Thursday, February 28th, 2008
As I write this, I’m not in Hawaii or even in a Starbucks but in our home office, a room that shouts every bit of our house’s 1954 vintage with its dark-paneled walls and diamond-paned windows; we’ve paid homage to its build era with the odd Esther Williams movie lobby card and a framed oversized pullout RCA Victor magazine ad announcing the company’s latest line of 17 television sets, several of which are lovingly caressed by ladies in ball gowns. The view through those diamond-paned windows diverges sharply from 1954, when it was reportedly among the first few houses in our neighborhood, an area of the San Fernando Valley then dominated by apricot orchards. It now overlooks a well-traveled thoroughfare bisecting our thoroughly residential neighborhood, and on weekends I can often expect to watch a recent immigrant, perhaps undocumented, fixing his truck. I’m not crazy about car repairs taking place in my front yard, but I know whose side I’m on amid all the current anti-immigrant Republican hysteria, if only to differentiate myself from these folks:
Honk for spelling proficiency!
Let’s play an analogy game!
Recent immigrants are to many U.S. citizens…
as Eleutherodactylus coqui tree frogs are to many _____________.
If you answered “Hawaiians,” put a gold star on your forehead and proceed directly to the lightning round! And if you want to incur the wrath of same, stage a demonstration for “nonnative” species’ rights anywhere islanders gather.
Our first night on the Big Island we kept looking up into the trees trying to identify the bird emitting this relatively high-pitched but sweet co-qui call. The sound was everywhere, but there were curiously few birds in sight. When we tabled the issue the following morning at breakfast, our B&B hosts told us that the owners of the call were not birds at all but rather tree frogs:
The nonnative species has become a scourge across the island due to that tireless co-qui, used by boy frogs much as a male human would use Barry White records: to both repel other males and attract females. And like Barry, who “Can’t Get Enough of Your Love, Babe,” the little boy frogs court and impregnate the hyper-fertile ladies all the livelong year. (The males average a tiny 34 millimeters, while females reach an average of 41 millimeters, with the pronounced size difference attributed to the burden of all that reproductive energy expended by males.) So successful are the boy frogs at creating more frogs that their species, introduced accidentally to several Hawaiian islands in the mid 1990s via plant matter, has reached densities in some rain forests of approximately 8,000 specimens per acre. That’s about the same density the little devils have achieved in their native Puerto Rico, the difference being that in Puerto Rico they’re reportedly revered as a beloved native species and a symbol of territorial culture, much as Mexicans, all the rage reportedly in Mexico, are seen as encroachers in Los Angeles, especially when they’re not cleaning your toilets.
Mind you, some of the folks who disparagingly pronounced the coqui a nuisance nonnative species themselves arrived in Hawaii later than the frogs did—much as most “native” Angelenos’ families lazily trickled into California quite some time after the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, when the United States “bought” the Southwest from Mexico for $15 million and a psych! fingers-crossed promise to honor Mexican citizens’ preexisting property rights in the territories. Truly, the guy fixing his car in my yard may have a greater claim on my yard than I do—unless I play my Native American card.
If we could all just agree that the concepts of nativeness and citizenship are wack, we’d probably get along a lot better. But U.S. citizens are an I-me-mine lot, even if their families first immigrated to the United States in the 20th century, glossing entirely the part where their own tired, poor, huddled masses were disparaged as wretched refuse by preexisting 19th-century immigrants, who were in turn looked down on by 18th-century immigrants, who seemed like upstarts to Mayflower importees, of whom my own longest-standing North American forebears, the Peigan Blackfeet tribe, were understandably leery.
My Native American bloodline has since been diluted considerably by breeding with Swedes and Germans, but it’s that eighth-part Blackfoot blood that most captures my imagination, both because of the Ninawaki (“manly hearted woman”) tradition—aberrational tribal members identified by early European settlers as women who, contrary to the submissive Blackfeet feminine “ideal,” dressed and acted like their male counterparts, held tribal ranks, owned horses, told bawdy jokes, and sometimes engaged in warrior roles—and because, I suppose, if anti-immigrant assholes want to distinguish native versus nonnative species on a scale of centuries, I’ll gamely play that Native American card and ask them how many millennia their people have been here and suggest that maybe they should vacate my continent. Also, if the Blackfeet Nation ever exercises its sovereign right to establish large-scale gambling on its Montana reservation, I want a piece of my casino.
The Hawaiian Islands having been formed by volcanic activity, there aren’t really any native Hawaiian species, but by casual observation, the imposed cutoff for native versus nonnative species seems to be around 1950. If you landed or were brought to one or more of the islands before then, congratulations, you’re a Hawaiian species. If not, you’re a nuisance, especially if you make a lot of reproductive noise or mess with the ecosystem of a preexisting species. Take the nene—about which le domestique can tell you much more—a Hawaiian goose that serves as the official state bird (it is found in the wild exclusively on Maui, Kauai, and the Big Island). The nene (pronounced nay-nay) is a threatened species whose numbers declined to near extinction around 1952 thanks to hunters and other mean predators and maybe not the best survival instincts on the nenes’ own part. Through human interventions like captive breeding programs they have bounced back from a paltry 30 birds to between 500 and 3,000 today, but there’s a new recent immigrant in town to fuck with the nenes: the Kalij pheasant, a Himalayan breed disparagingly referred to as “those damn chickens” by many residents.
The Kalij pheasant arrived in 1962, a dozen years too late to be considered native, and thrived like a mofo such that by 1977 it was declared a legal game bird. In other words, “We’re lousy with these guys, so let’s shoot ’em”—an attitude not unlike that of self-appointed border vigilantes, who seemingly never got over their crushing disappointment at being rejected from any real job that would allow them to discharge a firearm in the line of duty. Thanks be to heaven that God recognized the need for the Second Amendment when he wrote our glorious Constitution; otherwise we might question the deep and patriotic need for random people to stockpile weapons at a ratio of 200 million firearms to 300 million Americans, and if we didn’t have all those guns, how would we ever feel secure?
One reason the Kalij pheasant is so successful on Hawaii is that it breeds quite competently in the wild [see also: coqui tree frogs]. Adding to its advantages, the Kalij is an omnivore [see also: humans], so while the nene is all finicky with its diet of leaves and berries, the Kalij krew is sucking down entire plants, from roots to buds, robbing the nenes of current and future crops in a single sitting.
I feel for the poor nenes (to say nothing of honest-to-god, born-here white guys), but should coqui tree frogs, those damn chickens, or even brown people really be faulted for thriving in a new environment? Adaptation is a handy skill that’s otherwise lauded by humans. As an invasive species to Hawaii myself, one of my first acts on arrival was to purchase a basic Hawaiian grammar book, both because I’m a big freakball and because I didn’t want to mangle the names of streets and people and seem too much like a tourist, though I’m guessing that any cred I attained in my prodigious ability to pronounce Queen Lili’uokalani’s name was blown as a result of my visit to the Mauna Loa macadamia nut factory:
Learning about the 12-letter alphabet, including all five vowels plus seven consonants, explained the paucity of hard sounds among all those mellifluous mingling vowels, and picking up some basic rules—like every syllable and every word must end in a vowel sound, no two consonants can occur without a vowel separating them, and the accent almost always falls on the penultimate syllable—helped me adapt to my new environment. Not that Hawaii has much of an adapt-or-die vibe, but failure to adapt can be so ugly. Consider the Bradys.
I wish I could tell you that I didn’t think even once about the three-episode Hawaiian vacation arc of The Brady Bunch while visiting the islands, but that would be a lie. I was reminded of it on our very first day, as we hiked the very first trail at Volcanoes National Park. The Bradys didn’t even go to the Big Island as far as I’m aware, but they trotted gamely alongside as we walked past the steam vents of Kilauea, as I undoubtedly drove le domestique to murderous thoughts by painstakingly describing every bit of trouble various family members encountered as a result of Bobby’s having picked up that infernal tiki idol.
That isn’t to say that my Brady memories weren’t corrupted. For instance, I remembered that Don Ho had made a guest appearance, but I misremembered that it had in fact been he who told Bobby the idol would bring an invasive species like himself nothing but heartache; now that I’ve refreshed my memory at the information gettin’ place called the Internet, I’m reminded that he was warned off the idol by those same random guys who told Greg about the big surfing contest that he should enter—because Greg had clearly and obviously become a championship surfer on the flight over.
Le domestique had to be reminded of these basic plot elements because she [claims she] has maybe never even seen the Bradys’ Hawaii triptych! She is, however, aware that the Bradys had run into similarly stressful situations on their Grand Canyon trip, which led us to speculate on a hike through a stunningly beautiful rain forest that the Bradys simply should not have traveled, because they never encountered such strife when they stuck to their own turf, which happens to be the very San Fernando Valley that we call home, which volleys up another issue: As SFV dwellers accustomed to our soft city life on a piece of land which, however licked lengthwise by the Pacific, is contiguously linked to a whole continent’s worth of infrastructure, are we not just as ill-equipped to meet Pele on her own terms? Le domestique picked up a tiki idol in the Honolulu airport; had she slipped it into her theoretical purse instead of setting it back down—after noting that it was made in China—would we have ended up like the Brady boys, hapless hostages of a late-career Vincent Price in his creepy cave lair?
Which brings us to the Thurston Lava Tube, the product of an approximately 500-year-old lava flow that could easily have served as the set for Price’s cool tiki cave hideout. It seems that as a lava flow cools, the outside can form a solid upper crust even as lava continues to flow through its insulated center, forming a tunnel. It’s kind of like a Twinkie, another potentially 500-year-old product, with its creamy goodness excised. Unlike the Thurston Lava Tube, no Twinkie has yet been declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site—but fear not, the little sponge cake can’t be denied its due forever.
VNP has been kind enough to illuminate a section of the TLT that is fairly uniform in width and height such that the average invasive species can amble through it without a flashlight and get the subterranean vibe without need of much courage. But there is kindness also in letting nature stand for itself, and because Hawaii is cool like that, VNP has left a much longer section of the tunnel—a portion less regular in width, height, and depth—dark and craggy and separated from tourists only by a gate and sign warning of its undeveloped nature and the absolute necessity of self-provided light sources beyond that point. Again, I have to hand it to the country of Hawaii for warning tourists of potential pitfalls and then leaving it to us to decide whether we’d like to face the very slight odds that the awesomeness that lies just around the bend could claim a life, perhaps my own.
Happily, le domestique had packed a headlamp, so we surfaced to the rainforest exterior and made our way back to our rental car, then returned to descend its murky maw. As she who is inordinately fond of dark, drippy, and slightly dangerous places, I pronounced the undeveloped part of the TLT an early trip nominee for Coolest Place Ever!
Sharing a single headlamp posed its challenges, but we held hands. Tightly. Tighter still when I noted the similarity in sights and sounds to the very creepy horror flick The Descent, wherein a swell group of nonnative species of the gal variety go spelunking only to encounter subterranean cannibalistic humanoids way scarier than any late-career Vincent Price could ever be. They sound like giggling cockroaches and look like this:
Let’s play an analogy game!
The humanoids in The Descent are to the Sleestaks of Land of the Lost…
as the Thurston Lava Tube is to a ___________.
The dark side of TLT is the kind of place that makes a person feel brave and scared witless all at once—and maybe a little happier for the experience once it’s over, at which time I wanted to do it again. Not unlike riding a roller coaster backward, a terrifying proposition Magic Mountain (now Six Flags) used to occasionally offer up back in the day on its monster wooden coaster Colossus. I was never the bravest kid on the block, but the first rule of hanging out with boys is, Do as they do, and don’t cry about it. So I rode the damn roller coaster backward, never happier than when it finally pulled back into the station. Coming home from Hawaii hasn’t yielded that same sense of bewildered relief, but I know that if I overstayed my welcome there, the stigma of my invasive species status would eventually get me down. I had to return to my “native” soil, because unlike the coqui tree frog, I’m neither willing nor able to replicate myself 10,000-fold to claim my piece of the rain forest, especially when just a one-eighth share is enough to claim sovereign casino gambling rights. I’m waiting, my Blackfeet people.
Speaking of roller coasters, I apologize for any jarring segues, tangents, or abandoned roads you may have noted in the preceding text. My brain is currently laboring under the auspices of Her Royal Highness Mania, which bestows on my thought processes all the fluid melody of free jazz—and makes me think everything I’ve written is fucking brilliant! She’s a fun friend, until she’s not, at which time I may sheepishly delete this post and salt the cyberspace it once occupied.