Archive for March, 2013

4X4 adventure and a rampage of deer

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Restoring the Land, Part II: West end

As you can probably tell, my posts are getting more and more sporadic. It’s a good sign: we’ve been too busy having fun. As I promised, here’s the next installment of “Adventures in Restoration.”

The 4X4 rattled and bounced through the savannah-like scrubland. I was grateful it had rained hard that morning, keeping down the fine red clay dust, but all traces of the drenching were long gone. We were on our way to the Mokio Preserve, a 1,718-acre section of land along five miles of shoreline. The area contains seasonal wetlands, native coastal strand and dune ecosystems, and several ancient cultural sites. With help from local volunteers and student programs, the group is slowly replacing the 95% of the invasive introduced plants with native species. Winding along the bumpy dirt road, the erosion from overgrazing is starkly visible in the red clay earth. We crossed under giant radio towers strung across with cables like spiderwebs, taut to the ground. This is the major signal station in a 5,000-mile vicinity and a source of income for the land trust.

Our first stop was a group of test plots surrounded by deer-proof fencing. Inside the gate, a large tract of hardpan–desolate, compacted clay devoid of life–was in the process of being replanted. It was hard to believe anything would grow on it. But the system they were testing out was ingenious: bales of dry pili grass were laid out in long lines along the contour of the slope. As the wind swept the clay dust over it, filling in the gaps and creating terraces, plants from the native nursery at the Hui were transplanted and mulched. The young starts only get irrigated for their first dry season, then they’re on their own in the arid landscape. It was incredibly inspiring to see the regenerative capacity of these plants when they’re given a real chance to grow. Plants that were planted just a season ago were healthy, robust, and beginning to spread their seed to other areas. For JoBo, who remembered gathering seeds and cuttings from the forest to grow these plants, and then caring for the tiny baby plants in the nursery, there was a deep sense of satisfaction.
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I love this little tree thing. it grows across the ground for a while and then perches itself straight up.

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This is a test plot showing that scattering seeds over bare ground actually works better than raking the ground first. Nature knows best!

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As we continued on, a dark cloud came over our plans. From the satellite imagery on Butch’s phone, we could see a storm system coming in: the red zones demarcated the heaviest rainfall, and it was headed straight toward us. Even with a 4X4, we could easily get stuck out there in the mud. We parked beside the road in the middle of what Butch identified as a wetland–although it looked like just another piece of dry scrubland to me–and waited. Sure enough, the storm blew in–moderate at first, then a downpour–and we watched the clay earth disappear into rivers of muddy red water all around us. Listening to the rain, I wondered why parking in a wetland during a heavy rain was a good idea, and how in the world we would get ourselves out.

After a time, the rain slowed, then disappeared at once. Emerging from the truck, we discovered beside us a big sinkhole nearly a metre wide. Water was draining from all directions into the basin we were parked in, pouring into the rough cut hole like a giant pitcher of water and recharging the ground deep below. It sounded like a bathtub draining loudly. Peering in, we could see a little gecko hanging out in the water. Everywhere around us, smaller sinkholes threatened to twist our ankles or to cave in under our feet to the miniature caves below. ImageImage

Hauling a bin of planting bags out of the truck, we trailed behind Butch, who was on a mission with his shovel. His keen eye led us directly to a small patch of delicate and unassuming grasses. Our boisterous chatter descended into reverent silence as we stood watching him carefully scoop up chunks of rush, cutting with precision and tenderly covering over the hole with humus, making it instantly disappear. The rush is called Makaloa – it’s not technically on the endangered list, but according to Butch this key wetland species is being threatened just the same–which points to the need to look at the ecosystem as a functioning whole, rather than simply trying to boost the numbers of a few single species on the official records.
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Hopping back in the truck, it was time to find out whether we would actually make it out of the wetland. The red clay caked onto the tires in layers, causing them to lose their grip in the slippery mud. But we managed to get rolling, and all of a sudden we were at the edge of a steep lookout point high above the north shore. Here at Ka’a, it was a stunning view across to the eastern cliffs. Watching the wind push the water around in spirals, we could see humpbacks blowing and surfacing below. Marc took some time to contemplate the view from a different perspective.
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We had one more stop to make, but looming red streaks on the satellite weather images–much bigger this time–made us change our minds. Soon, we were racing the storm, careening down the slippery dirt roads at 50 km/h with Butch flinging the steering wheel side to side, engine roaring. Muddy water blanketed the windows. Everytime I caught a glimpse outside, it looked like we were heading straight into the hard clay wall of earth beside the road where the bulldozer had cut out a path as deep as the truck itself. Butch told us it was the wettest he’s ever seen it, and casually mentioned he’d heard horror stories of people who’d gotten stuck. My heart was pounding as I gripped the Oh-Shit handle. The last section of the road was uphill, and if we didn’t get past it in time, we might not get past it at all. But first we had to do some real 4X4ing, pulling off the road and into the trees in some parts to avoid the lakes welling up in the road. Pulling back onto the road and turning a corner, we stopped dead in our tracks to watch this incredible sight:

Restoring the land, Part I: East end

This is the first of a few installments about the ecological restoration work happening on this island. The story will take us from one extreme end of the island to the other, bringing us right back to our home at the Hui, which plays an integral role in the restoration and is an  inspiring example of the positive change possible when a community of people shares a common vision.

Last week, in a whirlwind twenty-four hours, Marc and I traversed from the northeastern tip of the island to the far northwest. From one end to the other, Molokai feels like a completely different place. For an island that’s only 38 by 10 miles in size, there is unbelievable diversity of terrain, thoroughly rugged–and endangered–from tip to tip. The island was created by two volcanoes, one forming the eastern mountains, and one on the west. Molokai’s coastal cliffs, the highest in the world, were formed when the north side of the eastern volcano suffered a catastrophic collapse about 1.5 million years ago and sunk to the bottom of the ocean. The forested, mountainous eastern half receives about 300 inches of rain per year; the west, about 15-20. In the middle, where it slopes down close to sea level, the land gets perhaps five inches per year, and there are disturbing signs that it’s slowly drying up. The entire western half is dry scrubland, and there have been three years of significant drought. With climate change, the frequency of drought is only expected to increase.

Long ago, the land would have been more protected from the effects of drought. It was covered in a diversity of species and great stands of sandalwood trees. But the fragrant wood has all but vanished. A huge pit, the exact size of the cargo hold of a ship, remains visible in the middle of the island. Here, logs were hauled en masse until they filled the hole. They were then shipped in bulk to China for a few bumper decades in the early 1800s, until the forests quickly disappeared. Axis deer–introduced to the islands in the 1800s for King Kamehameha’s hunting pleasure–have decimated the island’s vegetation from tip to tip. From the sensitive coastline to the remote mountainsides, the thousands of deer are joined by hungry goats and feral pigs, mowing down any native plants that dare to pop up and creating serious erosion problems. The native species are further choked out by monoculture stands of invasive plants introduced over the centuries.

Signs of these threats to the landscape were clear last week when we went for a late afternoon swim at Halawa Bay on the east end. Overhead, helicopters routinely circled over the cliffs, shooting goats on sight. It’s sad, but necessary to protect the integrity of the landscape. Afterward, we visited our friend Cole at Pu’u O Hoku Ranch, the 14,000-acre biodynamic cattle ranch. Cole works with Marc on the Hui’s reforestation project but spends his days off working at the ranch. Knowing firsthand the nausea-inducing intensity of his workouts, I was doubtful when he suggested a “short half-hour run” through the steep grazing lands to the northeastern cliffs. But sheer excitement got the better of me as I trailed the guys down through the rocky landscape, which opened up to a 360 degree view looking back over distant Halawa Bay, with the waterfalls and helicopters still visible.

We stood at the edge of a straight vertical drop of several hundred feet into churning water below, where humpbacks spouted and surfaced. Running along the edge, we dipped down into a gulch where a small flock of nene, the endangered Hawaiian state bird, cautiously surveyed us, droning their strange melancholic sounds. In addition to the ranch’s restoration project, it has some pens where the nene can nest in safety. We stood overlooking Cape Halawa with Maui visible to the southeast, and the tiny prehistoric cinder cone islands Moku Ho’oniki and Kanaha Rock directly in front. A WWII bombing practice site, Moku Ho’okini is uninhabitable due to unexploded warheads and is now a bird sanctuary. Turning back around, we watched a wild blue and yellow sunset through the clouds as we sweated back up the hill, with evidence of grazing deer all around us.

Cole shot an axis deer nearby on the ranchlands just a few days ago. He seared it proudly in a skillet for dinner as we listened to his most recent plan to use his new hide-tanning knowledge–gleaned from Youtube videos–to start up a tanning operation on the island. We discussed the merits of different tanning techniques–from battery acid (oh god!) to eggs to good old-fashioned animal brains. Sitting down to dinner, I felt like I was participating in restoring the balance of the ecosystem with every tasty bite. It’s times like this when being a meat-eater comes in handy, as the one silver lining of this major threat to the landscape is an abundant food source (one that doesn’t even know it can jump, unlike the deer back home). On Molokai, wild pigs and deer are a critical component of the diet of a population that often can afford little else.

We opted for a late-night drive home along the rocky cliffs and hairpin twists of the one-lane highway, which hugged the rough water’s edge where Hawaiian men were gathered around giant trucks, fishing in the moonlight. I was up before dawn and had finished the day’s harvesting and watering before breakfast, eager for our next adventure. We were heading out to see more of the Molokai Land Trust reserve with Butch, the trust’s Executive Director and leader of their restoration project. After a torrential downpour early in the morning, we shifted gears away from our plans to harvest seeds in the soggy eastern mountains and headed northwest…

Crumbling remains of a 19th century church at Halawa:

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Halawa Bay

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Aerial shot of the middle of the island, from Marc’s plane ride

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Eastern mountains and valleys….

 

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On the drive to the east end… (this house is just down the road from Monsanto’s headquarters)

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Maui Bound

I’ve heard many people say that all of the Hawaiian islands have very different energies that make them feel uniquely their own. This week has certainly been a testament to that. In one day, I went from participating in spiritual ceremony at the Hui to the big box busyness of one of Maui’s main condo districts. One of my very longest and closest friends from Victoria, Hayden, was visiting his vacationing parents there. We haven’t seen each other in three and a half years since he moved to New Zealand and then Australia. A chance connection on Facebook left both of us surprised and excited to be able to visit each other–in no less than the busy tourist town of Kihei. For a friendship that involved a lot of budget dancing nights on the town, punk music, recycled art-making, and the cheapest wine money can buy, it was not a scenario I could have ever predicted. I love this about my life: every time I think I see the course of my journey ahead of me, a bend in the road sends me on a new path and reminds me I’m really just along for the ride.

And what a ride it was. It started with the plane ride to Maui, which hugged the cliffs all along the northeast of the island. I was busy watching the gentle sloping hill we live on to catch a glimpse of the Hui when suddenly the ground dropped out from underneath us as we crested the edge of the 2,000-foot high coastal cliffs. After recovering from momentary vertigo, I locked my eyes on the cliffs beside us as they morphed into steep mountains and giant valleys extending far inland. These areas are only accessible by boat–a handful of off-grid houses were visible on some of the shores but separated from each other by walls of rock. One after another, we passed about seven or eight massive valleys of lush, pristine forest leading to countless long white lines of water falling far away in the ancient cracks in the cliffs. By the time we reached Halawa Bay, the most remote location accessible by paved road that I described in an earlier post, Halawa felt like a familiar bastion of bustling civilization. I found out later that Maui tourists pay over three times the cost of this plane ride to see the same view in a helicopter. Yep, I felt pretty lucky.

Hayden and I picked up right where we left off. It was straight to the pool with drinks in hand, and then across the road for a sunset on the beach. Hayden’s mom and stepdad graciously adopted me as their temporary daughter for the weekend, feeding me delectable macadamia nuts, lettuce wraps and an absolutely mouthwatering recipe for BBQ shrimp that I can’t wait to get the recipe for. It’s a kindness that reminds me of small-town BC and reminds me how excited I’ll be to go home.

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The most magical part was snorkeling just offshore of Kamaole Beach. Just a few dozen feet into the water, we could see bright hills and valleys of coral, spiky sea urchins, and schools of technicolour fish. Suddenly, I spotted a little octopus being chased by some bothersome fish. Its camouflage ability was absolutely stunning! Belonging to the family of cephalopods–along with squids– octopuses (not octopi, I found out) can completely change their movement, colour, patterns, and even texture. Having shooed away the fish, the dark blue, translucent creature suddenly stopped on the side of an outcrop of rock and transformed itself into rough, pale pink coral. When it felt safe to continue forward, it turned black and sunk down to the ocean floor, slinking along with the movement of a panther, its tentacles like claws. Again, it froze instantly into a dark and grey spotted rock lying obscured by the fine sand. I floated on the surface, barely moving, knowing that if I took my eyes off it for a second that it would disappear. Not long ago, I learned about the camouflage ability of cephalopods from my roommate, Torrey. She shared this video with me, and if you have 4 minutes to spare, it will most certainly blow your mind and help express the incredible sight I had the privilege to see firsthand.

Returning to the Hui, I couldn’t believe my eyes. The entire garden looked way bigger! Things are really starting to grow again at an amazing speed now that we are coming out of winter–I can barely keep up with harvesting it all! Which reminds me, I’ve been here exactly two months now. And though Marc hasn’t been here quite that long, it took him no time at all to get comfortable. After enlisting me to shave his head in solidarity with a family member who has cancer, Marc decided to take a short detour down memory lane and relive the old days of his mohawk… And then another detour–one that can only be described as a side twist…..

The Before Shot

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The Hot Shot:

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The Bald Shot:

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The Side Twist:

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The Money Shot:

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