Friday, August 30, 2013

Bird(s) of Paradise

Hawaiʻi Research Adventure: Days 25-29

Bird of Paradise flower, Dole Plantation, Wahiawa
Here's a photograph I did not include in my "Driving through History" series. A photograph from my epic trip to the Dole plantation on Oʻahu—from their interpretive "garden." It's a photograph of the equally epic "Bird of Paradise" flower. The name itself conjures up dominant romantic idealizations of what Hawaiʻi is all about, right? Paradise.
And for me: birds.
I had never heard of the "bird of paradise" flower before my research adventure on Oʻahu. I could immediately tell, of course, why this plant is called what it is called, because its shape looks like the elongated neck and head of a bird with a big plume of bright, colorful feathers on top. 
But what I did not know was that this type of plant, Strelitzia, is not even native to Hawaiʻi. This bird (of paradise) has flown. It's actually endemic to South Africa, but today it is found all over the world, thanks to people who love colorful gardens.

Apparently it is not even called "bird of paradise flower" in South Africa, but rather "crane flower," which references a bird, to be sure, but not specifically a "bird of paradise." Of course here in Hawaiʻi adding the name "paradise" to anything makes it sound more "Hawaiian"; I assume this is because it reinforces idealizations that have already formed in our minds about this place, rather than challenging those idealizations (as much of Hawaiian history does, or so I contend).

Leave it to Wikipedia to suggest that the reason it is called "bird of paradise" flower is actually because it looks a lot like the bird-of-paradise, a native family of avian fellas from Australasia. How a flower from South Africa got named for a bird in the Southwest Pacific, however, is anyone's guess. And that my first experience of this whole complex of birds, plants, and names began in central Oʻahu just goes to show how truly globalized "nature" has become in the twenty-first century.

And that's the thing about "nature" and "history." They are not two distinct spheres: one fixed and stable, the other subject to the whims of great men. No, they are dynamic and fundamentally interrelated. Nature influences human history and human history influences nature. This lesson is so simple but somehow we barely even recognize it. (I guess that's why universities need environmental historians.)

For example, when I look out my ninth-floor window at the East-West Center in the Mānoa Valley, what do I see? I want to say I see "nature," but what really am I seeing? 

Take Mānoa's avian community, for example. Since I arrived in Honolulu two weeks ago, I have never tired of waking in the morning to watch the beautiful white birds gliding in twos and threes over the treetops over the university and far off near the pali of Mānoa's distant hills. I have since learned that these birds are locally called "fairy terns"; scientists urge us to call them "white terns" so that we don't confuse them with the "real" fairy terns; for Hawaiians they are called manu o Kū or "bird of Kū" (Kū being the Hawaiian god of war). I don't know why these birds are associated with Kū; hopefully someone will share this moʻolelo with me. 

I am fascinated by these birds because they are seabirds, and yet they nest, amazingly, right here on an urban campus in a city of almost 400,000 people! They seem to be the only seabird that does so... that loves cities. We would have to travel out much farther from here to see other seabirds: boobies, frigatebirds, sooty terns, albatrosses. The Hawaiian Islands are home to many of them, but only the manu o Kū makes the big city its home. What a beautiful, amazing bird!

Searching around online to learn more about Honolulu's avian life, because for the time being I lack a good field guide, I came across this site earlier today.

It lists sixteen birds that can be found on the University of Hawaiʻi's campus. And guess how many of these sixteen are native to Hawaiʻi? Just two. The manu o Kū, and the kolea (golden plover), both of which are ocean birds and only visit seasonally, although the former is a seabird and the latter a shorebird, and the manu o Kū actually seems to spend almost the whole year here.

So what about the fourteen other bird species on campus? All are non-natives. Some were introduced to Hawaiʻi as early as the late eighteenth century. Some were introduces as recently as just a few decades ago. Whenever you fly into Hawaiʻi from abroad you have to fill out a declaration form for the state testifying that you are not bringing in any non-native species to these islands. Now we know why, right? Not only are there so many non-native birds here, but also alien mammals, alien reptiles, and all kinds of other crazy creatures, too, perhaps even alien aliens.

So to return to the view outside my window. The manu of Kū birds are a link to a deep past here. But all the other pigeons and sparrows and other birds making their noise and flashing their colors: they are not "nature"—not at least in the way that many of you romantics imagine nature to be: timeless, unchanging, like it has always been, like it used to be. But they are, indeed, "nature" if you are willing to see human history as part of nature, and see nature as part of human history.

So there you have it. We have "bird of paradise" flowers here that are neither birds nor from paradise, and we also have real birds and some perhaps less-than-"real" birds here, too, all inhabiting a deeply historical man-made paradise. Some will continue to see Hawaiʻi as pristine and paradisaical and untouched and "as-nature," but in these birds and in these flowers I see a place that has changed and is changing and is dynamic and evolving and not-so-perfect but not really all that bad either, and frankly just as history has made it. Perhaps that is want I want to see in Hawaiʻi...


So how's research? On Monday I finished up my work at the State Archives. On Tuesday I visited the recently renovated and recently reopened Hawaiian & Pacific Collection at the Hamilton Library to read some rare documents. On Wednesday I went to my favorite coffeehouse in all of Honolulu, Coffeeline, and began crafting a draft introduction to my dissertation (which is a big deal, you know... to be at a point, with drafts of all my chapters, that I can finally begin to start thinking about the introduction!). On Thursday I continued work on my introduction—also working on writing some applications for grants and fellowships—and I drove my good friend to the airport in her car, Constance—and then I ended up back at the Hamilton Library. Today, Friday, I spent all day at the Hawaiian & Pacific Collection at the Hamilton Library, and I intend to go back there next week to do some more reading and writing.

My goals for next week are to: 1) meet with people that I should talk to before I leave Hawaiʻi for what may be the last time before I complete my dissertation; 2) check as many random sources and citations as I can at the Hamilton Library related to all the little, small things in my dissertation that I am still missing good references for; 3) review my archival notes from the past two weeks and think about how to integrate these new data into my dissertation chapters.

Meanwhile, I have a three-day weekend ahead of me, and Constance is mine once more. So expect some more "driving through history" in the next post(s). :)

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