Saturday, August 17, 2013

"Welcome to Earth"

I often wonder what it would be like if we each were born in a base station on a completely desolate planet and came to earth as a young adult. One of the most tragic aspects of our lives is that we lose early-life memories, including the sense of wonder we experience during our first years on Earth when everything is completely new and the simplest things are mind-blowing. If we arrived to Earth later in life, that memory would remain with us for much longer, and maybe we'd live much differently because of that. Imagine growing up on a planet not unlike our own moon, and this is all you've ever known:

...and then one day leaving in a space shuttle with a group of others who have come of age for a distant planet that is only the stuff of dreams and fairy tales. The journey to Earth would take several months. One day, the shuttle captain gives word to look off into the distance, as our planet is now in view:

Earth is the tiny speck in the topmost sunbeam, as viewed from 3.7 billion miles away by Voyager 1.

Excitement begins to build, and in a few more weeks, the shuttle reaches the last stage of its long journey. At last, on the final day of the trip, the destination planet fills the windows. Tears roll down the cheeks of all the passengers who never imagined something of such beauty existed in the entire universe:

Wow.  This, in the "vast nothingness" of space.

After landing, everyone is warmly welcomed and given a month-long tour of their new home planet. There is complete silence among the travelers, not because they cannot talk, but because they are so overwhelmed with wonder and have no words to convey what is going on inside of them. Everything is new and the simplest things are mind-blowing. Their senses are coming alive to the point of being overwhelmed: the smell of air made by plants and their flowers, rather than machines at the base station; the taste of fresh fruits and vegetables as opposed to vacuum packed, processed meals; the soft texture of grass on their feet contrasting with the concrete of the base station floor; the magnificence of redwood forests in comparison with a barren landscape; the rainbow of colors in the sky throughout the day, as opposed to no color at all; the freedom to be able to run through fields of wildflowers and travel the whole rest of Earth without a space suit; the exhilaration of jumping into an azure ocean and being surrounded by corals and fish of unimaginable colors; the colorful miracle of the season of Fall; the vibrance and warmth of summer and the stillness and beauty of a winter snow; creatures of seemingly endless diversity running to and fro; and many other such experiences. Here are a few snapshots of only one of the beautiful places (our gardens) they would have no doubt visited:

Look at this for a while, then look at the first photo again - Earth truly is an overwhelming miracle of life!

After this incredible tour of Earth, the travelers cannot believe their fortune of having the opportunity to live on such a planet. They all express their great desire to know how they may live on Earth in the best possible way in gratitude for such an incredible gift. In response to this, they are presented with a thin handbook entitled "Welcome to Earth." It is a surprisingly short and simple guidebook containing what have been determined to be the vital basics newcomers should understand and remember as they prepare to live on this new planet. I have included a copy here:

Welcome to Earth!
Earth is an incredibly complex planet. All the different plants and animals you will find here each have an important function that contributes to creating and maintaining the beautiful life-filled planet you see. You can even look at Earth itself as one large living, breathing organism. The extinction of one of its creatures has great impact throughout the wider world, as each creature depends on others for survival. We humans, in particular, are completely dependent upon the other life, especially plants, on this planet for our survival and well-being (oxygen, food, clothing, shelter, medicine, materials, fragrance, etc.) Incredibly, plants need only energy they receive from the sun, carbon they obtain from the air, nutrients from the soil, and water to produce these things that are freely available and so very useful to us. In whatever ways possible, take care of these precious providers.
The creatures here act not only as providers, but teachers as well. We have learned how to properly live on Earth from the creatures who have inhabited this planet for thousands and millions of years before us. We have learned from plants how to capture and use the free energy given to us by the sun to provide the energy we need for our activities (warmth, electricity, transportation, etc.). Our "solar panels" are our version of plant leaves. We have also learned that many plants and animals can share Earth because they use only what they need and do not accumulate unnecessary things for themselves; whatever they do not need is made available for other creatures to use, and so Earth can be filled with many creatures. In order to be able to share Earth with as many other creatures as possible, we follow this example. There are many further lessons the creatures here can teach us, so look forward to learning much more!
To summarize, if you want to live "gently" on Earth, make use of the resources the creatures of Earth provide, but be frugal and use only what you need, as the creatures here teach us to do. Also, make use of the energy freely available (sun, wind, water) or through other renewable means to provide for your needs, as Earth's plant's do.
This welcome guide could be much larger if it were filled with specifics, but most every decision regarding how to properly live on Earth can be made easily if we stay aware of and in touch with the planet's vital signs and maintain the attitude of respect, reverence, and gratitude for our gift of life on Earth that you feel so keenly today.
Enjoy your stay!

And with that, they go forth excitedly to begin their lives in this wonder-filled world.

Rick Hederstrom
Associate Director

Saturday, August 3, 2013

Jamaican Cherry - A Tribute

If you've stayed here at Kona Kai over the years, you have hopefully timed your visit to coincide with the harvest of at least one of our fruits from our tropical fruit garden. This is an important part of our ethnobotanical theme, as food is a major way people rely on plants for survival and well-being. Pretty much all food, meat included, ultimately comes from plants in some way or another (mineral seasonings like salt being a notable exception), and we would certainly be more than a little sad if we had nothing to eat. Interestingly, our diets here in America often only include perhaps only a percent or two of all edible species and varieties of edible plants available in the world. Our tropical fruit garden is a great place to introduce people to foods they've never tried before, which hopefully opens their eyes a bit more to the diversity of plants out there in the world (and even in their own grocery store). It sometimes takes people a bit out of their apples-oranges-bananas comfort zone to try a fruit new to them, but most everyone I've offered one to is glad they gave it a try.

Here we have pummelo (sliced and prepared), jaboticaba (dark purple), starfruit, and Jamaican cherry.

It's important to eat a variety of fruits and vegetables, not only for nutritional and preventative medicinal reasons, but also because if something is not used, it is usually much more easily lost. We currently have very little idea about what nutritional, medicinal, or other resources might lie in many of these less-than-well-known fruit trees, and if we only eat apples, bananas, and oranges, then guess what will be planted and offered for sale? If we as consumers choose and demand a greater variety of fruits and vegetables, then we can contribute to sustaining biodiversity instead of monoculture. Perhaps as a result, you'll one day see some of these less-well-known delectable tropical gems offered at your local grocer.

One of those gems, Jamaican cherry (Muntingia calabura), has been a fruit pretty much everyone has enthusiastically enjoyed because of its amazing cotton-candy-like flavor and simplicity of preparation (just pick and eat!). The tree sets fruit for much of the year, so I usually had at least one for each person on a tour with me, although the squirrels and birds sometimes got a bit too overzealous, forgetting to leave a few for us. I don't blame them, though, as the fruits certainly are delicious.

A ripe Jamaican cherry, which disappeared immediately after this photo was taken...

We have had very few issues with our much-loved Jamaican cherry tree besides having to cut back some of its vigorous branches, but back in May of 2012, it was found leaning against our shed after a particularly stormy night.

Luckily the shed was a close support!

Fortunately, we were able, with the help of Joe's truck, to pull the tree back to its former upright position and then tie it to a nearby California fan palm (Washingtonia filifera) as an anchor. It seemed to be doing very well, filling out its branches and producing copious amounts of fruit, until just over a year later, this past June, we found it leaning over again - this time in the opposite direction.

We took one look at the trunk and knew that the tree was nearing its end, with probably no more than a few months left to live. Its core appeared to be rotting away, and now the trunk had broken with its roots on two sides. Our tree's decline made sense to me, as the tree is what is known as an early-successional tree species in the wild, which means the tree is a quick grower, forming part of the first tree canopies in its native forests. To do this, early successional tree species will often sacrifice wood quality for quick growth. As soon as a disturbance makes a clearing in the forest, these trees begin their sprint. Grasses and shrubs usually have their "time in the sun" first, but the trees eventually displace them (depending on the habitat, of course). Their victory, however, will be short-lived as larger trees with more solid trunks, such as our native West Indies mahogany, are developing in the understory and eventually overtake the the early successional tree species like the Jamaican cherry. That's ok, though, because by this time, the Jamaican cherry tree has had plenty of seasons of flowering and fruit production with many creatures willing to disperse its seeds far and wide to await the next disturbance.

Despite being infected with rot and falling over, it was producing more fruit than we could eat, right up to the very end, giving until it could give no more.

The entire trunk was rotting out.

Our tree was planted in 1996, so 17 years is not that bad of a life for an early-successional tree, especially as it produced so much fruit in that time, seeming to take as credo the saying: "the important thing is not the years in your life, but the life in your years." As we know, the tree never actually got to taste any of its own delicious fruits, but after it met its own needs, used whatever else it had to produce these wonderful fruits for us, along with many of our resident birds and squirrels, to enjoy. Its life was then a source of life and enjoyment for many other creatures. For that, it will be remembered and greatly missed. Perhaps there is something here for us to learn from this tree. Our thoughts, words, and actions can be seen as our "fruits," which we produce and share with others. Which trees are the ones most enjoyed while alive, then missed and celebrated the most when they die? The ones that produce the greatest amounts of the most delicious fruit made available to enjoy. Less so are those trees that produce no enjoyable fruit. Least of all are those trees that produce putrid fruits. The same can be said for people - the sweeter and more abundant their "fruits," the more others enjoy being around them and will miss and celebrate their memory when they are gone. I hope that in this sense we may all be, in our own lives and our own ways, Jamaican cherry trees in the larger garden of the world.

Rick Hederstrom
Associate Director

P.S. In case you were wondering, we are hoping to replace the tree with another Jamaican cherry : )