Archive for the ‘ecology & restoration’ Category

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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the microbe universe

Well, everything in life has its ups and downs, even living in blissful Hawai’i. After a fantastic day yesterday, we woke up to find our pals Sabine and Sweetie Pie gone, with only a stinky Sweetie present left amongst the torn up green onions, which were promptly ripped out and composted. Then we hit a bigger bump in the road. Or, more accurately, millions of little bumps in the road. They’re called nematodes. There are estimated to be one million different species of these tiny microscopic worms. Many of them are beneficial in the garden, eating pests that spend time in the soil. But others eat living plant material–the roots of vegetables–and this is the kind we have.

It started a little while ago when we realized the chard was stunted and showing spots on the leaves. This is actually Cercospora leaf spot: when the fungus spore lands on a leaf, the plant kills its own tissue in a circle around the spore to cut off its food, killing the spore. Pretty cool (and you can still eat the leaves). But when a plant is getting visibly attacked by a pest, it’s a sign that the plant was already stressed or weak. Taking a closer look, we pulled up a few chard plants. Back home, healthy chard roots dig into the soil up to 6-8 feet deep. But we pulled them up with ease, revealing tiny, brownish roots–many with big red tumour-like galls on them. At first, we thought it was the season: too much rain could have encouraged root rot, and the shortened day length has been causing everything to grow a lot slower (you’d be amazed by how much the changing day length makes a difference here in winter, even though the change is way smaller than where I live further north).

After some internet research, Connie identified them as root knot nematodes, which we have since discovered are very common in Hawai’i. They aren’t a problem back home, and in fact, Connie has told me that she doesn’t remain on the cutting edge of pest control knowledge. Why? Because she doesn’t really get any pests to speak of anymore–evidence that a biologically diverse system focused on building a healthy soil food web through compost and other habitat for beneficial organisms keeps a natural balance. If harmful nematodes are getting out of hand in our garden, it’s because there aren’t enough other microbes to keep their numbers in check.

The nematodes were bad news because they’re very difficult to get rid of; mostly we can just keep their population down. We’ll do this by adding compost over time to balance out the organisms, planting marigolds (nematodes don’t like them), rotating and fallowing the beds, and planting veggies that are nematode-resistant to starve them of the foods they eat (the kales, broccoli, mustard greens, collards, cilantro, green onions and leeks are doing fine). In the meantime, though, we aren’t keeping up with the ravenous appetite here for salad greens. We thought the poor plants would bounce back from us pillaging them every day now that the days are getting longer, but because of the nematodes we waved our white flag and the cooks bought a crate of Romaine. We’re hosting a work camp here in one week, with around 35 people onsite for ten days. I’m grateful for the plants to have some recovery time.

So to cheer ourselves up, we played science lab today. I took soil samples from all the beds, disinfecting my tools between each one so as not to spread the little worms (we’ll have to do this every single time we use a tool in the garden now). At a friend’s place down the road, we examined the samples under a microscope. We didn’t see as much life moving around in the beds with compacted soil. We saw lots of tiny nitrogen-fixing bacteria in the bed where the clover cover crop is still growing among the plants. These awesome bacteria, which live on legumes, convert nitrogen from the air into a form that plants can use. We also brought some freshly brewed and very lively compost tea. The lactobacillus, a beneficial bacteria, looked like a sausage (or a string of sausages). Zippy little ciliates shot across the slide in a hurry. Long fungal strands were covered in ladder-like rungs. And the nematodes were easy to spot: little worms squiggling around, wrestling with a tiny piece of humus. But we couldn’t identify whether they were the good kind or the bad.

The coolest thing we looked at were some indigenous microbes. Before I arrived here, a bunch of “pristine” soil was gathered from up in the hills. We spread cooked rice in a planting flat, poured unsulphured molasses over it, and laid the soil on top. We’ve kept it covered and moist for the past few weeks as the indigenous microbes feed and multiply. When the rice has disappeared, we’ll make a compost tea from this highly active and locally appropriate microbe universe to help build soil fertility in the garden. In the meantime, our small sample from the mushroomy-smelling, mould-covered tray has showed us there’s plenty of beneficial life in there.

I can’t remember using a microscope since high school science class, and I have to say I never thought I’d get so excited over soil microbes and mouldy trays of rice. I think my biologist roommate will be proud 😉

Unfortunately I don’t have any shots of the microbes, but here’s some lovely sunflowers instead.

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These are some of the bucket-full of edible flowers we harvest every day for the cooks to garnish the food.. hibiscus, calendula, nasturtiums, and.. blue butterfly pea I believe..

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garden-fresh wisdom

I’ve been chased inside by the rain, which soaked me through to the bone while I was gathering fruit in the orchard. I’ve never seen rain come down this hard! It felt wonderful, but even here in warm Hawai’i, it’s wintertime and I can’t stay wet for too long without getting a chill. So I’ve decided to write a post about some of the many things I’ve learned in the garden so far. In just over a week, I feel like I’ve gained enough knowledge to start my own successful garden, although this is just the beginning!

The past few days we’ve been doing a lot of transplanting. Because there are lots of critters that love to eat veggie seeds and tiny sprouts, we start everything inside the shade house (like a greenhouse but with screen walls). Plants begin sprouting with seed leaves, which actually live inside the seed before it sprouts! Once the plants start forming their “true” leaves, we leave the plants outside for a day or two to harden off. During this time, the plant gets used to being out in much sunnier, windier, (and in the case of greenhouses, cooler) conditions, without being totally stressed by transplanting. We dig a hole and fill it up with the hose to allow water to sink deep into the surrounding ground before moving the plant in. Then we water it with seaweed: seaweed is a de-stresser for plants, it has a very balanced combination of nutrients that help keep the plant content in its new home. Then we mulch the plant with fresh compost for more slow-releasing nutrients and water retention. Voila!

Well, I should be a little more exact here–there’s never just one plant. We always seed a few kinds of plants together: lettuce with carrots and dill, beans with sunflowers, tomatoes with basil. There are various reasons why some plants help each other grow (and others generally don’t do well together) such as what kinds of nutrients they take and what nutrients or hormones they send into the soil, whether they need shade or give it away, and whether they attract pollinators or repel certain pests. Seeds of Change has a good companion planting guide.

Speaking of unwanted garden residents, how do you deal with pests in an organic garden? I’ve learned that pests are usually a sign that the plants are stressed out, or weak from nutrient deficiencies. Using chemical fertilizers will create these imbalances as I mentioned before, as they are always made up of a mix of substances (as soon as you boost one, the others will be sent out of proportion), thus creating a need for pesticide. To avoid this, applying compost will help keep the plants strong–or applying specific organic matter can gently correct an imbalance, like the eggshells we scattered around the broccoli to boost the calcium. We’ve been brewing and spraying compost tea on the leaves of affected plants to give them a boost in warding off critters like spider mites–and we pull off the affected leaves to keep them from spreading. We harvest whole baby lettuce plants rather than cutting the leaves so the sow bugs don’t sense the broken tissue from cutting individual leaves. We’ll be stringing lights around the trellises to ward off the rose beetles that come out at night. And we enclose growing tomatoes in mesh bags to keep the fruit flies from stinging them. In short, there’s all kinds of creative things that can be done without spraying harmful pesticides.

But what about weeds? Well, I must say I like Connie’s philosophy a lot: “weeds” (what I might call opportunistic species) actually play a role in the garden, by filling in where there are deficiencies. Other sources back up this perspective. Gardens can benefit from the nutrient release from weeds when you leave them where you pull them. If you don’t want to leave them in the garden, it’s safe to put them in a hot compost as it will kill the seeds. But perhaps most of all, it’s about weed prevention: mulching, sheet mulching, and cover cropping. Cover crops can aerate the soil and provide organic matter and nutrients to plants, even boosting yields. The garden beds here that were cover cropped are currently the best beds in the garden, and they’re the only ones with worms, which provide even more aeration and nutrients from their castings.

One thing I’ve learned from Connie that fascinated the science geek in me is the effect of the plant container on water drainage. Contrary to what I would have thought, tall containers actually drain faster than short ones (or tall containers with rocks or styrofoam in the bottom). This happens because of the effect of gravity on water: the higher the volume of water, the heavier it is, and the greater the pull downward. If you’ve ever noticed why your little pots get algae on top, this is why.

Well, this post has been a little info-heavy, so here’s some garden photos to lighten things up 🙂

This is an incredible preying mantis that walked the tightrope (irrigation pipe) from one lettuce tower to the other. He moved so slowly, checking us out and cocking his head at our strange cameras.Image

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This is one of the entrances to the Hui garden, where the magic happens…

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This is a photo of me through the screen in the shade house taken by one of the photography workshop guests!

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a beach tale

The past two days have been full of adventure and connection with the wild beauty of Molokai. I’ve been to the beach three times in 24 hours! Photos coming soon. One of the wonderful perks of being an intern at the Hui is that we get invited along on photography forays with the retreat guests. On Wednesday, we piled into the rental cars and headed to Kepuhi Beach on the western edge of the island. For hours, we snapped photos of the crashing waves, unique lava rock formations, and a delicate sunset. I did yoga in the soft sand. Yesterday we returned to the area for another sunset, this time to Papohaku Beach. The 3-mile stretch is one of the largest beaches in the state. But unlike many of Hawai’i’s beaches, there was hardly a soul to be seen.

There’s a reason why the throngs of tourists were absent. I’ve heard Molokai called by many people “the real Hawai’i.” With a population of only 7,000 and the highest proportion of Indigenous Hawaiians, Molokai has a history of strong resistance to the kind of commercial tourism development that other parts of Hawai’i have succumbed to. The views of the locals about land management and other political issues are starkly visible on colourful painted signs by the roads. Back in 2008, the island’s major employer was partway through building a huge luxury golf resort on the west end when local resistance became so organized that it retaliated by closing all of its operations, including restaurants, hotels, and the island’s only movie theatre. Now, Molokai has Hawai’i’s highest unemployment rate. Although some of the properties we passed on the way to the beach had been converted into condos and sold, many of the buildings are boarded up. Mauna Loa, a name perhaps familiar to those who have never been to Hawai’i, is actually a ghost town. Walking to the beach, we crossed the remnants of a golf fairway being reclaimed by the red clay earth.

It’s not very often you hear a story of small-town success in the face of distant, faceless business interests. But the people have been here at least 1,700 years. I reckon their sense of time has a much wider scope than the fiscal quarter of the investing world, whose language of money just doesn’t translate their connection to the land.

Efforts to restore and protect the native ecosystems of the island have not been without their controversies, either. Yesterday morning, I had the privilege of waking up at 5am to share a spectacular sunrise with the photographers at the Mo’omomi Preserve, on the north side. We passed a sign that read “Mo’omomi to be gated illegally.” We had to go through two locked gates, but as I learned, anyone can access a key most of the year, except when the seabirds are nesting. The problem was that local residents would drive their 4X4’s on the sensitive dunes and leave trash and beer cans behind. And this is not just any beach, either. Twenty-five years ago, the Nature Conservancy acquired the lands from private ranchers. Molokai is overrun with invasive, non-native species, and the western half of the island is highly degraded due to grazing and poor land management practices. Mo’omomi is now the most intact coastal beach strand and sand dune area and one of the last remaining strongholds for native coastal plants and animals in the Hawaiian islands. This breathtaking beach is surrounded on both sides by sharp lava rock and native grasses. The landscape looks more like Scottish highlands than what most people would envision when they think of Hawai’i. It’s being stewarded by Molokai Land Trust, which is also running the major native plant restoration project right here at the Hui (more on that later…)

We drove back along the bumpy dirt road, the staff standing in the box of the Tundra pickup, singing songs from the ‘80s. Grabbing the frame, we ducked quickly as the thorny branches of kiawe (an invasive tree) narrowly missed our heads. Turning at Coffees of Hawai’i, we climbed up the hill for another mile before turning into the Hui to begin another sunny day in the garden.

Ube, Kulolo, and the all-star Gotu kola

I’m sitting on the front deck of the lodge, watching long, drawn clouds blend into the calm  water as they meander across a pale peach sunset. The workshop guests are snapping photos in the quickly dimming light. Yesterday after lunch, I went for a drive with Connie. It was the first time I’d been off the property since I arrived! Our first stop: the Molokai post office. I waited for Connie to post-a-nut to her grandkids. Posting a coconut from Molokai is a classic visitor routine–the coconuts are free, you just have to decorate them and pay for shipping! As I waited, several locals passed through, each offering a friendly hello. The post office worker shuffled about, smiling as she slowly typed in each order. People here move on serious island time, allowing you to soak up the richness of each moment and interaction. I feel right at home.

Next, we went to Hikiola’s: the co-op garden store. We sailed past the RoundUp and checked out the organic fertilizers. The labels showed different mineral ratios, just like the chemical fertilizers. Connie explained that it’s not a great idea to go by the ratios: as soon as you start tinkering with the level of one mineral, you throw other levels out of whack. The solution? Skip the fertilizer and add more quality compost. Connie sometimes gathers kelp from the ocean. It has the most balanced and bioavailable combination of vitamins and nutrients (and is excellent for munching too!).

Connie walked me through the long list of impressive-sounding ingredients. Bat guano? Taken from an ecosystem where it was probably an important food source. Blood and bone meal? A slaughterhouse byproduct of the factory farm industry. Fish fertilizer? Not simply the scraps from fish processing: the scale of the fish fertilizer industry in South Africa is so massive that the harvest of fresh kelp is no doubt leaving a whole in the marine food chain. Not to mention how far all this stuff traveled to be processed, repackaged, and shipped here. If your food shouldn’t travel thousands of kilometres, why should your fertilizer? The solution? You guessed it. More good old fashioned compost.

On Mondays and Thursdays, the barge comes in, carrying literally everything to supply the island (talk about food security…) so the stores were buzzing. After stopping at the grocery store (where everything costs twice as much as it does back home, and the avocados under the sign that says “Hawaiian Grown” have “Product of Mexico” stickers on them) we did what any sane person on the island would do on a Monday: we got two scoops for the price of one. I ordered the two most exotic ice cream flavours I could find: Ube (Hawaiian purple yam) and Kulolo (taro, a traditional Hawaiian staple). They were delicious!

Yesterday, something wonderful happened: my first seeds sprouted! It was so exciting!!! After worrying that I didn’t water the lettuce enough right off the bat, perfect rows of tiny sprouts appeared. It truly is a miracle. They felt like little babies (sure enough, last night I dreamed I had a baby…Too close of a parallel for comfort!)  Connie also showed me how to save lettuce seeds today–it was sunny and windy, so the seeds would be as dry as possible. It’s really easy, and it’s so important to save seeds from varieties that work well where you live. Saving and replanting the ones most suited to local growing conditions helps to continually improve the yield and the plants’ resistance to pests. We plucked off the fluffy seed heads and rubbed the pods open to drop the tiny seeds into a paper bag. Once they’ve dried out more, we’ll separate out the seeds and store them in the fridge. Seeds need to breathe just like we do, and keeping them cold helps them last longer by slowing respiration.

To top off the afternoon, I was introduced to another Hui ritual: 3pm green drinks. For this, I harvested fresh collard greens, yellow chard, parsley, and gotu kola. Gotu kola grows like crazy in the garden. It’s been called “the fountain of life” for its incredible array of medicinal uses in South Africa and the Asia-Pacific region. I blended these with ice, green veggie powder, rice milk, fresh lemon juice, and a bunch of papaya, mango and banana. The ladies loved my concoction! I think I’ve found the easy way to everyone’s hearts…

 

 

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