“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”
-Cultural anthropologist Margaret Mead
Late last year, at the same time the Presidential election results shook the nation, the majestic Laysan albatross started returning to Kaua‘i. They dropped their spatula-like feet and touched land after months of knowing only air and wind and a wet, watery world. As of November 8th, six had returned to the colony I monitor, here to meet up with their partners and start the creation of another generation of majestic flyers. I knew a bit of history about five of them. I knew this because of the bands around their legs.
For years, I’ve tracked the stories of hundreds of Laysan albatross that touch down along a stretch of Kaua‘i’s coastline. I do this by jotting down the seabirds’ band numbers in a yellow Rite in the Rain notebook. I track who mates with whom. I note the GPS coordinates of their nest site. I capture the date when an egg appears, the date the egg hatches, the unique band number given to each chick, when each chick fledges, and, hopefully, if it survives, two to five years later, the date the chick returns to begin its process of mate selection and reproduction. I run numbers on egg survival, chick survival, juvenile survival. This is called science.
I’ve peered through my binoculars and written down a multitude of band numbers, and in the process, I’ve come to know a few of the bird’s distinct personalities. Like O462.
Last year, O462 nested in a perfect location inside a protected, fenced colony on a bluff overlooking the ocean.
Laysan albatross pairs take turns incubating the one and only egg the female produces each year. While one sits quietly, the other searches for squid and fish from the sea, sometimes ranging thousands of miles and foraging for up to two weeks to do so. For the incubating parent, there’s nothing to do but sit and wait. The longer the wait goes on, the more the incubating bird appears to go into a meditative state, conserving as much energy as possible during this fast. Males, I’m told, take the first shift, so the females can replenish the one-third weight they lose with the laying of their eggs.
Every week, I noted O462 on his nest. When four weeks went by with no evidence of relief from his mate, I began to worry. I suspected she wasn’t coming back. That she was either a young female unaccustomed to the shared ways of albatross chick-raising, or she was killed at sea. I began to hope O462 would abandon his egg and return to the sea where nourishment awaited him. But the weeks continued to add up, and O462 grew thin, his feathers ragged and dirty. I feared I’d come one day and find him dead on his nest, his beloved egg still warm beneath him.
After nearly eight weeks, O462 finally flew to the sea. He finally abandoned his nest and egg, and for that, I was grateful.
I have something in common with O462: I failed last year, too. His nest failed; my voice failed.
I failed the Laysan albatross that I’ve monitored for years. And I failed more. I failed the endangered Hawaiian monk seals. I failed the endangered Green sea turtles only now beginning to haul out again in the Main Hawaiian Islands to safely bask in the sun, as well as, dig holes and cache hundreds of eggs. I failed the nēnē, an endemic goose making a strident comeback after nearly dying off in the 1950s.
I could go on listing the hundreds of native and endangered species in Hawai‘i that I failed on November 8, 2016. And I will.
I failed the koloa maoli, an endemic duck. The ae`o, an endemic stilt. The ‘alae ‘ula, an endemic moorhen. The ‘alae ke‘oke‘o, an endemic coot. All endangered.
As a journalist who covers, mostly, the unique natural history of Hawai‘i, I’ve had the privilege of talking to the very scientists involved in saving Hawai‘i’s endangered flora and fauna. I’ve seen sandy islands as flat as pancakes, some no bigger than a soccer field, that are home to Hawaiian monk seals in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands. I’ve walked these same beaches and counted albatrosses nesting along the coastline. In the Main Hawaiian Islands, I’ve hiked high-elevation swamps and cloud forests and the slopes of the high volcanic islands where our endangered forest birds live.
Here are a few things I’ve learned:
- The earth is warming, glaciers are melting, and ocean levels are rising, leading to:
- The submergence of barrier reefs that once served as protective levies around the Hawaiian Islands, making it easier for storm-generated waves to wash nesting albatross chicks and Hawaiian monk seal pups out to sea. Remember the 2011 Japan earthquake? When two tectonic plates collided 15 miles beneath the sea off Japan, a magnitude-9 earthquake was triggered, and its subsequent tsunami killed an estimated 250,000 Laysan albatross adults and chicks in the remote Northwestern Hawaiian Islands. Expect more of this.
- More and stronger storms. Last year, a record 15 named tropical storms ping-ponged around the Central Pacific.
- Loss of habitat. Rising oceans will submerge coastlines and even those pancake-flat islands, islets, and atolls in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands that make up the recently expanded Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument. This is where 85 percent of Hawaiian monk seals haul out to rest and raise their young and where 99 percent of Laysan albatross land to breed.
- As air temperatures warm, mosquitoes are able to live at higher elevations in Hawai‘i, thus killing off native forest birds with avian malaria. A single bite from a diseased mosquito can kill an `i`iwi.
The wise Chief Seattle is credited with saying, “If all the beasts were gone, man would die from loneliness of spirit, for whatever happens to the beast, happens to the man.”
Luckily, other people long before me have spoken up on behalf of birds and nature. Others understood the fragile hold nature possesses in our industrialized world. About the time people were clubbing albatross for their feathers and hunting Labrador ducks and Passenger pigeons by the tens of thousands, conservation groups started forming. Republican President Theodore Roosevelt gave the movement a giant step forward when he created the first national wildlife refuge in 1903 and followed that with 51 more and three national parks the next year. In 1918, Democratic President Woodrow Wilson signed the Migratory Bird Species Act. Swing forward to 1970 when President Richard M. Nixon signed the National Environmental Policy Act into law. In 1972, he signed the Marine Mammal Protection Act into law. Then, in 1973, he passed the Endangered Species Act. Were there really times when Republicans and Democrats alike understood our connection to the natural world? Days when a person didn’t have to take political sides to save the birds or the seals or the turtles?
I failed nature on November 8th, because I didn’t speak up loudly enough for those without a vote. The environment and nature hardly entered the national discourse in the run-up to the election, but that doesn’t mean it’s immune to the new Presidential administration. Hardly. I’m concerned how our endangered species will fare the next four years. I’m concerned about the environment—clean water, public land. I’m concerned about science funding. And I’m concerned about this growing swell of attitude toward science—that science is a belief. It’s not. Science is science. Facts are facts. Science saves lives. Science explains life. Science is curiosity in action. Science is cool.
It’s no secret that in the days after the election, I was angry. If I had published the first draft of this essay, it would have read as a rant, an emotional missive. Then, I realized the re-vote wasn’t going to happen and the electorate wasn’t going to make history, and what mattered was how we moved forward. How we continued doing the work we do—writing about and photographing and caring for the albatross and monk seals and `i`iwi of the world.
Earlier this year, I met prolific traveler and writer Barry Lopez. I read a minor sliver of the sum total of pages that make up the body of essays and magazines articles and books he’s written. In “Six Thousand Lessons,” Barry writes, “During these years of travel, my understanding of what diversity means has changed. I began with an intuition that the world was from place to place and from culture to culture, far more different than I had been led to believe. Later, I began to understand that to ignore these differences was not simply insensitive but unjust and perilous. To ignore these differences does not make things better. It creates isolation, pain, fury, despair. Finally, I came to see something profound. Long-term healthy patterns of social organization, among all social life forms, it seemed to me, hinged on work that maintained the integrity of the community while at the same time granting autonomy to individuals. What made society beautiful and memorable was some combination of autonomy and deference that, together, minimizes strife.”
I’d like to tell you about the `i`iwi.
The `i`iwi belongs to the honeycreeper family of birds known taxonomically as Frangillidae. From a scientific standpoint, this family is a true masterpiece, a unique example of the scientific phenomenon made famous by Charles Darwin and known as adaptive radiation. All the Hawaii honeycreepers descended from a single finch-like ancestor that arrived into Hawai‘i millions of years ago, adapted to its new environment, and evolved into a freakish number of distinct species—a whopping 56 known to science, each contributing a unique song to the symphony of the forest. Although Darwin’s finches in the Galapagos Islands—with their mere 14 species—receive more notoriety, Hawaii’s honeycreepers demonstrate the scientific concept in ways no writer of science fiction could imagine.
Barry continues his thoughts, “It is now my understanding that diversity is not, as I had once thought, a characteristic of life. It is, instead, a condition necessary for life.”
The same is true for us. We need all our voices.
Political parties have evolved over the years, sometimes flip-flopping platforms, adapting to new environments more quickly than the way flora and fauna do. The party of our youth is likely no longer the party of our adulthood, meaning we can’t just walk into the polling booth and vote a straight ticket across a lifetime. Likely, we can’t vote a straight ticket in a single election. It’s not easy. It’s uncomfortable. It requires research and introspection. It’s hard to break habits. To divest from inherited family traditions. To cross party lines. But if Hawaiian monk seals, Laysan albatross, the tiny honeycreepers or any of the other hundreds of Hawai‘i’s—or the world’s—native flora and fauna are important to you. If you volunteer on behalf of wildlife. If you’d like to see a healthy biodiversity of species in our oceans and forests. I hope you’ll join me in using your single voice, dare say, your one, solitary vote going forward, in support of that which gives us nourishment, both physical and spiritual. We must all be mothers of nature, and no matter our political leanings, we must raise our voices together on behalf of this place, this Earth, our home.
I didn’t use my words to weigh in before November 8th, but I’m using them now on Earth Day, the day also chosen for the March for Science. Last season, O462’s nest failed, but he didn’t. He made the hard decision to leave his egg and find sustenance in the sea. He survived, and you know what else? He returned this year, ready to try again. If I were to give him a name, it would be this: Hope. He’s hopeful. So am I. I don’t kid myself into thinking my words would have made any difference in last year’s election. I’m writing this solely for me, as my manifesto for 2017, albeit well into the year, and I’m writing this as a promise to the wildlife without a voice in our human world. I’m writing this for O462. For Hope.