A Weekend on Napali: Part Three

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A Weekend on Napali: Part Three

Posted by: Kim Steutermann Rogers
Destination: Kauai
Sep 13, 2011

(Continued from A Weekend on Nāpali Part One and Two.)

The camp kitchen had been set up. My tent was barely pitched and not a grain of sand had yet found its way into my sleeping bag when the two botanists geared up, both in long sleeved shirts, long pants and hats, and both toting bulging backpacks. Both, too, wearing studded tabi boots, a kind of Japanese fishing sock meets golf shoe that, apparently, is footwear de rigueur for botanists. I would soon learn why.

Natalia went two gear-steps further. She carried her 20-foot extendable picking pole and donned a Patagonia fly fishing vest with lots and lots and lots of pockets. That made Natalia’s binoculars, camera, Rite in the Rain notebook, pencil, GPS device, seed collecting envelopes, ginger-flavored candies and who knows what else within one-zip, on-the-go reach.

“Kim, you’ll want to go with them,” said Sabra.

Sabra’s a teacher. She knows an educational experience when she sees one. She also knows me well enough to know that I jump at these kinds of opportunities—traipsing scientists around in nature as they do their thing. Whether it is a group of biologists tracking cetaceans, a team of scientists charged with saving the endangered Hawaiian monk seal, or a seabird researcher conducting a census of albatrosses on a remote atoll in the North Pacific.

I took one look at Natalia and Mike and slid into my one-person, low-overhead backpacking tent to slither into a pair of long pants and a long-sleeved t-shirt.

And, then, Micki noticed.

Micki is a woman after my own heart. She was invited on the trip for much the same reason as I. Neither of us are botanists. Neither are we archeologists. Nor Hawaiian cultural practitioners. But we have willing hands and sponges for minds. Micki, perhaps, more so than I. In fact, I think I met my match in Micki.

When we arrived at Nu‘alolo and started hauling our gear through the noni orchard to our camp site, Micki confided in me, “I may be the only person in the world, but I love this smell.” She was referring to the scent of fermenting noni fruit lying on the ground. It’s an aroma that make most people’s nose crinkle.

Noni is a small evergreen tree introduced to Hawaii by the first Polynesian settlers from the Marquesas. Its common name is Indian mulberry; it’s scientific Morinda citrifolia. The Hawaiians used its warty fruit to make poultice for boils, to treat deep cuts and compound fractures and to add to a formulation to aid in relieving constipation. They also used the inner bark of its root for a yellow die in kapa, bark cloth, making and Sabra would harvest some while we were there. These days, noni is making the rounds in health circles as beneficial in the treatment of diabetes, skin disorders, pain and, possibly, cancer—for humans and animals.

The grove of noni trees at Nu‘alolo is known as one of the largest in all of Hawaii.

So, the four of us—Natalia, Mike, Micki and me—departed base camp, backtracking to the boat landing, walking by a group of tourists with Captain Andy’s who were wearing swimsuits, picnicking on deli sandwiches and sipping ice-cold sodas while lounging on the tiny, lava-rock-framed sandy beach at the ocean’s edge.

We trekked over a field of rocks that made Micki and me ecstatic. “Look at these rocks,” I said. Who knew rocks could be so interesting?

At the other end of Nu‘alolo Kai, a narrow, sandy beach frames the coastline, and I realized—after having heard geologist Chuck Blay speak over the years—the reason for the sand was due to the fringing reef that once provided Hawaiians with a plethora of food. That reef had also broken down over the millennia—helped by 25- to 30-foot winter waves—into pieces the size of sand.

At the other end of Nu‘alolo Kai, the part of the coastline that is not protected by a fringing reef, there is no sandy beach. In place of sand, there are rocks. Lots and lots of lava rocks. They are worn, much like stones from a river, but the water source here is, of course, the ocean, and the rocks are bigger than the river stones you can buy at your local garden center. These rocks take two hands to pick up. The surf’s winter pounding has left these rocks in an assortment of shapes—round, oblong, heart and triangular. “Look,” Micki said. She bent to pick up a rock. “A poi pounder.”

Indeed, it could have been a poi pounder, a shaped rock used to mash the root of kalo into the well-known staple of the Hawaiian diet, poi.

Some 7,000 artifacts like poi pounders are stored at the Bishop Museum on Oahu, recovered from archeological work conducted at the base of a cliff, a small stretch, where numerous, terraced house sites once stood.

Shape wasn’t the only thing we exclaimed about. It was color, too. The expected shades of grey and deep black. But red, too. And greens ranging from yellow to lime sparkled in many of the basalt rocks—the mineral known as olivine.

While Micki and I looked down, careful our step as we scrambled along wobbly rocks, Mike was scanning the cliff wall ahead.

Let me tell you about the C-shaped cliff that cups this shallow valley. Every time I rose in the morning, its presence gave me pause, stopped me dead in my tracks, made me stare. Ranging in heights from 500 feet to 1,500, the sun works hard before finally chasing the cliff’s shadow away by mid-morning. At night, the setting sun makes a world of figures and shapes come alive, a natural painting.

At one time, these walls would have been painted with more green—as in plants. And that was our purpose, after all, to identify the native plants still surviving here in the wild. (Well, it was Mike’s and Natalia’s purpose.)

The rarest of native plants, if any, survive on cliffs and ridges along the 15-mile Nāpali Coast, the last bastions of refuge from the invaders that have, over the years, annihilated their native brethren. The first wave of invasion started with humans. It continued with the things we humans brought with us—like plants and animals.

In the case of Nu‘alolo Kai, one of the biggest non-plant invaders today is goats.

Nearly 15 years after Nā Pali Coast ‘Ohana started caretaking this valley—conducting beach clean-ups, mapping and restoring ancient archeological sites, removing invasive species and reintroducing native plants—Sabra says if she were starting over, she’d begin by cleaning out the goats. We counted 40-some during the five days we were there.

Goats eat the leaves and bark and roots of just about any living plant. Their substantial work is evidenced in the remains of a ha’ole koa forest—itself an invasive pest—that wraps around the back of the valley. After gnawing the bark off almost every single tree trunk in the valley, these trees have died, looking like the remains of a forest fire—nothing but sticks today.

The noni and some other invasive plants go untouched, however, by the goats and humans--although Micki was all fired up about harvesting noni as a fundraising project.

What’s left are the vertical of cliff walls for native plants. Sadly, though, the walls are mostly a blank tapestry, as the natives keep dying off. A survey conducted in the 2006 did not find 14 previously reported native plants at Nu‘alolo Kai.

Mike and Natalia practice an interesting dialect of plant speak. He says the Hawaiian names, she says the Latin ones, and Micki and I turned to each other and say, “What are they talking about?”

At the base of the wall, the botanists stopped. Mike pointed at something high up. “Bingo,” he said. Natalia pulled out her binoculars. After confirming, she passed the binoculars to Micki and me. “What are we looking at?” I asked.

Hedyotis st.-johnii,” Mike said. He pulled out his camera and started taking pictures, so I did, too. Thank goodness for long telephoto lenses.

“Is this a big deal?” I asked.

“Yes, it’s a big deal.”  Mike said there were an estimated 200 in the wild.

The botanists were already happy, and we’d hardly gotten started.

There were other rare plants identified, and Natalia put her special shoes to good use to maneuver the slender goat trails along particularly hairy cliff-side passages to play spider-woman and collect seeds with her picking pole. But nothing—not even the lone Santalum tree in the valley or healthy Psydrax odoratum or Schiedea apokremnos—got Mike and Natalia quite as excited as the Hedyotis.

The botanists happily answered each and every question Micki and I peppered them with—and there was no end to the questions, really and truly. Micki has newly-purchased property that she’s clearing of invasives and planting in natives, and I have the yard of guinea grass with which I wage war—that is, mow—all the while wondering what to do with the steep, un-mowable bank that creeps ever closer onto our property. One idea born out of traipsing behind a couple botanists for two days is a native grass—pili. But, as for my weeping kukui trees, not even the botanists had heard of my problem much less had a solution.


Susan | Sep 15, 2011 06:05 AM

I can just imagine the number of questions you and Micki could generate under these circumstances... like having your own private plant consultants. What a great experience.

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