I have a conflicted relationship to this place we come to every winter: the Big Island of Hawaii. The piece of land we share with Ralph and Laura, friends who live here year round, abuts a 200 foot cliff above one of the roughest ocean channels in the world, called ‘Alenuihaha. It’s thirty miles across the channel to the island of Mauii, which on a clear day appears to the west like the memory of a greener island, distant in time. But this place, right here, is itself a wild spot on the coast, battered by trade winds, no white sand beaches, no snorkeling reefs, just swells and wind-driven waves endlessly smashing into the cliffs. The volcano rising above this part of the island is old, extinct, draped in forest and field. The island here is not being newly created, as it is on the other side, where lava streaming down from Kilauea spills into the ocean, steaming, birthing more and more island. Here, the land is being worn down by rain and wind and waves. It rains a lot. Clouds catch on the slopes. And non-native species thrive in the lushness. Early this morning, Eivin and Peter, Elli’s boyfriend shot two wild pigs. Eivin and Eve, consummate hunter/gatherers, want to bring a cooler of wild pig to Alaska when they leave next week. The Polynesians who settled here brought pigs with them from distant islands on their voyaging canoes. Before that, there were no mammals in Hawaii. The sea-farers also brought coconuts, kikui nut and maile trees, breadfruit, sweet potato, taro, the staples that feel indigenous to the islands now but are not, even thought they’ve been here thousands of years. The oldest plants, the sandalwood and ohia and koa and fern trees, are endangered now, along with their associated birds and butterflies, ferns and mosses. I dreamed when we got this piece of land of reforesting the whole 13 acres with sandalwood, learned, from the labors of Ralph, who bought starts, joined them to host trees, watched most die, of the impossibility of it. Now I visit the one surviving, thriving sandalwood tree on my daily walks. Why is something native here so fragile, so difficult to grow? When once it flourished? Instead, the invaders flourish. Ironwoods, planted as windbreaks by the plantation owners who tricked the native Hawaiians out of their lands, thrive. As do the bamboos, planted by the Japanese plantation workers to remind them of home. The Norfolk island pines in tall straight rows on the old Bond Estate up the hill serve as windbreaks for a macadamia nut tree farm. Why is it so hard to restore? So easy to extirpate, destroy? Restoration, like healing, is such a slow process. Healing is a natural force, unstoppable, but at times it seems to work against other natural forces that want to wear things away. The grass endlessly dropping its seeds on the garden. The kiave endlessly sprouting on any patch of bare ground.
How do you love a wounded, compromised place, when you are someone who’s been drawn all your life to wilderness, to what’s timeless, untouched, pristine, pure, and holy in its primeval state? I faced this same question after the oil spill in Prince William Sound. How to love a damaged place? And of course it’s a question of the body too. Loving a body compromised, altered, injured, scarred. Loving the self despite its flaws and bad habits. My counselor yesterday said “being humbled is good.” She meant in the moments of wounding or woundedness, when we make mistakes and have to own up, when we’re exposed for the damaged goods we are, that’s when we change, like a seeds that need fire to germinate.
There are little bright yellow birds that perch in the avocado trees, saffron finches native to South America. There are house sparrows, house finches, and cardinals, yellow-billed and northern. There are coral-white cattle egrets stilt-legged and graceful among heavy, graceless cattle or following in the wake of mowers. And sweet little olive Japanese white-eyes, mejiro, who’ve been here since 1937, perhaps also released to comfort plantation workers. And there are loud chattering mynas that land on the roof every morning, relatives of starlings, the ratty birds of my childhood, gregarious, raucous, territorial, bossy. They wear threadbare, scruffy feather jackets, and their bills are yellow, like they’ve been eating too many mangoes. I resist loving them, though it wasn’t their choice to colonize this place. They were brought. They’re so many generations from their native home in Asia, they consider themselves home. I read that in Sanskrit, mynas are saarika, but also kalahapriya, meaning “one who is fond of arguments,” or chitranetra, meaning “picturesque eyes.” That was an optimist, who saw that little yellow triangle at the outer corner of a myna bird’s brown eyes as picturesque. That optimist was seeing a tiny flag of light, perhaps, in a greater darkness, and clung to that light, and survived because of it. The mynas remind me of the magpies back home, which are also reviled for killing other birds’ chicks. They land on my roof in Alaska with the same insistent stamping of feet, and they announce themselves with a similarly obnoxious barking. And steal my dog’s food, driving him to distraction.
Last night I walked down into the gulch with the dog to see the forecasted big swells – which were not there. They never manifested. It was only ordinary waves churning in, driven by the trade winds, and no Japanese glass floats, only ordinary flotsam on the beach, plastic trash I collected and stashed in a heap near the trail, to someday haul up and out of there. Ordinary wind. No whales, no dolphins. Last year, I stood on a headland in that gulch, my heart pounding, as twelve-foot swells broke at my feet, driving me back, causing me to throw my hands to my heart. I cried and laughed at a force bigger than any trouble I might name, including cancer. “The sea is another story,” says the poet Adrienne Rich. “The sea is not a question of power.” In that moment, the sea answered with its power a question I couldn’t stop asking, but couldn’t name. I needed those enormous waves to scare me out of myself, to scour me clean of the previous eight months. I needed a fear not phantom, not what-if-ish, but real and immediate.
I went looking for that kind of power last night, something transformative, but found only the everyday powers that be, insistent and unceasing. Before climbing back up out of the gulch, the dog and I walked up the old streambed, into an ironwood grove. I scanned the eroded slopes for the glint of an antique bottle, some relic of the sugar cane days, but saw nothing out of the ordinary. The ironwoods were short, forming a canopy just over the top of my head, with branches slung low to the ground. It looked like a Japanese garden. Pigs had rooted in the duff. In the forest above, mynas bickered. I stopped and looked around for a place to sit, wondering if I could love that place, and the place wondered the same about me.