The sun is already shining brightly in the sky as I walk the path to the main house, passing by the White Terns and Brown Noddys nesting on corners of the concrete buildings. I’m heading to the kitchen to make a cup of coffee, but as I look around I notice something is different this morning.
I make this walk to the main house every morning, waking up in the bunkhouse and shuffling over to have breakfast and coffee. I walk the 60 seconds it takes, glancing around to see familiar sights and sounds. It is always the usual scene: The same albatross chicks lying about or busy cleaning their feathers, Red-Footed Boobies gathering nesting material and croaking at each other, Laysan Albatross adults swooping low, banking across the air to find a place to land and feed their chick.
But today is different. It feels quieter. It feels empty. I take a look around, scanning a full three hundred and sixty to confirm what I feel, and sure enough, I see that there is indeed an absence of albatross chicks.
Matt is on the front porch of the main house, just waking up. His dark black hair is sticking straight up like it does in the morning after running his fingers through it to shake out the sleep. He too is looking out at the scenery. I say good morning and remark to him, “Hey does it look like there are fewer albatross?”
“Oh definitely,” he replies in his usual loud stature, putting one leg up on the bench, resting his forearm on his knee while holding a cup of drip coffee. “Must of been all that wind last night”
Bound to a tiny island there ain’t much to look at so we look at everything, all the time, and we don’t miss a beat. It’s a kind of intimacy with the land hard to match anywhere else. Or at least, a kind of relationship to the land found rare these days. Our lives are sucked up by the details of this small land mass.There is change occurring constantly, sometimes gradually, sometimes abruptly. We don’t just notice these occurrences. The occurrences effect us. Without the bombardment of modern stimulatives, our attention is captured solely by the imagery of this place. Our mood blends with the mood of the island. With the mass exodus of Albatross fledglings last night, there is a emptiness that resides in our hearts once filled by these feathery companions. Signaled by the changing weather and strength of their own wings and legs, the surviving Albatross are rapidly departing to their nature’s beckoning.
Back at home I’d always scoff at the predictable and boring conversation starter of weather. But out here, weather dominants everything. It’s easy to forget that weather is what causes the changes and dynamics of nature; that every living thing is responding to weather. The weather shifts and it’s a cue for the body to shift. Out here, weather is just about all we got to pay attention to, and because we work every single day outside, the weather is our god, deciding what we can and can’t do.
There are two seasons of bio-technicians for Kure Atoll; the winter and summer. I am part of the summer crew, and the conditions of our work is highly contrasted to that of the winter season. We experience the onslaught of the sun, but because of the summer’s tendency to bake the surface of this island, we don’t have to deal with the onslaught of invasive plant growth – which are generally starving by midsummer because of the lack of rain.
However, recently we were hit with an unexpected system that has been gyrating all around the pacific. When the weather is unstable, we bio-technicians grow weary. Our days are planned out based on following a cycle of treatments around the island, closely following the growth cycle of the Verbisina plant, our primary target. When weather obstructs our schedule and we cannot stay to our treatment schedule because the rain effects the herbicide, its not too big a deal, because there are many other tasks to do. However, when the weather becomes unstable and we cannot predict whether or not it is actually going to rain, it becomes a matter of frustration. The other day we tried to start a restoration area, but twenty minutes into it, it started to rain, and all the work we did went down the drain. We hover around during such mornings, pacing back and forth waiting to see what the weather is going to do.
The strong winds and stormy conditions have been a welcome relief for our bodies from what has otherwise been a hot and dry summer. Although our minds are not at ease because of how it effects our work progress, we at least get to enjoy more forgiving conditions. Our new worker Matt has had a rough four weeks trying to adjust to the work environment, struggling to keep up with a team of workers who have had months of conditioning before his arrival. But now with the new winds we are able to cool off easily as we work in the field. With passing stormy weather, we are left with sporadic rain squalls. We have been observing these giant plumes of clouds appear out of the eastern horizon where the wind has been steadily blowing from for over four weeks now. We watch them come towards us, taking only a moment to calculate whether it will pass south of the island, or north, or hit the bullseye and dump a short burst of rain onto our tiny island.
The countdown for leaving Kure Atoll has begun. The departure checklist has been printed out. Our last cycle of treatment is underway. More and more Albatross fledglings are gone with the turning of the season. We are being worked to our utmost limits, everyone dedicated to finishing strong and giving the incoming team a easy smooth transition as they arrive and get acquainted with the life of Kure conservation.
The weeks leading up to departure on Kure are a strange mix of feelings. Because of our unsustainable effort of work, we are all feeling the strain of this last remaining work cycle as we try to catch up after inevitably falling behind due to our small team, weather, and the unrealistic amount of acreage we must treat within a 4 week cycle period (the amount of time it takes on average for a new verbisina sprout to reach seed production growth). This strain is causing us to put our heads down and plow on through as many restoration areas as we can in a day, fueled by the notion that there will be plenty of time for rest once we leave Kure. But we are also aware that these are our last few moments on this island we have grown so close to, which we have become a part of. The light at the end of the tunnel is but a death to the relationship each one of us has nurtured in our own way with this place. A heaviness weighs on our hearts as we creep evermore closely to our day’s end.
My weekdays have become a blur as we push our work late into the day, taking advantage of our long summer days. After the rain from the week before, the moisture in the soil has invigorated the seed bank of invasive plants, and now our island is witness to millions of sprouts of the very plants we have been trying to control all summer. Sandbur grasses with spiky seed pods. Bristly Fox-tail grasses with sticky cat-tail like seed heads. Goosegrass that grows in clumps and requires a meticulous targeting spray method to effectively kill. And of course the Brassica Swinecress that I cannot fathom will ever be eradicated from this wildlife sanctuary as it seems to produce seeds faster then it grows.
Because of the seed germination response to the wet weather, our work efforts have been doubled to try and hit as many of these sprouts before they go to seed and bomb the soils of Kure with another bounty of kin. From a general perspective, we are really working against nature. From a shortened perspective, our efforts seem futile compared to the massively efficient system of plant propagation. Especially grasses, one of the most successful if not the most successfully dispersed plant on earth. But humans have their own gift from nature: the ability to endure, and to do so stubbornly. For years and years people have been coming out to Kure, slowly but surely reducing the seed bank of invasive plants. It’s a bit of a two steps forward, one step back kind of relationship. It’s very hard for any one season to see a big change, to see that our efforts are working. But, put together the persevering years of hard and unwavering work, the island is slowly but surely transforming back into a pristine and harmonious state for wildlife to flourish. Already the population of every single sea bird species that nests on this island have rebounded, some now at a population greater than has ever been recorded.
All of this knowledge propels us forward in our dedication to go out with a bang. When humans put their minds to it, we really can accomplish anything. My body is feeling the strain and reminds me every day of the stress it must endure for the sake of our work. I have had to put even more conscious effort into the physical therapeutics to maintain good health as we carry the heavy volume of herbicide on our backs for hours at an end; climbing through Naupaka thickets and all the while bending our body’s frame downwards to gaze with intense concentration at the plants beneath our feet. My shoulders are painfully sore at the end of each day, the heavy packs pushing them forward, collapsing my lung space and causing shallow breathing throughout the day. My lower back suffers sharp pains as it bears the burden of weight as I bend my torso to hunt for invasive plants. My feet are reddened and blistered from shuffling around in big heavy boots for over four months. My knees ache from the constant squatting and climbing to grab the seeds of those hard to reach plants. My skin is itchy and oily from the rubbing of my salty-sweaty clothes with the exfoliation of dead skin cells. My eyes are pained by the reflection of the sun on the bright sandy substrate. My stomach is weary and my gut bloated from our dominantly canned-food diet.
All these stresses are endured day in and day out with a kind of satisfaction knowing that our sacrifice is our gift to a world in need of transformation.
My weekends have become a space for stillness, so I may truly savor these last moments of breathing in the island. I start my mornings early, heading out to the lagoon at the western end of the island, enjoying the still cool breeze while the sun has not yet begun heating the day. I watch the seabirds take off from their perches across the Naupaka and fly out to the ocean. I watch the Iwa spiral up the thermals now beginning to form with the steady power of the sun. I watch and listen to the Red-Tailed Tropicbirds courting each other, and the Monk Seals shuffling back towards the shoreline from their hauled out wallow near the vegetation’s edge.
As the sun finally moves over the western dunes of the island, I myself head into the lagoon, submersing my body up to my neck into her cool glassy water. My body immediately awakens to her intimate shocking touch, then calmly relaxes into her weightless embrace. I feel the warmth from my core expand out into my extremities as the water molecules surrounding my body easily absorbs the thermo-reactive process of my cellular-combusting system. I sink into this exchange, happy to freely give up my energy to the mistress of the sea now that the rays of the sun are adamantly pressing against my face, still dry and untouched by the chill morning caress of the lagoon.
These days of rest have so fittingly become a time for me to awaken into my senses and fully feel this place as my body is meant to feel.
I turn off my mind that has been driving my body to endure the sufferable conditions of our work and award my body the gift of the sensual pleasures nature is always willing to offer. The sounds of the wind tossing the branches of Naupaka, the birds calling out to each other across the skies, the distant waves on the eastern side crashing against the reef. The sights of the birds sailing in the winds, dancing and flying in harmony with the makani. The ever-changing colors as the sun and filtered clouds move across the hemisphere. The constant soft feeling of the sandy-soil beneath my feet, and the refreshing drops of rain when they do fall upon us, scattered as it may be. The motion of soft currents in the lagoon. The sweet and subtle scent of the Naupaka kahakai lingering in the air before the wind whisks it away. All are gifts for the senses. All I will miss dearly, instilled within me as loving memories.
I have found a balance between the satisfaction of hard work and the pleasure of soothing rest. I have found harmony in my way of life out here on Kure. But even still, the knowledge that it will all end very soon beckons me into the preparations for what is to come next in life. The death of this harmony will come, as it always does, and I will be ripped away and propelled into the new yet familiar patterns and routines that await me back on Hawai’i island.
But for now, I will savor this harmony, breathing in the content of this unique life of remote conservation field work out upon the Northwestern reaches of the epic Hawaiian archipelago in the cosmic world of Oceania.