West of the Fields

A tropical ecologist reporting from the field. Musings on life and art, botfly extractions, tropical plant identification, beer, parrots, machetes. Etc.

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

The last time I left Hawaii, at age 7, I was on a 32-foot sailboat with my father at the helm and the rest of the family— my sisters, age 5 and 10, and my mother, a few years older than I am now— trimming sails and trying not to look back at the fast-receding island of Oahu, the last land we would see for 30 days. In deference to the Polynesian seafaring tradition, we threw a lei overboard to signify the wish for a safe voyage and that someday we’d return to the islands. Little choppy wavelets and long ocean swell soon swallowed the fragile petals. We’d spent almost a year living in Honolulu and we’d decided, instead of flying back like most people, to buy a used boat and sail to Alaska. That adventure shaped me in many ways. It didn’t make a sailor out of me, though. If anything, it made me more deeply connected to the land. I will never forget the first time the wind blew offshore and brought the scent of land to us after weeks of the salty, dry iodine scent of the ocean. Suddenly the air was alive with the damp scent of forests, of things growing and dying and reaching the light, of the loam of nurse logs feeding the next generation of trees and mosses. Days before we saw them, the temperate rainforests of the Alaskan coast spoke to us in a language that still sings in my blood.

This time, I’m leaving Hawaii on a jetliner like the rest of the world. Already we’re at 30,000 feet, with the islands receding astern at several hundred miles per hour and the vast Pacific deceptively smooth beneath us. This time, I’ve only been here for a week. But it’s been a good week.

From the moment my plane touched down, I’ve been periodically overtaken with waves of nostalgia. Certain things were so familiar—the banyan trees shading the waterfront walk at Ala Moana Park; the barely visible fish flicking over the coral rubble in the shallow water at the end of Ala Wai Marina; the impossibly steep mountains reaching for the clouds and the impossibly blue water reaching for infinity. Of course the experience is overlaid with all the years that have gone by: I see a five-petaled white flower in a thorny hedge by the roadside and my rational brain is thinking, Apocynaceae, almost certainly not native because it’s still got its thorns and there were no native large herbivores, and barely any native plants survive down here at sea level anyway, and then I smell the flower and suddenly I’m seven years old again, wanting nothing more than to climb trees and chase pigeons, with all the world before me. I can feel the smooth bark of banyans under my bare feet.

 My major reason for coming back to Hawaii was to attend the 52nd annual conference of the Association for Tropical Biology and Conservation. It’s my favorite conference—usually small enough, with about 400-500 attendees, that I can see everyone I want to see; manifestly international (35 countries were represented this time around); and always a good mix of fascinating new research, by both established researchers and relative unknowns. I got to catch up with a bunch of friends and meet some new ones, and I made some new connections for potential research collaborations.

The talk that I presented covered a long-term study of trees and lianas, and on the plane on the way over I realized that the initial survey was conducted in 1987/88— exactly when I was a kid chasing pigeons in the park two blocks from the conference center. The whole first day of the conference I was trying to think of how to work that fact into my talk. The night before my presentation, it came to me suddenly. With my first slide, I mentioned that I’d lived in Honolulu 28 years ago when the initial data were collected— “and so I was a kid running around in Ala Moana Park, with no idea that this study was going on, let alone that I’d be presenting it here today.” My last slide before acknowledgements was a plea for more long-term research. I pointed out that 28 years is a big chunk of a human lifespan, but a small eyeblink of time in the lifespan of a tropical tree that can live for centuries—and we don’t even know within an order of magnitude how long lianas can live. “And to really understand these dynamics, long term data is vitally important. So I encourage you, whatever you work on: keep your data and metadata transparent; work hard to preserve these tropical landscapes that we love; and think of the kid running around in Ala Moana Park right now who might present the follow-up study at ATBC 2041. Mahalo.”