14 June 2013

Fire in Hawaii?

Here's my new gig - wildfire management in Hawaii and across the Pacific.  Fire is a critical threat to lives and livelihoods in many parts of the state - as well as to the dwindling areas of native forest in Pacific islands.  With the establishment and spread of largely exotic grasses and increased drought conditions due to climate change, the frequency and extent of wildfire is only expected to increase.  How do we cope with such a dynamic, unpredictable, and potentially devastating force?

Well, I'm learning.  I've been hired onto the University of Hawaii's cooperative extension program and put in a position to increase the exchange of knowledge between researchers and management practitioners.  The Pacific Fire Exchange is part of a nation-wide push by the Joint Fire Science Program to put science to work for folks dealing with wildfire on the ground.

Hawaii, in particular, has a deep history of miscommunication and misunderstanding (often drifting towards antagonism) between biologists and resource managers.  The extent to which the results of research address and inform the practical, dat-to-day needs of managers is generally pretty slim.  And, vice versa, there are few opportunities or forums through which researchers can really understand the challenges managers face.  For example - researchers know about the positive feedbacks between fire-adapted invasive grasses and wildfire occurrence, but how many researchers actually understand how wildland fire-fighters suppress fires when they happen?

The bottom line, and the underlying principle of the Pacfic Fire Exchange, is that knowledge is a two-way street.  The goal is to make science useful and useable.

31 January 2013

Stan Brock

My PhD supervisor sent me a link to this youtube video from the classic TV documentary series Wild Kingdom.

We've just published a paper about Kakadu National Park, Arnhem Land, Aboriginal burning, and introduced water buffalo.  Somewhere someone came across this posting of the 1960s show where the hosts go on this water buffalo roundup.  Very funny, very old school.  And also very cool to catch a glimpse of Kakadu before it was a National Park - actually looks pretty trashed by all the water buffalo:

Right at the start, this guy Stan Brock gets introduced as one of the hosts and I have this flash of recognition.  I'd heard that name before - but not through the 1960s nature show.

In 2007 I spent about a month with friends that manage Dadanawa ranch in Guyana.  One day we went for a jeep trip several hours south and west of the ranch.  One of the river crossings was flooded and we spent a very interesting evening at the home this old-time ranch hand, Uncle Jerome, at the foot of this mountain way, way out in the middle of the South Rupununi savanna. 
Uncle Jerome

He spoke in such a thick creole you'd probably not believe it was English...but he also had this mental tic where it was like he'd hit the rewind button and tell these same stories over and over again, as if they were scripted.  One of those stories probably explained his mental tic - years and years ago he fell back off a second story porch, piss drunk, and landed on his head.  Told me you could see his brain through the crack in his skull.

Jerome's spot in the South Rupununi

Long story short - he was going on and on about this guy Stan Brock - about how they were filming for this TV show and they had set up this shot where they were gonna lasso a bloody jaguar.  And he swore they did it - Stan Brock in front of the camera, roping a jaguar from horseback. And as I'm trying to decipher his creole and make sense of the story, Jerome keeps hitting the rewind button, and starting all over again.  Eventually, eventually, he reaches a point in the story and is cracking up laughing that it was he - Uncle Jerome - who actually lassoed the cat and the whole thing was a complete setup.  They trapped the jaguar beforehand, drugged the poor thing and staged this whole drama where Stan Brock gets to lasso the cat.  I remember thinking at the time - some day I gotta try to find this footage.  

And, of course, I forgot all about it...till I click on that video up above and get reintroduced to Stan Brock.

So...the connection?  Stan Brock was the manager of Dadanawa back in the 60s and was actually 'discovered' when Wild Kingdom went to shoot down there.  It ended up being his ticket out of Guyana and into show business.

And lo and behold, the jaguar video was uploaded to youtube as well:

You can actually see Jerome ride up after they lasso the poor cat.  Just a warning - the scene is a bit tough to watch.

And just to give you an idea of the thickness of Jerome's creole, here's a clip i took one night lens cap on just to get a sound recording.

05 August 2012

Picking fruit

"I pick fruit."

That's what I used to say when I was field botanizing for the National Tropical Botanical Garden and people'd ask what I did.  There are times I wonder why I left that job.

I did pick lots of fruit.  Collecting seed from native Hawaiian plants was one of the main responsibilities.  The Garden grows plants for projects attempting to restore native habitat all over Kauai and elsewhere in Hawaii.  Natalia Tangalin - who is still living the Field Botanist dream job - got stuck showing me the ropes.  We started with day trips (actually we started surveying weeds along the roadside in an old Ford Explorer with a leaky exhaust system - but that's another story) - collecting mostly up in the forest in Kokee state park or in the native coastal plant communities on the south shore and east side of the island.  But we soon began to dream of the Garden's hay days - back in the 80s and 90s when helicopter budgets were flush, before Hurricane Iniki leveled half of Kauai's native forest - when our colleagues and predecessor Field Botanists Steve Perlman and Ken Wood were getting dropped into the most remote parts of the island, finding new species, making the cover of National Geographic… Man, they got it good.

Yes - this is a National Geographic cover - plant in the mouth - nice touch Kenny!
Make no mistake - we had it good too.  The best part of collecting was that as long as we got the seeds the Garden needed, we could pretty much go wherever we wanted (permits permitting).  So we planned our field trips so that we could also re-locate and check up on some of the rarer plants out there.  Hawaii has got far too many plant species on the critically critically endangered list, far too many persistent threats - goats, pigs, and weeds - and far too few people keeping an eye out (thankfully there are PEPP folks and others).  We weren't really pining for the good ol' days - ok maybe a little bit - we just wanted to check out those same deep pockets and plants that Ken and Steve had been exploring for years.  And at some point it hit us that we could...we just had to do it on our own four feet.  Day trips were over - we started gearing up for overnighters.

wet road in Kokee and my favorite Garden ride

Our first real 'shake-down' was hilarious in retrospect.  In reality it was cold and wet wet wet - scary wet.  Winter time on Kauai and just the week before Steve got caught in a flash flood, yet another story but for someone else to tell.  As far as we were concerned we were playing it safe.  We took the Garden's Toyota pickup through Kokee State Park, past a couple little stream crossings to the end of Camp 10 road.  After a relatively short walk along the north rim of Koaie Canyon, Natalia found this hunter track she'd heard about and, with full packs, we dropped off the edge of the Alakai Plateau.  Less than a half mile long, the track dropped over 2,000 feet (about 600 m) - a radical shortcut that left us far in the back of the canyon.  Its a very cool vegetation zone - a high diversity of native plants due to the intermingling of the rainforest of the Alakai wilderness with the drier forest of Waimea Canyon - and home to a few scattered individuals of Alectryon macrococcus (Mahoe), a small Hawaiian tree that's critically endangered.

natalia films the decent

We set up camp across the river and explored downstream into the drier forest zone.  As the wet forest elements thinned along the banks, we poked into a couple smaller tributaries leading up to waterfalls below the occasional giant white hibiscus tree.  Looking west you could see the 'new' forest of invasive strawberry guavas marching up the sunnier, drier slopes of the canyon, while east towards the back, the darker, patchier canopy of native ohia-lehua trees held on.  No Aletryons that day.  We made it back to camp a bit before dusk and checked out our setup.

Koaie Canyon

Prior to Kauai, I had spent a while down in Guyana, South America, and my friends there turned me on to the beauty of Hennessey Hammocks.  With a built-in mosquito net and rain fly, its essentially an off-the-ground tent.  When the overnighter idea came to us on Kauai, I immediately ordered a Henessey and a super light down sleeping bag through the Garden.  Natalia was less convinced so I told her just to try a night out in my older hammock set up - a separate tarp and mosquito net and my thin tropical sleeping bag.  Hammocks are amazing in the tropics - but it gets cold on the mountain - even on Kauai.  And that night got cold and stormy.  The rain came and the wind whipped up - branches creaking and snapping - one came down so big I hollared to see if Natalia was ok.  With no insulation beneath us, our sleeping bags were essentally useless.  Well, mine worked from the top - I was sweating above, but any body part in contact with the nylon may as well have been butt naked.  But poor Natalia - I at least stayed dry - every gust sent water pouring off her tarp straight on the head.  We both pulled out space blankets for a bit more shelter, listened for falling trees, and tossed and turned and froze till morning.

the things they carried - at least for a day-trip

Daylight brought another surprise - a new river.  Enough rain had fallen on the plateau above us overnight to flood the water a good 4 feet higher than the day before.  So much for botanizing...our way out was on the other side.  We started scouting for a crossing.  It was easy to reach this giant boulder in the middle but from there it got tricky and too deep for comfort.  We half joked about being stuck out there another night - at least we were still on the high side of the stream.  In the end we decided we'd cross but played it safe - we doubled some webbing around the giant boulder and I dropped my pack, held on to the line and waded into the whitewater.  I tied the other end across the stream and went back to cross with our packs.  It was  abit exhilarating but we still had a 2,000 foot climb out.  By the time we got back to the truck we were pretty stoked on our little adventure, but ready for dry clothes and hot food.

natalia goes for the crossing 

Then we came to the first crossing on the 4x4 track out.  The little stream by Sugi Grove campsite had a waste-high standing wave boiling over the cement culvert.  We took one look at it, thought about our little truck...thought about Steve getting caught in his vehicle in a flood the week before, and decided no way.  All the relief and satisfaction of the day drained out - I don't know if it was the thought of scouting another crossing, or the 6 mile walk to the payphone at the state park, but we were a bit deflated...we parked up on some high ground, thinned out the gear from our packs and started scouting again.  We actually found a cable crossing system just upstream - but of course the basket was across the river and locked.  In the end we went for the cement culvert one step at a time - after the canyon it seemed pretty mellow.  We made it to the payphone after dark.  Our supervisor, Mike Demotta, was happy to hear we were okay and drive up the mountain to take us home.

native spider - Agripore avara  - on the canyon wall

We got better.  Natalia ditched the hammock idea for a lightweight tarp setup, but I still use my Hennessey - only if I'm in the mountains, I bring a sleeping pad for insulation.  And we fell into a pretty solid routine.  Two to three nights a week we'd be out on the mountain, exploring, collecting, checking up on known locations of endangered plants, sometimes finding new ones.  We had rough days - long quiet slogs, nights stuck in crappy camp spots, also did our fair share of killing weeds - but I can't honestly think of a day out in the field I didn't enjoy.

Myrsine lanaiensis - Kolea - native and not endangered

So why did I leave?  As I'm stuck in front of the computer, neck-deep in analyses and figures and trying to write it all into a dissertation, I sometimes wonder.  I suppose I felt I could do something more.  The Garden gave me hundreds of days in the field - they've even given me field  days years later during my PhD work...Natalia got to come out with for some epic walks and veg surveys in Arnhem Land and Kakadu National Park.  Very recently I've had the opportunity to try to give something back - to try to synthesize all this fieldwork with Kauai's rare plants.  To come up with something useful not just for the Garden, but for everyone working on Kauai and potentially other islands as well.

....more to come soon.

23 April 2012

the literature

Got my the first publication from my phd out a few weeks back.  Makes me feel like things are happening, even with all this time OUT of the field, clicking away at a keyboard.


At any rate - its not super gonzo, I'll admit...journal articles are more like the slick, trimmed down, fat-free, finished product after all the fun stuff.  Very important in terms of contributing to the scientific literature, and eventually to management, however, these publications rarely make to the general public.  There's a reason - they're dry, hardly any story at all.  As in this instance - there's no part about Talia and I getting dropped off on Balang's and Bilinydjan's country in Arnhem Land with a trailer full of food and a satellite phone for 2 months.  Nothing about cooking over an open fire every day, carving hunks of meat of wild buffalo legs, and playing the dreamtime songs Balang put his father's and grandfather's stories to.  You definitely can't write about steaming fish in paperbark, or the dingos howling across the river, or the water python that came up to us, as Bilinydjan said, take Talia's sickness away.  Even the fires we lit with them - wrapping our whitefella (or yellowfella as they called Talia), foreign heads around the fact that here in Arnhem Land, people burn country - even those were relegated to a few technical lines in the methods section..."fires were lit in as an arc of patch fires c. 25 m upwind from the start of each transect..."

Not to say, by any means, that scientific publications are UN-important.  After all, the questions we go after in these papers are an exciting part of ecology...in the case of this paper the factors driving heterogeneity and diversity in these savannas, and ultimately, a better clue to understanding people's role in the system.  But the streamlining and competition for publication among the scientific literature leaves little room for the "chaff" above.  Thankfully I've got this web-page to share the fun stuff.


The journal NATURE apparently liked my research too...maybe we should've submitted it to them (its one of the highest ranking scientific publications out there in terms of readership and citations)


31 October 2011


Schidea kaalae

...sidetracked by plants.  Settling back into life in Hawaii and while most my days are spent writing about Arnhem Land and savanna fires, there are plenty of distractions to be had here - plenty of opportunities to get back into the mountains.

the Ko'olau

Learning your plants in Hawaii is different...it is arguably the world's most eccentric flora.  This is largely a result of the islands' radical isolation from the rest of the continental land masses.  Beyond having one of the world's highest rates of species endemism, the plants here have evolved into magnificently unique forms... California tarweeds to the agave-like silverswords on the larger volcanoes, delicate violets from the Arctic gained woody stems (protection from maurauding flightless geese?), nursery bellflowers to tufted shrubs imagined by Dr. Seuss.

The plant ID skills you pick up here may be irrelevant elsewhere in the world, but there's no doubt that understanding Hawaiian botany alters one's perception of the place.  Finding native plants usually involves a good climb up the mountain, literally into a different world.  Unfortunately, very quickly along the way, one realizes that native plants are alarmingly scarce.

Cyrtandra paludosa

Its not for a lack of greenery.  Hawaii has an amazing amount of forest cover - from state and national parks to Honolulu suburbs where folks' yards back up into rain forest and dryland scrub.  Unfortunately the vast vast majority of trees, shrubs, vines, grasses - even birds - that one encounters in Hawaii's lowlands are weeds.  Released from more ecologically "aggressive" communities on the continents, these introduced species are competitively superior to native plants and have drastically transformed local ecosystems.  Compound this with introduced rats, pigs, insects, extinctions of native birds and undocumented declines of who-knows-how-many invertebrates - all disrupting the processes of pollination, seed dispersal and plant regeneration.  The result has been a dramatic and continual contraction of native forest higher up into the mountains and into smaller, more isolated patches in the lowlands.

The Oahu PEPP gals with Cyanea truncata - a species down to single digits in the wild

The description is simplistic - only because the actual system is enormously complicated - but this is the general state of Hawaiian native ecosystems.  The more gritty details just get, well, grittier.  The rarest of Hawaiian plants are so critically endangered that a state-wide program has been developed solely for their conservation.  The Plant Extinction Prevention Program's (PEPP) focus is species with wild populations numbering 50 individuals or less.  Think about that quantity for half a minute.  Then consider that on each island, there are likely 50-60+ species classified as "PEPPs".

The brighter side is that connecting with native plants and learning their story brings a lot of people to action. Organizations like PEPP, the National Tropical Botanical Garden, Army Natural Resources, the Hawaiian Association of Watershed Partnerships, the Nature Conservancy, many state agencies and more provide opportunities for folks to volunteer and even get paid to work at restoring the forests here.

 Cyanea truncata flowers - note the Drosophila fruit flies on the left - another Hawaiian species group that has radically diversified

Before heading to Tasmania, both my wife and myself had field jobs here in Hawaii.  And now that we're back, Talia's picked it right up again, working for Oahu PEPP.  So in between bouts of computer-induced madness (I am paying, one word at time, for all the fun in Arnhem Land), I get to tag along on some good walks, work out the machete on some bad weeds, and decompress in the forest.

Friends from Kualoa ranch wander down a drainage of decent native forest

Is it a losing battle?  It can be difficult to be optimistic counting plant populations in single digits.  But the conservation community here in Hawaii is growing by leaps and bounds...more energy, more ideas and more people learning, telling and changing the story.

 fortunately not everything's endangered - Peperomia oahuensis (?)

Charpentiera obovata 

 another PEPP - Schidea kaalae - tough flowers to shoot

(and happy halloween)

17 October 2011

tucker truck update

a very cool skype call the other day.  typed some numbers into a laptop in the back of manoa valley and a little phone booth in the middle of the arnhem land savannas rang away.  let it ring a few times to get someone's attention then hang up.  give them time to wander over to the booth, and call again.  this time, Bilanjan picked up in the little community of Kolorrbidahdah.  we talked story with her and Balang, Wamudjan and Wamud for over an hour and everyone's healthy and happy - the tucker truck is back in action.  

24 August 2011

the tucker truck

Starving time.  Unfortunately, I didn't write down their word for it.

Spent a few nights at Yaiminyi just last month, an old outstation nestled between a little creek and some stone country outcrops at the eastern edge of the Arnhem Plateau.  The first day there, the two of us balanda (whitefellas) went gatum (up river) to count trees as diligent botanists do.  Balang and family walked gandji (down river) for the day, doing manwurrk (burning country) and hunting gomdow (long-neck turtles).  By the time we returned to camp, they had already roasted two gomdow on the coals for lunch, two more were kicking around in an old flour tin next the campfire.

"Garreimun gomdow molam?" ('We eat turtle tomorrow?'  Bits and pieces of language were coming back to me from the year before.)

"Maybe, but maybe we save them for when starving time comes."

And I crack a joke: "You mean till the Tucker Truck comes next week?"

"Nah, no more Tucker Truck." 

"No more Tucker Truck?  Since when?"

"Since…maybe after you and Talia left in the dry season - last year."  No joke.

The Tucker Truck has been servicing central Arnhem Land for over 30 years - every dry season and as long as roads stay open through the wet.  For families at outstations, its their lifeline to the goods and services of town - especially in communities like Kolorbidahdah where no one has a working vehicle.  Every two weeks, the Tucker Truck rumbles out of the government settlement of Maningrida on the coast and makes rounds to the 30 or so remote outstations serviced by the Bawinanga Aboriginal Corporation (B.A.C.).  Flour, sugar, tea bag, milk powder, tin meat, and baki (tobacco) are the local staples.  It also provides other necessities like lighters, flashlight batteries, and fish hooks and line.

Or rather, provided them.  The program manager for the Tucker Truck stepped down last August and Bawinganga has yet to resume the program.  What this means is starving time - an old, old word with an unfortunate new resonance.  Balang and Bulanyjan had told us about a couple harrowing, hungry weeks during the wet season – a 20 km walk with their 6 and 3 year old to a neighboring outstation for food, the B.A.C. Rangers bringing in supplies another time by helicopter.  Yet we simply assumed the Tucker Truck couldn't reach the outstation because of flooded roads.  Instead, over the past year Balang and his extended family at Kolorbidahdah have been relying on "bush tucker" – fishing, hunting and gathering food from the rivers, billabongs and savannas surrouning their home – as well as the occasional lift to town from the Rangers and family from other outstations.  But being one of the furthest communities out and at the end of the road, life in Kolorbidahdah has fallen on tough times.

In central Arnhem Land, the outstation "movement" began around the late 1970s in order to give Aboriginal people the opportunity to leave the government and missionary settlements like Maningrida and move back to managing and living on "country" they've come from.  And the very cool part is that it is their country – Arnhem Land has been officially recognized as Aboriginal territory for decades.  In order to fund the whole enterprise, the Australian federal government established the Community Development and Employment Program (CDEP).  The CDEP is essentially an alternative form of government assistance, wherein Aborigines are provided housing and a living stipend for managing their lands at the outstations.  The whole program is highly controversial among whitefella Australians.  To many, the CDEP is simply living "on the dole," (though payments amount to less than welfare) and they question the use of tax money to resource tiny and remote communities.

The alternative argument, however, makes both economic and humanitarian sense.  Bininj (Aboriginal people) highly value their relationship with country and those who choose to live on outstations generally retain healthier and happier lifestyles.  Fishing, hunting, making didjeridus and other other traditional crafts, and all the stories which connect living and ancestral bininj to the land...these things are too often lost when people leave their country. And for bininj who settle in larger towns the social and physical woes of alcoholism, drug addiction, domestic violence, and preventable diseases such as diabetes are appallingly higher than for the average Australian balanda (whitefella).

Balang and his family are incredibly resourceful – the diversity of foods that bininj exploit is mind-boggling.  And with no Tucker Truck some "long time, old time" methods of food production have gotten a cultural dusting off.  They showed me photos (taken with their mobile phone of course) of a huge fish trap they built across the river during the wet season – something Balang hadn't done since he and his brother were kids living out on remote country with their father, far from the Tucker Truck.  They had also begun revisiting old yam beds that haven’t been managed for years.  Although bininj are technically considered never to have practiced agriculture, garbara (yams) are a staple resource that was carefully managed through weeding, transplanting, and protection from fires.  Very cool, but also very easy to view this knowledge and resourcefulness through a lens of nostalgia and romance…the danger is not realizing the suffering the comes hand in hand with such a dependency.

To have the choice and option of bush tucker is a cherished part of life in Arnhem Land.  But to expect bininj to live off the land like the folks of "long time, old time"  is unrealistic and fundamentally inhuman.   If the Tucker Truck fails to resume, it is inevitable that Balang and his family will move to Maningrida.  Kodjan, Balang's mother has already left Kolorbidahdah.  They don't want to.  Balang's grandfather took his family there in the 1950's – a three day walk from their country far to the south.  After two days in town he decided marek (nope).  He turned around and marched the whole family back home – where he felt they belonged.  That decided Balang's lifestyle.  He grew up hunting wallabies with mangole (throwing spears) up in gobahbat (stone country) and hearing his grandfather's and father's stories…incredible, but again, a dangerously romantic and nostalgic.  It was a day's walk, but throughout Balang's childhood, even they had dry season access to the Tucker Truck. 

There was rumor in Maningrida that Bawinanga might start the bugger back up soon…never thought I'd put so much hope into the bloody Tucker Truck!