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By Jan TenBruggencate
At the heart of the island of Kaua‘i is a wonderland of nature that is unique in the world.
It has been called the world's highest swamp, and it is a wonderland of forested streams and sedge-dotted bogs. Much of it is nearly a mile high, a long, narrow plateau suspended amid the mountains.
From its sides, thin, jagged ridges and waterfalls plunge into deep verdant valleys and canyons. Virtually impenetrable, it can be visited only by arduous hikes or by helicopter on days when the clouds clear. The vast majority of island visitors and most residents have never seen it.
At its eastern end is Wai‘ale‘ale, long proclaimed the wettest spot on Earth. In some years it is likely the wettest; in others perhaps not, but it is clearly very, very wet. The U.S. Geological Survey calculates the average over the past century or so at 426 inches.
To the south, it falls away to Waimea Canyon, the aptly nicknamed “Grand Canyon of the Pacific." On its northern flank, the Alaka‘i drains into the stunning, precipitous ridges and valleys of Hanalei, Lumaha'i and Wainiha valleys. And to the west, into the folded geography of a region known simply by the name, Na Pali, “the cliffs.”
Between all these breathtaking dropoffs lies the Alaka‘i, a calabash filled with rare plants and insects and birds that exist nowhere else.
The ‘olapa grows here, a tree whose leaves flutter in the slightest breeze, when all else is still.
And the ‘ōhi‘a, shrouded in mists, its deep green leaves and bright red blossoms providing shelter and food for the endangered honeycreepers and other birds of the Kaua'i uplands.
There are ferns here—great, tall native hapu'u tree ferns and tiny fragile ones with fronds so delicate one needs a magnifying glass to pick out their parts.
The health of this environment is even more fragile than the ferns.
Many of the Alakai’s birds are endangered today, and many more are extinct. For some of them, civilization has made most of the island uninhabitable, and only the Alaka‘i remains sufficiently remote and untouched for them to survive.
And even here their survival is threatened.
The 'akialoa, a small bird with a curved beak almost as long as its body, has not been seen in a generation, and is believed extinct.
So, too, the ‘o‘o, ‘a‘a, with its haunting, complex call. I saw two 'o'o and heard this extended call once in the Alaka‘i nearly 40 years ago. It exists now only in taped recordings.
The bird was the size of a mynah, but more slender. It had a slate-grey body with small patches of yellow feathers under its wings and on its thighs. And it reminds us of the cultural importance of these uplands. The feathers of the four different species of 'o'o on the various islands were used in ancient times to coat the colorful cloaks and helmets of Hawaiian royalty. The birds would be caught with sticks coated with gum, and according to some references, were released after being relieved of the yellow plumage. The feathers, along with red and orange and green and black ones from other birds, were worked onto a net-like backing woven of plant fibers, each tiny feather carefully tied in place.
Losing the 'o'o and the 'akialoa, along with other species of birds, insects and plants, is the silent alarm, the warning of the impact on the Alaka‘i refuge from humanity and the invaders associated with human activity.
The invaders take many forms. They are introduced mosquitoes carrying alien bird diseases, rooting pigs and grazing goats, and a phalanx of alien plants, leapfrogging into the Alaka‘i on winds and in the bellies of birds and mammals.
The Australian tree fern looks much like the native hapu‘u but is dramatically more invasive, shading out native vegetation. The strawberry guava forms hardwood stands so dense they can be impenetrable. The kahili ginger's roots cover the ground so thickly that nothing else gets through.
To the uninitiated, it all just looks like jungle, but for those who have known this wonderland, these invaders are the schoolyard bullies, getting their way by shoving others aside. Their mono-specific stands are nothing like the delicate complexity of the native forest, where tiny white orchids, and tall red-petaled sandalwoods and purple lobelias bloom side-by-side.
Much of the Alaka‘i is a dense jungle. It is cut occasionally by the beginnings of streams, which splash through the vegetation, seeping around moss-laden stones. The water is the color of tea, stained from steeping in the leafy forest floor.
There are open spaces: bogs, where there is virtually always standing water. It is so wet in the bogs that plants would drown if they sent their roots too deep, so the root systems stay on the surface and the plants are stunted. There is a sense in Alaka‘i bogs of being in an Oriental garden full of bonsai. A full-grown, flowering and seeding ‘ōhi‘a will be a foot high in a bog, while a few yards away another will grow to 50 feet.
If you sit in a bog, you might see the tiny insect-eating sundew, mikinalo, glistening in the afternoon sun. And hear a few birds chattering in the distant trees. And feel the breeze that announces a rain squall, setting the 'olapa leaves aflutter. And you can't help but ask, sitting amid all this, whether it will be here for the next generation, or the one after.
November 22, 2012
Jan TenBruggencate is an award-winning science journalist who lives on Kaua'i and who comments on environmental topics via his Raising Islands blog. As the science and environment writer for The Honolulu Advertiser, he wrote the state's first and longest-running column on the Hawaiian environment.