well as progress, since my last season. Kawelu, a native grass that grows in clumps, has taken over the central plain, becoming the most widely successful out-planted species. Pōpolo, an endangered nightshade, is doing remarkably well since it was planted in 2016, and there are now healthy mature bushes fruiting big juicy black berries across the island. Ena Ena, a native of the Sage family, bloomed wildly in our nursery and dispersed itself throughout camp. It is now well on its way to cover the entire island. Every day we are finding it sprouting in a new area. Button Sedge has commandeered the runway, and Lepturus Repens – another native grass – seems to be a favored here on Kure and has filled in substrates that used to be bare.
The long-term cycles of nature are a rare thing to observe for people racing through the lives of their domestic making, never getting a chance to experience these gradual yet profound oscillations. It is easy to notice quick cycles, like winter turning into spring, watching the deciduous trees come back to life and fill the air with their sweet aromas, but it is the subtle intricacies of how one spring differs from the next; how a certain plant might bloom a deeper shade of red than the previous spring, which can too easily go missed by the domestic dweller. Yet it is these very changes and transformations that hold the source to many of our unanswered people problems.
Out here, it is a different story. On Hōlanikū, we are being blasted with constant changes, and a great deal of these changes has to do with the relationship between death and renewal: life passing from one generation to the next. I cannot deny that it is a privilege to be able to have this kind of experience for it brings with it a kind of satisfaction with life difficult to find in the grind of the human world. I have only been here in the summer, and only two summers at that, but given this places raw state, it has so far been enough for me to begin to understand nature’s language. Nature speaks, but to borrow the expression from Derrick Jensen, it speaks a language older than words, constantly communicating a vast database of information so profound that to express it in the form of human language takes a poet.
I am no poet, just another soul trying to grasp the meaning behind my experiences. And in my life I have been lucky enough to expose my attuned senses to the primary experiences of this far away island. In fact, it has been a very difficult thing for me to balance: processing the experience of Hōlanikū as it relates to all of life and my effectiveness as a member of the DLNR conservation team. This dissonance in me has been compounded by the recent events I am facing on Kure, and the clash of internal conflict has awoken a few beastly creatures from their lares.
The summer has fast approached and the sun’s solstice, a time of activation, is less than a week away. The winds switched suddenly, dying to a near stillness. Days are becoming longer. The interchange of cool and warm air flowing across the Pacific ocean has slowed, leaving only the sun’s warm rising air. This is a El Nino year, warmer currents dominating the pacific. It was a gusting spring, with strong cool winds prevailing from the North, but now that is gone, almost overnight, awakening to the shock of merciless heat.
The island’s bird population is reacting with stress. Just this last week, dead adult Laysan Albatross have been appearing, a sight unfamiliar and uncommon, until now. When the weather changes, everything changes along with it. It is easy to to view this die off as a bad thing, but when you spend enough time in Nature, it becomes apparent that there is always something giving, and always something taking. There are times of abundance. There are times of scarcity. It is neither a good or bad thing. If anything, it is a beautiful thing, for these Albatross have given their entire lives to try and feed their young, even dying as they give up all their food and water to the chicks who wait and wait under the oppressive sun.
And with death, there is always opportunity for renewal. I have been collecting the freshest of the dead carcasses recognizing that the death of these dedicated parents brings a great opportunity for education; which is the long-term side of Environmental Conservation. Seabird feathers and bones are extremely valuable to Hawaiʻi tradition, for they are used in feather work as well as tattoo, or Kakau. Feather work has always been a shining mastery for Hawaiian culture, and instilled within its ritual art is a key to humanʻs connection to nature. Manu, or bird, can be viewed as very similar to Kanaka, or people, for it is the seabirds and the people that have always ventured alike across the ocean. Part of our job out here on Kure is not only to be environmental conservationists, but also cultural stewards. I am attempting to help a cultural practitioner, who is also a biologist, to collect the feathers and bones of various specimens while I am out here to bring back to the main Hawaiian islands where the same seabirds are rarely found. If I can successfully preserve the feathers and bones, which takes time and effort while on a remote island with limited resources and facilities, then these items can be used to help educate the public on a vital part of Hawaiian culture. Restoring this practice of feather and bone work may help to revitalize a people’s connection to where they come from: activating the source of who we are and what our purpose is.
This cultural objectives on Kure are understandably of lower priority, a task delegated to anyone who is interested, but not mandatory, for the focus of our work out here are on the immediate threats to the land. It is often an area of great tension between scientists and traditionalist; trying to find the common ground between preserving old ways and progressing into new ways. However, the renewal of this cultural practice needs our effort and attention because the resources of these birds are found no where else. Part of understanding the healthy future of one’s relationship to one’s environment requires us to also see beyond the short-term changes and be a part of the greater forces that connect us to place as we are intricately connected to each other through all lifeforms that share these lands and oceans through time. These rituals that cultural practitioners are attempting to preserve and revitalize as once again common practice hold just as an important role in the conservation philosophy as the direct work of natural resource management. Everyone plays their part, and I am trying to find the balance in it all, find where I fit in. It seems that my life wants to lead me between both worlds, and in this middle ground I must learn to see the value in everyoneʻs work to gain a bigger picture of how it all comes together. We all have to give up a little bit of our own predisposition to see more clearly the answers that lie ahead in a world of impending problems.

With death comes renewal. With renewal comes transformation.

The summer shockwave has become a worthy adversary for me, and a kind of Mo’o has emerged to protect a transformation from me that lies beyond its greedy guard. No growth comes freely. This last week, our eleventh week on island, has been our hottest, and I did not take the necessary precautions to sustain myself during the intensive work we do while exposed to the sun. This island is rugged, rough, and wild. It is a home for light-feathered creatures, not for dense-boned walkers. Our movement across the terrain and through the vegetation is awkward and invasive to the wildlife, adding to the amount of time it takes to treat an area. When the winds die, as it did this past week, the heat becomes dangerous. Birds are literally dying all around us from the same forces pressing down on our own bodies as we work.
Since Tiana left, our DLNR team has shrunk to only five members, and the managers are struggling to adjust the objectives to fit our smaller task force. They are ambitious, and us volunteers and workers are just crazy enough to follow along. However, this past week’s plan proved to be too ambitious for me. I ended my Thursday short with dehydration sickness. I became faint and incoherent. My eyesight turned blurry, my head was pounding, my mood become ugly, and my stomach grew nauseous. I threw up my lunch almost immediately after eating it, and crawled to the floor of my bunk room with a ice pack around my neck, and a thermometer under my tongue where I promptly passed out while the rest of the crew headed back out into the scorching afternoon sun.
This kind of work is brutal, and as much as I hate to admit it, it kicked my ass that day. But the work becomes brutal not only because of the weather and terrain, but also because of pressure to achieve our objectives. What we are attempting to accomplish out here can sometimes be seen as a bit over the capacity of what five people can obtain. Alas, this is the nature of Conservation work, for saving the environment is not usually the highest priority for government. There is not nearly enough funds to support the level of work that is required to reach the objectives cleanly and effectively. Instead, each of us has to do the work of two or even three people. We have to go above and beyond to fight for what we believe in. This means being extra careful with our approach so we can do a good job and not get overwhelmed doing it.
This week, my body paid the price, and I ended it in bitter frustration. I was not able to join the nighttime Christmas Shearwater Survey on Friday (from 11 at night until 2 in the morning!) as I was barely able to make it through the day after my Thursday mess. I felt like I could not step up to the plate when I was needed, and that is a real shitty feeling. I take pride in my hard work ethic, but this week, I am the one having to make the compromises, and I don’t like being in that seat. It feels like a loss of control; something I hate to feel. It feels like a weakness, and when the body shuts down there’s no hiding it from everyone else.
It is here where my Mo’o slips out of its hiding, laughing and taunting me to chase it down, egging on the frustration I already feel. And so I get upset that I’m in this position, and all I want to do is immaturely blame it on poor management and lack of funding, instead of actually confronting the Mo’o that has revealed itself to me, once and for all.
Even as I grumble about the stress of our job, I still try and end every day feeling eternally satisfied. Because the truth is, every day I feel I am accomplishing something, and everyday we are making an acute difference to this island’s ability to be a sanctuary for life. I also know that the work that I am doing is allowing me to pay closer attention to revealing answers I have been so very much desiring in life. The exhaustion of our physical work can often hinder my awareness of the profound showing itself, blinding me from the rewards that await. But if I’m able to brush aside my personal grudges and see the good of the day while relaxing alongside the birds as the air cools with the setting sun, then my mind can begin to synthesize all that I am experiencing with the past knowledge I’ve been grasping, and out comes new understanding. Out comes clarity on how I must grow. Out come the tools I need to fight the Mo’o.
You see, the ultimate reward with staying here on Hōlanikū is to experience the intimacy of its nature; to truly see the greater patterns that make up life as we know it. And with that come the patterns that make up our own lives. Someone once said that history often repeats itself. We go through the same trials and tribulations time and time again. Another someone once said that the first occurrence is what we consider a myth, and the second occurrence is deemed the historical event. On Kure, the patterns are not historical, they are of nature, but it is these patterns that I witness on Kure as significant to the patterns of myself, humanity and its mytho-praxis history.
As I face the mo’o of my life out here on Kure, I cannot help but watch the same struggle for transformation occurring all around me in the form of these seabirds. And as I spend more and more time immersed in their world, I find myself developing a deeper connection to these creatures that flows from a state of relatedness. Yes, there is indeed a force of permanence shared within all life forms and if I take the time to listen to these Manu enacting their lives over and over again, from one generation to the next, perhaps I can learn a thing or two about how to transform my own life, defeat my Mo’o and even help transform something beyond just myself. Bring it on Mo’o, and let the Summer Solstice commence!

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One thought on “Death and Renewal Pt I: The Mo’o of Solstice

  1. I honestly am giving this a try cuz I really want to check in on you. I dont try these new kinds of things but just wanted to let u know that I’m sure you and I have many many things to talk about when you get back. I think of u all the time and wish u goooooooooood jujus! I’m so proud of u and I miss and think of you often! Find your balance mr. kūpeʻe!

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