Thursday, December 30, 2010

Birdland: Sooty Terns

A Sooty Tern on Tern Island, French Frigate Shoals, Northwest Hawaiian Islands
(Source: U.S. FWS @ Wikipedia)

"The air was filled with birds screaming very loudly..."

Thus wrote J.M. Brooke of the USS Fenimore Cooper while surveying Johnston Island in the Pacific in March 1859. It is not clear to me what the Fenimore Cooper was doing at Johnston at that time. During the same year, the ship came across French Frigate Shoals (home to the sooty tern pictured above) and members of the ship attempted to claim U.S. sovereignty over the shoals under the 1856 Guano Islands Act. They could do so, they reasoned, because the shoals were uninhabited (by humans, not birds) and contained an estimated 25,000 tons of guano. Unfortunately, two minor details confounded their plan: one, the Guano Islands Act only granted private individuals/corporations the right to claim guano islands as U.S. possessions, thus the law did not cover the claims of persons representing the U.S. Navy; and two, French Frigate Shoals actually had nowhere near 25,000 tons of guano. And whatever they did have was not profitable enough to mine.

That was good news for the Sooty Terns. Yet things wouldn't turn out so well for the Sooties on Johnston Island. Guano mining may have had some effect on them in the 1850s and 60s, but military build-up and weapons stockpiling (and dumping) in the mid-twentieth century most definitely affected their ability to breed. According to one account, by the 1950s the Sooty Terns had been all but extirpated from Johnston Island. (As of 1975 they still had not returned; I'm not sure about the situation today.) But they did keep breeding - in enormous numbers - on Sand Island, a nearby island within Johnston Atoll.

Another Sooty Tern at Tern Island, French Frigate Shoals
(Source: U.S. FWS @ Wikipedia)

What are Sooty Terns?
Well, those who prefer Latin names knew them for centuries as Sterna fuscata. But within the past few decades their genus has been changed to Onychoprion; thus, Onychoprion fuscata. The change is a bit confusing, as Sterna and Onychoprion both commonly mean "terns."
The Rapa Nui call them manutara; manu means "bird"; tara apparently means "tern." You can read my earlier discussion of the importance of manutara (Sooty Terns) in Rapa Nui history in my earlier post about the 1994 film Rapa Nui.
Manu also means "bird" in the Hawaiian language. But Hawaiians have a more specific name for the Sooty Tern: ʻewaʻewa. One online source suggests that the name ʻewaʻewa refers to the "cacophony" (ʻewa: "crooked, out of shape, imperfect") of sound that the birds habitually make. (Remember Brooke wrote in 1859 that "the air was filled with birds screaming very loudly..."!) But ʻewaʻewa can also mean "biased," or "unjust." Might this name describe a certain behavioral or personality trait of the sooties?

But let's move beyond names. In truth, names tell us a lot more about the humans doing the naming rather than about the birds that are being named.
Sooty Terns breed on islands all across the tropics, from the Pacific to the Atlantic to the Indian Oceans. Their feeding range is "pan-tropical": between the Tropic of Cancer and the Tropic of Capricorn. Like many seabirds, Sooty Terns spend most of their lives flying across the ocean, looking for food, even sleeping on the wing. Islands only matter to them as places to breed, and that is because their eggs need a place to hatch. (You can't raise chicks in the air or on the water!)

A Sooty Tern egg
(Source: Wikipedia)

So what is life like for a Sooty Tern chick on a Pacific Island? Well, on Johnston Atoll in the 1960s, for example, you probably popped out of your mommy in March. Your first taste of the outside world was from within your egg. You were not laid in a nest, nor even in a bush or a hole or on a tree. You were very likely laid right on the ground. Sooty Terns are somewhat unique in their disregard for where they lay their eggs. This habit is partly the consequence of millions of years of evolution within Pacific Island environments where there were absolutely no mammalian predators. So you can imagine what happened in the 1800s when some of these islands became infested with rats...rats that love eating chicks...and eggs.

Human guests of the Sooties had their own theories for why these terns laid their eggs directly on the ground. Dr. Thomas H. Streets, U.S. Navy, derisively said of the Sooty Terns on Palmyra Island in 1877 that their eggs "are dropped apparently anywhere..." That wasn't a very generous comment. Richard Branscombe Chave, an employee of a guano company who got himself stranded on an uninhabited coral atoll in 1871, had only nice things to say about the "Boobys" [boobies] he found there: "they must belong to a more Christian species than the rest who all laid their eggs on the ground." Quite the back-handed insult against sooties!

Chave referred to the atoll's Sooty Terns as "wide-awake[s]." He wasn't the only one. Apparently this was a common appellation Westerners gave to describe these noisy birds. "[T]hese kept up such a discordant screech all night," Chave wrote, "as to render sleep next to impossible." Dr. Streets of the U.S. Navy gave an even better representation of the annoying sooties, remaking on both their physical and audible presence: " great are their numbers that they form a cloud when driven from the ground, and their clamor deadens the roar of the surf." Now that's loud!

Marine biologist and writer Carl Safina, while conducting research for his book Eye of the Albatross (2002), used these poetic words to describe the various sounds heard one night at French Frigate Shoals: "the guttural grunts and honks of boobies, the brays and bill claps of the albatrosses, the murmurs of the noddies, and the Sooty Terns' squeaky I'm wide awake, wide awake." The Sooty's call sounds like the words "wide awake," but it's not hard to see why the name stuck with humans: a human on any one of these islands could not catch a wink of sleep because these damned birds kept them "wide awake" all night long!

Now. I got a bit side-tracked. You are a baby Sooty on Johnston Atoll. You hatch in April. There are 82,000 little ones just like you also hatching on these 10 acres (or so) of Sand Island (decades of landfill altered the island's geography in the mid-20th century). There are, perhaps, 300,000 total adults breeding on the island during the months February-July. But few eggs will hatch and few chicks will mature exactly according to their parents' highest hopes and dreams. By the end of April there are only 55,000 chicks running around, due to chick mortality. By June, after a 75-day fledging period (or so), you can fly! By July, just about all your peers are flying, too. You've got three weeks to practice flying before you'll abandon Johnston for many years. You'll truly fly almost non-stop for years until you are ready to return to this island, the place of your birth, and have your own little Sooty chicks!

A Sooty Tern chick at Tern Island, French Frigate Shoals
(Source: U.S. FWS @ Wikipedia)

The remarkable thing about Sooty Terns at most islands in the Pacific are their sheer numbers! At Johnston Atoll in the 1960s and 70s, perhaps 600,000 Sooties came to breed there annually. There might only be a handful of them poking around the islands in early winter, but by February hundreds of thousands of them came seemingly out of nowhere in for a landing, stopping here to lay their eggs. And come late summer those hundreds of thousands - and their new chicks - will be gone again. Other seabirds breeding at Johnston Atoll at that time came in numbers only as high as 6 or 7,000; nothing compared to the Sooties. And most birds bred in numbers more like 1,000 or less.

Why were/are there so many Sooties? That's a great question. (I'd like to know how many Sooty Terns there were in the 1850s when guano extraction began on these islands, but that data still needs to be put together.) I figure the Sooties' colonial habits have something to do with it. When they breed in numbers like those seen at Johnston Atoll, the piracy of Frigatebirds surely matter to the harassed individuals, but don't really matter at all in terms of the whole Sooty population. The piracy of rats are another story. It is clear that rats have extirpated breeding Sooty Terns from certain islands in the Pacific. It has even been suggested that as early as the 1850s - even before guano mining began - rats had caused the complete extirpation of Sooty Terns on Howland Island (but this is based on only sporadic human documentation of the island at that time).

The Sooty Terns are represented as one of the most annoying of seabirds, but I, from the view here in New York, find them stunningly beautiful. Often we consider the rarer birds to be more beautiful. We do this, I think, only because we tend to look harder at those things that are harder to see. Thus, Carl Safina is awed by Laysan Albatrosses, yet simply annoyed by the Sooties. Guano workers of the mid-nineteenth century would have found themselves similarly annoyed if not uncomfortably crowded by the breeding Sooty Terns. And they would have had horrible evenings trying to sleep while thousands of birds hovered above calling "wide awake, wide awake." As a historian, I find the Sooties most interesting because I am sure they were the most common seabird that the guano workers I am studying had interactions with. Historical ecologists might find it more interesting that a visiting ship captain saw a Red-Tailed Tropicbird - even just one - or that a shipwrecked sailor killed and ate an albatross. But for me, I love most when I read about the incessant racket of the circling "clouds" of birds overhead. I love imagining how the workers were kept up by the horrible noise all night, and how they were pooped on - again and again - all throughout the day. Loud, messy Sooties! Sooties, sooties everywhere!

A Sooty Tern colony in the Seychelles
(Source: Wikipedia)

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

The Big (Pine)Apple

You have probably heard New York City referred to as the "Big Apple." I think this is a strange name for our city. Don't you? What does New York have to do with apples? Actually, upstate we have lots of apple orchards, and apples have been a part of New York State agriculture for a long time, but do apples really matter here in the city?

I have come to think that "the Big Apple" only describes certain aspects of New York City's diverse community and rich history. I'd suggest that if you really want to know New York City, consider taking a Big Onion Walking Tour. Their walking tours of New York City neighborhoods are really excellent. But today's post is neither about apples nor onions. I want to make the case that New York is also the "Big Pineapple."

Really? Shouldn't that designation go, say, to the great metropolis of the Pacific, Honolulu, with its population of over 300,000 pineapple-loving residents? And considering that Manhattan is an island, isn't there a conflict here between my island (Manhattan) and Lānaʻi, the official "Pineapple Isle" of Hawaiʻi?

Yet New York City is a Big Pineapple (among other fruits), and to explain this, I need to return to the very beginning of what I do. When I began this blog, it was my intent to discover and share the ways in which New York City and the Pacific Ocean intersect. I know they can't actually intersect. I know that light blue Pacific waters will not just suddenly show up crashing against the sand and rocks at Coney Island beach. But I did suspect that New York City was home to migrants from the Pacific Diaspora, and I knew that beyond my incessant trips to museums to look at feathers and fishhooks and beyond my obsession with watching Pacific-themed movies on Netflix, that there must be more direct connections to be had here on Manhattan Island with the people and cultures of the Pacific. This is the "Big Apple," but it is also a "melting pot": as I mentioned in an earlier post on the U.S. census, there are nearly 20,000 people who identify as at least part-Pacific Islander living in New York City. So with the fifth largest Pacific Islander population in the United States, now tell me that my city is not a "Big Pineapple," too!

Pineapple (Source: Wikipedia)

Pineapples are an interesting metaphor (though no stranger than apples, right?). One can look at the pineapple as a symbol of early U.S. colonialism in Hawaiʻi, since, without doubt, it was during the early territorial years after annexation when Hawaiʻi's pineapple industry really took shape. The fact that Lānaʻi is called the "Pineapple Isle" can thus be seen as a good or bad thing, depending on how you think that island's aina (land) should have been put to use. If you doubt me that pineapples are tied to colonialism and imperialism, you need to pick up Gary Okihiro's 2009 book Pineapple Culture (part of his trilogy on Hawaiʻi's place in world history). And if you want the "Cliff's notes" version of Okihiro's take on pineapple history, in less than three hours you can watch Charlton Heston play a pineapple "farmer" (or, industrial agriculturalist really) in turn-of-the-century Hawaiʻi in the 1970 film The Hawaiians. The one scene in which Heston leads a gang of laborers into a South American country in the middle of the night to pirate pineapples from a competitor's plantation is straight out of Okihiro's book. And that's truly how Hawaiʻi got its pineapple industry going: through U.S. imperial intervention, not just in Hawaiʻi, but in South America, and all across a global field of power, piracy, and pineapples.

Of Language (ʻŌlelo)

So what is so Hawaiian about NYC? In this essay I will describe two different ways in which this city takes on the characteristics of a "Big Pineapple": one, through language; two, through community.

A reader of this blog kindly emailed me a month or two ago to tell me his manaʻo (thoughts) about ʻiliahi, Hawaiian sandalwood. He had read that I was interested in ʻiliahi - this is true; you may find many posts semi-related to sandalwood elsewhere throughout my blog - and he wanted to tell me that he had some beautiful sandalwood trees on his property on the Big Island of Hawaiʻi. Some day when I have more money, I would like to visit him in Hawaiʻi and see those trees. But in the meantime I am stuck here in the "Apple" doing research. So he was nice enough to point me to a wonderful resource for studying Hawaiian environmental history, which is what I am doing in the meantime:

Nupepa is the Hawaiian word for "newspaper." And is a digital catalogue of Hawaiian language newspaper articles from a variety of island newspapers dating from the early nineteenth century to the era of World War Two. I do not know exactly how many newspaper pages are available on this site, but tens of thousands would not be a bad guess. (If you visit the site and it makes no sense to you, click the button in the upper right corner that reads: "English text.")

What a find, right? So I typed in a keyword from my current research on Hawaiian labor and environmental history: "guano." 40 pages came up! Great, but...I can't read Hawaiian!!! So then my mind quickly went to that dark place where historians' minds often go when they think: how in the world can I tell this story without source x?? Sometimes a historian knows an important primary document is in an archive half a world away, and he or she must build up an arsenal of money just to be able to fly out there to look at that little piece of paper. For me, I realized that Kānaka Maoli (Native Hawaiians) were actually talking about "guano" in the 1850s and 60s - a lot - and, better still, the sources were right here on my computer - in the "Big Apple"! But the language issue of course presented a real barrier to me. The historian who has to travel half-way round the world for a source does not publish his or her work until he or she gets that source. Depending on the source, it might really mean that much. Well, for me, what Hawaiians said about guano, or pineapples, or just about anything, really matters. Why? Partly because histories of Hawaiʻi and of the Pacific in general have too long and too often relied completely on English language accounts by outsiders, colonials, or highly-educated creoles. Not that Hawaiian language sources aren't selective, too. I don't know what the literacy rate was in the 1850s in the Hawaiian Kingdom, but surely not everyone could read and write.

But here's the point. Last year I wrote a prize-winning paper about Hawaiian sandalwood, but I had failed to use any Hawaiian voices in that paper (except those rare words overheard [or imagined] and transcribed into English by haole [foreigners]). Now with a topic like guano, how can I continue to ignore the writings of, and about, the Kānaka Maoli who actually dug the guano and did the heavy labor of the industry? How can I still tell a convincing story of labor, environment, and sacrifice on these forgotten guano islands without source x, the Hawaiian language newspapers?!

Solution: I looked for, and found, a Hawaiian language teacher in New York City. His name is Manuwai Peters, and you can read more about him in this wonderful little New York Times article. I hope that he doesn't mind me posting this, but he deserves all the recognition possible for his contributions to the New York City/Hawaiian Diaspora community. I have met Hawaiians here in the "Big Apple," some who have lived here for three or four decades since leaving their native isles, only now finally getting the chance to reconnect with their native ʻōlelo through these language lessons with Manuwai. That's very special.

Language is social power: it connects people. It is also cultural power, and historical power: it not only connects Hawaiian speakers in the here and now, but it connects modern-day speakers in the "Big Apple" with those on the "Pineapple Isle" and with those all across the world, and it connects modern-day speakers with their ancestors, whether biological or cultural ancestors, who also spoke ʻōlelo Hawaiʻi. I am not Hawaiian; I am haole through-and-through (see my earlier post called "Am I White?" for my take on racial identity). But even for me the Hawaiian language is social power: it has brought me new friendships with people of similar interests in this crowded, sometimes lonely, city. And it is cultural and historical power for me, too. I spend a lot of my time now reading the words of Native Hawaiians from over one hundred and fifty years ago talk about their lives, their experiences, and their perceptions. How cool is that? (And what a better historian it is making me...)

Of Community

Hawaiian language is a crucial component in making this city a "Big Pineapple." But there is also more than language, and lack of Hawaiian language skills should not keep any New Yorker from feeling welcome within the New York Hawaiian community. (As I should know. I barely even know the language!) When I found Hawaiian language lessons in NYC I also found Hālāwai. Hālāwai is a Hawaiian word meaning "to meet." I encourage you to explore their website and see what this community is up to. There are hula classes and musical performances, parties with lots of tasty food, and of course the language classes I have already mentioned, too.

I can't say much more about what is going down in the "Big Pineapple," because - I must be honest - I spend 99% of my time here in the "Apple" - without the "pine" part - all along neglecting to hālāwai - to meet up - to be part of a community. I wasn't raised in the islands, and my native tongue is ʻōlelo Pelekane (English), not Hawaiian, so perhaps I am excused from being such a novice at all this. Stepping into the world of 1850s-era Hawaiian language newspapers is adventure enough sometimes. On those evenings as I sit there with my Hawaiian-English dictionary sorting out the words of strangers from the past, I feel a real thrill. What a challenge this is. But how great the rewards! Our "Big Pineapple" comprises different elements for different New Yorkers. Some are interested in what I am researching; others I'm sure could care less. But each individual's motivations for reaching out for language and/or community are of course valid. That's what binds the "Pineapple" together! So this essay is my little way of saying mahalo - thanks - to all those neighbors who make up this community and who share their precious manaʻo with us.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Film Review: Violence Against Pacific Nature: Into The Deep (2010) and Radio Bikini (1988)

It is 4:30 PM. It is dark out, and it is blustery and cold. Welcome to New York's long winter; it has begun, and it will not let up again until March or April. So now is a good time to hunker down in front of a laptop and watch movies about warm, sunny, breezy Pacific Islands on Netflix. Or so you might think. But imagine sitting there in the cold darkness of the New York night wishing for images of palm trees swaying gently with the ocean breeze, the sound of a ʻukulele strumming a melodious tune, and then - riiippppp - the sound of heavy blubber being stripped off the carcass of a 40-ton whale, and then the smell of rotting whale flesh and the stench of burning, boiling, bubbling whale oil wafting into your nostrils. Then imagine seeing a Pacific atoll's lagoon - BOOOOMMMMM!!!!!! - explode with unimaginable force, shooting water, sand, and radioactive matter scores of miles into the sky and out along the routes of the winds. And then imagine another island - a piece of land fixed, we might suppose, on the very surface of the Earth - now - BOOOOOOMMMMM!!!!! - completely wiped off the map, obliterated from all existence within the blink of an eye.

Those two last BOOOOMMMMs kept me up for hours thinking, and worrying, and they also engendered some pretty bad dreams for me through the restless sleep that followed. I did not think that I would ever write a blog about what I most fear about the Pacific - about how scary this region's history is - but I can't think of any other way to come to terms with this region's unique history of violence (and also to release these disturbing images from my head). In this blog post, I review two films that both concern America's distinctive role in perpetrating historic violence against Pacific nature. As an American, and as a historian, it behooves me to share these stories - not just to keep up with the "Halloween"-ish theme from last week's post about garbage, but to do justice to the hidden history of America's very un-Pacific (un-peaceful; violent) relationship with Pacific nature.

Into the Deep: America, Whaling, and the World (2010)

Ric Burns' newest American Experience/PBS documentary focuses on the history of American whaling activities from the 17th to the 20th century. The film's narrative is centered around a defining event in American whaling history: the 1820 sinking of the whaleship Essex of Nantucket Island, Massachusetts. What was so extraordinary about the Essex? Nothing at first. As the film explains, by the early nineteenth century Nantucket had become America's leading whaling port. The Essex was just one of many ships at the time that would leave Nantucket for years on end to hunt whales in the Pacific Ocean. The Essex was headed for the off-shore whaling grounds west of Peru/Chile, and east of the "savage" islands of the Marquesas. As we follow the Essex to the offshore whaling grounds, we meet some of the ship's crew, including a few teenage New England boys as well as at least six African-Americans sailors; all the other sailors were white Yankee men, as far as I could tell. The film only briefly mentioned the great diversity of the seamen who served on New England whaling ships. Burns could have done more to highlight the African-American experience, not to mention the tens of thousands of Polynesians who were employed by American whalers during the nineteenth century.

Anyway, if Into the Deep appears at first to be your standard heroic narrative about white American men conquering "dark" Pacific nature (signified and embodied by the whales themselves and the "Hades" from which they emerge) this mood changes abruptly even before we learn that the Essex is going to sink. First, Burns introduces us to the violence of whale hunting. When a whaling ship spotted its prey, only a handful of the ship's crew would row off in a small whaling boat to chase down the whale. These men knew the violence of the whale. They felt it swimming beside and perhaps underneath their tiny craft. They felt the pressure of its movement, the powerful force of its blowhole. They feared its large, wild tail that might crash down upon them at any moment. It is remarkable to consider the inequality of forces on this battlefield: a few small humans with a rowboat and a harpoon tied to a rope versus an 40-ton creature of the sea. Men were completely out of their element here, especially these inexperienced New Englanders. It would appear that the whales had the advantage.

Yet more often than not violence was perpetrated by humans against whales, not the other way around. The harpooner, immediately after throwing his javelin, looked for red water to emerge as a sign that he had punctured the creature's skin. Now the whale, with harpoon attached, would pull the rowboat across the ocean's water, trying to get away from his predators at speeds up to 20 miles per hour. At that point, there was nothing the humans could do but go along for the ride and wait - wait until the whale had tired herself out, until she had lost too much blood, until she was resigned to her death. The whaling men would then haul the whale back to the ship, using an elaborate network of cranes and pulleys to hoist pieces of the whale (apparently not the whole thing, though, which could be the same size as the ship itself!) onto the ship's deck. To do this, men sliced rectangles of blubber off the whale's outer body. These slices could be larger and heavier than a group of men standing together. And these slices smelled rotten; they smelled of death on a uniquely massive scale. What smelled even worse was the boiling of the blubber to extract the precious whale oil that would illuminate homes and streetlights back in New England.

Not only were whales used for burning oil, but spermaceti from the sperm whale's cranium was harvested and transformed into highly-valued candles; baleen from humpback and right whales was made into corsets for New England women's waists. Incredibly, you could not walk one block in any direction in Boston, or New York, not to mention in New Bedford or Nantucket, in the mid-nineteenth century, without encountering pieces of Pacific whales around you. Whales' bodies had, in effect, been transformed into the very stuff that the United States was made of. I don't think Burns went too far when, in Into the Deep, he likened the whaling ship to a factory and argued that whaling and whale products were essentially at the forefront of America's nineteenth-century industrial revolution. We do not normally consider nineteenth-century whaling as industrial, but I think Burns might be on to something here.

If whaling was a violent and nasty way to make candles, corsets, and a paradoxical way to make light out of darkness, - and if we have this great slaughter to thank for the development of factories, railroads, and the growth of the United States -, then it is also true that the system of labor that allowed for these transformations was no less violent: it entailed the creation of a wage-earning class of highly-exploited workers - Pacific Islanders, African-Americans, and New England farmboys - all of whom suffered from the extreme violence of the industry just as the whales did. This insight brings us back to the story of the whaleship Essex. In a singular event in America's violent confrontation with Pacific nature, the Essex suffered, and lost, in its battle against Pacific whales. As recounted in Into the Deep, the Essex's seamen were startled to see a whale raise its head up from below the surface of the ocean and look straight at them. Then, this whale began to swim full speed straight at their boat until - crashhhh!!!!! - the whale rammed its head against the ship. With a second ram that followed, the whale punctured the integrity of the boat and set it on its sinking course. The whalers aboard were flabbergasted that the whale - the "hunted" - had so deftly switched roles and made them - the "hunters" - its prey. Left with only a few rowboats, thousands of miles from "civilization" in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, one of the ship's mates, if I remember correctly, suggested that they row west to the Marquesas Islands where they could find ample food, water, and a place to wait for rescuers. But this suggestion was overruled based on the popular misconception that many whalers held that the Marquesas Islands were inhabited by a cannibalistic, "savage" people that would kill and eat them should they venture there. In fact, as Herman Melville would point out 25 years later in his debut novel Typee (1846), this conception of the Enata was just another American myth about the Pacific's dark side, a justification for violence rather than a description of actual violence.

And so the whaling men rowed south instead of west, hoping to reach easterly trade winds that would blow them, slowly, to Chile. When they reached Henderson Island (in the Pitcairn group) some of the men refused to go farther; they stayed on Henderson, living off of seabirds, fish, and who knows what else for over 100 days on this once inhabited, but now no longer peopled, island. The others rowed onwards towards Chile, but by the time they reached Valparaiso all six African-American sailors were dead as well as a number of other sailors and at least one of the young boys. Some of the bodies were dumped at sea, but a great number of them were eaten by the starving Essex survivors (it took the men in their row boats over 90 days to finally reach Chile). Those who survived told their story, and Herman Melville eventually picked up the story as well; it became his classic novel Moby Dick (1851). Here, in the story of the Essex, as well as in Moby Dick, was not the same-old standard tale of American heroism or of American conquest, but rather one of American hubris and American violence.

Today we might bemoan America's (and the world's) reliance on fossil fuels for energy, but the history of violence entangled within America's relationship with whales (and whale energy) should make us think twice about the 1859 discovery of petroleum in Titusville, Pennsylvania. Historians of oil might see 1859 as the beginning of an awful chapter in American exploitation of nature, but what a relief it was for the whales who finally became prohibitively expensive to chase down (and boil down) after this "cheap" oil was discovered.

Bombing the Hell out of Pacific Nature: Radio Bikini (1988)

A clip from Radio Bikini (1988)

So what happened to American violence against Pacific nature after the 1859 Drake oil strike? Commercially viable American whaling in the Pacific for the most part ended by the 1870s; in its place, American businessmen became more interested in the Pacific's terrestrial nature, especially plantations (sugar in Hawaiʻi, for example). But it is also true that the annexation of parts of Mexico (including California) in 1848 led to a new focus on the continental west; the 1869 completion of America's transcontinental railroad only further increased attention upon the exploitation of the continental west, thus leaving behind what John Whitehead has called America's old "maritime west." By the turn of the twentieth century, and the completion of the Spanish-American war (1898), American violence had resulted in the annexation of Hawaiʻi, East Samoa, Guam, the Philippines, and the U.S. was even making headway in carving out chunks of China for unrestricted U.S. economic development. But this was altogether a different kind of violence than that perpetrated against Pacific whales. So too was World War II a different kind of violence. With growing interest in the academy towards intersections between environmental history and war, I am sure that historians will soon begin to unravel the ways in which World War II involved extensive American violence against Pacific nature. But we at least still tell ourselves that wars such as WWII were about people, not nature. It was a war of "good" people versus "bad" people; nature only suffered as an innocent bystander.

I don't know much about twentieth-century Pacific history, but apparently World War II resulted in the loss of sovereignty for almost all Micronesian communities, as well as for other Pacific island nations both near and far from the central battles of the war. Depriving Japan of almost all its Pacific territory (which apparently had been awarded to Japan following World War I after the defeat of Germany who previously had controlled this territory - oh! what a headache the twentieth century must have been for Micronesian peoples!!), the United States stepped in as "trustee" of these island territories. So what would the U.S. do with their new Trust Territory of the Pacific Islands? Drop bombs on it, of course.

Map of the former U.S. Trust Territory of the Pacific Islands (1947-1994). The Northern Mariana Islands became a U.S. commonwealth in 1978. The Republic of the Marshall Islands and the Federated States of Micronesia both attained independence from the U.S. in 1986 (more precisely, they each signed compacts of free association with the United States). The Republic of Palau also signed a compact of free association with the U.S. in 1994. (Source: Wikipedia)

There are multitudes of books, articles, and videos about the U.S.'s Cold War-era nuclear weapon experiments in the Pacific Ocean, and I, as a non-expert, won't even try to summarize this long and controversial history. What I can say is that it seems that the United States dropped, in total, over a hundred (if not hundreds) of nuclear bombs on, below, and above Pacific islands and atolls for nearly two decades, from 1946 until the early-1960s. Robert Stone's film Radio Bikini (1988) tells the story of the very first of these experiments, 1946's Operation Crossroads. The film's title comes from the name of the radio station established in 1946 by the U.S. Navy on Pikinni (Bikini) Atoll in the North Pacific, part of the then-U.S. Trust Territory of the Pacific Islands. Despite the fact that over a hundred Marshallese-speaking Pikinni Islanders inhabited the atoll, the location was chosen for the first-ever postwar experiments with nuclear weapons. The Pikinni Islanders were forcibly relocated multiple times by the U.S. government to "protect" them from radiation. To this day, Pikinni Island is uninhabitable, and its Islanders still live in exile.

Two nuclear bombs, the fourth and fifth ever detonated in world history, were exploded above and within Pikinni's lagoon as part of Operation Crossroads in 1946. The first bomb, "Able," was a disaster - no pun intended - from the U.S. government's point of view, not because it caused great destruction, but because it detonated hundreds of feet in the air above, and not-quite-aligned with, its intended target - the USS Nevada - lying in wait in Pikinni lagoon below. In fact, something like close to one hundred World War II-era ships, including aircraft carriers, were assembled in Pikinni lagoon to receive the effects of Able's blast. Can you imagine? The U.S. placed so many valuable ships in this distant lagoon to be destroyed by our own nuclear weapons. What a great use of taxpayer money!

July 1, 1946, Pikinni Atoll, Marshall Islands, U.S. Trust Territory of the Pacific Islands. This photograph depicts the explosion of the fourth nuclear weapon ever detonated in world history, "Able." The bomb detonated hundreds of feet above sea level. (Source: Wikipedia)

As Radio Bikini shows, U.S. Navy seamen were allowed (or perhaps "forced" is the right word?) to return to the site of the nuclear blast within just hours, if not minutes, of the explosion. Why were some 40,000 navy personnel needed there in the first place? That remains unclear to me, and that mystery also seemingly provides fodder for those theorists out there who contend that the U.S. government intentionally placed the seamen in harm's way to assess the effects of radioactive exposure on their bodies.

The second bomb, "Baker," was even more remarkable. It was detonated underwater in Pikinni lagoon. "Baker" was well-captured in this photograph:

July 25, 1946, Pikinni Atoll, Marshall Islands, U.S. Trust Territory of the Pacific Islands. The photograph depicts the detonation of the fifth nuclear weapon used in world history, "Baker." The bomb detonated underwater, shooting up into the sky what some historians have determined to be a hollow column of water, hundreds of feet high and wide. The dark mass on the right side of the column is somehow related to the USS Arkansas; whether it is the upended ship or rather the absence of water where the ship was, is unclear. Note the size of the surrounding ships in the lagoon versus the size of the exploding column of water, sand, and air. (Source: Wikipedia)

I could not sleep very well after watching Radio Bikini. This was partly because of the story told by one of the interviewees, a Navy seamen who was there at Operation Crossroads. It wasn't so much what he said about his experience that haunted me, but rather what his body said. His body was hideously crippled and deformed - due to exposure to radiation, or so he, and the film, contend. I also could not sleep because the film made me want to look up more information online afterwards, to fact-check against the film, to explore this strange history in even greater depth. I learned later that night while surfing the net that later bombs had even been detonated above Johnston Atoll (one of the "guano islands" that I am currently studying. Makes me think twice about going there for research someday.) Other tests had taken place over islands that are now part of the Republic of Kiribati. How does a now-sovereign nation like Kiribati deal with having radioactive fallout within their territory? For that matter, how does the Republic of the Marshall Islands deal with Pikinni Atoll? Their citizens still cannot move back there; there is, in fact, little the Marshall Islanders can do but wait forever for an earlier nature that will never come back to that place. Amazingly, Pikinni Atoll was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2010 because of its unique contribution to world atomic history. Elsewhere, I've read about "atomic tourism," where people pay to visit the sites where bombs were detonated. All of this kept me up that night; all of it scared me.

And finally, I learned of how in 1952 the U.S. government exploded the entire island of Elugelab in the Marshall Islands out of existence. Where there once was an island, now there was nothing. Of course islands are just the peaks of underwater mountains, and so it is not as if the mountain of which Elugelab island was a part has totally disappeared. But still, what had once been "land" was now ocean. I found thinking about Elugelab, and the bomb, particularly troubling. But if you consider the threatened impacts of global warming on Pacific islands and atolls, perhaps we might need to get used to thinking about the perishability of islands...

Global climate change might represent yet the next phase in America's ongoing violence against Pacific nature: the United States and China are by far the largest polluters of greenhouse gases into Earth's atmosphere, and small islands and atolls (such as those across the Pacific) are at greatest risk of erosion and submergence due to projected changes in global sea level. Note that, according to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, the U.S. is now putting money into "mitigating" climate change in the South Pacific. Unfortunately, mitigation is a strategy that only treats the symptoms of global warming, not the underlying causes, one of which is the U.S.'s consumption of fossil fuels. That takes us back to 1859 and to the discovery of oil in Pennsylvania. Perhaps what was good for the whales will be, in the end, a disaster for Islanders, not to mention how a rise in ocean temperature might affect the whales, too. So, what to make of all this violence? I don't know. If I did, I wouldn't be staying up all night thinking about it.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Mounds of Trash or Treasure? NYC's Fresh Kills Landfill/Park

Here in America it's Halloween. Traditionally, we dress-up in costumes and masks to mark this un-holiday. The point: to engage with the demon, the terror, the monster, the "other" within ourselves, our community, and within our limited bases of knowledge about our own existence and after-existence. Well, perhaps you might find today's blog post quite fitting on this theme: I am writing about a heaping pile of trash dressed-up - costumed - as a park. Fresh Kills Landfill/Park. It's one part masquerade, one part honest-to-goodness attempt to engage with the "other" (our trash), to pull this"monster" out of its closet (the underground), and advance our minds to a higher level of recognition about our trash's existence and after-existence. No, zombies do not lurk here; and yet thousands of bodies and body pieces from the World Trade Center buildings were brought here in September 2001 and perhaps some are buried beneath our very feet. Do you believe in ghosts? At Fresh Kills, weird gases (methane) bubble up and are released from the underground. Our buried trash has become the spitting image of Hades itself: a bubbling cauldron of heat, gas, and stench. No, I wouldn't take your child trick-or-treating here on Halloween night (unless he/she is parading as "Oscar the Grouch"). But I would visit the park sometime, as I did one week ago.

A Short History of Trash (and Staten Island)

Two views of Staten Island (from South Mound, Fresh Kills Park): in the background, what appears to be a nice middle-class housing community; in the foreground, a number of colorful pipes warning visitors that they are standing atop 150 feet of decomposing garbage.

The history of New York City's trash splits the twentieth century in two. In the first half, from c1900 to 1948, trash went everywhere except to Fresh Kills. In the second half, from 1948 to 2001, trash increasingly went nowhere but to Fresh Kills. Why? First off, in the nineteenth century New York City's trash had "organic" value: it was fed to urban pigs who could then be eaten in turn. In this way, trash was recycled back into food. Privy "trash" (otherwise known as human feces) was often collected by "night soil" men, frequently African-Americans, who carted the feces to the river (Hudson or East) and dumped our organic waste into the water. Other garbage was sometimes used as landfill. In fact, much of lower Manhattan is built on landfill. We only most recently were reminded of this fact when earlier this year, in the ongoing construction at Ground Zero, an eighteenth-century ship was discovered buried in the ground! Apparently it had been deposited there as landfill.

Skip to the so-called Progressive Era (turn-of-the-twentieth century) when New York, like many other cities across the United States, was being made into a "sanitary city." New municipal services, such as public health and sanitation departments, developed strict codes for waste deposition. Even earlier, in the mid- to late nineteenth century, the city had already banned pigs from the streets; this meant that no animals were going to eat away our trash anymore. The installation of sewers furthermore meant that "night soil" men would be out-of-work, and yet our feces would still find its way into the Atlantic Ocean. And, by the early twentieth century, much of New York's household "trash" also found its way to the ocean. You might recall from my post about Coney Island that I love to swim there even despite the trash that sometimes floats in the water. Well, imagine one hundred times more trash washing up on the beach: old mattresses, shoes, cans, you name it. Anything you "threw away" in Manhattan was washed right back at you while swimming in Brooklyn.

In 1934, the U.S. Supreme Court ordered the City of New York to desist from dumping trash in the Atlantic Ocean. This left the city with only one remaining option: landfills. Apparently the city already had landfills in all five boroughs: some of these have since been converted into parks, while others remain under tight security in 2010 due to the lingering presence of hazardous wastes. You must recall that the 1920s were the great age of consumerism in America: a decade of big spending by a growing middle-class of consumers on increasingly mass-produced "stuff." The amount of trash produced must have been staggering: too much for the city's landfills to contain. Thankfully, Robert Moses had a solution.

He proposed converting Staten Island's Fresh Kills into a landfill. What was Fresh Kills? It was a low-lying area on the western shore of Staten Island containing thousands of acres of salt marsh. Through the marshland meandered the Little Fresh Kills, the Great Fresh Kills, Richmond Creek, and Main Creek. The Fresh Kills waterways ("kill" is a Dutch word meaning "creek" or "stream") were tidal, rising up and down following the orbit of the moon, and fostering just the right balance of salty and fresh waters, above-ground and submerged habitats, to be one of the city's most expansive salt marsh ecosystems. Nevertheless, we can't paint so rosy a picture of this past. By the 1940s brick and linoleum manufactories had operated in this salt marsh intermittently for decades. It was the easy water transport afforded by the Fresh Kills' many waterways and its abutment against the Arthur Kill (separating Staten Island from New Jersey) that had attracted these manufacturing companies. It was these same features that attracted Robert Moses. He imagined that barges brimming with garbage from Manhattan could float right into the Fresh Kills and deposit the trash into the salt marsh. When Fresh Kills Landfill opened in 1948 the plan was that the landfill would be operational for just 3-5 years. Instead, it operated for 53 years.

The Approach

It's not hard to see why Staten Island got shouldered with this huge, smelly burden from 1948 onwards. It has to do, I think, in part with city-hinterland relations. It may be hard to argue that Staten Island, as part of New York City since annexation in 1898, was a "hinterland" to Manhattan's "metropolis." Staten Island was New York City. But the numbers argue otherwise: at over twice the size of Manhattan island, Staten Island was home to only about 190,000 residents in 1950. Manhattan in 1950 had just under 2 million residents. Staten Island had available land; Manhattan did not. Two million Manhattanites produced lots of trash every day; Staten Island had a place for that trash to go.

I disembarked the Staten Island Ferry at St. George and boarded a bus to Eltingville, near the landfill. The bus ride took about 45 minutes. Looking out the windows, I was impressed by all the lawn signs with political candidates' names on them. Staten Islanders seemed to care a lot about their political representation (perhaps because they feel overwhelmed by their more liberal neighbors in the other four boroughs who constitute a super-majority among citywide voters). But it's not just that: it's that here in Staten Island they actually have lawns on which they can place lawn signs. Few New Yorkers have such a patch of grass at their disposal. This small difference made me think more about how spatially and chronologically distinct Staten Island's history is, as compared to the rest of the city. Staten Island's development seems to follow its own unique sense of time and space. And it's no wonder that some of these "Islanders" are "mad as hell" (as in, those who support Carl Paladino for Governor): these Islanders are the youngest sibling of New York's five children, and they frequently pull the shortest straw. Example A: they got this landfill!

From Eltingville we board a NYC Parks bus and enter into the restricted area of the landfill. Our first stop, South Mound.

Mounds of Trash, Mounds of Meadow

View looking west, towards New Jersey, from South Mound, Fresh Kills Park

The mounds of Fresh Kills Landfill are a sight to be seen. They rise high from sea level, high above the Fresh Kills and the Arthur Kill; the highest mound, West Mound, is supposedly 200 feet high. South Mound, which we visited first, stood 150 feet above the tides. Our tour guides, from the NYC Department of Parks and Recreation, tell us that landfills can only be built so high, because it is necessary to maintain a particular slope to the mound. It cannot be graded too steeply (otherwise we get trash-slides?). West Mound, at 200 feet, has reached that peak. In fact, all the mounds have reached their peaks here, in that there are no more active landfills at Fresh Kills. Some, like South Mound atop which we stand, have already been capped, and "nature" is already returning. West Mound, on the other hand, is not ready for humans to walk upon. West Mound was the last trash-mound to be used by the city: after September 11, 2001, remains from the site of the World Trade Center buildings were brought to West Mound where bodies and body parts were identified, objects were sifted through by museologists, and everything thought useless was buried in the mound. The Parks Department plans to build a memorial on top of West Mound to remember this important debris beneath our feet, 200 feet above the sea. We might then properly refer to West Mound as "sacred trash": but how strange to think that debris from the World Trade Center site mingles and stews there among the juice cartons and newspapers that perhaps your mother threw out one morning on a Manhattan street in the 1980s. Perhaps some of my parents' trash is there: my dad created trash in the Bronx from 1953 to 1960, and my mom created trash in Brooklyn from 1950 to the mid-1960s. Are these mounds hollowed ground for me, too? Do I stand here on the shoulders of my parents' trash? Am I the person I am today because they consumed all this stuff? Because they built these mounds?

View of West Mound from South Mound, Fresh Kills Park. You can see West Mound's gargantuan size (from left to right) in the background. You can, as well, notice its unfinished state. As the highest and largest of Fresh Kills' mounds, West Mound is also home to the debris from the World Trade Center site from September 2001.

What about these mounds-as-"nature"? The original "nature" of Fresh Kills was, as already mentioned, low-lying tidal salt marsh. Now we have these mounds, 150 to 200 feet high. What was once rolling meadows of cattails and reeds, of salty muck inhabited by frogs, turtles, and shorebirds has become the rolling hills of Appalachia in miniature. Where the Fresh Kills once flowed unbounded, where the greatest topographic changes were the differences between how the land lay at low tide as compared to high tide, now we have a landscape containing over two thousand acres of mounds. Here the Fresh Kills meanders like the tiny Colorado River through its Grand Canyon: this Grand Canyon of Trash.

But topographic changes aside, there is undeniably still so much "nature" here. From atop South Mound we see the waving grasses of the mountain meadows on all sides. Trees cannot grow here (the Parks Department will literally strive to keep them from growing) because tree roots may endanger the impermeable "cap" that separates the soil on top from the trash below. (Not so impermeable is it?) And so these mounds will never be re-forested. Indeed, re-forested is the wrong term. I asked the tour guide how the Parks Department plans to "re-create" the original habitats of Fresh Kills. He remarked that much of the salt marsh cannot be restored, although some of it, immediately adjacent to the kills, will be. As for these unnatural mounds, they will be kept as meadows, as they are now. But they never were meadows. Their meadow-ing is the result of what appear to be natural processes within a very unnatural place. A wide array of grasses are seen here: some are native, some are perhaps invasive. Will the Parks Department mow it all down and plant turf grass? I hope not. Why not classify some of these mounds as "forever wild"? It's a problematic term for classifying mounds of trash, but a "forever wild" designation would guarantee that from this day on these mounds will be provided with the very best opportunity to become "natural." As for animal life here, we did not see any rodents. We saw a few red-tailed hawks soaring overhead, especially near West Mound. Is there garbage for them to pick at? Or field mice? The answer to that question may determine whether or not most New Yorkers see the hawks' presence here as "natural" or not. We are told that white-tailed deer also visit the mounds. We all anxiously anticipate the return of "nature" to these mounds, but what exactly is returning? And what are they returning to?

One species that just loves North Mound (and in fact, loves just about every nook and cranny in New York City) is the phragmites. Here you can see a field of phragmites waving in the wind. It was incredibly cold and windy atop North Mound. Richmond creek (?) is on view below the mound.

There is a faint smell of trash. Is this the smell of methane slowly released into the atmosphere? How will human park-goers respond to this changed landscape? What do the birds want from this new landscape? What do the mammals want from it? I can begin to see how we - humans - will learn to see mountain meadows where once there was tidal marsh. But will New York's wildlife find mountain meadows just as useful an ecosystem as what was here before? I've seen the shorebirds - the egrets, the herons - at the salt marshes at Pelham Bay. What will make them choose Fresh Kills instead? I can imagine the deer roaming Fresh Kills' new mounds, but where will they sleep without trees and forest cover? Mountain meadows is not a habitat for deer, nor is it habitat for squirrels or for any of the birds who nest in trees. It will attract different plants and animals; to be sure, not all of New York's flora and fauna will be happy about that change. From 1948 to 2001, when the landfills were still open to the sky, I am sure that certain animals had many enjoyable days picking among the trash in these mounds. Now that the mounds are capped these animals will have to move on. It's a big change us: all of us, human and otherwise. Some of us will take to Fresh Kills Park. Some folks will enjoy the views from the mounds just as the red-tailed hawks enjoy the views from up above. Others will avoid these mounds; your average Manhattanite may be as unwilling to visit Staten Island (it takes about two hours to get to Fresh Kills Park from mid-Manhattan) as the Canada geese are unwilling to budge from the field at Van Cortlandt Park.

Not everyone is going to like what they find at Fresh Kills Park. It is a park 30 years in the making, and we're only a few years into it. The park offers free tours for the public once a month allowing you to explore and engage with the city's vision for the site; you can sign up online. Some of the guests on my particular tour had difficult questions for our tour guides. One woman asked whether the design of the park would actually help New Yorkers come to grips with their garbage problem, or whether the park would just hide our trash and its history from sight beneath a prettily-manicured cover. Later on the bus I overheard her remark that she thought the city should leave one mound uncapped, like an open volcano, so that visitors could walk up to the rim and peer down into the stinking, decomposing trash below. The tour guide had told us that capping the mounds was necessary to comply with safety laws. But the image she offered stuck with me. I think she also wanted to be able to search around through the trash and look at different things: to read an old moldy newspaper from 1964, or to examine a hot dog that miraculously still looks like a hot dog. She may have wanted to examine the archeology of our trash, to better know the history of our collective consumption. She suggested that this face-to-face encounter with the "other," with this Halloween-esque "monster" that is our trash, was the only way that New Yorkers would come to grips with their own role as Frankenstein, as the creator.

View of Manhattan from North Mound, Fresh Kills Park. In the foreground are the grasses of North Mound's rolling meadows. Below, at sea level, is a partial view of Main Creek (?) and its surrounding salt marsh. Beyond are woods protected within the William T. Davis Wildlife Refuge. Beyond that are Staten Island's human settlements. Beyond that is New York Harbor. And beyond that, Manhattan.
You can see how the garbage would have been able to see Manhattan, while Manhattanites did not necessarily have to see the garbage.

Whether you are dressing up tonight as a sanitation worker, as "Oscar the Grouch," or perhaps as Frankenstein himself - or as Frankenstein's monster! - have fun. But remember: when you throw your day-old costume into the trash can tomorrow morning, you will be setting into motion an even more frightening event. If you live in Manhattan, your costume will be shipped to New Jersey to be either landfilled or incinerated. If you live in the Bronx or Brooklyn, your costume will be shipped via rail to Virginia to be landfilled. If you live in Staten Island, your costume will be shipped via rail to a landfill in South Carolina. If you live in Queens, I don't know what will happen to your costume: let's just hope I don't come across it while swimming at Coney Island next summer!

New York City Department of Parks and Recreation. Freshkills Park: Site Tour Guide. n.d.
New York City Department of Parks and Recreation. Fresh Perspectives: Freshkills Park Newsletter. Spring/Summer 2010.

To NYC Parks: Thanks for the tour!

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Film Review: Rapa Nui (1994)

It is hard to find time to blog now that school has started again. And yet even with all my homework assignments and other responsibilities, my mind is still lingering off somewhere in the blue Pacific Ocean. I am like a seabird on its many-thousand-mile long journey across the ocean to its seasonal nesting place.

I have actually been thinking a lot about Pacific seabirds over the past month. I have been contemplating the history of American guano extraction in the Pacific during the mid-nineteenth-century and wondering about the ecological dynamics of just how all those nesting seabirds produced so much guano! What were the birds involved? What were the time-spans involved? In short, what would a bird's-eye view of the guano industry look like? I promise more on this topic as my research evolves over the coming semesters...

Rapa Nui (1994)

I did not suspect it at first, but the Kevin Costner-produced 1994 movie Rapa Nui actually tells us a lot about how early Polynesians - in this case Rapanui (Easter Islanders) - thought about and interacted with seabirds.

After his slam dunk movie Dances with Wolves (1990), winning Oscars galore, Costner teamed up with director Kevin Reynolds to keep on the indigenous-peoples theme but this time move out to one of the most isolated human habitations in the whole world: the island known as Easter Island, or Rapa Nui. Rapa Nui got the name "Easter Island" on April 5, 1722 (which happened to be Easter Sunday) when Dutch explorer Jacob Roggeveen became, as far as we know, the first European to visit the island. But this information is, in a sense, irrelevant to Costner and Reynolds' Rapa Nui because that event (1722 CE) occurred well after the time period that is covered in the film.

Exactly what time period Rapa Nui does cover is hard to say. One criticism of the film is how the narrative seamlessly blends centuries worth of Rapa Nui history into a story staged over the time period of just one or two years. From a historical perspective (I'm reading from Jared Diamond's Collapse here for details), here is a brief history of what we believe really happened on Rapa Nui:

First, Rapa Nui was settled by Polynesian voyagers sometime around 700-1100 CE. These dates are questionable, but they do fit with the trends of Tahitian or Marquesan voyagers traveling and colonizing other islands during these same centuries - such as the colonization of Aotearoa (New Zealand) and Hawaiʻi (Hawaiʻi's second round of colonization) during the first few centuries of the second millennium CE. Diamond says the first Polynesians at Rapa Nui found a thickly forested tropical island. They may have retained trading contacts with nearby (a very relative term in this case - we're talking thousands of miles here!) islands such as Mangareva or the Pitcairn Islands for some time, but eventually the Rapanui lost all contact with all other inhabited islands.

Second, and for reasons that remain quite a mystery, the Rapanui began building large stone statues called moai. Diamond describes how the statues were carved out of rock within the island's only quarry on the eastern side of the island. Then the 1o ton, 20 ton (even a 75 ton!) statues were transported across the island to coastal locations; some were transported as far as 9 miles across the island to their final resting places along the water's edge. (I discuss the moai at the American Museum of Natural History in New York, as well as visitors' strange reactions to it, in an earlier blog post.)

Here is a good place to jump into the movie version of this history: the island is divided into two rival clans. But to be more specific, the Long Ears and the Short Ears are not just clans, but represent both rival socio-political classes as well as different racial groups. Most early Polynesian societies had divisions like these; most had chiefly classes (like Hawaiʻi's aliʻi) and commoners (Hawaiʻi's makaʻāinana). In Rapa Nui the Long Ears are the chiefly families and the Short Ears are the commoners. Social and sexual mixing between these two groups is tapu (taboo). But one young Long Ear boy, Noro (played by Jason Scott Lee) has the hots for a Short Ear girl, Ramana (played by Sandrine Holt). The only way that the Long Ear chief, the "Ariki-mau," will approve of Noro's relationship is if he can win the "birdman competition." Winning the competition would promote Noro to chiefdom, and thus his marriage to Ramana would become permissible. She, in the meantime, needs to hide in a cave for many months so as to not only remain a virgin, but also to lighten her skin. This reminds me of Melville's account of the Taipi in his book Typee (1846); in his discussion of the Taipi's racial dynamics, Melville identified that there was a lighter-skinned ruling class and a darker-skinned commoner class of Enata. How many other Polynesian societies understood racial divisions within their own communities? Or is this just a European/Euro-American projection of our own racial anxieties and guilt onto someone else's past?

Noro is going to have stiff competition in the "birdman" race, however. A Short Ear, Make (played by Esai Morales), has challenged Noro. If Make wins, he will be the first Short Ear to ever receive the title "birdman," and in a sense, all tapu will be broken and the Short Ears will viciously take over the island. What are the Short Ears' grievances, you might ask? Well, the Long Ears force them to build moai statues ad nauseum. In the film we see the Short Ears build moai after moai and each time the Ariki-mau (head chief of the Long Ears) says that they are not good enough and the Short Ears will have to build another one. The Ariki-mau feels it is necessary to build these moai in order to attract the "great white canoe" to return to Rapa Nui.

And what is the "great white canoe," you might ask? We do not find out until the very end, but when we do, it is a great and hilarious surprise. It is an iceberg. Did Antarctic icebergs ever drift as far north as 27°S latitude where Rapanui could witness them? It seems doubtful to me. (In the Northern hemisphere, 27°N latitude includes places like Baja California, Mexico, or the state of Florida - hardly favorite iceberg-watching locations! Jared Diamond says the temperature of Rapa Nui might get down into the 50s° fahrenheit, but that's it. He does not explicitly address the iceberg issue.)

No matter. The iceberg is a symbol. It is a symbol that there is another world out there beyond the horizon. Where do these icebergs come from? Where are they going? Who makes them? Who travels upon them?

So the Ariki-mau keeps building moai to attract the "great white canoe" to return. He wants to ride the "great white canoe" off into the sunset. The Short Ears however do not enjoy transporting 10 ton, 20 ton, 75 ton moai across the island. To do this, they employ hundreds of human bodies (requiring great caloric inputs) as well as thousands of trees. Trees are needed to build tracks along the ground on which the moai can be transported. Trees are needed as props and as ladders so that sculptors can work on the top portions of the moai after it has been erected. The engineering genius of the Rapanui in building and transporting these moai is, for me, one of great stories of human history. The religious, social, and political processes surrounding why and how the moai were built, however, seem tragic (whether we follow the movie version or Diamond's historical version of the narrative). The environmental processes, too, are tragic. The movie touches on this dimension: Noro and Ramana had carved their names into a tree on the island before she went into hiding in the "virgin cave." It just happens that as the Short Ears are building their largest moai ever - because if they successfully finish it before the "birdman" competition then Make will be allowed to compete against Noro - they find themselves in need of the very last trees left on the entire island. They need these trees in order to transport the moai to its resting place along the shore. Despite Noro's protests, they cut down the very tree upon which Noro and Ramana hard earlier inscribed their message of love. And the last tree on Easter Island was felled.

Jared Diamond is similarly concerned with the story of how and why the Rapanui cut down every single tree on their island. The ecological impacts of this deforestation were devastating. Soil erosion intensified. Soils also dried up. These ecological transformations affected the Rapanui's crop yields. Wars broke out. By the time when the island became "Easter Island" in 1722, and the first Europeans took in the sight of this mysterious place, Rapa Nui was completely treeless, littered with the ruins of moai that had been destroyed during civil wars, and a population of only a few thousand Rapanui remained for European eyes, whereas just centuries before perhaps as many as 30,000 had once lived.

The "Birdman" Competition

OK. So after the deforestation of the island, protracted civil wars, population decline, and the toppling of the moai, what was the "birdman" cult, and why did it develop? First, the historical version of things: Diamond suggests that the "birdman" competition only began in the late seventeenth century after all these other disasters had already taken place. Even though the movie puts the moai construction and the "birdman" competition within the same narrative, the truth is that the "birdman" ritual began only many generations after all the moai had been toppled.

The last "birdman" competition was held in 1867. That was just five years after Peruvian slave traders kidnapped about 1,500 Rapanui (approximately half the island's population!) for forced labor on Peru's off-shore guano islands. Practically all of these 1,500 Rapanui died of disease and were eventually of no use to the Peruvians. (Incidentally, the international community pressured Peru to return the islanders and in 1863 a Peruvian ship traveled to the Marquesas Islands to return about 12 (yes, only 12!) Pacific Islanders, those who were still alive. These few Pacific Islanders transfered their smallpox to the Enata and over 1,500 Enata died within the following year because of it. For more on this, see Greg Dening's Islands and Beaches [1980])

Anyway, the "birdman" competition involved climbing down the cliffs from Orongo on the southwestern tip of the main island, swimming across the channel, past Motu Kao Kao, to the island of Motu Nui (these are the only small islands off the shores of Rapa Nui). Here on the Motu Nui the manutara (sooty tern) would come to nest once a year. At the first sign of the terns' arrival, the competition would take place. On Motu Nui the competitors had to find a manutara egg and successfully bring the egg back across the water and up the cliffs to Orongo unbroken. The first one back to Orongo with an unbroken egg wins!

Photograph of Motu Kao Kao in foreground, and Motu Iti and Motu Nui in the background. This is the view from the cliffs of Orongo. The "birdman" competitors had to climb down to sea level then swim across the channel to the farthest island in order to obtain a manutara egg. The waters were shark infested. (Source: Wikipedia)

The movie actually does a great job of showing the thrill and risk of the competition. Some of the competitors die by falling off cliffs from thousands of feet above the ocean below, and one competitor is killed by a shark in the waters. Sharks apparently were a common danger for the "birdman" competitors.

The beauty of the "birdman" competition, focused around the arrival of the nesting seabird manutara - just like the anticipated arrival of the "great white canoe" - is that these occurrences suggest to the Rapanui that there is another world out there beyond the horizon. Where do these birds come from? Then where do they go? Ramana's father, an exile living in a cave along the coast, is a canoe builder. But most Rapanui don't even know what a canoe would be good for! Where would you go? There is a simultaneous fear and excitement about the world beyond the horizon.

The Ariki-mau can't contain his excitement. When the "great white canoe" does finally come, he hops on board - as if an iceberg were a vessel - and despite how cold the "canoe" feels on his feet he waves goodbye to his people and prepares himself for entry into another world. Similarly, the movie ends with the Short Ears taking over the island, massacring the Long Ears, forcing Noro and Ramana to seek shelter in her father's cave where they contemplate using the old man's canoe to leave Rapa Nui for a life somewhere else over the horizon. Without traditional knowledge of oceanic navigation nor any sense of oceanic geography beyond what they could normally see from Rapa Nui's steep cliffs, it is highly unlikely that they would be successful on their journey. They say that the earliest Polynesian navigators could detect an island from as far as a hundred miles away based on the presence and flight patterns of seabirds. With Noro's "birdman" skills, maybe he will luck out and the manutara will lead him to Pitcairn, Henderson, or somewhere else nearby....(although he would not find anyone left alive on those islands. See the next chapter in Diamond's Collapse for that story).

The manutara bird (Source: Wikipedia)

Overall, I must say that I would likely NOT use Rapa Nui in a classroom setting. While I find it very admirable that Costner and Reynolds sought to tell a story completely from the Rapanui perspective, rather than portraying Polynesian-European contact and conflict for the umpteenth time - and I admire that there is not even one Caucasian character in the entire film (surely scandalous by Hollywood standards) -, even so, the movie overall fails to really take us back to "prehistoric" (a misleading term) Rapa Nui. For one thing, the New Zealand-accented English spoken by all the characters in the film is a jarring surprise when the first characters begin to speak. If Costner and Reynolds could do the film again, would they have the actors speak Rapanui this time? (I think of the masterful documentary series We Shall Remain (2009) about Native American experiences of European conquest. In many segments of that movie, actors speak in the real indigenous languages particular to the ethnic groups they are representing. This would be a good model for films about early Polynesia, too.)

Secondly, the casting itself is kind of strange: while some great Polynesian actors fill out the cast as minor Short Ear laborers with almost no speaking lines (such as Cliff Curtis and Rena Owen), the lead roles are portrayed by good actors but of odd backgrounds: Chinese-Polynesian, Puerto Rican, Chinese-French. When it comes to trying to understand the supposed racial dynamics between the Short Ears and Long Ears, these actors' visages only complicate things. This is, of course, a controversial critique. Good actors can of course portray people unlike themselves convincingly and movingly. But African-Americans did not appreciate being sidestepped by white actors in blackface during the early twentieth century, just as Native Hawaiians made a racket most recently when a non-Polynesian actress was cast to play a Hawaiian character in Princess Kaiulani (2009).

A third defect of the movie is the soundtrack. From start to finish we see beautiful shots of Rapa Nui while hearing jungle-like "tribal" music of a variety that I can only call "global beat," if such a genre exists. It is a weird genre to be sure; it appears meant to conjure up images of wild savages beating drums, chanting, foaming at the mouth, preparing to do some violent deed to some other people, or to themselves. I don't think I would be mistaken to characterize the music as "African" sounding, and I don't think I would be wrong to consider the use of this music in a movie about Rapa Nui as not only an insult to Polynesian peoples but also as a blatantly racist insult to Africans. What do Rapanui in loin clothes and African drums have in common but for the "savagery" and "primitivism" they exhibit only to European and Euro-American eyes? In short, Rapa Nui plays into our preconceived notions about indigenous, non-white peoples, and while suggesting that the Rapanui once built amazing statues and practiced fascinating rituals, the movie also suggests that all this was eventually lost due to this people's violent savagery - their war against each other and their war against the landscape itself.

The true history of Rapa Nui is fascinating, and Rapa Nui, the film, is a window into that history; it opens doors for our further exploration; it, in fact, led me to seek out Diamond's Collapse and read more about the island's early history. But to truly understand and do justice to the history of Rapa Nui and its people, we need to be more like the manutara - like the iceberg, even - and keep floating over the ocean until we can look back across the horizon and Rapa Nui is no more than just the seabirds overhead who signal that the island is not too far off. We need to travel to Henderson Island, to Pitcairn Island, and to Mangareva with Jared Diamond (in his next chapter) and consider more of the interrelationships between Polynesian peoples - as well as seabirds - between these islands during the past millennium. And as we travel farther, northwest to the Society and Marquesas Islands, north to Hawaiʻi, and west to Samoa, Tonga, and Fiji, and southwest to Aotearoa, as we take in the history of Polynesian voyaging and island colonization as one grand transpacific history, only then can we better understand why one group of original people - the first Polynesians - had such divergent historical experiences once they inhabited each and every other island across the Central and Eastern Pacific. Some Polynesian colonies succeeded. Some collapsed. Similarly, some Polynesian ethnic groups today are growing at faster rates than ever before in their people's history. And yet other groups are struggling to hang on to a common language and identity as a distinct people. These are histories that leave us floating off somewhere in the middle of the ocean with many more questions than we have answers. But for now, that is a good thing, and we ride the "great white canoe" in this state of uncertainty until the birds overhead lead us to the next clue.