Tuesday, December 22, 2009

David Douglas (Douglas Fir) and Hawaii

Living in Connecticut some time ago we always looked for Douglas Firs this time of year for our Christmas tree (“Doug-fir” to my son). Probably as a reaction to growing up in Ohio and having sparse balsam fir trees all my early life (think Charlie Brown trees), I grew to prefer the lush, long-needled Douglas Fir for the holidays.

Moving to Hawaii I was surprised to learn that David Douglas, for whom the tree is named, died here on the Big Island at the young age of only 35. On July 12, 1834 while trying to explore Mauna Kea he fell into a bullock pit, or was pushed, and then died from wounds from being gored by a steer either already in the pit or one that fell in later.

His life is venerated by many, particularly by botanists of all stripes, and by his native Scotland and those of Scottish descent. In fact, there is a marker indicating where his death occurred erected in the 1930’s by the Robert Burns Society of Hilo. It is called Kaluakauka ("Doctor's Pit" in the Hawaiian language).

David Douglas Memorial, Hawaii Island

Photo: Gordon Mason

The circumstances around his passing are confusing because before beginning his trek he was alerted to the location of the three bullock pits on the trail, and he had already passed two. Some think he may have been examining the third and accidentally fallen into it. Others think that his host the prior night, a “well-known scoundrel,” may have followed him and robbed Douglas of his gold – which he was known to carry with him – before pushing him into the pit.

We do know that Douglas was expected back in Hilo to again stay with the Lyman’s, one of the earlier missionary families. Virtually all visitors to the island ended up at the Lyman’s sooner or later, at least for dinner, including Mark Twain and the many whaleboat captains who used Hilo’s harbor for provisioning.

David Douglas had been with the Lymans prior to his successful climb over Mauna Loa and was expected to stay with them on his return from Mauna Kea.

His remains were salted and sent to Oahu for an autopsy which proved to be inconclusive. Douglas was then buried at Kawiaihoa Church in Honolulu, where a plaque commemorates his achievements.

Douglas accomplished an amazing amount in his short life, for instance, he introduced more North American plants to Europe than anyone else (more than 250). There are about 50 plant species and one genus (Douglasia) bearing his name. After his death, the great tree of western North America was given the name Douglas fir. Kathleen Airdrie

A documentary film, Finding David Douglas, about the life and achievements of Douglas has just been completed and its United States premier will be Thursday, April 8, 2010 at the World Forestry Center, 4033 SW Canyon Road, Portland, Oregon – time to be determined (http://www.ochcom.org/).

So heads up to all our friends in Portland! All pictures from Oregon Cultural Heritage Commission website.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Blog: Temperatures Drop Below Minus 459⁰F in Hawaii !

Perhaps the coldest spot in the universe is on the summit of Mauna Kea on the Big Island. It is inside a giant, complex camera known as SCUBA-2 that is mounted on the James Clerk Maxwell Telescope (JCMT), a joint project of the national astronomy organizations in the United Kingdom, Canada and the Netherlands.

SCUBA-2, when fully operational, will detect sub millimeter radiation, which is sensitive to the heat emitted by the extremely cold dust in the Universe. This technical advancement is expected to make discoveries related to the origins of the galaxies, stars and planets.

Looking at Scuba2

In order to detect such low levels of heat, the detectors inside the camera must be as sensitive as possible. To achieve this they must be cooled to within a tenth of a degree above absolute zero (or about -459 Fahrenheit). And to prevent the detectors being affected by heat from the camera itself, the internal optics of the camera must also be cooled. As a result, the complete camera is the size of a family car, weighing about four tons!

“With a much larger field-of-view and sky-background limited sensitivity, SCUBA 2 will map large areas of sky up to 1000 times faster than the current SCUBA camera. All areas of astronomy will benefit, from studies of our Solar System and surveys of proto stellar complexes in the Milky Way, to answering key questions about the formation and evolution of galaxies in the early Universe.” (Science & Technology Facilities Council, UK Astronomy Technology Centre).

More details may be found at http://astro.uwaterloo.ca/SCUBA2/Posters&Presentations/SCUBA2_descriptionV1.pdf


All photos are courtesy of Devany Davidson.

SCUBA-2 took seven years to build and was the result of a joint initiative of groups and institutions in the United Kingdom and Canada including the Astronomy Technology Centre (ATC) at the Royal Observatory, Edinburgh; the University of Cardiff; the University of Waterloo;the University of British Columbia; the University of Lethbridge; and the Université de Montréal. Initial funding for development work came from the JCMT Instrument Development Fund. Funds for the construction of SCUBA-2 were provided by the Particle Physics and Astronomy Research Council(UK) and the Canada Foundation for Innovation (CFI).

Apologizes to anyone who blogged “scuba diving” and ended up here.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Blog: Hawaii Lava Sledding

My wife Devany and I recently visited the Hulihe`e Palace on Alii Drive in Kailua-Kona. It had been the vacation residence of Hawaiian royalty and was just reopened following extensive renovation work to fix damage caused by an earthquake in October 2006.

On display was an unusual looking apparatus looking something like a luge but only much narrower. The sign near it said it was used in ancient times for mountain surfing (?). This immediately grabbed our attention because it seemed so improbable -- and dangerous -- the sled was only about six inches wide.


I learned later that it was indeed a sled (papahölua) made of wood lashed together with cords from braiding the fibers of coconut husks.

Checking MythicHawaii.com led me to understand that in fact Hawaiian lava sledding (Hawaiian: he‘e holua, "mountain surfing") is a traditional sport of Native Hawaiians. It involves the use of a narrow twelve foot long, six inch wide wooden sled made from native wood like Kau‘ila or Ohia. The sled can be used standing up, lying down, or kneeling, to ride down man-made courses of lava rock, often reaching speeds of 50 mph or greater! And in the past, Hawaiian lava sledding was considered both a sport and a religious ritual for honoring the gods.


Lava sledding was often done on a course made of rocks and built into a depression on a hillside. It was covered in packed-in dirt and an outer layer of grass, ti leaves and/or flower tassels. Courses were wide enough just for a single sled.

Any research on the subject inevitably leads back to a Honolulu Star-Bulletin story in July 2005 by Alexandre Da Silva of the Associated Press about Tom “Pohaku” Stone.

From Da Silva’s interview with Tom Stone, you can find out that it takes Tom about two weeks, or 24 hours of nonstop work, to finish a sled. (People interested in commissioning a piece should get in touch with the Hawaiian Boarding Company.) Further, in Di Silva’s piece done some four years ago:

Stone said his solid wood sleds "last forever," unlike today's snowboards and surfboards built on more high-tech, yet less durable materials like fiberglass and foam. For example, the Bishop Museum, the state's largest museum, has an 800-year-old sled on display, he said.

A retired lifeguard and champion surfer, Stone has discovered some 57 rock slides of various lengths across the state, and spent three days with a crew of seven to make a 200-foot repair on a 700-foot course. The only remaining course on Oahu is at Kaena Point, he said, and only two courses are in rideable conditions, both on the Big Island.

Tom Stone

by Dana Edmunds

"You can't even imagine what it's like to be head first, four inches off the ground, doing 30, 40, 50 miles an hour on rock," Stone said. "It looks like you are riding just fluid lava. It's death-defying ... but it's a lot of fun."

OK, so be sure and add this to your Big Island “must do” list on your next visit J. And I need to find out where do I sign up.........(right -- well maybe in my dreams).

Friday, November 13, 2009

Blog: Snake Break

Brahminy Blind Snake
I assumed after my last blog on the mongoose that its presence here explained the absence of snakes on Hawaii. But no, Hawaii has never had snakes (full disclosure: Hawai'i actually has had one native snake since about 1980, a Brahminy Blind Snake, which looks more like a worm than a snake, lives underground and is generally mistaken for an earthworm). It turns out unsurprisingly that being surrounded by water is a pretty good condition for not having snakes, e.g., there are also none in Ireland or New Zealand. Plus Hawaii works very hard to keep them out.
Then I wondered about Ireland because unlike Hawaii which is 2,400 miles from the nearest continental land mass, Ireland use to be connected to the UK by a land bridge and England has snakes. I then remembered that St Patrick had stood on a hill and charmed all the snakes on the island to go down to the seashore, slither into the water, and drown. Ur….hang on, isn’t that a fable? Well, it is – instead, when Ireland was covered by the last glacier which ended some 15,000 years ago all the snakes died as they did in England. But snakes were able to cross the English Channel to the UK from continental Europe by rafting across it on logs and such. However, the Irish Sea, which separates Ireland from England, is even wider and wilder than the Channel and posed a greater challenge to the snakes. The prevailing currents simply do not run in the right direction.

Back to Hawaii. Instead of turning out to be a light-hearted subject I learned that the islands are under considerable threat from the brown tree snake in Guam. Those interested should read the treatise done by Messrs. Kraus and Cravalho (Pacific Science, October 2001). It turns out the brown snake would be as bad as the mongoose to the Islands’ ecology! And the mongooses would not control the snake population because of access to easier prey.
Here is why the brown tree snake of Guam is so dangerous – again thanks to Fred Kraus, Hawaii Division of Forestry and Wildlife (http://www.state.hi.us/dlnr/Snake.html).
“The brown tree snake is a nocturnal and arboreal snake that ranges from eastern Indonesia to the Solomon Islands and northern Australia. After World War II it was accidentally introduced to Guam, apparently as a hitchhiker on military cargo returning from use in the war in New Guinea. In the next three decades the snake spread throughout Guam and eventually resulted in the extinction of nine of the island's twelve forest birds, half of its lizards, and perhaps some of its bats. It remains the leading cause of endangerment for the few remaining native vertebrates on Guam.
This snake has affected humans on Guam in a variety of ways too. Since 1980, Guam has suffered an average of one power outage every three days because the snakes cross power lines and short out the circuits. The island's previously thriving poultry industry has been devastated because the snake crawls into coops and eats the eggs and chicks. Many pet dogs and cats have been lost in a similar fashion.
Because of its secretive habits, the brown tree snake is adept at hiding itself in small spaces during the day and, consequently, is easily transported between islands in cargo shipments. Brown tree snakes have left Guam in this fashion several times, turning up in a variety of locations around the globe, such as Saipan, Wake, Tinian, Rota, Okinawa, Diego Garcia, Australia, and Texas. Between 1981 and 1994, seven brown tree snakes were accidentally transported to O`ahu in this manner and captured upon arrival. Most were found dead or dying near airport runways. As far as is known, brown tree snakes have not formed a self-sustaining population in Hawai`i. But constant vigilance is required to avert this disaster.
Because it has a similar climate and fauna, Hawai`i could expect to suffer many of the same negative ecological and economic consequences that Guam has if the brown tree snake were to become established here. Most of our remaining native forest birds would go extinct, power outages would probably be fairly frequent, and the tourist industry would possibly suffer from the negative publicity. To avoid this possibility, several state and federal government agencies have been working together for the past several years to ensure that the snake does not reach Hawai`i.
The first line of defense in keeping the brown tree snake out of Hawai`i involves the U.S. Department of Agriculture's program on Guam to keep the snakes out of the transportation network. This involves trapping and nigh night searches to remove snakes from port facilities, inspection of outbound cargo and vehicles with snake-detection dogs, and research into new ways to lower snake population levels on Guam. Searches of inbound planes and cargo are conducted by Hawai`i Department of Agriculture as an additional guarantee against snakes arriving into the islands. This is the second line of defense. As a final measure, DLNR has trained staff and groups of volunteers from other agencies in appropriate methods of finding brown tree snakes in the field. In the event of a likely brown tree snake report, these teams are called into action to search for the snake in an effort to ensure that any brown tree snakes that do arrive here do not have a chance to establish a self-sustaining population. Teams occur on each of the main Hawaiian islands.

You can help protect Hawai`i from brown tree snakes too. No snake species are native to Hawai`i (although the small, harmless blind snake has become established here this century), and all have the potential to become problems should they establish here. So if you see a snake anywhere in Hawai`i, immediately report it to the proper authorities, such as the Department of Agriculture (586-PEST) or the police. If it is safe to do so, it is best to kill the snake (e.g., drive over it, beat it with any blunt object, cut it in half with a machete) before calling. If not, keep the snake in visual contact until authorities arrive. A prompt response is essential to ensuring that the snake does not escape and can be captured by the proper authorities.”
For more information on brown tree snakes see http://reorg.nbii.gov/browntreesnake.
I wish this blog had turned out more upbeat, but this difficult, finicky, beautiful, wondrous planet has troubles everywhere, even in these incomparable islands which are certainly close to, if not, paradise. "Would that it were otherwise"

Friday, November 6, 2009

“Hang Loose, Mongoose”

“A generation ago Hawaiian cowboys, riding by a certain burial site in the northern grasslands of the Big Island, were in the habit of reining in, dismounting, and urinating on the grave. Buried here was "Mongoose" Forbes. In the 1870s Forbes sold mongooses to the managers of Hawaii's sugar plantations, on the grounds that this import from Asia would eat rats. (Norway rats had jumped ship in Hawaii and were raising Cain in the cane.) The disrespectful posthumous salute by the Hawaiian cowboys would have mystified Forbes. Like most of those men who have introduced alien animals to islands, Mongoose Forbes thought he was doing good (The Atlantic Monthly, August 1985).”
Actually everyone in Hawaii knows very well the misadventure of mankind introducing the mongoose into the Islands, but when I was told that the animal was active during the day (diurnal) and knowing that rats are nocturnal, it seemed unlikely anyone could have been that dim-witted. Well I was wrong.
Apparently, in 1872 someone by the name of W. B. Espeut introduced Indian Mongoose from Calcutta to the island of Jamaica to control its rising rat population. A subsequent paper published by Espeut, that praised the results, intrigued local Hawaiian plantation owners who, in 1883, brought 72 mongooses from Jamaica to the Hamakua Coast (maybe sold by “Mongoose” Forbes) here on the Big Island. These were raised and their offspring were shipped to plantations on Maui, Molokai and Oahu (Instant Hawaii).
(Legend has it when Kauai's shipment arrived one of the critters bit the dock hand that was unloading them. He bumped the shipping container they had arrived in knocking it into the ocean, therefore, the mongoose were never dispatched to perform their intended duties.)
Not everyone was convinced that importing mongooses was a good idea. In an 1883 issue of Planters Monthly, someone wrote, "Whether it would be wise to introduce the animal to these Islands may be a question. It would be important to first learn more of the nature of the creature, for they may prove an evil." (SusanScott.net). Smart man, but unfortunately, this anonymous writer's advice was not taken.
The Mongooses did eat rats, it turns out, and did help slightly in the sugar cane fields, but came nowhere near controlling the rat population. And worse, Hawaii does not have any natural predators of the mongoose.

As in Kipling's Jungle Book character Rikki-Tikki-Tavi, the devil-eyed cunning critter is famous for taking on venomous snakes like king cobras. But that is not why the ferret-like mongooses are sometimes referred to as the most dangerous animal in the world. That title was earned when it became clear that the mongoose is unparalleled when it comes to destroying native species. A fact learned the hard way in Hawaii. (Naturally Speaking)
Nowadays, mongooses rule every Hawaiian island except Lana'i and Kaua'i, and even there it may only be a matter of time. Recently, mongooses have been sighted on Kaua’i. Almost all the mongooses on the Hawaiian Islands today are descended from the original ones brought over by W.B. Espeut from Calcutta to Jamaica (Naturally Speaking).
Mongooses love eggs and they will throw eggs against rocks to break them open and to eat them. They also prey on fledgling and adult native Hawaiian birds, not to mention endangered sea turtle eggs and hatchlings (Naturally Speaking).

What has been truly sad is that the mongoose has diminished the number of the Hawaiian State Bird, the Nene (or Hawaiian Goose) to almost extinction.
About the only good thing that can be said about them in these Isles is that I learned that mongooses are monogamous, and that when the mate of a mongoose dies the survivor will never mate again.
And it case you were wondering -- yes, mongooses is the preferred plural form although mongeese is acceptable. Just be glad you are not a non-native English speaker trying to learn this confusing language, and if you are, well….my thoughts are with you.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Hawaii Island’s New Thirty Meter Telescope

Scientific American’s August issue had an article titled, Almost Heaven: Landing the Thirty Meter Telescope Fortifies Mauna Kea's Position as Earth's Eye on the Sky. I don’t know about the telescope claim, but those of us lucky enough to live here can almost certainly verify the “Almost Heaven” lead-in.

Actually, just this past July 21st the Big Island was selected as the site for one of the world’s biggest telescopes – the 30 meter telescope (TMT). The project is expected to cost about $754 million in 2006 dollars, and could be operational by 2018.

Photo: Thirty Meter Telescope Observatory Corp.

This has not proven to be a non-controversial issue. For one thing, Native Hawaiian tradition believes that the high altitudes are sacred. And Mona Kea is also home to at least one confirmed burial site. Some also say that the telescope would require leveling the last pristine plateau on the mountaintop. The opposition from Native Hawaiian and environmental groups could constitute a lengthy blog of its own, and I hope some of my new Hawaiian friends will contribute such a piece.

Why Mauna Kea…..? For one thing, Mauna Kea already has 13 international telescopes so it must have something going for it. Nonetheless, other sites were considered, for instance in Chile's Atacama Desert and in Baja California, Mexico.

I learned from Chris Bailey’s article in Hawaii Magazine that astronomers love Mauna Kea because its summit sits above the clouds at 13,796 feet, offering a clear view of the sky for almost 300 days each year.

Also, Hawaii’s position in the middle of the Pacific Ocean means the area is relatively free of air pollution. And the mountain’s relatively isolated location from Big Island cities Hilo and Kailua-Kona leaves the summit largely devoid of man-made light to disrupt observations.

The Moonrise in the Shadow of Mauna Kea by Michael Connelley

Richard Ellis, astronomy professor the California Institute of Technology and a Thirty Meter Telescope board member, told reporters (Audrey Mcavoy, July 21st, 2009) that Mauna Kea is at a higher elevation, has drier air and its average temperature fluctuates less during the course of the day — all helpful factors for those using the new telescope.

Scientific American pointed out Site evaluations for the TMT began in 2001 with a team of scientists trekking to some of the most remote places on Earth. In the end, Mauna Kea, actually the summit of a dormant volcano that rises 9,750 meters off the ocean floor—the highest island mountain in the world – edged out the Atacama Desert for several reasons. One, it is higher by over 1,000 meters (3,280 feet), it has less water vapor (than a desert (?)), and the temperature rarely varies from 32 degrees Fahrenheit making it easier to control the expansion and contraction of the mirror and telescope.

Credit TMT Project

The telescope’s mirror — stretching almost 100 feet in diameter— will be so large that it hopes to gather light that has spent 13 billion years traveling to earth! This means astronomers looking into the telescope will be able to see images of the first stars and galaxies forming — just 400 million years after the Big Bang.


We will be trekking ourselves to the top of Mauna Kea next month and are highly anticipating the adventure.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Historic Overview of Hawaii Volcanoes National Park

Watching Ken Burns’ spectacular series The National Parks: America’s Best Idea,” I learned that parks were created both in Hawaii and Alaska way before they were States. In fact Hawaii Volcanoes National Park here on the Big Island was established in 1916 and was actually just the country’s tenth national park.

So how did this happen on Hawaii Island? It appears that suggestions that the Kilauea summit area become a national park began appearing in the Volcano House guest register and in newspapers in Hawaii as early as 1903. Apparently its territorial status did not inhibit the United States federal government from acting.

Two men’s passions, Thomas Jaggar and Lorrin Thurston, crossed -- the former in his role in establishing the Hawaiian Volcano Observatory (HVO) and the later for his effort in convincing the United States government to protect the volcano by making it a National Park. It is possible that we would have had a National Park without the HVO but I doubt if it would have happened nearly so soon. My guess is that the HVO greatly facilitated travel to the volcano and helped to heighten interest in it.

Thomas Augustus Jaggar, Jr.

Philadelphia born Thomas Augustus Jaggar (1871-1953) not only had a great name but he had three geology degrees from Harvard (A.B., A.M., and Ph.D.), studied in Munich and Heidelberg, and taught at Harvard! There was then only one volcano observatory in the world, at Vesuvius established in 1847 and Jaggar thought America needed one. He traveled to Hawaii in 1909 determined that Kilauea was to be the home of the first American volcano observatory.

Within a year of meeting Lorrin Thurston who (along with others) provided financial backing, a small observing station was set up on the rim of Halemaʻumaʻu crater (a pit crater within Kilauea's summit caldera). In 1912 construction of the Hawaiian Volcano Observatory (HVO) began.

Lorrin Andrews Thurston

Lorrin Andrews Thurston (1858–1931) was born in Honolulu, grandson of one of the original missionaries from New England. He studied law at Columbia University and became a member of the Honolulu bar. In the Kingdom of Hawaii, Thurston served in both elected and appointed positions, but he was a leader in the revolution (January 17, 1893) that overthrew Queen Liliuokalani and ended the native monarchy.

He was also a volcano enthusiast and in 1891 he bought and expanded the Volcano House hotel at the rim of the volcano. Thurston commissioned a cyclorama of Kilauea which he displayed in his travels to the mainland, including the Chicago World's Columbian Exposition of 1893.

Thurston in Center

From 1906 to 1916 he and friends lobbied with national politicians to create a National Park to preserve the Hawaiian Volcanoes.

Building the Observatory

Starting in 1912 a foundation had to be dug only about 20 feet from the rim of the caldera for Jaggar's volcano observation post.

To help stretch limited funds the diggers were prisoners of the Territory of Hawaii, sentenced to a term of hard labor. The prisoners dug through almost six feet of volcanic ash and pumice to a layer of thick pahoehoe lava—a firm base for the concrete piers on which seismometers would be anchored

Plans and elevations for the piers were hand drawn by Professor F. Omori at the Seismological Institute, Imperial University, Tokyo, Japan, and mailed to Jaggar. Also shipped to Jaggar were an Omori-type seismometer and a seismograph for the observation of earthquakes

Mauna Loa Lava Flow

Why Jaggar chose Kilauea for his volcano observatory included the following reasons: (1) Kilauea was the safest known volcano in the world; (2) Kilauea and Mauna Loa were isolated, more than 2,000 miles away from complications other volcanic centers might impose; (3) Kilauea was reasonably accessible—it could be reached by a 30 mile road from Hilo harbor or a day's sail from Honolulu; (4) the central Pacific was good for recording distant earthquakes and was served by good transportation east or west; (5) the climate was uniform, with air clear enough for astronomy; (6) small earthquakes were frequent and easily studied; (7) hot and cold underground waters were available for both agricultural and scientific purposes; and (8) "The territory is American, and these volcanoes are famous in the history of science for their remarkably liquid lavas and nearly continuous activity" (Jaggar, 1917).

Becoming a National Park

While Jaggar established the HVO, Thurston used his newspaper to promote the national park idea and convinced the territorial legislature to fund a group of congressmen to visit Kilauea in 1907. The trip included a dinner cooked over active lava vents. He hosted a visit by the Secretary of the Interior James Rudolph Garfield (son of the then late-President) in 1908, and another congressional visit in 1909. He convinced Territorial Governor Walter F. Frear to introduce a resolution supporting the idea, and formed a survey team to propose exact boundaries. His newspaper printed endorsements of the park by President Theodore Roosevelt (who happened to be a classmate at Columbia), conservationist John Muir, and powerful Senator Henry Cabot Lodge. In 1913 he explored a lava tube in the park that is now named after him.

Today Hawaii Volcanoes National Park is the largest of the five national parks in Hawaii. It contains the active volcanoes of Mauna Loa and Kilauea and covers some 520 square miles (over 320,000 acres) of land. Over half of the park is designated wilderness. The east rift of Kilauea has been erupting continuously since 1983. Kilauea’s crater covers more than four square miles and is the largest active volcanic crater in the world. Its inner pit, Halemaumau, is sometimes called the “House of Everlasting Fire.” The park’s landscape includes the Kau Desert on the arid eastern slope of Kilauea and a luxuriant tree fern forest on its moist western side. And not to be missed is the Jaggar Museum (the Hawaii Volcano Observatory which adjoins the museum is not open to the public) and its incredible views.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Mark Twain and the Monkey-Pod Tree

One of my hobbies is reading and one of my favorite authors is Mark Twain. So when I heard that at the age of 31 he had brought the monkey-pod tree to the Big Island, I was immediately curious.

The monkey-pod tree is fascinating and magnificent. Part of the legume family the tree is also commonly known as raintree, from the belief that the tree produces rain at night.

The leaflets close up at night or when under heavy cloud cover, allowing rain to pass easily through the crown. This trait may contribute to the frequently observed fact that grass remains green under the trees in times of drought.

However, the shading effect of the crown, the addition of nitrogen to the soil by decomposition of litter from this leguminous tree, and possibly, the sticky droppings of cicada insects in the trees all contribute to this phenomenon. (For more information on the tree see Roger G. Skolmen’s Monkey-Pod Tree.)

But back to Mark Twain – why would he be the one to bring this fantastic species to the Big Island? As far as I know he wasn’t particularly interested in botany, and for another, where would he get the seeds and how likely were they to grow? It sounded like a tall tale to me.

Among hundreds of references to this affair, is this one from a recent New York Times article (NY Times), “a long drive out of Volcanoes National Park winds down around the United States' southernmost point, then up the coast to Kailua-Kona. In Waiohinu, a roadside marker points out Mark Twain's monkey-pod tree, planted by the man himself.”

Another typical reference, taken from Pahala Village Hawaii History of Ka`u, “1866: Mark Twain visits Ka`u. He plants a row of monkey-pod trees in Waiohinu” (http://www.pahala-hawaii.com ).

Yet in Mark Twains’ letters about visiting Waiohinu there is no mention made of a monkey-pod tree planting. Nor did I see it in his book, Roughing It in the Sandwich Islands which is basically his Hawaii letters in more polished form.

His letters from the Sandwich Islands (Hawaii) were published in the Sacramento Daily Union. Here is the complete excerpt from his time in Waiohinu.

The Sacramento Daily Union, October 25, 1866

Kilauea, June, 1866.

We went ashore in the first boat and landed in the midst of a black, rough, lava solitude, and got horses and started to Waiohinu, six miles distant. The road was good, and our surroundings fast improved. We were soon among green groves and flowers and occasional plains of grass. There are a dozen houses at Waiohinu, and they have got sound roofs, which is well, because the place is tolerably high upon the mountain side and it rains there pretty much all the time. The name means "sparkling water," and refers to a beautiful mountain stream there, but they ought to divide up and let it refer to the rain also.

A sugar plantation has been started at Waiohinu, and 150 acres planted, a year ago, but the altitude ranges from 1,800 to 2,500 feet above sea level, and it is thought it will take an other year for the cane to mature.


We had an abundance of mangoes, papaias and bananas here, but the pride of the islands, the most delicious fruit known to men, cherimoya, was not in season. It has a soft pulp, like a pawpaw, and is eaten with a spoon. The papaia looks like a small squash, and tastes like a pawpaw.

In this rainy spot trees and flowers flourish luxuriantly, and three of those trees - two mangoes and an orange - will live in my memory as the greenest, freshest and most beautiful I ever saw - and withal, the stateliest and most graceful. One of those mangoes stood in the middle of a large grassy yard, lord of the domain and incorruptible sentinel against the sunshine. When one passed within the compass of its broad arms and its impenetrable foliage he was safe from the pitiless glare of the sun - the protecting shade fell everywhere like a somber darkness.

And no mention of planting a row of monkey-pod trees or even of planting a single one!

On the other hand, I did learn that the monkey-pod tree was reportedly introduced into Hawaii in 1847 almost 20 years before Mark Twain arrived. Mr. Peter A. Brinsmade, a businessman visiting Europe, returned to Hawaii, presumably via Panama, with two seeds, both of which germinated. One of the seedlings was planted in downtown Honolulu, the other at Koloa on the island of Kauai. (These seedlings are possibly the progenitors of all the monkey-pod trees now in Hawaii).

And further, although the seeds are hard coated and long lived, some germinate soon after moistening by soil contact.

Mark Twain did spend two months in Ho no lulu, Waikīkī and Nu‘u anu, and five weeks on Maui before coming to the Big Island. -- so it was possible that he brought the seeds from Oahu. He spent three weeks here after landing at Kona and traveling along the south coast and up to Hilo and to the volcano at Kīlauea.

Given the lack of reference to the event in his writings, I was prepared to jettison this story into the “island myth” category, but the following review from the Los Angeles times changed my mind:

“Everything in Naalehu and Waiohinu, the two wide spots in the road that pass for towns at South Point, claims to be the southernmost this or that. Except for a monkey-pod tree planted by Mark Twain in 1866, there's not much else to crow about. There is, thankfully, a gas station, along with a couple of places to eat, a fruit stand, and a few B&Bs. These end-of-the-world towns are just about as far removed from the real world as you can get (LA Times).”

So, I say, if that’s their claim to fame, let the legend live on! I’m sure Mark Twain would support it. And, if not true, it should be because it sounds just like the kind of tree and tale he would have loved.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Blog 20 -- Hilo Harbor Breakwater

In 1946, Hilo, Hawaii, was struck by a tsunami generated by an earthquake in the Aleutian Islands; it was struck again in 1960 by a tsunami generated by the great Chilean earthquake. That is why I assumed that the Hilo breakwater was built…..but no, it is much, much older than that.

The Hilo breakwater was actually constructed between 1908 and 1929 upon a submerged reef in Hilo Bay to protect against winter storms. In fact both tsunamis overtopped the breakwater. (A plan to increase its height was rejected partially because no one could assure the public that such a project would indeed protect them from another seismic wave; not to mention questions of aesthetics about a towering wall that would block views to sea.)


Ok, so what are breakwaters? According the US Army Corps of Engineers they are structures employed to reflect and/or dissipate the energy of water waves, thus preventing or reducing wave action in a protected area. They are used to create sufficiently calm waters in a harbor area, thereby providing protection for the safe mooring, operating, and handling of ships and protection of shipping facilities.

Why Hilo?

The growth of Hawaii during the establishment of sugar plantations and their use of immigrant labor and the up-and-coming visitor industry depended on the systematic development of secure harbor facilities. Hilo Harbor is one of two commercial harbors on the Big Island (the other is Kawaihae on the northwest side of the island). The first recorded improvement in Hilo was a stone pier constructed by an early entrepreneur, Thomas Spencer in 1861.

Hilo Harbor is located at Kuhio Bay, itself a small extension of the larger Hilo Bay. The harbor is two miles from the business district of Hilo and some 194 nautical miles southeast of Honolulu Harbor. Both overseas and inter-island ships and barges make regular calls at Hilo Harbor in addition to scheduled passenger cruise ships.

Blonde Reef

The submerged reef upon which the breakwater is built runs in the shape of a crescent, in a position reversed to the crescent of the bay. The average depth of water over this reef is about 23 feet, with occasional pockets of 40 or more feet depth.

It was named Blonde Reef in 1825 in commemoration of a visit by Lord George Byron, cousin of the poet. He arrived in Hawaii aboard the British frigate, H.M.S. Blonde which was carrying the bodies of Liholiho (King Kamehameha II) and his wife Kamamalu to Honolulu for burial there. The Hawaiian king and queen had died of measles within six days of each other while on a visit to London. Lord Byron proceeded to Maui and Oahu and returned to Hilo with Ka’ahumanu, regent of the kingdom. On their arrival Ka’ahumanu declared that Hilo Bay was henceforth to be known as Byron Bay, and from then on the reef that protects the bay has been known as Blonde Reef in honor of the ship that had returned the bodies of the royal couple to their homeland. (Beaches of the Big Island, John R. K. Clark, University of Hawaii Press, 1985).

Construction of Hilo Harbor Breakwater

The United States entered into a contract on June 12, 1908, for constructing the breakwater at Hilo Harbor. The specifications called for a jetty of the rubble mound type (rubble-mound breakwaters are the largest and most substantial of various breakwater types and are used almost exclusively in offshore and major coastal harbor protection schemes.)

Many stones in the slope walls were required to weigh more than two tons each. And across the top and down the sea side slope, to a point three feet under low water, the stones needed to weigh over eight tons each!

The required weight for the stones sent the contractor nearly thirty miles to Puna, on the east point of the island, to open a quarry. For while the whole island is virtually built of flows of lava rock, and the breakwater itself rests on a reef of it, there are comparatively few places on the slopes of Mauna Loa where rock of this weight could be found in large quantities. Nearly four miles of railroad had to be graded and built across lava flows in order to make connections with the tracks of the Hilo Railroad Company over which the stone was hauled.

The breakwater was completed in three sections respectively in 1910, 1911 and 1929. The third section extended the breakwater to its present length of about 2 miles. After dredging a deepwater channel in 1914 and from 1925-1930, the Hilo Harbor took roughly its present form.

In the 21 years of its construction the breakwater ended up using over 950,000 tons of rock -- truly a feat of engineering and worthy of our esteem for all involved. Mahalo !

Nā pana kēia o Keaukaha

Mai ka palekai a I Leleiwi

Pā mau I ka meheu a nā kūpuna.

Ha’alele aku ‘oe I ka palekai

Kahi māka ‘ika’I e nā selamoku

Lana mālie ke kai’ olu nā lawai’a.

These are the famous places of Keaukaha

From the breakwater all the way to Leleiwi

Resounding to the footsteps of our ancestors.

Your leave the breakwater,

The place visited by sailors.

Where the sea lies calm, the fishermen are pleased.

“Na Pana Kaulana o Keaukaha”

© by Edith Kanaka’ole, 1979