Book Excerpt: 'Intelligent Tinkering' By Robert Cabin

Book Excerpt: 'Intelligent Tinkering' By Robert Cabin

Alisa Opar
Published: 05/31/2011

It was a miracle that this forest had survived to the last decade of the twentieth century. Its continued existence was probably due to its location within a large kpuka-an island of vegetation surrounded by a sea of barren lava. The wide sheets of 'a' that encapsulated it must have served as both a natural firebreak and a physical barrier to the herds of goats and cattle that roam these lands looking for something to eat within the endless fields of unpalatable fountain grass. Nobody knows for sure how fire finally managed to penetrate this kpuka. Perhaps fountain grass's steady colonization of its surrounding lava shield provided enough fuel for the fire to hopscotch its way in. Perhaps the wind simply blew a clump of burning grass into its interior. Or maybe, as some say, the fire was deliberately set by a disgruntled rancher or bored teenagers.
By the time I finally reached the dead trees, I had seen more than enough to satisfy my curiosity and my conscience. There were no new leaves or shoots on the trees, no regenerating native shrubs or vines, no seedlings or seedpods on the ground. Up close, the blackened trunks looked more like tombstones than ghosts. I could tell I was looking at the corpses of several different kinds of tree, but I could not determine with any confidence which species they were. Although such hard, dense wood takes forever to rot in this parched environment, I knew it would not be long before the last tree toppled over and disappeared in the underlying thicket of rank fountain grass.
I wiped the sweat out of my eyes and looked toward the Kohala Mountains, twenty-five miles to the northeast, but all I saw was mile after mile of fountain grass interspersed with more barren, black, bleak lava flows. The view to the southwest was only marginally less discouraging: while there were still a few scattered bands of native trees poking up here and there, I saw new roads going in and new construction projects going up virtually everywhere. The Big Island's famous Kona coastline to the west was a mixture of raw lava, groves of thorny alien kiawe trees (Prosopis pallida, or mesquite), and the kind of high-end resorts that rent private pieces of well-stocked paradise for many thousands of dollars a night. Only a few miles away from the kpuka, I spotted the lush greens and glittering, volcano-motif copper clubhouse of Charles Schwab's new $50 million private golf course: apparently he had not found any of Kona's fifteen existing golf courses quite up to par.
I turned away from the sea and the opulence and looked back upslope at the tiny parcels of native trees lining the highway. The North Kona Dryland Forest Working Group had collectively spent thousands of hours to preserve and restore those forest remnants. We had erected and maintained fences, established perimeter firebreaks, killed and cleared fountain grass and other weeds, poisoned rodents, collected seeds, and propagated and transplanted thousands of native trees, shrubs, and vines. Local groups ranging from elementary school kids to native Hawaiian teenagers to real estate agents had repeatedly donated their time and labor to help with these efforts. Hundreds of people within and beyond the Hawaiian Islands had come to see and study this ecosystem. My own scientific research program had progressed from documenting the demise of these forests to experimenting with promising techniques for restoring them at ever larger spatial scales.
Looking at the fruits of our work from this distance, I felt a wave of optimism sweep over me, and for the first time I truly believed that even this saddest of all the sad Hawaiian ecosystems could be saved. I turned around again and looked at the ruined trees. "We can grow another forest here," I muttered. "We know what to do and how to do it."
As the eminent ecologist, conservationist, and pioneering wilderness advocate Aldo Leopold once observed, those who care about the natural world and are aware of what we have done and are doing to it often live "alone in a world of wounds." Environmentalists are almost always forced to play defense: fighting to maintain and enforce hard-won yet meager environmental regulations, scrambling to halt the construction of the next shopping mall, lobbying to preserve the integrity of our last few crumbs of relatively wild and untrammeled places. Thus, one of the most powerful aspects of ecological restoration is that it offers a rare opportunity to go on the offensive; those who do it usually get to, at least occasionally, enjoy the sweet satisfaction of seeing degraded ecosystems and communities and species reverse course and get better.


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