In between worlds and thoughts – Modern Guilt of a Environmental Conservationist

Blog, Hōlanikū - A Return to Pō


Sunday, August 19th

Looking South.

It was Wednesday evening and Old Matt was making dinner while we were hanging out at the picnic table outside the main house, enjoying the breeze and sights of ducklings running around. Nimz, the NOAA seal worker, and Naomi, our Kure manager, were sharing a conversation while I strummed on the guitar in the background. Tomorrow, Nimz and David were to leave aboard the Hi’ialakai NOAA vessel for Honolulu and our group of 8 would return to being only six, like how it was during the first couple months of our stay on the island, back when Tiki was with us and Young Matt was in Honolulu working his Pono Pacific job.
Nimz seemed a little stressed about the whole idea of going back home, having to relent to all the life matters that awaited her. In some ways, she had already left Kure. Like David, all her thoughts and attention were now focused on the future that would rapidly become her present. For the rest of us, tomorrow would mark the beginning of our own transition as the absence of our two seal-worker friends would create the sensation of an end, that we would be next to leave, and all too soon at that.
Ten days left. That’s it. Only Ten days left on Kure out of a 156. How does one transition out of a five-month immersion on a secluded seabird sanctuary? How do I conclude this experience? There are many things I am looking forward to upon arriving back home, but the distance of time and space in which Hōlanikū exists within makes many parts of my life seem less certain, less tangible. We all have become so used to our lives out here, integrated into an environment almost devoid of any modern human constructs, enraptured by the sounds and sights of nature. The comfort and ease that has grown out of my time back here on Hōlanikū raise the same unease and doubts I feel about returning to what we collectively have been calling The Real World, or rather, the world we have to deal with. All of us.

The experience of working on Hōlanikū lends a privilege rarely shared by persons in this era of our world. It is a privilege many do not seek to gain, not consciously at least, but it is a privilege nonetheless. There are many hardships that come hand in hand with living and working out here, but through the slow and gradual ease of time those hardships become trivial and contrite compared to the hardships people endure back in The Real World. It is difficult for me to put into words what this privilege feels like, but I suppose the best way to describe it is Escapism. Although unfortunately, escaping implies freeing oneself from something binding and controlling, meaning that something is still out there controlling and binding all else.
The change that has washed over me during my stay on Hōlanikū is but another journey with a beginning and an end. It is but a glimpse into a world that perhaps once was, and maybe someday will be again. It is a place of complacent well-being. This change is something I have tracked over the months that I have been here. I have sensed throughout the months a steady transformation taking place. It is a movement away from the societal mind. It is a drifting in an ocean of isolation, a vast liquid state in which the psyche becomes placid and fluid, no longer held together by the iron of civilized worlds. It is a change I was not so familiar with my first time out here in deep isolation and only became conscious of during the turbulent transition of returning to the modern guilt of a human-inflicted world.

I do remember similar, smaller shifts in my psyche from my past, like the time my college Environmental Education cohort did a 10-day backpacking trip in the Stehekin National Forest. It took a few days to really arrive in those ancient woods embedded in the Northern Cascade mountains of Washington State, how we gradually seeped into the wilderness, our mood becoming light, our bodies relaxing; a tightness and constraint visibly dissipating with each step deeper and deeper into the woods.
We became wild, caring less and less about how we looked, bathing in the snow-melt river during the heat of the day and the smokey damp fires during the chilly nights. We chased grouse and false peaks, scrambling through Sliding-Alder and hopping across scree, glaciating down snow-packed slopes on our butts and bare-backs, bailing out and falling and rolling and getting scrapped by the freezing snow. We would walk along soft trails ordained with ferns, plantains, mugworts, and wildflowers, stopping at every occasion to greet all our forest friends. We basked on giant sun-baked boulders standing stern in the freezing glacier waters. We held each other’s hands, played with each other’s dirtied hair, falling asleep together under the crystal clear stars that moved across the skies through the silhouetted Hemlocks and Douglas Firs, captured by the stark towering peaks of the Cascade mountains that enveloped us and stars alike from all sides.
And when it was time, we soberly walked back down out of the mountains to the little town of Stehekin to hop on the little ferry that took us down the long skinny Chelan lake to where our urban cars were waiting to take us back to the city. And I remember riding in my professor’s car and my always exuberant colleague, Steve, sitting in the back with me. I remember we stopped in Leavenworth for Coldstone ice cream and I found a tick up my butt while standing in line and we all got one last roaring laugh out as I ran to the bathroom in a panic, a kind of release from the Wild back into the realm we were non-too ready to return.

a view

Stehekin Wilderness, WA – Spring 2012. 

After that, I saw how Steve’s mood drastically changed. It was sullen, and we talked about that heavy feeling that comes with returning to society. I’ll always remember that drive home across the mountain pass as the sun set over the peaks. I’ll always remember how Steve, the happiest joyful one out of the bunch, became the most saddened, his tone weary and full of dread. His attitude towards humanity and the state of the world turned sour. Pessimistic. He ranted with a snarl and spoke with disgust.
“It’s always hard to come back. It’s like coming back to all your problems that you’re just so exhausted from dealing with, but they never seem to go away, always there just waiting for you to return. But these aren’t just my problems, they’re our problems. All of us.
“And when we’re in it all the time, and the problems are so monumental, it’s easy to become desensitized to them, to just numb them out because the problems are all right there all the time everywhere you go… except back there, in the mountains. When I go into the woods I can get away from the problems, and I see pristine nature and I bathe in it and cleanse myself of all the burdening muck, and I didn’t even realize how thick it was, until I come back and see how clean I had become while in those woods, and how dirty it is back home. The contrast is haunting. And I don’t want it. I just don’t want to deal with that anymore.”
I sat next to Steve, tired from our adventure, half asleep still swimming in all the memories and laughter, but on that long drive home in the dark over the mountains and down into the great valley and through the low fertile irrigated lands of Skagit, back up to Bellingham, I remember capturing his remorse and internalizing that same reluctance, perhaps experiencing it for the first time in my own life.
That trip was only 10 days. This is six months. And If I am going to be honest with myself, I have to admit that there is a grave gravity that pulls me and other’s like me into opportunities to escape from society’s mess. And with that comes a tinge of guilt, that I’ve selfishly worked at satisfying my own personal desires. Yes, we are out here doing important conservation work re-shaping an island to once again be a rich habitat for millions of wild animals, but no, it is not entirely my purpose out here. And as we sat around the picnic table that night before Nimz and David’s departure begrudgingly talking about The Real World, we all confessed our trouble with being more active in the socialized world of humanity.
There are people who would think that what we do out here is crazy-hard, and couldn’t imagine doing it themselves. And it is hard, no doubt, but we don’t really choose to do things because they are hard, we do things either because they are easy and comfortable, or because we feel at some level that someone needs to do something about it, and we discover that that someone is our own self and it isn’t really a matter of choice. We bite down and swallow hard the hardships handed to us and look for the comfort and solace that can be found hiding amidst those hardships.
For us conservationists who come out here for half a year at time, we have our outward appearance for why we do it, and we have a inward drive for why we do it. And sometimes those two things are the same, and sometimes they are very different. And sometimes we’re trying to get those two things to be the same. For myself, the hardest thing is not to remove myself from the comforts of modern society, rather, it is to return to the problems of modern society and find the strength to be a part of it, to rid myself of the guilt and actually do something to solve those problems, to help those who are under-served, and empower those who have been marginalized. To fight the big fight.
I received an email just the other day from a good friend who said he’d be my seabird-human hybrid to help bring me back into The Real World. He wrote, “Just today there are Nazi groups all over the country holding rallies. We got a lot of work to do when you get back.” His words were both sobering and comforting, as I realized I had gone almost the whole summer without any news of the outside world, that I would get back and be slapped across the face with the latest disgraces. But at least I have my friends, my family, my community to hold me up. That there is strength and love through it all, through all of us.

This morning I walked over the dunes and down towards the lagoon, spinning thoughts in my head about the limited amount of times I have left to bathe in these waters of Hōlanikū – when a strange hump in the sand caught my sight. I slipped off my flip-flops and headed to the hump in the sand, walking on the balls of my feet, being careful not to step on the washed up coral, glass bottles and plastic debris. The mounding sand was at the vegetation edge, and it looked oddly familiar, something I had seen on the sandy coasts of the Big Island, but never before here on Kure. It took only a second for me to guess at what I was viewing. Yet another example of exceptional life at work, a possible Green Sea Turtle nest, something that has maybe only been seen on Kure a handful of times.
Kure Atoll is located at a junction in the Pacific Ocean that has been deemed the Darwinian Point. It is a thermocline, a temperature change where the water temperature at this latitude is right on the cusp of what can actually sustain a certain kind of coral reef growth. Kure Atoll is literally hanging off the fringe of existence. Beyond this latitude, in the direction in which the Hawaiian archipelago – Hawaiʻi Nui – is slowly and gradually moving, the reef life that is keeping Kure afloat will die, and Hōlanikū will join its ancestors beneath the ocean.
The Darwinian point has been observed as a place of immense diversity amongst endemic marine creatures, and Kure is a hotspot for this diversity, with some of the highest recorded endemic benthic species in the world. But Green Sea turtles are not one of them. The water is, as far as anyone can tell, too cold. We will witness the occasional Green Sea Turtle – Honu – gliding through the lagoon or beached on the south point, but to see an actual nest is a rare exception.
I’ll be leaving Kure before the eggs hatch (if it is a nest), if they indeed hatch, for the times Honu have nested on Kure, the hatchlings were recorded as unsuccessful. And thus the question as to why this mother Honu has potentially come to Hōlanikū is a mystery. What has brought her to the furthest edges of her habitat, to a place unbeknownst to the liking of Sea Turtle hatcheries? I cannot say, for I do not know that answer, but as I kneel down and feel the possible warmth of incubating life radiating from beneath the hump of sand, I know without a doubt that there is an exception to every rule, and that each and every one of us is one of those exceptions with the privilege of proving to the world that change can and will happen.

Old Matt shouts that dinner is ready, freshly made pizza with a bizarre assortment of toppings from purple sweet potatoes to okra. We indulge with delight, relaxing into each other’s familiar company, savoring the last remaining time we have with David and Nimz. Tomorrow will be a hectic day helping to transport gear off of the island and there will be a few visitors coming to shore from the NOAA vessel to help us and also deal with Monk Seal business.
We all finish the delicious dinner Matt has prepared and as everyone sits around the picnic table in the cool breeze, I bring back out the guitar and begin to play a song I had written over the course of many hours spraying in the RA’s of Kure.

“I have an announcement,” I say to everyone as I start to strum a D chord, “Well actually it’s more of a song than an announcement.” The group lights up, laughing and more than ready to listen along.
“This song here is about a few folks that over the past few months I have become mighty fond of. You see, I spent six lonely months with these seven individuals on a small atoll at the end of a long chain of islands surrounded by an ocean of remoteness. And, when you spend that much time with the same 7 folks, well you get to know them like you don’t get to know anyone else. So here’s a little something I learned about my good friends, and hopefully, by the end of this song you’ll all still be my friends!” Laughter erupts again, albeit with a hint of nervousness as everyone here knows just how capable I am at coming up with witty if not slightly harsh things to say. All out of love of course….

Vigilant Virginie always on the verge of being
stung by a wasp, always on the cusp of being
late for dinner time, her family sends her vegan recipes online oh yea online vigilant Virginie, she ain’t every in a hurry

Young Matt sat on his ass only half the time
the other half he straightened his spine and worked the grind he didn’t mind joining us halfway in our prime
oh in our prime, that’s we only called him half-ass Matt
half the time

Profane Stephane never showed a sign of pain
she likes to suntan when can even if it might rain
she fries her swy in a tiny Bi-kini
what’s that on your shirt, looks like another stain
yea another stain, girl you got a lot to gain

well that’s how it goes
on the ol’ atoll
nobody knows
you like I do
on the ol’ atoll
on the ol’ atoll

Old Matt cut a hole in his hat
well he had a knack for climbing all over our backs
he knows how to roll out the dough but still acts like
a troll
like a troll, yeah just like a troll

Nomi Naomi, crazy duck lady
got a stern attitude, makes a mean veggie gravy
she don’t mean to be rude, better do what she say
I don’t mean maybe, no no no
I mean right now

I don’t know what you know about yourself
Can I ask what you’re thinking about
half the time it’s about someone else
the other half it’s about my ins and outs
yeah my ins and outs

Well that’s how it goes
on the ol’ atoll
nobody knows
you like I do
on the ol’ atoll
on the ol’ atoll

Daisy head couldn’t smell neither could Nimzy bell
They made a fine couple as far as I could tell
He likes to play games she hated them all the same
oh well, we gotta say farewell
to Daisy head and Nimzy Bell
oh farewell

Well that’s how it goes
on the ol’ atoll
nobody knows
you like I do
on the ol’ atoll
on the ol’ atoll
on the ol’ atoll”

And with that, we headed to the washing station to do our dishes as the stars came out with the night sky. “Daisy” David brought out the telescope and we climbed up the latter to the roof the main house to look at Jupiter and Saturn while we waited for Andromeda to rise from the east. The night cast its darkness over our heavy-ladened eyes and before I knew it I was dragging by tired body back to the bunkhouse, forgotten of all worries and guilt.

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