A World Between Waves

A World Between Waves

by Frank Stewart

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A World Between Waves is a collection of essays on the natural history of Hawaii by some of America's most renowned writers. It is a testament to the biological and geological wealth of this unique and threatened island landscape, and a passionate call to action on behalf of what may soon be gone.


A World Between Waves is a collection of essays on the natural history of Hawaii by some of America's most renowned writers. It is a testament to the biological and geological wealth of this unique and threatened island landscape, and a passionate call to action on behalf of what may soon be gone.

Editorial Reviews

Library Journal
Stewart, an editor of collections of essays and literature concerning Hawaii and the Pacific (e.g., Passages to the Dream Shore: Short Stories of Contemporary Hawaii , Univ. of Hawaii Pr., 1987), has gathered here a fine selection of essays on the natural history of Hawaii. Calling his work ``literary natural history,'' he has drawn contributions from such noted writers as John McPhee, Peter Matthiessen, Kenneth Brower, W.S. Merwin, and Diane Ackerman. His goal is to prepare the ``reader's imagination to see those plants, animals . . . impossible for most people to experience first hand.'' He continues to say, ``such writing prepares our eyes to see those plants and creatures nearby, the ones under foot, the ones we thought we knew.'' Like Clive A. Ponting's A Green History of the World ( LJ 4/15/92) and the collection Finding Home: Writing on Nature and Culture from ``Orion'' Magazine ( LJ 7/92), this book shows that natural history is part of human history and that the parts are not separable from the whole. Highly recommended for general collections.-- Mary J. Nickum, Fish and Wildlife Reference Svce., Bethesda, Md.

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A World Between Waves

By Frank Stewart


Copyright © 1992 Frank Stewart
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-59726-923-0





Volcanic Origins

The only way to get to know a volcano, Thomas Jaggar believed, is to live with it.

He built his home on stilts, wedged into a crack in an immensity of dark volcanic rock on the southeast flank of the island of Hawai'i—latitude 19 degrees 5 minutes 47 seconds N, longitude 155 degrees 15 minutes 37 seconds W—at an altitude of four thousand feet, precisely so that he could go to bed at night and wake in the morning snug within the rim of the most continuously active volcano of the world.

After breakfast he would stride through the mountain mists to the cliff face of the crater of Kilauea and clamber two hundred feet down a rope ladder, to stand with nothing between him and the firepit Halema'uma'u. Here he was Thomas Augustus Jaggar, Jr., a human being of the early twentieth century, with his blood heat set by evolution at 98.6 degrees Fahrenheit, wearing the necktie of a serious volcano scientist, measuring the level of a perpetual lava lake that simmered and bubbled and fumed in his eyes. Molten lava, pushing right up at him out of the earth's magma, eighteen hundred degrees and more at the surface. Primordial heat, searing the bare skin of his unbearded, unguarded face.

Jaggar loved to teeter on the very edge of personal physical scorching. He lived and breathed volcanoes. He sniffed his breakfast egg with its faint sulfurous smell and wondered if the egg of all life might be volcanic in origin, if evolution went back beyond the living embryo to the chemistry of volcanoes—sulfur, hydrogen, oxygen, carbon dioxide, ingredients of the egg and ingredients of the volcano.

He smelled out volcanoes wherever they were on earth. At Bogoslof in the Aleutians he saw hot lava tumbling into the ocean, the beaches aroar with sea lions, the steaming air above screaming with birds, life and deadly volcanism flourishing together. At St. Pierre in Martinique, molasses and Caribbean rum flowed like lava in the streets after Mount Pelée laid waste to the town in 1902, and Jaggar saw human beings dead by the hundreds, close up, a baby dead in an iron cradle, a big fellow dead on his back in a deep baker's oven—the flesh shriveled and drawn away from his joints by the heat—not of baking but of volcanism. In Japan he had himself rowed out in a little skiff to look down over a hot lava tongue licking the sea floor below. He trailed a thermometer in the boiling water. All about him floated dead fish, belly up, boiled. If the tiny boat should capsize, Jaggar—the pre-eminent American volcano scientist of his day, with three degrees from Harvard and a worldwide reputation, geology professor to the young Franklin Delano Roosevelt—would boil. He loved every moment of it.

In the furious world of volcanic eruptions Kilauea was as gentle and generous as a volcano could be, active almost perpetually, giving out especially liquid lavas that often fountained spectacularly, making for wonderful viewing, but not normally going off with a deadly bang. People most times ran toward Kilauea to watch, rather than away for their lives. And when the volcano was quiet tourists could saunter down into Halema'uma'u with an egg in a pan and fry it on moving lava, and write home about this strange, entertaining breakfast, being sure before mailing their postal card to scorch its edges a toasty Halema'uma'u brown.

Everything that made Kilauea an ideal tourist attraction made it ideal for continuous scientific study—Jaggar's life passion. Early in the twentieth century, when he was climbing to the world peaks of his profession, only one permanent volcano observatory existed on the face of the earth, at Vesuvius. Jaggar argued that the United States should have its own observatory, and for the sake of the best science it should be located at Kilauea. There, as nowhere else in the world, a volcano could be studied in all its phases—before, during, and after eruptions. And the resident observer—of course—should be no one but Thomas Jaggar. Jaggar was the primordial force behind the Hawaiian Volcano Observatory. He started work in 1912, in a little seismometer vault dug out of ash and pumice, rimside, five minutes from his house. He observed nonstop. He was forever designing new monitoring instruments (though none of them ever matched the fine tuning of his collie dog, Teddy, a domesticated sensing device who always knew before anyone else when Kilauea was preparing to perform). In good times Jaggar could readily raise research money, public and private. In bad times he raised pigs to meet the payroll. Good times and bad, he published scientific papers continuously, like an intellectual lava flow from Kilauea, an outwelling that pushed the world science of volcanology ever forward into the twentieth century.

Jaggar had a wife named Isabel. On his endless expeditions across newly cooled volcanic rock she looked after the food. She took dictation for his close-up eyewitness reports of eruptions. Thomas died before Isabel. She had his body cremated, respectably committed to controlled flame, and later, when she felt the moment was right for her own private ceremony, she secretly scattered his ashes in a greater fire—the perpetual fire of Jaggar's life, Halema'uma'u at Kilauea.

ALWAYS think in millions of years, said Jaggar, and everything is in motion to one who senses slow motion. Think of the Hawaiian archipelago in million-year motion.

The islands, all of them volcanic, were formed in turn by upwellings from an eruptive hot spot below the ocean floor. Then in turn they were rafted away with the slow, slow movement of the huge Pacific Plate over the earth's mantle, seventy million years of geological time travel, north and west across the Tropic of Cancer, worn by wind and rain, sinking gradually under their own weight as they went, oldest first, back beneath the surface of the sea.

Today there are eight major islands and more than 120 smaller islands, pinnacles, reefs, and shoals. The oldest and farthest to the north and west have disappeared below the sea and are now underwater seamounts. Kure and Midway are atolls with coral reefs and highest points of no more than a few score feet. More than fifteen hundred miles south and east of Kure, offshore of the island of Hawai'i, a new island is forming. Still a half mile and several thousand years of time yet below the ocean surface, it already has a name: Lo'ihi.

Most recently emerged of the main islands is Hawai'i, often called the Big Island. Shaped by the five volcanoes, it shows the huge creative force of volcanism. Mauna Loa, still active, rises more than 29,000 feet from the ocean floor, 13,677 feet from sea level to summit. It is 10,000 cubic miles in bulk, meaning it is the biggest single volcanic structure on earth—a hundred times bigger than Shasta or Fujiyama, indeed the biggest such feature in the solar system anywhere between the sun and the planet Mars.

* * *

THE Hawaiian chain exists in the most profound oceanic isolation on the face of the globe, more than two thousand miles from the closest continental land mass.

Life had to come from far away, blowing in on the winds, floating in on ocean currents, rafting in on logs swept from the continents, touching down with migratory birds on their transoceanic flights.

In this sterile island world of volcanic rock and salt spray, plants established themselves only at the rate of perhaps one species in each hundred thousand years. No amphibian or land reptile successfully crossed the ocean to Hawai'i. No oak, no pine, no sequoia. No big game animal came from America or Asia, nor any beast of burden. In seventy million years only two mammals settled in: one for land, a hoary bat, solitary, nocturnal, reddish-gray and weighing less than an ounce; and one for sea, a monk seal of primitive habits.

The volcanic shapes of the islands were sculpted by wind and weather, and a varied physical foundation was laid down upon which an enormous range of life forms developed. A mountain peak on Kaua'i, Wai'ale'ale, is the wettest spot on earth (at least the wettest where anyone has maintained a rain gauge). Other, higher summits—Haleakala on Maui, Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa on the Big Island—are alpine stone deserts. Within a few miles of each other on any of the main islands there may be tropical rain forest, lowlying drylands, sunstruck coastal dunes, and lightless lava tubes.

In these extravagantly varied habitats immigrant species adapted, and new species evolved, life forms never before seen on earth. One kind of drosophilid fly became eight hundred. Three hundred fifty kinds of immigrant insects evolved into over ten thousand native Hawaiian species. Twenty species of land snails became a thousand. Two hundred fifty flowering plants became eighteen hundred. The silversword colonized from bog to cinder desert. The 'ohi'a lehua found ways to live almost everywhere, from new lava to ancient bog, and in the process took on an abundance of different forms. And the native Hawaiian honeycreepers changed so much as they adapted to the wide range of island habitats that they would have astonished Charles Darwin.

In the biological history of Hawai'i these are the big, sweeping developments, landmarks of worldwide significance. Other native creatures developed more modestly, but no less remarkably. Crickets by the shore, so adapted to salt spray that away from it they cannot survive. In the rain forest, carnivorous green caterpillars. At the extreme freezing height of a stone desert summit, the wekiu bug, so finely adapted to cold that if you take it in your hand—blood heat 98.6 degrees Fahrenheit—its proteins cook.

All of this development and change occurred over millions of years. Plants and animals between them created soil, soil trapped moisture, moisture allowed more and more growth, until forests appeared which influenced climate. In all the different ecological zones of Hawai'i, particular groups of interrelated species clustered together. These groups developed into something that was more than the sum of their parts. They were interrelated, interactive, interdependent, promoting each other's survival. They became, in other words, natural communities.

And these elegant associations became numerous. In less than sixty-five hundred square miles of land mass, there can be identified more than one hundred fifty kinds of natural communities, each community a small island of life harbored within the larger islands of life that are the Hawaiian Islands.

Coasts & Sea Cliffs

One of the largest seabird colonies in the tropical world, for diversity and sheer numbers, is in the Hawaiian Islands.

During quiet times there you might not quite register this, you might be aware of nothing more than the music of waves on coral sand and the sound of the albatrosses clashing their beaks as they dance, and you might well doze off.

Your eyes would be opened by the sooty terns. Suddenly one day they appear, by the scores of thousands, darkening the sky. Then they are on the ground, laying their eggs. After that, every day at dawn, they all go up in the air at once making a tremendous racket. No need for a morning alarm, just lie there and the sooty terns will go off. And at dusk off they go again.

The Hawaiian monk seal ignores this. It lolls all day on the beach—looking for shade, settling into moist sand, flippering to the water to cool off, shifting up the dunes at night to sleep out of reach of the waves. That is its routine, for months at a time.

The female Hawaiian green sea turtle has her own precise interest in sand temperature. She comes ashore in the dark of night, silently, to lay her eggs, setting them in the sand at a depth where heat and moisture are exactly right for hatching. By morning when the tern alarm goes off she has departed, leaving only her flipper tracks above the tide mark.

All this on a single Hawaiian island. But not within hundreds of miles of urbanized Honolulu. The green turtle egg does not tolerate human presence; just the heedless thump of five-toed feet on sand above can abort a hatching below. The monk seal wants to breed in privacy away from humans. And the sooty tern, the albatross, and the fourteen other breeding species of that immense seabird colony—all congregate on a tiny raised coral atoll, Laysan, highest point perhaps forty feet, latitude 25 degrees 42 minutes 41 seconds N, longitude 171 degrees 44 minutes 06 seconds W, part of the state of Hawai'i, but uninhabited and more than eight hundred sea miles northwest of Honolulu.

THE first men on Laysan in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were sealers, guano diggers, feather collectors—all takers. And then, with the idea of contributing, a man from Honolulu introduced rabbits. What he contributed was devastation. Within twenty years the rabbits ate virtually everything green on Laysan all the way down to the nubs, turning the atoll into a sand desert, just four of the twenty-five plant species surviving in small numbers and several bird species pushed to extinction by having their habitat gnawed out from under them.

A scientific expedition came in 1923 to get rid of the rabbits. One day the shooters spotted three birds, Laysan honeycreepers. The next day a sand storm blew up, gale force, and stung and buffeted all three birds to death—the last of their kind on earth, the only songbirds in the documented history of the world to go extinct within sight and sound of humankind, with the time of the end recorded to the hour.

Over the next few years the Laysan teal also came to the very brink of extinction. In all the world these birds lived only on Laysan, around a small lagoon, no more than a couple of square miles of habitat. They stepped among beach morning glory and sedge, puddled about potholes feeding on insects, and were never sufficiently shrewd about evading humans. The guano diggers slaughtered them, because they were there. By the 1920s, after those introduced rabbits had done their worst to Laysan's green growing things, there were many more teal skinned and stuffed in the world's museums than live ones left around their home lagoon. In 1930 a man from Honolulu found a last individual, a female fluttering about, perhaps decoying him away from her nest. He found the nest with its clutch of white eggs—and every last shell was punctured by the beak of a raiding curlew.

Yet the teal of Laysan survived. How? Well, by biological providence the female had enough semen in her oviduct to fertilize a second clutch of eggs. At least that is the story, and of course it is a wonderful tale of biological brinkmanship.

Did this small reproductive miracle actually occur? Or did the man from Honolulu simply fail to spot the male of the pair? Or was there another female hiding silent and motionless on her nest in the bunch grass? The true answer has blown away on the Laysan wind.

At any rate, after the last rabbits were killed the island began greening again, bird habitat came back, and within another twenty years—happy ending—the teal was on its way to recovery.

These days Laysan is legally protected from unthinking intrusion by twentieth-century human beings. It is once more a tiny window opening upon the biodiversity of the past. The window is small and distant, but through it can be glimpsed an island of life.

ON ALL the eight Hawaiian Islands, where a million twentieth-century human beings live, there is no place like Laysan. Yet one spot that does offer a sense of what Hawaiian strand and coast were like before the time of our species is a stretch of sand dunes called Mo'omomi on the island of Moloka'i.

Mo'omomi remains remote, uninhabited, a wild place. Walking there among great onshore riffles of wind-swept sand, you can easily find spots where the dunes have lithified—turned to sandy stone. And here erosion by wind and wave may bring to the present-day surface evidence of endemic native life forms long dead: shells of land snails, fossil bones of birds, an eagle, a giant flightless goose, a thick-billed crow, a long-legged, bird-eating owl.

Mo'omomi gives off a strong sense of uninterrupted connection with the old, the ancient, the slow motion of evolutionary time moving within the yet slower motion of geological time. No human beings live there. And that is precisely why, every so often, coming out of the northwest islands, there will appear at Mo'omomi a monk seal, looking to do nothing; or a female Hawaiian green sea turtle, to dig a perfectly conceived hole in the sand and lay her eggs by night; or a Laysan albatross, to cruise on the salty winds that blow forever over the dunes.


Excerpted from A World Between Waves by Frank Stewart. Copyright © 1992 Frank Stewart. Excerpted by permission of ISLAND PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

Frank Stewart is the author of three books of poetry and the editor of four collections of essays and literature concerning Hawaii and the Pacific. An acclaimed poet, he is winner of the Whiting Writers Award and former director of the Creative Writing Program at the University of Hawaii.

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