The ornithologist and I picked our way across a knife-edge ridge high on a Kauai mountain. We were here looking for the nesting site of a rare and endangered bird—the Newell’s shearwater. Due to development and cats and rats and barn owls and a host of other threats, the total population of this particular species of seabird has plummeted an estimated 75% in 15 years. In fact, the colony in which we found ourselves standing waist-high in false staghorn fern, known as uluhe in Hawaii, once numbered 48 active nest sites. Now, only one remains.
I know this, because I had been peppering the ornithologist with questions for a magazine story I was writing.
“Watch your footing. There’s a hole here,” the kindly ornithologist said in his quiet voice tinged with an English accent.
I was wearing turquoise-colored pants—not my first choice, but my favorite hiking pair was piled in a laundry basket awaiting a go in the washing machine. I’d only worn the turquoise ones a few times before and never in the field. They weren’t quite the same color as I’d seen in the catalog. Teal marine? Poseidon blue? Fiji green? Who can really tell what these colors will turn out to be? These turned out to make me feel like I was standing out rather than fitting in. And I don’t like to stand out.
I grew up the only girl of three children. My two older brothers taught me how to throw a baseball and how to shoot a basketball. When they turned to pro wrestling moves, I quickly learned how to escape their favorite hold—the full Nelson.
Soon, they were choosing me in the neighborhood touch football games. “We’ll take her, because she’s our sister,” they’d concede, as if I were a liability. Then, they’d demand a few points and to receive the kickoff to further emphasize my girly burden. But with the first snap of the ball, they’d throw long. To me. Because in addition to the baseballs and basketballs, they’d also taught me how to catch a football. That trick worked a few times before the other team would figure out I wasn’t a fluke and would put a defender on me.
I quickly learned that being a girl who could throw and catch like a boy earned me respect. I didn’t wear pink. I didn’t play with Barbie dolls. I always tried to fit in.
I applied the same technique to my career. When I worked in the male-dominated corporate world on the mainland, I took up golf. But I didn’t buy those pink golf balls that manufacturers were pawning on women. Oh, no. Not me. On Sundays, I watched football, and I could go head-to-head with any man on sports trivia. (Again thanks to my brothers–one, in particular.)
Then, my husband and I moved to Kauai, where I very clearly do not fit in. I am light-skinned. I don’t possess a single drop of Hawaiian blood. I don’t speak Pidgin. But, still, I try to fit in. I try to understand the culture, do the right thing, and be respectful of the place and those who were here long before me. I especially try not to be the obnoxious, know-it-all white woman from the mainland.
The thing I love about being a writer is it gives me permission to enter terrain with which I am familiar but not an expert. I like writing on topics about which I want to know more. But that often puts me in a position of being the ignorant fool. At least, that’s how I perceive myself. Some writer friends I know base their persona around being the bumbling idiot. Some writers—Mark Twain, Bill Bryson—are quite good at it. Not me. Being the ignorant fool is not a role I like playing. I suppose my self-confidence is not all that strong, because even at 51, I am still trying to fit in, still trying to impress the older boys, whose team of ornithologists, biologists, and scientists, I can happily report, is being infiltrated more and more with girls. But that team? They are now, more often than not, much younger than I am. And in much better shape.
And, so, I trekked after this younger man—the ornithologist—for an hour through a muddy trail. I felt my breath quicken and my face redden. At every curve, I looked up, hoping to see a flattened slope instead of a continued uphill climb. And, finally, when it happened, when the trail reached its apex, I realized we were standing in the middle of a high-ish-elevation bog where the infamous uluhe grows rampant.
This particular fern sends out shoots that weave one on top of the other, creating a matted web of fronds that’s a little like walking on a trampoline. These shoots—segmented pieces, really—can even extend far out beyond where land stops and cliff starts. On the narrow spine of a ridge on which we picked our way, we were not many steps away from cliff’s edge—on either side of us.
I was aware of this and trying to be mindful of it while trying not to think about it too much. If you know what I mean.
At the point when the ornithologist said, “Watch your footing. There’s a hole here,” we’d already stepped through a few other holes. That is, areas of less dense uluhe fern that did not hold our weight. But it just so happened that this time, this hole opened up on a downward sloping part of the ridge, and when I stepped into it, my momentum was going forward. Going so forward, in fact, that I felt my upper body propel forward over my feet.
I think I may have called out, because the ornithologist stopped and looked back, and I heard the words, “Oh, my,” escape his lips. He, by the way, wore camouflage-colored pants with knee-high rubber boots that had studs—to help with traction.
Already, in my mind, I was picturing the sight he saw: Two turquoise-colored legs–caked with mud—sticking out of a bed of ferns.
Now, my 35-year-old self would have been humiliated. My 25-year-old self would have probably preferred falling completely down the cliff face. But the middle-aged, grey-haired, turquoise-pant-wearing woman that I am today? I started laughing. Laughing so hard, in fact, that I was paralyzed. I couldn’t right myself by rolling forward or backward, and my turquoise-colored legs flailed in the air.
“Are you O.K.?” my only witness to this come-uppance asked. I noticed a bit of concern in his voice, so I stifled my laughter and somehow got my turquoise legs back under me.
The ornithologist was a complete gentleman about it. He didn’t make me feel stupid or bumbling or ignorant.
After we found the burrow and adjusted a song-meter, a device that captures the raucous call of these seabirds in order to estimate population, we picked our way back along the ridge and through the ferns to safe, albeit muddy, land.
When we arrived back at his office, I said. “This was a great day. I am only disappointed with one thing.”
His face wrinkled in a question.
“That you didn’t get a picture of me doing the headstand in the uluhe.”
So, finally, at 51, I think I might be starting to get over my need to fit in. In fact, I might finally be embracing who I am—in my own white skin, inside my own turquoise-colored pants. In fact, I have a whole new opinion of my turquoise pants now. I think I’ll wear them on my next hike.