It’s been over a month now that I’ve been here on Oahu, guiding hiking tours for visitors to the island. Despite the occasional native plant relic, virtually all of the sights and sounds of the forest are foreign. Along each trail we walk, a hodgepodge of plants and animals from all over the world allow me to tell the dynamic natural history of this special place.
Hiking along the Manoa Falls trail, it’s particularly impossible to ignore the complex and varied songs of white-rumped shama thrush, which echo through much of the lower elevations in the Ko’olau mountain range. The ironic part about their presence is that these introduced songbirds gone wild here are currently threatened in their native habitat, where they are declining rapidly due to the pet trade.
Here, the birds have found refuge and opportunity. But their opportunity has come about because of other unfortunate circumstances. Deforestation and the introduction of mammals to Hawaii drove the native forest birds the shama have replaced to the very limits of their habitat, and so the limits of their existence. The lowland forests of Oahu resemble nothing like what was experienced at the same elevations by the first humans to arrive just 800 years ago. Even on the highest ridges, the accelerated changes that have come with humans populating this isolated landscape are prevalent. Yet this false paradise holds a strange beauty, even to those of us who are not ignorant of what has been lost.
At the Honolulu International Film Festival last week, the film Chasing Coral powerfully documented the rapid degradation of reefs globally through the use of time lapse photography. The film caused me to wonder about how to grasp the magnitude of ecological changes over a larger time scale. From the submerged Emperor sea mounts that span almost to Alaska’s Aleutian Islands, through the Northwestern Hawaiian Island fragments, and to the main Hawaiian islands, the Hawaiian island chain itself is like a time lapse image, each link representing a moment on a geologic timeline. In all this time, the most dramatic changes have occurred over a very small part of this scale, where the natural history of the islands meets its human history.
But what this image also shows is that nature has a beautiful way of continually providing new opportunity for species to live differently than their ancestors. An island dies, a new one is born. A generation passes, the next comes forward. On the southernmost end of the chain, the timeline continues as Earth generates new land, a blank slate for plants and animals of all species!
Our opportunity in the context of the future of Hawaii isn’t in the form of island homes or timeshares, but in choosing not to repeat the mistakes of the past. While on Oahu, we can arguably never ‘put the mongoose back in the cage’, on the eastern flank of the Big Island’s Kilauea volcano, new land is forming that has yet to be touched by any forms of life.
The success of a species can be measured by how well it adapts to the ecological opportunity inherent within the system in which it lives, allowing it to perpetuate. Living sustainably we survive and succeed to support coming generations of humanity that are equipped to do the same. We are a part of the natural history of this earth, and we have the capacity to use the knowledge and technology that we have gained from the past to determine the role that we play now and into the future. In a few million years, islands that are above the surface now will have completely dissolved into the sea. All that will be left of them when the newest islands emerge are things that passed on from one island to the next.
I am incredibly grateful for the time I have here, not only to learn more about Hawaiian natural history, but also for the people I meet while I’m sharing it. Last week on one of my hiking tours, I met a wise and inspiring woman who asked me, “On your 80th birthday, what do you want people to say about your life?” Whether we make it even another year, we can choose to live every day with foresight not just of our future, but that of the world we leave behind. Will the next generations of hiking guides in the future forests of Hawaii be telling the same stories of our mistakes? Or will we have adapted to take advantage of the new opportunities in a new landscape, and instead leave a legacy of positive change?