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:

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