Morale is important in all fields of work. Gotta keep the busy bees happy to be productive. Morale is where it all begins. You cannot sustain productivity without positive morale. Without it, the energy is drained right out the bottom. Given the bombarding strains of our work on Kure, I must confess that morale can be difficult to recover deep into the season. It is the psychological edge that cuts deep into our energy reserves. It’s the tiredness at the end of a long day when everyone is pushing to get it done and you’re struggling to keep up. You’re out of water, the sun isn’t getting any cooler, and you look over and see your teammates ain’t pushing to get it done, and all you want to do is scream out, “let’s just get this over with and get the hell outta here!” It’s the penetration of negative thoughts that brood inside your tired mind, spinning useless webs, trapping you. And the more your fight to break free, the more tightly the web binds itself to you.
This last week has tested many of our own mental capacities, pushing our emotions to an outer limit of control. The kind where you can just see on the face of everyone the strain of holding on, that look like Frodo getting pierced by a Nazgul blade. That tension in a group that causes shoulder blades to scrape together. The end of a season offers a special kind of pressure for us environmental conservation warriors. Each day forward is one day less to get as much acreage treated. We are going through areas of the island that are now taking two to three times longer then they did our first couple cycles through. The ambition we harnessed at the beginning of our season, propelled by the nuance of that honey moon phase over first arriving to this magical place, has sputtered out, and we gaze down with craned necks at all the grasses still to spray ahead. An hour goes by and I turn around and see I’ve only progressed maybe twenty meters. My stomach gurgles and my shoulders beg me to take this god-forsaken spray pack off my back.
The screech of a Koa’e ula, Red-Tailed Tropic Bird, rockets over my head. I look up alerted to the chase of four maybe five determined Iwa pursuing their frantic victim. The Tropic Bird screams, cutting sharply right, angling away from the savage stealers, but one of the Iwa’s predicts this move, and with a more powerful and dynamic wing span, it snatches at the Tropic Bird, latching on to its feathers with her hooked beak. She uses her momentum and strong wings to lift the tropic bird out of it’s own flight. The tropic bird is overwhelmed and drops it’s food that was only seconds ago digesting nicely in the acids of its stomach. A decent sized fish falls from the sky, shining a shimmering silver as it catches the light of the early sun. The other Iwa are on it like flies to shit, another female snatching the half-digested fish out of midair just before hitting the ground. The Koa’e ula, free of panicked harassment but empty of sustenance, flies away to safety unnoticed by the Iwa.
I turn my head back to the grasses now that the excitement is over, letting out a big sigh and dreaming of that beverage I’ll be snatching out of the freezer in mid-freeze.
The Iwa, which means to steal, reminds me of fairness, and how we cannot get all hung up on the possessive control of our lives. We don’t actually own anything, and we can’t actually control what is going to happen, or even how it is going to happen. All we can do is be prepared, as best as we can, and act accordingly. Although we humans are aptly known for our ability to control the future by projecting the power of our mind into the realm of abstract, we can all too easily fall into the trap of thinking we have control over that realm. The Post-Modern human needs to get over its control issues and get on with life.
It’s our third to last week on the island, and most likely our last full week of island treatment. We started the week heading out to an area called Sector 5, a large area of 100% Naupaka bush on the south side of the old airway strip leftover from the coast guard days. We knew it was going to be tough and slow going, as the pattern of the entire island has been the rebirth cycle of the three infamous grasses, The Trio as we like to call them. But we were not prepared for just how long it was going take.
When we treat an area, our goal is to always finish the entire area, even if it takes a little longer. We usually are ready to spend a good 4 to 5 hours in the morning treating an area so we can get it done and cross it off the schedule. However today, we just weren’t getting through Sector Five at a reasonable rate. 2 pm rolls around and we’re right smack in the belly of this beast since 9am. I’m in the middle of our transect line, and my focus is starting to fade. I’m most likely dehydrated, and I’ve run out of the snacks I brought. We’ve been spraying a steady mat of grass sprouts hiding under the thick Naupaka for five hours straight. I whip out by Gps and look at the digital map to see how much we have left. My track line shows me the route I have taken since the beginning; a squiggly zig-zag bouncing between my neighbors, ending at the point I have made it to so far. I look beyond my track to the end of the restoration area, the west border, and see that we haven’t even made it halfway.
I turn and see young Matt next to me. He is standing there looking off into the distance, like he’s trying to sniff out a breeze in the stagnant heat of the Naupaka bush. He’s looking pale. A thin moist line of sweat droplets has formed where his recently shaved mustache once stood. One thing I’ve learned out here is that If I’m starting to feel it, then sure as hell so is everyone else. But the manager’s haven’t said anything yet about stopping. Which makes sense. We’ve never called it quits in the middle of an RA. It’s just not our style. But I have no attachments, and I’m sure as hell not crazy enough to believe we can bang the rest of it out and walk away with no casualties.
I slip my Gps back into its harness on my augmented fisher’s vest and flip my radio into my hand from it’s own harness clipped to the straps of my Spray pack. I push that button in hard, pause a half second to let the waves reach the other radios, searching for the most diplomatics words to use to tell Old Matt that we should call it, “Heey Matt, I’m just looking at our progress here and it looks like we still got quite a bit left. I’m also looking at the clock and wondering what’s going on in that mind of yours, what you thinking?”
“Yea copy that, I think we should call it if everyone can find a good stopping point. Just put up some purple flagging so you know where you stopped, and try and draw a straight line across as you exit towards the runway so we don’t miss any gaps formed along the way. Better to stop now so we have a good chunk to finish tomorrow morning.”
I’m glad he agrees, but I also know it won’t be a popular choice amongst the group. The other Matt, pale as he was had just mentioned to me on our last meet up that we should just charge ahead and get it over with so we don’t have to go back. He had a point, the thought of going back in there another day just didn’t sit right, and it is the only area we need to treat all the way down on the far side of the runway, one of the furthest points from camp. Granted, it’s a small island that only stretches a mile across, but wheeling eight gallons of herbicide out plus what we are carrying on our backs down the entire length of an old airway strip is not the most efficient way to spend our time. It takes about twenty minutes to do the walk from camp, that’s forty minutes round trip, and we are already feeling anxious about wasting precious daylight hours.
But Old Matt made the call, well, I made the call and Old Matt put the cat in the bag. For the first time, we were gonna go home to camp without a mission completed.
One by one we made our way awkwardly out of the Naupaka thicket between the beach and the runway, taking the path of least resistance; an old trample zone used over and over again by past crew seasons. The atmosphere in the air was of discontent, and by the time we all reached the wheel barrels stationed out on the runway for herbicide and water resupply, I could tell there were some who were non-too happy.
As we started to walk back, staggered as we were, Naomi finally expressed her true feelings. “I’m pretty dissatisfied.” I can sense conflict rising to the surface and I know I’m supposed to say something.
“What are you dissatisfied with?” I ask in response. I already know she doesn’t like the decision to come out, I knew it when we were still back in the Naupaka and her communication got all funky about vacating her line when we reached her on the way out. Sure enough, the emotions were starting to show.
“I just didn’t get closure in there. I think we should just finish it.” There it was. The second guess was out on the table, just as we were making our way back to camp. Everyone stopped walking, suspended between what we should do, stuck between a rock and a hard place. No one really wanted to leave the RA unfinished, but we were obviously all tired and needed some food and rest and we had just taken the effort to crawl out of the tangled Naupaka. But when someone steps up and voices a opinion that we should change a decision that was just made – well – it is usually the beginning of disarray.
And sure as rain, the six of us got all deliberated and we weighed the pros and cons. Then Naomi introduced an alternate plan: “Can we just go back for lunch and then come back out here in the afternoon?”
Now it was time for me to get all fussy. I exclaimed, “If were are gonna go back to camp then I see no point in walking all the way out here this afternoon. That just is an efficient use of our time.
And Naomi almost cried and said, “Well we have so much other shit we still need to do and I’m tired of how long it’s taking to finish these Sectors.”
Old Matt lost his patience next and said, “Well then lets just get it over with already!” The rest of us nod our heads in agreement and Matt continues, “We’ll take a break here before going back in, eat some snacks and then get back in there.” Everyone starts to strap their packs back up and reach for snacks.
I say, “Looks like we’re going back in,” And just when it feels like we flipped back to finishing the job, Naomi shoots back, “But we may not have enough herbicide to finish!” Matt smiles wildly saying, “Your the one who wants to finish!”
“Yeah well this is poor planning!” And she starts to cry. A brief moment of silence pervades the runway before I check my snack pouch on my vest and discover only empty wrappers. “Um, plus I’m out of food.”
“Me too,” says Virginie, looking up from her butt pack strapped around her waist. Matt laughs in disbelief and I put my hands on my head to show I’m over this silliness.
Finally, Stephanie steps up and says with conviction, “I think that if there is any risk of us running out of herbicide then we should just finish the job tomorrow because otherwise we are gonna go back in there today and be that much closer to finishing with that much less closure because we still won’t be finished and we’ll still have to come back tomorrow. And we’re all hungry anyways”
And with that, we all shrug our shoulders, Naomi storms ahead to collect her cool, and we finally trudge on back to camp, with Terns and Noddys galore flying over ahead.
Self Control is one thing: knowing your limits, being in check with you emotions, disciplined regulation of your temperament. But on the island of Kure, there is common theme known oh too well in the rest of the world: giving up control.
The beauty of nature is that there is no one thing in control. Every thing is just happening together. In the profession of conservation management, we are trying to control what is happening, but we try to do it with as little to no impact on the life that is already existing. That’s why it’s called conservation, coming from the philosophy of reducing human impact as much as possible in order to allow the rest of nature to continue to function as it does, well, naturally. We are not trying to preserve the wildlife because that too would be going against nature. Specie’s populations naturally rise and fall, and some species naturally go extinct. We are not trying to mess with that system. We are merely trying to figure out how we humans can coexist with a system we have so drastically removed ourselves from. How do we put Human back into Nature? It may yet be the biggest philosophical and scientific question of the 21st century as we watch our only home change quickly and drastically into an environment that may not be able support human life any longer.
For me, I think the answer might just have to do with control. We humans struggle so greatly with this ability of self-agency over our own lives without overstepping that power; believing that if we have power over our own lives then we can too have the power over other lives. Perhaps Peace is synonymous to without control. When someone experiences true inner peace, it is because they have given up controlling their feelings, their life. When a person dies, we say they are finally at peace, as the image of sufferable tension drains from their face; the suffering that stems from an inner entity which attempted to control that person’s entire life dying.
On kure, control is embedded in the very language we use to describe our work: control invasive species. In this sense we are borrowing a term and using it to best illustrate our treatment strategy with certain incipient plants that have made their way to Kure one way or another in the past fifty years, plants which we humans have observed to cause a reduction in overall biodiversity, a key component to any healthy ecosystem. Plants which have made it to Kure by means of Humans in the first place.
But for all the keen skills of the human observer, we still have’t quite figured out that many of our answers for how to undo what we have done unto the world, messing up the intricate and dynamic relationships in nature, lie within our own relationship to self; that our relationship to our environment is a direct reflection of our relationship to self. That if we continue to keep such a tight grip on the belief of self – the perception of one singular “I” in control of our own life, then we’ll continue to project the grip of control on to our work in whatever field we may serve.
On Kure, our service is to conserve, and our work is a frustratingly slow progress of controlling plants by attempting to kill them one by one, which I have to admit truly feels silly sometimes. And it probably looks even sillier for any bystander: a row of people staring at the ground moving incredibly slow like a sloth through jello, uncomfortably hot in full protective gear from the poisonous spray they are hauling around on their backs. To systematically target these plants one by one, one section of the island after another, and then do it all over again once the whole island as been treated, only to return to the first area treated to find a whole new bloom of plants growing there, well, it just seems a bit like we a cat chasing it’s own tail. But our Management plan has been carefully designed and proven to work over long periods of time, a series of phases that are implanted at different stages of the ecosystem’s restorative process. And as we implement these strategies that address the issues of past problems, we simultaneously must look ahead at the issues we will face in the future: climate change and rising waters.
Does my opinion matter that much? No, not really. I’m just a bio technician, temporary, with no outward signs of long-term commitment to the conservation project on Kure. But I am a part of the team, and I am a team player, and I certainly am cognizant of what it takes to be an effective team: do what your boss says, and don’t second guess the decisions the leaders have to make. I too have to learn how give up control and trust in the powers that be.
And so I found out here that just as important as questioning the world and the way things are is to make sure everyone is showing up ready and willing to work together and support each other in the work we do. So at the end of the day, when I kick off my sweat-saturated boots that have been rubbing holes in my heels all summer long, I pop open that carbonated feel-good beverage and plop a square of deep dark chocolate in my mouth and find the quickest-witted thing I can say to my fellow teammates to help wipe away any signs of defeat; to bring us out of our personal suffering and share it together as a whole, and through that wholeness find the joy of being a part of a experience that is shared by others. For tomorrow is another day, and we are all in this together until the very end. No one is ever alone.