One Seed Every 30,000 Years

This article appeared on the Op-Ed page of the Los Angeles Times last Sunday:

Each year, I await with dread the federal governmentʻs catalog of the endangered species under imminent threat in the Hawaiian Islands, where I was raised and where I live.

The endangered Hibiscus waimeae, or Kokiʻo keʻokeʻo, found in only two places on the island of Kauaʻi
The endangered Hibiscus waimeae, or Kokiʻo keʻokeʻo, found in two places on the island of Kauaʻi

On its 2015 list, the Fish and Wildlife Office included the ‘ea, or hawksbill turtle, as well as the green turtle, Ridley sea turtle, and leatherback turtle. Four mammals are considered endangered — the Hawaiian hoary bat; the kohola, or humpback whale; the sperm whale; and the endemic Hawaiian monk seal. Among the thirty-four endangered birds are the Hawaiian goose, or nēnē; the Maui parrotbill; the Nihoa millerbird; the red- legged stilt; and the iʻo, or Hawaiian hawk. There were once 99 species of land snails in the Islands; of the 25 that have survived, 9 are under threat of extinction. Fifteen arthropods, including the sphinx moth and the oceanic damselfly, are listed. Among the endangered plants are a white hibiscus found only in Wailau Valley on Molokaʻi; the lovely Hawaiian gardenia or naʻu (although now widely cultivated in an effort to save it, there are only two or three plants remaining in the wild), the mountain silversword of Mauna Loa; the loʻulu, or Pritchardia palm; and one small yellow campanula (Brighamia insignis) last seen on a cliff on the Na Pali coast of Kauaʻi.

Sandwich rail (Porzana sandwichensis), or flightless Hawaiian crake, painted by William Ellis on Captain James Cookʻs third voyage of discovery (1776-78), last seen in 1884.
The Sandwich rail (Porzana sandwichensis), or flightless Hawaiian crake, painted by William Ellis on Captain James Cookʻs third voyage of discovery (1776-78), was last seen in 1884.

There is a certain irony that such adaptive and resilient species as those indigenous (native, but occurring elsewhere) and endemic (occurring nowhere else in the world) to the Hawaiian Islands should be allowed to disappear from the planet. The chance of any species reaching and then surviving on an island as distant as one of the Hawaiian chain is infinitesimal, but despite the extraordinary odds, species found their way ashore, carried by the tide or blown by trade winds; inside birds or in their feathers; in the branches of trees; and in the jetsam of sunken ships. It is thought that such an event occurred only three hundred times in the history of the archipelago, meaning that on average, if one takes 70 million years as the life of the Islands, one seed or sapling was successfully introduced every 20,000 to 30,000 years. Many of those original species have now disappeared. According to the Bernice P. Bishop Museum, 271 species of all indigenous and endemic flora and fauna (introduced by various means) have become extinct in the last two hundred years.

Feather lei, worn around the head or neck, watercolor by Sarah Stone, 18, private collection
Feather lei, worn around the head or neck, watercolor by Sarah Stone, 1783, private collection

Although the decimation of species is due to commercialization, the loss of forests, hunting, the growth of population, pervasive invasive fauna, and now global warming, it began with the first voyagers from Polynesia in the seventh century A.D., who brought to the Islands their own plants and animals, including pigs, chickens, and dogs, which ensured the survival of the settlers, but threatened those native species which were innocent of predators. In the early nineteenth-century, rapacious Hawaiian chiefs were responsible for the disappearance of vast sandalwood forests, the fragrant wood sought by the Chinese for incense, and for the loss of thousands of native birds killed to make the yellow, red, and green feather capes, lei, and helmets of the nobility. Hawaiʻiʻs first king, Kamehameha I, must be held accountable for some of the early loss of plants, thanks to the kapu he placed on the cattle given him in 1793 by Captain George Vancouver. The cattle, and later goats, were allowed to roam wild in the uplands, where they destroyed the delicate ferns, vines, trees, and grasses that had provided generations of Hawaiians with food, fishing lines, nets, vegetable dyes, timber, medicine, barkcloth, and thatch for their houses. European contact, which began in 1778 with the discovery of the Islands by Captain James Cook, brought disease and the further destruction of ecosystems.

IMG_460078027Feather capes, watercolors by Sarah Stone, 1783

Later in the nineteenth century, the spread of sugar plantations ensured that additional acres of native grasslands and forests, and the creatures who lived in them, many of them natural pollinators, were heedlessly destroyed. Large cattle ranches, particularly on the Big Island, meant that the forests and valleys that were once home to numerous species were turned into grazing land.

The ʻio, or Hawaiian hawk, photograph by W. S. Chillingworth, 2014
The ʻio, or Hawaiian hawk, photograph by W. S. Chillingworth, 2015

Despite its rank as the state with the highest number of endangered or threatened species, Hawaiʻi receives less than 5% of the funding allotted by the federal government’s endangered species program — $1.5 million in 2013, out of $32 million given to twenty states, a third of which went to buy 635 acres of forested land on Oʻahu, while the rest was given to Kauaʻi to plan habitats for birds. Private landowners, community watch groups, conservation groups, local government agencies, and even schoolchildren are increasingly aware of the great loss that is underway, but for many species, it will be too late. Many people despair that there is not enough compassion, not enough will, not enough time or money to go around. Is the disappearance of the Hawaiian cave wolf spider, they ask, or the Hibiscadelphus distans, one of the worldʻs rarest trees, that important to most people? Especially in comparison to human lives? History, it appears, indicates that the human ones will be able to survive without honeycreepers and monk seals, but that is a solipsistic view. If the wolf spider is in trouble, we are in trouble, too.

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The Climax of Queer Sensations

It had once been acceptable, even pragmatic for haole seamen and traders to keep Hawaiian mistresses, not unlike the domestic arrangements and love matches of the British merchants and company officials of the East India Company in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century India. A liaison or marriage to a Hawaiian woman was considered advantageous, particularly if a woman had ali’i blood and the land that often accompanied rank.

W’s great, great grandfather, Archibald S. Cleghorn, and his wife, Princess Likelike. From the left, his daughters Rose, Helen, and Annie. Rose is W’s great grandmother. (1870, Hawaiʻi S tate Archives)
W’s great great grandfather, Archibald S. Cleghorn, and his wife, Princess Likelike. From the left, his daughters Rose, Helen, and Annie. Rose is W’s great grandmother. 1870.  Hawaiʻi State Archives.

It was only with the coming of the missionaries in the early nineteenth-century that it became disreputable for a haole to live with a native woman who was not an aliʻi. The disapproval of the missionaries did little, however, to affect the small group of local white and, later, Asian men, who were regarded with hostility by the missionaries for their drinking and general bad morals, which presumably meant their relationships with Hawaiian women, with whom they lived openly, and sired children.

The chiefess Kaenoo, watercolor by Jacques Arago, 1819. Honolulu Museum of Art.
The chiefess Kaenoo, watercolor by Jacques Arago, 1819. Honolulu Museum of Art.

For the young Christian men of the mission, many of them fresh from the schoolrooms of New England seminaries, the physical ease and freedom of Hawaiian woman must have been very disturbing, even if the men were afforded protection by a sense of their own superiority, and their fear and mistrust of pleasure, which helped to turn any latent desire into disgust. It is no surprise that in missionary families, marriages with Hawaiians or Asians were rare. Exceptions were the marriage in 1866 of Rufus Lyman, the son of David and Sarah Lyman, to Hualani Ahung, who had a Chinese father and Cherokee-Hawaiian mother (in many records, her Chinese name is replaced with the name Rebecca Brickwood, thanks to her mother’s second marriage to the postmaster of Honolulu), and the son of the Hawai’i Island missionary John D. Paris married a woman descended from the ruling chiefs of Maui, named Kailikolamaikapaliokaukini.

A young woman of the Sandwich Islands, engraving after a drawing by John Webber, ship’s artist with Captain Cook, 1779
A young woman of the Sandwich Islands, engraving after a drawing by John Webber, ship’s artist with Captain Cook, 1779

When a visiting male friend of Clarissa Armstrong, wife of the Reverend Richard Armstrong, announced that he was marrying a Hawaiian woman and staying in the Islands, Mrs. Armstrong was horrified:

O what feelings of sorrow, contempt etc filled my breast. I have done nothing scarcely this P.M. but sorry, and weep for the folly, of one I watched over as a brother. A member of our family, and we keeping him from temptations, and the[n] without asking even our advice, is going headlong into folly, and I fear what is worse!! What will his poor mother say when she hears he is married to a heathen, who like the rest, regards not the truth, or the 7th commandment.

The Reverend George Rowell, stationed at Waimea on Kaua’i, was accused of adultery with his female parishioners by a Hawaiian woman in his church. His wife remained loyal to him, despite his dismissal and the efforts of the missionaries to turn her against him. In 1852, the Reverend Samuel G. Dwight, who had kept a school on Moloka’i for six years, was accused of lewd behavior with his young female students, and expelled from the church by unanimous vote. He married a Hawaiian girl named Anna, and became a dairy farmer.

The dashing high chief Ka’iana, lover of Ka’ahumanu, lithograph after a drawing by Captain John Meares of the Nootka , 1787. Hawaiian Historical Society
The dashing high chief Ka’iana, lover of Ka’ahumanu, lithograph after a drawing by John Webber, 1787. Hawaiian Historical Society.

If the missionary men were disturbed by the sight of naked Hawaiians, what can the missionary women have made of them? One would think, reading their letters and journals, that they did not, could not, at least at first, see them at all, although the newly-arrived Lucy Thurston, upon finding barely-clothed chiefs stretched on mattresses on the deck of the Thaddeus, admitted to feeling “the climax of queer sensations.”

In 1870, Isabella Bird, an Englishwoman advised by her doctor to travel abroad when she suffered complaints of hysteria, arrived in Hawai’i from Australia. She was not distressed by the beauty and grace of Hawaiian women, but enchanted by them. Bird, who would write Six Months in the Sandwich Islands (1875), as well as numerous books describing her adventures in the Rocky Mountains, Kurdistan, Nepal, Japan, Morocco, and Manchuria, among other places, described the enticing walk of native women:

A majestic wahine with small, bare feet, a grand, swinging, deliberate gait, hibiscus blossoms in her flowing hair, and a lei of yellow flowers falling over her holoku [fitted long dress with train], marching through these streets, has a tragic grandeur of appearance…There were hundreds of native horsemen and horsewomen…The women seemed perfectly at home in their gay, brass- bossed, high peaked saddles, flying along astride, bare-footed, with their orange and scarlet riding dresses streaming on each side beyond their horses’ tails, a bright kaleidoscopic flash of bright eyes, white teeth, shining hair, garlands of flowers and many coloured dresses…

Hawaiian women riding in pa'u, illustration by Emile Bayard, 1871
Hawaiian women riding in pa’u, illustration by Emile Bayard, 1871

For those men not encumbered by a rigid religious faith, the women of the Islands were fairly irresistible. Captain George Vancouver was captivated by the hula, sometimes performed by six hundred men and women at a time (the only objection he ever made was to the lively hula ma‘ i, a dance in honor of the genitals). “Such perfect unison of voice and actions, that it were impossible, even to the bend of a finger, to have discovered the least variation.” When the dancers collapsed into a heap on the ground in front of Vancouver and covered their heads with their kapa, “the idea of a boisterous ocean . . . [was] tranquillized by an instant calm.” Archibald Menzies, the English botanist on board the Discovery with Vancouver, was also entranced, if not aroused by the dancers. “Every joint of [the dancer’s] limbs, every finger of her hand, every muscle of her body, partook unitedly of the varied sympathetic impulses. . . . The motion of her eyes transferring their transient glances and the harmony of her features were beyond description.”

The bewitchment was not limited to the heterosexual. Charles Warren Stoddard, in his 1905 book of travel essays, The Island of Tranquil Delights, took the brave and somewhat reckless step of writing about a boy whose Hawaiian name, Kāne‘aloha, translates as Man of Love:

Kane-Aloha had been shedding garments by the way all the blessed afternoon. It was evident that presently there would not be a solitary stitch left for propriety’s sake. Nobody seemed to care in the least. . . .Is there anything more soothing, more cleansing, more ennobling and refining than the caress of the pure, cool air when it comes in immediate contact with the human body as God created it? . . . We slept the sleep of the just made perfect by the realization of our wildest dreams; meanwhile at the Mission House . . . [they were] joining in the prayer of the Family Circle, that we, the unregenerated, might be delivered from evil.