A week ago, on Earth Day, under blue skies, I took my spot in the parking lot at Kīlauea Point National Wildlife Refuge. “Did you know you’d have to be a parking lot attendant when you applied for the job” a woman asked me a couple weeks ago. “I did,” I said. “But it’s only for an hour a day.” When she walked off, I heard her say to the man with her, “I’d always thought park rangers were like biologists or scientists.” Another time, as I wore an orange vest over my brown uniform and waved a car to an open parking spot, a man approached me. He told me his son was getting his biology degree, a degree, it seemed, that the dad couldn’t translate to a real-life job. Seeing me, something clicked for him. “He could be a park ranger, right?” he asked. Sometimes, a moment of time—say an hour of parking duty—is do-able, because it’s just a moment of something bigger. Sometimes, a moment itself is the big something, when an insight permanently shifts our way of thinking and being.
One might think scooping nēnē scat is another one of those moments I endure in the warmth and glow of the greater good of being a park ranger. But scat patrol is actually one of my favorite parts of the day. It offers a Zen-like calm in the quietude that is Kīlauea Point National Wildlife Refuge before upwards of a thousand people drive through our gates, find a place to park—with or without my help—and roam the grounds. Beyond the quietude of Kīlauea Point, there’s the wildlife. And, last week, on Earth Day, while the birds weren’t so quiet, they still provided a calm that infused my being the way a first sip of good wine can magically make a good meal exceptional. Five koa‘e ‘ula, red-tailed tropicbirds, squawked overhead in an aerial courtship display. I looked up just as one bird reversed thrusters on its flapping wings and, in an inconceivable maneuver, flew backwards. A few seconds later, it was the cry of an ‘ā, Red-footed booby, that got my attention. I had been standing in the shadow of Daniel K. Inouye Kīlauea Point Lighthouse scooping scat when the seabird ascended from sea level and popped into view at 180-feet elevation at the northernmost point on the Main Hawaiian Islands. It was followed in close pursuit by an ‘iwa, Great frigate bird. The latter wanted the former’s recent meal. The frigate bird encouraged the booby to give up its catch by tweaking the booby’s wing with a four-inch, serrated bill. Instead of a chunk of squid, one of the booby’s black, flight feathers fell to the ground, nearly at my feet.
Then, after eight years of hanging around mōlī, Laysan albatross, monitoring their nests, surveying their numbers, and banding chicks as a biology technician, I witnessed something I’d never seen before. Two Laysan albatross flew overhead, their long wings extended. And while the dynamic soaring that allows them to make 3,400-mile round trips to the North Pacific and back to feed a chick at Kīlauea Point is impressive enough, that wasn’t what excited me—on Earth Day, no less. Courting Laysan albatross spend three to four years choosing a mate. They do so in an elaborate courtship dance that includes whistling and bill clacking and sky mooing and bill slapping and, no doubt, a variety of other subtle gestures that we humans cannot decipher. But they do it on the ground. At least, that’s what I’d understood until yesterday when I watched two birds arch their necks, whistling and bill clacking in the air.
Technically, these were three moments in time—the raucous tropicbirds, the great frigate bird’s chase of the red-footed booby, and the courting Laysan albatross. Combined, they made up 30 seconds of action in my day. But they did so much more. They made me exclaim out loud. They gave me stories I’ve shared many times since. They put a bright shine over my day that no guest who grumbled about the five dollars required to enter the refuge could tarnish. In short, those moments made my day. Nature can do that. But there was another moment last week that also stuck with me. “Happy Earth Day,” I greeted guests as they emerged from their cars for the walk to Kīlauea Point and the 102-year-old lighthouse. Most people responded something like, “Oh, that’s right. It’s Earth Day.” But one boy looked quizzical. “What’s Earth Day?” he asked. I explained—something about celebrating Earth, that which is our home and taking care of it as if it were our living room. But his face remained dull. So, I continued. About when I suggested going to the beach and, perhaps, picking up some trash, I saw it. A flash in his eyes, the light bulb going on, his ah-ha moment. Now, I understand the flicker I saw in his face may have been due to his simple desire to go to the beach, but I think not. I think it was something more. I think he was imagining himself on the beach, caretaking, and making a difference in this world. That’s what nature—this Earth—does to me. She makes me want to be a better person. And if it means enduring a few moments of discomfort, I am good with that. Because during those moments of uninspired work in a parking lot, I may just run across another person who, in a flash of the eyes, I can tell relates to Mother Nature, too. And, in that we have much in common. How about you? What’s your favorite thing to do on Earth Day?