A Place Outside Time

"The native forest at Waikamoi looks as it did before humans ever set foot here roughly 1,000 years ago."


By Matt Vale

Note: View a CBS Sunday Morning story and video on the Conservancy's Waikamoi Preserve

Invasive species in Hawai'i present the urgent problem of anatopism — of things-out-of-place. But sometimes the healing balm is things-out-of-time: on the windward slopes of Haleakalā Crater, the Nature Conservancy’s Waikamoi Preserve protects one of the last and most pristine stretches of native Hawaiian forest — a jewel of anachronism that looks much as it did before humans set foot here roughly 1,000 years ago.

My dad and I drive up Haleakalā with Mike Neal, local woodworker, photographer, surfer and Conservancy volunteer. All six of Maui’s native forest birds (or honeycreepers) find refuge in Waikamo i— the ‘apapane, ‘i’iwi, ‘alauahio, ‘amakihi and the critically endangered ‘akohekohe and kiwikiu. High-altitude habitat like Waikamoi is native birds’ crucial last hold-out: the warmer lowlands swarm with human-introduced mosquitoes carrying avian pox and malaria, devastating foreign diseases Hawaiian birds have evolved no immunity against.

Disappearing habitat threatens kiwikiu especially—each pair requires large territories and produces only one chick every year or two. Waikamoi, Mike says, is one of the few places where kiwikiu “still have a chance.” But it all depends on forests of native ‘ōhi’a and koa — native birds’ primary food sources.

Getting to Waikamoi

We hike to Waikamoi through a forest of non-native conifers. In 1946, territorial foresters planted eucalyptus, spruce, cedar and pine here in an attempt to provide timber and save the watershed from the effects of clear-cutting. This is dizzying, disorientating anatopism — like we’ve taken a wormhole to the Sierra Nevadas’ pine forests.

Here’s the conifers’ fatal flaw: Haleakalā’s lava-soil has little nutrients; the health of any forest here depends upon a robust understory constantly shedding leaves and returning nitrogen to the soil. But conifers kill understory: they suck up massive amounts of water to keep for themselves, shade out small plants, and drop needles that make the soil too acidic for other species. With nutrient-poor dirt and no understory, the invasive forest is sickly, barren of wildlife—it’s silent; we hear more dead limbs cracking than faraway birds calling.

But the non-native conifers’ failings make obvious the native forests’ life-giving elegance. Koa’s leaf-like phyllodia are arranged vertically, allowing as much light and water as possible to reach the ground. When koa and ‘ōhi’a absorb water from the soil, they breathe much of it back into the atmosphere—the forest produces its own clouds, keeps water moving, available for other organisms (Hawaiians say, the rain follows the forest). “It’s all about returning nitrogen to the soil, keeping everything growing” Neal says. Native trees are uniquely adapted to nurture an understory, make barren lava support life.

Entering the Native Forest

The conifers stop abruptly. Downhill, the forest was never logged — too steep. “We’re about to go back 900 years,” Neal tells us. “And I like to remind people that they’re entering a sacred place.” The tops of these mountains were and are, in Hawaiian tradition, the Realm of the Gods—wao akua—to be entered only after proper recitation of chants requesting permission and blessings: oli kāhea.

We descend; the forest below is a crystal palace — canopy coverage is total, but the forest floor dances with light, almost emitting its own. All is buoyancy and clarity, the lush understory, a sea of four-foot ferns. ‘Ōhi’a blaze with bright red, feathery lehua blossoms: we watch neon green ‘alauahio and ‘amakihi, scarlet ‘apapane and ‘i’iwi — even an ‘akohekohe—dive in and hit the blossoms for nectar; the tree’s never silent of bright bird shapes for long. Kiwikiu hunt insects under koa bark and lichen. We see twisted ‘ōhi’a large enough to be 1,200-2,000 years old—shepherds of the forest. Mosses, ferns, young trees, sprout from completely horizontal koa trunks snaking like great-bodied serpent dragons, winding their noses through the ferns.

After the silent non-native forest, here is a thick mesh of birdsong. With almost infinite repertoires of whirrs, gurgles, and melodies, ‘i’iwi and ‘apapane improvise never-before-uttered strings of syllables—the voices are uncountable in the crowd. I try to remember their speaking, but new and beautiful variations leap out every moment.

With the steep slope and canopy, we can see no ocean, no land; only sky, and the moat of clouds ringing the mountain below us — we really are as if in a floating realm, hidden away from the earth. The forest of light seems ageless, and yet birds whiz with unchecked now-ness through the canopy, chattering, fighting, exulting. Serious winds rush clouds over our heads as if in unreal time-lapse; as if the days of men below pass like minutes before us. The clouds come so close, so fast — the place swirls with the liveliness of the gods; birds and blossoms meet the Hawaiian heavens in a place outside time.


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