Friday, August 31, 2012


We've been quite busy this past week preparing for and cleaning up after the first significant storm to affect the Keys since I started at Kona Kai back in January of 2011. The experience is definitely different than being a spectator back in Ohio. There is actually much more talk about hurricanes up north than down here where the storms are actually likely to cause damage.

I don't know what it is, but when I lived up north, it almost seemed like tropical storms and hurricanes are like a form of entertainment, a sort of "reality TV" that people relish. When northerners get together with friends, we would exchange all sorts of information gathered with various resources (TV, Internet, other people, etc.). If you are interested in climbing the social ladder and get known in the community, you will be certain to develop a reliable reputation when it comes to weather analysis and predictions and take part as much as possible in hurricane hysteria. Endless speculation and weather maps on TV and the Internet fuel the madness and it becomes a topic of conversation with almost everyone.

Any northerner worth their salt keeps up on the very latest when it comes to strong storms that won't affect them and has in their home the tools necessary to prepare them for some serious talk of the weather. (Joe Raedle/Getty Images North America)
Talk about weather generally provides folks with a favorite topic of meaningless conversation because people, after all, have to talk about something. Local weather, however, only often provides relief from a few minutes of potentially-awkard silence. That's where hurricanes are clutch: interactions with people we only marginally know or care to be talking with become much easier, with at least a half hour of meaningless material that can be drawn upon. Conversations usually progress something like this:

"Hey there Rupert!
Oh, hey Sancho.
How's it going?
Good, how's it going with you?
So didjya hear about that hurricane?
Yeah, everybody's been talking about it...but isn't it technically a tropical storm?
Oh, yeah, that's right...what's required for it to be a hurricane?
I dunno, I think it's gotta hit above a seven on the Richter Scale or something.
(excitedly)You think it's gonna turn into a hurricane???
Yeah, probably.
Me too - and a big one at that. I think it's gonna hit Florida square in the chops with damage like they've never seen!
I dunno...I bet it'll be big too but my money's on it hitting Texas.
But Florida's right in the cone!
Yeah, but I was watching the latest update ten minutes ago on my smartphone and they said this cold front's gonna be coming down and blow it off course to the west; I've got this app from a little-known but extremely reliable military weather site that gives me updates on the storm every hour.
Whoa - I've gotta get that!
You think people are gonna evacuate?
I know I would but there's always a bunch who stay...why in the world do they do that?
I dunno but I hope the levees are gonna hold wherever it lands.
Man, you know they ain't gonna hold.
I wouldn't be so sure, my best friend's sister works for a guy who has a connection over in Washington and I guess they had the Army Corps of Engineers reinforcing them all over the coastlines since Katrina.
Well, it'll be interesting.
Alright man, catch you later!
K, later!
(phone rings) Basco! How's it going? Yeah man! I was just talking to Rupert about it and he said..."

Down here in the Keys, you won't usually hear talk like that from residents, who are used to being "in the cone" when a storm is more than four or five days out, and although people are keeping tabs on it, there's no major hype.  If the storm is still projected to affect the Keys when it is three days away or less, then people start making preparations and talking a bit about it. Isaac was a great example of how being "in the middle of the cone" several days out is often more a cause for relief rather than fear, as long-term predictions are frequently off the mark:

"Isaac will become a Category 1 hurricane with 90mph winds, the eye heading right over Key Largo!!!" Nope.
Here at the Gardens, we keep most all of the plants in good shape for storms year-round through smart plant selection and proper pruning. While we do have some plants that don't fare well in storms with high winds, we keep these plants to a minimum and if possible, keep them pruned to a low height. When Isaac came through, the main storm fortunately missed us to the west, but we did get a couple days of high winds. While some plants were damaged, we emerged largely unscathed and mostly had a lot of leaves to clean up. Even if plants do get damaged here, they are very resilient and recover relatively quickly, even from the brink of death.

This sea-grape was ripped out of the ground and onto its side during Hurricane Wilma in 2005. The staff doubted it would recover but it has been a full 20ft tall tree for some time!
The only notable damage occurred to our banana plants, which are herbaceous - they don't have wood so they lack support. Veronika and I cut out the banana plants that had fallen over and then cut them up to make a "banana leaf salad" that will feed the remaining upright banana plants - it decomposes quickly and is a pretty ideal sustainable method of fertilization. You just have to watch out for the sap from the plants while doing this because it will badly stain any clothing that touches it.

A few banana plants that blew over in our fruit garden after Isaac.
Another part of our preparations for the storm was shuttering all of the glass on the buildings here. It's a bit of work getting them up and taking them down, but it's better to be safe than sorry when it comes to hurricanes.

Veronika putting up shutters over the glass doors of our front office.
We basically slide each shutter up into the groove above the windows/doors and then secure them using wing nuts after aligning holes in the bottoms of the shutters with screws that stick out from a track installed on the window ledge or deck, which you can see to the right of Veronika's feet. Although preparing for hurricanes is a good bit of work, it is quite fun, too, in that everyone gets to work together directly; it's a great team-building exercise. After we finish prepping the Resort, we go around to the houses of any staff who need help putting their shutters up, which I thought was really cool and makes the people who work here feel less like "staff" or "employees" and more like "family."

After the storm passes, we all come back together at the Resort and Gardens as soon as possible to get everything cleaned up. Since this storm didn't hit us too hard, we didn't have many major things to clean up besides the banana plants but there were plenty of leaves and other small debris covering the gardens.

Taking a break from our cleanup efforts to pose for a photo as we all struggle to stay upright in the clearly still-strong winds.
Although this wasn't a huge storm, it was still incredible to see how quickly preparations were made for the storm and how quickly things were cleaned up afterwards.  Only one full day after the storm passed, we were back up and ready for visitors!

The weather seemed just as urgent as we were to get things back to beautiful. One day after Isaac passed, you wouldn't even guess a storm had come through.
I'm glad I had the opportunity to learn and run through many of the aspects of hurricane preparation, weathering and cleanup in a relatively small storm, which will hopefully be the last for the year. The weather continues to be wonderful here and we're looking forward to a picture-perfect Labor Day weekend - hope the same is true for you!

Rick Hederstrom
Associate Director

Saturday, August 11, 2012

Nuts and Bolts

Imagine your dream car. What comes to mind? Maybe a sleek body style, a luxurious interior, adrenalin-pumping power, or that perfect sound from the exhaust pipes. What we don't often imagine are top-quality nuts, bolts, and other supporting features that hold all that together for many years. Nuts and bolts don't get much glory but they are absolutely necessary to every dream car.

I've always wanted a Geo Metro convertible, but Pontiac took the Metro design to 'dream car' level with this paint job on their Firefly LE - the dream car that all other dream cars dream about.
How does all that relate to a botanic garden, and in particular ours here at Kona Kai? Well, the glamour and glory of our Gardens is largely what you see, smell, and taste as well as how you feel when you are in the Gardens. This usually involves a direct experience with the plants and any educational experiences we offer along with them in terms of interpretation (plant labels, etc.) and tours. These aspects are analogous to the ideals of beauty, luxury, power, and sound of a dream car. Also like the dream car, behind all the appeal to the senses you will find the "nuts and bolts" of the Gardens, which normally go on behind the scenes. I wanted to create this post in order to give you an idea about a few types of the more "behind-the-scenes" work involved here at the Gardens and at any other respectable botanical institution so that we can progress further in answering the question stated in this blog's description, namely "what on earth does an ethnobotanist / associate director of a botanic garden do???"

Our institutional plan is a major component of the nuts and bolts of our botanic garden. Joe began working on this plan a few years before I arrived at Kona Kai and we have been working on it together ever since. You could call it a document, but we actually have it set up as a spreadsheet with about forty separate worksheets within, each dealing with a different aspect of the Gardens. We have this document in the "cloud" so that we can work on it from multiple computers in multiple locations and we can be certain we are working with an up-to-date version. We can also work collaboratively on the plan in real time since it can be accessed and edited by multiple users on different computers at the same time - pretty cool! This plan serves to document what we've accomplished, what we are working on, and where we are headed over approximately the next five years. It's important to have goals so that we don't work aimlessly, so Joe and I are sure to get together for extended sessions once per quarter for in-depth discussion on our progress and goals. While it is a bit complex and overwhelming, it is crucial to our effective operation into the future.

Me (not in actuality) after an in-depth discussion of the institutional plan with Joe.
Every vehicle has a purpose based on its characteristics; the same is true for botanic gardens. Our mission statement describes what we do and plays an integral part in what is included in our institutional plan. As an incentive to explore, I'll let you check out our botanic gardens web page here to find out what our mission is even though I know you have it memorized already. Current and potential programs at our botanic garden are constantly on my mind, and I evaluate them regularly to see how well they contribute to fulfilling our mission. Just because we are doing something well, doesn't mean we couldn't be doing it better, and one aspect of "better" for me involves tweaking projects so that they most effectively contribute to fulfilling our mission. With regards to potential programs, if something sounds like it might be fun to get involved in but it is not relevant to our mission, we probably won't do it. For instance, although Joe and I would love to have regular botanically-themed circus performances at the Gardens, it doesn't really fit with our mission, unless we modified it to include "strange, low-revenue entertainment." More realistically, although research for medicinal compounds in plants is both extremely interesting and ethnobotanical in nature, we do not have the facilities or funds to carry that research out, so we haven't included it in our mission and consequently don't endeavor to undertake that sort of work. Relating to automobiles again, it would be like putting racing tires, sport suspension, and fiberglass body effects inches from the ground on a truck commissioned for snow plowing...although it sounds awesome, it doesn't fit the purpose and would negatively affect the performance of the truck for its intended purpose.

The Dodge Ram HFS Edition, designed by Russ Schwenkler, is a perfect example of a truck with a "mission" that doesn't include plowing snow. I think it needs some more spoilers for its spoilers.
When we experience cars and gardens, we are experiencing an "end product" - a result of a lot of research over a period of many years that has gone on behind-the-scenes to create that beautiful product. When it comes to gardens, we have plenty of research to do in order to decide on which plants to include on the property and where, create labels for these plants, develop interesting tours, figure out what's causing a plant to go into decline, establish an education program, etc. Research is a major part of determining what goes into our institutional plan and how to go about executing what we have planned when the opportune time arrives. I do a lot of research each day and I am so thankful to have the Internet as a resource to accomplish most of this. Although I pretty much grew up with the Internet, I can still remember times when researching meant going to a library because that was really the only place to go for extensive reliable information. In the case of gardens, a quality botanical / horticultural library has been an extremely important resource, but fortunately for gardens with limited funding, the Internet now allows quick and easy access to much of this information for free. Because information can be accessed so quickly and easily, it allows us to do more in shorter periods of time, which is great but it can get overwhelming at times, creating the need to step back to let the mind catch up with processing all the information it has been given so that good decisions can be made. I find that having restful sleep at night, reserving time for quietness/stillness, and practicing minimizing stress (but still working at a good pace) gives my brain the opportunity to do its best work. I have to realize that while technology makes exponential progress in terms of speed and information, I cannot "upgrade" my brain like I can my computer to effectively process such quantities of information at ever-increasing speeds.

A good representation of what I feel happens when I push my brain too hard. Fortunately my job does not deal with any of this (at least that I can tell).
So now you know a bit more about a few of the things I do when I'm not outside in the Gardens: developing and maintaining our institutional plan, figuring out how to best fulfill our mission, and researching, researching, researching so that we can make the best decisions possible and become a valuable resource for our visitors and the community. I didn't include any garden pictures so far in this post, so I think I'll leave you with a picture of a place in the Gardens here at Kona Kai where I like to take a few minutes to clear my mind and refresh my spirit when my brain starts to feel like the whiteboard above.

Such a beautiful contrast.
Even if you can't be here at Kona Kai to do the same, it makes a great desktop background for quick mental vacations!

Rick Hederstrom
Associate Director