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

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Blog 19 - Lessons in Moving

I have been struggling with how to wrap up our moving experience, but think that this does it. I then plan to move on to more random topics that I hope will interest you. For example my next blog will address the building of the Hilo breakwater.

What follows is more of less a summary of the things we did right in moving to the Big Island, and the things that were not done so great. First, the positive (in no particular order):

Positive Lessons

We shipped one car about three weeks in advance that enabled us to have a car immediately available upon arrival. After we shipped the second car, we rented a car for the last few days. We also made arrangements to stay with our next door neighbors for two nights and spent the final night at a hotel by the airport because checking in the animals was a laborious process and we had an early flight.

We made arrangements with Oceanic Time Warner about six weeks in advance to have cable (and internet connection(!)) hooked up on our first day in the house – they did a great job by the way and our internet/TV service has been perfect ever since, i.e., for some nine months now (unlike Comcast in California).

Our vet and my wife were rigorous in correctly completing the paperwork for our pets and double checking with the Kona arrivals’ veterinarian. We were able to retake possession of them even before our bags arrived. Because we were in the bay area, we were able to get a direct flight to Kona (there is not one to Hilo) and we arranged with the Ag Department for Kona Direct Release, which made the whole experience far better than if we had to fly to Honolulu and get them released there and then put them on a second flight. Our flight attendant even let us know when they put the animals on board, just before we took off. Kona Direct release takes some extra planning and time to arrange so allow for it.

We were will prepared for eight weeks of temporary living – which is how long it took for our possessions to arrive and the movers’ “outside” estimate. We did buy a few pieces of furniture when we were here for our closing.

We shipped several boxes to our realtor’s office and then Kelly brought them over to our house so they were here upon our arrival. USPS has Priority Flat Rate Boxes which are great and you can ship any kind of media (paper, books, CD’s, film etc.) at very low costs but they can take as long as one month to get here. We shipped items like pots and pans, towels, dishes, silverware, sheets, etc. We also shipped paint brushes and tools so we could do minor repairs and painting.

We even managed to have a Super Bowl Party before our goods arrived.

Even though it took a long time to get here we felt we made a good choice of movers with West Point. We also learned it was possible to fairly aggressively negotiate price with multiple movers when getting quotes. West Point was considerably cheaper, they met all deadlines, and everything arrived undamaged.

We believe that sending books and other media via the United Postal Service probably saved us some money. Their book rates are really inexpensive. We shipped about 20 boxes that way.

Perhaps most important and if you are reading this blog you probably understand—Devany was very active on local social networking sites such as PunaOnline, Punaweb, and Kona Forum. She posted many questions on these sites and received multiple replies and terrific advice in return. It also gave us a network of people to meet once we moved here and now have as a great bunch of friends.

We were able to hire a carpenter to do some remodeling work before our possessions arrived (“no-brainer”).

What Could Have Been Done Better

We brought way too much stuff even though everyone on the above Forums was advising us against it. Particularly silly was bringing dressy clothes. I brought three suits and three sport coats and about ten dress shirts and have not worn any of them even once. The same goes for closed-toe shoes.

I stressed out way too much going through the process even though Devany was dealing well with it. I just could not see how everything was going to get done in time and come together. I really have no advice here, other than if you are already on anti-anxiety meds do not stop taking them in anticipation of living in paradise – wait until you are here!

Moving over the Christmas holidays was probably a mistake. It took most the joy out of them anyway and made scheduling service people way more difficult.

Moving an old Audi was not a super good idea either. I recently sold it for $1,600 and it cost us $1,000+ to move it here, plus repairs in California of about $800 during the last two months before our departure. I loved that car and had bought it from a good friend who now lives in South Africa.

This is unavoidable for many people, but trying to sell a house while you are getting ready to move is “no day at the beach.” Trying to keep the house looking good, picked-up and inviting does not square with tossing things out, having garage sales and packing.

We had a check list of about 20 things that had to be done when showing the house, turning on lights, music, opening blinds etc. At the end when we were having garage sales and packing we just about went nuts trying to keep things ready for buyers.

And finally, while to-do lists are necessary and I thought the “key,” continually gazing at such does not help get things done. Ideally, review it once at the beginning of the day, determine your priorities and then go get them down. Cross of what you’ve done at the end of the day and feel good about it, not stressed at what’s left to do.