A Quest to Define Hawaii

Theroux-Hawaii-islands-631Paul Theroux in the Smithsonian:

Hawaii seems a robust archipelago, a paradise pinned like a bouquet to the middle of the Pacific, fragrant, sniffable and easy of access. But in 50 years of traveling the world, I have found the inner life of these islands to be difficult to penetrate, partly because this is not one place but many, but most of all because of the fragile and floral way in which it is structured. Yet it is my home, and home is always the impossible subject, multilayered and maddening.

Two thousand miles from any great landmass, Hawaii was once utterly unpeopled. Its insularity was its salvation; and then, in installments, the world washed ashore and its Edenic uniqueness was lost in a process of disenchantment. There was first the discovery of Hawaii by Polynesian voyagers, who brought with them their dogs, their plants, their fables, their cosmology, their hierarchies, their rivalries and their predilection for plucking the feathers of birds; the much later barging in of Europeans and their rats and diseases and junk food; the introduction of the mosquito, which brought avian flu and devastated the native birds; the paving over of Honolulu; the bombing of Pearl Harbor; and many hurricanes and tsunamis. Anything but robust, Hawaii is a stark illustration of Proust’s melancholy observation: “The true paradises are the paradises we have lost.”

I think of a simple native plant, the alula, or cabbage plant, which is found only in Hawaii. In maturity, as an eight-foot specimen, you might mistake it for a tall, pale, skinny creature with a cabbage for a head (“cabbage on a stick” is its common description, Brighamia insignis its proper name). In the 1990s an outcrop of it was found growing on a high cliff on the Na Pali Coast in Kauai by some intrepid botanists. A long-tongued moth, a species of hawk moth, its natural pollinator, had gone extinct, and because of this the plant itself was facing extinction. But some rapelling botanists, dangling from ropes, pollinated it with their dabbling fingers; in time, they collected the seeds and germinated them.

Like most of Hawaii’s plants, an early form of the alula was probably carried to the volcanic rock in the ocean in the Paleozoic era as a seed in the feathers of a migratory bird. But the eons altered it, made it milder, more precious, dependent on a single pollinator. That’s the way with flora on remote islands.